November 11, 2009

Review: The English Civil Wars

Blair Worden's new book on the English civil war is part of a genre that doesn't appear enough at the moment, it is an introductory essay. The best work I can think of comparing it to- and this should show those who know me how highly I rate it- is F.W. Maitland's fellowship essay on liberty and equality from Hobbes to Coleridge. What Worden does is provide us with a superb introduction to the civil war, which carries real intellectual punch within it. He attacks the large questions- why did the civil war begin, why did Parliament win it, what did it achieve- without breaking the pace of a narrative that seems to remain both detailed and unencumbered by detail.

His basic line is one that few English historians of the period would disagree with. There are motifs running through Worden's history. The major themes of his history are stories about the battles about religion, between Presbyterian, Anglican and Congregationalist advocates; the creation of an English state and the difficulties that Oliver Cromwell and Charles I found in fiscally supporting their own state; the devastation and economic costs of war, particularly the human cost in a war which saw 1 in 10 men in England in arms and a greater proportion of the population than in any other war in English history dying; the miscalculations of human individuals from Charles in the early 40s to John Lambert in the late 1650s and the great clashes of principle and arguments. Worden is deeply attuned to the ironies of history, to the fact that almost no one fighting in 1641 wanted to execute the King, and that not many in 1641 would have anticipated that the longest lasting consequence of the war on the statute books would be the Navigation Acts of 1651. We are left in no doubt that the outcome of the war was not intended and at almost every stage, participants were surprised and frightened by the turns of fortune.

There is the odd thing to criticise in the book. Sir Thomas Fairfax is a figure that Worden persists in underestimating: Luke Daxon's Cambridge MPhil showed that Sir Thomas did have a reputation in England prior to his command of the New Model in 1645 (far from having 'little national standing' Worden p. 61) and to label him as 'no politician' fits an image that Mr Daxon and Andrew Hopper have significantly undermined in the past ten years (Worden p. 88). Irish historians might object to the judgement that 'no narrator has succeeded in making them [Irish politics in the interregnum] more than momentarily intelligible (Worden p. 37). But these are quibbles- in general the narration is so rich in ideas and so well written that Worden can survive the occasional passable judgement, furthermore to criticise a work which deals with such a complex area for its asides seems a little unfair: Worden does not have the space to flesh out these observations here in the way that I am sure he would like to. There were other moments when I regretted the lack of space- there are some fantastic stories, Thomas Harrison shooting a soldier who was in civilian life a comedian at the Drury Lane Theatre, exclaiming 'Cursed be he that doth the Lord's work negligently' is a moment that deserves immortality (Worden p. 54). It also deserves a footnote- I would love to see where Worden got the story from! No doubt there are also angles on the war that were left out- women's history, to some extent economic history and the history of the book are three that sprung to my mind and more will come to others- but in a book of this length such omissions are to be expected.

The pace of the book though is necessary- both because it should keep anyone interested in what Worden has to write and say. At a short 160 or so pages, this book is a sprint rather than a marathon. It allows him to keep in the spirit of writing an introduction for the general reader- but what it also allows him to do is to make the book into an essay. Like Maitland, you feel with Worden in the hands of a master of the period- there is an incredible discipline to making writing so rich in analogy and interpretation. Every sentence in this book has been crafted and therefore every sentence counts. That in part adds intellectual cache to the conclusions. This richness though also means that the reader is continuously confronting big intellectual conclusions- you cannot draw away into some foxhole of detail but are continuously pressed to think about the impact of war on society, on the state and all the other issues that Worden wants you to confront. If writing the book is a discipline, then reading it is a pleasurable one and one I intend to return to one day.

This book therefore has things for both the general reader and the more specialist. For the general reader it is the shortest and best introduction I know of to the civil war. For the specialist, because Worden has packed all his fire into 160 pages, it is an incredibly provocative and intellectual exhilarating read: it helps refocus the mind on the big issues about the period- something I cannot think but to be a good thing.


James Higham said...

Is the coming civil war worthy of inclusion in that, Tiberius?

Gracchi said...

Coming soon! I hope not James.

Rumbold said...

Excellent review. I think I shall buy it. Are there any plans to publish your work?

Gracchi said...

Rumbold- yes do its a good introduction.

As to publication plans- yes there are some plans! Most of them are at an embryonic stage at the moment so I'll be more straightforward when I've got everything sorted out properly!

James Higham said...

It was a fascinating time. I need to read more on it.

Gracchi said...

James whenever you decide to- just get in touch, I know that world reasonably well!