Reviewed by Barbara Donagan (Huntington Library)
Published on H-Albion (November, 2001)
Mark Charles Fissel has undertaken a daunting task in English Warfare, 1511-1642, namely to survey English practice and theory of war over one hundred and thirty years that saw major political and religious changes and many wars, declared and undeclared, and that encompassed the early modern "military revolution." His book covers English involvement in wars in Scotland, Ireland, and continental Europe and addresses their geopolitical and domestic contexts. In all this he seeks to find some characteristically English quality.
Fissel begins with the "Tudor art of war" as manifested on the continent and in Britain, and then turns to military organization and institutions in England, looking in particular at the role of the county lieutenants and the nature of impressment. Then follow chapters on Elizabethan and Jacobean wars in the north against the Scots, in Ireland, and in multiple European venues that included the Netherlands, France, and Spain. Another chapter describes developments in siege warfare and logistics. Finally he turns to war in the reign of Charles I, from the fiascos of Cadiz and the Isle of Rhe to the Bishops' Wars against the Scots and ultimately domestic civil war. In these studies he deploys material from an impressive range of sources; his footnotes, particularly his citations of Public Record Office documents, will be invaluable to future scholars. These sources supply well-chosen quotations, as in Essex's and Mountjoy's pointed explanations of the nature of the war in Ireland to uncomprehending home-bound critics. He also incorporates effective narratives of particular episodes; these include the Northern Rising of 1569-70, Leicester's campaign in the Low Countries in 1585-86, the Rhe expedition of 1627, and the Bishops' Wars of 1639-40. There is also welcome attention throughout the book to logistics, and some discussion of bureaucracy and its evolution in the face of changing demands.
Problems arise, however, from failure to impose a sustainable plan on such a broad and recalcitrant range of material and from analytical weakness. The book lacks the clarity and compression of Jan Glete's Warfare at sea 1500-1650 (1999), a parallel volume in this series on "Warfare in History," and it bears marks of haste. It fails to solve the difficult problem of integrating continental, British, and English aspects, and it is overloaded with detail. Fissel can write clearly and effectively as well as learnedly, as his other publications amply demonstrate. Here, however, words are too often misused, terms unfamiliar to non-specialists (e.g. kern and gallowglass) are introduced without explanation, digressions abound, and arguments lack clarity--all objections that could have been eliminated with more time and greater editorial rigor on Routledge's part.
There are some serious problems of focus, analysis, and definition. They begin with interpretations of the title, "English warfare," a capacious phrase applied to military operations conducted by the English, to abstract concepts about the strategy and tactics that they adopted and adapted, and to a kind of gestalt of national character. The latter has a John Buchan-esque naivete: even in incompetence and adversity certain sterling English attributes survive. "English military history," we are told, "is individuals doing their duty regardless of obstacles" (p. 293). Even novice English soldiers displayed "pluck" and a "keen sense of honour," while a professional soldier like Sir Roger Williams, despite an unfortunate temporary lapse into catholic service, "embodied ^Åthe chivalric honour of his nationality" (pp. 137, 153). Reassuringly, Englishness, for all its martial virtue, meant an admirable refusal "then as now, to become ... a military culture." Only a "foreign" ruler, William III, would bring England "up to its full military potential" (p. 289). This patriotic and moralistic approach has a certain revisionist freshness, but the need to assert English singularity leads to some imbalances in the text, notably in the prominence given to Sir John Smythe, the Luddite advocate of the longbow in the later years of Elizabeth. Smythe was colorful, vocal, and cantankerous, an undoubted English eccentric and chauvinist, and as such attractive grist to a historian's mill, but it is not clear that he and his fellow supporters of the bow deserve more than a passing mention in Fissel's context. Their theory went nowhere and had little effective influence; the practice they advocated was in radical decline in England and continental Europe. In contrast to the attention given to Smythe, the treatment of European influence on England is uneven. If Maurice of Nassau is amply represented, Spinola and Gustavus Adolphus receive only one or two passing mentions, and the powerful Swedish influence on "English warfare" and English soldiers in the 1620s and 1630s is ignored.
This insistence on admirable English particularity hinders a clear examination of the precise ways in which England adopted continental practice and theory of war and adapted them to local needs (although the account of "Hibernian warfare" is helpful). The internationalism of English experience is evident from the sections dealing with professional soldiers employed in European wars (they were hardly the "bellicose anomalies" mentioned, p. xii), but the manner of their integration into national and local forces, although often mentioned, is not seriously analysed, nor is the important question of their relations with civilian English society. Moreover the adaptation of general principles and "standard" practice to local terrains, populations, and politics is surely the mark of a good commander of any country or period rather than an achievement attributable to Englishness.
The manner in which "foreign" practice was naturalized in English armed forces often remains puzzling because native legal and institutional foundations are not clearly explained. Much remains baffling in the treatment of the county lieutenancies, the militia and trained bands, and impressment, which provided the framework within which soldiers were raised and deployed. The problems arise in part because authority was not distinctly allocated, powers were debatable, and practice variable. Nevertheless it would have been helpful to lay out and explain key terms and legal provisions (whether court rulings or parliamentary statutes), to identify the chief agents and their powers, and then, once these were established, to set out changes over time. The reader would then have had a secure framework into which he could fit the author's corrective account of the way in which the system really operated and of the many ways in which it failed or fluctuated or changed. The absence of clear starting points for discussion combined with a discursive method of presentation may well confuse the "undergraduates and ... students of English history" for whom the book is designed (p. xiv).
Despite these caveats English warfare has much to offer the student interested in the practice of early modern war and in the interaction between England and continental Europe. Fissel recognizes the irony inherent in the process he has described in his concluding sentence: "The tragedy was that, whereas English strategy since the mid-1500s had concentrated upon preventing foreign incursions, in the end England assimilated the military revolution fully by fighting itself and its British cousins." We may hope that he will employ his impressive learning in a return to this theme.
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Barbara Donagan. Review of Fissel, Mark Charles, English Warfare, 1511-1642.
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