Ian Gentles. The English Revolution and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652. Harlow: Pearson Longman, 2007. xvi + 522 pp. $36.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-582-06551-2.
Reviewed by Jasmin L. Johnson (Independent Scholar, Gillingham, Kent, United Kingdom)
Published on H-War (February, 2008)
The English Revolution or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms?
It is an oft-stated truism that without the National Covenant and the Bishops' Wars in Scotland, there would have been no Ulster Rebellion and without the Ulster Rebellion, there would have been no English Civil Wars. It is, however, only within the past decade or so that scholars have begun to make serious efforts to examine the wars in a comparative fashion--anyone of the reviewer's undergraduate generation will remember the assumption that the English Civil Wars and the "English Revolution" could be taken as discrete and separate historical, social, and political entities. Ian Gentles makes a considerable effort to move readers away from such a view and toward an overview of a politically and militarily complex passage of the history of the Atlantic archipelago. Attempting to write a comparative history of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms is a challenging prospect given the complexities of warfare and political maneuvering across the three countries of Scotland, Ireland, and England (five, if one counts Wales and Cornwall as the separate entities they undoubtedly were in some respects at this time). It is, however, one that Gentles takes on with obvious relish and considerable success.
A problem with other studies that have sought to take a "Three Kingdoms" approach (e.g., James Scott Wheeler's The Irish and British Wars ) is a tendency to bounce back and forth from country to country and from campaign to campaign, causing confusion and obscuring the effects that developments in one theater of operations might have had on the others. Keeping track of what James Graham, First Marquis of Montrose and Alasdair MacColla were up to in Scotland, while, at the same time, following the activities of Sir Phelim O'Neill and The Earl of Ormond in Ireland and those of Prince Rupert of the Rhine and General Sir Thomas Fairfax in England is a challenging task and one that can lead to serious misunderstanding if handled poorly. Gentles makes an admirable attempt to provide a logical timeline along which it is possible to trace what was going on and where at what point in the wars.
While providing an operational history of the campaigns in the three kingdoms, Gentles also examines recruitment, finance, and logistics, as well as the issues that encouraged allegiance to a given side or faction and the reasons why many people changed their allegiance. In his study, there are many closely observed situations to enjoy, from the Queen's pawning of the crown jewels in Holland by which she managed to raise £180,000 for the royalist war effort, via a delightful story from a house in Gracious Street, London, where a fiddler and his boy were asked for "a song of mirth" and responded with "a scurrilous rude song in disgrace and disparagement of the parliament," to the brave last stand of the Marquess of Newcastle's Whitecoats at Marston Moor of whom it was said that they "brought their winding sheets about them into the field" (pp. 131, 222). As the News of the World notoriously claimed about its own content, it can truly be said that "all human life is here," full of acts of extraordinary bravery, disgraceful cowardice, and great humanity.
It is refreshing that Gentles attempts to deconstruct some of the hoarier myths of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. For example, a reexamination of the sieges of Drogheda and Wexford suggests scenes somewhat less bloody than they are often painted and certainly within the rules of warfare as they were understood at the time. A thorough examination of the role of the Marquis of Montrose in the warfare of the north shows a much less effective figure than that presented in myth and folklore and certainly one who would have achieved far less than he did had he not been able to enlist the intervention of the psychopathic, but militarily talented, MacColla and his redshanks.
Gentles closely looks at the political aftermath, "The Wars carried on by other means," as he describes it, the regicide and formation of the short-lived English Republic (p. 291). He undertakes an audit of the human and material costs of the wars (casualty figures and the figures for material destruction have tended to nudge steadily upward in the last decade or so). The publisher's blurb on the rear dust cover claims that the author makes the "first sustained attempt" to examine the social, human, and economic cost of the wars. This statement is questionable; the laurel probably goes to Stephen Porter in his Destruction in the English Civil Wars (1994). Whatever the claim for priority, however, the figures Gentles advances give considerable pause for thought to readers. A table points to a total figure of 540,000 deaths from battle, disease, and famine across the three kingdoms. This number, about 7 percent of the population of the three nations, represents the greatest loss of life these islands were to experience until World War I. Scotland and Ireland suffered particularly heavily.
There are a few criticisms of the book that can be made. Gentles spells the names of his characters by reference to their own preferred orthography. Alasdair MacColla is mentioned as such, not as Alistair McDonnell, and the siege master and radical, Thomas Rainborowe, is given his correct name rather than the often used Rainsborough. Why, then, is the radical preacher and regicide later to find fame as Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell's personal chaplain referred to throughout as Hugh Peters and assumed to be locally based? His name was Hugh Peter, and, while of English origins, he, like Major Rainborowe, had New England connections. This is one disappointment in an aspect of the book that otherwise returns impeccably to primary sources.
In addition, the attempt to rehabilitate King Charles I as having some "minimum of competence and kingly charisma" is unconvincing, especially as the author has previously, quite accurately, accused the monarch of "rigidity, duplicity, political incompetence and fatal attraction for Roman Catholicism" (pp. 1-2). A percentage of a given population would follow a monarch because she or he is a monarch and for no better or more coherent reason, as this period of the islands' history clearly proves. This does not, however, fully answer the question about how the king was able to find a party and an army prepared to fight "a war without an enemy" (as Sir William Waller, who ultimately took the opposite side, memorably described it- p 173)--and fight it to the bitter end.
The volume is well footnoted and contains a clear and useful bibliography, as well as a thorough listing of abbreviations, a detailed index, and some helpful maps and battlefield plans. Overall, this is an admirably thorough attempt to take the reader through the military, religious, and political complexities of the times. It is an ideal choice for both the undergraduate and general reader.
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Jasmin L. Johnson. Review of Gentles, Ian, The English Revolution and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652.
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