By Jacqueline Grima
Manchester Metropolitan University’s (MMU) Humanities in Public Festival continued this week with an event entitled ‘Memory, Forgetting and the English Civil Wars: A Field in England screening and discussion’. The event, part of the festival’s ‘WAR’ strand, focussed on how the civil wars of the 1600s have been remembered and commemorated in the years afterwards.
When civil war raged between England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in the 1640s, around 3% of the civilian population lost their lives, the conflict ending with the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of a Republican state. However, although the wars greatly impacted on the UK’s regime for centuries afterwards, directly affecting such issues as civil and religious rights and the rights of women, it often seems that this important period in our history is barely touched upon by both historians and educators.
MMU PhD student and associate lecturer, Richard Gough Thomas, who hosted the event, said: “Our understanding of events changes according to context so therefore the things that seem important change throughout history. For example the Victorians would have remembered the civil wars for different reasons than we do.”
He added: “This talk is not about the history of the civil wars as such but about how it has been remembered in various stages of history.”
During his talk, Richard asked members of the audience to use the ‘padlet’ app on their smartphones to post words and phrases they associate with the civil war. Suggestions made included ‘Levellers’, ‘Cavaliers and Roundheads’, ‘New Model Army and re-enactment’. A name that cropped up many times in people’s thoughts was that of controversial figure, Oliver Cromwell, who signed the death warrant of King Charles I and who is seen by some as a hero and by others as a villain. Indeed, statues of Cromwell, both outside the Houses of Parliament and in Manchester, have caused much controversy.
After Richard’s talk the audience were treated to a screening of the 2013 film A Field in England directed by Ben Wheatley and written by Amy Jump. This strange and, sometimes, discomfiting film, starring Reece Shearsmith, tells the story of a group of civil war deserters who are searching, firstly, for an alehouse and, secondly, for buried treasure. Dr Jerome de Groot, Senior Lecturer in Literature and History at the University of Manchester, who introduced the film, said:
“A Field in England is an experimental historical film which ignores convention, ignores linearity, ignores genre. It is not clear who the characters are fighting for or why.”
Shot in black and white, the film moves quickly between nostalgia, humour and, often, quite horrific scenes as the men experience mushroom-induced highs, build friendships and make enemies. A cross between a psychological thriller, film noir and, in places, a spaghetti-western, it takes its audience on a surreal journey before reaching a tragic and somewhat violent end.
The evening culminated with a discussion about the film between Jerome and MMU’s Reader in Cinema History, Dr Andrew Moor.
Jerome commented: “Considering that the civil war was such a pivotal moment in our history, it is barely represented in film. And, in television, it is even more sparse.”
Andrew added: “The civil war seems to be absent in cinematic history. In popular culture, it just doesn’t seem to be recognised.”
Both men agreed that, with echoes of the relationship between Cromwell and King Charles and also of Margaret Thatcher’s government and the miner’s strike, the film successfully shows how the civil war still has ramifications today.
Jerome told Humanity Hallows: “If you look at the situation in Northern Ireland, for example, you can see that it has direct links with the events of the civil wars. A lot of Irish people think Cromwell was a war criminal.”
An audience member at the event went on to compare A Field in England to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now in that it successfully depicts “the lunacy of war.”
The next Humanities in Public event is The 2015 Whitehead Lecture on Wednesday 21st October at 5.30pm. The lecture, entitled ‘Thermopylae: Herodotus vs. the Legend’, is jointly hosted by MMU and the Manchester Classical Association and will celebrate MMU’s new BA in Ancient History. For more information, see the Humanities in Public website.