Review: The English Civil War At First Hand by Tristram Hunt

It’s been quite a while since I sat down and read anything about the English Civil War, mainly because despite my huge interest in the period I have found that many of the books on the subject are excceptionally dry. That is of course through no fault of the author but there is just so much going on in the lead up to the wars that you can’t help but find dry, no matter how much love you put into it. I suppose that’s the thing with a war that started through a King hacking off his Parliament (and other reasons, but more on that below) – politics comes into play. And politics can get boring very very quickly. But then I came across this little gem – I’d read it before and used it when I was writing my dissertation on the English Civil War but for some reason it didn’t really strike me back then. A few days ago I started re-reading it and I’m glad I did as I can safely say that this is one of the better books I have read on the period.

The book is littered with quotes, and is literally the story of the English Civil War through the eyes of the people who were there. You have letters from Charles I, the memoirs of a Roundhead wife, A Cavalier officers journal, letters from Oliver Cromwell – and these offer such an eye opening insight into the years of war. A lot of these quotes really made me stop and think, particularly the stories of the horrors of the war and how it split families right down the middle. One particular part of the book really made me shudder:

“The most tragic case of family warring took place during a battle at Wardour Castle. As he lay dying from his wounds the Roundhead soldier, Private Hillsdeane, confirmed that it was his own royalist brother who had fired the fatal shot”

This sort of thing was all too common and throughout the book Hunt really makes us aware that quite often neighbours fought neighbours, friends fought friends and fathers fought against their own sons.

Hunt splits the book up into very readable chapters which takes the reader through how the Wars were caused, the reasons behind them, the wars themselves, Charles I’s downfall and the reign of Oliver Cromwell. The chapters are not overly long, and Hunt let’s the words of the people who were there tell their own story, instead of launching into complicated analysis. Nor does Hunt stray into the realm of conjecture, which has to be one of my biggest pet hates in historical non fiction. Even when talking about Charles I’s execution, he doesn’t start on about how Charles felt but rather let’s the reader get an indication of how Charles felt through the writings of those who bore witness to the events, and the writings of those who spoke with Charles before the event such as the quote below which was recorded by King Charles’ attendant Thomas Herbert:

“Nothing of the fear of death, or indignities offered seemed a terror, or provoked him into impatience, nor uttered he a reproachful word reflecting upon any of his judges…or against any Member of the House, or officer of the Army; so wonderful was his patience, though his spirit was great, and might otherwise haxe expressed his resentments upon several occasions”

I will say it again and again, but the words of those who were there, and the documents that Hunt quotes from just speak for themselves. Through the words of those who lived during the years of war right up until the years of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, we can get a sense of what it was like to be there, the fear they felt, their thoughts on the unlawful execution of their monarch. Not only that, but you can get a sense of what life was like in the years following Charles’ execution thanks to the work of groups of people such as the Ranters (a religious group who believed that God was a part of every individual being and rather enjoyed fornication, and I may be oversimplifying this. They do seem like an interesting bunch of people though), and the Levellers (a group who supported popular sovereignty, equality and religious tolerance) – both groups were looked down upon by the Parliamentarian state, and ended up being repressed. An edict by parliament in 1650 is quoted by Hunt, clearly aimed at the Ranters:

“To Parliament holding it to be their duty…by all good ways and means to…advance religion in all sincerity, godliness and honesty have made several ordinances and laws…there are divers men and women who have lately discovered themselves to be most monstrous in their opinions, and loose in all wicked and abominable practices…”

Reading the chapters on the years post execution, I really got the sense of an England in the grip of a strange hysteria, with people trying out new religious ideas (only to be suppressed by Cromwell) – because after all, they had no theater or sport and Christmas had been turned into a day of fasting by Parliament (and let’s not forget that the law banning the eating of Mince Pies on Christmas Day was never repealed!).

I honestly feel as if this review has been rather jumpy, however I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it has really reignited my love of the English Civil War. It was really refreshing to read a book that made the years of politics and war really accessible, and it was really quite amazing to have the stories told by the people that loved there with very little analysis from the author. Because I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I read a history book about a subject that is really rather full of politics, too much analysis over the minute little details can become very boring, very quickly. Now, these details are very important, and must be studied by historians to get a sound understanding on their chosen periods – I remember pouring through primary resources on my dissertation subject and getting myself so immersed and lost in what I was reading but you can so easily fall into the trap of over analysing every little detail. Sometimes you just have to let the sources, and the words speak for themselves and this is what Hunt has done with this book. He has made an era that is often overlooked as complicated very, very accessible through his very simple and appealing approach and for this I completely commend him.

If you want a great introduction to a completely fascinating era in British History then I definitely recommend this book!

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