Book review by Adam Brown
A bugbear of the SMRG is the use of the term English Civil War to describe the wars of the mid-seventeenth century which ranged from Cornwall to Caithness and from Dundee to Duncannon. It wasn’t one war and it wasn’t just the English. The accepted description is now the War of Three Kingdoms.
That being said, Alisdair McRae can be forgiven for its use for the title of his latest book How the Scottish won the English Civil War because his main focus is on the Scottish intervention in the three English Civil Wars of 1644-46, 1648 and 1649-51 (and he classes the three wars as one).
McRae uses an unusual angle to take us through that history. He follows one Scottish cavalry regiment – Colonel Hugh Frazer's Dragoones - from their raising in 1643 to their disbandment in 1647. By using their story he explains the impact of the war on ordinary Scottish soldiers, and since Fraser’s Dragoons were involved in the Scottish Civil War it explains the presence of those battles in a book about the English Civil Wars. But what piece about Scotland in this period could not mention Montrose?
McRae’s book pivots on Fraser’s Dragoons from 1643-47 and the greatest value from this book is explaining in clear terms how battles like Marston Moor – seen today as very much as an English Royalist Cavalier vs Parliamentarian Roundhead battle - and one of the key battles of the First English Civil War - was decisively influenced by the presence of Covenanting blue bonnets from over the border. In fact he likens the Scottish intervention at Marston Moor, and the North of England, as akin to the US entry into the two World Wars. He also points out that where Englishmen might have baulked at killing fellow Englishmen, battle-hardened Scots felt no such qualms.
This work isn’t just about the First English Civil War though. McRae goes back to the late sixteenth century as a prologue to give the political and military situation of mid-seventeenth century Scotland some context. He also covers a most important factor which may often be overlooked in our more secular times – the religious fervour of the Covenanting army which was whipped up by the Kirk’s ministers accompanying the Scottish army.
He writes about the professionalism of the Scottish troops in the early stages of the English Civil War – thanks mainly to many experienced Scottish mercenaries who returned home to fight in the Bishops Wars in 1639 after being blooded in Europe. The Thirty Years War (TYW) had been raging across the continent since the 1620s and tens of thousands of Scots found employment in the armies of Poland, Sweden and France. McRae calculates that during one period of the TYW, one in ten of the adult males of Scotland were European mercenaries. Colonel Fraser, who raised and led his Dragoons, had been four years in Swedish service for example.
The bulk of the book is about the Scots in the North of England and their war with Charles I; once Fraser’s Dragoons were disbanded McCrae still continues his history of Scottish soldiers in the War of Three Kingdoms, and covers the dark days of defeat at Preston, Dunbar and Worcester.
It is clear McRae has done extensive research on the subject and his comprehensive End-Notes, giving short biographies on many soldiers mentioned in the book amongst other interesting snippets, is a very useful appendix.
I am still not entirely convinced by the title, given the coverage of Scottish affairs and the fact we were ultimately trounced by the New Model Army in the 1650’s. Perhaps it should have been titled “How the Scottish won the First English Civil War” - but it is a very valuable and well researched addition to the historiography of this neglected period, from an author who is obviously passionate and knowledgeable about the period.
How the Scottish won the English Civil War by Alisdair McRae is available from The History Press.