David J. Appleby

David J. Appleby is Lecturer in Early Modern History at Nottingham University. 

What initially sparked your interest in the British Civil Wars?

Dad was a professional teacher and a keen historian, so I grew up in a house packed full of history books. My home town of Colchester has a rich Civil War heritage, with many buildings surviving from the time of the great siege of 1648. I used to look at the scars on buildings in the town such as the Old Siege House and St John’s gatehouse and wonder what it was like for those who had fought over them.  Even my school had associations with the Civil Wars, being named after Sir Charles Lucas (a royalist cavalry general), and I was lucky enough to be taught at ‘Charlie Lu’ by some excellent history teachers.

Which individuals, events or forces are especially important in your area of history?

That’s a huge question, as so many forces, individuals and events come to mind. Forces such as religion, a vastly increased population and the growth of popular print culture all influenced events. Although the English Revolution was political rather than social, the conflict gave rise to new ways of thinking about issues such as social justice and democracy. Such ideas did not bear much fruit in the seventeenth century, but in time they came to shape our modern world.

What makes an individual ‘important’? It’s not enough simply to trot out a list of famous faces from the Civil Wars and later decades, like Charles I, John Pym, Thomas Fairfax, Prince Rupert, Oliver Cromwell, John Lilburne, Gerrard Winstanley, General George Monck and Charles II; and even if we add those whose writings have survived to give historians so much insight into the times (such as Lucy Hutchinson, Bulstrode Whitlock, Ralph Josselin, the earl of Clarendon, Samuel Pepys, and the pamphlet collector George Thomason) history is still incomplete. Without the effort, money and sacrifice of ordinary men and women such as Sergeant Nehemiah Wharton and the war widow Martha Emming the great leaders of the times would have achieved nothing.

There are so many important events that it’s difficult to know where to begin – or stop. Among the most important events of the war years were these: Charles I’s attempt to arrest the five Members on 4 January 1642 ensured that there would be no peaceful resolution to the quarrel. Next there was the stand-off at Turnham Green in November 1642, where the combined forces of Parliament and the London Trained Bands faced down the royalist army and thus prevented Charles from seizing London. The intervention of the Scots on the side of Parliament in January 1644 was an event of paramount importance, as were the battles of Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). However, the most important event of the period was undoubtedly the public execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649. At one stroke civil war was turned into revolution, and the world would never be the same again.

Which areas of your field most urgently need further exploration?

I wouldn’t use the term ‘urgently’, because the really big historical questions require careful study and reflection rather than a quick fix.  We need to know more, for example, about how religion continue to affect political culture after the Civil Wars, and we still have a long way to go as regards reconstructing the mental world of the 98% of the population beneath the social level of the gentry.

Which figure in history would you like to go back in time to meet and why?

Some people may think this odd, but if I could go back in time, I’d like to meet Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding of Bentley Priory. Dowding is best known for his role as head of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. Punctilious, highly competent and determined, Dowding has sometimes been caricatured as dour and stuffy, whereas in actuality he had a mischievous sense of humour – particularly where pompous politicians and self-important officials were concerned. He once replied to a long and windy official letter with a single word: ‘Gosh!’ His book Twelve Legions of Angels: an Essay in Straight Thinking (1946), which the British Government initially barred from publication, is typical of his far-sightedness and clear thinking – more redolent of George Orwell than the Air Ministry. I’d love to talk with Dowding in particular about the chapter entitled ‘Why are senior officers so stupid?’ His criticism of a society in which ‘the individualist is suppressed and the good citizen is mass-produced’ has even greater poignancy today than it did in 1946.

As regards the Civil Wars, I’d like to go back and meet General George Monck. He was often portrayed by contemporaries as ponderous and dull-witted. However, no slow-minded dullard could have navigated his way through all the hazards of civil war, and rise from provincial obscurity to a dukedom. Having said that, George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle certainly seems to have been inscrutable, so a time-traveller might be a problem in getting a word out of him!

What is your favourite book?

I’m so addicted to books (particularly history books), that it’s almost impossible to pick a favourite. Like many people, I’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings many times since I was a child and it remains as enjoyable and captivating a read as ever. As regards early modern history, a recent biography that has set a new benchmark for quality is Richard Cust’s Charles I: a Political Life (2005). Also, it might be a little old-fashioned for some tastes, but I do enjoy re-reading the essays in C. V. Wedgwood’s History and Hope (1987). At one time it was fashionable to dismiss Wedgwood as a mere narrative historian, but her writings can still inspire a passion for history and bring the past to life. I regularly recommend History and Hope to my students as an example of how to write with precision, clarity and elegance. Wonderful. ■

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Publications

Black Bartholomew's Day: Preaching, Polemic and Restoration Nonconformity (Manchester University Press, 2007) 

Our fall Our Fame : The Life and Times of Sir Charles Lucas (1613-1648)(Jacobus Publications, 1996)