Friday, June 03, 2011

Diane Purkiss - The English Civil War, A People's History

Given the historical importance of the English Civil War, it is surprisingly little understood. At school we had a rudimentary introduction, which left me with little understanding of anything but a few battles between roundheads and cavaliers and a few place names – Marston Moor and Naseby for instance.
My schooling in this crucial juncture of world history was only taken further by Monty Python, whose surprisingly useful song about Oliver Cromwell sums up some of the key points in the events.
I suspect that my knowledge of the Civil War was as limited as many others. Which is why Diane Purkiss’ book is so important - her history is a brilliant introduction to a series of political events that are often dressed up in complicated imagery and difficult ideas. She also understands that the outcome of the Civil War was fantastically important for English, British and world history, calling it the “single most important event in our history”. It is also brilliantly readable.
Purkiss’ book is called a People’s History. Don’t fall into the trap though of thinking that this is “history from below”. For Purkiss, this title means letting the voices of the people (whoever they are) tell the story as much as possible. Using diary extracts, letters, speeches and pamphlets, the author lets us hear the voices of those central to the Civil War.  Equal weight is given to poets, MPs, monarchs, revolutionists, soldiers and townspeople. She herself admits that this approach brings with it “drawbacks” but concludes that her approach is important, because “constitutional reforms are important but only because they are eventually experienced by people”.
Here lies I think the books major problem. In part this is also her choice of title, calling the events that lead to the beheading of Charles I a “Civil War”, rather than a revolution. Purkiss consciously doesn’t take a position on this question, “Whether or not there had been a revolution, the regicides were men who had done the unthinkable and survived. But after Charles’s death, no one quite knew what came next.”
But the importance of the Civil War wasn’t the beheading of the king, though this was breath-taking in its bravery and ideological symbolism. Nor was it the constitution change that resulted from the victory of Parliaments forces over the monarch, though these were important for a myriad of reasons. The importance of the Civil War, and why it is right to call it a revolution, is that it was the first of such European events that “made the world safe for capitalism” to quote the historian Nora Carlin. At the start of her book, Purkiss points out that none of those involved in events had any inkling of what they were about to take part in, “There were political struggles, there was murmuring and discontent, but these disputes were well within the realm of normality”. This is of course true. But there was also a growing and increasing discontent with the method of Charles’ governance and the way it imposed limits and difficulties on those who increasingly wanted to make their money from the profits of trade and wage labour. I am aware that this is a simplistic explanation, shortened down for the sake of a brief review. But these tensions and new economic interests were expressing themselves in all sorts of waves – religious, ideological and political.
This can best be seen with the ideas that mushroomed at the bottom of society. The radical and political concepts for instance, that came to the fore during the Civil War, epitomised by the Levellers, the Diggers and a thousand other preachers and pamphleteers. These radical ideas could only have developed at a time when people’s lives were being shaped by wider forces, larger economic tensions and whole new concepts. That ordinary people didn’t like what was happening to their lives is demonstrated by the way that they took the opportunity to reclaim common lands that had been taken from them, or destroy property belonging to hated landlords.
So I think that Purkiss misses the point of what is happening in the mid-1600s and ends up seeing the process as almost being a social convulsion that gets out of hand. While I have nothing but praise for some of her treatment of radical ideas and individuals in the book, I don’t think she gets to the heart of why these helped to drive those, like Cromwell, to regicide, even though they would not have countenanced it a few years beforehand.
Perhaps I am being unfair. Diane Purkiss’ book is an excellent read, and she doesn’t shy from trying to tackle the difficult questions thrown up by the Civil War – particularly the nuances of religion. Her approach does bring the realities of the war to life. Particularly the descriptions of the battles and their consequences.  I was also impressed by her coverage of the lives of women and children, who often only receive walk on parts in books like these.
Purkiss is scrupulously fair. She gives as much time to the voices of the rich as the poor, to the royalists and the parliamentarians. To my surprise I enjoyed this. I thought the letters of Charles particularly interesting, as they showed just how isolated he was at the top of his mountain of privilege. His complete lack of comprehension of what was happening at his trial speaks volumes.
I would recommend this book to those who want to understand more about those times. Neither side comes out of it clean and heroic. War brutalises all. Purkiss is right to expose this in the face of the sanitised histories we often see. But she also brings out the radical and inspiring kernel to the story, that shows that there were people prepared to fight for a new world, with a myriad of exciting and powerful ideas. That in itself is a story to inspire us today.

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