By the Sword Divided (1983-1985)

”So be it. We must act out our parts. But let us do it with honor and without any personal sense of animosity.”

If there is such a thing as a miniseries, then I’d argue that there is such a thing as a maxiseries, and this term is perhaps the much better way to describe By Sword Divided. With 20 episodes at 50 minutes each, it’s a commitment to begin and finish this series. It’s available as an entire boxed region 2 collection.

The story revolves around the Lacey family. They live in Arnescote Castle (Rockingham Castle)  and the family patriarch is widower Sir Martin Lacey (Julian Glover). When the story begins, Lacey is arranging a marriage–a love match–for his eldest daughter, Anne (Sharon Maughan) to John Fletcher (Rob Edwards) son of wealthy merchant Austin Fletcher (Bert Parnaby). There’s the implication that this match is a bit of step down for the Laceys, and Austin Fletcher, a man who knows the power of money, drives a hard bargain when it comes to the dowry. Meanwhile, Anne’s younger sister, Lucinda (Lucy Aston) is betrothed to Sir Edward Ferrar, and Anne’s twin, Tom (Tim Bentinck) is off fighting on the continent. This first episode hooked me into the story as it sets the stage for the various divisions that take place.

by the sword

As the rumblings of civil war begin, it’s clear where the divisions will be. Anne Fletcher’s loyalties, for example, will be tested between her husband and his parliamentary leanings, and her Royalist family. The civil war effectively divides the family, but it’s not that simple–there are complex cross loyalties that occur, and it’s these that make the series so interesting. For example, Lucinda–a very single minded passionate woman, throws herself into the Royalist cause so deeply that she refuses to speak to her sister Anne, yet as events unfold, her brother rescues both Anne and Lucinda at different points in the story from boisterous cavaliers. The series shows how complicated the situation was–it’s not just the roundheads vs the cavaliers. Both Lacey and Austin Fletcher, for example, disapprove of King Charles I’s attitude towards parliament and his staunch belief in the Divine Right of Kings, but what they do about it, and where the lines are drawn is the stuff of this meaty maxiseries.

While the series goes to great pains to create grey areas in which conflicting loyalties wrestle endlessly, there are a few purely bad characters–villains we loathe whose fortunes wax and wane as the series continues. But what’s so particularly good is the depiction of the servants too. Working classes are all too often ignored as they are not seen as the ‘movers and shakers’ of events. But in By the Sword Divided, it’s clear that the servants are also victims of the civil war. Should they remain loyal to their ‘masters’ the Laceys or–as one person states–do their loyalties belong to those who feed and shelter them? Relationships between the servants become strained and old friendships are forgotten as the country plunges into war. The wily Austin Fletcher is, to me, one of the interesting characters. While he possesses unflinching opinions, he also intends to ride out the storm, and just how he manages this makes for some riveting twists and turns of the plot.

Adultery, murder and treachery abound as the conflict deepens, and some of the characters develop or devolve in rather unexpected ways. John Fletcher begins the series as an idealistic young lawyer and then his morality is gradually eroded by ambition until he approves of religious fanaticism at its extremes and even endorses Cromwell (Peter Jeffrey) as the next king.

Now since ‘history is written by the winners’, the series certainly comes down on the side of the Royalists. Well they were a much more glamorous bunch–no argument there. But the roundheads are generally as seen as a surly, murderous horde, and if the series can be faulted it should be faulted on those points. The role of Charles I is played with grace and dignity while Cromwell is seen as rather a lout, pimply and unpleasant. Some additional information about the Parliament vs. Charles and his notion of the so-called Divine Right of kings could have been expanded, but our sympathies are supposed to be with the Laceys through their turmoils. One episode contained an aside about the Levellers–those who thought that the exchange of power that had taken place should have given them “natural rights” and equality. They found out the hard way that an exchange of power is not the same as a social revolution

The second series is weaker than the first and a couple of episodes were just silly. The episode involving Hugh bordered on soap territory and the episode with Cromwell at dinner at  Arnescote was ludicrous. But that said, overall, By The Sword Divided was well worth viewing, and by the time it concludes we see how war has divided everyone, and how everyone has been altered and diminished by their experiences as they are set morally adrift by the conflict. The quote at the top of the page is spoken at the very beginning of the divisions within the country, and you can reflect upon the naivete of the statement at the conclusion of the series:

”So be it. We must act out our parts. But let us do it with honor and without any personal sense of animosity”


If you like period pieces, then By The Sword Divided is well worth catching. The sets and the costumes are sumptuous, and the acting stellar. The episodes touch on the major battles and events in the entire Civil War (the First Civil War 1642-1646, the Second Civil War, 1648-1649 and the Third Civil War 1649-1651)  and there are brief appearances of Prince Rupert (Christopher Baines) and Charles II (Simon Treves).


Filed under British television, Period Piece

5 responses to “By the Sword Divided (1983-1985)

  1. Barbera Bass

    I love BTSD. Is there any place I can by it on DVDs that will play on American DVD players?

  2. CLM

    This was my all time favorite miniseries. I hope that some day it is available in a region 1 format as I missed the final episode!

  3. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t been released as a region 1 DVD yet. I see on your blog that you are currently reading Cranford. Have you seen the film version yet? I liked it (wasn’t mad about it)–much preferred North and South and Wives and Daughters.

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