The English Civil Wars, The British Civil Wars, The English Revolution, The Puritan Revolution, The Great Rebellion, The Wars of the Three Kingdoms… one thing pretty much all historians of the period agree on is that the term ‘The English Civil War’ isn’t accurate (the old joke goes that it’s incorrect in three ways – it wasn’t English, it wasn’t just one war, and it wasn’t particularly civil)
But why is it inaccurate?
Firstly, it describes a series of conflicts that spanned the entire British Isles, involving Scotland and Ireland, as well as England and Wales.
Secondly, it wasn’t one war but many – historians tend to chart the period to encompass the Irish Rebellion and Confederate Wars in Ireland between 1641 and 1653 (including the Cromwellian invasion), The Bishops’ Wars between England and Scotland in 1639 and 1640, as well as THREE separate wars (1642-6, 1648-49, and 1650-51) that took place in England, Scotland, and Wales.
So what’s in a name? And why do historians use different terms to describe the same conflict?
The term someone uses to describe the wars of mid-17th Century England usually tells you more about them than the conflicts themselves. The posthumously-published history of the English conflict by Edward Hyde 1st Earl of Clarendon was titled ‘The History of the Rebellion’ (reflecting the fact he fought on the Royalist side), the great Victorian historian SR Gardiner used both ‘The Great Civil War’ and ‘The Puritan Revolution’ in his landmark series on the period (although his account was remarkably unbiased, the wars were seen as the foundations of Britain’s constitutional monarchy), Blair Worden called his 2009 book ‘The English Civil Wars 1640-1660’, while the Marxist historian Christopher Hill favoured the term ‘English Revolution’.
The choice of name suggests when the conflicts started and when they ended – for instance, the term ‘Wars of the Three Kingdoms’ views the wars starting in Scotland in 1637 and ending with the Anglo-Scottish conflicts in 1651. These wars involved a pan-British and Irish dimension, each of the Stuart states experienced its own domestic civil wars and the terms we use to describe it continue and exacerbate the Anglo-centric views of the time. Indeed, the way England viewed and treated Ireland, Scotland, and Wales were often a major reason for conflict – it was the ‘plantation’ of Catholic Ireland with Protestant settlers (and the economic imbalances it created and reinforced) that helped spark conflict in 1641; it was the attempt to impose the English church’s Book of Common Prayer of the Presbyterian Scottish that led to the National Covenant and the Bishop’s Wars; the Scottish were used by a duplicitous King Charles I to spark the second Civil War, while his son would again use Scottish forces to invade England in 1651; meanwhile Parliament’s policies treated Scotland (an independent kingdom connected to England only through Charles’ crown) and Wales as wayward children requiring correction, while the Irish were considered brutal savages.
So why use a term like ‘English Civil War’ if it’s not accurate?
Whatever the accuracy (or otherwise) of the term, it is nonetheless used ubiquitously in mainstream culture and comment to refer to the interconnected series of conflicts of the 1630s, ’40s, and ’50s. One of the aims of our group and the Sealed Knot of which it is part is to educate the general public about the period, its causes, and its consequences – for us, that begins with engaging with the misnomers and myths about the period, not to reinforce them but to use them as a starting point for dispelling them. If your first point is to chastise the public for not using the right term, rather than drawing them in to explain how and why it is inaccurate, then you are already beginning the process of losing your audience.
For example, one of the most popular and helpful parts of our displays is when we ask an audience the nicknames of the two sides that fought the English Civil War – “Cavaliers and Roundheads” is always the standard response. We then stand a pikeman and a musketeer in front of them and ask them to identify when is which; naturally, the musketeer we use has a large-brimmed felt hat and long hair, the pikeman with short hair beneath his steel helmet. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, the musketeer will be identified as the ‘Cavalier’, the pikeman as the ‘Roundhead’. The answer, of course, is that they could be either – clothes were no indication of which side you were on. This opens up opportunities to challenge myths about the era and about the causes of the war.
You take a myth, pick it apart, explain why it is wrong, educate, and move on…
We’re fortunate to have the Twitter handle @englishcivilwar because it gives us a unique opportunity to challenge people’s notions about the period: we start with a term they know and use that as a gateway to broaden understanding of this critical juncture in the history of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, when political, social, and cultural norms were overthrown and a king executed by his own people.
We would be the first to acknowledge that we can always do more to combat the Anglo-centric viewpoint that has dominated this history for so long, but for the time being at least we use ‘English Civil War’ as a way of drawing people in so that we can begin a process.
In this video, Professor Justin Champion asks the same question we’ve been tackling in this blogpost and explores the Scottish and Irish dimensions to the English Civil War…