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What’s in a Name: The Death of the English Civil War

Martyn Bennett examines how the terminology we use about the great conflict of the mid-seventeenth century reflects and reinforces the interpretations we make.

"Cromwell at Dunbar", by Andrew Carrick GowThe enduring symbol of the crisis which gripped the British Isles during the middle of the seventeenth century is the name given to it, 'The English Civil War'. Yet this symbol is itself problematic and can even act as a barrier to a clear understanding of what happened in that turbulent century. It may be argued that calling the conflict the English Civil War limits the scope of our perceptions. By labelling it an English event, we can marginalise Scotland and Ireland and perhaps even ignore Wales altogether. Yet all four nations were involved in the rebellions, wars and revolutions that made up the period.

The image is certainly enduring. In 1991-2 the 350th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war was commemorated across England by English Heritage and in Wales by Cadw, with the cooperation of a vast range of co-ordinated museums, re-enactment societies and visitors' centres. It heralded a nine-year programme of events culminating in the 'end' of the war at Worcester, 350 years earlier, on 3 September 1651. Yet it can be argued that 1992 was neither the anniversary of the beginning of the war, nor 2001 the anniversary of its end. Such misconceptions are very potent and widespread. (Similarly, in recent years the contestants on a range of quiz shows have been expected to name Oliver Cromwell as the leader of Parliament's armies during the civil war and thus score points for a wrong answer.)

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