An Unwanted Civil War?

The Golden Age Restor'd: The Culture of the Stuart Court, 1603-42

by Graham Parry
St. Martin's, 276 pp., $27.50

The Outbreak of the English Civil War

by Anthony Fletcher
New York University Press, 446 pp., $39.50

The Royalist War Effort, 1642-1646

by Ronald Hutton
Longman, 271 pp., $26.00

At a time when historical works are losing wide readership, the English Civil War has remained immensely popular. Other great historical episodes, other famous battles, no less landmarks of the English historical past, have failed to arouse the same interest or emotion. On both sides of the Atlantic, seventeenth-century English history has also attracted some of the finest historical talents; like some timeless model, it has shown the best of the traditional and avant-garde in historical writing.

Perhaps the appeal of the period to both layman and scholar is rooted in the same belief, the same preconception (even the same misconception): that the English Civil War is an event that helped to set the course of Western history, the event that secured the triumph of representative institutions over absolute monarchy, of liberty over tyranny, of Protestantism over popery. In a history written from this perspective, the victims of Charles I’s regime fled to sow the values of freedom and godliness in the New World; the victors of the eventual conflict fought to defend them in the old. Few even of the many emotionally attracted to the plumed chivalrous hero of the Cavalier legend, or to the valiant Prince Rupert of reality, doubt that it was a war for freedom or express regret at the outcome. Even those repelled by the austere demeanor and canting puritanism of the Roundheads celebrate their constitutional victory. In the words of Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 and All That, the Royalists were “Wrong but Wromantic,” the Parliamentarians, “Right but Repulsive.”

Among scholars, discussions of the causes of the war have produced some of the most brilliant and vituperative historical exchanges. But these have masked a large measure of agreement—a consensus that the Civil War was the explosion of long-term political and social conflicts. Historians have quarreled about what were the causes; they have never questioned whether there were causes. In this sense seventeenth-century historiography, for all the violence, has seen only skirmishes, not full-scale conflict.

Recently the peace was shattered. In 1976, Conrad Russell questioned whether the period between 1604 and 1629 was one of inevitable constitutional conflict centered upon rival claims for power between an absolutist monarchy and a developing House of Commons. He argued that there was no “opposition” in early Stuart parliaments; nor did they possess the power (or the will) to sustain one. Whatever the nature of the war in 1642, its causes could not easily be traced from the parliamentary debates of the 1620s. Mr. Russell wrote a reconnaissance piece that might have stimulated us all to renewed investigation.* But, against his wishes, he reopened a conflict waged three hundred years ago. For on the one side some displayed the dogged reaction of the besieged. On the other, in America and in England scholars deployed new evidence in the attack on the old citadel—a citadel that has defended the national past and the national myths of both countries: the Whig interpretation of history.

The Old Guard—the military phrase…

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