Through The Glass Darkly: Britain’s Civil Wars
The dramatic events that shook Britain in the 17th century resonate more strongly than ever, despite attempts to marginalise them.
The celebratory exhibition held at the Royal Academy in early 2018, Charles I: King and Collector, was a reminder that the past is always viewed through the lens of the present. That lens has rarely distorted its object as much, or for as long, as in the case of the English Revolution. To see the extent of the distortion one only needs to compare how the US or France remember their revolutions with how the British state recalls the events of the mid-17th century.
Over the Atlantic and across the Channel, the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 are part of a national story, an irremovable part of ‘who we are’. Monuments are meticulously preserved and names memorialised. In the US the revolution of 1776 is a compulsory part of what children are taught in school. In France the revolution is first taught to primary school students. It remains firmly on the curriculum for fourth year secondary students, who study it as part of their brevet exam (the equivalent of GSCEs). In Britain the national curriculum has no compulsory content about the mid-17th century. The period can only be studied as one part of one option at A-level.
In the US and France, the sites of the respective revolutions are curated with care and to a high standard. In Britain, the site of the decisive battle of the first Civil War, Naseby, fought on 14 June 1645, is barely marked and has had the A14 driven through it. The chances of a portrait of Oliver Cromwell appearing on a £10 note anytime soon are small. The National Civil War Centre, the first ever national museum about the revolution, opened in Newark in 2015. Dependent on Lottery funding and local council support, it performs miracles with its scarce resources. The tiny Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, recently threatened with closure, was dependent on a petitioning campaign to survive.