Saturday 22 June 2019


I suppose that every historiographical lash has its backlash. I mentioned before, I think (and anyway, it is “widely known”) that the interpretations of the English Civil War (War of the Three Kingdoms and Wales, whatever you want to call it) have been heavily influenced by Marxist interpretations of history. Thus the war is seen squarely as to do with the rise of the gentry/bourgeoisie, the merchants, lawyers and so on who dominated Parliament, the defying of feudal assumptions about society and, ultimately, the rise of the political voice of the peasants and working class, seen through the Levellers, Diggers, Quakers and so on.

Now, of course, this narrative can be challenged and has been, at almost every turn. Quite a few of the Parliamentarians were from ancient ‘feudal’ families, for example. A fair number of Royalist supporting MPs were merchants and lawyers. The emphasis placed on the Diggers and their colleagues is not representative of the mass of the labouring poor; indeed, the leaders of these sects were hardly representative of anyone except themselves.

The historiographical upshot of this has been a ‘revisionist’ history for the wars, with a far greater emphasis on the individual, their decisions and historical contingency. Thus, a great deal of the blame for the chaos of the 1640s has been placed on the King, Charles I, and his decisions (or, more precisely, his lack thereof), vacillations, plotting and  general untrustworthiness which eventually led his opponents to cut, as it were, the Gordian Knot and remove his head. But really can the King really be blamed for the whole crisis and its nasty dénouements?

There has been, in perhaps more popular works anyway, a move towards blaming other people again. As I noted a while ago, Leander de Lisle ((2018) White King: Charles I, Traitor, Murderer, Martyr. London, Chatto & Windus) places the blame on the group of London politicians who opposed the King, including Pym and Warwick, who had been in traitorous correspondence with the Scots during the Bishop’s Wars and needed the war to cover their tracks. Well, maybe, but perhaps we need to track back a bit before that; Charles’ personal rule had not, after all, been spectacularly successful.

I have just finished another work which blames another set of people:

Thomson, O. (2018). Zealots: How a Group of Scottish Conspirators Unleashed Half a Century of War in Britain. Stroud, Amberley.

The subtitle says it all really. The book argues that a set of lairds and ministers in Fife started the whole disaster that befell Britain in the middle of the Seventeenth Century. Fife, the author points out, had good connections to the continent, particularly to the Danish and Swedish parts of Northern Europe. A number of mercenaries, particularly retirees from Swedish service, also bought land there or thereabouts and formed connections with local politicians and Kirk leaders.

The upshot of this was that when the Scots, particularly the Kirk leaders, felt the heat from the King and his ministers over the new Scottish Prayer Book in 1637, there was a ready-made set of radical ministers, politicians and professional soldiers in Fife to start a war and to win the first few bits thereof – that is, the two Bishop’s Wars and the First English Civil War, up to and including Marston Moor. After that, of course, the Scots lost, and lost, in the long run, rather heavily.

Now, I am not going particularly to get into the blame game. Lots of candidates can be named as culprits in starting the wars, as well as a fair few broader factors such as the real economic distress of the series of poor harvests. Drawing attention to one or another particular group is helpful but not necessarily as decisive as some authors seem to think. In starting a war, or a struggle for independence, or the traditional way of life, or whatever, there has to be an opponent, and that opponent contributes to the conflict by their actions, for good or ill, as well.

Still, Tomson does do a few useful things in drawing our attention to the Fife connections of the Army of the Covenant: a fair few chaplains and commanders at Marston Moor came from the area. In addition, he does draw attention to the importance of religion as a determining factor. He sees the civil wars are being largely motivated by differing visions of Protestantism, the Anglican (or more specifically, perhaps, the Laudian), the Presbyterian, as put forward by the Scots as the settlement for the whole of the country, and, ultimately, the Independent, non-conformist ideas that sort of triumphed under Cromwell (and sort of did not).

Thomson suggests quite strongly that the Presbyterian vision of the Kirk continued through into the 1680s leading to the persecution of various sects in Scotland after the Restoration, assorted armed uprisings and further fighting. Only with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ did a degree of stability return, except, perhaps in the Highlands. James II had, after all, worked hard to create a party there loyal to himself, and this was the start of the Jacobites who, of course, went down to disaster in 1715 and 1745.

Thomson notes that the Jacobites mad the same mistake as the Scots in 1648 and 1651 by invading England via the western route. The successful Scots invasions of the Bishop’s Wars and first civil war were via the eastern route. The implication seems to be that if Bonnie Prince Charlie had been sufficiently on the ball, the Jacobites would have aimed for Newcastle and then York, and succeeded. Well, maybe, and maybe not. It would require a number of conditions to be met, such as Berwick, Newcastle and York to be either undefended or ignorable. The Jacobites, so far as I am aware, did not have the men to both continue the invasion and lay siege to Newcastle, as Leven did. But then, I am not a Jacobite expert.

Overall, this is an interesting book which gives a partial account of the civil wars from a Scottish perspective. Is it convincing? Well, I think at best we can say case unproven but if it provokes some more work on the subject it will have done its job.


  1. I love this.
    This post somewhat summarises the premise for my PhD - though I'm telling the story from an Irish Jacobite historiographical revisionist perspective.

    Certainly take your point re. the core of 'blame' for the ECW (and there's another book that I have to buy now lol).

    I am reminded by the most oft used phrase that I heard when I used to work in Bolton ...'who are we going to blame for this?' ...which immediately implies that it always has to be someone's fault...

    1. Modern society and culture likes to find someone to blame - the operatives at Three Mile Island were blamed, even though every alarm in the control room was going off and they had no idea which was the most important. Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites are such a romantic tale (at least from this distance historically) that someone must be blamed for their failure.

      I'm reminded of former Prime Minister Harold Macmillan when asked what the most difficult thing was about his permiership: 'Events, dear boy. Events.' Stuff, as they say, happens....