The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss

16 December 2008

I’ve been exceedingly remiss in writing up and posting reviews of books I’ve read recently, owing to a slew of end-of-year commitments that have cut back on my free writing time. I hope to have at least a few more reviews posted before the end of 2008, if nothing else.

The UK edition of this particular book has the far simpler title The English Civil War: A People’s History. I’m not entirely certain why the title was changed for the U.S. edition (too similar to Howard Zinn’s magnum opus, perhaps?), but the U.S. edition is the one being reviewed in this post.

The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss

The English Civil War — or rather, wars, if you break down the overarching conflict into various sets of skirmishes from around 1642 to 1651 — is a classic example of a historical event that has been moulded over the years to fit many different kinds of historical narratives. The Whig historians scrutinised by Herbert Butterfield tended to regard the war as a struggle for power between Parliament and the monarchy, with the former championing the natural rights of the people and the latter attempting to reassert the traditional spiritual and temporal authority of the sovereign. The Marxist historians of the mid-20th century viewed it as a class war, a bourgeois revolution against the aristocracy that prefigured the greater radicalism of the American and French Revolutions. Other historians have played up the religious aspect of the conflict, framing it in the context of the Catholic-Protestant schisms that had never quite fully healed since the days of Henry VIII. Still others have suggested that regional politics are really at the heart of the matter, and that the war can only be truly understood by looking into the particular political, religious, and social situations in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England (with London as its own separate region), and to some extent Cornwall. Generally speaking, most of these historiographical approaches focus on the larger picture or the top-down factors, often at the expense of the far more personal stories that are so often at the heart of any civil war. In that context, Diane Purkiss’s The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain is an attempt to provide a more intimate perspective that both reflects and challenges the overall understanding of the conflict.

Purkiss strives to bridge the gap between academic and popular history, drawing on a wide variety of sources to include the perspectives of individuals and groups that frequently are neglected in the more sweeping general histories. Women in particular play a prominent role in her narrative, from the aristocratic ladies who were caught up in the politicking and social intrigues within the court of Charles I and Henrietta Maria to the working-class women who often embodied the Puritan religious movement that wished to eradicate Catholic elements from their way of worship. She also takes pains to show the effects that the war had on family life, with accounts of fathers and sons taking opposite sides and wives defending their homes while their husbands were off fighting alongside the King or the Parliament. Above all, Purkiss strives to illustrate the confusion and disorder of a ‘world turned upside down’ by the war, the reality that was often (both not always) exaggerated by the hysterical accounts of atrocities carried out by both sides. The English Civil War ends with the execution of Charles I and the exile of the Stuarts, a suitable stopping-point that allows Purkiss to tie up the loose ends of the stories that make up this people’s history.

That said, The English Civil War has a few disappointing aspects that detract from its generally engaging tone. Purkiss tends to speculate a little too freely on the thoughts and motivations of the individuals she profiles; even if her speculations are drawn from suitably accurate sources, they still inject a little too much fancy into the history. She also could have done a good deal more with the ‘witchfinders’ part of the history — her account of Matthew Hopkins and the witchcraft trials of the 1640s and 1650s feels like an afterthought, as if it had been crammed into the text in a hasty attempt to include something that had been left out of early drafts. Considering the use of witch trials as a social and political weapon during the Civil War years, especially against women, and the frequently invoked connections between witchcraft and the rituals of Catholicism and Laudian Anglicanism, a more in-depth look at the witchcraft angle might easily have occupied a sizeable portion of the text. But The English Civil War‘s main problem is that it seems to assume that its audience is a good deal more familiar with the history of the conflict than might be expected — even a dramatis personae or a simple timeline at the back of the book would have been invaluable for a reader coming to the subject for the first time. These weaknesses do not make the book unreadable — far from it — but they do encourage the reader to consult the extensive ‘Further Reading’ section at the back of the book for a broader selection of works to supplement Purkiss’s own.

(In addition: I generally agree with the statements and conclusions given in Gavin Robinson’s extremely detailed review of the book, though my review mostly approaches the text from the perspective of one who is not nearly as ‘genned up’ on the existing literature of the English Civil War as he happens to be.)

One comment

  1. […] traditional support structures of the fine arts had been severely weakened or even destroyed. The Civil War had swept away the vast art collections and stately court masques of Charles I and Henrietta Maria; […]

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