Sunday, 22 February 2015

Civil War - The Wars Of The Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 - Trevor Royle

A while ago, I much enjoyed reading Trevor Royle's book about the Wars Of The Roses. His work about the political upheavals which engulfed England, Scotland and Ireland in the seventeenth century is equally absorbing and rewarding. One of the strengths of Civil War is the way in which it brings together events in England, Scotland and Ireland, giving it scale and authority.
The religious intricacies leave me somewhat bewildered, but a rudimentary grasp of them is necessary to a full understanding of what occurred during those times. It is easy to make facile remarks about religion and politics; in those days, religion was inextricably inter-linked with politics, even if sometimes it was employed as a "Trojan horse" for the furtherance of other demands.
There is an illuminating, but brief exploration of the background to the conflict, and the formative years of Charles I. Did the peculiar nature of Charles' upbringing, conditioned to some degree by events in England and Scotland, have a bearing on the development of his character and the manner in which he conducted affairs later?
One aspect of the Civil War period which intrigues me greatly is the emergence, or not as the case may be, of the self-made man, of a more meritocratic order. Some of the senior figures on the Parliamentary side still relied on rarefied social connections to get into positions where they could influence events, but once there many of them made appointments on the basis of ability rather than birth. This applied to the New Model Army in particular. This new breed of man carried, in varying concentrations, idealism, fervour and commercial nous, and this proved a formidable combination both then and in later years.

Did a genuine revolution really take place, or was this just like many other "revolutions", in the sense that the population was simply exchanging one set of masters or overlords for another?  Was there any great change in the distribution of economic power and concentration of land ownership, for example?
The more radical elements, inside and outside of Parliament, were marginalised , and their ideas and demands disregarded. Also, the conservatives capitalised on the widespread desire for peace, tranquillity and order, and the attendant mistrust of grandiose and idealistic designs. People fell back on safety and certainties, which also often conveniently matched their own self-interest. Plus ca change....
Reading this book, it is noticeable how relatively infrequently "ordinary people" are mentioned, with the exception of the situation in Ireland. Power politics were being contested by competing factions of the ruling elites, and it is worth asking how much the masses benefited much in a material way, from an economic standpoint, from the upheavals and chaos. How much more "democratic" and just did England become?

Oliver Cromwell's rise to prominence is detailed, naturally, and it is worth remembering that he was not at the centre of events right from the start of the struggle. He ascended due to his own qualities, connections and tactical astuteness, and he also took advantage of favourable circumstances and the misfortunes and misdeeds of others.

As the picture unfolded, it occurred to me that Charles and the Royalists missed their opportunity, sometimes through military ineptitude, but more often because of vacillation and hesitancy, playing safe. At some stage, the initiative passed to Parliament as its key personnel began to assert themselves, and they displayed a greater sense of purpose and conviction. Parliament's times of adversity forced them to reappraise their organisation and methods. The Royalists seemed complacent by comparison.
Charles I showed intransigence, and an inability to recognise and appreciate the way in which the winds were blowing. In the early stages of the conflict it may even have been possible for some kind of compromise settlement to be effected. By the time that he made any meaningful concessions, however, he was doing so from a position of weakness, and the mood among his opponents was too militant, confident and single-minded for common ground to be reached. It still rankles to hear how often the king invoked the "divine right" and his supposed privileges and prerogative. That era was being cast away.

The author does appear to imply his unease about some of the methods employed by the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, and he also seeks to put into perspective some of the stereotypes which have built up over the centuries, notably the notion of the war as a class struggle and the portrayal of the Puritans as joyless and excessively austere. Another key point which emerges is that some key liberalizing and democratizing reforms were put on the back-burner for a century or more. The country had been more or less placed on the "right road".  The road would be a long and slow one, but at least it would be a comparatively peaceful and stable one.
The atrocities committed during the war(s) are mentioned here, of course, although the author cautions the reader to take account of the exaggerations and propagandist efforts which embellished many of the stories of excesses and abuses. He also highlights the occasions when chivalry was exhibited by the combatants.

Some of the most enlightening and revealing sections of this book deal with the constantly shifting sands of allegiance in Scotland and Ireland, the unrest within the Parliamentary army, the struggles between moderate and radical opinion, and the various revolts and mutinies which erupted across the territories.

I first read this book three or four years ago, and this time around I was much more interested in the political and social dimensions than in the niceties of military tactics. I see this as a good sign. The emergence of the Levellers and the Diggers I found especially intriguing, with their calls for more egalitarian laws on land ownership, and an emphasis on "natural rights". Were they the original left-libertarians?  My own views have been moving in a similar direction in recent times, and their idealism and courage inspire. They were way ahead of their time, and I am keen to learn more about them.
I found this book extremely enjoyable, informative and well-balanced. Stylishly written, with plenty of quotations from memoirs and literature of the time. Highly recommended.

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