- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006


By Diane Purkiss

Basic Books, $26.96,

627 pages, illus.


During a visit to London over Easter Week, my wife and I both commented on the unfailing civility of the British people, be it in giving directions to the bus to Oxford or offering guidance on the best used-book stalls in Charing Cross Road. Our conclusion was that in such a jammed city, sheer survival necessitates politeness.

But such was not the case in the 17th century, when the nation was rent by what ranks as one of the more brutal conflicts in the history of civilized man. The horrible story is related in Diane Purkiss’ “The English Civil War.” The clash was between Parliament and the Crown over who would control England. In the end, Parliament prevailed, rendering the monarchy politically irrelevant, but unassailably intact.

Ms. Purkiss’ book is an astoundingly lucid read, and she tells her story in parallel fashion: war and politics on one side, the lives of everyday people during the conflict on the other. She cites her devotion to the historians Macaulay and Carlyle, who “were read and loved because their version of history was a guide to human nature.”

She writes with charm and wit. In a prologue captioned “An Epistle to the Gentle Reader,” she concedes that historians might look askance at her use of “cookery writers” as well as Parliamentary debates. “I hope I may be forgiven much that is faulty or imperfect for any attempt to return to a moment when history was a vital part of the nation’s idea of who and what human beings are.”

She succeeds. Britain has long produced outstanding women historians. With this book, this young historian, who teaches at Oxford, rises to a rank alongside Lady Longford and Antonia Frazier, to cite two of the best.

Ms. Purkiss opens with a rather startling declaration: “The English Civil War … is perhaps the most single important event in our history, but for rather complex reasons many of the very intelligent readers who abound in these isles know little of it.”

Battlefield sites are remote and ill-marked. “We have no Fourth of July, no Bastille Day to commemorate our own heroic struggle to define and enact freedom, even though on it depended the ideas that were to lead to these two other revolutions.”

The protagonists were a weakling monarch, Charles I, frail from childhood, and the strong-willed Oliver Cromwell, who dominated Parliament, and who survived a “dark depression” to become somewhat of a religious zealot.

To Charles, Parliament was useful only to raise revenue to support the Crown. He made the mistake of musing aloud that the Spanish Bourbons had recently dissolved the national assembly, hinting he might do the same with Parliament. As Ms. Purkiss writes, “The events that were ultimately to lead to the Civil War were set in motion by a royal tantrum.”

And at a most horrible cost. Estimates are that “around 800,000 people in the British Isles died during its course, the majority of them in Ireland,” of a population of roughly 8.75 million. One in four of all men served on one side or the other.

The fighting was war at its worse: “The war was not a clean and tidy affair of sabres and dashing cavalry charges; it was a bloody business largely driven by guns — cannons and muskets and pistols — which at times appears to have combined the worst aspects of the American Civil War and Vietnam. Both sides used soft lead bullets that did terrible damage to flesh. For years afterwards, the London streets were full of one-legged beggars.”

The Civil War was unique in that there were no battle boundaries, such as the Mason-Dixon Line that cleaved America. Instead, lines were drawn within cities, even families. For the most part, the Parliament forces controlled London. The Royalist redoubt centered on the ancient university town of Oxford.

Ms. Purkiss devotes much space to the atrocities of both parties. Even as someone who reads a good deal of military history, I found these accounts sickening. Not untypical was the sacking, by the Royalists, of a church in the village of Barthomley, Cheshire.

Villagers took refugee in the steeple, only to be forced out by fire. They surrendered, whereupon the Royalist commander, according to a contemporary broadside, “caused them all to be stripped stark naked, and most barbarously & contrary to the laws of arms, murdered, stabbed and cut the Throats of [12] of them …”

Rape was commonplace. There was mention of “the divided pieces of a woman abused to death,” and the accusation that the war “enforceth the Mother to behold the ravishment of her own daughter.” Enraged over Cavalier abuses, women in one village contributed money to outfit what was called “the Maiden’s Troop.” And this conduct, mind you, in a conflict which both sides claimed Divine support, even using the same battle cry, “God with us!”

As the years dragged on, with warring forces ranging through the isles, soldiering resembled barbarism. Ms. Purkiss writes, “For the anxious soldier, the worst moments were not the battles, but the days, sometimes weeks, before and after, when small bands would roam through hostile country, searching for food and plunder, likely to chance upon the enemy at any moment.”

Civilians who managed to avoid military service suffered as well. By her account, “Much of England had always lived on the brink of hunger, most families surviving “precariously on the harvest of the year.” Farm families, for the most part, ate only gruel; there was little better in the cities.

Indeed, Ms. Purkiss writes, the standard mealtime drink of beer was valuable because it “provided a lot of quickly-absorbed calories.” After several years of war, “not just the battered armies but the whole country was getting hungry.” And here is where Ms. Purkiss makes interesting use of contemporary cookbooks, diaries and the many broadsheets published by both parties.

Inevitably, intrigue abounded. “Messengers, scouts and spies, including ‘certain adventurous women’ concealing secret dispatches in their voluminous skirts, passed to and fro …”

A man with the nickname “Lying Lithgow” — the suggestion is clear he was not considered a reliable source — sketched the elaborate fortifications the Parliament faction built to protect London. The Royalists warned of a “fat woman, aged about fifty … she is called by many ‘Parliament Jane,’” said to be lurking around their stronghold of Oxford.

Charles eventually ran out of space and fighters, and he went to his death in January 1649 by beheading on a scaffold within sight of the entrance to Downing Street, demanding of the officer of the King’s Guard who was in charge, “Take care they do not put me in pain!”

The axeman severed his head with one blow. “There was a sigh from the crowd — no cheering, no laughter, just a long-breathed sigh, a collective groan.” Some persons darted forward to dip handkerchiefs in the king’s blood. “They would later see them as remedies for scrofula, for now there was in the Three Kingdoms no king left to touch for it.”

“A cruel necessity,” Cromwell remarked over the king’s embalmed body. Perhaps, because a more stable England emerged from the eight years of carnage. An appalling story of brutality that sickens, but nonetheless is impossible to put down.

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894 @aol.com.



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