The Children of the New Forest is everything you could possibly want from a history living book for children. It has a great story, some fun characters and is set during one of the most fascinating periods of English history – the English civil war and interregnum.
The Children of the New Forest: Historical Context
For many, the first thing that comes to mind when they think of the UK is … the monarchy.
The coronation of King Charles III.
The grand state funerals of Queen Elizabeth II or Princess Diana.
These images get transmitted all over the world and, for many, it may even seem hard to imagine the UK without a king or queen as its head of state.
And yet, such a state of affairs has in fact existed in British history. As a result of the civil war (1642-1651) between ‘royalists’ (supporters of King Charles I) and ‘parliamentarians’ (supporters of Parliament), there was a time when Parliament actually killed its king. England had no king or queen for eleven whole years afterwards. In fact, for five of these years, a totally different kind of head of state ruled the roost – a ‘Lord Protector’ called Oliver Cromwell.
Eventually, after the death of Oliver Cromwell and the failure of his son Richard Cromwell to fill his father’s shoes, the monarchy was restored. King Charles II (the son of the king who had been executed) was brought out of exile and declared king.
The monarchy was back.
The Children of the New Forest: A Summary
The Children of the New Forest is set on the backdrop of all the turbulence caused by the English Civil War and the interregnum (which means ‘between reigns’ and refers to the time between the reigns of King Charles I and his son King Charles II).
Four children, the two sons and two daughters of a man called Colonel Beverly who was killed fighting for the king against the parliamentarians at the Battle of Naseby, are forced to live in hiding after some parliamentarian soldiers burn down their family estate. It is generally believed that they were burned to death, and so they would have been, if it hadn’t been for the protection of a verderer called Jacob Armitage. It just so happens that he overhears the parliamentarian soldiers discussing their plan to burn down Arnwood (the house of the four children) and so takes the children to his cottage before the soldiers get there. Disguised as his grandchildren, the four children learn to live a simpler life of farming and hunting in the New Forest – so different from the aristocratic-style childhood they had had up until then.
Eventually, a parliamentarian called Heatherstone is placed in charge of what had been royal land in the New Forest. Despite initial feelings of hostility towards Heatherstone, on account of his political position, Edward comes to respect him and even falls in love with his daughter Patience.
The novel ends with the restoration of the monarchy and several marriages between various characters. The most significant of these marriages is that of Edward and Patience. As the son and daughter of a royalist and parliamentarian, respectively, their union represents the reconciliation of people from both sides of the civil war under the newly instated King Charles II.
What History Can be Learned from The Children of the New Forest?
The narrator of The Children of the New Forest masterfully weaves historical details throughout his novel. Below are some of the details he includes.
The English Civil War
The Battle of Naseby and Hampton Court Palace
The Children of the New Forest starts in 1647, but some references to earlier events in the English Civil War (such as the Battle of Naseby – which was where the children’s father died in conflict and is generally regarded as a turning point against the royalist side). We are told that the king has, at the start of the novel, been defeated by the parliamentarians and is being kept as a prisoner at Hampton Court Palace. The parliamentary army, under the command of Cromwell, is beginning to control the House of Commons.
Later, in November, we find out that the King made his famous escape from Hampton Court and has made his way to the part of Hampshire that led to the New Forest. He hoped a ship would be ready for him to go to France – but this was not the case. This moment in history is key to the novel’s opening as we are introduced to the characters of the New Forest just as parliamentarian soldiers are searching this area for the king.
The Isle of Wight and Carisbrook Castle
Unable to get to France, the king eventually takes advice and goes to the Isle of Wight, hoping that the governor of the Isle of Wight – Colonel Hammond – will help him. There he is imprisoned again in Carisbrook Castle.
Treason and Execution
As the novel progresses, we are informed of various people, loyal to the king, who are executed for treason (such as Captain John Burley who led a failed attempt to rescue the king from Carisbrook Castle). We are also updated on the various movements of the king up until when he is finally executed in 1649. The shocked reaction of the people to the execution of the king is also presented, as well as the report that King Charles II (the son of King Charles I) was proclaimed king in Scotland a few days later.
Cromwell’s Invasion of Ireland and The Battle of Dunbar
Edward, the oldest of the children of the New Forest, hears much of the news relating to events in Britain at large through his friend Oswald, as well as the puritan intendant Heatherstone. A reference, for instance, is made to Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649. Edward is also excited to hear of the army that the Scottish had raised for the king to fight Cromwell. The intendant Heatherstone, however, manages to dissuade Edward from fighting for the king in Scotland at this time – showing that the ‘time was not ripe for the attempt’.
The information provided by Heatherstone proves to be correct, and Edward is saved from getting involved in the Battle of Dunbar (1650), which Oliver Cromwell’s army would come out victorious from.
King Charles II’s Coronation in Scotland and the Battle of Worcester
We are later told of King Charles II’s coronation in Scotland at Scone Castle in 1651. After discussing the matter with the intendant, Edward decides to go up to Scotland to fight on the side of the king against Cromwell – who is still in Edinburgh and ready to retaliate. This being so, Edward meets King Charles II (among other historical figures). Unfortunately, the king is unsuccessful at the Battle of Worcester that follows and escapes to France. Edward and his royalist friends Chaloner and Grenville travel to the safety of the New Forest dressed in the clothes of parliamentarian soldiers.
The Franco-Spanish War and the Restoration
Near the end of the novel, Edward, Chaloner and Grenville go to King Charles II in Paris and take part in the Franco-Spanish war (1635-1659) where they fight under the great general the Prince of Condé.
In 1654, France makes an alliance with Oliver Cromwell’s regime, and King Charles II must go to the Netherlands. At the age of 59, Oliver Cromwell dies in 1658. His son is an unsuccessful successor and, as the narrator puts it, his resignation means that: ‘every thing was ready for the Restoration’.
Finally, in 1660, they join King Charles II as he travels back to England to claim the throne.
Attitudes of the Puritans vs the Cavaliers
Horror at the Death of King Charles I – The Royalist Perspective
From The Children of the New Forest, we not only get a sense of key historical events happening during the period, but we also get glimpses of the attitudes which created them. We hear, for example, Edward’s horror at the news of the death of the king from his friend Oswald, in the following passage:
“Now sit down, Oswald, for I have a great deal to say to you; and first, let me ask you what has detained you from coming here according to your promise?”
“Simply, and in few words—murder.”
“Murder!” exclaimed Edward.
“Yes, deliberate murder, sir; in short, they have beheaded King Charles, our sovereign.”
“Have they dared to do it?”
“They have,” replied Oswald. “We in the forest know little that is going on; but when I saw you last, I heard that he was then in London, and was to be tried.”
“Tried!” exclaimed Edward. “How could they try a king? by the laws of our country, a man must be tried by his equals; and where were his equals?”
“Majesty becomes naught, I suppose,” replied Oswald
In this dialogue, we can see represented the shock many people felt when they heard that King Charles I had been tried and executed. As Edward explains, the laws at the time dictated that a person accused of a crime must be tried by his equals. This meant that it was impossible to try a king – as nobody was his equal. King Charles I himself had asked, on being taken to court:
I would know by what power I am called hither … I would know by what authority, I mean lawful; there are many unlawful authorities in the world; thieves and robbers by the high-ways … Remember, I am your King, your lawful King, and what sins you bring upon your heads, and the judgement of God upon this land.
The execution of the king was, therefore, a largely unpopular decision in England and other territories of the King – even amongst those who had opposed the style of kingship of King Charles I. They feared that divine judgement would become the necessary consequence of this action, and it was with difficulty that an executioner who was prepared to do the dastardly deed could be found.
Horror at the Death of King Charles I – The Parliamentarian Perspective
The intendant is amongst the critics of King Charles I who felt, nevertheless, that executing him had been a step too far. He explains to Edward that he had originally opposed King Charles because
He attempted to make himself absolute, and to wrest the liberties from the people of England … When I joined the party which opposed him, I little thought that matters would have been carried so far as they have been; I have always considered it lawful to take up arms in defense of our liberties, but at the same time I equally felt that the person of the king was sacred.
Here, the intendant is referring to what many felt was the tyrannical style of leadership which King Charles I had adopted. King Charles I, like Stuart kings before him, had believed strongly in the divine right of kings. This being so, he held the conviction that his rule was absolute and his decisions to be accepted without question – beliefs that, understandably, did not put him in the good books of many in the English parliament.
On hearing the perspective of the intendant, Edward is surprised to find himself actually respecting him. He explains to his brother:
“Now, the more I know him the more I like him, nay, more—respect him. He said that the king wished to be absolute, and wrest the liberties from his subjects, and that they were justified in opposing him; I never heard that when at Arnwood.”
“If so, was it lawful so to do?”
“I think it was, but not to murder him; that I can never admit, nor does the intendant; on the contrary, he holds his murderers in as great detestation as I do. Why, then, we do not think far apart from one another …”
Edward realises that he had never heard the point of view of the parliamentarians so expressed when he grew up in the royalist-supporting house of Arnwood. Now that he knows and understands it, he realises that the difference between his way of thinking and that of moderate parliamentarians such as the intendant is not so great. This very common ground found between some parliamentarians and royalists – combined with a hatred of what many came to believe was the even more tyrannical leadership style of Oliver Cromwell – helped pave the way towards the reconciliation of these two warring groups through the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. For, as the intendent explains, echoing the growing feeling of many on the events of the civil war and interregnum:
In attempting to free ourselves from what we considered despotism, we have created for ourselves a worse despotism, and one that is less endurable. It is to be hoped that what has passed will make not only kings but subjects wiser than they have been.
The Children of the New Forest pretty much ticks every box when it comes to great history living books. A great tale of adventure set on the backdrop of a truly perilous moment in history, there is so much to learn from it about the English civil war, interregnum plus the attitudes that fuelled the key events described.
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