IN THE SIXTEENTH AND SEVENTEENTH CENTURIES ENGLAND underwent a startling series of transformations. The turbulent reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts witnessed the Protestant Reformation, the growth of powerful monarchies, the English Civil War, and the colonization of the New World. In this, the second volume of his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Sir Winston Churchill turned his considerable rhetorical and analytical acumen to weaving a compelling and insightful narrative of these formative centuries.
It is amazing to consider that Winston Churchill, despite a busy political career, had the time and capability to write forty-five books. A number of forces brought him to such prolific heights. Churchill had a genuine curiosity about how things happened which reading and writing history helped satiate. Writing history also served as a way to influence political opinion. But financial necessity primarily caused Churchill to write so many books, for Churchill’s personal income could not support his lifestyle. While he was writing A History of The English-Speaking Peoples, in the late 1930s, his debt was so large that he took out an ad in the London Times to sell his beloved home of Chatham. He was bailed out by Sir Henry Strakosh. But he counted on the royalties of the four-volume work to pay back the loan.
Such a concern with output influenced Churchill’s method of composing books. Churchill never spent time in the archives, rather he would read general histories like those written by S. R. Gardiner and Leopold von Ranke and rely on a team of research assistants who supplied him with memoranda on topics he found interesting. Some of these assistants were great historians in their own right. Keith Feiling had already published his influential History of the Tory Party and Maurice Ashley would eventually write a host of books on the Stuart era. Luckily Ashley has left a record of what it was like to work for the great man. In his Churchill as Historian Ashley recalls that Churchill would pace up and down dictating from eleven at night until two in the morning, when he let his secretaries go home. Ashley would stay up working with Churchill for another hour, and Churchill himself would read until four in the morning. Although the assistants would provide Churchill with the facts, the interpretation was his own. He once told Ashley, “Give me the facts. . . and I will twist them the way I want to suit my argument.” Bill Deakin also recounted that when working for Churchill “One felt exhilarated. Part of the secret was his phenomenal, fantastic power to concentrate on what he was doing. And he communicated it. Y ou were absolutely a part of it—swept into it. I might have given him some memorandum before dinner, four or five hours before. Now he would walk up and down dictating. My facts were there, but he had seen it in deeper perspective. My memorandum was only a frame; it ignited his imagination.”
Churchill’s imagination and interpretation draw readers to his histories. His considerable political experience informs his work especially when he analyzes the decisions and personalities of the political actors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Reading Churchill’s books, however, reveals more than how one of the greatest British statesmen viewed the past, it also provides insight into Churchill’s own character, for A History of the English-Speaking Peoples shows how the author’s biography influenced his biases, interpretations, and interests. The rest of this introduction will place The New World in the context of Churchill’s life experiences.
Churchill was born in 1874 in Blenheim Palace, the house built by the famous British general, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough. His parents were Lord Randolph Churchill, who would rise to the heights of Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the American heiress Jennie Churchill (nee Jerome). In the circumstances of his birth lies much of his historical interest. For Churchill, history was a family affair: Two of his books, Lord Randolph Churchill and the four-volume Marlborough, directly celebrate his ancestors. Even in The New World where the Churchills played minor roles at best, Winston reserves some of his most flowery language for his illustrious ancestor when he describes the future Duke of Marlborough, who was a minor courtier during the reign of Charles II. Churchill effuses, “in Charles’ Court, at his side, there was already a young man, an ensign in his Guards, a partner in his games at tennis, and intruder, as he learned with some displeasure, in the affections of Lady Castlemaine, who would one day grasp a longer and a brighter sword than Cromwell’s and wield it in wider fields, only against the enemies of British greatness and freedom.” Churchill’s ancestral piety brings him to hyperbole.
But for most of the era covered by the book, the Churchills were obscure, and the community of English-speaking peoples, another idea born of his Anglo-American birth, captivates Winston. Since this volume ends in 1688 when the British colonies were quite small, Churchill rarely mentions major events in colonial history, except when his eponymous ancestor mentions the “sunburnt America” in his panegyric of Britain. Churchill’s admiration for America can find some release in his one chapter on the American colonies where he deems the Mayflower Compact “one of the most remarkable documents in history. . . .” Churchill mostly explores the theme of commonality among English speakers by finding the origins of common links that would unite them. For instance, he sees the American view of the courts being above the central authority as emerging from the ideas of Edward Coke, a lawyer who opposed some of the arbitrary measures of Charles I.
The King James Bible serves as the most important link that Churchill identifies. He considers the Bible “James’ greatest achievement. . . . The scholars who produced this masterpiece are mostly unknown and unremembered. But they forged an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English speaking peoples of the world.” Churchill also argued for the Bible’s importance by claiming that “if the adventurers to the new world brought any books over with them it was the Bible, Shakespeare, and later Pilgrim’s Progress.” The fact that the King James Bible receives a great deal of attention, but neither Shakespeare nor John Bunyan merit even an entry in the index reveals much about Churchill’s biases. To Churchill, Shakespeare and Bunyan represented literary, cultural, or religious figures, but James I was a political actor, and Churchill was not interested in social or cultural history; his concerns were politics and war.
His concern with war may have come from his having fought in or witnessed a host of small imperial wars. As a soldier or a newspaper correspondent Churchill saw battles in such exotic places as the Himalayas, Sudan, and South Africa. Later in his career, he served as first lord of the admiralty and founded the Royal Navy Air Service in 1912. His leadership of the Navy during World War I was not Churchill’s most stellar moment; he bore the brunt of the blame for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign and after being dismissed to the lowest cabinet post, resigned from the cabinet and joined the army serving as a battalion commander for the Sixth Royal Scots Fusiliers.
Not surprisingly, warfare and the technology of warfare dominate this book. Advanced weaponry and tactics repeatedly appear as the reasons for military success. In the 1490s, for instance, English cannons “spoke to Irish castles in a language they readily understood,” and enabled the English for the first time to truly dominate Ireland. In the battle of Flodden, the Scottish forces drawn up in the traditional circles around their king and armed with spears could not fend off the English bowmen, cavalry, and infantry armed with bills and axes. The greatest English victory, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, occupies nine pages of the book and Churchill delves into every detail. Technology, once again, plays a major role. Churchill emphasizes Hawkins’ installation of long-range canons, military tactics, and the weather. Churchill’s obsession with technology is so intense that even in cases where technology was not employed he speculates what would have happened. Even though the English troops of 1512 were defeated by dysentery not the French, Churchill mentions that they would have been ill-equipped to deal with the professional French army, who were armed with pikes and marched in squares.
In 1900, Churchill returned to England after escaping from a Boer POW camp in South Africa and he entered Parliament as a Tory, beginning his mercurial, distinguished, yet topsy-turvy political career. Four years after his election by the constituents of Oldham he switched from the Tory party to the Liberal party, then, in 1924, he switched again to the Tories. Such frequent changes of alliance may explain Churchill’s favorable views of Henry VIII and the Earl of Stratford. Henry VIII is notorious for inconstancy with his foreign policy, his view of the Church, and his wives. Churchill may have seen bits of himself in the great T udor monarch, describing the king as having “bursts of restless energy and ferocity. . . combined with extraordinary patience and diligence. . . an indefatigable worker, he digested a mass of dispatches, memoranda, and plans each day without the help of a secretary.” Churchill also gives Henry VIII much credit. After describing the executions of queens, ministers, nobles, and commoners in detail (he was after all trying to sell books), Churchill relates that Henry “succeeded in maintaining order,” avoided religious warfare, laid the basis for British sea power, revived Parliament, gave the English Bible to the people, and strengthened a popular monarchy.
Such praise for Henry while not universal is certainly not unique, but Churchill’s view of Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Stratford, is certainly unusual. Stratford had begun his parliamentary career as a member of the opposition, attacking Charles I’s favorite and chief minister the Duke of Buckingham. But in late 1628 Wentworth joined the court party and later served as Charles I’s right-hand man in Ireland where he introduced the policy of “thorough,” the rebuilding of the position of church and state through “a little violence and extraordinary means.” When Charles I faced a rebellious Scotland, Stratford was called back to England where he advocated using more than a little violence against the Scots and perhaps England as well. This advice leaked out and Stratford was tried for treason and then declared guilty by a bill of attainder. Churchill strongly maintains Stratford’s innocence, claiming “there was no doubt he had won his case.” But he also realizes that if Stratford’s policies were implemented, the common freedoms which he sees as binding the English-speaking peoples together would have had a lot harder time developing. In a muffled condemnation of Parliament he stated, “They slaughtered a man they could not convict, but that man if given his full career, would have closed perhaps for generations the windows of civic freedom upon the English people.”
While Churchill’s empathy for Stratford is muted by his sense that his policies, if successfully implemented, would have sounded the death knell of English freedoms, his admiration for Stratford’s boss, Charles I, knows no bounds. Perhaps because his family fought on the royalist side, perhaps because growing up under Queen Victoria enhanced his monarchism, or perhaps because of his hatred of Oliver Cromwell, Churchill’s view of Charles I is favorable in the extreme. His view of England during Charles’ personal rule is idyllic and quite wrong. Churchill states, “the land was good, springtime, summertime, autumn, had their joys; in the winter there was the Yule log and new amusements. Agriculture and fox hunting cast their compulsive or soothing balms upon restless spirits. Harvests were now abundant and the rise in prices had almost ceased. There was no longer a working class problem. The poor law was administered with exceptional humanity.” Of course such an England never existed except in fiction. England experienced bad harvests from 1629 to 1631 and the constitutional controversies and Charles I’s policies of granting monopolies hurt the cloth and soap industries causing unrest among workers.
Churchill does more than ignore the economic history of Charles I’s reign replacing it with the imagery of Merrie Old England; he heaps praise upon the unsuccessful king who “had been in his heyday the convinced opponent of all we now call our parliamentary liberties.” Churchill tries to mitigate Charles I’s actions by claiming that his mistakes came not from craving for power but from “the conception of kingship to which he was born and which had long been the settled custom of the land.” Churchill further claims that Charles in fact “increasingly became the physical embodiment of the liberties and traditions of England.” Certainly Charles’ bravery at the scaffold, and the book Eikon Basilike, written in his name, helped preserve the institution of monarchy, but Churchill goes too far when he claims that by dying “he preserved English liberties.” Of course, Churchill’s view of Charles was greatly influenced by his seething
Hatred of Charles’ political opponent, Oliver Cromwell.
Such hatred sprang forth in part from the author’s belief that the Lord Protector was a seventeenth-century version of Hitler and Mussolini and also because at the time of the composition of the book, Churchill was out of the cabinet and could do nothing to stop the Axis dictators except occasionally rail against them in the House of Commons. His leftover vitriol he reserved for Cromwell. Churchill paints Cromwell as the other, as not English. For in Churchill’s mind Englishness meant the defense of liberty and Cromwell was its opponent. He calls Cromwell “a representative of dictatorship and military rule who. . . is in lasting discord with the genius of the English race.” In fact, he further claims that the English could not be ruled by a tyrant for long: “In harsh or melancholy epochs free men may always take comfort from the grand lesson of history that tyrannies cannot last except among servile races.”
The fact that Churchill composed his books during the late 1930s, the time of the Austrian Anschluss and Germany’s annexation of the Sudetenland, explains much of the author’s biases. One can imagine the out-of-work statesman, certain that a war to save liberty against tyranny was right around the corner, turning to A History of the English-Speaking Peoples for strength and inspiration. His assertions—whether they be the importance of technology for successful warfare, the unity of Anglophones, or the inevitable fall of tyranny—all speak to the concerns that were no doubt percolating in the mind of this Member of Parliament who continuously warned the House of Commons of the dangers of Fascism. It is hard to determine to what degree Britain’s future war leader’s resolve and insight was enhanced by composing this book and, since the outbreak of war delayed the publication until 1956, it certainly had little effect on the English-speaking people during World War II. Yet the concerns that drove Churchill to write this book led him to create a compelling read that is at once an articulate narrative of the past, a meditation on some timeless issues of politics and war, and a window into the great statesman’s mind.
Brian Weiser is Assistant Professor at Metropolitan State
College-Denver where he teaches early modern British and European history. He is the author of Charles II and the Politics of Access and of several articles that analyze the representations of monarchy.