British and Irish Literature English Civil War / War of the Three Kingdoms
by
Niall Allsopp
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0181

Introduction

The civil war between Charles I and his parliament broke out in England in 1642; rebellions were already underway in Scotland from 1637, and in Ireland from 1641. The conflict culminated with the trial and execution of the king in 1649. Through the 1650s Britain was governed as a republic, then as a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell from 1653. But the regime unraveled after Cromwell’s death in 1658, ultimately leading to the Restoration of monarchy under Charles II in 1660. The civil wars were fought on the page as intensely as on the battlefield, producing an outpouring of rich and diverse literature, including (to barely scratch the surface): the poetry and prose of John Milton, Andrew Marvell, the cavalier poets, Katherine Philips, Margaret Cavendish, Lucy Hutchinson, Gerrard Winstanley, Thomas Hobbes, the Earl of Clarendon, Marchamont Nedham. This vibrant and important body of writing was, for much of the 20th century, neglected and poorly understood. The closure of the theaters in 1642, the collapse of royal court culture, and a critical fashion that dismissed writing sullied by political engagement: these factors all produced the illusion of a hiatus in the literary tradition, a “cavalier winter.” These misplaced assumptions, however, have been overturned since the 1980s by a new wave of scholarly interest, galvanized by a renewed recognition of the value and excitement of politically engaged writing. Scholarship informed by different branches of historicism, combining literary criticism variously with New Historicism, with the history of political thought, with social history, and with book history, have all transformed our appreciation of civil war literature. As such, work by historicist critics—and by historians—is inescapably central to this bibliography, and fundamental to our understanding of the period’s literature. But, as will become apparent, plenty of space remains for a diversity of approaches including gender studies, queer studies, critical theory, reception studies, and formalism. This bibliography is organized thematically, rather than around major individual authors, of whom there are many, most of whom appear in multiple sections. For this reason, no attempt has been made to include scholarly editions, though reader-friendly anthologies are listed, many of which make valuable scholarly contributions. Key studies on politics and literature appear in Literature and Politics: Essential Studies, followed by more focused sections on royalism, cavalier poetry, republicanism, and Cromwellian writing. Other sections cover scholarship on printing and pamphleteering, on radicalism, on women’s writing, on gender and sexuality, on drama, and on international and colonial contexts.

Starting Points: Surveys, Contexts, and Collections

The best starting point for newcomers to the field is Knoppers 2012, also Keeble 2001. Both books collect introductory essays by specialists covering both contextual themes and all the key areas of literature in the period, along with helpful summaries of the historical background. The best monograph introduction remains Smith 1994, which provides both a wide-ranging survey and critical frameworks for reading the breadth of writing from the period. Davidson 1998 offers an accessible anthology of the diverse breadth of civil war poetry, with valuable editorial commentary. For a historical introduction to the period, with survey chapters and more detailed context, see Braddick 2015—including several essays that discuss writing and printing, attesting to the fruitful exchange between historical and literary studies of the civil wars. This interdisciplinary wealth is built on the expansion and development of the field in the 1980s and 1990s, a process snapshotted in two important essay collections: Healy and Sawday 1990 includes several major, definitive essays on Milton and Marvell, on Hutchinson, on drama, and on devotional writing; Summers and Pebworth 1999 also showcases the wide range of authors worthy of study in this period; a more recent collection of this kind is represented by D’Addario and Augustine 2018. Notwithstanding the breadth represented in these collections, most readers’ first encounters with the field come through the two predominant poets, Milton and Marvell—now thoroughly and accessibly contextualized in a pair of Oxford Handbooks, Smith and McDowell 2011 and Dzelzainis and Holberton 2019.

  • Braddick, Michael J., ed. The Oxford Handbook of the English Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Comprehensive collection of introductory essays by leading historians on the English Civil Wars, with chapters on causes and events; on institutions, actors, and movements; and on ideas and culture.

  • D’Addario, Christopher, and Matthew Augustine, eds. Texts and Readers in the Age of Marvell. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2018.

    Essay collection by leading specialists on historical and cultural contexts for reading Marvell and his contemporaries.

  • Davidson, Peter, ed. Poetry and Revolution: A Collection of British Verse, 1625–1660. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

    Diverse anthology of poetry from the revolutionary period, including all the major poets and a distinctive selection of minor and overlooked verse.

  • Dzelzainis, Martin, and Edward Holberton, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Andrew Marvell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    Collection of essays by leading specialists, combining accessible introduction and important new perspectives, on a comprehensive range of topics, locating Marvell within the cultural and political landscape of the civil war and Restoration periods.

  • Healy, Thomas, and Jonathan Sawday, eds. Literature and the English Civil War. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

    Major essay collection on the period, including important essays by major scholars on Milton and Marvell, on Hutchinson, on drama, and on devotional writing.

  • Keeble, N. H., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    Wide-ranging introductory collection on literature of the civil wars, with short, accessible essays by major specialists, including on historical and intellectual background, and the impact on later culture and historiography.

  • Knoppers, Laura Lunger, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Literature and the English Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    Comprehensive collection of introductory essays on practically every aspect of writing in the civil wars, with detailed contributions by leading literary scholars and historians.

  • Smith, Nigel. Literature and Revolution in England, 1640–1660. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

    Foundational single-author survey, accessible and often provocative, covering an impressive range of literature, synthesizing context with analysis of literary form.

  • Smith, Nigel, and Nicholas McDowell, eds. The Oxford Handbook of John Milton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Collection of essays combining introduction with new research, by a range of leading specialists on various aspects of Milton’s writing and thought, with substantial chapters on the early poetry (published in 1645) and the political prose of the 1640s and 1650s.

  • Summers, Claude, and Ted‐Larry Pebworth, eds. The English Civil Wars in the Literary Imagination. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

    Major essay collection, especially significant for its very broad coverage of writers from the period.

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