Wars Ancient and Modern

The English Civil Wars 1640-1660 by Blair Worden

Like the British banking system it helped create, the English Civil War has had its credit crunched in recent months. Put through the wringer of TV “historical” drama in Channel 4’s bodice-ripper The Devil’s Whore, it has come out the other end looking completely unrecognisable and, well, ridiculous. But for those who prefer their history to bear at least some relation to past events, and to enlighten as well as entertain, help is at hand in the shape of Blair Worden’s small but perfectly formed book The English Civil Wars. At fewer than 200 paperback-sized pages and unencumbered by footnotes or academic jargon, it is aimed unashamedly at the general reader.

The war, or wars – there were actually two – formed the centre-piece in a series of bloody conflicts that convulsed England, Ireland and Scotland from the late 1630s. They were still in full swing when their most famous casualty, the hapless Charles I, was beheaded in 1649. This book has been published to coincide with the 360th anniversary of the king’s execution. But this is not the most momentous of anniversaries, and the blurb on the dust-jacket strains at a suitable fanfare. “Nothing in English history has so imprinted itself on the nation’s memory”, it gushes, “as the upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century.”

If only it were true. Even the popular caricature of the wars, in which austere Lefties battle fun-loving Tories, has lost much of its resonance. In this post-Cold War era of ideological consensus we are all Roundheads and Cavaliers – intolerant of tyranny as we are tolerant of hedonism. The 1640s and ’50s are no longer fodder for those grubbing around after the roots of modernity. Indeed, one of the great strengths of The English Civil Wars is that it treats the period on its own terms. The past here is a foreign country, very different from our own, and all the more exciting and fascinating for that.

Worden organises his material under five simple chapter headings – “Origins”, “War”, “Regicide”, “Republic” and “Restoration”. He writes elegantly and in the patrician tones of a true grandee among 17th-century historians, yet without mincing his words. He tells us up front that he’s ignoring the recent vogue for treating the wars as a “British” phenomenon: “Irish and Scottish events figure as contributors to the English struggle.” Having settled that, we’re given a sensitive and insightful treatment of the tensions and events that led to conflict. Worden is first and foremost a historian of political culture and ideas, and these aspects of early Stuart history are deftly handled. Puritans and Anglicans, Parliamentarians and Royalists, are not judged or assigned to boxes marked “progressive” and “reactionary”, but are explained and in a sense justified.

There are a few minor wobbles in the chapter entitled “War”, which covers the 1640s. Worden has incorporated much of the latest research on the period, but the starring role he accords the parliamentarian MP John Pym gives his narrative for the early 1640s a curiously dated feel. Once seen as the first guiding genius of the parliamentarian cause, “King Pym” has emerged from recent work more as a party bag-man than a lofty statesman.

Worden is particularly strong on the human cost of the wars – the mud, misery and material devastation. Yet as so often when non-military historians venture into a warzone they can look vulnerable. It is easy to assume that the five armies (two royalist, three parliamentarian) that fought at Marston Moor in 1644 constituted “maybe the largest gathering of men that had ever met on English soil”. But that dubious distinction probably goes to the far bloodier battle at Towton during the Wars of the Roses. Fresh from 100 years of slaughtering the French, they knew how to fight then.

It is when the book moves into the 1650s that Worden really hits full stride. He has made the unstable post-regicidal regimes and their literary colossi – John Milton, Andrew Marvell and England’s first great journalist Marchamont Nedham – very much his own, and his expertise shows to brilliant effect here. There is some subtle but effective point-scoring in his argument that republicanism was more the product than the cause of the king’s demise. And his account of the regicide itself challenges the old assumption that the king was doomed even before his trial began.

Worden takes nothing for granted. The civil war was not inevitable. Neither were the parliamentarian victories of 1645 and 1648, nor the king’s execution. This sensitivity to the contingency of events makes for compelling reading. What if Cromwell had accepted the crown when it was offered to him in 1657, asks Worden, and then lived long enough to see off his republican opponents? Would there have been a kingly line of Cromwells stretching into the 18th century? Would there still be this strange notion of Cromwell the crusader for democracy (a dirty word at the time) – a myth that Worden happily debunks?

The last chapter, “Restoration”, is magisterial – although surprisingly for an historian of political culture, Worden concludes that perhaps the most lasting impact of the wars was not in the realm of ideas or politics but in government finances. At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Parliamentarians may have lost the political war, but they had turned Charles I’s “spaniel-fawning” state into a Leviathan – a tax-raising, war-fighting monster. This was perhaps the wars’ greatest legacy.

Which brings us back to our present stricken banking system, for it was the wars that prepared the ground for the 1690s’ financial revolution, at the heart of which lay the establishment of the Bank of England. The money generated by this revolution built the army and navy that made Britain a world power. Worden’s fine book parleys these momentous developments with style and authority. The civil wars may no longer appear recognisably “modern”, and yet that foreign country of 360 years ago, racked by doubt in politicians and traditional institutions, still looks strangely familiar.

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