Why I feel sorry for the English Civil War

2 January 2010

Now it may seem a bit odd to feel sorry for a period in history, but bear with me…

I first began to feel sorry for the English Civil War when, as a fresh faced teenage history geek, I decided to join a well known re-enactment society, which will remain nameless. I had always been totally fascinated by the political machinations, personal tragedies and tribulations and flamboyant characters of the Civil War and so joined up hoping that not only would I get to spend my weekends dressed up but also that I would get to spend time with like minded, similarily history obsessed folk.

Oh reader, I was so naive. I met a couple of people who liked history but the vast, VAST majority of the other members were either role players who were more at home with plastic swords and rubber elf ears and meat headed, drink addled thugs and their fat wives. However, when you think about it, this at least is rather authentic except in the respect that the sum total knowledge of any of these people about the seventeenth century in general and the English Civil War in particular could be written in an oversized marker pen on the back of a postage stamp.

I didn’t last long as a reenactor and eventually hung up my musket and banquetting gown after just a year, disillusioned, demoralised and saddened by the awful, shocking ignorance of the other members. I laugh derisively now when I hear of people attending their displays, fondly imagining that they are going to be regaled by an authentic spectacle performed by true enthusiasts. Oh yes, they are enthusiasts alright, just not of history or anything resembling it.

Well, as I have said before: Those who don’t know anything about history are doomed to re-enact it.

My feelings of pity for the English Civil War continued apace, encouraged by the general apathy and ignorance of the British populace towards the period. They all know about the Roundheads and Cavaliers and, possibly, that Charles I had his head chopped off, but that’s as far as it goes.

There was also the occasion when I joined a historical fiction forum and expressed interest in someone’s work in progress about ‘the Civil War’ only to be snootily informed that they were writing about the American Civil War and they didn’t know that the English had even had one. Now, close your eyes and imagine Gone With The Wind set in 1642 instead and weep for what might have been.

There is Forever Amber of course, which isn’t strictly a Civil War book (around these parts, ‘Civil War’ exclusively refers to the English one) as it is more about the Restoration, and which is, in my opinion, one of the finest books ever written. It’s huge, it’s over the top and it is amazingly, wonderfully entertaining. A true page turner.

Drama wise there is of course, By The Sword Divided, a huge BBC drama that was shown in two parts in the 1980s and which served to inflame my burgeoning interest in all things Civil War. Like everyone else, I desperately wanted to be Lucinda Lacey, the beautiful, mutinous, hot headed daughter of Sir Martin, who dresses up as a boy and smuggles the family silver to Charles I, all for the love of Prince Rupert. It was fantastic.

More recently, there was The Devil’s Whore, a Channel 4 drama which promised great things but sadly failed to deliver. The heroine, Angelica Fanshawe was a great character and the actress who played her had what my grandmother would have called ‘an old fashioned face’ but there was something missing, something not quite right about the whole affair and not even the presence of John Simm (oh, I love him) could save it from becoming a turgid, ridiculous mess that owed more to 1066 and All That than any scholarly tome.

What do you think? Does the English Civil War deserve to be more appreciated or should we just consign it to the dustbin of history?

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