I’ve almost finished reading The English Civil War, by Diane Purkiss. It is a huge book, admirably researched. Its sub-title is ‘A People’s History’, which gives a clue as to why it is such a captivating read. Although Diane Purkiss has a fine grasp of the complex political and religious conflict which precipitated the war, it is the stories of ordinary people caught up in the carnage that really inspire her. Bringing together first-hand accounts from many different sources, she captures the full barbarity and misery of the war as it affected families, communities and industries. Civil war must be the most bitter and savage type of warfare conceivable. Purkiss’ tour-de-force reminds me of narratives about the American Civil War, though none of the ones I have read is her equal in matchless research combined with an exceptional power of description.
Particularly harrowing are her accounts of betrayal – son denouncing father, brother at odds with brother – sometimes done for material gain but more frequently in the name of ‘godliness’. What is also striking is that, in the long term, humanity has benefited from none of the lessons that were so hard-learned in the seventeenth century. A trawl of news websites reveals that half a dozen civil wars are taking place worldwide at the moment, each one conducted with the same unreasoning fury and hatred that drove the clashes between English Royalists and Parliamentarians more than three and a half centuries ago.