Historical Novel: Englishmen with Swords

Drawing of a pikemen from the cover of Englishmen with Swords. Jacket design by Louis Mackay

John Rees is the author of The Leveller Revolution, one of my favourite books about the Civil Wars. So, when he recommended Englishmen with Swords on Twitter, I decided to take a look.

First published in the 1949 by the Bodley Head, Englishmen with Swords is a historical novel by Montagu Slater. It’s a fictional narrative of the years 1647 to 1649, “from the journal of Gilbert Mabbot”.

Mabbot himself is an interesting figure – a licenser of the press at the birth of the newspaper industry. The book is a detailed account of the frustrations of an unpaid, insecure army and the power play between Parliament and King.

Written in 1949, Englishmen with Swords may seem a little dry to the modern reader. But the historical detail and building tension worked for me.

Mabbot notes the City charged Parliament 8% interest on a payment of £200,000 to the Scottish, who he says were “more an invading army than an ally”.

The gold was in return for the King who’d turned to the Scots after escaping disguised as a servant. Mabbot describes “36 carts carrying sacks of £100 and chests of £1,000. And when it was counted, the Scots Army took it and marched home”.

Main parliamentary characters

If you have an interest in the Civil Wars, and their main characters, Englishmen with Swords is illuminating.

Henry Ireton is a garrulous, pompous, unlikeable man – “admired but unbeloved”.

“A man can respect but can scarcely like the Commissary-General Ireton,” says Mabbot. And then he describes Cromwell, who “sits uncomfortable” and “bends his head like a bull”.

Much of the book centres on disputes between the army and the generals.

For, while the Scots were loading gold onto carts in return for the king, the soldiers who’d fought for parliament had gone without pay for 43 weeks. Worse: they faced being disbanded without pay and feared prosecution for “many actions which the Law would not warrant” that had taken place in the war.

As the book says:

“We fought” they tell these Parliament men, “for you. We left our estates and trades, forsaking the content of a quiet life, not fearing the difficulties of war, for your sakes.”

Englishmen with swords arrest a king

The plot twists when the army – in its unofficial capacity – seizes the king under Cornet Joyce. Hand on heart, this is one of my favourite historical events, ever! But sadly it’s under-discussed and not widely known.

To think that an army bugler and 500 troops arrested the King of England and took him into custody! It’s a great example of ordinary people taking things into their own hands when those who are meant to govern England have completely failed. Our narrator, Mabbot, notes that “Joyce did not deceive himself as to the scope of his action”.

Interestingly, Peter Ackroyd suggests in The History of England Volume III: Civil War that Cromwell was in on this. He claims that Cornet Joyce visited Cromwell’s house in Drury Lane five days earlier. Ackroyd writes:

“When Cromwell told the king that Joyce had acted entirely on his own initiative, Charles retorted that ‘I’ll not believe you unless you hang him.’ In fact, Joyce received promotion and a generous pension.”

Englishmen with Swords may not transport you to another time and place by dwelling on the details of fashion and food. But there are some beautiful moments. A description of Saffron Walden, for example, with “…many rooks cawing in the graveyard, the grass very fresh over the graves”.

A reminder perhaps of how much death there was in this incredibly violent, disruptive and fascinating era. A period that hardly features in school history books and, it seems, will never get as much airtime as Henry VIII’s wives or Queen Victoria mourning for a dead husband.