Elaine Murphy and Richard Blakemore, The British Civil Wars at Sea 1638-1653, Boydell, 2018. 225p. $115 (Hardcover) ISBN: 1783272295
By Sam McLean
In this book, Elaine Murphy and Richard Blakemore come together on their shared topics of British maritime/naval history. The authors state that they have three main goals in this book. First, to fill a gap, and write a needed survey history of the British Civil Wars at Sea. Second, to assess how maritime activity influenced the conflicts, and also investigate the influence of the civil wars on naval and imperial history. This book is much more than an expansion to Elaine Murphy’s excellent Ireland and the War at Sea 1641-1653, it is a shining example of the good works that can happen when scholars who mesh well, work together.
The first chapter is a broad overview of maritime warfare during the period, while the rest of chapter are divided as follows: the Outbreak of War, the War at Sea 1642-1646, Parliament’s Navy 1642-1646, Royalist, Confederate and Scottish Naval Efforts 1642-1653, Revolution 1647-1649, and Conquest, 1649-1653. The prose/writing is excellent, clear and straight-forward. The authors have accomplished exactly what they set out to do- that is to create a solid, well-rendered survey history on a neglected subject. Primary sources are used extensively and effectively throughout the book, and the secondary sources that they’ve referenced and incorporated demonstrate they have an excellent grasp of recent scholarship. The book is well structured so as to accommodate both the chronological divisions and the complexity of the conflicts. It’s clearly printed and the appendices are excellent, and from a usability point of view, I very much appreciate that they used footnotes rather than endnotes.
Although this is generally an excellent book, I do have some small criticisms. First, I would have placed the appendix containing the timeline for the British Civil Wars at the beginning, rather than at the end. This may be unorthodox, but frankly, it would be very useful readers who are unfamiliar with the chronology. Also, it would have been useful if the appendix which provided some statistics and details for the Commonwealth/Parliamentarian naval forces also provided similar statistics for the other naval forces. More importantly, I wish that there had been an extended literature review/theory/methodology section. Murphy and Blakemore did mention how military historians have even recently treated naval warfare as a minor or inconsequential aspect of the civil wars. They also briefly explore the factors that may have contributed to why the maritime aspects of the civil wars have not received as much attention that they should have. Further, they mention that the previous book-length treatment of the subject is out of print (and flawed anyways), and how some scholarship such as PhD theses haven’t been published.
In terms of theory, the discussion is limited to a mention of the ‘Fiscal-Military/Fiscal-Naval State’ framework which has recently been dominant. The authors haven’t neglected to mention anything important, but I believe that this book would benefit from a more robust discussion of the historiographical and theoretical contexts. For example, analysis of the flaws of the previous monograph would provide a basis to evaluate how this book addressed them. Likewise, several paragraphs on the theoretical frameworks that did- or did not- influence this book would be extremely useful for future readers who may not be aware of the current theoretical contexts.
Despite those concerns, I very strongly recommend this book for anybody studying the British civil wars, or maritime history, and this book should be in every library. I hope this leads to more collaborations between the authors, as they do excellent work together.