Diane Purkiss’s English Civil War

There’s a traditional way of telling the story of the English Civil War. On one side there’s the King, haughty and distant, on the other Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, the aristocratic general and the political mastermind. They move their men — and it is always the men who get talked about — around the map of England as though they were pieces on the chessboard, but the Commonwealth ultimately has the better strategy, and so finally knocks off the king’s head.

That isn’t the Dianne Purkiss’s Civil War. In her “people’s history”, the war is messy and confused; decisions are made not by careful calculation and planning but by emotional impulse and irrational passion. It is not as comfortable and convenient to handle as the traditional histories, but I’ve no doubt it is far more true to the reality.

One excellent aspect of the story is that the women – half or more of the population — are returned to the cities, the battlefields, in the depths of the palace intrigues, having active parts. I’ve noted elsewhere the fascinating account of the spy and nurse Elizabeth Alkin (Parliament Joan), and there’s also the woman we know only as “Mary the scout”, who was personally rewarded for her work by Fairfax after the fall of Taunton. (p.507)

There are many more. There is Lady Jane Whorwood, whose marriage had collapsed because of her strong loyalist sympathies. She accompanied and supported the captive king, and tried to help him escape. (It wasn’t her fault that royalty on its own was hapless and helpless.) There’s the preacher Anna Trapnel and many of her lesser known compatriots. From the other side of the social fence there’s Lucy Hay, born to the Percys – that great northern aristocratic clan – who proved a clever court intriguer and political strategist.

Purkiss also maintains the often-buried genuinely radical elements of this English Revolution and explores the failure of imagination that meant these ideas of equality – of the participation of the ordinary man in politics – could establish only shallow roots. She finds a wonderful example of the Levellers finding an image of what they could only grasp at from a foreign culture.

A Leveller newsbook The Kingdomes Faithfull and Impatriall Scout described two American Indians displayed in France by merchants as objects of curiosity. But the Indians are not only observed: they also do their own observing, and they are ‘stood amazed’:

That so many gallant men which seemed to have stout and generous spirits should all stand bare, and be subject to the will and pleasure of a Child [Louis XIV]. Secondly, that some in the city were clad in very rich and costly apparel, and others so extreme poor, that they were ready to famish for hunger; that he conceived them to be all equalised in the balance of nature, and not one to be exalted above another.” (p.510)

But above all this is war, real war, in all its messy reality. Many soldiers died from mishaps with their own weapons. Purkiss quotes the case of Nicholas Small of Taunton, injured when his own musket accidentally fired. In a petition years later he claimed he was unable to work still as a result. Many suffered much worse. The surgeon Richard Wiseman seems to have been so inured by the carnage he faced that when a man, hit in the face by grapeshot and left for dead was found, he reported (apparently) calmly:

“The colonel sent to me … to dress the man. I went but was somewhat troubled where to begin. … His face, with its eyes, nose, mouth and foremost part of the jaw,with the chin, was shot away and the remaining parts of them driven in. One part of the jaw hung down by his throat and the other part pushed into it. I saw the brain working out underneath the lacerate scalp on both sides between his ears and brows … I could no see any advantage he could have by my dressing. But I helped him to clear his throat, where was remaining the root of his tongue. He seemed to approve of my endeavours and implored my help by the signs he made with his hands.” (p.414-415)

That is the Civil War – a real war, presented in a way that real wars all too rarely are. This does sometimes create a little more work for the reader – while some characters reappear through the account and provide coherence, some appear, shine and suddenly disappear felled by musket ball, mishap or disease. So this is not a perfect literary structure, but a perfect reflection of historical reality. If you wanted to know about the Civil War and had only time and inclination to read one book, this should be it.

18 Comments

  • October 27, 2006 - 9:57 am | Permalink

    I picked up a half-price copy of this at Waterstones the other day, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I suspect that it isn’t quite as original as the publishers want us to believe. Charles Carlton’s Going To The Wars attempted some similar things in 1992. Women and lower class people are quite prominent in David Underdown’s Revel, Riot, and Rebellion and Keith Lindley’s Popular Politics and Religion in Civil War London (although I admit the latter isn’t much fun to read). I seem to remember reading that anecdote about the soldier with his face shot off in Carlton and/or an Osprey book.

    Having said all that, there’s definitely room for more books which bring out the messy realities, and a lot more work to be done on aspects of the wars which were excluded from traditional metanarratives. I’ll probably post some more detailed thoughts on Purkiss when I’ve actually read it.

  • October 27, 2006 - 10:37 am | Permalink

    I don’t think the author anyway (and the we all know what publishers are like) claims it as an original concept – of course it has been done before but there’s been a lot of research even in the last decade on women’s history and what is called among other things subaltern history that she can draw on, as well as her own original stuff.

  • October 27, 2006 - 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Just yesterday I was posting extracts about the mess of war too –in this case, WWI– from Sarah Macnaughtan’s _My War Experiences on Two Continents_ (1919)…
    http://disstud.blogspot.com/2006/10/october-26-sarah-broom-macnaughtan.html

  • October 27, 2006 - 10:01 pm | Permalink

    Another interesting look at your Civil War (maha; sorry, as an Aussie couldn’t help it) is Geoffrey Roberton’s _The Tyrannicide Brief_, which looks at the life of John Cooke, the lawyer who prosecuted Charles. His wife is a moderately big player on the scene. I knew virtually nothing about the War before reading this, except that Cromwell was meant to be fantastic – which I thought was dubious anyway – and it made all of the characters seem very human. The development of the idea of prosecuting and then executing the king, and that idea gaining popularity and momentum, is a fascinating one!

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  • Diane Purkiss
    October 29, 2006 - 12:30 pm | Permalink

    First, thank you to those who’ve read my book. And thank you for speaking well of it, too. In response to Gavin, not all of it is ‘original’, but what I wanted was to present information well-known to experts on the period to the general reader. The Carlton book is wonderful (though its narrative style is not too friendly), but it’s not well-known to non-experts, and I think the same can be said of Underdown and Lindley. Most popular historiography of the ECW is conservative, while popular history remains specialist – an oddity, and one I wanted to rectify. SOME of it, though, has never been done before – the stuff on food and cooking, the stuff on Lucy Hay and Anna Trapnel, and the stuff on Sergeant Henry Foster, who’s only mentioned briefly in Carlton, to name just a few topics. I’d be very glad to hear more thoughts on the book, as I want to try to write more of this kind of history in future.

    Once again, thank you for reading and writing. It’s always amazing to learn that anyone has bought your book….

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  • October 30, 2006 - 10:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi Diane, Thanks for popping by – and I do hope you write more of this sort of history. I’m trying to do so myself, in part because I find it frustrating that so much of this work is being done in academia, yet popular history – on both print and screen – still seems to be dominated by the old “kings and queens” stuff.

  • November 4, 2006 - 7:15 pm | Permalink

    I’d really like to see an accessible book specifically about women in the civil wars which pulls together all the recent research that is scattered through obscure monographs, articles, and unpublished theses, and fills in some of the gaps.

  • November 6, 2006 - 1:30 am | Permalink

    The closest I know to that is Stevie Davies Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution: 1640-1660. (1998) Which doesn’t now of course pick up the latest research, and the copy-editing is dreadful, which I personally find very distracting.

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  • Junius
    March 2, 2008 - 6:54 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry to say that Diane Purkiss’s book is really not very good. It has nothing new to say, no new research to present and is poorly written. It would have been much better if it had not been composed and never published.

  • Stuart L
    April 21, 2008 - 2:22 am | Permalink

    I think Junius is being extremely unfair. He mau not have enjoyed the book but I am currently reading it and have found it very informative and enjoy the authors style of writing. She takes the time to point out that the ECW also involved all the other nations of Britain as well and after all it was the Scots who actually caught the King.
    So all in all I would recommend the book to anyone who is new to the history of the ECW and looking for a really good history lesson that gives breathe back to the people of the 1640’s.
    Well done Diane.

  • September 7, 2008 - 11:20 am | Permalink

    Thanks for another helpful review (the other being a review of Dirt – The Erosion of Civilisations by David Montgomery). Can you tell me if Henry N Brailsford’s The Levellers and the English Revolution was listed in the Bibliography? (The Bibliography was not listed alphabetically in one list.)

  • September 23, 2008 - 5:23 pm | Permalink

    I felt a potentially good book was spoilt and snagged by the author’s failure to turn down a good story – namely ‘Richard Deakin’s’ (nom de plume) purported Tendring manuscript on Jane Whorwood and the Witchfinder General. Once I found she had (yet again) used this highly dubious source it made it difficult to read the rest of the book. I have a particular interest in the topic and in the Civil War liberated women, with a first biography of Jane Whorwood commissioned to appear late in 2009. I am also revising, on request, the ODNB article on Jane Whorwood for 2009.

    John Fox
    Oxford

  • Lee Fisher
    February 9, 2009 - 12:10 am | Permalink

    Dear Sirs or Madam: Is this book the same as Roustabouts and Roundheads?. Thanks

  • DrNutta
    December 9, 2009 - 8:52 pm | Permalink

    Its a rather ramblng book, but, each person described left me wanting to read more. More about their Life, Love and Beliefs which ruled their world and changed their future. Don’t Buy it for a moving Story but, for many snap shots of a moving History

  • Jon Hall
    January 18, 2010 - 8:12 pm | Permalink

    I found this a very illuminating account. I read it alongside The Story of Scotland by Nigel Tranter and it came out tops for clarity and depth. The central part which describes how Pym orchestrated anti-catholic hysteria is quite compelling and the personal accounts throw up all sorts of fascinating detail.I wonder how much of it Junius has read? Personally I’m looking forward to Purkiss’ promised history of cooking book.

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