Timothy Venning, An Alternative History of Britain: The English Civil War (Jasmin Ditcham)

Timothy Venning

An Alternative History of Britain: The English Civil War

(Pen & Sword, 2015) 285pp.  $39.95

English Civil War

The value of the ‘what if’ school of historical research is still much debated among historians and Timothy Venning’s volume belongs firmly in that school of writing. The title of this book is rather misleading, as it suggests that the subject matter is: ‘The English Civil War’ whereas the study covers a much broader area than the now rather old fashioned approach of taking England out of context, as though what happened in Scotland and Ireland had no bearing on the bloodiest wars experienced by these island until modern times. As the volume is aimed largely at the popular market via the ‘Pen and Sword’ imprint, this is perhaps forgivable, but makes one wish that ‘The Wars of the Three Kingdoms’ was a more broadly known usage amongst a popular readership.
The book divides into five chapters, beginning with the countdown to the English war from December 1641 to Spring 1642. This chapter describes the build up to the war and its potential causes and is largely aimed at providing some background for a popular readership. A great plus here in that Venning does give some indication of the importance of religion in the build-up to the conflict, something that the Marxist historical school of the seventies and eighties was loathe to do and something it is important for any modern would be student of the civil wars to understand. The question is asked as to what might have happened had King Charles not been so ill advised as to confront Parliament on 6th January 1642 and then taken to flight when it all went wrong. A good question, but one showing the limitations of ‘what if’ history. If Charles Stuart had not been the man he was- a somewhat shady, untrustworthy character, convinced of his divine right, it is probably that things would never have come to this pass in the first place. He would have needed to be an entirely different person and then, perhaps, he would not have ended his life a self-constructed martyr upon the headsman’s block. He might, perhaps, have delayed things, but by that stage, things in Ireland had descended into rebellion. There appears to be no way that Charles could have regained control any time soon.

The second Chapter poses the question as to whether the Royalists could have won the war quickly and examines the lead up to the Edgehill campaign. We are asked whether the King too weak to fight in 1642. Almost certainly: the navy had gone over to parliament and the King had failed to secure any of the major military arsenals, with Hull standing as a good example of this failure. His raising of the royal standard at Nottingham was also a rather half-hearted affair and with more celerity, the notoriously slow Essex could have ended it there. Edgehill is generally seen as a no score win for the royalist faction and proves yet again that the art of keeping cavalry on the field seems to need to be relearned with every succeeding generation. Turnham Green proved to be a stand-off. The ‘what if’ Charles had kept going and struck for London is an often asked question but the efficacy of the trained bands is now generally thought to have been greater than once believed and against a disorganised Royalist force, the question remains unanswerable.

The third chapter asks if the war could have been ended more quickly and examines Charles’s indecisive nature. Once again, we run up against that fact that the King was who he was which renders any ‘what if’ largely otiose. The possibility remains that the war might have been fought to a standstill which may have encouraged cooler heads to negotiate, but Venning’s long discussion of aristocratic plotting and planning in the background remains unconvincing- the troops were in the field and the war had taken on a momentum of its own by 1643. Venning asks if there was a rising desire for peace but not where it mattered? It is a good question and the answer is almost certainly yes, but it is unlikely that had England stopped fighting, Scotland or Ireland would have done likewise. Were the Royalist advances of 1643 potentially decisive? With able parliamentarian generals like Waller, the younger Fairfax and Jones still in the field, probably not. Again, Venning tends to be willing to look for plots and stratagems in the background where nothing really existed. Gloucester and First Newbury were certainly potential turning points but things fell out as they did. The Scottish campaigns could have made a difference, but Venning places an over enthusiastic value on Montrose’s generalship.

Chapter four asks whether the war was winnable in 1644 without the new modelling of the parliamentary army. Charles appears to have demonstrated his uncanny ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after First Newbury and things did appear to stalemate at times- Essex is perhaps another general who need to be a different person for things to have moved differently as can be seen from his idiotic decision to move into the west country against orders and to find himself mopped up at Lostwithiel. Small scale sieges and skirmishes were ongoing, but nothing decisive. Pym and Hampden’s deaths were unfortunate, but cannot really be said to have made much difference to the army in the field. The Scottish army coming over the border and the threat of Presbyterianism could have been used by Charles as could the Irish levies arriving at Chester by Parliament, but nothing was really forthcoming. Missed chances- the Royalists and Cropredy Bridge where Waller was able to withdraw with his force largely intact and Essex’ march on Oxford, which could have finished the war had he been more forthright. I have to take issue with the description of the siege of Lyme Regis as a ‘Parliamentary Stalingrad’. Lyme is now, as then, a tiny seaport town. Venning is rather too fond of comparing it with the Soviet experience of World War Two.

Naseby was undoubtedly the beginning of the end. Was the Royalist disaster Prince Rupert’s fault? Almost certainly not, but he never learned the art of keeping cavalry in the field, which parliament’s horse had by this stage. The same question is asked in 1644 of Marston Moor- the endgame.

The final chapter asks whether Parliament could still have lost the war in 1645. To ask if Cromwell might not have been excluded from the Self Denying Ordinance seems rather odd. Parliament was not going to deny themselves the use of one of its most talented generals The same interference took place in the Scottish Covenanting armies and disaster followed as must surely have been known south of the border? There appears to have been no chance of peace before the New Model took the field and as Venning states, the Uxbridge negotiations were a dialogue of the deaf. I cannot agree that Montrose ever shifted the military balance in the King’s favour- in truth, he was a busted flush by this stage.

Was the Naseby confrontation inevitable? Perhaps not, but there is no doubt that the writing is on the wall by this stage. It is all too easy to clutch at straws (as the King was doing) looking for sources of help which no longer existed. Was Naseby a lost battle? Almost certainly as one would (inevitably) have needed the main protagonists to be different men for things to have turned out differently. Parliament had undoubtedly learned the lessons the Royalists had failed to learn and the New Model was a formidable, if untested, fighting force. Was the war irretrievably lost after Naseby? Undoubtedly. The Scots were tied up in their own ills and there really was no help coming..

Rupert’s refusal to hold Bristol against a Parliament siege and to ask whether he should then have fought the siege to a storm and sack with the predictable massacre in the aftermath is to make him less human than he appears to have been. He would later, perhaps, have nodded knowingly at what happened at Drogheda and Wexford. Charles’s treatment of his nephew in the aftermath really does signal the end for the Royalist cause even without the destruction of Montrose’s forces at Philiphaugh. Venning suggests that foreign aid may have been forthcoming but Henrietta Maria’s brother is dead, European wars are raging and leaders have other things on their mind. Scotland has its own issues and Rinuccini’s absurd posturings across the Irish sea mean that no help is coming from there.

After this, it really is just mopping up and the unedifying spectacle of the King dodging and weaving and a parliamentary realisation that there is no trust in the man and no deal to be brokered with him. Sadly, the rest becomes inevitable.

It has to be said that the book is not aware of some of the more recent research on the topic of the wars; there is still a flavour of the outmoded ‘court v country’ in the English aspect and Venning still values the ‘Queen’s Party’ more than is now usual although views of that formidable woman, Queen Henrietta Maria’ now see her as less of an inveterate plotter and more as a: ‘she generalissima’ and successful gun runner. She had much less success is persuading her continental relatives to come over with troops or cash. There were, after all, major continental wars in train- a point that Venning tends to overlook.

There is the usual misspelling of the name of the radical preacher and eventually to be Cromwell’s personal chaplain, Hugh Peter (not Peters as in the oft repeated error here- an argument for a return to primary sources if there ever was one).

The use of ‘Colkitto’ to describe that bloody handed warrior Alasdair MacColla would also now be considered a rather out of date. Venning values Montrose as a general where it is now generally recognised that most of the fighting at the sharp end was undertaken by MacColla’s men and that he had his own motives- the expansion of the power of Clan MacDonald and a long running feud with Clan Campbell.

The book appears to come to a somewhat abrupt halt at this point without any real attempt to pull the threads together and this is somewhat frustrating. Venning’s work suffers from the problems inherent in all such what ifs. One can’t help wishing that he had concentrated on some of the most obvious potential turning points, rather than giving so much time to goings on in the ‘smoky rooms’ of historical legend. This volume tends to rather fall between a serious historical study and a piece of popular reading, although it does assume a great deal of knowledge of the background to the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Jasmin Ditcham
Independent Scholar

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