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Book Review: The English Civil War – A People’s History by Diane Purkiss

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There's a traditional way of telling the story of the English Civil War. On one side there's the King, haughty and distant, on the other Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, the aristocratic general and the political mastermind. They move their men — and it is always the men who get talked about — around the map of England as though they were pieces on the chessboard, but the Commonwealth ultimately has the better strategy, and so finally knocks off the king's head.

That isn't Dianne Purkiss's Civil War. In her "people's history", the war is messy and confused; decisions are made not by careful calculation and planning but by emotional impulse and irrational passion. It is not as comfortable and convenient to handle as the traditional histories, but I've no doubt it is far more true to the reality.

One excellent aspect of the story is that the women – half or more of the population – are returned to the cities, the battlefields, in the depths of the palace intrigues, having active parts. I've noted elsewhere the fascinating account of the spy and nurse Elizabeth Alkin (Parliament Joan), and there's also the woman we know only as "Mary the scout", who was personally rewarded for her work by Fairfax after the fall of Taunton. (p.507)

There are many more. There is Lady Jane Whorwood, whose marriage had collapsed because of her strong loyalist sympathies. She accompanied and supported the captive king, and tried to help him escape. (It wasn't her fault that royalty on its own was hapless and helpless.) There's the preacher Anna Trapnel and many of her lesser known compatriots. From the other side of the social fence there's Lucy Hay, born to the Percys – that great northern aristocratic clan – who proved a clever court intriguer and political strategist.

Purkiss also maintains the often-buried genuinely radical elements of this English Revolution and explores the failure of imagination that meant these ideas of equality – of the participation of the ordinary man in politics – could establish only shallow roots. She finds a wonderful example of the Levellers finding an image of what they could only grasp at from a foreign culture.

A Leveller newsbook The Kingdomes Faithfull and Impatriall Scout described two American Indians displayed in France by merchants as objects of curiosity. But the Indians are not only observed: they also do their own observing, and they are 'stood amazed':
That so many gallant men which seemed to have stout and generous spirits should all stand bare, and be subject to the will and pleasure of a Child [Louis XIV]. Secondly, that some in the city were clad in very rich and costly apparel, and others so extreme poor, that they were ready to famish for hunger; that he conceived them to be all equalised in the balance of nature, and not one to be exalted above another." (p.510)

But above all this is war, real war, in all its messy reality. Many soldiers died from mishaps with their own weapons. Purkiss quotes the case of Nicholas Small of Taunton, injured when his own musket accidentally fired. In a petition years later he claimed he was unable to work still as a result. Many suffered much worse. The surgeon Richard Wiseman seems to have been so inured to the carnage he faced that when a man, hit in the face by grapeshot and left for dead was found, he reported (apparently) calmly:

"The colonel sent to me … to dress the man. I went but was somewhat troubled where to begin. … His face, with its eyes, nose, mouth and foremost part of the jaw, with the chin, was shot away and the remaining parts of them driven in. One part of the jaw hung down by his throat and the other part pushed into it. I saw the brain working out underneath the lacerate scalp on both sides between his ears and brows … I could not see any advantage he could have by my dressing. But I helped him to clear his throat, where was remaining the root of his tongue. He seemed to approve of my endeavours and implored my help by the signs he made with his hands." (p.414-415)

That is the Civil War – a real war, presented in a way that real wars all too rarely are. This does sometimes create a little more work for the reader – while some characters reappear through the account and provide coherence, some appear, shine and suddenly disappear, felled by musket ball, mishap or disease. So this is not a perfect literary structure, but a perfect reflection of historical reality. If you wanted to know about the Civil War and had only time or inclination to read one book, this should be it.

Note: I reviewed the English edition, which has the subtitle listed. The American edition is titled: The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
  • STM

    “Purkiss also maintains the often-buried genuinely radical elements of this English Revolution and explores the failure of imagination that meant these ideas of equality – of the participation of the ordinary man in politics – could establish only shallow roots.”

    Natalie, it’s worth noting here that it was the English Civil War and Britain’s subsequent decision to formally institute the beginngs of constitutional monarchy that in fact led from that time on to a flowering of democracy. The Habeus Corpus Act of 1679 is the most obvious example of this change (an act George Bush in the US is now dispensing with under some circumstances, and so does this make him a modern-day absolute monarch who has turned the clock back 350 years?).

    So true democracy did indeed find deep roots. You could argue that it began to bloom, particularly as the concept of genuine representation of the common man spread from Britain around the globe in later centuries (including to America).

    It is for this reason, although I do not live in Britain, that I see it as the most liberal and rights-oriented of all western societies, and indeed there’s a good argument for it to be regarded as the true cradle of modern western democracy (too much suffering visited on the common people in the French Revolution for it to be a real contender).

    The secret of course is British common law: a constantly evolving constitution of written AND unwritten law dating back to medieaval times that doesn’t suffer from the shackles of entrenchment, which is the only real failing of the US constitution.

    There are also difficult issues in US law like the second amendment, a piece of legislation designed to keep militia units armed more than 200 years ago but which is now a nightmare for many US governments and US citizens).

    Nevertheless, compare the Constitution of the United States to the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and you can see in it more than just the roots of America’s constitution.

    It is really down to Cromwell and co that Britain is such a liberal and democratic society. However, one of the failings of British common law is that it sometimes gives people too many rights – would-be terrorists are a good example.

    But the protections it affords ordinary people are second to none, and its existence was cemented in British society and its collective psyche from the time of the English Civil War on.

  • I read your fascinating review on Advance.net and then here with the new design of Blogcritics Magazine. It is very good and, for those whose English history is weak (me!), illuminating in its’ war-like way. By coincidence I had just read “What the Regicides Did For Us” in History Today magazine and then found it and “Why Did Charles I Fight At Naseby?” in the same paper issue (both on the website).

    STM makes the point better than can I that the bloody Civil War (as civil wars are wont to be) did bring both horrors (your telling of the blown away face was a properly gory Halloween story) and some amazingly positive contributions to the growth of the common law for England and, later, the US.

    Once the Bush regime retires even we Americans may again enjoy the freedoms that came from what QC Robertson wrote in the magazine,

    It was a point that no other nation at the time or for another century would reach: a proto-democratic republic with constitutional safequards for civil and religious liberties.