CFP: Representing the British Civil Wars

Call for Papers

Representing the British Civil Wars 1660-2009: Adaptation, Reflection, Transmission, Debate

University of Manchester, 4-6 December, 2009

This conference considers the ways in which the conflict period of the 1640s and 1650s have been manifest in culture, political thought, historiography and popular imagination, from Southey’s Life of Oliver Cromwell to Clarendon, from To Kill a King to the imminent film of Paradise Lost. The conference looks at cultural appropriation and the ways in which particular representational tropes have been developed and perpetuated.

Sessions and panels might consider immediate post-Restoration versions of the conflict, or consider how radical theories of liberty and rights influenced political philosophy during the eighteenth century. Why is the notion of civil dispute still so potent in British culture, and why is the Cavalier/ Roundhead binary so difficult to get rid of? How have the complexities of the conflict been represented? What of the complex and continuing historiography? Which cultural clichés have become associated with the wars of this period? How have writers, dramatists, novelists, poets and filmmakers adapted texts from the time and how have they imagined the period?

Papers might consider the versions of the war found in popular novels, in drama, in film and in poetry, portraiture and song. Of particular interest might be the following: Iain Pears, David Kinloch, Cromwell, Witchfinder General, Great Britons, Tristram Hunt, popular historical writing, The Devil’s Whore, Scott’s Woodstock, Antonia Fraser, documentary series, docudrama, By the Sword Divided, historiographical paradigms (conflict/ contention, civil war/ revolution/ war of three kingdoms), wargames, boardgames, adaptation, bespoke computer game hacks, museums and exhibits.

Please send abstracts (300 words) or panel proposals by April 30 to


Cromwell 350 cursed – Yet more things noted

Phew! The fun just doesn’t stop. This coming weekend those with an interest in the life of Oliver Cromwell are literally spoilt for choice with 350th anniversary events. Over at Basing House, (or what’s left of it after Oliver’s notorious 1645 assault) there will be a series of talks on Cromwell’s military career. £2 for adults, £1 for children.

Over at the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon, there’s a new exhibition on his life and an accompanying programme of events, including various historical re-enactments, some of which involve leeches.

And at Oliver Cromwell’s House, Ely, there is a special lecture on Cromwell’s life tomorrow (3rd Sept) and on Saturday, a civil war re-enactment which promises a guest appearance from the man himself on horseback. Remember to bring a brolly though. Local white witch Kevin Carylon has hexed the event in protest at Cromwell’s persecution of pagans during the 1640s.

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 9:43 am  Comments (1)  
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H. E. Marshall’s Oliver Cromwell

Henriette Elizabeth Marshall is best known as the author of ‘Our Island Story’ (first published in 1905.) Probably the most popular work of British history ever written for children, it became a bestseller all over again when re-issued in 2005. That centenary edition was the product of a campaign by the right-wing think-tank Civitas and the Daily Telegraph, which saw ‘Our Island Story’ as the story as the perfect antidote to the fragmented, Nazi-obsessed history being taught in British schools.

The book has been seen as the epitome of a triumphalist view of British history, focussing on the great deeds of our kings and queens, written while large portions of the globe were still painted pink and with none of those nasty, post-colonial qualms about whether the empire had really been a good thing.

However, as Antonia Fraser noted, this is to misread what is, in fact, a subtly subversive text. It is often forgotten that Marshall wrote Our Island Story when she was living in Melbourne. Her book seems to be far more a product of freer, more democratic, turn of the century Australia than class-ridden Edwardian Britain. Proto-feminists (Australian women had got the vote in 1902) are identified in Boadicea and (the probably mythical) Jenny Geddes. The rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt are praised for securing vital freedoms for the common people. Kings are only commended when, like Alfred the Great, they are seen to have worked for the good of the people. Warmongers like Richard the Lionheart are given short shrift.

The incipient radicalism of Marshall’s work is no better displayed than in her treatment of the civil wars. She praises Cromwell’s troops as ‘splendid soldiers’, disciplined and godly in comparison to the ‘rash’ Royalists. After the war, she tells us that the army treated the King ‘very kindly’ even though Charles had been ‘wicked’ and ‘foolish’. She admits that the King met his death with dignity, but leaves her judgment on the regicide to the equivocal words of Marvell’s ‘Horation Ode.’ As Lord Protector, Marshall tells us that Cromwell was ‘stern and autocratic’ like the Stuarts, but unlike his royal predecessors he ‘really thought of the good of the country.’ Nonetheless, he was a ‘tyrant’ and ‘bitterly hated.’

This picture of Cromwell is ambiguous enough to fit in with a traditional Whig view of history. A Lord Protector who was a ‘good thing’ (in that he challenged the power of kings, established a British Parliament and increased the nation’s reputation abroad) but not a ‘good man.’

However, two years after publishing her classic work, the prolific Marshall produced another book, ‘The Story of Oliver Cromwell’ (in the US given the title, Through Great Britain and Ireland with Oliver Cromwell.) In this narrative of the civil war and interregnum, (which like ‘Our Island Story’ continues to blend myth and history, including the story of how the infant Oliver was stolen from his crib by a monkey), the picture of Cromwell that emerges is far more positive. Though acknowledging that opinion on the Lord Protector remained divided Marshall believed that:

‘if Cromwell did not quite succeed, he showed the way, and we now have much that he tried to give to the people of his time. When you grow older you will be able to see how from Cromwell’s days we date our freedom in many things, our union, our command of the seas, and even the beginnings of Greater Britain. And I hope that … you will learn to love the large soul of this true Englishman who, under his grimness and sternness, hid a tender heart.’

It seems that the members of Civitas and right-wing historians like Andrew Roberts have unwittingly been recommending British schoolchildren read a surreptitiously pacifist, feminist and republican version of ‘Our Island Story.’

Cromwell carnival anyone?

As I’m sure everyone knows, it’s the 350th anniversary of Cromwell’s death this year. I’ve been thinking about organising a mini-blog carnival on Cromwell (assuming nobody else has got there first) so drop me a line if you are interested in contributing. I’ve been in touch with a few Cromwell scholars, including Tom Reilly, author of Cromwell: An Honourable Enemy which caused quite a stir when it was originally published and is being re-issued this year. I’m hoping to put a up a few short articles on Cromwell by people like Tom here to get debate going.

I’m not going to suggest themes – let your imagination run riot.

Just how evil was Oliver Cromwell?

A while ago, my wife bought me a pack of ‘Terror Top Chumps’ playing cards as a stocking-filler. I hadn’t really looked at them until the other day and was a bit surprised to see that the only British entry in this rogues gallery was Oliver Cromwell. I reproduce his card and that of Mussolini below for comparison.

Now, I, of course, complained that the Cromwell card was terribly inaccurate. How could he be responsible for 600000 deaths? As far as I know, the usually quoted figure (taken from Charles Carleton’s Going to the Wars) for England is 85,000 killed in combat with a further 100,000 dying from injuries or disease. The fighting in both Scotland and particularly Ireland was nastier, though their populations were smaller and, as I recall, the civil wars accounted for 20% drop in Ireland’s population, not a 40% one. (Which is still pretty horrendous.) So, even if you make Cromwell accountable for every single death in Britain’s civil wars, 600k still seems too high.

At this point, my wife, who I was boring with all this, pointed out that I was really saying that Cromwell was probably only responsible for 10000s of deaths rather than 100,000s, which didn’t really make him a swell all-round guy.

Which got me thinking. Leaving aside the good or bad taste of basing a card game on historical mass-murderers, how do we assess ‘evil’ historically? For many English people, Cromwell remains a ‘Great Briton.’ For many Irish people, he’s the Devil in human form and synonymous with everything bad about British rule. What, if anything, distinguishes Cromwell from Mussolini? Were the deaths Cromwell was responsible for acceptable because they were mostly armed combatants? (What successful general won’t be responsible for the deaths of many people in some way?) Or is it just a question of which side of the Irish sea you are looking at him from?

Cromwell’s 350 years dead this year. Will we be commemorating a great hero or a historical villain?

cromwell terror top chump card


Published in: on March 9, 2008 at 11:07 am  Comments (2)  
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