The English Civil Wars 1640–1660 by Blair Worden - review by Adrian Tinniswood

Adrian Tinniswood

Days of Shaking

The English Civil Wars 1640–1660


Weidenfeld & Nicolson 192pp £12.99

‘The days are days of shaking’, declared the preacher Jeremiah Whittaker in an anxious sermon before the House of Commons in 1643; ‘days of trouble, rebuke and blasphemy’. And, he might have added, days of mystification and perplexity. The period between the end of Charles I’s personal rule in 1640 and his son’s triumphal and triumphant return from exile in 1660 was the most exciting and eventful in the history of England. It was also the most bewildering, both for those who lived through it and for those who came after. Contemporaries couldn’t quite understand how it was that the English could go to war with the Scots, with the Irish, with each other; how they could kill a king and lose a republic. Little wonder, then, that we find it hard. 

The period overflows with risings and purges and shifting alliances – twisting ambiguities which fascinate the professional historian, but which make the general reader rather wary. Perhaps this is why we’ve been reluctant to take the Stuarts to our hearts in quite the same way as we have the Tudors. The linear rhythms of divorce, denial and dissolution (in both senses of the word) which characterise the reigns of Henry VIII and his children form a stronger, more accessible narrative than the confusing turns of fortune’s seventeenth-century wheel and the stories of those who rose or fell with each revolution. Who were the Independents and the sectaries? Why was Charles I useless? What was so malign about the malignants or so solemn about the Solemn League and Covenant? Rather than grapple with ideas – and the English Civil Wars were above all wars of ideas – modern readers prefer to take Henry VIII’s wives to bed with them. Never mind erudite discussions about the Grand Remonstrance and the significance of the Instrument of Government. The cavaliers were Wrong but Romantic and the roundheads Right but Repulsive. Let’s leave it at that.

Don’t leave it at that. Put aside the Tudor chick-lit for a moment and read instead Blair Worden’s elegant new book, a lucid account of the titanic struggle between king and parliament which is intended, he says, to be ‘as straightforward as is compatible with adult discussion’. And so it is – straightforward, stimulating and a joy to read.

The book’s title is far too modest: it understates the vast scope of the exercise. The English Civil Wars is more than a history of a war, or even of a cluster of wars. Worden’s avowed subject is ‘the range of conflicts, military and political, of the 1640s and 1650s’. So we have all the things we might expect: Charles I failing to arrest the Five Members, and raising his standard at Nottingham; the set-piece battles such as Edgehill and Naseby and Worcester; the evolution of the new model army and the rise and fall of the Levellers. But beyond this the book also steers a remarkably steady course through the labyrinthine political and religious debates of the 1640s; and it is particularly good on elucidating what historians used to call the Interregnum, that little hiccup in the history of the monarchy between Charles I’s execution and his son’s restoration – a brave new world in which society experimented with commonwealth, protectorate and military rule in an attempt to find an alternative to kings, and ended up by offering the crown to Cromwell (who at least had the decency to refuse it).

Worden’s character assessments are authoritative and succinct. Charles I, for example, was ‘charming and considerate … brave in battle’; but at the same time ‘he was incorrigibly deficient in political judgement [and] no one could trust him’. (That’s why he was useless.) Cromwell was a man ‘who turned to and against parliaments solely as he could use them to further God’s cause … The transformation he sought was religious, not political. ’

The English Civil Wars reminds us of the centrality of religious difference – something which contemporaries took for granted, but which has tended to be swept to one side in the welter of more recent arguments about constitutional history and class struggle. Puritan, Anglican, Ranter and Baptist and Quaker, were all ‘phanaticks’ in their own way. But in spite of the passion with which all sides regarded the struggle, it was, says Worden, relatively rare to find the atrocities that usually form an integral part of conviction-wars. ‘Ties of kinship and friendship that crossed the party lines held savagery back. So did grief, which was voiced not only for the loss of neighbours or loved ones but for the fate of the divided land.’

Perhaps the book’s most intriguing conclusion is that in the end all that passion, all that blood, all those innovations and experiments, counted for nothing. In 1660 the monarchy was restored along with Anglicanism and Christmas, and the reforms of the previous two decades were swept away and forgotten. When the next big constitutional crisis occurred in 1688, there was no legacy of dissent to build upon, and anyway the circumstances were completely different. ‘The dissidents of 1688 found in William [of Orange] and his wife Mary, James’s daughter, what their predecessors of 1640 had lacked, an alternative candidacy for the throne; and James, unlike his father, did not hold his nerve and fight.’

By fitting such a vast and complex topic between the covers of a relatively short book – 192 pages including the index – Worden is forced to dispense with anecdote and detail in favour of the big picture. And it has to be said that every now and then one misses the small stuff: Charles I’s splendidly theatrical ‘Remember!’ on the scaffold at Whitehall; Cromwell in the 1650s, carrying a loaded musket with him whenever he went out in case he was attacked by an assassin.

But it would be absurd to carp because Blair Worden didn’t write a different book. The English Civil Wars is much more than a pellucid description of the most complicated period in this nation’s history (although it certainly is that). It makes you want to know more. And it has led this reader, at least, to reflect on how much he still has to learn about the days of shaking.

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