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Cavaliers & Roundheads: The English Civil War

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Cavaliers & Roundheads: The English Civil War, 1642-1649, By Christopher Hibbert. (Scribner, 1993.) ISBN: 0684195577

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - July 29, 2001

Christopher Hibbert is a respected biographer and historian. He has written on a variety of historical topics ranging from the French Revolution to The Great Mutiny in India that occurred in 1857. As well as biographies of prominent personalities such as, Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, King George III, Wellington, and Benito Mussolini to name just a sampling of Hibbert's many works. In Cavaliers and Roundheads: The English Civil War 1642-1649 Hibbert continues his efforts to write about history in a personable manner that opens up the broad vistas of the past to the general reader.

Rather than a strict history book, Cavaliers and Roundheads is more of a social history of England during the Civil War. He concentrates more upon what happened and how it affected people, than on what actually caused the events chronicled. This is a compelling look at the English Civil War. Hibbert's narrative is spiced with period writings and includes excerpts from letters and diaries.

He opens the book with a general overview of English history leading up to the Civil War. He then precedes to discuss the actual Civil War and Oliver Cromwell's reign as Lord Protector. The book concludes with an analysis of the effects that the Civil War had, and the direction that England took after the monarchy was restored. Throughout, Hibbert takes delight in offering personal peeks at the major personalities involved. For instance, when discussing the events leading up the eruption of the civil war, he describes one of the causes simply stating that, "The King was reluctant to recognize that his authority was limited by what it was possible to achieve..."

When interpreting historical events, many historians just concentrate on the major events and the principal leaders, who where for the most part men. Simply because women where seldom in the public eye, many historians simply write about history as if women were a modern invention. Hibbert does not fall into this category. He fully explores the role women played during the Civil War. He also shows just how much influence Henrietta Maria, Charles the First's French born, and Catholic, wife had over him and how her influence may have contributed to Charles losing his head.

Besides describing the people involved, both major players and the common folk, he also describes the various combatants. He examines how the militaries trained, what their battle strategies were, and how effective each side was militarily. But on a more interesting level, he also discusses what motivated them to fight, how they dressed, what weapons they used, what their moral was like, and how they were paid.

Like all Civil Wars, the English Civil War not only divided the nation, but often families as well. However, in England, this family division often came with a twist, especially where major land owning families where concerned. Hibbert exposes the fact that many far thinking fathers purposely divided their families, sending sons to fight on both sides of the conflict. This was done with the express purposed of having at least one male family member on the winning side - so that the family was, hopefully, assured that their estate would stay in the family. As well, Hibbert shows that many people choose their 'side' based purely on monetary considerations. For instance, many people sided with the King simply because they feared that if Parliament won they would take all of their lands and money. Or, simply because the King offered to pay them more than did the other side.

Over 200,000 people died during the Civil War, both from military actions and pestilence. With tact and insightfulness, Hibbert brings the reality of the English Civil War to light. Throughout this narrative, Hibbert is clear to point out that both sides where equally guilty of committing atrocities and willingly destroying just about anything that they could get their hands on. He also shows the impact that Oliver Cromwell had, both leading up to the Civil War and as leader of the Roundheads. As well he shows the influence that Cromwell had on England while Lord Protector and why his 'kingdom' was unsustainable once he died.

One of the more interesting aspects of this book is that Hibbert does not simply portray the Civil War from a modern perspective, but that he tries to look at the events through the eyes of those that had undergone them. He offers glimpses at the superstitions of the time, and how they affected peoples decisions. He also shows the role that religion played in almost every aspect of English life and how these beliefs affected the people and English politics. Without doubt, this is a wonderful introduction to the English Civil War, and the social history of the period. This work was written for a general audience and is therefore a bit light on dates and other 'historical' data that is normal in most history books. Perhaps because of this, it is admirably understandable and riveting. Hibbert has an outstanding command of the English language and a knack for bringing history to life.

Related Reviews:

England Under the Stuarts, By G. M. Trevelyan
An in-depth look at English history from 1603-1714, covering the reigns of Charles I to Queen Anne.

The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, Edited by Antonia Fraser.
This outstanding reference book offers short biographical sketches of all the English monarchs since 1066, starting with William the Conquer and ending with the present day monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth II.

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