The English, and those Americans who regard themselves as the heirs to the traditions of seventeenth-century England, have often been inordinately proud of ‘their’ civil war:
By common consent the rebellion against Charles I belongs to the handful of the ‘great revolutions’ of Europe and the West, cataclysms which appear to mark the turning of times and to signify some fundamental change in the condition of humanity.
This ‘common consent’ has disappeared. A major trend of ‘revisionist’ scholarship has been to cut the English civil war down to size; to see it as a much more commonplace struggle than the term ‘great revolution’ suggests. Conrad Russell, in particular, has stressed that it was the Scots who first offered an effective challenge to Charles I and, furthermore, that the king’s problems have much in common with those faced by continental rulers. His approach exposes the fact that, within much of the British education system, courses described as ‘British history’ are really English history, considered in isolation from developments in continental Europe and in ignorance of events in Scotland and Ireland. Yet the ‘English civil war’ was only one of many struggles between European rulers and their peoples in the mid-seventeenth century: the French monarchy collapsed in the late 1640s, faced with resistance from many sections of the population in the complex risings known as the
; within the Spanish monarchy there were revolts in Catalonia, Portugal, Naples and Sicily; there were severe, if less dramatic, tensions between rulers and ruled in Sweden, the United Provinces, and several German states. Like the king of Spain, Charles I of England ruled over multiple kingdoms and he faced revolt in all of them: England indeed was the last to rebel. It has thus been argued that there could have been no English civil war without the risings in Scotland in 1638 and in Ireland in 1641; the troubles of the 1640s are better understood as the ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’. The English civil war should be regarded as part of a ‘British problem’ which in turn was a manifestation of a ‘General European Crisis’; with this approach, many revisionists challenge the Whig or Marxist stress on the particularly advanced nature of the English. This chapter examines both the insights to be gained through interpreting the English civil war in these wider contexts, and some of the problems thereby encountered.