Civil wars protagonist: the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker
Occasionally, I still hear what I think of as the taxi-driver's version of the English civil wars: the claim that the people rose up against their oppressive ruling class, defeated it and, in order to reform the whole political system, executed the King. That is not how serious historians think about these things, of course. But only a couple of generations ago there were very serious historians whose account was a more sophisticated version of the same idea: for Marxists, this had to be a "bourgeois revolution", a necessary stage in the march of history. And for a while we were all taught to refer to it as "the English Revolution", in order to match first the French and then the Russian ditto.
The good news is that there really is progress in historical understanding. Painstaking research, conducted by many scholars, showed that there was no simple class divide in this conflict. Nor — to go farther back, from the Marxists to the Victorian Whigs, those earlier purveyors of grand teleological explanations — was the war caused by any fundamental division of England into opposing camps on ideological issues. Contrasting views certainly existed on those issues, but a range of shared assumptions predominated, even among many of the activists on what became the two opposing sides.
Religion has fared better than class or ideology when it comes to looking for the vital elements in the explanation. But here too the strongest traditional claims have been qualified. If religious factors played an essential role, it was above all because thousands of ordinary people could be drawn into a complex political dispute when it was presented to them in simple religious terms. Few historians would claim, though, that the religious issues on their own could have brought whole armies marching through the streets and fields of England.
One of the basic problems with the decades-long hunt for "the origins of the civil war" was that it tended to assume that there was a single thing — the civil war or, more broadly, the entire period of upheaval before the Restoration of Charles II — to be explained. Yet the political and mental changes that took place between the first battles of 1642 and the final years of the Protectorate are more complex, and no less dramatic, than those that took place between the halcyon years of Charles I and the outbreak of the war itself.
Fortunately, while so many of our best historical minds were hunting for that historiographical Snark, the "origins" of the war, one of our finest historians was getting on with the task of understanding those later developments of the 1640s and 1650s. Blair Worden's first book, on the Rump Parliament of 1648-53 (which was published 38 years ago and has, I think, never been out of print), transformed our understanding of that crucial period between the end of the fighting in England and the advent of Cromwell's personal rule. All the Worden hallmarks were already present there: an exhaustive knowledge of the sources, an unobtrusive elegance of style (salted here and there with acerbic wit), a scepticism towards grand theoretical models, but at the same time a willingness to sketch the larger patterns of meaning that emerged from his scrutiny of the evidence.