Choosing Sides

by David L. Smith

Few historiographical controversies have generated as much debate as that over choosing sides in 1642. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it all seemed clear-cut. According to the then fashionable Whig interpretation, people chose sides on the basis of their religious and constitutional principles. In 1904, for example, G.M. Trevelyan described the English Civil War as ‘a war of two parties’, fought between Royalist defenders of the monarchy and the established Church of England on the one side, and Parliamentarian promoters of religious and parliamentary liberties on the other. The war was thus a conflict between Crown and Parliament that marked a crucial stage in England’s long-term development towards constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.

By the middle of the twentieth century, this Whig interpretation was being challenged by Marxist historians who believed that side-taking was based mainly on social class. As Christopher Hill, the most famous of the Marxist historians, wrote: ‘The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords’, whereas Parliament ‘could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside’ and ‘to the yeomen and progressive gentry.’ Although this interpretation is no longer widely accepted in such a stark form, it was developed in a more qualified way by historians such as Brian Manning and David Underdown.

From the 1970s onwards, a wave of ‘revisionism’, led by historians like John Morrill, Conrad Russell and Kevin Sharpe, attacked both these Whig and Marxist frameworks. They pointed out that, apart from the fact that a majority of the nobility sided with the King, the two sides were otherwise remarkably similar in their social profiles. Morrill argued that most people tried to avoid taking sides, and that those who did were swayed above all by religious considerations: ‘in most counties the active royalists are the defenders of episcopacy who saw in Puritanism a fundamental challenge to all society and order, and the parliamentarians are those determined to introduce a godly reformation which might, for a few of them, leave room for bishops, but in most cases did not’. Russell broadly endorsed this view: ‘the crisis of authority made men fight, and religion endowed them with parties with which to do so’.

Morrill’s view of the Civil War as a ‘war of religion’ has set much of the terms of debate in the past few decades over how sides were chosen. Historians have continued to discuss the role of religion and how far (and whether) it can be separated from other beliefs and motives. Among the most significant recent developments has been the work of Michael J. Braddick who has stressed not so much choosing sides as the mobilisation of two competing war efforts. This argument has the advantage of doing justice to the sheer messiness of the situation in 1642 and the complex motives that shaped individual behaviour. The idea of mobilisation can accommodate a range of social, constitutional and religious motives, as well as the influence of local rivalries. It acknowledges that all these factors, in different ways, played their part, without privileging any particular one, and it thus does justice to the complexity of the experiences of those who lived through these dramatic events.