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Why write about the English Civil War?
This is a 'frequently asked question' I often get in Canada.
The English Civil War was, more accurately, a British Civil War since it involved England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Unlike the sixteenth century made famous by the exploits of the Tudors, the period itself is unfamiliar to many North Americans, for whom 'civil war' usually signifies the US conflict of 1861-5. So what fascinates me about the clash between Royalists and Parliamentarians that broke out in the early 1640's and simmered on into the 1650's after the execution of King Charles I?
Of course I was inspired as a child growing up in Oxford, in an atmosphere full of evidence belonging to that era. At the age of ten, already a Civil War addict, I dragged my father out to see the Ken Hughes film, Cromwell. When I was twelve, I travelled specially to London with my long-suffering aunt for an exhibition at the Tate Gallery: 'The Age of Charles I'. I still have the catalogue. Van Dyk's magnificent canvases of royalty and nobility - almost photographic in quality compared to most English artists of the time, and far more elegantly restrained in taste - bowled me over, and I fell in love with their splendour.
Subsequently I came to understand the Civil War as a unique and crucial episode in history. The first revolt of its kind, it set the precedent for the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 that deposed Catholic King James II, Charles I's son, and for the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century.
Never before had a representative body of the people, Parliament, asserted their rights and freedoms in the face of royal authority, levied charges of treason against their anointed king, tried him publicly, and condemned him to death. Crowned heads across Europe must have trembled as his was struck off, and this shocking defiance of tradition paved the way for the fate of King Louis XVI during the French Revolution, though Louis' neck was severed by the newfangled guillotine instead of the axe that ended Charles Stuart's life.
The turmoil of war also proved fertile ground for the spread of startlingly radical ideas within the Parliamentarian ranks: complete reform of Parliament and the justice system, extension of the suffrage, liberty of religious worship, and equality before the law. In the words of one Colonel Rainsborough, "really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he... and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under..." Such revolutionary sentiments met with the strong disapproval of Cromwell and his allies, who moved efficiently to silence them. But they resurfaced again and again, in politics, philosophy, and literature until at last, in the twentieth century, universal suffrage was enacted in Britain.
Few can have entered lightly into war in 1642, except perhaps rash young men, and the mercenaries from abroad - British and foreign - who were eager for rich pickings. Despite outbreaks of violence, power struggles, minor rebellions and state repressions, wholesale civil strife had not touched England since the Wars of the Roses during the mid to late 1400's, and that had been a conflict between the rival royal houses of Lancaster and York to establish their claim to kingship - a different matter indeed.
As I describe in my trilogy - The Best of Men, The Licence of War, and my forthcoming The Wounds of Fortune - there were many attempts from both sides to avoid violence and settle on peace terms. Fruitless negotiations continued throughout the war, for good reason: Families were being torn apart, fortunes ruined, and friends driven to kill friends.
The relations between two generals, the Royalist Sir Ralph Hopton and the Parliamentarian Sir William Waller, offer a poignant example. Hopton and Waller had become comrades-in-arms abroad, on the 1620 mission to the Palatinate to rescue James I's daughter Elizabeth of Bohemia and her husband King Frederick from defeat by the Hapsburg forces of Ferdinand II. They were in her Lifeguard in Prague, and following the Hapsburg victory at the battle of the White Mountain, they assisted in the escape of her family - including the baby Prince Rupert - to safety in Frankfurt. Years later, in June 1643, Waller wrote to his old friend Hopton:
"..That great God who is the searcher of my heart knows with what a sad sense I go upon this service, and with what a perfect hatred I detest this war without an enemy; but I look upon it as sent from God and that is enough to silence all passion in me ... We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy. Let us do it in a way of honour and without personal animosities..."
This strikingly human dimension to the Civil War is evoked repeatedly in contemporary correspondence, in language remarkably close to our own. It's what compels me to try and capture not only how moral, political and emotional attitudes have changed since then, but above all how very much we have in common with these flesh and blood characters from the early modern age.
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