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  • Swordsmen: The Martial Ethos in the Three Kingdoms
  • Stephen L. Collins
Roger B. Manning . Swordsmen: The Martial Ethos in the Three Kingdoms. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xvi + 272 pp. index. illus. tbls. bibl. $85. ISBN: 0-19-926121-0.

Roger Manning's Swordsmen is a thoroughly researched and richly detailed study of the remilitarization, as he puts it, of the English aristocracy from the late Elizabethan years to the early eighteenth century. Thematically reiterative and full of interesting illustrative stories, it features the transition of the three kingdoms, England, Scotland, and Ireland, from second and third-rate European nations to a coalescing unified great power.

Elizabeth's decision to intervene in the religious conflict in the Netherlands by aiding the Dutch ended a relatively peaceful period in English history (certainly in contrast to the seemingly ubiquitous warring on the Continent), during which the English aristocracy had become "largely demilitarized for want of opportunities" (2). This served as a fillip for the parallel and mutually reinforcing processes of "a remarkable remilitarization of the English peerage" and a "rechivalrization" of English aristocratic culture that is the focus of Manning's history (19). The primary source for these cultural phenomena was contact between the aristocracies of the three kingdoms, who not only served in the Netherlands but began volunteering in European armies, and "European martial culture" (19).

This continued into the seventeenth century. Returning soldiers and officers introduced innovative styles of warfare from the Continent, especially in opposition to the predominant private warfare that characterized Gaelic cultures. And by the end of the civil wars, war and exile had insured that a fairly uniform military culture characterized the aristocracies. The early part of the eighteenth century saw the three kingdoms fully engaged in European and colonial wars and in a refocusing of politics and foreign and military policies that indicated the inextricability of martial culture from a developing sense of British identity. It is Manning's purpose to highlight the internalization of "the martial ethos of the mainland European aristocracies" by the British aristocracies and to note, then, that by the early eighteenth century, the British Army served as an opportunity for aristocratic swordsmen.

In the main body of his book, Manning does a good job exploring a range of cultural and political tensions that resulted from the growth of a martial ethos. He examines the relationship between swordsmen and courtiers and the connected issue of honor and the monarch's prerogative to monopolize the granting of honors and discussion and adjudication of issues relating to honor. Conflict with Elizabeth and James VI and I focused the question of whether monarchs were the source of honor and nobility or whether they merely recognized what already existed. And whereas Elizabeth failed to reward military prowess as swordsmen desired, James rewarded whomever he liked and for whatever reasons. He argues (though not fully convincingly) that the rechivalrization process that led to so many gentlemen volunteers in so many European and, on their return, English armies, inhibited [End Page 614] technological innovations and attempts to professionalize the English armies during the seventeenth century. Tied to this was the related assertion by these gentlemen of social over military hierarchies. Only in Commonwealth, Protectorate, and William III's armies did military professionals replace peers as commanders, thus highlighting tensions between the chivalric revival and the rationalizing process that was turning war into an instrument for political ends. As well, Manning treats the wholly violent character of the martial ethos, particularly the difficult transition to the concept of war as a public rather than private act. In this context, his final two chapters on dueling as socially and politically subversive are, perhaps, the most interesting of all. Dueling, Manning argues, made aristocrats the regulators of the culture of honor and suggested, then, the subject's right to redress grievances even with his monarch. This might explain to some degree, he claims, why seventeenth-century Parliaments were so indifferent about legislating to restrict dueling.

While Manning states that the shared martial experiences and ethos of English and Scots gentlemen "helped to lay the foundations for a common British identity" (9) and, specifically, facilitated the Act of Union...


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pp. 614-615
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Archived 2009
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