Recent Reads: Three Perspectives of the English Civil War

Cromwell. The Roundheads. The Cavaliers. Bonny Prince Charlie. Wait, wrong Charles. Recently, I read three books in a row set in and around the English Civil War and it has definitely brought the time period to life for me. I’ve realised that when I read historical fiction I absorb a lot unintentionally about historical events, though some of it is slanted or outright fabrication. But I also think the guise of fiction helps me to see the different sides of an issue with more understanding, giving each part of the conflict a voice.

The English Civil War was roughly the time when King Charles I defied the parliament, was ousted by said parliament, tried to take back power by force, and was then defeated and beheaded. There are a lot of religious factors to take into consideration as well, with the Puritan Cromwell being the leader of the successful Roundhead army, and most of the defeated royalist Cavaliers being Church of England or Catholic. I’d read at least one book set in the time of Cromwell’s “Lord Protectorship” before, so I knew a bit of this background information, but then I happened to read these three different books in close succession, unexpectedly all set during the events in and around the Civil War, and it really brought the progression of time starkly into focus.

I read Alexandre Dumas’ Three Musketeers sequel, Twenty Years After, earlier this spring and in the course of the book, D’Artagnan and Co. get embroiled in the civil unrest during Cromwell’s campaign against Charles I of England, while the king is still trying to mount a defense. The perspective is an interesting one, from the view of French monarchists, during a period in which both countries were beset with controversy surrounding the fitness of their rulers. Louis XIV in Paris is a child and generally seen as a simple pawn in the game between his mother, Anne of Austria, and the Cardinal Mazarin (successor to the much maligned Richelieu). Add to that the connection between the two countries’ royalty, the wife of Charles I of England seeking refuge for herself and her two younger children in France, and it makes sense for the prolific author of French romances to explore the political landscape of England in conjunction with it.

A longtime lover of The Scarlet Pimpernel, I was excited to read something next by Baroness Orczy. The Nest of the Sparrowhawk takes place during the height of Cromwell’s power and the time of the most conservative restrictions upon popular entertainment, fashion, and deportment. The king is dead, the royal family in exile, and the sons and daughters of fallen nobles of the Cavalier party are being fostered by the nobles who supported Cromwell until of age to claim their inheritances. The story takes the broader implications of the imposition of a new regime of enforced morality and spins it as circumstances around a private plot to gain wealth by fraudulently preying upon the lingering romance of the Cavalier concept.

After reading The Fortunes of Nigel by Sir Walter Scott, I was a bit disappointed, but, happy to say for my own fortunes (as well as Scott’s fortunes in my eyes), I wasn’t too long in starting the next book I had by him, Peveril of the Peak. I enjoyed it immensely and have reinstated Scott as one of my favourite novelists. It begins with the Restoration of the monarchy, rooting the events in happenings from the war and Cromwell’s “Protectorship.” Neighbours of opposing parties are briefly brought together in the immediate relief that the promise of peace and restoration brings, but soon their underlying prejudices boil once more to the surface. Unrest, sedition, conspiracy theories, and the ever present religious dispute between, not only Protestant and Catholic, but between the various Protestant sects and Church of England conspire together to destabilize the already shaky rule of Charles II.

All three stories happen in roughly the same major period of English history, but each author chose a different part of it to set their story in and wove very different plots into the setting. Dumas takes an international, diplomatic overview; Orczy takes a local, domestic perspective; and Scott a national, political, and religious angle. I’ll post my reviews of these three books as I write them.

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