October 20, 2009

Book Review: Forlorn Hope: Soldier Radicals of the Seventeenth Century

Antonia Southern's Forlorn Hope is an account of the English Civil War from the perspective of its military. She writes a collective biography of four radical soldiers- Thomas Rainborough, his brother William Rainborough, Edward Sexby and Richard Rumbold. All three lived interesting lives. Thomas Rainborough fought in Ireland, then in England- was an experienced commander on land and sea and Vice Admiral of the English navy for a couple of months. He was an opponent of Cromwell's at Putney, famously saying that the poorest he in England had as much a right to life as the richest he and consequently as much a right to the vote. His brother William was less senior and less famous- also commanded in Ireland and returned to England. William Rainborough was active within the army politically and later became a ranter- a religious radical who beleived that he was saved and therefore that it was impossible for him to sin. Edward Sexby was another radical figure whose political career began in 1647- also present at Putney, he memorably told the generals that if he did not receive the vote he did not understand what he had been fighting for. Sexby was promoted until 1653, when he was tried for corruption in Scotland and then he drifted into intelligence work and becoming a plotter with the royalists against Cromwell. Rumbold lastly was a soldier who signed one pamphlet during the civil war- he later emerged as a plotter against Charles II and was executed for his part in the Rye House Plot in 1683.

Southern has assembled an interesting caste therefore- their political careers span 40 years- from 1641 until 1683. All of them have lives that were veiled partially in obscurity: we do not know much about either Rainborough before the 1640s, Sexby's life before 1632 is a complete mystery (we know that in that year he was apprenticed) and Rumbold's is a product of speculation. One of them was ambushed and killed during the civil war (Thomas Rainborough), two were executed (Edward Sexby in 1657 and Rumbold in 1683) and we know nothing of what happened to William Rainborough in America. All four were politically committed- and through them Southern is able to tell us about other figures: Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and Charles I perhaps most notably. However the book is not a success and partially that is because of its format- Southern adopts the approach of writing an essay about all three characters, this means that she repeats territory in the 1640s three times (first with Thomas, second with William and third with Sexby). The second major problem though is historical.

Southern has done some good work here- she obviously has tried to find out what she could about these men and their careers, her notes are reasonable- and Rumbold definitely is a figure that civil war historians ought not to forget about. However her work is flawed- partly because she is ignorant of more recent historiography (not her fault but Putney in particular has been revisited importantly since she wrote by John Morrill and others in ways that have changed our understanding of what the great debate was about) and partly because she misses several key things in the sources. Most notable is the fact that this is a very secular history of a very religious society. William Rainborough was a Ranter because he believed in a form of antinomianism- it would have been nice to hear more about the creed for which he risked his life. Southern tells us nothing- save she presumes that he did it because he was disappointed politically. Thomas Rainborough's arguments at Putney are strongly marked by religion: Southern knows this is true (she mentions it) but passes over it as insignificant before his support for democracy. Sexby is a very interesting and subtle thinker- Southern has little to say in explanation beyond contrasting him with what we might think today. Her tendency is to always compare the past to the present: perhaps her most illuminating insight is the way that she sees the profession of soldiery changing from a politically active into a democratically servile proffession- that seems to be her main interest but it is still a contrast between past and present rather than an examination of the past.

At some point, as historians we have to try and understand the world as they saw it rather than as we see them. It is not easy to do and the inevitability of failure hangs in the air but constantly asking what is different from where we stand or similar may not lead us to see that. I think Southern made a creditable effort here- it was her misfortune to publish just as the kind of history of the army that she wrote was going out of fashion, and just as others were about to publish more illuminating work- but she could have approached her sources and her figures with more imagination. Arnaldo Momigliano once said that there are two tasks as a historian: the first is to find a good question, the second to answer it. Though she partially fails the second test- her decision to write a biography of Sexby, Rainborough (both) and Rumbold was a good one- hopefully others will follow her lead.