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16156Book review by LH Member George Goodwin.
The Civil War in London by Robin Rowles
Pen & Sword, £12.99 152pp

As a reviewer it is well to declare an interest. Robin Rowles is both an active member of London Historians and a highly-qualified guide with a love of London’s history that easily communicates itself in conversation, as it did to me when we talked some months ago about the Civil War in London both as a topic in itself and as the subject of this book. So I can be forgiven for approaching the book with rose-tinted glasses.

Robin takes a somewhat old-fashioned approach and the book is none the worse for that. He is impeccable in the way that he credits his sources and the views of his fellow historians, and he ensures that those with only a limited understanding of the causes of the English Civil War have these background factors explained. He then tackles his subject thematically. I have one quibble with the structure of the book, addressed to its editor rather than its author, which is that it might have been better to have had some part of the penultimate chapter ‘London’s brave boys: the trained bands and the defence of London’ as the opening salvo.

There may not have been any fighting in London itself, but that was partly due to the impressive defensive measures taken by the City of London’s Common Council and to the role of the Trained Bands in repulsing the King’s army at the Battle of Turnham Green, then some miles to the west of the twin cities of Westminster and London. As Robin points out, the London units and their extremely effective commander Philip Skippon also played an exceptionally important role in the wider Civil War.

As to the meat of the book, Robin has a real insight into how the City was able to take on much of the machinery of national administration, with its networks of committees in some ways akin to those that would operate in Paris during the French Revolution. Their taking on this role being natural, due to the City’s long-established institutions and the ability of its governing Common Council to give overall direction.

The centuries-old financial importance of the City of London to the Monarchy was symbolised by the longstanding pre-coronation tradition of the monarch being escorted to the Tower through the City gates by the scarlet-clad Mayor and Aldermen of London. With a detailed knowledge of its Livery Companies, Robin shows how the Parliamentarians were able to utilise the City’s long-established means of financing the monarchy in order to back its citizen enemies. He also demonstrates how this change of loyalty had been made a great deal easier through King Charles’s assault on the City’s privileges during the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ not least through the Crown’s confiscation of the City’s Ulster plantation.

There are some intriguing details in the book to demonstrate that the City was far from universally solid in its support of Parliament, showing that some moderate Royalists were elected as Mayors during the mid-1640s before Charles’ resumption of hostilities in 1648 cut the ground from their feet, that is before Parliament was itself superseded by the army, with Skippon later becoming Cromwell’s Major General for the London area. The exceptional importance of religion in directing men towards either King or Parliament is affirmed and the means by which the Committee for Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry set about their task are well described. Women also have their moments: not least the 1643 march on Parliament by City women, with their demonstration against wartime taxation and higher food prices being met not by the MPs, who were taking cover inside, but by Dragoons, with the fatal consequences persuading seven peers to desert to the King.

Above all, the book takes you through the streets of the City and is good preparation for accompanying Robin on one of his London Civil War walks, which he lists with those on Sherlock Holmes and others on http://www.strollintime.co.uk/walks.htm


George Goodwin FRHistS is the author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father.

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Review: Lady Bette and the Murder of Mister Thynn by N.A. Pickford.

lady bette and the murder of my thynnIn an age when women – no matter how high born – had few rights, wealthy heiresses found themselves sometimes to be both bargaining counters of their guardians and targets for kidnappers after rich pickings. Lady Bette was one such, but so much more than that: she was a Percy and the heiress to the Northumberland estates: the very top echelon of the English aristocracy. Think Syon House in Brentford and Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, both still with us. Add to this the magnificent Northumberland House near Charing Cross – lost to the railways and urban expansion of the late 19C; and Petworth House and it’s clear that in the late Seventeenth Century, the Percys of Northumberland were an ancient and noble family of the first rank. They still are today.

So when Bette’s father, the 11 Duke of Northumberland died in 1670 when she was just three, and her elder brother himself having died two years previously, little Bette became the heiress to vast estates. She instantly became a pawn in a marriage game played by two deadly rivals: her mother and her grandmother, the formidable Dowager Lady Howard.

Having already lost her childhood husband from her initial arranged marriage (they appeared to be a fondly devoted young couple), Bette – still in her early teens – was fixed up with Thomas Thynn, an unpleasant character who rubbed shoulders with the emerging Whig faction surrounding the Duke of Monmouth – desperate chancers as history would later prove.

These years of scheming and intrigue – skillfully woven by the author in the narrative – culminate in the event of the title: a drive-by assassination of Thynn in his coach at the cross-roads of Pall Mall and Haymarket. The killers were a group of down-at-heel desperadoes in the pay of the mysterious Count Konigsmark and his right hand man, Christopher Vratz, fortune hunters and mercenaries to a man.

London at this time was a haven for resting military types from the Continent, common soldiers now impoverished habitues of the capital’s less salubrious inns and ale houses. They were easy recruits for this mission.

Apart from Bette herself, no one comes out of this story with any credit. Honour there is none. Everybody, high and low alike, is on the make. My favourite – and likely yours will be too – is Ralph Montagu, sometime ambassador to Paris and step-father of Bette, whose strategic womanising and scheming are utterly shameless, leading ultimately to his disgrace at Court. A morality tale within a tale.

N.A. Pickford weaves complex threads together with great skill and tells this amazing story with panache and style. His research is clearly both deep and wide-ranging  and he manages his sources masterfully. Any history lover will enjoy this pacy true story, but if you’re particularly into the scheming, the intrigues, the power-broking of the Restoration elite, you will adore this book.

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The footnotes, references and index are excellent: all you would want.

Lady Bette and the Murder of Mister Thynn (309pp) is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson with a cover price of £20 although it is available for less.

 

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