What got into them? For two decades in the middle of the 17th century, English- men transformed their world, overthrowing and eventually executing their king, abolishing bishops and the House of Lords, and incidentally slaughtering each other — and from time to time their Scottish and Irish neighbours — on a scale that approached the carnage of the first world war.
Explaining these ‘English civil wars’ — the term Blair Worden gives to the sequence of conflicts that afflicted the country between 1640 and the Restoration in 1660 — has always been tricky. How does one make sense of the multifarious possible causes, or the bewildering, Russian-novel-like profusion of characters; or do justice to the conflict’s great moments of drama (the show trials in Westminster Hall, the battlefield confrontations, the public execution of King Charles I, the offer of the crown to Oliver Cromwell)? How, too, to account for the civil wars’ anticlimactic end: after all the blood and idealism spent in the quest to create a godly ‘New Jerusalem’ in England, the return of the Stuart monarchy and the libidinous and cynical Charles II?
Not surprisingly, professional historians have been only partially successful in explaining all this to themselves; still less effective in explaining it to the general public. Most people still think that the war was between ‘King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell’, notwithstanding that Cromwell, a nonentity at the start of hostilities, did not even have command of an army by the time the king was defeated in 1646.
Now none of us has any excuse. For in this brief new study, Blair Worden has achieved the seemingly impossible: in 165 gloriously lucid, immediately comprehensible pages, he offers a coherent yet subtly argued account of the whole crisis — from its origins in religious and constitutional tensions which went back to the Tudors; to the outbreak and course of the wars; the various attempts to come up with a viable government that could replace the defeated monarchy; the rise and fall of the House of Cromwell; and on to the Restoration and the conflict’s subsequent, much contested, place in the nation’s collective memory.
Worden’s civil wars have religion at their heart, yet they are never simply a contest about religion, and while, for many, piety provided the impulse to fight, ‘far fewer took their justification from it’, looking instead to England’s constitution and the ‘laws of the land’.
What followed, once war had begun in 1642, was a period of baffling uncertainty and unknowable and unexpected outcomes, the only consistent rule being the Law of Unintended Consequences. Instead of new political order, England walked into a Through-the-Looking-Glass world where the results of the conflict ‘bore no relation to the aims for which either Parliament or its soldiers had gone to war’. ‘No one who had fought against the king in the civil war’, Worden observes of the English Republic created after Charles I’s execution, ‘had had a kingless constitution in mind, and no one could find an enduring one [thereafter]’.
Instead of making government more representative or accountable, the Parliamentarian triumph led to a succession of coups which left power in a series of narrowly based and unrepresentative regimes. And while the newly elevated ‘Lord Protector’ Cromwell, the former Fenland farmer, achieved real stature through his military prowess abroad, at home he lacked the skill — perhaps even the disposition — capable of creating a durable government.
This befuddlement of the victors — their lack of any agreed alternative to personal monarchy, still less one capable of commanding widespread assent — chimes with this book’s boldest conclusion: that, viewed in hindsight, this was a conflict with almost no long-term consequences of any note. Its legacy (in terms of legislation or institutions or any substantive lasting change), Worden contends, was almost negligible.
Among historians, there is much here that will prompt argument and debate — not least as to whether all the principal actors get their fair share of the limelight; and whether, even at the beginning of the war, they were quite so incapable of imagining a king-free conclusion as Professor Worden implies. But these squabbles are only to be expected — civil-war historians are a notoriously rebarbative and argumentative lot — and are anyway beside the point.
For the real achievement of Worden’s book is that it manages somehow to be simultaneously Olympian and yet humanly engaged. Yes, the great patterns of events in the 1640s and 1650s are discerned in long perspective, with unfailing fairness and clarity. Yet we are never allowed to lose sight of what these events meant to those who lived through them, whether this is the simple ‘exhaustion visited on the infantry’ on their interminable marches; the human cost to those maimed in war (England would ‘long be haunted by beggars incapacitated by the fighting’); or the reminder that behind the period’s more exotic forms of religious sectarianism ‘there lay the often perplexed, often despairing, often ecstatic spiritual sojourns of men and women seeking their salvation in an age of institutional breakdown and collapsing certainties’.
Few books have delineated that age of breakdown and collapse with greater clarity; none with such elegant prose and miraculous concision. As an introduction to the English civil wars, Worden’s book is peerless. Brief though it is, it is a work of exceptionally large achievement.
John Adamson is the author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I (Phoenix, £16.99).