Bloodstained terrain of panic, dread and despair

England on Edge - The English Civil War

January 5, 2007

Chronological historical narrative was once the historian's standard method and some examples, such as those produced in the 19th century by S. R. Gardiner, achieved well-deserved classic status. Fashions, inevitably, changed as economic and social history - less amenable to chronological treatment - came into play. Today, however, the pendulum has swung the other way and narrative is back in favour. Both these books on England's mid-17th century upheavals opt for this mode of presentation.

Both are written by prolific authors, both share much of the same subject matter, both are long but readable and both, by today's standards, are offered at the same bargain price. In all other respects, they are as different as chalk and cheese.

David Cressy's book, aimed squarely at the scholarly market, has a much shorter chronological coverage than Diane Purkiss's - the two deeply troubled years between the summoning of the Short Parliament in 1640 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. This was a period of mounting political and economic instability, collapsing authority, high taxation, military mustering, social unrest, popular disaffection and growing activism, religious stirrings and plague. A national emergency was building up at ferocious speed. Chaos, panic, fear, despair, dread, powerlessness were everywhere in evidence. Anti-popery ran riot. The controls traditionally exercised by the state, church, local government and the social hierarchy were all being challenged and undermined. London mobs became a force to be reckoned with. Disaffected unpaid soldiers flexed their muscles in mutinies and iconoclasm.

All this has been much discussed by generations of, sometimes axe-grinding, historians. The 1640s, as Cressy rightly says, are "bloodstained historiographical terrain". But this author, renowned in his many previous publications for his keen eye and capacity for overturning traditional orthodoxies, looks at it all afresh and brings into play a wealth of previously untapped local sources. (Curiously, Cressy's attention to local detail has not prevented him from getting some place names wrong; Ashton-under-Lyne (Lancashire), Faversham (Kent) and Alresford (Hampshire) are all misrendered.) He seeks to chart the changing pulse and temper of the times and, in doing so, the unfolding crisis in different parts of the country is brought into sharp relief.

Twenty-five years ago, Anthony Fletcher undertook a similar exercise in his book The Outbreak of Civil War , though there the chief centre of interest was the muddled untidiness with which the actual hostilities began and with the strivings of so many people to remain neutral. Cressy's book has far more about 1641, "the annus mirabilis ", than about 1642, and his challenging conclusion is that in so many ways revolution preceded rather than simply followed civil war. The world was turned upside down well before Royalists and Parliamentarians engaged in battle, before a king was defeated, tried and executed, and before Levellers, Diggers, Ranters and politicised women made their voices heard. Conrad Russell's revisionism tried too hard to argue away what was so different, unprecedented and unstoppable in these years. Thus, 1640-42 - emphatically in Cressy's view - was not an unrevolutionary England (the title chosen for Russell's collected essays in 1990). Though he always tended to look for revolutionaries rather than conservatives, Christopher Hill - in Cressy's view - got closer to the stark realities of the volcanic 1640s.

Purkiss's book, by contrast, is for the general reader rather than the academic market, a fact announced in the awful dust-jacket blurb and the rather cosy "Epistle to the gentle reader" that launches this volume; the first impression is clinched by the complete absence of footnotes. The intended readership is proclaimed most stridently, however, in the alternative subtitle chosen for the American edition ("Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain"). The title and subtitle of the English edition are less punchy and, in fact, are slightly ambiguous.

This is not a "People's History" in the classic A. L. Morton sense of democratising the subject. That could hardly be the case in a book that devotes much space to top-level events, situations and characters such as King Charles I, Henrietta Maria, William Laud, the Earl of Strafford, John Milton and Oliver Cromwell. But the book does give separate chapters to the Clubmen, Levellers and Diggers. Servants - a ubiquitous presence in this period - crop up in many places. The book is full of ordinary individual personal histories of civil wars that were infinitely plural in their nature and impact. Many of these personal biographies, not surprisingly in the light of Purkiss's earlier work, are those of women - Lady Eleanor Davies, Ann Fanshawe, Brilliana Harley, Lucy Hay, Mary Overton, Alice Thornton, Anna Trapnel, Isabella Twysden and Mary Verney. These and other autobiographical writings are used to full effect to create a kind of mid 17th-century Canterbury Tales ; extended quotations from first-hand testimonies abound. Matthew Hopkins's psychotic witch-hunting in the eastern counties finds a place, as do army surgeon Richard Wiseman's gruesome accounts of Civil War casualties. Milton, "this fiercely competitive, neurotic, emotionally constipated man, whose prose writings often bore and sometimes hector", finally arouses Purkiss's reluctant admiration. The book begins and ends on an individual note.

Within the framework of the overarching "story", Purkiss finds space to dwell on particular incidents and themes - the botched raising of the royal standard at Nottingham in August 1642, Sir Edmund Verney's suicidal death at the Battle of Edgehill and the dispersal of Charles I's magnificent art collection, to name just three. Purkiss has something to offer on children's histories of the wartime experience and makes suggestive claims that the growth of interest in food and cookery after the Civil War was stimulated by food shortages and hunger during the war itself.

The style is racy and for the most part evocative; Purkiss really brings Civil War battles such as Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby and Preston to life. London also is a palpable presence, the unhelpfully unreadable contemporary map notwithstanding. Elsewhere quasi-journalism takes over, as in the account of the escape of the young James, Duke of York, and stylistic lapses occasionally mar the narrative. ("Newcastle sneaked off to his coach for a quiet smoke" at Marston Moor.) Analogies are made to help the reader but often fail to convince. Invoking the Nazis, the Countryside Alliance and Margaret Thatcher to make sense of the contending forces in the English Revolution has dubious value. The distinctly quirky and rambling bibliographical essay is less than helpfully arranged. There are occasional misleading statements and some errors. The Book of Sports was not a "guide to maypole building and hock carts". Clarendon's famous History of the Rebellion was only partly written in his final exile. Colchester defender Sir Charles Lucas is made to endure two quite different forms of execution on pages 311 and 541.

So these are two very different books for different readers. Cressy's is unquestionably the more original and thought-provoking. Purkiss wonders what academics will make of hers. It would be wrong to dismiss it. Even specialists will find some new nuggets of information and insights here.

Roger Richardson is professor of history, Winchester University.

England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution 1640-1642

Author - David Cressy
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 446
Price - £26.00
ISBN - 0 19 928090 8

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