It’s fair to say that many professional historians have something of a love/hate relationship with historical fiction. Pleasure to be had from a story is typically offset by irritation when an author introduces anachronism or gets some of the details wrong. In short, it’s hard to forget what you know and to suspend disbelief. Perhaps that’s why so few scholars think that historical novelists have any insights to offer; they’re generally considered purveyors of entertainment rather than analysis. And yet historians who write about events, people and places are also essentially storytellers, sharing some of the same concerns – namely narrative, character and attention to detail. Moreover, as postmodernists like to remind us, the relationship between fact and fiction is complex and long-standing. Equally problematic are questions such as what constitutes authorship and originality? I don’t intend to provide answers here. That would be far too difficult. Instead my aims are modest: to locate Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s ‘A Fiery Flag Unfurled’ within a variety of contexts and to make some observations about the content.
Historical fiction is in vogue. Setting aside the epic tales of antiquity, not to mention the classics of Chinese literature such as Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin, its modern European roots can largely be traced to Romanticism. As a literary genre it therefore encompasses more than two hundred years, stretching from Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley to Dame Hilary Mantel’s projected trilogy portraying the rise and fall of Tudor statesman Thomas Cromwell. Thinking specifically about British history it’s obvious that novelists have been drawn to certain periods and figures: Roman Britain; the Viking invasions; the twelfth century; the Wars of the Roses; the Tudors; the Civil Wars and Restoration; the Jacobite risings; and the Napoleonic Wars. With periodization in mind, ‘A Fiery Flag Unfurled’ can therefore be located next to Frederick Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest and Rose Tremain’s Restoration, Katherine Clement’s The Crimson Ribbon and Iain Pears’s An Instance of the Fingerpost, not forgetting Michael Arnold’s Stryker series. While these stories tend to privilege marginal voices – orphans, women (including supposed witches and prophetesses), the defeated and dispossessed – none captures oppositional politics and radical religious beliefs better than David Caute’s Comrade Jacob, which dealt with the Diggers and their charismatic leader Gerrard Winstanley.
Framed by the Great Fire of London of 2–5 September 1666, ‘A Fiery Flag Unfurled’ focusses on events from December 1660 to January 1661. Before looking at the sometimes violent yet ineffectual reactions to the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, it’s worthwhile recapping the preceding twenty years. Censorship had effectively broken down, with the result that more than 33,000 printed titles were issued between 1640 and 1660. Courts which had facilitated the exercise of royal power were abolished by act of Parliament. There was bloody rebellion in Ireland and then devastating Civil Wars throughout the British Isles. An estimated 80,000 soldiers were killed or maimed out of population of probably no more than 5.3 million. The Archbishop of Canterbury was executed, bishops deposed and the Church of England stripped of its authority. For the first and only time in English history a reigning monarch was put on trial, charged with treason and publicly executed. A Commonwealth was declared and the House of Lords abolished. Most of the Royalists who had supported Charles I were disarmed. Some were imprisoned and a few executed. Many more had to pay fines to keep hold of their homes and property. As for the Crown and the Church, much of their land was confiscated and sold off. The biggest beneficiaries were army officers on the winning Parliamentarian side who bought up large estates on the cheap. Meanwhile some regiments began to mutiny over arrears of pay. But there were also the widows and orphans of slain combatants who had to beg to survive. So too did the wounded. Bad weather did not help. There was famine as harvests failed, animals died and humans succumbed to plague. To paraphrase a couple of contemporary pamphleteers, the old world had been turned upside down and was burning up like parchment in the fire. ...
Ariel Hessayon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of ‘Gold tried in the fire’. The prophet TheaurauJohn Tany and the English Revolution (Ashgate, 2007) and has edited / co-edited several collections of essays. He has also written extensively on a variety of early modern topics: antiscripturism, book burning, communism, environmentalism, esotericism, extra-canonical texts, heresy, crypto-Jews, Judaizing, millenarianism, mysticism, prophecy, and religious radicalism.