A History of Britain, Volume 2: The Wars of the British, 1603-1776by Simon Schama
The second volume of Simon Schama's A History of Britain brings the histories of Britain's civil wars -- full of blighted idealism, shocking carnage, and unexpected outcomes -- startlingly to life. These conflicts were fought unsparingly between the nations of the/em>/strong>
Inside these pages lies the bloody epic of liberty, the British Iliad.
The second volume of Simon Schama's A History of Britain brings the histories of Britain's civil wars -- full of blighted idealism, shocking carnage, and unexpected outcomes -- startlingly to life. These conflicts were fought unsparingly between the nations of the islands -- Ireland, England, and Scotland -- and between parliament and the crown. Shattering the illusion of a "united kingdom," they cost hundreds of thousands of lives: a greater proportion of the population than died in the First World War.
When religious passion gave way to the equally consuming passion for profits, it became possible for the pieces of Britain to come together as the spectacularly successful business enterprise of "Britannia Incorporated." And in a few generations that business state expanded in a dizzying process that transformed what had been an obscure, off-shore footnote to Europe's great powers into the main event -- the most powerful empire in the world.
Yet somehow, it was the "wrong empire." The British considered it a bastion of liberty, yet it was based on military force and the enslavement of hundreds of thousands of Africans. In America, the emptiness of British claims to protect "freedom" was thrown back into the teeth of colonial governors and redcoat soldiers, while the likes of Sam Adams and George Washington inherited the mantle of Cromwell.
Simon Schama grippingly evokes the horror of the battle, famine, and plague; the flames of burning cities; the pathos of broken families, with fathers and sons forced to choose opposing sides. But he also captures the intimacies of palace and parliament and the seductions of profit and pleasure. Geniuses like John Milton, Thomas Hobbes, and Benjamin Franklin stalk vividly through his pages, but so do Scottish clansmen, women pamphleteers, and literate, eloquent African slaves like Olaudah Equiano.
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'Great Britain?' What was that? John Speed, tailor-turned map-maker and historian, must have had some idea, for in 1611 he published an atlas of sixty-seven maps of the English counties, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, loftily entitled The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine. An energetic opportunist, Speed was taking advantage of King James's widely advertised desire to be known, not as the Sixth of Scotland and First of England, but as monarch of Britain. The fancy of a British history had been given fresh authority by William Camden's great compilation of geography, the antiquarian chronicle, Britannia, already in its sixth edition by 1607. On its frontispiece sat the helmeted personification of the island nation, flanked by Neptune and Ceres, together with an emblem of British antiquity Stonehenge thought to have been built by the Romano-British hero Aurelius.
But Camden's erudite work was originally in Latin, a volume for the shelves of a gentleman's library. Speed was after the public, sensing the excitement of even armchair travel, the need of the country to fix its place in the world, to contemplate, simultaneously, its past and its present. So the atlas, produced by John Sudbury and George Humble's print shop in Pope's Head Alley, London, was not just a compilation of topographic information but a busy, animated production, full of comings and goings. Sites of historic interest, like the battlefields of the Wars of the Roses, were indicated by miniature sketches of horsemen and pikemen doing their worst; the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge by gowned scholars and coats of arms; royal palaces like Nonesuch and Windsor by elaborate pictorial illustration. On the map of Kent, ships, loaded with cargo, sailed up the Medway before Rochester Castle. Fifty towns were mapped for the first time, given their own insets, streets, markets and churches laid out for the prospective traveller or the proud resident. In this enterprising determination to be the first to provide a popular atlas for the new reign and the new century, the ex-tailor had no scruples about taking his shears to his predecessors. At least five of his maps of the English counties, were pilfered more or less directly from the great Elizabethan cartographer Christopher Saxton (who had provided Burghley with his own pocket atlas) and another five from the English map-maker John Norden. For the single map of Scotland, which made good Speed's pretention of a British atlas, he relied on an earlier version by the Flemish cartographer and map-maker Gerardus Mercator, as well as on arcane information (Loch Ness never froze, horsemen speared salmon in the rivers) and on shameless flattery (the people being 'of good features, strong of body and courageous mien and in wars so virtuous that scarce any service of note hath been performed but they were the first and last in the field'). His eastern Ireland was so accurate that he may have gone there in person, but the west was obviously an exotic mystery, peopled by the medieval chronicler Gerard of Wales's fantasy that off the coast 'lay islands, some fun of angels, some fun of devils'.
A roughly stitched thing of many odd cloths and fragments though it was, Speed's map of Great Britain was not entirely a fake. The comments he inscribes on the reverse of the maps may sometimes have been recycled platitudes about the cleanness or foulness of the air. But just as often they spoke of a real journey, of a man who had taken his theodolite to the shires. There were days when he must have trotted out from some damply shadowed valley and found himself surveying the panorama of England. The landscape before him would not have been so very different from our own: crookedly framed fields (with far fewer individual strips than a century before), copses of standing trees, a distant flock of sheep, a wisp of wood smoke. At one such place the Vale of the Red Horse in southeast Warwickshire the prosaic Speed felt moved to reach for the hyperbole of the pastoral poets. The county was sharply divided by the river Avon. To the north was the semi-industrialized Forest of Arden, a country populated not by love-lorn Rosalinds and Celias but by impoverished charcoal-burners, woodland-gleaners, poachers and forge-workers on the verge of riot. But to the south was Feldon: 'champaign', rolling arable country, where the valley flats were planted with wheat and the gentle hills grazed by sheep. It was there, at just the point where the Cotswolds descend sharply, that Speed relates his rustic epiphany: 'The husbandman smileth in beholding his pains and the meadowing pastures with the green mantles so embroidered with flowers that from Edgehill we might behold another Eden.'
John Speed died in 1629, leaving behind his History of Great Britaine, his pretty maps, eighteen children and (presumably) exhausted wife, Susanna. Thirteen years later, on 23 October 1642, Charles I arrived at the same Warwickshire ridge from which the map-maker had been given a glimpse of bucolic paradise, took out his prospective glass and peered down at the Roundhead troops below. By nightfall there were sixty bodies piled up where the king had stood on the top of Edgehill, and Charles was kept from his sleep by the vocal agonies of the thousands of wounded, groaning in the razor-sharp cold. Next morning, across Speed's flower-embroidered meadow lay the corpses of 3,000 men, their allegiances indistinguishable in their nakedness, bodies stripped for loot, fingers broken to extract rings. Eden had become Golgotha.
By the time that the first round of the British wars was over in 1660 at least a quarter of a million had perished in England, Wales and Scotland. They had been lost to disease and starvation as well as to battle and siege. Men had died of infected wounds more commonly than they had endured clean-cut deaths in combat. The scythe of mortality, always busy, never fussy, had swept up all kinds and conditions: officers and rank and file; troopers and musketeers; sutlers and camp whores; apprentices with helmets on their heads for the first time; hardened mercenaries who had grown rusty along with their cuirasses; soldiers who could not get enough to fill their stomachs or boots to put on their feet and peasants who had nothing left to give them; drummer boys and buglers; captains and cooks. Even if the father of modern demography, Sir William Petty (Charles II's surveyor-general in Ireland), grossly over-counted another 600,000 dead in Ireland and his total is divided by three, the toll of life, expressed as a proportion of the 5 million population of the British archipelago, is still greater than Britain's losses in the First World War (1914-18).
In any case, the raw body count fails to measure the enormity of the disaster that reached into every corner of the British isles from Cornwall to County Connacht, from York to the Hebrides. It tore apart the communities of the parish and the county, which through all the turmoil of the Reformation had managed to keep a consensus about who governed and how they went about their duties. Men who had judged together now judged each other. Men and women who had taken for granted the patriotic loyalty of even those with whom they disagreed in matters of Church and parliament now called each other traitor. Ultimately, what had been unthinkable was thought and acted on. Men and women, for whom the presence of a king was a condition for the well-being of the commonwealth, were asked to accept that the well-being of the commonwealth required that he be killed.
The wars divided nations, churches, families, father from son, brother from brother. Sir Bevil Grenville died at the battle of Lansdown knowing that his brother Richard was a parliamentary commander (who switched sides not long after). Private Hillsdeane, dying at the siege of Wardour Castle in Wiltshire, let it be known that it had been his own brother who had shot him, though he forgave him for 'only doing his duty'. During the most brutal year of the Scottish civil wars, 1645, Florence Campbell learned that her brother Duncan had been killed by the victorious leader of the MacDonalds after the battle of Inverlochy. While her brother had been a loser, her husband and son, royalist MacLeans, fought with the winners. But in her wrathful grief Florence was all Campbell. 'Were I at Inverlochy,' she wrote, 'with a two-edged sword in my hand and I would tear asunder the MacLeans and the MacDonalds and I would bring the Campbells back alive.'
The house of Britain was not just divided, it was demolished. The grandiose buildings that proclaimed the wealth and authority of the governing classes and that awed the common people to defer to their senatorial power were, in many cases, turned into blackened ruins by the relentless sieges that became the dominant form of assault. Many of those houses were converted into fortified strongholds and garrisons and, like Basing House in Hampshire and Corfe Castle on the Isle of Purbeck, held out to the bitter end. The defenders died, sword in hand, framed in burning doorways and windows, going down in hand-to-hand combat, or starved into surrender like the beleaguered defenders of Wardour Castle who had been subsisting on eight ounces of cereal each and their small share of half a horse. If anything much was left when the sieges were done, the houses were 'slighted' one of the great euphemisms of the war to make sure they would never again be a threat.
Epidemics of smallpox and typhus raged opportunistically through populations weakened by shortages of food. Perhaps the most successful army of all was the army of rats, which brought another great wave of plague to add to the bellyful of suffering. For a few years the worst affected regions of the four nations came perilously close to a total breakdown of custom, compassion and law. Towns like Bolton, subjected to a massacre in 1644, lost half their population. At Preston in 1643 'nothing was heard but "Kill dead, kill dead", horsemen pursuing the poor amazed people, killing and spoiling, nothing regarding the dolesful cries of women and children'. After Aberdeen fell to the army of the Marquis of Montrose and Alasdair MacColla, the better-off citizens were made to strip naked before being hacked to death so that the blood would not stain the valuable booty of their clothes. For some victims the trauma would never go away. The septuagenarian Lady Jordan, according to John Aubrey, 'being at Cirencester when it was besieged was so terrified with the shooting that her understanding was spoyled, that she became a tiny child that they made Babies for her to play withall'.
Why had the nations of Britain inflicted this ordeal on themselves? For what exactly had the hundreds of thousands perished? As often as this question has been asked, it can never be asked enough. As often as historians have failed to provide an answer, we can never give up trying to find one. We owe it to the casualties to ask if their misery had meaning. Or were the British wars just a meaningless cruelty? Did the Irish, Scots, English and Welsh of the seventeenth century suffer, as Victorian historians believed, so that their descendants might live in a parliamentary political nation, uniquely stable, free and just? Was their cause one of principle, an unavoidable collision between ultimately irreconcilable visions of Church and state? Or were the protagonists, high and low, the fools of history, jerked around by forces they only half-comprehended and whose outcomes they were blind to predict? Was the whole bloody mess an absurd misunderstanding that, by rights, ought never to have happened at all?
Victorian certainty about a providential purpose running through British histories has, it is safe to say, long been out of fashion, at least in the academic world. Reacting against the sententious, self-righteous view of the Victorians, some modern historical scholarship has argued that the bleaker, more complicated view happens to be the truth: that the British wars were eminently unpredictable, improbable and avoidable. Until the very last moment, late 1641 or 1642, the political class of England was united in a harmonious consensus that the country should be governed by a divinely appointed monarch assisted by a responsible parliament. If there were disputes they were containable. If there were matters that separated people they were as nothing compared to the interests and bedrock beliefs that bound them together. The king was no absolutist, the parliament no champion of liberty. They were all much of a muchness, and that muchness was Englishness: the sound, middling way. The Victorians, like the historian S. R. Gardiner, who blew up every petty squabble between the Stuarts and their parliaments into some great drama of political principle, were deluded by their two-party way of thought, their over-concentration on the sound and the fury of parliamentary debates and their need for a foundation epic. Thus, the argument goes, they read history backwards, so parliament, the beating heart of the nineteenth-century empire, would be thought always to have been the instrument of progress and the hallmark of the British 'difference', separating the nation from the absolutist states of continental Europe. It is this naively insular, nationalist, parliamentary narrative, with heroes like Pym and Hampden defending fortress England from sinking into European despotism, that has drawn the fire of scholars for the last half century. The very worst that can now be said of any account of the origins and unfolding of the civil wars is that it suffers from the delusions of 'Whig' history, in which the parties of 'progress' and 'reaction', of liberty and authority, are cleanly separated and programmed to clash. The truth was just the opposite, the critics insist. Crown and parliament, court and country, were not running on a collision course heading inevitably towards an immense constitutional train wreck. On the contrary, until the very last minute they were moving smoothly on parallel lines.
The lights were green, the weather fair, the engine well oiled. When, in 1629, Charles I opted to govern without parliaments, no one, except a few self-righteous, self-appointed 'guardians' of English liberties, could have cared less.
But someone, somehow, seems to have thrown a switch. And, then, that utterly unpredictable, unlikely, what-shall-we-call-it? a misfortune took place. It was, I suppose, just about the biggest misfortune in Britain's shared history. But there you are. Accidents happen.
Or do they?
Copyright © 2001 Simon Schama
Meet the Author
Simon Schama has taught history at Cambridge, Oxford, and Harvard universities. Now professor of art history and history at Columbia University, Schama is also the award-winning author of The Embarrassment of Riches, Rembrandt's Eyes, and A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World. Born in London, he currently lives in upstate New York.
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When one thinks of British history, kings and queens such as Henry VIII or Elizabeth I come to mind and understandably so. Arguably, the 200 years covered by this outstanding book are the true heart of England... the civil wars, the religious wars, colonizing the world, essentially going from a backwater European nation to the most powerful nation on earth. This is no dry, linear English history textbook; the writing, research, and the author's interpretations of the events are fresh and intriguing.A must read for any self-repecting anglophile.