Peter Ackroyd: Civil War

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Unsurprisingly, the Stuart period has been written about extensively; after all, it laid the foundations for modern Britain through political, social and imperial experimentation. In 2014, Peter Ackroyd published his own interpretation of this period as part of his hugely ambitious six book series on the History of England, beginning 15,000 years ago and currently spanning to Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, although the next book is due out next year. ‘Civil War’ is the third book in this series.

Ackroyd’s whistle-stop tour of the Stuart period commences with James’ ascension to the English throne in 1603 and ends with William of Orange usurping it following the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It would have been easy for Ackroyd to have overly focused on the period 1642-1649, the years of the main English Civil Wars; however, he avoids this temptation, instead choosing to provide a fairly balanced overview of the entire period.

Largely, although not exclusively, Ackroyd narrates the book from the perspectives of Court and Parliament. Despite the most consistent line of argument appearing to be that normal English citizens, who did not particularly care about power-wrangling between Court and Parliament, were the greatest victims of the period, they are rarely mentioned. Occasionally, the book almost feels a Carlyle-esque history as Ackroyd jumps from one key character to another. A reader will rightly leave this book with a clear image of the Kings and Cromwell, but other figures feel underdeveloped. Repeatedly, a reader is told of Wentworth’s significance for Charles I or Lambert’s importance in the New Model Army, but we are not told why this is so. For instance, to further enunciate just how efficient Wentworth was, Ackroyd could explore his role as Lord Deputy of Ireland between 1633 and 1639, the changes he wrought and why Parliament feared him as a consequence of these reforms.

Of the figures explored in more depth by Ackroyd, few receive a positive portrayal. The Stuart monarchs are all, albeit in different ways, described as arrogant, decadent, authoritarian and incapable leaders whilst Ackroyd contends Cromwell is a ‘military dictator’. Particularly interesting is Ackroyd’s suggestion that Cromwell was, to a degree, selfish in refusing the crown as, whatever his personal reasons may have been, he rejected a ‘means to provide the conditions for a regular and stable government’. It is moments like this, when Ackroyd deviates from his largely uncontroversial, perhaps traditionalist, interpretation of the period, which add colour, moments of excitement even, to his history.

By far the best aspect of this history, however, is how Ackroyd often delves into mainstream literature of the time to give insight into popular opinion about Stuart society: Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi gives insight into the feelings of instability and uncertainty during James’ reign; John Milton’s writings, such as Areopagitica, are, of course, repeatedly used to gauge Londoners’ views; the fates and bawdy writings of Court playwrights, including John Wilmot, during Charles II’s reign indicate the moral depravity of Restoration England. The 1600s were undoubtedly a rich literary period and it is encouraging to see Ackroyd making the produce of this such an integral part of his history. Indeed, Ackroyd also discusses other cultural developments of the time, such as scientific advancements spearheaded by Isaac Newton, arguing that these innovations were essential in kickstarting the industrial and agricultural revolutions of the 1700s.

However, the inclusion of these phenomena seems to come at the expense of further discussion on burgeoning political and religious ideas so central to this period. The Levellers, a movement aiming to expand enfranchisement so ‘the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he’, or the Diggers, arguably a nascent form of Communism, remain largely unmentioned despite having influenced both Interregnum constitutional arrangements and our present day. Meanwhile, the numerous religious sects driving religious change during this period, change which is asserted to be a leading antagonist of the time, are reduced to a few sentences each. Admittedly, some histories can drag on so prioritisation is necessary; however, some details are too important to omit, and I would suggest the development of political and religious sects fall into this category.

Yet, in summary, Ackroyd is successful in writing a fluid and concise history of the 1600s and his willingness to stretch beyond the power struggles of the time into cultural developments make his book worth reading.

Rating: 3.75/5