Charles Carlton. This Seat of Mars: War and the British Isles, 1485-1746. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011. Illustrations. xxii + 332 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-13913-6.
Reviewed by Rory T. Cornish (Winthrop University)
Published on H-War (January, 2016)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
The impact war had on the creation of the British unitary state has been commented on by numerous historians in the past, and this present work builds successfully on their research. Historians such as Jeremy Black, Linda Colley, David Scott, and Scott Wheeler have deepened our understanding of British military history, transforming it into a more respectable discipline, a discipline that has occasionally been viewed as an arcane and disagreeable specialty concerning, as it does, killing. Indeed, as the present author rather graphically phrases it, military history was “like the history of pornography, not to be encouraged in a decent university” (p. xix). However, Charles Carlton, a former part-time soldier in Britain’s Territorial Army, has a great deal to say about killing, for the diverse peoples of the British Isles in the three centuries after the battle of Bosworth in 1485 became “extremely good at fighting and killing, and in doing so, flourished mightily” (p. xiv). The almost incessant conflict of the period, both domestic and international, was, he further argues, a prime mover in shaping both British history and its slow, but irresistible, movement toward a centralized British state—a development that touched the lives of almost all the peoples of the British Isles in the early modern period. The thesis that a seventeenth-century European military revolution had important social and cultural implications for the peoples of Europe is not a new idea, yet this study is an accessible introduction to such a perspective for the general reader, especially those interested in the ever-popular Tudor and Stuart dynasties.
An author of previous studies on Archbishop Laud, Charles I, and other royal warriors, in this book, Carlton extends the scope of his earlier work Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651 (1992), which describes the experiences of the ordinary soldier during, as he correctly terms them, the British Civil Wars. To try to encapsulate both the military aspects and the political developments of nearly three hundred years of British history, including Ireland, is an ambitious project, especially in just thirteen chapters. However, the author not only largely carries it off but has also written an interesting book.
In his thirteen alternating chapters, Carlton discusses two main themes. First, he reviews the macro aspects of the period, on how warfare affected the state, its institutions, the economy, and international relations. These are well-trodden paths and the author freely admits that this feature of his study reflects the experiences of the elite, of those in power. Some professional historians might take issue with a number of his broad generalizations, often couched in a somewhat popular, if not ahistorical, jargon. This is certainly true of his treatment of the many Anglo-Irish conflicts in which, he suggests, Elizabethan Englishmen came to view the Irish “in much the same way as Germans in the Second World War thought Jews as Untermenschen who could be exterminated without compunction” (p. 51). While admitting that military events in Ireland in the later civil wars were complex, Carlton portrays the English after the massacre of Ulster Protestants in 1642 as motivated by a righteous anger; he argues that they conducted their campaigns against the Irish “with the casual cruelty characteristic of S.S. Einsatzgruppen” on the eastern front (p. 135). Of course, atrocities were committed by all sides during these conflicts, and while an Irish background may make one sensitive to such statements, one can only wonder what motivates a historian to suggest that English actions must be understood within the context that for much of the time Ireland was under martial law; the English were involved in seek-and-destroy actions against guerilla fighters who just did not play fair; the weather was terrible; drink played a part; and many atrocities were committed in “hot blood, making them more understandable, perhaps even excusable” (p. 53). It is perhaps not surprising that Edmund Burke came to conclude in the eighteenth century that if a disciplined army could be a danger to liberty, an undisciplined army was often ruinous to society itself.
A discussion of the gradual creation of a professional standing army forms the important core of this work. Following a brief introductory chapter on Tudor warfare, Carlton discusses both the factors that led to the acceptance of this necessity and the administrative developments that made a standing army even possible. In seven linked chronological chapters, including a brief yet informative chapter on the Royal Navy, turning points are highlighted and conclusions drawn. The military adventures of Henry VIII were important in beginning this process, he suggests, but it was the vastly increased military spending in the last third of Queen Elizabeth’s reign that firmly directed England, and by later extension Britain, onto the course of becoming a formidable European military power. The reign of Charles I, even though he was no great military chieftain himself, saw an increase in military culture with a noticeable growth in the publication of military manuals and more attention given to the raising and disciplining of the trained bands. War was glorified in both literature and the theater, and from 1620 to 1649 a large number of men, the author estimates over 170,000, left the British Isles to serve as mercenaries in the European wars. Indeed, it was their return to the British Isles, he further maintains, that made England a less peaceful place and the barbarities of the civil wars worse. As a contemporary writer noted, those mercenaries who “took up the trade of killing men abroad” are “now returned to kill, for Christ’s sake, men at home” (p. 95).
Some historians will disagree with the author’s claim that no event in the history of the British Isles had a greater effect on world history than the civil wars, but few will disagree with his conclusion that these wars were a central turning point in the creation of a British state and a professional army to defend and promote its interests. Carlton ably reflects the recent attention paid by other historians to these civil wars, to which he adds his own perspective, especially to the question of how many people died in these conflicts. While freely admitting that attempting to compute fatalities during this period is a notoriously difficult exercise, he nonetheless builds a strong case to suggest that from 1630 to 1660 approximately 8.6 percent of the population of the three kingdoms perished as a result of these domestic clashes: a figure much greater than even the Great War (2.61 percent) and World War II (0.94 percent). Consequently, he concludes that “the British Civil Wars were not just the bloodiest conflict in British history, but rank high in the sad story of man’s inhumanity to man” (p. 151).
The political and administrative changes ushered in during the civil war years were enhanced by the equally important innovations, especially in the military, which occurred due to both the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. If the rise of the House of Commons and its ability to tax and raise considerable amounts of money and credit made possible both extended warfare and a standing army, the tactical, professional, and technological improvements implemented in the second half of the seventeenth century made, the author insists, the army into a much more formidable weapon with which to enhance the power of a rising unified British state. Briefly stated, the purchase system for commissioned officers tied the aristocracy firmly to a military role. The flintlock musket not only increased the rate of firepower but also strengthened the platoon as a fighting unit, which, in turn, necessitated highly trained and long-serving soldiers. The adoption of the bayonet also allowed such soldiers to defend themselves, freeing them from cumbersome pike men, which, in turn, made them much more mobile on the battlefield. In short, by the time of the battle of Culloden in 1746, the British army had been tested in many European battlefields and was increasingly manned by professional military families in its officer corps, its rank and file, and perhaps more important, its noncommissioned officers. The military genius of John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, Carlton further highlights, solidified and oversaw these innovations, yet it should not go unnoticed that a preference for the amateur gentleman officer and the volunteer soldier, and a distaste for regular soldiers, or anything akin to a continental military tradition, remained strong within Britain until well into the twentieth century. One may also question the relish with which Scots and Irish rank-and-file soldiers, as suggested here, came to appreciate the job opportunity the growing standing army offered them. While many would serve, economic necessity, poverty, and the breakup of traditional ways of life often offered little alternative to taking the king’s shilling.
This second theme, the life of the ordinary soldier, or the micro aspect to the narrative, is perhaps the more original and informative part of the book. In six chapters, the recruitment of ordinary soldiers, training, life, reactions to conflict, post-conflict care, and treatment of veterans are all explored in some depth. A chapter is also devoted to why men fought, and if one may also disagree with some of Carlton’s conclusions, he, nonetheless, injects some spirit into the topic and should be congratulated for reviewing some often overlooked printed autobiographical accounts on soldiering. In this more original feature of the study, the reader is introduced to a collection of secondary figures who may have remained previously unknown to a general reader, such as Captain Robert Palmer; the Scots mercenary Sir James Turner, whose activities on many European battlefields convinced him that one ought to serve all masters equally and honestly; and the son of a Scots Presbyterian minister with, to many of my generation at least, the improbable name of Colonel John Blackadder (1664-1729) of the Cameronians, later the 26th Foot. Of all these brief personal vignettes, the most interesting concerns Donald MacLeod who fought at Blenheim, Fontenoy, and Louisburg, and whose Scots plaid was used as a stretcher to carry the dying James Wolfe from the field of Quebec. Born in 1688, and finally admitted to the Chelsea Hospital as a pensioner in 1759, he returned to the colors to serve as a ninety-six-year-old drill sergeant during the American Revolution. MacLeod, it seems, had the right stuff that would form the thin red line and that would, largely, be celebrated in This Seat of Mars.
It is in this second explored theme that the book becomes more engaging and Carlton ought to be congratulated for this wide-ranging, well-written, if sometimes controversial and disturbing, review of what he freely admits to be the process of legalized killing. Wars have had, and continue to have, a decisive impact on society and the lives of individuals who live through them. Like this period under review, our own era has from the 1980s seen the number of military conflicts unfortunately multiple. This too has led to the further militarization of our own societies and, in its wake, demands for even more state centralization. Perhaps it is this that continues to both fascinate and repel us at the same time.
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Rory T. Cornish. Review of Carlton, Charles, This Seat of Mars: War and the British Isles, 1485-1746.
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