Praising God

David Underdown

  • Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars 1638-1651 by Charles Carlton
    Routledge, 428 pp, £25.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 415 03282 2

In a striking passage in his memoirs Richard Baxter recalls watching the battle of Langport as a young chaplain in the army of the Parliament. After some fierce fighting, panic suddenly set in among the Royalists on the opposite hill. Standing next to Baxter was the godly Major Thomas Harrison. As the Cavaliers broke and fled, Baxter heard him ‘with a loud voice break forth into the praises of God with fluent expressions, as if he had been in a rapture’.

Exultant vengefulness was common in the Civil Wars of the 17th century, which form the subject of this book. Rather than provide a narrative account of the fighting, Charles Carlton tries to convey the flavour of the wars as combatants and non-combatants experienced them. He follows current fashion by treating the fighting in England, Ireland and Scotland as part of a single struggle, and shows that in all three kingdoms the wars were fought with a mixture of amateurishness and brutality that makes it absurd to romanticise them. Some officers on both sides had experience of the Continental Wars, but many had not, and they were roundly despised by the professionals. Training was rudimentary, printed military manuals too complicated to be useful (Charles I’s commanders wasted valuable time before Edgehill arguing about the relative merits of Swedish and Dutch battle formations), and the lack of adequate maps meant that units were constantly getting lost. Equipment was primitive and often in short supply, as was clothing: soldiers in the Newport Pagnell garrison had to share trousers, half staying in bed while the others were on duty.

Carlton’s most useful service is to capture the confusion and terror of real battles, the shocked aftermath of encounters like Edgehill (‘the field was covered with dead, yet no one could tell to what party they belonged,’ an eyewitness recalled), the horrors of sieges and storms, the mass slaughter that accompanied the panic flight of defeated armies like the one Baxter observed at Langport. The consequences were particularly gory when defenders were overwhelmed after bitter resistance. When Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper’s Dorset Roundheads stormed Abbotsbury they had to burn the house down before massacring the garrison: 80 of the attackers were killed by the powder magazine exploding.

Atrocities – the killing of prisoners, the slaughter of civilians – were, as we might perhaps expect, far worse in Ireland than in Scotland or England. Cromwell’s crimes at Drogheda and Wexford have echoed down the centuries, but they were not much worse than others perpetrated by all sides in Ireland. Carlton estimates that over 40 per cent of the Irish population died war-related deaths (by killing, disease, or starvation) during these dreadful years. This may be a bit high (Sir William Petty put the number at between a quarter and a third), but Carlton plausibly argues that even in England a higher percentage of the population died in the civil wars than died in Flanders during the First World War.

Carlton’s anecdotal survey has many good moments, but it also has its problems. One is that he assumes that the soldier’s psychological experience of war is constant in all times and ages. War is erotic, and ‘the links between male sexuality and violence are nigh universal,’ he tells us, ‘having been charted in some 112 different societies’. Well, perhaps so; but notions of both sexuality and violence are socially constructed and vary according to time and culture. In earlier books Carlton has made much use of psychoanalytic models, so it is perhaps not surprising that he emphasises similarities between the mentalities of the 17th and the 20th centuries: ‘excessive drinking was (and still is) a crucial part of the male bonding that produces an effective small unit’, he tells us; ‘sergeants tell soldiers that they did not join the army to think’; ‘drill turns individuals into groups, who by moving together become as one’. For all I know, these statements may be as true for the civil wars as they are in our own times, but Carlton simply assumes it and does not bother to argue the point.

One result of this is the ideological nihilism underlying much of the book. Naturally Carlton does not miss the centrality of religion in 17th-century culture, and he often reminds us of the way in which religious passions motivated the participants on both sides. It was a war to preserve the country from ‘Rome’s yoke’, English Roundheads declared; a war to rescue Ireland (and ultimately all three kingdoms) from the heretics, Irish Catholics believed. But there is no systematic discussion, so we never get a coherent answer to the nagging question – why were so many people willing to kill and be killed? On both sides there were many reluctant conscripts as well as more committed volunteers (everyone agreed that only the volunteers could really be relied on), but the process by which impressment was adopted by King and Parliament respectively is never clearly charted. Common soldiers often gained their freedom after being taken prisoner by enlisting in the army of their captors, which suggests a lack of ideological commitment. But it is still a fact that while many people behaved in this way, others fought with almost suicidal bravery – as the Cornish infantry did at Lansdown and at the storming of Bristol. Why did some towns cave in ignominously at one time, as Taunton did when a Royalist army approached in 1643, only to resist much more powerful armies on later occasions? Carlton does not tell us.

This tendency to downplay ideology is particularly evident in Carlton’s discussion of neutralism. It is obvious enough that many people would have preferred to stay out of the war, and that quite a lot succeeded in doing so. Yet a sensible concern for saving their own skins did not necessarily mean that neutrals had no preferences at all. There is striking proof of this in the risings of the Clubmen, the organised neutrals of 1644-5. Different groups of Clubmen produced programmes and manifestos that made it abundantly clear which side they wanted to win (the King in some areas, the Parliament in others); they created quite sophisticated political organisations, and in the end many of them were willing to die for their localist principles. But Carlton dismisses them as a disorganised, apolitical rabble, and thus lets slip an important part of the civil war experience of large numbers of ordinary Englishmen.

Carlton seems to have swallowed whole the views of revisionist historians who have argued that the civil wars were merely an unfortunate accident, a bit of rotten bad luck. Happily Carlton does not go as far as those who have seen it as an old-fashioned feudal struggle, England’s last baronial war, fought to promote the interests of a handful of noblemen, with the rest of the population following along in forelock-tugging obedience. But there would have been no war, Carlton observes, if Charles I had died in 1635 – presumably the festering religious bigotries, the ethnic and clan antagonisms that exploded between 1637 and 1651 would simply have gone away. This does seem very likely, but in any case Charles did not die in 1635, and a war that many of his subjects came to regard as part of a universal conflict between Protestant truth and Romish error, or between monarchist good and sectarian, republican evil, led to the devastation that this book vividly describes. Carlton often mentions the confessional and national animosities, but he does not resolve the contradictions and explain how neutralism and apathy and vindictive partisanship could exist in the same generation.

In a book as unreflective as this one the repealed descriptions of slaughter and cruelty are in the end overwhelming and one is grateful for stories like that of Sir Walter Erle scouting around Corfe Castle dressed in a bear’s skin, or the formidable Lady Brilliana Harley’s ingenious resort to patriarchal ideology. Stoutly defending her Herefordshire house against the King’s forces, she replied to a call to surrender that she could not possibly do so without her absent husband’s permission. Carlton provides a feast of such stories, but the book gives an impression of having been written in a hurry to cash in on the 350th-anniversary commemorations. It is carelessly written, sometimes repetitious, and there are far too many irritating minor errors.

Carlton argues that, after the Restoration, memories of the social disorder of the 1640s – of servants on horseback, of women and ‘mechanic’ preachers, of a ‘world turned upside down’ – were as vivid as those of the fighting itself. Even as loyal a subject as Samuel Pepys was soon recalling with some relish the recent humiliation of class enemies. Viewing the King’s well-born guards on parade in 1663, the diarist noted that it was ‘such as these that lost the old King all he had, and were beat by the most ordinary fellows that could be’.

It is remarkable that the wounds healed so quickly, especially as there were regular reminders of the war in so many places until well into the 18th century. Barnstaple, Nantwich, Bruton, Taunton and other towns long continued to celebrate the anniversaries of Civil War skirmishes or the relief of beleaguered garrisons, and slogans like ‘No Presbyterians! Down with the Rump!’ enlivened elections here and there for more than a hundred years. It has been left to the 20th century to reduce the conflict to the sentimental clichés of ‘By the Sword Divided’. Going to the Wars should convince us that it was a lot more serious than that.