Free Life 16, April 1992, Review of Book about Richelieu, by Sean Gabb

From Free Life, Issue 16, April 1992
ISSN: 0260 5112

The Impact of the English Civil War
John Morrill (ed.)
Collins and Brown, London, 1991 160 pp, £6.99
(ISBN 1 85585 042 7)

As its title indicates, The Impact of the English Civil War is concerned neither with causes nor with narrative. Instead, its seven authors, each in his own essay, tries to show what effect the war had on its participants. The book is simply written, with a minimum of citation and a refusal to enter into any of the main controversies. It is designed, even so, to offer the fruits of the best recent research. Knowledge is conveyed both through the main text and through specially marked articles, chronological tables, and a mass of very well reproduced illustrations. The overall result is rather too specialised for use as a school textbook, but is just right for undergraduates in need of a short primer and for the general public.

By far the best essay is by Charles Carlton, on the impact of the fighting. We tend to view the Civil War in terms of ideology or through a romantic haze of Cavaliers and Roundheads. But it was the bloodiest war ever fought on English soil and, in percentage terms, the bloodiest ever fought by Englishmen. Nearly 85,000 men were killed in the fighting. Another 100,000 died of wounds or associated diseases. Another 117,000 were taken prisoner. All this in a population of little more than five million. To give a more vivid impression of the horrors of the war, Carlton supplements the statistics with eye-witness accounts. After Naseby, he quotes one, "there was a mortifying object to behold, when the naked bodies of thousands lay upon the ground, and not altogether dead". He quotes another on "the crying there was for surgeons as never was the like heard".

Worse than the battles, though, were the sieges. To order an assault on a fortified position was to unleash a "tidal wave of killing". At Belvoir Castle, the Parliamentarian casualties were such that the officers could force their men back into the breach only at sword point. The castle taken, the defenders were killed without quarter. When Leicester fell in 1645, there were similar massacres, both of soldiers and civilians. Nor were the survivors there always luckier than the dead. William Summers, a local notable, not only had all his possessions plundered, but his son was killed and his wife went mad. He had to find work as a butcher. All war is unpleasant. Civil war magnifies the unpleasantness. Our own was no exception.

I was less happy with Glenn Burgess, explaining the Civil War's impact on political thought. The traditional approach has been to take the pamphlet literature of the 1640s at face value, as part of a philosophical debate. This approach, says Burgess, may be "inherently distorting". He prefers to see the age as one not of first principles but of "rhetoric", of "attempts by various political groups to exploit the available conventions of argument".

Now, this is at best a partial view. The public mind of the age was shaped by three facts. First, there was something like mass adult literacy. Second, there was an almost unfettered liberty of the press. Third, the "ancient and immemorial" Constitution, within which all debate had previously been conducted, had broken down. In the resulting explosion, all of modern political philosophy, excepting only socialism, had its origin.

Take the Levellers. Certainly, they drew heavily on the Catholic theologians of the previous four centuries, and on the common lawyers. Again, they were often inconsistent, and one can suspect a conscious disguising of this with rhetoric. But, if they fell short of John Locke, their public assertion of the right to life, liberty and property still began a new page in world history.

On the other side, Thomas Hobbes was far more than a rhetorician. Even Sir Robert Filmer raised fundamental points and followed them through as best he could.

The other five essays range between these two in quality, some excellent, none less than adequate. Despite my stated reservations, the book as a whole is heartily to be recommended.

Sean Gabb

© 1992 – 2015, seangabb.

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