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4.0 out of 5 stars Possibly the most influential war in modern history, 29 Aug. 2013
This review is from: The King's Peace, 1637-41 (Paperback)
Known as the English Civil War, but also heavily involving Scotland and Ireland was not only the fundamental basis upon which a constitutional monarchy was built, but also it's arguments between Parliament and the Crown signified in the royal prerogative had a huge influence on the American War of Independence, the French revolution and even down to the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Many American historians understand this relationship far better than it is now understood in the UK. It is therefore a tragedy that this seminal event in British history is barely taught in schools and probably barely recognised by most people at all, even those who speak of roundheads and cavaliers.

This is the first of three volumes written by Cicely Wedgwood and covers the initial period of agitation; move and counter-move that signalled the beginning of the conflict between 1637-1641. King Charles I, is in many ways a tragic figure from his attempt to impose a new Anglican prayer book in Scotland to his attempts to outwit his parliamentary opponents, particularly the skilled, influential and redoubtable John Pym, his choices of action and advisors are often poor. He sincerely believes in the divine right of kings, and in his eyes is serving his country faithfully. His two most able ministers Archbishop Laud and the Earl of Strafford are both cursed with an inability to show tact or sympathy and continually alienate even those who should be their supporters. Strafford in Ireland seeks to support the King while keeping the more rapacious English and Scottish settlers in check. However, the raising of a hated Irish army to support the King in Scotland and then by implication to threaten England leads to his downfall. The involvement of Charles in seeking support in Ireland and then abandoning Strafford to his fate on the block is indicative of his lack of control and the immense pressure that Parliament was beginning to exert.

His sympathy and love for his wife Henrietta Maria, lead Charles to seek money and alliances with the Catholic Spanish that allow Spanish troops to be shipped through England to fight against the Protestant Dutch, again severly undermining his standing and influence and leading to rioting and the killing of priests in London.

The figure of John Pym should be famous in English history. He more than any other man controlled and manipulated parliament, and it was his skill and management of Parliament that procured the execution of Strafford and whose continued baiting and challenge to the King and his rights and prerogatives led inexorably to war when Charles would not or could not cede control particularly over his right to tax and raise an army. Oliver Cromwell is at this stage a supplementary figure to the action and is barely mentioned in this volume. Wedgwood says of Pym that he 'was the principal architect of the constitutional revolution of the next eighteen months, and therefore one of the most significant single figures and one of the most remarkable intellects in the constitutional history of England'. As Charles was to discover the main machinery of the state could be managed very well without him. He needed them, they did not need him.

The first part of this initial volume is a survey of the country, looking at constitutional, economic, religious and customary practice. It can be a bit heavy going, but bear with the first 150-200 pages and you are in the meat of the parliamentary battles and the fight for personal and factional influence and the book conveys this well. It allows you to draw conclusions from the information presented rather than take a fixed position. Although I think there is probably more sympathy for the King than you might find in other volumes.

Charles might well have been a character of Shakesperean tragedy. A clever man, but failed by hubris, naivety and the march of time. He and Pym were the hinge figures upon which constitional change was bent.

As Archbishop Laud wrote in his diary of Charles when he himself was imprisoned in the Tower of London; the King whom he and Strafford had served had not been worth saving - "he knew not how to be or be made great."

Cicely Wedgwood writes with an easy but perhaps more literate style than is common nowadays, but she makes this complex area easy to follow and understand.

I am looking forward to the two subsequent volumes The King's War and thetrial of Charles I.
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