Students follow master up the 'Everest' of British history

Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen of the English Revolution
May 21, 1999

Austin Woolrych, to whom this festschrift is dedicated, strayed into the study of history almost by accident in 1946; he had applied to Oxford to study English and turned up for his interview on that basis. The very warm preface by John Morrill which opens this volume brings out a number of key features in his long and distinguished life. First, one of his Shropshire gentry forebears was a Civil War Royalist. Second, his wartime service between 1939 and 1945 helped direct him towards his early work in 17th-century military history and its political context. Third, his long-standing interest in the study of literature has found continuing expression in his work on John Milton. Finally, he is signalled as one of the first historians to grasp how different the crises of the mid-century look "through the prism of local history". As Morrill remarks, the preconditions were right for Woolrych's prolonged ascent of that "Mount Everest of British history, the English Revolution".

For over 40 years he has been publishing books and articles on the subject and this book, written by friends and former students, provides strong echoes of the master, and not just in its title (Woolrych's Soldiers and Statesmen appeared in 1987). The 14 essays it contains shed shafts of light on the different stages of England's 17th-century wars, on national and local government of the period, and on different facets of political thinking. Milton figures in two essays. So does the free-thinking republican James Harrington. The linkages Woolrych has explored in his own writing between military and political history and literature, and between the 1640s and 1650s, are all firmly represented here.

The human dimension of these crowded and contradictory years is underlined most. Barbara Donagan contributes a moving essay on the treatment of the dead and wounded in the English civil wars. John Sutton offers a painstakingly reconstructed group portrait of the Staffordshire commissioners for the preservation of the peace of the Commonwealth. Colin Phillips looks at infighting in the corporation of Kendal between 1644 and 1655. Several chapters focus on single individuals. John Adamson examines the background and activities of the unlikely puritan revolutionary Robert Scawen and shows how he combined the roles of household steward to the earl of Northumberland with that of chairman of the Long Parliament's committee dealing with the army's mustering, pay and audit. (Oliver Cromwell, it is noted, was always paid in full and on time!) Ian Roy's subject is the turbulent career of George Digby, one of Charles I's secretaries - a case study in wishful thinking and not learning from mistakes. Blair Worden provides a significant re-examination of Milton's double-edged verdicts in poetry and prose on Oliver Cromwell in the early 1650s and of his deafening silence from then until the Protector's death.

Other essays strike a different note. John Reeve examines the Caroline background to the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and attempts to place Wentworth's regime there in its international context. Ian Gentles writes about the iconography of revolution in the 1640s by analysing the moralising themes in the drawings of the Parliamentarian and Royalist regimental banners, or "colours", carried into battle. Glen Burgess compares Hobbes's and Harrington's responses to the "crisis of the common law". Republicanism and republican humanism before and after the Restoration attract two contributions. The Leveller legacy is explored partly in relation to Robert Overton's political progress (by Barbara Taft). John Locke's liberal individualism, meanwhile, is distanced from Leveller origins in G. E. Aylmer's characteristically lucid appraisal.

Books of this kind often tend to be very disparate and uneven in quality and no more than the sum of their parts. Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen is strikingly different in this respect. The book is evidently the outcome of firm editorial direction, is consistently original and lively, and has a clearly expressed unity, one provided by Woolrych's own mind and range of interests and their creative impact on others.

R. C. Richardson is head of history, King Alfred's College, Winchester.

Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen of the English Revolution

Editor - Ian Gentles, John Morrill and Blair Worden
ISBN - 0 521 59120 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00
Pages - 343

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