The nine years of civil war that consumed the British Isles in the years 1642-51 were the bloodiest and most violent in the entire history of these islands. It is estimated that in England one in four people out of a population of five million was caught up in the conflict, and in the county of Devon alone 12,000 deaths were attributable to the war. Battle casualties in England totalled 85,000 - 4,000 Royalist troops were slaughtered in just two hours at Marston Moor in 1644 - and there were another 40,000 non-combatant deaths as a result of war-borne disease. In Scotland the respective figures were 28,000 and 15,000, but all these statistics are dwarfed by the terrible toll in Ireland. The most conservative estimate for John Bull's other island is that 192,000 were killed, but some put the number of dead as high as 618,000. All in all, it is likely that some half a million souls perished in the decade of slaughter, and such per capita death rates exceed even the butcher's bill in the American Civil War; they are topped in all history only by the horrendous figures for the Thirty Years War and the hecatombs of carnage on the Eastern Front in 1941-45 when Hitler's war machine was humbled by the Red Army.
But the horror of the 17th-century British Civil War does not end there. Rape was endemic and atrocities almost taken for granted. Liverpool, Bolton, Leicester, Aberdeen, Dundee, Cirencester and Brentford were all mercilessly sacked by one side or the other. Cromwell's atrocities at Drogheda and Wexford in 1649 during his "pacification" of Ireland notched up casualties as great as in the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby combined.
The great merit of Trevor Royle's superb narrative history of these events is that he presents this catalogue of horror unflinchingly and once more points up the moral that in so-called civilisation we skate all the time on the thinnest of ice. Royle is a master storyteller, so he spends little time on the issues that have so bedevilled academic historians of this period in the past 50 years. Those who want discussions of the alleged rise and fall of the gentry, of the Civil War as "bourgeois revolution" or the 1640s as an era of "general crisis", will have to go elsewhere. So absorbing and stimulating is Royle's book that he sets one's historical pulse racing. Throughout his brilliant text I kept thinking of the many similarities with the American Civil War of 1861-65: not just the death toll, but the homologue of Oxford and Richmond, Virginia, as doomed capitals, the role of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, peerless cavalry commander, as forerunner of the South's Jeb Stuart, and much else. Most of all one's response is divided, as it is over the American Civil War. While slavery was an undoubted evil, some aspects of Southern culture were superior to the hard- faced protectionist industrial capitalism of the North. Similarly, while one deplores the despotic tendencies of Charles I, one is also left cold by the unblinkered fanaticism of Pym, Cromwell and many of the other Parliamentarians. Only the very finest writers can conjure such feelings of ambiguity and ambivalence, and it is Royle's great triumph that one constantly understands the different viewpoints of the two sides, even when separated by irreconcilable differences.
Another perceptible similarity between the two great civil wars of the English-speaking nations is that the eventual losing side seemed at first to be on an unstoppable winning streak. Although the battle of Edgehill in 1642 was really a draw, it was widely regarded as a Royalist victory. …