The English Civil Wars 1640-1660, By Blair Worden

War is more than a series of cameos
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The Independent Culture

The American Civil War of 1861-65 and the English Civil War of 1642-45 (the first in Blair Worden's division into the wars of 1642-45, 1646-47 and 1648-51) share striking similarities. Parliament, like the North in 1861, held nearly all the cards; great-er wealth, manpower and resources, better supply routes, much larger armies. Yet both bungled wars which should not really have lasted a year.

Worden has no time for any grand theory of England's civil wars. In this brief study, he eschews the term "revolution", dismisses other historians in a paragraph and is sceptical about the "general crisis" of the 1640s, which also saw civil strife in Germany, Bohemia, Portugal, Ireland, Catalonia and France.

His is not a story of a rising bourgeoisie against a decaying feudal class, of aristocracy versus gentry, or even Cavalier versus Roundhead. Worden seems wedded to a radical empiricism which enthrones brute contingency as the historical explanation. Of general factors, only religion gets a look-in, for he does take seriously the conflicts between Presbyterian and Independent, Puritan and Anglican. He is unacceptably partial towards Cromwell but rightly censorious of the king, though he does not stress that Charles I picked up the tab for Elizabeth I's errors.

Charles's position should have been more secure than that of the Tudors since, as a Stuart, he detached Scotland from England's enemies, depriving them of a route for invasion. His failure was of character. Duplicitous and dishonest, Charles was forever promising the same thing to rivals while all the time plotting to do them down.

A historian careful almost to the point of being dull, Worden tends to shortchange the reader. The accounts of battles from Edgehill in 1642 to Worcester in 1651 are skimpy. What he provides mainly is a series of cameos, fragments and slivers, insightful certainly, but not nearly enough to do justice to this vast subject. His book takes flight only when he comes to the post-1645 period; one assumes it is the Rump Parliament and Cromwellian succession that interest him most.

This book has merits, but as a tour d'horizon it is a failure and certainly not a model of lucidity. One's abiding impression is of a wasted opportunity.