The History of Leith

December 9, 2004

Noble battle against the odds

Gerard DeGroot

Trevor Royle
Little, Brown, £20

IN APRIL 1639, James Turner, a Scottish mercenary who had been fighting in Germany, was preparing to join an English force gathering to do battle against the Covenanters in Scotland. Unfortunately, his baggage did not arrive in time for him to board an English ship which was supposed to take him to Hull. The next available transport was a Danish ship, bound for Leith.

This meant that Turner ended up fighting for the Covenanters, rather than against them. He did not ponder long this change of allegiance: “[If] we serve our master honestly, it is no matter what master we serve.”

Confused? You should be. These were confusing times. From 1639 to 1651, war rent the British Isles. The conflict tore through kingdoms, regions, villages and families; it was a foul stew into which sacred principles, bitter rivalries and irrational hatreds were mixed. If there was one specific point of conflict, it was perhaps the definition of regal power, but that issue was so amorphous that it proved an inadequate shibboleth. At times it seemed that men fought for the very simple reason that an opportunity to fight existed.

The war was made horrible because stubborn leaders enjoyed a bountiful supply of miserable men eager to murder and plunder. “They were like tied mastiffs newly loosed,” one minister remarked of his mainly Royalist congregation who had discovered a sudden hatred for all things Puritan.

The period is usually studied under the more specific rubric of the English Civil War, with the conflicts in Ireland and Scotland examined separately in their own volumes. Trevor Royle has taken on the enormous and daunting task of examining these various struggles as one virtually seamless war. For the sheer ambition and audacity of this venture, he deserves to be congratulated. By widening his scope, he appropriately dilutes the otherwise oppressive Englishness of the period. In consequence, the misleading dynamic of Cavaliers versus Roundheads is rightfully downplayed.

As Royle demonstrates, this was not a war in which battle lines were clearly drawn. But the stereotyped foes of previous accounts have one convenient, if misleading, advantage: they make the conflict seem easily comprehensible. We can understand the class dynamic of Cavaliers and Roundheads because elements of that conflict remain powerful to this day. Royle, on the other hand, has provided a much more complex and multi-faceted description of the forces which went to war, eschewing identikit definitions. And with greater accuracy comes greater confusion. While the chaos Royle describes is historically sound, it is also at times bewildering.

This period has been studied by some of Britain’s most eminent historians, including Thomas Carlyle, Christopher Hill and John Kenyon. But seldom has it been tackled with such scope and depth. One consequence of Royle’s approach is that he has been forced to spend a great deal of time detailing the complicated statecraft which led to war, and which followed it. While the title suggests a book about war, only about half of the pages deal with battlefields. The political background and aftermath of the fighting is admittedly essential, but it does inevitably challenge one’s patience.

This is not the sort of book which will please a reader interested only in the mud, blood and passion of battle. While it is probably Royle’s most ambitious project, it is not his most entertaining. The conflict, confusing to us now, must have been equally so to those called upon to fight it. Allegiances were at times difficult to determine and often fluid; many a warrior ended up fighting for a cause he had earlier opposed. Nor can it be said that there was great enthusiasm for the war. Many saw it as an accident – a conflict few wanted but none could stop.

“It is strange to note how we have insensibly slid into the beginnings of a civil war, by one unexpected accident after another, as waves from the sea,” Bulstrode Whitelock wrote to his wife in July 1642. “[By] paper combats, by declarations, remonstrances, protestations, votes, messages, answers and replies, we are now come to the raising of forces.”

Though a hunger for war was perhaps lacking, the will to fight was strong. Everywhere, visions of God provided righteous inspiration. The Covenanters, for instance, fought to rid Scotland of what they feared were popish influences. Though they did not necessarily have anything against Charles I politically, they were prepared to die in order to stop his bishops exerting influence over their church. But what began as an issue of church governance was easily converted into base bigotry in order to inspire the masses on both sides. Ordinary Scots did not need much encouragement to “pluck down the sticks of the Antichrist’s filthy nest”, nor did Englishmen need to be persuaded to strike a blow at the “scabby, shitten, stinking, slovenly, snotty-nosed… insolent, proud, beggarly, impertinent” Scotsmen.

Natural bloodlust was reinforced by the practical benefits of 17th-century soldiering – the opportunities to rape and pillage. In Cromwell’s armies the urge to plunder was given theoretical justification in the sense that ransacking a church could be seen as a righteous act of Puritan rage.

Religious justification was expressed in more refined forms by the leaders of the various armies, but was no less potent. Charles I was fighting for the divine right of kings, an absolutist faith which allowed neither compromise nor qualification. The same God, differently interpreted, inspired Oliver Cromwell. Today, he would be called “born again”; a spiritual awakening convinced him he was one of the elect, placed on earth as an instrument of God’s will. Such a man has no need of earthly counsellors. Royle says of him: “Henceforth black would be black, white would be white, and compromise would be the work of the devil.” Since both Cromwell and Charles were certain of God’s grace, their clash of wills was bound to be catastrophic.

Civil wars are always confusing and bloody. The British can perhaps take some solace in the fact that their civil war took place in the 17th century, not the 19th, when more lethal weaponry imposed fewer limits on the urge to kill.

But while this war, described in the detail that Royle provides, often appears to be chaotic, something worthwhile did emerge from all the bloodletting. The war itself might seem ancient and frequently barbaric, but the soldiers who fought it unwittingly laid the foundations of a modern democratic nation.

• Gerard DeGroot is professor of modern history at St Andrews University


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