By Martyn Bennett
It seems extraordinary that after 35 years my thesis on the royalists (and to a lesser extent the parliamentarians) in the Midlands has seen the light of day outside of university libraries. I am pleased to say that it still has a contribution to make. In the popular imagination the civil wars were a battle between Oliver Cromwell and Charles I – two contending behemoths of our collective histories. That it was much more than this still seems to be missed by documentary makers and the writers of fictional accounts of the war. It is a mark of the how Cromwell only rose to prominence during the war itself that he hardly appears in this book at all. In the Midst of the Kingdom is not just a study of the first civil war in the North Midland counties but also a look at who fought it and who paid for it.
There are two central elements to the work, both of which I carried through into my later studies of the civil wars. I was keen to find out how the royalists managed to fight a war for so long, given the traditional perception that it was parliament, based in the great city and port of London which had the ace up its sleeve as far as resources went. Both sides had established financial structures to fund the war, somewhat belatedly – i.e. after the war had begun and exhausted loans and ad hoc funding. These organisations, with some modifications, would go on to be the basis of funding a standing army after the Restoration. The tentacles of these systems stretched further into the social strata than most methods of taxation which preceded them, and for many years, those that followed. We can see this effect through the eyes of the men and women responsible for the collection of resources needed for the armies. County-based committees collected taxation in the form of cash and goods from people like William Cullen and Jane Kitchen of Upton in Nottinghamshire using troops of horse as the collectors. Constables Cullen and Kitchen in turn levied the collections on their fellow villages purchasing everything from cash to beer and beds. The midlands proved a rich ground for surviving constables’ account books which recorded their work in minute detail enabling us to view the war from new perspectives.
A second major theme was identifying the royalist soldiers and administrators who comprised the royalist war effort. This involved prosopographical work – collecting as much detail as possible about the lives and war records of these activists – to explore who and what they were. Their social standing, their experience and war-time careers were analysed. This revealed that the royalists were a mixed bunch largely speaking, neither drawn from the upper social stratum nor the lowest. So many of them have disappeared into the darkness of history that I was surprised to conclude that the familial success which got them an officer’s appointment in the first place was so fragile that few if any records survive of a good number of them.
I used my experience of hunting out the costs of war in later work, when I expanded my studies across the British Isles, seeking out similar information for the rest of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, showing how neither the North Midlands nor England was alone in finding the material resources and money to support the civil wars. In many ways this confirmed what I had found in the Midlands, but it also expanded my understanding of how people coped and how they recorded their experience of paying for the war whilst trying to maintain local administration methods not to mention their property, income and even lives.
It was only in the early years of this century that I began to look at Cromwell; firstly for a biographical dictionary which I completed just as the American company that commissioned it cancelled all of its foreign contracts! Luckily Routledge asked me to write his biography so not everything was wasted although the dictionary still rests in a folder on my laptop. A second book on Cromwell proved to be one of those ‘more questions than answers’ experiences, as the more I found out about how he became a general – the comparatively less I knew about the other generals. Thus I began a project to explore the histories/biographies of all the civil war generals – a project called Cromwell’s Rivals. At present, I am looking at 197 people, all but one of them men. I have returned to using prosopography to understand the backgrounds and experiences of these generals. It will be a long project and I have been helped along the way by enthusiastic students who have all made important contributions to the work. I want the project to have multiple outcomes. There will be a book, a database and magazine articles, etc. I also want the project to have some value for wargamers too. One of the aims is to understand military leadership and how it was exercised by these generals and how their contemporaries viewed success and failure. This could quite naturally be translated from both quantative and qualitative analysis into ‘fighting qualities’ for each and every one of the generals. In turn this might be used to interpret the capacities of wargames generals – special rules of staff rating – encompassed in many rulesets. At the very least it will introduce to a wider world a range of lesser and even unknown civil war general officers!
I haven’t given up on local and regional history on which I cut my teeth; I am still happy to discuss the civil war with local history enthusiasts, but wherever possible I bring into the discussion at least one of the 197 generals!
You can purchase In the Midst of the Kingdom: The Royalist War Effort in the North Midlands, 1642-1646 here.