First published in A School History of England (1911) by C.R.L. Fletcher and Rudyard Kipling, and in all subsequent school and non-school editions of the book. It comes in the middle of chapter VIII, ‘The Early Stuarts and the Great Civil War, 1603-1660.’ It is untitled, but beside the poem in the right-hand margin is the description: ‘Before Edgehill fight, October, 1642.’ In the School History the poem was accompanied by one of Henry Ford’s coloured plates called ‘Prince Rupert at Oxford, going to battle.’ A History of England carried an additional coloured plate of ‘Cromwell and his Ironsides.’
In ORG Verse I (1969) Harbord numbers ‘Edgehill Fight’ 984(n) and says that the poem has been variously known as ‘Before Edgehill,’ ‘Before Edgehill Fight,’ ‘Edgehill,’ and ‘The Civil Wars.’ Harbord consistently spells the place of the battle as Edghill, presumably a simple error on his part. The poem was reprinted, with its present title and the sub-title date, in I.V., 1919; in D.V., 1940; the Sussex Edition, vol. 34; and the Burwash Edition, vol. 37. One change of punctuation was made for the Sussex, with a comma being inserted after the word ‘raw’ in line 15.
Edgehill was the opening battle of the English Civil War, fought between the Royalists (commanded by King Charles I and his nephew Prince Rupert) and the Parliamentarians (commanded by the Earl of Essex) on 23 October 1642. There was little strategic importance to Edgehill itself. The war started there because of the attempt by Essex to prevent the King’s forces from reaching London. The outcome of the battle was inconclusive. Charles was left free to press on towards London, but, as Fletcher explains, was unable to do so:
‘The Londoners turned out in such force for the defence of the city, and looked so grim, that Charles dared not fight his way in. He fell back on Oxford, and fixed his head-quarters there’ (A School History, p. 156).
The true importance of the battle at Edgehill is that it marked, after long delays and many uncertainties, the start of the Civil War. Kipling makes no attempt to describe the battle, and he refuses to take sides in the dispute. Instead, the tone of the poem is solemn, and the point-of-view adopted that of a shocked, though reasonably impartial, observer of the scene just before the battle commences. It represents an unwilling acknowledgment that there can now be no turning back. English life will never be the same again.
This is one of the occasions in A School History when Fletcher provides such a perfectly tuned lead-in to the poem that it seems likely it was written by Kipling himself. It takes the appropriate form of an exclamation: ‘With what feelings the men in either army must have looked upon each other before the first great battle!’ Kipling’s poem then follows immediately.
©Peter Keating 2006 All rights reserved