Perhaps because this Thursday sees the 365th anniversary of the execution of King Charles I, both BBC History Magazine and History Today feature the British Civil Wars on their front pages this month. If these journals aren’t always where the latest cutting-edge research gets published, they’re also magazines in which leading historians offer useful insights into the current ‘state of play’ in their respective fields: accessible for undergraduates across a very broad range of periods, they’re good ways of securing introductions to key historical debates.
Indeed, both front covers ask provocative questions: BBC History (and specifically Tim Harris, the respected Munro-Goodwin-Wilkinson Professor in European History at Brown University in the States) asks whether historians have been too harsh on Charles; History Today, meanwhile, wonders why the British seem curiously uninterested in the period when compared to other parts of their past. Both of these are old questions which students on my third-year module about the conflicts of the mid-seventeenth century explore. Revisionists have come and gone on the subject of Charles’s reputation, and Victorian and Marxist enthusiasm for the ‘English Revolution’ has often ebbed and flowed back into a broader apathy.
Nevertheless, these are important questions, because they cut to the heart of the period itself and our understanding both of it and our inheritance. In his A Radical History of Britain [Abacus, 2009, pg. 202], Edward Vallance argued: “The impact of that period [1640-1660] was so profound that merely raising the spectre of the civil wars was enough to induce public anxiety. It was by a constant process of historical revision that the radicals were increasingly marginalised until they were almost obliterated from histories of the period.”
Vallance writes from a particular polemical perspective, in which he is attempting to demonstrate that the wars were the first modern revolution; other historians, such as Blair Worden, would disagree. Both might come together, however, on the idea that the impact of the wars was, counter-intuitively, conservative: the aborted Cromwellian revolution came to persuade the English to avoid such nonsense in future (“the civil wars bequeathed the triumph of Anglicans”, Worden wrote in The English Civil Wars [Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009, pg.161].
All of which is by way of instruction that our reception of the past, as much as the past itself, can have real and lasting effects upon our present. Worth reflecting on that this Thursday, with a copy of History Today in hand …