- This Seat of Mars: War and the British Isles, 1485–1746 by Charles Carlton
Charles Carlton’s This Seat of Mars: War and the British Isles, 1485–1746 bears the markings of a magnum opus: an ambitious thesis, an extensively broad but well-researched and footnoted manuscript, and an exploration of themes that transcend the immediate historical context of the scope of the study that can be applied to different times and situations. Moreover, the work has been produced by a veteran historian and well-established expert on military history. In this book, Carlton deals directly with the ways that warfare affected both the individual on the micro level and the state at the macro level. War is important at both of these extremes as well as everywhere in between. The main goal for Carlton here is “not to say soft things, but to examine [End Page 688] the hard reality of how war—which Tolstoy calls ‘the vilest thing in life’—affected the history of early modern Britain” (p. xx).
The reality of war is the driving force of this work, distinguishing it from traditional military history. Such a perspective is undoubtedly enhanced and reinforced by the author’s personal military experience as a soldier in the British Territorial Army and service as an officer in the Welsh Regiment, Special Air Service Regiment, and Intelligence Corps. Beyond this personal connection to the subject, Carlton does well to intimate the importance of realism in war in the Tudor and Stuart periods. Early in the introduction, he describes the ultimate purpose of battle in stark terms: “killing is fundamental to war” (p. xvi). It is a simple truism to be sure, but one that has frequently been neglected in macro-histories of battles and campaigns of the past. It has only been in recent decades that historians have given full examination to this idea. Carlton substantiates this by stating that “by focusing on the actualities of war, on killing, by examining continuity as well as change, and by using a wide range of sources, the new military historians have transformed the discipline” (p. xix).
Part of this new approach involves using a plethora and variety of sources in constructing a representation of war in the past. Beyond the usual source material for most military histories, Carlton peppers this work with allusions to major and minor literary sources in different genres (such as sermons, diaries, and drama) to enhance the larger points he makes. For example, in a chapter about recruitment and training, Carlton cites a section of Sir Aston Cockayne’s Trappolin in which two characters conclude that it is better for one to be a thief than a soldier because there is less danger in stealing and a higher payout (p. 21). In discussing the influence of militarism on English culture, the author states that Christopher Marlowe, for example, likely used Raymond Fourquevaux’s Instructions for the Warres, a military treatise, in writing Tamburlaine (p. 57). Such literary knowledge adds much to Carlton’s treatment of the influence of war in England.
This Seat of Mars’s chapters alternate between macro and micro themes. This interlaced structure is effective in reiterating the basic argument made by Carlton: War affects both the state and the individual progressively. There is a general chronological advancement for the macro-level chapters, beginning with the early Tudor period in chapter 1 and arriving at the Battle of Culloden by chapter 12. The micro chapters mimic the span of a typical soldier’s life and experience. That is, the second chapter deals with joining and training, the sixth with limited combat (campaigning), and the ninth with high-level combat (battles and sieges), and the penultimate regales the soldier’s life after war. [End Page 689]
With this organizing principle, Carlton is able to make a good case that by examining the reality of war and its effects on the individual and society, modern scholarship can better understand warfare. There are dozens of allusions to twentieth...