July 05, 2009

Book Review: Soldiers and Strangers: An Ethnic History of the English Civil War

The English Civil Wars started in Scotland and finished in Ireland. They involved huge incursions by Welshmen, Cornishmen, Scotsmen, Irishmen and even Europeans into England but they fundementally were always about the position of England in the Atlantic Archipelago. The problem of England in seventeenth century Britain (like the problem of Germany in nineteenth Century Europe) was central to the civil war. Religion and other issues (as we shall see) drove the war- but what Mark Stoyle impressively argues here was that the English Civil War was a war in which the other nationalities of the British Isles fought to maintain their ways of life and traditional independence against an English chauvinist imperialism represented by Parliament and particularly by the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax. Stoyle's approach is so unique and interesting because he has taken on a strand of the recent historiography, that under the guidance of two of the master spirits of that discussion- John Pocock and John Morrill, has begun to represent the war in its three kingdoms context, and he has extended it. Stoyle uses the approach of concentrating on ethnicity and nationality to explain fundemental moments within the civil war in England as well as in the wider Britain.

Since the revisionist challenge of the 1970s, most historians accept that the main issue confronting us has been explaining where the royal army came from. Parliament raised its forces from London and the South East. One answer to the problem of where the royal army came from is to focus, as Stoyle has done, upon what threat that South Eastern force posed to the rest of the British Isles. The King and his propagandists skilfully allied themselves with the Celtic fringe (and the Northern counties fearfull of Parliament's religious allies the Scots)- the King's armies therefore came from Cornwall and Wales. Armies such as Sir Ralph Hopton's in the South West embarrassed Parliamentary forces in the early 40s- leading to the Royalists seizing Bristol for example. Welsh units crossed the border to support the King's forces- so much so that Stoyle argues the royalist defeat at Naseby was as much a Welsh defeat as a royalist defeat. The King's main strength in his second main army (the Western army commanded by Prince Maurice and then by Lord Goring) was either Welsh and Cornish foot or recruited mercenaries from the continent. These men joined up because Charles promised that Wales and Cornwall would maintain their rights and freedoms- because ultimately Parliament was an English institution whereas the monarchy was a British institution.

Stoyle's account is much more subtle than that- he shows how the King directly attempted to appeal to his Celtic subjects whereas Parliamentary propaganda concentrated on diminishing them and disparaging them. The one exception was of course the Scots- tempted to fight with Parliament because of a common allegiance to a radical Protestant religious settlement. However as the war continued, Stoyle also shows that this nationalistic commitment to royalism brought problems as well as manpower. This was evident from the first days of the war when Cornish soldiers refused to march across the Tamar- and it continued right up until the end of the war in 1646 when Welsh troops defected continually from the King's English army in order to defend their homeland. Parliament found it easy to buy off the Celtic forces through promising to appease their concerns in Wales or Cornwall- easy because ultimately their priority was not a King on the throne of England but the independence of their own national community. Stoyle's account presents us thus with a new account of how the royalist armies were created and a new account of how they disappeared- how Charles in the aftermath of one battle (Naseby) went from controlling half the country to controlling almost none of the country.

Stoyle's narrative is more complex and detailed than a brief review can cover- but I hope that sums up the majority of his argument. Stoyle's argument stops with the end of war in 1647- it stops there because Stoyle's argument fails to explain what happens later. Afterall if negotiated settlement worked in Wales and Cornwall, why did not Parliamentarian generals try it in Ireland- they had equated the Irish to the Cornish and the Welsh, what ended up being so different? That question reveals that nationalism is only part of the answer- religion ended up feeding into the way that Parliament felt about the nationalities that it imposed settlements upon. Stoyle never sets out to deal with the religious angle because he abandons his account as soon as Parliament starts governing, and therefore distinguishing between the Celtic fringes. This halt suggests that a true account of civil war nationalism and ethnicity ultimately has to fuse itself with an account of civil war religion: if Stoyle points out rightly that we have ignored nationalism to concentrate on religion, it is important that historians do not swing the other way and make the opposite mistake.

Lastly it is worth noting that Stoyle provides a further interesting dimension to the civil war when he discusses the 'outlanders'- those who came from Europe to the British Isles as mercenaries, as ideologically connected zealots or as liege subjects and relatives of participants. Characters like Princes Rupert and Maurice on the Royalist side and Isaac Dorislaus on the Parliamentary are interesting in themselves. Stoyle demonstrates an intriguing political subtext where the foreigners were blamed for the violence of the civil war- hated for the invention of plunder (which Englishmen assured themselves was a German word) and loathed for not being loyal enough. He sees the reason for the creation of the New Model Army in 1645 as lying in part in the attempt by Parliamentary independents to distance themselves from foreign mercenaries- who in their view were untrustworthy. It gives a new light on Cromwell's lauding of 'russet coated captains' when one realises that the opposite was a proffessional soldier from the thirty years war who fought for money and not for beliefs. Having said all that, I would like to have heard more from Stoyle about the re-immigrants, men like Hugh Peters who returned from America to fight in the English civil war, I suspect there is another article to be written about those men.

Stoyle's book is an important and interesting contribution to the topics he writes about- it is a partial view of the war but it is a corrective and one of the perils of being a historian is realising that ultimately all views are partial. Stoyle has introduced to us something that we should have realised- as I read his book, I sat rebuking myself for not noticing how many times Parliament declared that it fought for English liberties. One of the greatest honours in any academic discipline is to receive that accolade that you have started a debate- Mark Stoyle should receive that accolade.


James Hamilton said...

A truly fascinating review of a genuinely refreshing look at a period that at one stage seemed to have been hammered flat.