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The State Of English Civil War Education
The very state of it
You probably know who Oliver Cromwell was. Not when he lived, maybe, or what his wars were all about, but you will know his name anyway because the Irish curse it to this day. Also because there are dozens of books and a major motion picture about him.
Even the name of his conflicts has nowhere near the same “brand recognition” as Cromwell. According to a snapshot survey that you kind readers helped me conduct last week (thanks readers!), less than 40 percent of respondents recall ever learning about the English Civil Wars at any point in their education.
Of course, it was not a real survey. Most of my readers are in the United States, though I do have quite a number elsewhere in the “English-speaking world,” mostly in the United Kingdom. Thing is, neither the “English-speaking world” or the United Kingdom would exist without the English Civil Wars.
Even this name has been contentious, with some preferring to call the entire period of strife between 1638 and 1655 “The Wars of the Three Kingdoms.” Complex as the politics of these conflicts were, bringing Old English and Irish together, Scotland and Parliament together and then setting them apart again, dividing the kingdom of England and the hearts of English people, we barely know them today.
Divisions over these wars continued after they definitively ended in the 1660 Restoration. At the risk of oversimplification, the divide between views sympathetic to Parliament and King became the essential “Whig” and “Tory” cleft in British politics after the Restoration, shaping the politics of British colonies in the process.
Americans had a Whig Party before their own civil war. More to the point, the last battle of the English Civil Wars was fought on the shores of the future United States in 1655. The Battle of the Severn took place at Kent Island, a trading post set up by the revolutionary faction of London merchants. Maryland was a proprietary colony that belonged to Catholic Calverts. Only about three hundred men fought outside the town of Providence, but it was a desperate stand.
William Claiborne, the investor behind Kent Island, had already fought the first naval battles in North America to secure his stake in 1635. Coming out the loser in these small engagements, he revived the effort during the English Civil War. Claiborne was just one of the colonizing, piratical Puritan merchants of London who associated with Maurice Thompson, the architecht of that infamous Atlantic trade triangle between Africa and the Americas.
Thompson and another Claiborne investor, William Cloberry, were both associates of John Fowke, haberdasher and merchant adventurer. Fowke is the subject of my thesis project. Of all the men in London who formed the “war party” against the king, Fowke has the most direct influence on every critical part of the “war machine,” and the longest record of bitter opposition to Charles I. You would think that such a man would be the focus of at least one book, but that has never happened yet.
John Fowke is not the cause of the war. Rather, he was proximate to all the most important causes of war in London, center of the rebellion in 1643, and then he was instrumental to all the upheavals of Parliament that followed on the victory his efforts helped achieve. After the wars were over, Fowke kept collaborating with Thompson, Claiborne, Cloberry, and their like as they sent Cromwellian policy in new, aggressive directions: the Anglo-Dutch wars, the abortive design to conquer the West Indies, renewed naval construction.
Historiography is the history of historians. The first chapter of a history thesis should explain the historiography of the topic, and there are centuries of English Civil War historians. Reading over my draft of that first chapter, it is striking how many of those historians have added some piece or pieces to the puzzle picture of John Fowke, and how many either ignored or downright dismissed his larger importance in pursuit of their own interests.
In all that time, the raging debate has been the causes of the war: why did this happen? seems to be the unanswerable question, and Fowke eloquently answers for all the important crimes. Yet no one has written an indictment. Strange that it was left to me, but I have taken up the task.
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