Looking for lessons in the history of 17th century England

Few graduate students pick British history as their area of interest nowadays. With the emphasis in past years on correcting the Eurocentric view of history, it has become more fashionable to study the developing world and its social movements. But there are still lessons to be learned from the history of the world’s superpower of the 18th and 19th centuries and that’s what brought graduate student Thomas Crawshaw of Amherst, NS, to York.

Thomas Crawshaw

Right: Historian Thomas Crawshaw, of York’s Faculty of Graduate Studies

As an undergraduate at St. Francis Xavier University, he took several survey courses and found British history most to his liking. His grandfather hailed from Yorkshire, England, and Crawshaw was curious to learn more about his ancestral homeland. By the time he graduated with honours, he had begun reading about what he calls the pivotal period in British history, the civil wars of the mid-17th century. His 2002 honours thesis, Oliver Cromwell, Life and Legacy, won the first annual Canadian Undergraduate Essay Contest in British Studies sponsored by the North American Conference on British Studies and the British Council. It was research for that paper that lead him to a book titled The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645-1653 (Oxford, 1992) and his decision to pursue graduate studies at York with the book’s author, Glendon History Professor Ian Gentles.

After completing his MA at York in 2003, Crawshaw took a year off before entering the PhD program in the Faculty of Graduate Studies in 2005. He applied for a Doctoral Fellowship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and was one of 36 York candidates to have their proposals accepted (see story in the Oct. 14, 2005 issue of YFile), receiving a four-year fellowship worth $80,000. At Gentles’ suggestion, he is researching the Earl of Essex, (right), who led the Parliamentary army in the early years of the war that began in 1642. To date there has been only one major biography written about Essex, an aristocrat who sided with Parliament’s revolutionaries. Essex wound up being relieved of command for his unwillingness to vigorously prosecute a war that would eventually lead to the beheading of King Charles I and the 10-year republic of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell. It’s riveting stuff – for some; others may ask, where’s the relevance to today?

"A lot of people are still talking about the role of the western world," says Crawshaw. "If we’re going to understand this, we need to understand what drove the engines of change in western history. One of the key components was England. I see the English Civil War as one of the things that makes England distinct," he says. "No other country went through a period quite like this and a lot of the things that make English political and social history distinct from that time forward really come out of this period."

This is one in a series of profiles of SSHRC award recipients at York.