Reading History: The English Civil Wars 1642-1649

John Morrill examines the historiography of the English Civil Wars.

The historiography of England in the seventeenth century is in a very curious state. In the past ten years the early decades of the century have been reassessed in an astonishing number of major books and articles and this has led to a new orthodoxy which stresses the unexpectedness of the civil war. Three articles in a recent edition of Past and Present (no 92, 1981) offer a good guide to this new approach, and the response of the unpersuaded. In contrast, scholarly work on the Restoration period can only be described as somnolent. The pivotal years from the outbreak of the civil war through the Regicide, the abolition of the monarchy, House of Lords and Church of England have been subject to a more patchy revision. Thus there has been much new work illuminating the allegiance of the gentry and other social groups; examining the role of the parliamentary armies; and yet more excellent work on religious radicals. But we really know no more than we did fifty years ago why Parliament actually defeated the King; we have no more real understanding of the tergiversations of royal policy; the bottom has temporarily fallen out of the market - buoyant in the 1960s - for fresh assessments of the nature of party, faction, etc within the Long Parliament; and we still have to recover the religious experience and preferences of the 90 per cent of the population who did not abandon the parish church to join more florid religious assemblies.

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