337 pages, Charles Scribner’s Sons, ISBN-13: 978-0684195575
Christopher Hibbert is a respected biographer and historian, and in Cavaliers and Roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649 he continues his efforts to write about history in a personable manner that opens up the broad vistas of the past to the general reader. Rather than a strict history book, Cavaliers and Roundheads is more of a social history of England during the Civil War. He concentrates more upon what happened and how it affected people than on what actually caused the events chronicled. As such, this makes for a compelling look at the English Civil War, and Hibbert’s narrative is spiced with period writings and includes excerpts from letters and diaries.
He opens the book with a general overview of English history leading up to the Civil War before moving on to discuss the actual Civil War and Oliver Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector. The book concludes with an analysis of the effects that the Civil War had and the direction that England took after the monarchy was restored. Throughout, Hibbert takes delight in offering personal peeks at the major personalities involved. For instance, when discussing the events leading up the eruption of the civil war, he describes one of the causes simply stating that “[T]he King was reluctant to recognize that his authority was limited by what it was possible to achieve” (hmmmmm…sounds rather familiar nowadays on this side of the pond…)
When interpreting historical events, many historians just concentrate on the major events and the principal leaders who where, for the most part, all men; simply because women where seldom in the public eye many historians write history as if women were a modern invention. Hibbert does not fall into this category as he fully explores the role women played during the Civil War – especially Henrietta Maria, the French-born and Catholic wife of Charles I and the influence she had over him (and how this influence may have contributed to Charles losing his head). Besides describing the people involved, both major players and the common folk, Hibbert also describes the various combatants and examines how the militaries trained, what their battle strategies were, and how effective each side was on the battlefield. But on a more interesting level, he also discusses what motivated them to fight, how they dressed, what weapons they used, what their morale was like, and how they were paid.
Like all Civil Wars, the English Civil War not only divided the nation, but often families as well; however, in England, this family division often came with a twist, especially where major land owning families where concerned. Hibbert exposes the fact that many far thinking fathers purposely divided their families, sending sons to fight on both sides of the conflict. This was done with the express purposed of having at least one male family member on the winning side – so that the family was, hopefully, assured that their estate would stay in the family. As well, Hibbert shows that many people choose their “side” based purely on monetary considerations; for instance, many people sided with the King simply because they feared that if Parliament won they would take all of their lands and money – or simply because the King offered to pay them more than did the other side. Over 200,000 people died during the Civil War, both from military actions and pestilence, and Hibbert brings the reality of the English Civil War to light. Throughout this narrative, Hibbert is clear to point out that both sides were equally guilty of committing atrocities and willingly destroying just about anything that they could get their hands on. He also shows the impact that Oliver Cromwell had, both leading up to the Civil War and as leader of the Roundheads, and the influence he had on England while Lord Protector and why his “Commonwealth” was unsustainable once he died.
One of the interesting aspects of this book is that Hibbert tries to look at the events through the eyes of those that lived through them. He offers glimpses at the superstitions of the time and how they affected people’s decisions while also showing the role that religion played in almost every aspect of English life and how these beliefs affected the people and English politics. Without doubt, this is a wonderful introduction to the English Civil War, and the social history of the period. This work was written for a general audience and is therefore a bit light on dates and other historical data that is normal in most history books; perhaps because of this, it is admirably understandable and riveting. Hibbert has an outstanding command of the English language and a knack for bringing history to life.