The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, And Witchfinders In The Birth Of Modern Britain, by Diane Purkiss
This book was originally called “The English Civil War: A People’s History,” and that would have given me a much more clear idea of the perspective of this author and also a great deal less fondness about it given the low quality of people’s history thanks to their Maoist perspectives to begin with. To be sure, this book has some of that, but the author manages to strike that ambivalent tone where she shows herself in favor of Christmas and generally favorable to authoritarian government as a whole on the one hand while also showing a certain fondness for Levelers and Diggers and female pamphleteers and Cornish and Welsh peasants seeking a better life and clubmen looking for peace between the warring sides. This book was written by someone who could not keep on point but who was as easily distracted as a pariah dog by the sight of a squirrel. She has obviously done a lot of reading of primary and secondary source material, much of which is detailed in this book, but at the same time this book was not nearly as enjoyable to read as it should have been given its subject material.
This book is about 600 pages long if you include its lengthy suggestions for further reading, and is divided into 33 chapters. The author begins with an account of the last surviving Cavalier (1) after the list of illustrations and maps and then looks at the unsettled peace that preceded the Civil War (2). After that there is a discussion of two women (3) and the Bishop’s Wars that began the conflict in Scotland (4). The author discusses English anti-Catholicism (5), a frequent matter of discussion in this book, as well as the call to conflict (6) and the opening skirmishes (7) leading up to Edgehill (8). This leads to a discussion of iconoclasm (9), the death of dreams (10), the war over Christmas (11), the struggles of the Queen (12), and the fight at Newbury (13). The author looks at the two capitals of Oxford and London (14), the bitterness of war (15), two marriages, including that of noted poet John Milton (16), Marston Moor and its making of Cromwell (17), as well as problems of hunger (18) and the slaughter of the Battle of Lostwithiel (19). There follows discussions of witchcraft (20), children’s tales (21), Montrose’s quixotic campaign in Scotland and Northern England (22), the new political fervor of women and lower classes (23), Naseby (24), the siege of Taunton and the neutralist Clubmen (25), as well as the escape of James II (26). Finally, the book ends with the capture of Charles I (27), the Levellers (28), and Diggers (29), the entire Second Civil War (30), Charles I in captivity (31), the trial and execution of the king (32), and the aftermath (33) of the war after which there are suggestions for further reading and an index.
A great deal of this book is spent in either setting up the English Civil War and discussing the religious roots at the basis of it or talking about tangential matters that are of interest to the writer but may not be of interest to the reader. The writer finds herself fascinated by divided families, by the flawed humanity of people on both sides, by the way that many people sought to resolve the tensions that the wars brought out through suicide charges, by matters of witchcraft and the way that what was thought of as up-to-date thinking was not. She talks about the way that the war made the common people suffer greatly even as it brought misery to all classes of society. She shows a particular interest, as might be expected, in revolutionary politics and laments that it was crushed by people like Cromwell. The only people that the author appears to show little sympathy for are those who were sincerely biblical Protestants of a very seriously religious streak who avoided the pitfalls of leftist politics. The fact that these people are the ones I am most sympathetic towards meant that I frequently found the author’s bias lamentable at best.