Horses, People and Parliament

by Nick

Gavin Robinson, Horses, People and Parliament in the English Civil War: Extracting Resources and Constructing Allegiance (Ashgate, 2012).

‘Parliamentarian’ and ‘Royalist’ are two of those words that it’s easy to throw around unthinkingly. Partly it’s because they are such a convenient shorthand for a set of concepts that are too complicated to express succinctly, that we can forget the nuances that come with them. But as the introduction of Horses, People and Parliament points out, it’s also because they are bound up with the particular way civil war allegiance has been defined in the twentieth century:

Essentialist assumptions about identity are so deeply embedded in the English language that they are difficult to challenge, or even recognize. It feels perfectly natural to say that a person was royalist, and awkwardly unnatural to say that a person did royalism.

Gavin’s starting point, following the lead set by Rachel Weil, is that there is much profit to be made from thinking about the external aspects of allegiance: what a person did, rather than what a person felt. This can feel counter-intuitive for historians conditioned to trying to reconstruct individual beliefs and collective mentalities. A person’s actions, after all, can be carried out unwillingly or due to necessity, rather than through free will. But as Gavin points out, the sources for reconstructing what a seventeenth-century person thought are much less abundant than those for reconstructing what the same person did.

And for contemporaries, actions could be just as, if not more, important than their beliefs. For MPs and county committee members struggling to fund the war effort, allegiance was ultimately about providing resources in cash and in kind. For a certain kind of godly puritan, a dry, legalist adherence to godly doctrines was inferior to a vigorous, outward-focused style of worship which turned those doctrines into practical actions. Seventeenth-century concepts of gender were as much performative as they were essentialist. Contemporaries did not necessarily privilege beliefs over deeds.

Following this idea to its logical conclusion may mean, as Gavin argues, that we need to jettison the terms Royalist and Parliamentarian altogether. Too often one comes across accounts of seventeenth-century men and women which say ‘she was a Royalist’, or ‘he was a Parliamentarian’: only to find out that this is based on a single tax they paid, item they sold, or statement they uttered. As Gavin points out, if civil war identities can be reduced to a mixture of only five binary oppositions – class, gender, religion, ethnicity and which side was picked – that still leaves thirty-two different sets of identities.

Allegiance, then, is messy and complicated. Rather than seeking to tidy up the mess, Horses, People and Parliament tries to use empirical evidence of how MPs and county committees sought to supply their armies with horses in order to uncover and describe it. Although Gavin seeks to draw out trends where he can, what emerges most from his analysis is the individual, and how hard they are to put into boxes. There are elite women like Lady Leye of Dichley, described in one account book as one of ‘severall men’. There are middling sort men like the vicar Cornelius Burges, who orchestrated a petition to Parliament offering a cavalry troop to Parliament, previously assumed to have been a example of localism but also with links to the junto. There are horses like those belonging to Captain George Thompson, ‘one blacke w[i]th two white feete and a blase downe his face, the other a bright bay’, or like Gunpowder and Sparks sent by the Earl of Lincoln as part of a group of seven. All of these individuals, whether human or animal, refuse easy categorisation.

The description of Lady Leye, in particular, is a wonderful vignette that captures some of the paradoxes in how contemporaries conceived of allegiance (and how different these can be to our own conceptions). It is a minor niggle, but I would have liked to have seen more on the role of gender in unpicking twentieth-century categories of allegiance. Gavin has been inspired by work by Ann Hughes and others, which analyses in a contextually-specific way what contemporaries understood by gender, to do the same for allegiance. Chapter one, in particular, uses gender as a way to unravel the monolithic identities – ‘well-affected men’, and so on – that were imposed on those who provided resources to Parliament. Other chapters look at how the wives of delinquents could exercise agency beyond that of their husbands, and at how concepts of masculinity were tied up with how Parliament defined and ‘othered’ its enemies. However, the focus is not quite as sustained in subsequent chapters as it is in the first (although bonus marks for the reference in the index under ‘men’, which simply reads passim).

But I like the messiness of what emerges from this analysis. It builds on recent historiography that sees contingency and chance as critical to the origins and outcome of the civil wars. And it stresses the way in which allegiance was fashioned or constructed, rather than necessarily innate. Actions could foist identities upon people unwillingly just as much as they could carefully craft an allegiance. Those appearing before the Committee of Compounding, for example, were quick to stress what they had done to support Parliament, or at least what they had not done to support the king. But those providing horses for Essex’s army in 1642, or for the Eastern Association in 1643, could equally provide them only with reluctance or at the hands of requisitioners.

I also love Gavin’s argument that, on this definition, animals could have allegiances just as much as humans. Horses had their own temperaments, and did not always respond to human attempts to control them. Given how essential horses were to civil war armies – not just for cavalry, but for supply as well – their willingness or unwillingness to comply could be just as important as human decisions about whether to provide king or Parliament with resources.  There are shades here of ‘for the want of a nail’, not just in terms of how battles were fought but also in terms of how resources were gathered.

Where the book is perhaps a little less systematic in unpicking traditional labels is with the third member of the trio in its title: Parliament. The horses and people who feature in the book emerge very strongly as diverse individuals. So too do MPs, whose identities were complicated by their twin roles in their constituencies and Westminster. Gavin is careful with his language, using royalist and parliamentarian rarely (and then only without capitals, and usually to describe how the terms have been used by others). Even so, despite stressing the factional divisions amongst MPs, at points in the book Parliament itself to some extent retains a single identity. This is a difficult point: terms like king and Parliament are synecdoches behind which lie much wider groups of people, but history books would be unreadable if we didn’t employ them. Nevertheless, there were a few points in this book where Parliament does things, and where I wondered: who actually did this? On any given day, the attendance in the Lords and the Commons varied; the motivations of the men attending may have been different; the influences of local committees, petitioners and men-of-business may have varied. Parliament did not have a single will or an essential, internal identity – despite the conventions of parliamentary language that survive to this day, and which would like you to believe that it does.

Horses, People and Parliament has important things to say about how parliamentary armies were supplied with horses, overturning a number of orthodoxies about how Parliament (see? I’ve done it too) went about the task, and about the priority it gave it. But at its heart, the book is an argument: a challenge to historians to think more widely about the vocabulary and methodologies they use when analysing and describing civil war identities. It has certainly succeeded in challenging me.

Disclaimer: Gavin kindly gave me a copy of this book, and I commented on a chapter or two of it in draft as well as following the early stages of some of its ideas on Gavin’s blog. I hope I have not pulled any punches as a result (and I suspect Gavin would be the first to encourage me not to hold back with criticism!).