Socialist Worker

More than a religious war

by Theresa Bennett
Issue No. 1782

OVER A million people tried to log on to the new 1901 census internet site. The History of Britain series presented by Simon Schama was a huge success. It was followed by the popular Timewatch and Blood of the Vikings series which showed the massive audience interested in historical events. Faced with the growing popularity of history, BBC2 has come up with the four part series Civil War to be screened on Mondays at 8.30pm.

The 1640s civil war led to the beheading of King Charles I, revolutionary change and the establishment of a republic. 'The real meaning of the English Civil War is that it brought the capitalist class to power, and removed all obstacles to the expansion of trade and manufacture which led to the industrial revolution,' wrote historian Norah Carlin.

Civil War is written and presented by historian Tristram Hunt. He adds little more than religion to the view that it is the actions of kings and queens that make history. In the first programme the social relationships that contributed to the breakdown of the society between 1637 and 1641 are not mentioned.

The conclusion put forward is that specific quirks of personality and circumstance resulted in the historical events of war, rebellion and revolution. Hunt fails to acknowledge the great upheavals taking place in England and across Europe between the old ruling elite around the monarchs, and the gentry around the newly emerging manufacturing classes.

Instead of outlining the context of the upheavals, Hunt puts forward his own version of history.

Rubbishing the idea that society can be changed through revolution is the whole point to his analysis. The programme's central claim is that the civil war was really a war about religion. Hunt suggests that the revolution did not succeed because Britain is now effectively a secular state.

Writing in the New Statesman Tristram Hunt presents Oliver Cromwell as 'the man who banned Christmas', claiming he was the leader of 'Britain's very own Taliban'. Popular discontent can express itself in religious terms, and often has - which Hunt fails to acknowledge.

The conflict is presented as a clash between the Catholic and Protestant faiths and compared to the Cold War of capitalism versus Communism. It was jarring to watch this attempt to reinterpret historical events using current political ideas of terrorism and ethnic cleansing. This badly made programme is only useful for providing people with the basic dates, names and events in history.

To really understand how the feudal order was challenged and overturned there are many books I would recommend. They include:

  • A People's History of the World by Chris Harman (£12.99). This is a Marxist history of human civilisation which includes a brilliant analysis of the English Revolution.
  • Englishmen With Swords by Montague Slater (£4.99). Wonderful novel about the civil war.

Both these books, and many others about the civil war, are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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Article information

Sat 12 Jan 2002, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1782
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