REVIEW – two new histories of the English Civil Wars

4 mins read
THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR: An Atlas and Concise History of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1639–51 
Colonel Nick Lipscombe Osprey, £50 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1472829726
THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR: An Atlas and Concise History of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1639–51
Colonel Nick Lipscombe

Osprey, £50 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1472829726

There are numerous histories of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (to give the ‘English’ Civil Wars their more-accurate title), as such, any new book, unless based on ground-breaking research, needs something unique to attract readers. So these two new books both take a less-typical approach – but fears of this being at the cost of substance are unfounded, since both authors are military historians of renown.

The idea of tracing the history of a war through maps is not new – there have been several recent books taking this approach – but it is more than 20 years since this was last applied to the Civil Wars.

Author Nick Lipscombe is probably best known for his Peninsular War Atlas and Concise History, but he admits that mapping the Civil Wars was altogether a different prospect, as the 150 years separating the two conflicts witnessed major advances in military mapping.

During the 1640s, military map-making in Britain was in its infancy, so the author has few contemporary maps and plans to refer to. He supplements these with the findings from battlefield archaeology, complemented by contributions from the Battlefields Trust (and Scottish Battlefields Trust) and the National Civil War Centre.

After a thorough chronology, the book sets out the many and varied pressures that led to the wars. Then the armies, the weapons, and the tactics are outlined, including a discussion about the foreign influences on infantry tactics: the Dutch, Swedish, and German ‘systems’ are clearly explained.

The book then follows the wars chronologically, and then geographically (allowing for some overlap with dates, as the fighting took place simultaneously in different parts of the country).

Although the book does not properly reflect the dominance of sieges during the wars (one contemporary recorded that there were ‘20 sieges for one battle’), it is better than some other studies in this regard.

The maps are generally clear, with exceptions usually resulting from the confused nature of the conflict rather than any fault with the book itself.

Overall, coverage is very thorough, and an undoubted highlight are the maps of the various battles and sieges in Ireland. But this makes it even more surprising no map of Scotland during the Interregnum is included: during the 1650s, the Protectorate government constructed a number of citadels to police the country, and it was from Scotland at the beginning of 1660 that General Monck set in motion the chain of events that would result in the restoration of the monarchy.

It is hard not to be overawed by the sheer size of this book – 368 pages and no fewer than 155 maps (it weighs in at more than two kilograms), though the lack of other illustrations is curious, and this probably prevents what is a very good book becoming a ‘groundbreaking’ one. Nevertheless, it is unlikely to disappoint any reader, and is an important addition to the corpus of work on the Civil Wars.

Stephen Bull J H Haynes & Co, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1785217012
Stephen Bull

J H Haynes & Co, £25 (hbk)
ISBN 978-1785217012

An operations manual

Stephen Bull’s English Civil War (Operations Manual) takes an altogether different approach, presenting an analysis of how the war was fought. This is not a military history of battles and campaigns, but focuses on the organisation and structure of the opposing forces, the commanders and their armies, and the usage and deployment of weapons.

During the years leading up to the Civil Wars, England was described as ‘peaceful and ignorant of the military arts’, so preparation for war was from a low base, making the book’s analysis of recruitment, command, and strategy even more important. This leads on to the actual fighting ‘arms’: infantry, cavalry, and dragoons, their weapons, their tactics. Artillery is discussed with admirable insight – unsurprisingly, given that the author is a leading authority on the artillery of the period.

The analysis of the Battle of Edgehill, the war’s first major encounter, sews together the preceding background chapters. This is the only battle the book discusses in detail, due – at least in part – to the recent thorough investigations of it by both conflict archaeologists and battlefield historians.

In looking at the war’s sieges, the author has developed a basic formula: the summons, the encirclement, and the storm. The author applies this to several well-known sieges, and while it is not a formula that can be applied universally – and nor does it fit completely with Monck’s ‘seven ways to win Castles, strong Holds, and fortified Towns’ – it does result in a thoroughly interesting discussion, making this an excellent introduction to English Civil War siege warfare.

This is followed by a section on the archaeology of the Civil Wars: urban fortification is discussed first, followed by an analysis of archaeological investigations into several castle sieges. The choice of Philiphaugh, in the Scottish Borders, as the example of a conflict archaeological investigation of a Civil War battlefield is a surprising yet enthralling one.

The text is supported by a number of photographs, maps and illustrations, and the author interprets the contemporary illustrations to good effect. There are no footnotes or endnotes (which I suspect is due to the Haynes manual format), but there is a comprehensive list of further reading.

This is an excellent accompaniment to the numerous chronological histories of the wars, explaining the more technical aspects of the fighting with great clarity, making this often-complex information accessible to a wide audience. The chapters on archaeology, artillery, and sieges are particularly recommended, particularly in light of the author’s commendable efforts to achieve a better balance between battles and sieges.

These are contrasting books: one is a lavish chronological history, told through 155 maps and plans, but with hardly any other illustrations; the other, a technical study illuminated by 200 illustrations and photographs, yet very few maps and plans. They approach the subject from different angles and, as a result, they complement one another rather well. They are each the product of extensive research, but at the same time written in an accessible style.

While I doubt that either book will be the first choice of anyone unfamiliar with the subject (the cost of the atlas might put some often), there is enough in both to appeal to those who are relatively new to the period, as well as those with more ‘established’ libraries. Both make important contributions to the study of the Civil Wars.

Review by David Flintham

This is an article from the February/March 2021 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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