Today is the anniversary of the birth of Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon: adviser to Charles I and Lord Chancellor under Charles II, and author of the History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England.
I first read bits of of Clarendon’s history of the civil wars while an undergraduate, returned to it again in extracts as a postgraduate, but became gripped by it when I killed some of my commute by reading it all the way through a few years ago, having downloaded a free version from Google Books. It remains one of the great narratives of England’s troubles during the mid-seventeenth century, and not just because of Clarendon’s ability as a writer to capture in a single phrase the essence of the period’s key figures: describing John Hampden, for example, as having ‘a head to contrive, a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute any mischief’, or Oliver Cromwell as a ‘brave bad man’. It’s also because he managed that rare thing of being both protaganist and commentator, combining first-hand knowledge of the political intricacies of the period with a much wider understanding, inspired by his readings in Roman history, of the compromises inherent in any political regime. Of course his views are partial, and he makes that clear from his first sentence: expressing his intention that ‘posterity may not be deceived, by the prosperous wickedness of these times’. But it has taken modern historians a long time to rediscover some of Clarendon’s insights: for example, that ‘paper-skirmishes’ went hand in hand with actual combat, as in this passage:
There was one circumstance not to be forgotten in the march of the Citizens that day, when the shew by Water was little inferior to the other by Land, that the Pikemen had fasten’d to the tops of their pikes, and the rest in their hats or their bosoms, printed Papers of the Protestation which had been taken and enjoyned by the House of Commons the year before for the defence of the Privilege of Parliament; and many of them had the printed Votes of the King’s breaking their Privileges in his coming to the House, and demanding their Member.
As a pamphleteer for the royalist cause, of course, Clarendon was closer than most the world of ‘paper bullets’ that he foregrounds in his account of the outbreak of the wars. Perhaps it’s this that means the History is still remarkably fresh for a modern reader, much closer in spirit to contemporary political diaries like those of Tony Benn or Alan Clark than to a drier work of political commentary.
All of which means I thought I should break my rather long period of silence here to mark Clarendon’s anniversary. There are various free editions of the History on Google Books and the Internet Archive, as well as a modern selection of extracts edited by Paul Seaward. The best book about Clarendon’s own role in the English civil wars remains, 62 years on, Brian Wormald’s Clarendon: Politics, History and Religion. Wormald was a retired fellow at my college when I was an undergraduate: in retrospect I would rather my only encounter with him had been to talk to him about the book, rather than him catching me climbing over a wall taking a shortcut to the pub.
The engraving of Clarendon is a print by David Loggan after Sir Peter Lely, from around the 1660s or 1670s: AN394659001, © the Trustees of the British Museum.