The History of the Rebellion A new selection (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – 15 Mar 2009
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'I am doing your Majesty some service here, whilst I am preparing the story of your sufferings; that posterity may know by whose default the nation was even overwhelmed with calamities, and by whose virtue it was redeemed.' Clarendon's massive History has since its first publication in 1702-4 dominated our images of the English Civil War. Written by a man who for over a quarter of a century was one of the closest advisers to Charles I and Charles II, it contains a remarkably frank account of the inadequacies of royalist policy-making as well as an astute analysis of the principles and practice of government. Clarendon chronicles in absorbing detail the factions and intrigues, the rise of Cromwell and the death of Charles I, the bloody battles and the eventual Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after the Interregnum. He brings to life the key players in a series of brilliant character portraits, and his account is admired as much for its literary quality as its historical value.This new selection conveys a strong sense of the narrative, and contains passages from Clarendon's autobiography, The Life, including the important description of the intellectual coterie at Great Tew in the 1630s.
About the Author
Paul Seaward is General Editor of the complete works of Clarendon (forthcoming) He has been Director of the History of Parliament Trust, London, since 2001.
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Hyde's history is a magnificent work. Its factual errors are minor and it is marred only by its negative view of the period of the Personal Rule and its misunderstanding of the legal issues in the Ship Money case. Its biographical portraits of the major actors in the Rebellion are marvels of shrewd character assessment, fair-mindedness and concision and it gives a compelling and utterly convincing portrait of treason and rebellion creating a cycle in which the unscrupulous and power-hungry were progressively enabled to perpetrate ever greater wickednesses; a cycle in which, whilst decent men, failing to comprehend the evil which had been unleashed, wasted their efforts quarreling with each other, each party of rebels was displaced by another more wicked and more ruthless than the one it had replaced .
This is an excellent selection and I recommend it.
First, it's not an easy read. Clarendon writes in long sentences, clause following clause, such that by the time a sentence is drawing to a close you're struggling to remember how it began. The very first two sentences are perhaps the most extreme examples, occupying about half a page each. Things do get better after that. Clarendon also has an aversion to proper nouns when recounting conversations. He refers to all parties (including himself) as 'he', which makes it tricky to keep track of who is speaking to whom about whom.
Secondly, this is, understandably, a partial account, in both senses of the word. At times Clarendon is light on historical detail and heavy on opinion. Furthermore, whilst he spends much time reflecting on the failings of royalists (carefully excluding Charles I from most criticism), his limited empathy with the parliamentarians means some of their grievances appear to arrive from nowhere, in this abridged version at least.
(Another curious failing of this particular edition is the lack of an index. The closest we get is an incomplete biographical register.)
Those caveats aside, this is actually a great book. Once you've got used to rhythm of Clarendon's prose he reveals himself to be a writer of stately eloquence. His account of the events, to many of which he was an eye-witness, is colourful, and his reflections evoke the pain and frustrations of the royalists. Furthermore, this abridged version proceeds at a decent pace, such that, against my expectations, it is something of a page-turner.
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The author was an active, partisan participant in a civil war - and yet it can be seen that he had moderation. He saw the flaws of the Royalists, but revered the King. He certainly discerned the excesses of the Parlimentarians. This is brilliantly well-informed writing, as only an active participant could produce concerning a civil war - and yet there is more even-handedness than a much later reader can reasonably expect. This is not cold or dry history!