Like the British banking system it helped create, the English Civil War has had its credit crunched in recent months. Put through the wringer of TV "historical" drama in Channel 4's bodice-ripper The Devil's Whore, it has come out the other end looking completely unrecognisable and, well, ridiculous. But for those who prefer their history to bear at least some relation to past events, and to enlighten as well as entertain, help is at hand in the shape of Blair Worden's small but perfectly formed book The English Civil Wars. At fewer than 200 paperback-sized pages and unencumbered by footnotes or academic jargon, it is aimed unashamedly at the general reader.
The war, or wars - there were actually two - formed the centre-piece in a series of bloody conflicts that convulsed England, Ireland and Scotland from the late 1630s. They were still in full swing when their most famous casualty, the hapless Charles I, was beheaded in 1649. This book has been published to coincide with the 360th anniversary of the king's execution. But this is not the most momentous of anniversaries, and the blurb on the dust-jacket strains at a suitable fanfare. "Nothing in English history has so imprinted itself on the nation's memory", it gushes, "as the upheavals of the mid-seventeenth century."
If only it were true. Even the popular caricature of the wars, in which austere Lefties battle fun-loving Tories, has lost much of its resonance. In this post-Cold War era of ideological consensus we are all Roundheads and Cavaliers - intolerant of tyranny as we are tolerant of hedonism. The 1640s and '50s are no longer fodder for those grubbing around after the roots of modernity. Indeed, one of the great strengths of The English Civil Wars is that it treats the period on its own terms. The past here is a foreign country, very different from our own, and all the more exciting and fascinating for that.
Worden organises his material under five simple chapter headings - "Origins", "War", "Regicide", "Republic" and "Restoration". He writes elegantly and in the patrician tones of a true grandee among 17th-century historians, yet without mincing his words. He tells us up front that he's ignoring the recent vogue for treating the wars as a "British" phenomenon: "Irish and Scottish events figure as contributors to the English struggle." Having settled that, we're given a sensitive and insightful treatment of the tensions and events that led to conflict. Worden is first and foremost a historian of political culture and ideas, and these aspects of early Stuart history are deftly handled. Puritans and Anglicans, Parliamentarians and Royalists, are not judged or assigned to boxes marked "progressive" and "reactionary", but are explained and in a sense justified.