The English Civil War, by David Clark
I am fascinated by the subject of the English Civil War. A great deal of this fascination comes from the fact that as an American I am descended largely from people whose internal divisions led to this war from among the complex peoples of the British Isles who make up the majority of my own ancestry. Also, the bitterness and hostility of the English Civil War and its result in a temporary republic gives the lie that the English people have always been fond of monarchical rule and have always been able to let gradual change and moderation curb revolutionary fervor as has been more common in, say, France or other neighbors of the British Isles. Indeed, the English Civil War is obscure and forgotten to many English people themselves in large part because it says things about them that they would rather not pay attention to and that make them far more like the Americans and French who the British might be inclined to look down upon for one reason or another because of their own history of revolutions. If the Glorious Revolution is quintessentially English, it was decisive only as a way of confirming at least some of what was fought over in the English Civil War decades before.
This particular book is a short one at just over 150 pages and takes a chronological approach to the English Civil War. The book begins with an introduction that looks at the English Civil War as a sort of chess game where the most important players of all, it turned out, the gentry, were not even given an equivalent on the board between the churchmen and various high nobles and the king and his relatives and the various nameless masses of peasants and townspeople who were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands during the course of the war. After that the author discusses the board that showed the conflict over religion and other matters that divided the various states of the British isles (1), and the Bishop’s Wars that opened up the conflict with the refusal of Scotland to accept Archbishop Laud’s desires for reform and control (2). This leads to a discussion of the opening gambits by the king and Parliament (3) and the stalemate that followed the move to settle disputes through violence (4). After that the withdrawal of the Queen (5) and the checking of the king (6) after Parliament’s armies became more skillfully led marked a move to more brutality. After that, of course, the king was eventually defeated and captured (7) and Parliament executed the king and sought to establish a republic in the aftermath of the war (8). The book then ends with an appendix, bibliography, list of websites, and an index.
The English Civil War is demonstrative of what happens when a corrupt elite refuses to compromise in the face of the longing of a politically important population that demands additional power commensurate with its achievements and self-regard. Just as the French ancien regime came under attack because it combined a refusal to give up royal prerogatives despite needing the support of the larger political community for funding in the face of debt, so too the divine right English monarchy faced the same problem. Political absolutism in England was only possible to maintain in combination with fiscal responsibility, and whether we are looking at Charles I or King John, those English kings who most disastrously faced the revolt of the barons or gentry were unable to fulfill their duties to protect and rule wisely, and thus are not worthy of our sympathy, no matter how dangerous it is to encourage revolutionary fervor as a solution to the failure of leaders. This is a lesson that contemporary political activists and regimes would do well to remember.