The English Civil War: A people's history, by Diane Purkiss

Butchery in our backyards
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At Christmas 1643, royalist troops entered the church at Barthomley in Cheshire, stripped the parishioners hiding inside, then viciously attacked them: 12 died and many were wounded. Accounts vary but the one which matters most is that used as evidence against Charles I in 1649 - the first war crimes trial. The story illustrates three salient characteristics of Diane Purkiss's rich, vivid and passionate book: the horrors of war visited upon the sleepiest English backwaters; the meeting of high and low in a revolutionary age; and a commitment to see the conflict through the eyes of those who were there.

The narrative flows inexorably towards the king's execution. Purkiss roots his rebarbative character in his father's threats and brother's bullying. But to be unloved at home mattered less than being unloved by his subjects, like the London woman who in 1644 called him "a stuttering fool" and wished him dead.

Within two years Charles was on the run, dossing on an alehouse floor, and by 1648 a prisoner, drinking plonk, playing mini-golf, and optimistically applying nitric acid to the bars of his cell. At his trial the tip of his cane fell off and no one picked it up - as powerful a sign of a world turned upside down as any strange omen reported in the popular press.

To Oliver Cromwell and the regicides, shedding royal blood was an act of expiation. Some 800,000 British and Irish died, including 4000 royalists at Marston Moor alone. One in four men took up arms. Most battles, however, were sudden, frenzied skirmishes - the "mad minutes" of the Vietnam war. Indeed, ghastly first-hand accounts resemble those of modern times. The vision of one soldier's shattered face, as described by a military surgeon, could belong to Owen or Sassoon.

Purkiss is properly unflinching: the botched disembowelling of a priest; the scattered body parts at Bolton; the eating of vermin during the siege of Colchester. Civilians suffered disproportionately in this war, and in unexpected ways. After the sack of Cirencester, Lady Jordan reverted to a childlike state and was only happy playing with her dolls.

The origins of conflict were as varied as its consequences. The collision of roundhead and cavalier was only the most tangible manifestation of a drawn-out battle for England's soul after the Reformation. Shades of opinion between Catholic and Protestant, conservative and innovator, became lost in the black-and-white struggle between crown and parliament. Riots over the prayer book in Scotland made puritans think of "a war of Good against Evil". In England, their disgust at the ceremonial liturgy of Archbishop Laud boiled over into iconoclasm: the smashing of holy images in churches up and down the country.

Some deeds were especially heartbreaking. In 1643 a Presbyterian MP barged into the queen's chapel in Somerset House and shredded the only painting of the crucifixion by Rubens. An embroiderer endured the burning of a "glory cloth" commissioned for the high altar at Canterbury - his life's work.

Quite correctly, the folly of such behaviour is not Purkiss's business; she seeks only to reanimate her characters. Cromwell, déclassé and depressive in the 1630s, emerges as a ruthless leader intoxicated by providential energy and certitude. Nowhere was the translation of belief into action more devastating than in Ireland, no legacy more bitter or enduring. At Drogheda godly soldiers surpassed the savagery of the Barthomley massacre, burning fugitives alive in St Peter's church. To a man like Cromwell, England was "a tiny, gallant Protestant nation, encircled by conniving Catholic superpowers keen to blot it from the earth". The war against popish terror would brook no mercy.

In England, the mission to root out Antichrist extended to witches. Purkiss's treatment of Matthew Hopkins's vicious purge in East Anglia reveals her dependence on other scholars' research - which would be fine except that a lack of specific endnotes obscures this debt, likewise the "epistle to the gentle reader", the rather self-indulgent style of which prevents Purkiss naming her intellectual creditors. This is a false note in an otherwise moving, lyrical and principled piece of writing. Worse, her reliance on a discredited book about the witch-hunt means she repeats a number of errors: that Hopkins consorted with the astrologer William Lilly and royal hanger-on Lady Jane Whorwood is pure fantasy.

Purkiss has a gift for evocation. Here, then, are all the sights, sounds and smells of London: the yapping dogs and squawking rooks, the hawkers and beggars, the fiddlers in taverns, the stink of a thousand coal fires. The battles of Edgehill and Newbury are thrillingly staged as crowd scenes where even the tactics were confused, never mind the strategy. She has a sharp eye for irony and absurdity: the surplices worn as maternity dresses; the mocking baptism of cats; the lead saints melted into bullets; a royalist commander beaten to death with his own wooden leg; the story of how the king's plumber came to own a Titian.

Especially impressive is a chapter on food. The war spawned a number of cookbooks, including one by Sir Kenelm Digby, "a bold, sexy pirate" who invented the fry-up. This is no whimsy. Purkiss skilfully weaves stories, building pictures of meaning. Culinary obsessions, she suggests, were born of hunger, the constant lament of soldiers and civilians.

The subtitle is ambiguous, suggesting a history of ordinary people, and for general readers. 1643 is singled out as the year when "an old haunted world in which saints stared from alcoves" was supplanted by one when simple folk began feeding their minds with newsprint. And just imagine 20,000 Londoners enthusiastically fortifying their city - the Blitz spirit avant la lettre - or Taunton resembling "a little Stalingrad".

Women come to the fore as battlefield cooks and nurses, ideologues petitioning parliament, and cussed prophets like Anna Trapnel preaching from upturned tubs. They also feature as political operators like Lucy Hay and Queen Henrietta Maria, and as warriors such as the female defenders of Bristol, and the redoubtable Brilliana Harley, besieged, bloodied but unbowed.

All of which suggests a third meaning to the subtitle: a history grounded in the dramatic force of human character, both patrician and plebeian: "If the past is not to be dry, then it must live, and so must its people". For this older, more literary style of history, Purkiss - an Oxford don once branded a postmodernist by critics - makes a special plea to her fellow academic historians. They should listen.

Malcolm Gaskill teaches history at Churchill College, Cambridge; his book 'Witchfinders' is published by John Murray