War in England 1642-1649

July 10, 2008

This is a very good book for all those who already know their English Civil War pretty well. It is not a narrative account of the wars (we have more than enough very good ones already), although it does contain magnificently vivid accounts of two sieges, one minor (Boarstall, 1645-46, where a medieval moated manor house protected one line of approach to the King's headquarters at Oxford), one major (Colchester, 1648, which prevented Sir Thomas Fairfax from progressing north to face the Scottish invasion during the Second Civil War), which sum up the concerns and findings of the book.

Barbara Donagan explores the moral economy of the war, and summarises it beautifully thus: "When war came close to home, rules, protections, charity and pragmatic restraint confronted long-standing prejudices, confessional passions, and claims to the right of reprisal for injuries." More generally, she seeks to uncover the ideas that lay behind legitimate engagement in war, to examine its practices and to explore the legal and cultural complications of this being an (un)Civil War.

Donagan is a distinguished independent scholar, and this book has been many years in the making. It has been anticipated by a number of articles in learned journals, but it is more than the sum of those parts, and if the material on atrocity and on military justice is familiar from that earlier work, much of the book is not. There is a magnificently imaginative recreation of how armies found their way around and discovered (or stumbled up against) one another, for example. The chapter on "Knowledge and confusion" is especially good at the way it displays the range and precision of the research in this book, and Donagan has a knack for finding the effectively vivid story. Thus she gives us wonderfully precise descriptions of the size and layout of the pocket maps issued to quartermasters and scoutmasters; and a delightful vignette of Ralph Baxter, one of the Earl of Essex's Staffordshire tenants, who, after being "plundered to the point of ruin" by the royalists, was required to show them the way to Essex's manor at Chartley. He managed both to mislead them and to receive a modest reward. The conclusion that England became "a country under surveillance" in the 1640s, with a culture of informing, is chillingly demonstrated.

Another characteristically well-researched section that goes beyond or against previous work is concerned to evaluate the causes and consequences of desertion and side-changing - something deplored by all parties but embraced as a necessity; and, to give a final example, there is an especially careful comparison of royalist and Parliamentarian military codes (such as regulations relating to the ransoming of prisoners and the startling discovery that in relation to religion, "contrary to expectations, the royalists outdid the Parliamentarians, at least in the quantity of legislation").

The decision to add accounts of the scrupulosity with which matters of honour were observed in the course of the sieges of Boarstall and Colchester (the one ending in generous surrender terms, with civility descending into embarrassed acrimony and back to civility, and the other ending in grim retribution and the shooting of surrendered royalist leaders) was a very good decision on Donagan's part.

The book is written with an enviable lucidity and calm authority, with just occasional lapses (I could have done, for example, without the reference to a "smorgasbord of punitive choices" just after a horrific list of distressing authorised tortures). The book makes good comparisons between the English war and the contemporary continental wars, but rather perversely makes very little use of comparison between the English, Scottish and Irish theatres of the British civil wars. When troops from Ireland or Scotland arrive in England, they are discussed. When English troops cross into Scotland or Ireland, we lose sight of them.

This Anglocentrism is a pity and a little old-fashioned, for what happened outside England impacted much more fully on what happened in England than is fully recognised here, as a number of other recent studies have suggested.

In fact, the book is rather light in its deployment of the best recent work on the subjects it raises. The absence of any reference to Charles Carlton's Going to the Wars: Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651 (1992) is the most startling, since there is so much overlap between his book and the one under review. Donagan's research is far more wide-ranging and thorough, and her preference is not to give numbers (of those engaged, of those killed and maimed and so on), and in fact to be far more prudent. But it is a matter of regret that she does not engage with previous work so much as to pass it by on the other side.

That said, this is a book that is not only for those interested in war and the moral economy of war. It is a book that looks at the mental worlds of those drawn into deadly conflict, and with a historiography so polarised between those who study the clash of words and those who study the clash of swords Donagan shows how much the former was the consequence as much as a cause of the latter.

War in England 1642-1649

By Barbara Donagan
Oxford University Press
464pp
£55.00
ISBN 9780199285181
Published 28 February 2008

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