Annual Booklist 2017-2018 : Ismini Pells

Dr pels is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Leicester. Editor of New Approaches to the Military History of the English Civil War: Proceedings of the First Helion And Company 'Century of the Soldier' Conference, 2015 (Helion, 2016); and author of ‘Scriptural Truths? Calvinist Internationalism and Military Professionalism in the Bible of Philip Skippon’, in R. F. W. Smith and G. Watson, Writing the lives of people and things, AD 500-1700 (Ashgate, 2016); ‘‘Stout Skippon hath a wound’: the medical treatment of parliament’s infantry commander following the battle of Naseby’, in A. J. Hooper and D. J. Appleby, Battle-Scarred: Mortality, Medical Care and Military Welfare in the British Civil Wars (Manchester University Press, forthcoming); and ‘Soliciting sympathy and the search for psychological trauma in seventeenth-century British Civil War maimed soldiers’ petitions’, in E. Peters and C. Richards, Early Modern Trauma (University of Nebraska Press, forthcoming). Dr Pells is also a member of the SAHR Council and oversees our program of research grants.

As a historian of the seventeenth-century British Civil Wars, my first three books – rather unsurprisingly – are centred on that series of conflicts. No man personifies the Civil Wars more than Oliver Cromwell. He is a figure not without controversy but as Professor John Morrill wrote in his entry for the Lord Protector in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘No man who rises from a working farmer to head of state in twenty years is other than great’. It is equally undeniable that no man who rises from captain of a cavalry troop with no prior military experience to commander-in-chief of one of the most successful armies in British history (the New Model Army) is anything other than great. There have been numerous biographies of Cromwell over the years (Christopher Hill’s God’s Englishman is perhaps my favourite) but Cromwell at War: The Lord General and his Military Revolution by Martin Bennett (I. B. Tauris, 2017) is an illuminating new study specifically dedicated to Cromwell’s military career. Professor Bennett has produced a very comprehensible account of Cromwell’s leadership, which he places in the context of the so-called ‘Military Revolution’ of the Early Modern period.

However, it was, of course, Sir Thomas Fairfax who was the creator of the New Model Army. Andrew Hooper’s Black Tom: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2007) is the best and most recent analysis of the New Model’s original commander-in-chief. This is less of a military biography and more a study of Fairfax in his political, religious and cultural context. That said, military issues are well covered, including Fairfax’s ability to harness popular insurgency, his role in the New Model’s formation and his relationship with his better-known subordinate, Cromwell. Though written as an academic text, its highly-readable style makes it easily accessible to the general reader.

As Diane Purkiss once remarked, the Civil Wars were wars ‘with patient footsoldiers as well as dashing commanders’. Having recommended two books focused on generals, due respect must be accorded to the rank-and-file. Charles Carlton’s Going to the Wars: The Experience of the English Civil Wars, 1638-1651 (BCA, 1992) remains one of my favourite books on the Civil Wars. It is riddled with errors, unsupported suppositions and inappropriate modern comparisons but nevertheless, it is the work that had probably had the most important influence on my own scholarship. Inspired by John Keegan’s The Face of Battle, Carlton captured ‘the actualities’ of the Civil Wars better than any other author I have read. His reminder that ‘of one thing there can be no doubt - they [the Civil Wars] were a complex series of wars, in which men, and women, killed and were killed, were wounded, and had their bodies maimed, and had to endure some of the most traumatic experiences any human being can face’ is one that all Civil War historians would do well not to forget.

Although my heart is very much in the Early Modern period, I spent much of my undergraduate days in the medieval period and have retained a deep fondness for this earlier era. One of the most remarkable books on the medieval English army to come out in recent years is The Soldier in Later Medieval England by Adrian Bell,‎ Anne Curry,‎ Andy King and‎ David Simpkin (Oxford University Press, 2013). The book is the outcome of large AHRC-funded project led by Professor Curry that created a database of all known soldiers that served the English Crown from 1369 to 1453, the period of the Hundred Years’ War. The database (available to the public at was largely compiled from surviving muster rolls and letters of letters of protection which soldiers bought from Chancery to prevent legal actions whilst they were absent from home. The age of digital humanities projects has revolutionised how historians maintain and interrogate their evidence, and has enabled them to ask and answer new questions of large, complex datasets. By using the database, the authors are able to identify long-term trends in the evolution of medieval English warfare, as well as how warfare responded to changes in the political climate. The Soldier in Later Medieval England analyses different kinds of soldiers, their national origins and career structures, with as much focus on the lower ranks as the peerage, knights and men-at-arms.

By way of balance, and despite my advocation of books that champion the cause of the lower ranks as much as the commanders, there is always still room for tales of great men. My final recommendation is The Black Prince by Michael Jones (Head of Zeus, 2017). Edward of Woodstock, eldest son of Edward III, predeceased his father and so never became king but was undoubtedly one of the greatest military commander of the age. Michael Jones’s new account of his life is beautifully written and thoroughly engaging, bringing his protagonist and, at the same time, the context in which he lived vividly to life. The Black Prince won his spurs at the Battle of Crécy in 1346 at the tender age of sixteen, having played a crucial role in the victory. Ten years later in 1356, when still only 26, he led the army at Poitiers that routed the French and took their king captive. It is enough – like Caesar at the tomb of Alexander – to make one weep.

Where to begin for one book that does not yet exist? I would echo Serena Jones’s call in last years’ book list for compendium of the British officers and soldiers who fought in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War but for myself, I would like to see a history of the Trained Bands during the Civil Wars. The Trained Bands were the local militia units raised on a county basis and have suffered too long from a ‘Dad’s Army’ reputation. There have been some excellent studies of the state of the English domestic forces in the years leading up to the Civil Wars from the likes of Mark Fissel, Robert Manning and Henrick Langelüddecke but whilst the London Trained Bands have received some attention, the role of the Trained Bands in general during the Civil War has largely been overlooked.