Philip Moon reflects on his experience volunteering at the National Civil War Centre and the lessons and legacies of the 17th century conflict.
I’ve really enjoyed volunteering at the Civil War Centre and gained a lot from it. Firstly, as someone who only moved to Newark comparatively recently, it’s given me a network of social relationships amongst staff and fellow volunteers - people to say ‘hi’ to in the street when you’re walking around town. (Remember those days?) I’ve also greatly enjoyed interacting with visitors – particularly youngsters with a growing enthusiasm for history and with those from overseas. I’ve met Canadians, Americans, Dutch and French and one delightful young Chinese woman, here to study English and quite keen (I think) to use me for conversation practice. I’ve also had a few Australians but I’ve tended to pass these on to Daren as he speaks the lingo so much better than me.
Volunteering has also given me the opportunity to learn more about, and reflect upon, the history of Civil War. Historians have always tended to look at the past in terms of the issues of their own day. You know the sort of thing. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century it was looked on in constitutional terms – a milestone on the route which led Britain to become the best ruled and top nation in the world (in their minds). During the Cold War, Marxism dominated the debate. It was all about the rise of the middle classes and ‘dialectic materialism’. (Yes they really did use phrases like that. I know. I was there.)
So what are the themes for today? Well, I can think of several – themes that not only help us understand the Civil War, but also enable us to learn the lessons of history for our own times. Here I can pick up just two: the dangers of polarisation and the importance of tolerance.
Civil war, it has been said, was by no means inevitable in 1640/1, but events began to gather their own momentum as people were forced to choose sides. That momentum was then reinforced as each side took pre-emptive action to defend its own position.
‘Whose side are you really on? The papists or the godly?’ ‘Whose side are you really on? All your family are for the King. You can’t want to see those boorish up-start Puritans ruling the roost. You’re one of us.’ These are the attitudes which once stirred up made social breakdown and civil war inevitable.
It would seem overdramatic to say that we’ve reached a similar situation today. But there is a tipping point and one lesson from the Civil War should be that we shouldn’t complacently delude ourselves that our supposed tradition of civility will necessarily prevent us falling victim to the extremists. It begins slowly at first and then the momentum gathers. Be wary.
On the other hand, of course, the Civil War also taught, and continues to teach, us the importance of tolerance. To avoid such calamities we have to get on with each other accepting that although others might think and believe differently we should ‘live and let live’.
Tolerance grew only slowly after the Civil War. Cromwell was one of only a very few who believed that those with ‘tender consciences’ should be allowed to worship in their own way. It was not until 1871 that the University Test Act meant that Catholics and Non-conformists could attend Oxford or Cambridge and it is only in comparatively recent history that the law, and more importantly social attitudes, have allowed homosexuals (for instance) to be treated on a par with their heterosexual co-citizens. There is still ground to be made, but we can celebrate what we have achieved.