King Charles I
Crown and Political Nation, 1604-1640
A High Road to Civil War?
Engraving from “Nalson’s Record of the Trial of Charles I”, Charles (in the dock with his back to the viewer) facing the High Court of Justice, 1649 / British Museum
During the Tudor monarchy, there was the development of a political system which was in many ways highly centralized but at the same time increasingly participatory and consultative. In certain matters of state the royal will was supreme and the prerogative power of the monarch was paramount and yet, as Mark Kishlansky says, “the constitutional position was that monarchical power was limited by the evolution of its practice.”The prerogative power of the prince could not override the liberties of the subject enshrined in law and the monarch was also expected to have an eye to the views and the interests of the broader political nation, those who governed the localities and who acted, in a sense, as brokers between the royal administration and the nation at large. Well, to that important extent the effectiveness of government and the maintenance of political stability depended on the relationships between the crown and the ‘political nation’. As we move in to the seventeenth century the essential point to grasp perhaps is that these relationships were never fixed. They contained certain gray areas, there were certain tensions, certain ambiguities, and there was nothing new about that. From time to time they’d surfaced under Elizabeth and they’d been on the whole handled and resolved. In the final analysis the interests of the crown and the political nation were expected to run together, and there was also a strong emphasis in the political culture of the time on trying to achieve harmony and consensus. Open conflict was regarded as a sign of failure in the political process.
And yet, despite all of that, in the mid-seventeenth century that system collapsed. In 1642, civil war broke out between the crown and the parliament. In 1649, King Charles I was put on trial by a High Court of Justice formed from parliament and executed and a republic was declared which lasted for over a decade.
Now these were political events of quite extraordinary radicalism for the seventeenth century. Kings had been deposed and replaced in the past; kings had been killed in battle; kings had sometimes been murdered by rival claimants; but never before had a reigning monarch been formally put on trial and called to account and then executed. As Oliver Cromwell, one of the movers of that act, put it, “we cut off the king’s head with the crown on it.” “We cut off the king’s head with the crown on it,” by which he meant that they had tried and executed not just a man but an institution, the institution of monarchy.
Well, such momentous events perhaps imply very profound causes, and as a result the political history of the early seventeenth century has traditionally been viewed as in many respects ‘a high road to civil war’; that’s a phrase which is often used. In looking at the development of the situation, traditionally the so-called ‘Whig’ variant of the story tells a tale of an assertive parliament increasingly anxious to defend its privileges and worried about the liberties of the subject coming into conflict with monarchs who were trying to extend the sphere of royal prerogative power, and as a result parliament fought back by demanding greater influence on policy. That’s the essentials of the traditional story. There’s a Marxist variant on that too, which argues that behind these political developments, behind the assertiveness of parliament, was a growth in the social and economic power of the gentry and of the urban elites of the country, people who had done well out of economic change and were seeking a greater place in the sun, expressing their aspirations in a developing rhetoric of the liberties of the subject.
In the 1970s and 1980s, however, a more conservative, so-called ‘revisionist’ school of historians rejected these interpretations of the high road to civil war and began arguing that they were essentially the product of hindsight. In the view of this school there was no deep-rooted malaise in the English body politic, no great clash of fundamental constitutional principles, no high road to civil war. Rather, as they tell the story, the catastrophe of the 1640s was the result of short-term misjudgments and unforeseen contingent circumstances, almost a tragic accident, though one which came to have very profound consequences.
Well, there’s no need to rehearse all the details of these debates at length. If they interest you, then the introduction to Cust and Hughes’ book, Conflict in Early Stuart England, is an excellent overview of the way the historiography has developed. But these debates continue and they continue in a sense because the English civil wars are still being fought on paper because the seventeenth century was a defining moment in British political history. Nevertheless, at the moment we seem to be in a phase of what’s sometimes described as post-revisionism in which historians of the period are increasingly willing to recognize the merits of different arguments. First of all that the traditional interpretation was perhaps a little too teleological and that the role of short-term contingency was neglected in that story, but on the other hand, recognizing that in its more extreme manifestations revisionism is almost willfully shortsighted as an interpretation. Above all, it fails to take account of the larger context of political life in the nation and of the changing social and cultural context within which politics took place. As a result, it’s been said by some critics that the revisionist approach tends to explain why the English civil wars shouldn’t have happened [laughter]. But they did happen. They can’t explain why people felt so passionately that they were willing to draw sword against their fellow countrymen.
So we mustn’t assume a particular preordained direction of events; we mustn’t imply an inevitability about the process. We have to be alive to the importance in politics of contingent circumstances and the interventions of specific individuals. But at the same time we have to remain aware of the fact that short-term conflicts can have a cumulative effect and politics was not conducted in a social or ideological vacuum.
George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham / National Portrait Gallery, London
Well, to stand back from that for a moment and bring the story through from the accession of James I, one thing one can say with certainty and that’s that in 1603 when King James came down from Scotland and was crowned King of England no one anticipated the trouble that was to come. On the contrary, the mood of the political nation in 1603 was by and large one of celebration. They had an adult monarch, an experienced king who’d ruled well in Scotland; he was a firm Protestant, and he had two sons. Everything looked great. Given the nature of the political system, the tone of James’ reign depended very much upon the personality of the monarch, and James on the whole was capable of negotiating the ambiguities of the constitutional situation pretty well. There were certainly some tensions in his relationships with parliament when it was called. The English parliament, very aware of James’ unfamiliarity with its system, was jealous of its privileges, anxious that the new monarch should be brought to understand them correctly as it saw them. It was rather critical of the King’s use of his prerogative power to raise customs revenues by so-called ‘impositions’ on trade, and at the same time it was deeply suspicious of any financial innovation which might make the crown more independent of parliament. In 1610, for example, parliament rejected plans for what was called the Great Contract, which would have granted to the king a regular annual taxation income in return for abolishing certain antiquated and archaic feudal revenues. It failed. They were too anxious to maintain control of the purse for it to go through.
On the King’s part, James had a very high conception of his royal prerogative. He regarded the privileges of parliament as having been granted by his ancestors in the past for particular purposes, rather than being fundamental features of a mythical ‘ancient constitution’ as some members of parliament believed. He was certainly not used to having such an independent-minded body as the English parliament. Scotland had a parliament but it was very much under the control of the king. He was prone at times to lecturing the members of parliament when he believed them to have encroached upon his sovereignty, but of course Elizabeth had done that in her time. James was also ready to use his power to dissolve parliament when he became exasperated with it. And certainly he didn’t call it very often. But, nevertheless, if James had any pretensions to absolute power they were strictly theoretical. He is once recorded as having told the Spanish ambassador in a conversation that he marveled that his ancestors had created such a body as the English parliament, but he had found it in being when he came to the throne and he was obliged to put up with what he couldn’t get rid of. And so he did, like the shrewd and canny monarch that he was.
More broadly, if there were those amongst the political nation who were a little disappointed with King James after the early years once the honeymoon was over, who came to dislike the sometimes rather sleazy tone of his court, who disliked his fondness for favorites, or his notorious financial extravagance; nonetheless there’s no reason to believe that the consensual political system was under any unusual strain during James’ reign. But if that was the case it didn’t survive the 1620s.
The 1620s turned out to be a decade of mounting crisis and acute political polarization, a polarization which was vividly reflected in the relations between crown and parliament, and this situation arose from a combination of factors. It partly involved foreign policy difficulties. It partly involved religion. It partly involved engagement in war; and taxation; perceived threats to the common law. And it all came to a focus on the person of one man; George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Now Buckingham was a handsome young man, rather charismatic by all accounts, who had come to court and attracted James I’s attention in the late 1610s. Becoming favorite of the king, he had been rapidly advanced to titles and to fortune. Well, had he just been James’ boy toy, this would not have mattered very much, but the trouble was Buckingham was anxious to exercise power. By the early 1620s, he not only held high office but he was also using his position to become increasingly dominant in the control of royal patronage, with all that that meant. Moreover, his ascendancy well established in the later years of King James survived the old king’s death. Buckingham also dazzled Prince Charles and retained his position as royal favorite when Charles came to the throne in 1625. By 1628, he appears to have had virtually a monopoly over influence on policy. Together with that, his manifest incompetence rendered him odious in the eyes of the political nation. Sir Edward Coke, the lord chief justice, described Buckingham as “the grievance of grievances.” He was beginning to be seen in the eyes of some of the political nation as the quintessential bad councilor.
So Buckingham came to provide something of a focus for deteriorating relations between the crown and the political nation. But the broad context for that deterioration was provided by other events, notably events in Europe. The outbreak in 1618 of the Thirty Years War, the expulsion from his lands of James I’s son-in-law, the Protestant elector of the Palatinate, and the triumphant advance in the 1620s of the Catholic forces of the Hapsburg monarchs of Austria and Spain; events which were very anxiously followed by many English gentlemen, as we’ve seen.
It was essentially the question of England’s potential involvement or actual involvement in this European crisis which led to the summoning of so many parliaments in the 1620s, and it was the conduct of affairs under Buckingham which led members of parliament increasingly to try to exert greater influence over matters which were, strictly speaking, matters for the royal prerogative. And that was the situation which began the slide into confrontation.
Portrait of Charles I as Prince of Wales, by Daniël Mijtens, 1623, / National Portrait Gallery, London
To sum it all up briefly, there were five parliaments between 1621 and 1629. Three of them were dissolved acrimoniously after quarrels between the King and parliament. On three occasions the King acrimoniously dissolved parliament and sent them home. The cause of all this was parliament’s attempts to exert influence on policy in prerogative matters of state as the King saw them: matters of foreign policy; matters concerning the marriage of Prince Charles; matters concerning the choice of royal ministers to conduct policy; and matters concerning religion. This developing atmosphere of conflict was made worse when, after 1626, King Charles resorted to measures of questionable legality in order to sustain his policies. And such conflict was fought out in parliament after parliament through assertions of parliamentary privilege and constitutional principle which were met by the use of the royal prerogative to dissolve parliament and silence critics of royal policy.
That’s the essence of it all, but let’s run through some of the sort of ‘edited highlights’ of what happened in these parliaments. In 1621, parliament was called to grant money for some form of action to support the Protestant Elector Palatine, King James’ son-in-law. Parliament voted a modest subsidy to support armies for the Palatinate but also petitioned James to declare war on Spain and to abandon the plans which he had formed to marry Prince Charles to a Spanish princess and to assure a Protestant marriage instead. King James was furious. His plan for a marriage with Spain was part of a larger scheme to try to end the polarization within Europe. It was part of his scheme for securing good relations with Spain which might help forward a negotiated settlement and the withdrawal of Spanish troops, and he forbade the commons to meddle in this grand design. The commons responded by declaring that the King was interfering with — I’m quoting — “the ancient liberty of parliament for freedom of speech… the same being our ancient and undoubted right and an inheritance received from our ancestors.” James replied that their liberty of free speech was derived from “the grace and permission of our ancestors and us” and should not be abused by the parliament in matters of state. There was uproar. The House of Commons composed a protest, the so-called Protestation, saying that their privileges were ‘the ancient and undoubted birthright and inheritance of the subjects of England.” James responded by dissolving Parliament and he personally ripped the Protestation from the journal of the House of Commons.
Well, James did not go to war with Spain as parliament desired and he persisted with his plans for a Spanish marriage. In 1623, Prince Charles accompanied by Buckingham went to Spain in order to woo the Spanish princess, the Infanta. This occasioned massive anxiety in England followed by widespread public rejoicing when the marriage negotiations eventually fell through. Humiliated by their failure, Charles and Buckingham now began to exert their influence to back the idea of war with Spain. In 1624, parliament was called again. It voted money to the crown but withheld the finance bill until war was reluctantly declared by King James. And England entered the war in alliance with France, an alliance which involved the marriage of Prince Charles to the French princess, Henrietta Maria, sister of the King of France, a Catholic who arrived in England with a Catholic entourage including priests and confessors.
In 1625, Charles came to the throne. He was now aged twenty-five. Parliament met at the beginning of the reign as was customary and voted money for the continuation of the war, but it failed to grant the King the usual grant of customs revenue for life. This was because parliament was unhappy about recent customs impositions which didn’t have parliamentary sanction. In September of that year, September of 1625, the Duke of Buckingham led an English naval expedition to attack the Spanish port of Cadiz, attempting to emulate the great feat of Francis Drake when he had attacked Cadiz in the 1580s, but Buckingham was not Francis Drake. His expedition was an utter failure, demonstrating gross military incompetence on the part of the Duke.
Following that humiliation, in 1626 parliament met again to provide money for the war. It proved willing to vote supply to the crown but it demanded that its grievances should be rectified before the finance bill was finally passed. And the grievances were above all a torrent of hostility towards Buckingham and other new councilors influencing the King, notably the Arminian bishops who were being brought in to the privy council. The Commons proceeded to try to draw up articles of impeachment against Buckingham for his incompetence. Charles attempted to halt them by illegally imprisoning several members of the House of Commons, and when that failed he again dissolved parliament in order to save the Duke from impeachment proceedings. No money was granted.
In need of money to finance the war, Charles and Buckingham now decided to levy a massive forced loan. They simply levied what was officially a loan, in fact an illegal tax, on the taxpaying section of the political nation, claiming the King’s right to do this by prerogative power in conditions of national emergency. Over seventy members of the gentry refused to pay and were imprisoned by the King’s special commandment; again a use of prerogative power, imprisoned without trial. To make matters worse, Buckingham now secured a declaration of war not only against Spain but against France also and squandered the forced loan money by leading another disastrous naval expedition, this time to aid French Protestants who were rebelling against Louis XIII of France in the city of La Rochelle on the coast of southwest France; another military disaster.
This deteriorating situation finally came to a head in 1628 to 1629. Parliament was called again, again to raise money, and it met in an ominous mood. Sir Benjamin Rudyard, one of the members, declared, “this is the crisis of parliaments: we shall know by this if parliaments shall live or die.”
The House of Commons started by promising to vote the King a large sum of money but again insisted that their grievance issue be heard before the finance bill was finalized. Again there was a torrent of complaint concerning grievances arising from the forced loan and the conduct of the war under Buckingham, and finally all of this was encapsulated in the so-called Petition of Right, the Petition of Right, which was presented to the King requesting that he confirm the liberties of the subject threatened by the recent conduct of his government.
Specifically, there should be no taxation without parliamentary consent; there should be no arbitrary arrest of subjects; there should be no billeting of troops upon subjects without their consent; there should be no government of the localities by martial law, which is something which had occurred in the areas of the kingdom where troops were billeted prior to Buckingham’s expedition. In order to get the necessary money, Charles reluctantly agreed to the Petition of Right, though insisting that in doing so he was not surrendering any of his prerogative powers. That was in June 1628. Parliament then adjourned and went into recess, and before it met again the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated in August 1628 by one of his former officers, an event which was greeted by almost universal public rejoicing throughout England. One of the few exceptions to that rejoicing being King Charles himself, who was profoundly grieved by the loss of his friend and deeply bitter about the way Buckingham’s murder had been greeted with virtual dancing in the streets throughout the kingdom.
In January 1629, parliament reconvened and attempted to press its advantage. There was a vigorous attack upon the recently promoted Arminian bishops in the church who were accused of introducing popish innovations, as we heard last time. There was the use of the Petition of Right to attack the illegality of Charles’ collection of customs, which he had continued to collect despite the fact that parliament had not confirmed its grant of customs revenue. Charles decided to halt parliament’s sitting in this situation, but when the Speaker of the House of Commons was told to announce the dissolution of parliament to the Commons he was held down in his chair by several of the members. They refused to allow him to announce the dissolution. The door of the House of Commons was shut against the King’s messenger and barred until the Commons, led by Sir John Eliot, put forward three resolutions to the House.
First of all the resolution that anyone furthering “popery or Arminianism” was to be considered “a capital enemy to this kingdom”; secondly that whoever advised the King to collect customs revenue without parliamentary consent would also be considered a capital enemy to the kingdom; thirdly that anyone paying these duties was “an enemy to the liberties of England.” These three resolutions were passed by acclamation in the House of Commons and Charles responded by dissolving parliament. It didn’t meet again for eleven years.
Dissolution of 1629
Portrait of King Charles I, by Gerrit van Honthorst, 1628 / National Portrait Gallery, London
Now, it’s been suggested in recent years that we shouldn’t really make too much of all of this: that the conflict that scarred political life in the 1620s was sporadic rather than continuous; that it was a product of particular circumstances, in the conduct of the wars in particular, rather than a reflection of growing ideological division; that consensual values still held their power, that the leaders of parliament did not constitute an organized and coherent opposition to the crown. These arguments need to be taken seriously, but for myself I can say I don’t really find them convincing. Certainly, the conflicts did arise from the contingent circumstances surrounding particular meetings of parliament, and certainly the members of the political nation would have preferred a consensual relationship with the royal government — they repeatedly showed their willingness to grant the taxes necessary for the war on certain conditions; they would have liked to establish a new consensus.
But the 1620s had also witnessed the enmeshing of a variety of sources of discontent with Charles’ government. The political nation was becoming seriously divided over a number of fundamental issues which recur repeatedly and an ideological fissure was emerging over certain key questions, such as: the extent to which the King’s prerogative powers were or were not limited by law; the scope of parliament’s legitimate role in advising the crown and representing the views of the political nation; the question of whether the principle of taxation by consent would be maintained or not; the question of whether the ecclesiastical policy being pursued by the crown, with the appointment of Arminian bishops, was or was not undermining English Protestantism. Now all of those issues, which do recur, add up to a pretty heady mixture. It’s a formidable cocktail of anxieties. And, as you know, these anxieties were widely shared well outside the confines of the houses of parliament, widely shared by a broad and growing political public which was informed by novel means of political news reporting which emphasized not consensus but danger and conflict. The emergence of a broad public opinion which expected parliament to act to remedy its concerns was surely something which was part and parcel of the deterioration of relationships between the crown and the political nation at large — and the fact that not all of those who learned of what was happening at the center were necessarily sympathetic to parliament deepened the emerging political division in the country.
No one who took a serious interest in political affairs at this time could really fail to be aware that there was something of a functional breakdown in the consensual political system by the later 1620s, and of course they had to explain to themselves what was going on. Two influential interpretations of that, by Peter Lake and Jonathan Scott, have argued that people explained the situation to themselves with reference to what have been described as two “similar but mutually exclusive conspiracy theories.” To those who sympathized with parliament and particular to the leaders of the House of Commons like Sir John Eliot or John Pym, the erosion of consensus was attributable to what they described as a popish plot amongst evil councilors of the crown who were hostile to English Protestantism and to the liberties of the subject and who were favorable to absolutism or arbitrary power in both church and state. They associated together popery and arbitrary power, which was to prove a dominant theme in seventeenth-century English oppositional politics that association of affairs in church and state, popery and arbitrary power, was already being made. That was one conspiracy theory. On the other hand, amongst people who recoiled from what they had begun to see as parliament’s excesses, especially the scenes in 1629, the fault lay not with crypto-papists around the king but with what they described as “popular spirits”: popular spirits, populists, radicals who failed to respect the proper legitimate rights of the crown and who were making constitutional encroachments upon them and whose attempts to achieve greater ‘popularity’ in government were linked to a preference for ‘popularity’ in religion also. Which is to say they saw them as crypto-Presbyterians, Puritans, popular spirits. That was the view of those who swung increasingly to the King’s side in these quarrels.1
But with the dissolution of parliament in 1629 the forum for the public expression of the first of these sets of anxieties had been removed. Parliament was no longer there, and the conduct of government lay with people like Archbishop Laud or Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, who shared the second view. Wentworth in particular was a man who had been vehemently opposed as a member of parliament to the Duke of Buckingham, but who recoiled in 1629 from what he took to be the excesses of parliament threatening the breakdown of order. Laud and Wentworth proved strong allies of the King who himself of course took the view that popular spirits were at work and was determined not to call another parliament in which they could express their voice if he could possibly avoid it.
So, with the dissolution of 1629, to Charles and his advisers the 1630s represented something of a fresh start. Peace was made first of all with France in 1629 and then with Spain in 1630. In Europe the situation was becoming less threatening. In 1629, the Protestant King of Sweden intervened in Germany, and then in 1635 France under Cardinal Richelieu intervened, and together that greatly lessened the threat of Hapsburg domination and a triumphant counter-reformation. At home Charles was determined to close down the consultative and participatory dimensions of the political process. He believed that it had led only to obstruction, disruption, and conflict and he would have no more of it if possible.
But he was also determined to rule well according to his own lights. In 1631, following a harvest crisis he issued a Book of Orders which tightened up the administration of local government with particular attention to the efficient enforcement of the poor laws and a great deal was achieved in that respect. Steps were also taken by the royal government to remedy some of the deficiencies which had emerged in the course of Buckingham’s unsuccessful military campaigns in the 1620s. Steps were taken to reform the militia, to institute the training to a higher level of military preparedness of part of the militia, and steps were also instituted to rebuild and strengthen the navy. All of these things were very much to the King’s credit, and yet in other respects he can be said to have confirmed some of the worst fears of his opponents in 1629.
Portrait of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, c.1636 / National Portrait Gallery, London
As you know, Arminianism continued to be ruthlessly promoted in the church under Archbishop Laud, who became Archbishop of Canterbury of course in 1633. In the absence of parliamentary grants of taxation, the King also resorted to a variety of financial expedients which were of questionable legality. There were many of these. One for example was so-called “distraint of knighthood.” By this the King revived an ancient feudal law under which landholders of a certain level of wealth were fined if they didn’t present themselves before the king to be made knights. He was digging up a medieval precedent in order to squeeze money out of certain members of the landed gentry. It was deeply resented. New customs impositions were introduced, of course without parliamentary sanction. Efforts were made to search for and revive any royal rights over land which could be sources of income by obliging landholders to meet ‘compositions’ with the King in order to have royal rights relaxed, again digging in to the medieval past for precedents which could be exploited fiscally.
Above all, the King levied from 1634 the tax Ship Money. Just to explain, Ship Money was a tax which could be levied on coastal counties and on ports in lieu of their provision of ships for the royal navy in time of need. It was well established. It had been used by Elizabeth in the war against Spain without any complaint. Charles, however, took things further. He charged Ship Money on the ports initially, extended it to coastal counties in time of peace, and then in 1635 extended it to the entire country. Thereafter Ship Money was levied every year. It had become an annual un-parliamentary tax. The legality of Ship Money was challenged in 1637 by a number of gentlemen who refused to pay, led by John Hampden — after whom our suburb is named — and Ship Money was only narrowly validated in the court judgment which resulted in the Ship Money case where the judges found for the King, but only by a majority of seven to five. Only narrowly did they recognize the legality of this tax. Five of the principal justices thought it was illegal.
Well, to revisionist historians, the 1630s can be seen as a period of relatively successful royal government. Mark Kishlansky has remarked that “there was no groundswell of opposition” to Charles’ government in the 1630s, and indeed there was little public protest for the simple reason that there was no longer a forum for that protest to be expressed since parliament was not meeting. But if the 1630s were a period of apparent stability I’d suggest that it was the stability of resignation, or the stability of anxious waiting on events, rather than active consent to these measures by the royal government. Down in the counties local rulers usually obeyed royal commands when they received them. It was their duty to do so, but they could also entertain their private thoughts. They could discuss them cautiously and anxiously with their neighbors. They could record them privately in their diaries. They could watch what happened in things like the Ship Money case. In 1633, Sir Robert Harley entered in his diary his prayers for a new parliament as well as his prayers for Protestant success in Europe and for the religious exiles in New England. In the county of Suffolk, John Rous is revealed by his diary to have been deeply worried, deeply reluctant to think badly of the King, sometimes defending the King’s actions against more critical neighbors. But by the end of the 1630s he too had become convinced that there existed around the King what he described as a “malignant party” who “hate reformation and would bring in tyranny.” Amongst many of the political nation, then, Charles’ rule was breeding a profound anxiety, a profound alienation, and deep suspicion regarding what his ultimate intentions might be.
The extent of that alienation would only be fully revealed when parliament met again in 1640 when the King was at last obliged to call another parliament, but that he did so at all was the consequence of his own folly. The folly of Charles and Archbishop Laud in 1637 when they decided to impose upon the Presbyterian church of Scotland both an extension of Episcopal government and an English style prayer book. It was an act of utter folly, the product of their dogmatism, their arrogance, their insistence upon uniformity, and the blow-back was catastrophic.
When the Archbishop of St. Andrew’s attempted to read from the new prayer book in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, an Edinburgh housewife threw her stool at him. To the Scots, such innovations in their church, a separate church from the Church of England, seemed to be, as they described them, “popish, atheistical, and English.” [Laughter] Which of the three was worst I leave to your judgment. They met together in 1638 to form a National Covenant to resist these innovations, and in the face of the King’s refusal to back down they rebelled and by doing so began to cause the whole house of cards to fall.
1. See P. Lake, “Anti-popery: the structure of a prejudice,” in Cust and Hughes eds., The English Civil War (1997) and J. Scott, England’s Troubles. Seventeenth-century Political Instability in European Context (2000).
Constitutional Revolution and Civil War, 1640-1646
Reemergence of Parliament
Portrait of Thomas Hobbes, by John Michael Wright, 17th century / National Portrait Gallery, London
The great political philosopher Thomas Hobbes formulated his theory of the state and his ideas on political obligation in the context of the civil wars which tore apart all three of the constituent kingdoms of Britain in the 1640s. And when it was all over Hobbes, who had returned from exile in the 1650s, wrote a history of the conflict which he called Behemoth, published in 1662. The title’s up here. And he began it with this wonderful sentence, the first sentence of Behemoth: “If in time, as in place, there were degrees of high and low, I verily believe that the highest of times would be that which passed betwixt 1640 and 1660.” And what Hobbes meant by that striking sentence was that the events of those two decades unleashed consequences of an enormously far-reaching nature: in politics of course, in religion, and also in the realm of ideas. Things would never be quite the same again.
But if that’s how it looked to Hobbes at the end of the whole process, in the beginning, in 1637, none of that could really be foreseen. In 1637, Charles I’s experiment in personal rule was going well and he had just succeeded in winning legal backing, albeit narrowly, for the continued collection of Ship Money, an annual non-parliamentary tax. But Charles’ relative success depended upon two things. First of all, he needed to avoid unnecessary expense, especially the kind of expenditure necessitated by war. Part of the reason for his success in the 1630s was that he had kept the kingdom at peace. Secondly, he needed to avoid calling a parliament. He needed to avoid a parliament which would be a forum for deeply alienated elements of the political nation who loathed his fiscal expedients on the one hand, and on the other hand his Arminian policy in the church. He needed time for such opposition to die down; if it would. And in 1638 to ’40 all of this collapsed. As I mentioned at the end of the last lecture, in 1637 Charles and Archbishop William Laud overreached themselves by attempting to impose uniformity on religion throughout not only England but also Charles’ other kingdom of Scotland.
They attempted to impose episcopacy and an Anglican-style prayer book upon the Church of Scotland. In 1638, the Scots, led by many of their leading nobility and backed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, formed in Edinburgh a National Covenant taken by all the leaders of the movement and many others to resist innovations in religion and they proceeded to raise an army. In 1639, Charles proved incapable of finding the resources to put an effective army in the field to stop the Scottish rebellion and the Covenanters effectively overran the whole of southern Scotland. It was completely in their control. In desperate need of funds, the King was forced to call a parliament, and in 1640 the writs went out for what came to be known as the Short Parliament.
The elections which were held in that year were unusually fraught. Customarily, in most counties or urban constituencies election contests were relatively rare. Usually, people somehow by consensus managed to decide who would represent them in parliament. In the elections for the Short Parliament research has shown that in fact there were contests in no fewer than a quarter of the constituencies, a very high number for this period, contests between candidates who were regarded by the electorate as, on the one hand, ‘courtiers’ and candidates who were regarded as having ‘country’ values, that is to say staunch traditional Protestants, adherents to the rule of law, supporters for parliament’s continued place in the political process.
When the Short Parliament met late in April 1640 it immediately took up the old tactic from the 1620s of agreeing that they would vote the King money, but only if their grievances were first remedied, and indeed the very first speech made in the Short Parliament in the House of Commons declared that the Scottish rebels were less of a threat to the kingdom than the threat which was posed by the King’s government to the liberties of the subject. Charles responded by dissolving parliament after roughly three weeks: hence its name, the Short Parliament.
Portrait of Sir John Glanville, Speaker of the 1640 Short Parliament, late 17th century / National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles then attempted to prepare to invade Scotland with the very inadequate resources at his disposal. Troops were raised. They proceeded north amidst great disorders. They were of low quality and poorly trained. And they were rapidly defeated by a pre-emptive strike on the part of the Scots who crossed the border, drove back the royal troops, and occupied the whole of the northeast of England including the crucial strategic center of Newcastle, center of the coal trade which supplied the fuel on which London depended. So the whole of the northeast of England was under Scottish occupation. They then settled down, waiting for negotiations and taxing the counties which they’d occupied in order to maintain their occupation.
I should just mention the sudden success of the Scots should have been predictable. Many Scots had served as mercenaries in the armies particularly of Sweden and of the Netherlands in the Thirty Years War. They were very good experienced soldiers. They’d come home to defend the Covenant. They were led by David Leslie, a general with a great deal of experience who had distinguished himself in Swedish service. England had nothing comparable militarily.
Well, humiliated and desperate, Charles called another parliament, this one to meet in November 1640, and the whole country was galvanized by this second election. There were even more election contests. It’s thought that about a third of constituencies were contested in the elections for the Long Parliament. Indeed it’s been suggested that nationwide perhaps between a quarter and a third of all adult males voted in the election for the Long Parliament.
The members elected arrived in Westminster bringing with them petitions from their counties cataloging their grievances against Charles’ government. There was a tremendous unity of purpose amongst them. They knew that this time the King could not afford to dissolve parliament if it opposed him.
When parliament met, the initiative was immediately seized by John Pym who rapidly emerged as leader in the House of Commons. He was a veteran of the battles in Parliament in the 1620s and knew exactly what he was doing. In an early speech he alleged the existence of a plot to introduce popery and arbitrary government emanating from some of the King’s councilors. Early in the meeting of parliament in its first session in November 1640 this allegation developed into direct attacks upon the King’s leading councilors, Archbishop Laud and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. Both of them were imprisoned on the orders of parliament and Strafford found himself the object of impeachment proceedings. Then in December 1640 parliament received, graciously, from the city of London a petition known as the Root and Branch Petition against episcopacy in the church and calling for further reformation in the church. It was accompanied by large demonstrations of London citizens, orderly demonstrations accompanying the petition to the parliament, but it showed how well London was organized in opposition. In February 1641, after a brief recess, the Triennial Act was passed and the King was reluctantly forced to agree to it. The Triennial Act laid down that in future parliaments must be elected every three years and, a few months later in May 1641, the King further agreed that the present parliament could not be dissolved without its own consent.
The spring of 1641 also saw Strafford’s impeachment proceedings in the House of Lords which gradually turned into a trial of the entire regime of the 1630s, in particular the exercise by the King of forms of arbitrary power, with Strafford’s backing according to the allegations. And in May 1641 Strafford was the object of an act of attainder, the King was reluctantly forced to sign his death warrant, and he was executed. Then in the summer of 1641 came a batch of reforming statutes. The prerogative courts which had enforced the royal will in the 1630s, especially the Court of Star Chamber which had dealt with dissidents, were abolished. Ship Money was declared illegal. The other financial expedients which had been used by Charles in the 1630s were also declared illegal, and to all of this the King reluctantly gave his assent.
By the high summer of 1641 then, it looked as if parliament had won. Charles’ innovations had been reversed. Strafford, his strongman, was dead; Laud was in the Tower of London; parliament had secured for itself a regular place in government through the Triennial Act. It appeared to have been a bloodless, or almost bloodless, constitutional revolution, but of course the game was not yet over. Parliament went into recess in the summer of 1641 and Charles took the opportunity to travel to Scotland. There he agreed to a settlement regarding the Church of Scotland by withdrawing his earlier demands and this secured the withdrawal of the Scottish army from the north of England.
Rebellion in Ireland
In early November 1641 when parliament met again a second major event occurred. News arrived in London of rebellion in Ireland, a Catholic and nationalist rebellion involving, allegedly, massacres of English and Scottish settlers in northern Ireland.
Now I should take a moment to explain briefly the Irish situation. In the aftermath of the rebellion against Elizabeth by the Earl of Tyrone in the late 1590s, land had been confiscated from the chieftains of northeastern Ireland, the area known as Ulster, and that land had been planted with Protestant settlements mostly peopled by settlers who came across from Scotland, southern Scotland, and from England. Their relations with the Irish population were fraught from the beginning. By 1641, some of the Irish chieftains in Ulster, resentful of their loss of land and of power in that area, planned to imitate the Scots by rebelling, seizing control of the Irish government, and then negotiating a better settlement. Once the rebellion began, however, they proved unable to control it. Some of their followers began killings of settlers and seizures of their land. Meanwhile, the so-called Old English aristocracy of other parts of Ireland, most of whom were Roman Catholics — they were descended from medieval Norman conquerors of Irish land, known as the Old English — they joined in the rebellion, principally motivated by the fact that as Roman Catholics they were fearful of a Puritan-dominated parliament in London and what it might mean for them. With the joining together of these two sources of discontent in Ireland the rebellion became both a religious, a Roman Catholic, and a nationalist rebellion fueled by bitter resentments against the plantations in the north, marked by massacres and evictions of settlements. It’s estimated — the figures keep changing as more research is done, but perhaps 4,000 Protestant settlers were killed and some thousands more probably died of cold and hunger during the winter of 1641 to ‘2.
Civil War: Foundations
Portrait of John Pym, by Edward Bower, 1640 / National Portrait Gallery, London
So Ireland had exploded, and news of these events, sometimes wildly exaggerated — bad enough as it was — confirmed, it seemed to members of parliament, the fears that there was indeed a popish plot afoot. But it also raised the crucial question of what was to be done in the face of this new rebellion? Could the King be granted an army to suppress it? Could he be trusted with an army? Would he not use it first against parliament? On November the 23rd, 1641, John Pym decided to press ahead. He introduced in to the House of Commons the so-called Grand Remonstrance. It was a long document, a comprehensive indictment of Charles’ misrule ever since he had come to the throne in 1625; all of these points set out in order to justify the demand that henceforward parliament should have the power to choose the King’s councilors, thereby having control over whatever forces might be granted to the King, and that an assembly of divines should meet to determine the future structure of the Church of England to satisfy the Puritan zealots amongst Pym’s supporters.
This radical action finally split what had been hitherto a fairly unified opposition to Charles. This seemed to confirm the theory that there were indeed “popular spirits” seeking to undermine the monarchy and the ancient constitution. So both of those conspiracy theories which I mentioned last time seemed to have been confirmed by events. There were also some members of parliament who, much as they opposed Laud’s innovations in the church, did not want a Puritan assault upon the episcopal structure of the Church of England. That was going too far in their view. The whole issue raised by the Grand Remonstrance — the many issues raised by it — were passionately debated in a session which went on until two o’clock in the morning when it was finally passed by the House of Commons by only 159 votes to 148, a narrow victory for John Pym. He had the Grand Remonstrance printed and distributed outside parliament into the country to win support.
So, with the Grand Remonstrance what had been a virtually united opposition to the King was dividing. And it was the fact that that once united opposition split that made possible civil war. It made possible the King’s rallying of a party to his cause. On the 23rd of December, he rejected the Grand Remonstrance, and then on the 4th of January 1642, he attempted a coup by coming in person to parliament with troops to attempt to arrest the leaders of the House of Commons. The five leaders that he was looking for escaped. They had been forewarned of his arrival. They fled downriver and took refuge in the city of London. Faced with this situation, Charles withdrew from his capital. Some members of parliament were also withdrawing, quietly leaving parliament and going back to their estates. Queen Henrietta Maria left and went to France to consult with her brother, Louis XIII, and to raise money if possible to buy arms for a royal army.
In March 1642, parliament passed an ordinance known as the Militia Ordinance. An ordinance was not an act of parliament. A full act of parliament needed the king’s signature. They had decided to pass ordinances with the force of law, to legislate without the King, and they passed the Militia Ordinance, seizing the right to raise troops and appoint military commanders, so they too were preparing to raise forces. In June 1642, they offered to the King the so-called Nineteen Propositions. This included such terms as: all privy councilors should in future be approved by parliament; all major officers of state should be approved by parliament; the militia order allowing parliament to raise troops and appoint commanders should be accepted; the King should consent to whatever reform in the Church of England parliament advised.
Charles replied to this ultimatum that if he was to accept this — I’m quoting him — it would be “the total subversion of the fundamental laws and excellent constitution of this kingdom,” for, he continued, “parliament never was intended for any share in government or the choosing of them that governed.” Now of course the King was technically right, but things had passed beyond the question of what was or what was not the excellent ancient constitution to which both sides continually appealed. In different ways both sides of the dispute had now subverted the ancient constitution which they professed to revere. And under the pressure of events they had gradually entered completely uncharted waters, a situation which no one had envisaged, let alone planned.
Charles I raising the Royal Standard, Nottingham Castle, August 1642 / Nottingham City Council, Getty Images
In July 1642, parliament voted to raise an army. In August 1642, Charles, having rejected parliament’s terms, raised his banner in the city of Nottingham and called on all true subjects to come to his support. In fact, by the time Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham fighting had already broken out in the town of Manchester in the northwest where the townspeople resisted the attempts by one of the King’s supporters to seize the town’s magazine of arms. The first shots were fired that day. England was at war: at war with its own king and at war with itself.
So, by the time civil war broke out in July, August 1642, the combination of a determined effort to reverse Charles I ‘s policies in church and state and the unforeseen circumstances provoked by the Irish rebellion had led parliament to make what might reasonably be called revolutionary political claims. But how far would it go and where would it end? Those questions were now to be settled by war, and it was a war which itself unleashed a further dynamic of unforeseen circumstances and unforeseen consequences. That continuing dynamic perhaps derived ultimately from the complexity of the causes of the war and the various meshings of motives which led people to fight and also from the remarkable breadth of voluntary participation in the war. The participation in the fighting was remarkably wide socially. It’s been estimated that perhaps a fifth of all adult men in the kingdom fought in the civil war.
Now historians have long argued the toss about the real causes of the war — it’s one of the great debates of English historiography — and usually when they do so they try to emphasize a particular dominant variable in their own interpretation. They frequently seek for a single prime mover, the dominant cause. Really I think that that’s a foolish exercise, because the essential point it seems to me about the civil wars is that they were about subtly different things to different people who participated, and indeed all of the competing modern interpretations — be they Whig or Marxist or revisionist — all of them can be prefigured in the views of some contemporaries themselves.
Different people at the time thought the war was about different things. To the Scots it was about religion and the distinctive institutions of what was still an independent kingdom even if it had the same king as the kingdom of England. To the Irish it was about land and about religion. Amongst the English some royalists joined the King simply out of loyalty. He was the King. Some saw themselves as defending the monarch’s legitimate constitutional rights against popular spirits. Some saw themselves as defending the Church of England against a Puritan plot to dismantle it. Some Roman Catholics joined the King — many of them joined the King in fact — out of fear of what a Puritan victory might mean and in the hope that if they supported the King he might grant them future toleration in the exercise of their religion. Some gentlemen joined him because they feared social disorder. They feared that a collapse of regular government would lead to a breakdown of social order, a fear which was much played upon by royalist propaganda which stressed the plebian nature of many of those who had shown support for the parliament, the demonstrators in London for example. Parliamentarians were early labeled by royalist propagandists as Roundheads, people with short haircuts, which meant common people, not wearing the flowing locks of a gentleman.
On the other side, some parliamentarians saw themselves as defending the ancient constitution and the law against a king who could not be trusted. If they had encroached on the powers of Charles I, it was not because they were attacking monarchy as such. The battle cry for the parliamentarian armies was “for the King and parliament” whereas the war cry of the royalists was simply “for the King,” but the parliamentarian slogan was “King and parliament.” Others saw themselves as defending English Protestantism against popish innovation. Many banners of regiments raised in the parliament’s support had religious symbols upon them. Some saw it as the moment at last at which they could move beyond the traditional Anglican settlement and achieve a fuller reformation in church and nation.
Much intensive research has been done on side taking, and it suggests that both socially and geographically there were differences in the composition of the two sides, but really they were just differences of degree; they were not absolutely clear divisions. So, for example, two thirds of the House of Lords were for the King, but one third of the lords fought for parliament; the earls of Manchester, of Bedford, of Warwick, of Northumberland, and others fought for parliament. Most of the gentry actually managed to stay out of it altogether, but of the very large minority who did fight no significant difference can be found in terms of their relative social and economic position. Where the differences can be discerned they seem to have been differences of principle, sometimes religious principle, sometimes constitutional principle. So this was a war in which many of those who took part understood it as having a powerful ideological element of one kind or another.
Portrait of Richard Baxter, by Robert White, 1670 / National Portrait Gallery, London
And much of this was true also of the common people because they didn’t participate simply as dutiful tenants or impressed men. Of course, some did, but many voluntarily took part. Predictably, the loyalties of the so-called ‘middle sort of people’ counted most, the kinds of people who were leaders in their townships and parishes, and they seemed to have been moved by similar motivations to those of the gentry. Amongst them we hear most in contemporary sources about a tendency to support parliament. Most of them seem indeed to have been on that side. We mustn’t forget that these were people who also participated in local government, albeit at a humble level. Many of them, if they had freehold land or were citizens of towns with a broad franchise, had taken part in the elections. They were people who had signed the county and municipal petitions which had been brought to the Long Parliament in 1640. And amongst such people, amongst the middle sort as contemporaries called them, one contemporary observer, Richard Baxter, tells us there were many “Good Commonwealth’s Men,” as he described them, concerned about law, about taxation, about the liberties and survival of parliament, though Baxter added that amongst them also were many who were sensible of these things — I’m quoting him — “sensible of these things but much more sensible of the interests of religion.” Again ideological issues percolating far down in society. As with the gentry, most of the middle sort of people did stay out of it but of those who voluntarily participated a great many were for the parliament, a mirror image of the aristocracy. And the major towns and industrial areas were all parliamentarian in sympathy. So one could say if the royalist propaganda of the early years of the war tended to be aristocratic in tone, a good deal of the propaganda of the parliament was aimed broadly in society and was somewhat populist in its tone.
So for many of the middle sort too this was their cause also. But, be that as it may, they didn’t call the tune. Both sides of the war were directed by gentlemen, and in approaching the actual events of the war it helps to consider what their war aims were. The aims of the King and his advisers were simple. The King intended to win and then dictate terms to a defeated parliament. To that end, his basic strategy was to consolidate his control of territory in the north and west of England where his supporters were in the majority and then to advance upon London and take the city. Early in the war his principal base was established on — in — Oxford and from Oxford he intended to advance to take London. Simple enough. He almost achieved it in 1642 when some of his troops arrived on the very outskirts of London and were turned back by armed apprentices from the city who advanced to meet them at Turnham Green. The royalists for whatever reason chose not to attack; they retreated and the city was saved. (Turnham Green, incidentally, is on the tube line as you go in from Heathrow Airport to central London. If you’re ever going in that way on a visit to London, you would go right through Turnham Green).
Not all who fought for the King, however, shared these simple war aims. There were plenty amongst them who had actually opposed him in 1640 but who couldn’t bring themselves to fight against him. They would have preferred a negotiated settlement, but although Charles occasionally paused to engage in negotiations for tactical reasons it’s unlikely that he ever did it seriously.
The war aims of parliament were different. Parliament neither sought nor expected an outright military victory. The aim was to achieve a strategic superiority which would then force the King to come to terms. The idea was to hold the south and the east and the major cities where parliamentarian support was strongest, to contest the north and the west in order to weaken the King, and above all to prevent the King from taking London. Parliamentary armies were organized in regional associations based on associations of counties who raised troops to operate only within their own zone, in addition to which a field army was raised under the command of the Earl of Essex which had the principal duty of protecting London by shadowing royal forces in the Midlands.
Charles depicted as a victorious and chivalrous Saint George in an English landscape, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1629–1630 / Royal Collection, Windsor Castle
So, the war consisted for the most part of a great deal of regional skirmishing in the provinces and local campaigning by one garrison against another all over the north and the west and the Midlands; and then campaigns in which the major field armies shadowed one another mostly in the south Midlands and in the approaches to London with occasional pitched battles when London was seriously threatened. Such was the basic situation in the first two years of the war from 1642 to 1644, but as the war continued the experience of a conflict — of the conflict — and the need to respond to the situations that it created began to release greater passions and to create new war aims.
Militarily and politically, the pattern was of summer military campaigns followed by winter politics when the armies were simply encamped in winter quarters — and the result of the summer campaign affected the politics; the result of the winter politics affected the next summer campaign. That’s how it went. In the summer of 1643, the King came very close to winning again. He consolidated his strength in the north and the west and seemed poised for a victorious strike. Politically, parliament saw the emergence that winter of three broad groupings. There was a peace group in parliament who thought it would be best to negotiate with the King now and get the best terms that could be obtained before everything was lost. On the other hand, there was a so-called war group. They had become convinced that only a more aggressive military policy would succeed in bringing the King to terms and they’d have to defeat him militarily first before he would talk seriously. And between the two was a large middle group which could be swayed either way by debates in parliament.
Late in 1643, the war group with the backing of John Pym, who at this time was actually dying of cancer and had died by the end of the year, the war group decided that it was necessary to try to bring the Scots back in, in order to break the royalists’ hold on the north of England. And in September they negotiated the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scottish Covenanters. It was agreed that the Scots would aid parliament militarily, but the price of their support was acceptance of reform of the Church of England “according to the word of God and the example of the best reformed churches.” That was the wording of the treaty. The Scots understood that to mean Presbyterianism. An assembly was set up at Westminster of English divines, more than a hundred ministers, a number of lay commissioners, and Scottish observers to discuss a future religious settlement. Almost simultaneously, in the autumn of 1643, Charles agreed a cessation of hostilities in Ireland. The Irish rebel confederation held power there. The cessation of hostilities by the remaining royalist garrisons was achieved in order to get aid for the King from the Irish rebel confederation. They would bring in reinforcements from the west. All of this, both the bringing in of the Scots and the bringing in of the Irish rebels, of course, inevitably heightened the already existing sense of the war as being in part a religious conflict.
1644 brought another shift. The entry of the Scots facilitated parliament’s recovery in the north. The Scots swept south again, recovered Newcastle and began besieging the city of York. Charles detached his nephew, Prince Rupert, to relieve the threat to York which — with — an army which proceeded north and expected an easy victory in relieving the city. But he got quite a surprise. The Scots together with the army of the Eastern Association, which was based in Cambridge and had men from the eastern counties, advanced north to join the Scots and fought outside York the great battle of Marston Moor at which the royalists under Prince Rupert were utterly defeated.
The parliamentarian victory was in particularly due to the role of the cavalry of the Eastern Association, under the command of a figure who was rapidly emerging in the parliamentary forces: Oliver Cromwell. And a brief word about Cromwell: Cromwell was a squire of high birth but low means, a younger son who had been MP for Cambridge in the Long Parliament and who had left parliament in order to raise forces for the Eastern Association at the outbreak of war. He had gradually risen from captain of a troop to colonel of a cavalry regiment. He was a man who has been described as a man of “agonies and exultations,” passionately religious, something of a depressive. He found himself in the war, he found the cause he’d been looking for, and his troops were known for their training and their discipline. It was their conduct at Marston Moor, in particular their capacity after a charge to rally, re-form, and charge again, which had done a good deal to defeat the gallant but much less disciplined royalist cavalry.
The Battle of Marston Moor, by John Barker / Wikimedia Commons
The total victory which was achieved by the Scots and the Eastern Association at Marston Moor was a considerable shock, the first complete parliamentarian victory. But the momentum of that victory was squandered by the parliament’s commanders in the south. The indecisiveness and the incompetence of the senior commanders of the south, the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Manchester, meant that the year ended once again in stalemate. There was another indecisive holding battle to stop the King reaching London at Newbury, while the Earl of Essex advanced down into the west of England, got himself cornered and had to surrender and have his troops ignominiously transported by sea back to the southeast having surrendered their arms to royalist forces there.
The second Battle of Newbury, holding the King back again from reaching London, brought to a head the growing tension over parliament’s war aims. Cromwell, who’d hastened south with his cavalry to join Manchester at Newbury, pressed the Earl of Manchester to continue the battle to try to turn it in to the — a decisive victory. Manchester refused to do so. It was enough for him to stop the King from advancing further towards London. According to their recorded argument, Manchester declared to Cromwell, “if we beat the King ninety and nine times, yet he is King still, and so will his posterity be after him, and we subjects still, but if the King beat us once, we will all be hanged, and our posterity be made slaves.” In other words, he didn’t dare risk a decisive battle. To which Cromwell replied, “why then, if this be so, why did we take up arms at first?”
The recriminations continued bitterly in parliament during the winter resulting early in 1645 in a victory for the war party in the House of Commons. First of all, they decided to dissolve the existing parliamentarian field army and to form what was described as a New Model Army which would be paid and controlled from Westminster and would incorporate the best elements of all previously existing parliamentarian forces and be free to operate wherever it was needed throughout the kingdom. Secondly, they passed a Self-Denying Ordinance. The Self-Denying Ordinance required the resignation of all commanders who were members of parliament. It was a clever move to force the resignation of the incompetent aristocratic leaders of the parliament’s troops. But there was one exemption from the Self-Denying Ordinance. Cromwell was exempted. His native military genius by now had shown itself so clearly that he simply couldn’t be spared. He was appointed Lieutenant General of the Horse, not commander of the entire army. The Lord General was Sir Thomas Fairfax, the leader of the parliament’s cause in Yorkshire, Cromwell was his Lieutenant General in command of the cavalry.
Meanwhile, the war conditions were having unanticipated consequences elsewhere. London was a city in ferment. 1640 had seen the collapse of censorship of the press and a proliferation of pamphlets arguing different political and religious ideas. Something in the region of an average of 1,000 a year were being printed in London in the early 1640s. The first newspapers were beginning to appear reporting on the events of the war, ten a week by 1644. There had also been a collapse of church discipline. Radical religious groups were emerging from underground and meeting openly. New groups were forming in the debate over future religious settlement. The city was highly politicized and awash with all kinds of heterodox ideas. In 1646, a Presbyterian minister, Thomas Edwards, was so shocked by the ideas that were circulating in London that he wrote his work Gangraena, which was a three-volume catalog of heterodox opinions circulating in the city. Edwards was an orthodox Calvinist utterly horrified at what had broken forth and he was not alone. Many more conservatively minded members of parliament in matters of religion began to favor a Scottish-style Presbyterian settlement which would at least restore order and orthodoxy in matters of religion. And a group of parliamentarian Presbyterians were able to push through acceptance of a Directory of Worship which would replace the Anglican prayer book and to vote in favor of a Presbyterian church structure to be imposed when the war was over.
Others, however, including Oliver Cromwell, were not alarmed by what seemed to be a new age of the spirit in matters of religion. They favored independency: congregationalism in church government. They were opposed to the imposition of any form of coercion in matters of conscience. So in these debates going on in London and in parliament religious liberty was emerging as an issue — and for some people another aim of the conflict — which had not been previously foreseen. It was in 1644 that pamphlets advocating religious toleration were quite widely printed and it saw the printing of John Milton’s great Areopagitica, his wonderful statement in favor of freedom of speech and thought.
Equally worrying to the more conservative members of parliament was the situation in the parliament’s army. Like the city, the army was a concentration of tens of thousands of people in a mass situation, a most unusual social situation. The army was full of volunteers. They were disproportionately men of Puritan inclination in religion. Many of them were from London or East Anglia or the godlier areas of the north and the Midlands. By 1644, Oliver Cromwell was already well known to favor such godly men and to have a preference for promoting them on merit, a shocking idea to seventeenth-century sensibilities. Famously he declared in one argument over the promotion of a junior officer, “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated captain who loves what he fights for — who knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that you call a gentleman who is nothing else.”
With the formation of the New Model Army in 1645, all of these elements were brought together and it took on a very distinctive character. The New Model, especially amongst its junior officers, was full of Cromwell’s russet-coated captains, who knew what they fought for and loved what they knew, promoted on merit. It was a praying army, a preaching army, a godly army, a surprisingly well-disciplined army by the standards of the day. And in 1645 that spirit both contributed to and was enhanced by victory — to seventeenth-century sensibilities the proof of God’s favor — and with victory came quite exceptional morale.
Struggle Ends, for a Time
In June 1645, Fairfax and Cromwell brought to battle and decisively defeated Charles’ main battle army at Naseby in the central Midlands. They then rapidly moved west, cornered the army of the — the royalist army of the west at Langport in Somerset, and roundly defeated them. By late 1645 and early 1646, it had become largely a matter of the army bottling up what remained of the King’s forces in Oxford, seizing and capturing the city of Bristol, and then mopping up the last royalist opposition. By May of 1646, the King, seeing that there was no possibility of military recovery, left Oxford in disguise, traveled north and gave himself up to the Scots at Newark near Nottingham. He thought he’d get better terms from them.
So against all initial expectations parliament had won an outright victory. Achieving that victory, however, had released forces which could not easily be contained or pushed back into the bottle. After one of the last skirmishes of 1646, the royalist commander, Sir Alan Apsley, surrendered his sword to his parliamentarian opponent, then sat down on a drum and is said to have said to the parliamentarian officers, “well, boys, you have done your work: now you may go and play, unless perhaps you will fall out amongst yourselves.” And that was a very prescient remark, because the business of establishing the terms of settlement, with the victory achieved, gradually turned in the next year into a struggle over what was the meaning of the parliament’s cause.
Regicide and Republic, 1647-1660
Plaque commemorating three Levellers shot by Oliver Cromwell in Burford. / Photo by Khaisu Tai, Wikimedia Commons
So, we’re in 1646 and, as I explained last time, the development of the war, especially between 1643 and ’45, had unleashed forces which could not easily be controlled and created aims and expectations which had not originally existed at the outbreak of war, especially the controversy concerning the future organization of the church and the issue of ‘liberty of conscience’. Parliament was now severely divided between those who wanted a Presbyterian church settlement and the so-called Independents who favored liberty of conscience. With the defeat of the King these issues were now prominent in establishing the terms of settlement. And, as they attempted a settlement, the fundamental differences of perception of the nature of the parliamentary cause — what it had been, what it was now — came very much to the fore.
In 1646 to 1647, the so-called Presbyterian group were the dominant group in parliament. They held the initiative and in July 1646 they put to King Charles — who was now in the north of England held by the Scots in Newcastle — they put to him the Newcastle Propositions. Under those terms the King should take the Covenant; there should be a united Presbyterian church of both England and Scotland; parliament was to control the military for twenty years, which they thought was roughly the King’s expected lifetime); and fifty-eight of the King’s supporters were to be exempted from pardon on the grounds that they had committed various atrocities in the course of the war. Charles, faced with these terms, played for time. He might have lost militarily, but he knew that they still needed him for any settlement. Remember what the Earl of Manchester had said back in 1644: “if we beat the King ninety and nine times, he is king still.” Charles knew that.
In February 1647, the Scots’ army was paid off by the English parliament. They handed over the King into English custody and they withdrew back to Scotland, and the King was brought south and lodged in a country house in Northamptonshire, northwest of London, Holmby House, where negotiations continued. Meanwhile, the New Model Army — which was now for the most part billeted in eastern England near Cambridge — the New Model Army was ordered either to disband or to reenlist for service in Ireland where the Irish confederacy was still in control. This demand provoked an army, many of whom were already worried by the prospect of a settlement which would be intolerant in matters of religion, and the consequences of that provocation were momentous.
In April and May 1647, the cavalry regiments of the New Model elected representatives. They were called “Agitators.” They elected Agitators. And a Council of the Army was formed which consisted of the general officers, the colonels of the regiments, and the representatives of the various regiments. Then on the 4th of June a junior officer, Cornet Joyce, went to Holmby House and seized the King and brought him to the army. There’s a famous story that when Joyce arrived at Holmby House the guard there asked him where his warrant was to remove the King and he drew his pistol and said, “here is my warrant.” Then on the 14th of June the army issued and printed a Declaration. They declared themselves to be “no mere mercenary army,” but an army enlisted to defend “our own and the people’s just rights and liberties.” They demanded an Act of Oblivion to wipe away all acts which had been committed during the war, pardon for all acts committed; they demanded liberty for “tender consciences,” as they put it, in matters of religion. And the army leaders, with the council, began drawing up their own terms for negotiation with the King whom they now held. Then, in late July 1647, demonstrations in London on behalf of Presbyterianism and against the army’s actions, led to the Independent members of parliament fleeing the city. They fled to the army and asked for its protection. On the 6th of August the army marched south and occupied London, restoring them to parliament, from which some of their Presbyterian enemies fled.
Now then it was the turn of the army and the Independents in parliament to attempt a settlement with the King, and they put to him terms which were entitled the Heads of the Proposals. They were drawn up by Henry Ireton, a former lawyer who was the Commissary General of the New Model, and John Lambert, one of the cavalry colonels, and they were probably the most generous terms — well they were certainly the most generous terms — ever offered to King Charles; remarkably so in fact.
The army insisted that in future there would be a parliament elected every two years and that control of the militia would be with parliament, but only for ten years, not twenty. They exempted only five Royalists from pardon. They were even willing to permit the reestablishment of a Church of England with bishops and the old prayer book, but it should have no coercive powers over those who preferred other forms of worship: so a reestablished Church of England but with liberty for tender consciences. Charles’ aide in the negotiations, Sir John Berkeley, urged the King to accept these proposals. He said never would a kingdom lost be so easily recovered as on such terms, but the King temporized. Berkeley later recorded in his memoirs that in his view the King would not agree because he didn’t trust Cromwell and Ireton and the reason he didn’t trust them was that they asked for nothing for themselves.
But most likely the King was simply playing for time and secretly opening negotiations at this time with the Scots, who were increasingly alarmed, now that they’d withdrawn from England, at what was happening in England and at the prospect of Independents in power. Meanwhile, while this was going on a further set of proposals began gestating amongst the Agitators in the army council and some of the officers, and these were deeply influenced by the views of the London radical movement, the Levellers.
The Levellers, led by John Lilburne, William Walwyn, Richard Overton, and John Wildman, had emerged initially as pamphleteers on behalf of liberty of conscience. But their experience at the hands of an intolerant Presbyterian-dominated parliament led them to begin questioning the whole basis of government authority and the manner in which the hands of power might be tied in a number of respects. They claimed in their pamphlets to speak on behalf of what they called “the middle and poorer sort of people,” “the hobnails, the clouted shoes, the private soldiers, the leather and woolen aprons and all the laborious and industrious people of England.” A very distinctly populist stance. And they advanced the claim — I’m quoting — “that all power is originally and essentially in the whole body of the people of this nation”: declaration of popular sovereignty. Accordingly, they put forward proposals including a single-chamber parliament — they would abolish the House of Lords; a redistribution of parliamentary seats in order to make them more equitable; elections to be held every two years with a much wider male suffrage — quite how wide is debatable. They probably held a variety of different views at different times. Some appear to have been for full manhood suffrage, others for a more limited suffrage, but certainly a larger one — thorough reform of the legal system, the laws to be simplified and to be printed in English.
St. Mary’s Church, Putney / Wikimedia Commons
Well, in October 1647, much of this was drawn up in a set of proposals called the Agreement of the People, and the Agreement of the People having been debated amongst them and printed was then put forward to the army council in a set of debates which took place in Putney Church and they’re known as the Putney Debates. We have the full transcript of the Putney Debates and it’s a quite remarkable survival. The secretary of the army council took the whole thing down in shorthand and this was rediscovered in the late nineteenth century and is now fully available in print. In the Putney Debates we find fully transcribed the statements not only of the leaders of the army council but also the independent interjections expressing their aspirations of nameless soldiers who had been elected on behalf of their regiments. The secretary of the army council didn’t know their names. He put them down as “Buff Coat,” i.e., a man wearing the thick buff-colored leather coat of a cavalryman, or in one case “Bedfordshire Man,” a man who either had a Bedfordshire accent, perhaps, or perhaps was wearing the sash of the Bedfordshire regiment.
Some of the statements made are most extraordinary ringing declarations. General Ireton, who did most of the talking on behalf of the officers, thought that all men should enjoy liberty under the law, but he took the view conventional for a man of his class that the vote should only belong to people of property, those with “a permanent and fixed interest in the kingdom.” In contrast to that view, Thomas Rainborough, an artillery officer, replied, “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he, and therefore, Sir, I truly think that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” Ireton appealed to the importance of constitutional tradition in going forward with the settlement. Trooper Sexby urged considering “the reasonableness of the thing” rather than constitutional precedent.
Well, the Putney Debates are well worth reading and they provide an astonishing insight into the ideas which were circulating in London and the army; ideas generated by the experience of the war, by the sense of possibility which had been unleashed among people who had been brought to ask, as several did ask in the Putney Debates, “what hath the soldier fought for?” That’s a phrase that repeatedly comes to the fore in the course of the debates, and they tell us a lot about the army leaders too. The Lord General, Thomas Fairfax, was largely silent. Fairfax was a professional soldier, not a politician. He was famously taciturn and he said little. He merely acted as chairman. Henry Ireton did most of the debating. He was clear-headed, very highly intelligent, sharp. He clearly became exasperated with what he saw as the utopian schemes being put forward by the soldiers. At one point he replied to the question, “what hath the soldier fought for?” by saying, “I [will] tell you what the soldier… has fought for… that one man’s will shall not be law.” [correction: “that the will of one man should not be a law”] That was Ireton’s perception of the conflict, but he also declared himself willing to follow where God might lead. Cromwell was something of a mediating figure. He said comparatively little. It was characteristic of his manner. He tended often when major decisions were to be made to hesitate, to wait, to wait on a sign from God, and then when he was sure of his course of his action to take drastic action.
Well, were the general officers seriously negotiating with the representatives of the regiments or were they just humoring the troops to maintain order and coherence in the army while pressing ahead with their own negotiations with the King? We’ll never really know because ultimately it came to nothing. The debates broke up inconclusively, and the reason they broke up was because of an action on the part of the King. Charles was very much aware of the possibilities of exploiting potential divisions on the Parliamentarian side. He was also very fearful of the radicals and what might happen if they were to gain the ascendancy in the army council. On the 11th of November he escaped from custody, went south and took refuge on the Isle of Wight off the south coast of England. There he was held by the Parliamentarian governor in honorable custody but he was allowed to receive representatives, and they included representatives from Scotland.
Renewal of War
Portrait of General Thomas Fairfax, 17th century / National Portrait Gallery, London
On the 15th of November, faced with this situation, Fairfax and Cromwell called the army to a rendezvous and discipline was re-imposed. Cromwell rode up and down the ranks, plucking copies of the Agreement of the People from the hatbands of some of the soldiers who’d come with copies of the Agreement of the People in their hats. One intransigent soldier was summarily court-martialed and shot. In December 1647, the King, meanwhile, concluded an agreement with Scots representatives. It was called the Engagement. In the Engagement he undertook to accept a Presbyterian church in return for military aid and he also began secretly negotiation — negotiating with the Irish confederacy. Shortly afterwards in the spring of 1648 there were concerted Royalist uprisings in various parts of the kingdom: in Wales, in South Wales, in Kent, in Essex, and in the north in Yorkshire. Meanwhile, Charles’ supporters in Scotland, the Engagers, began assembling an army for the invasion of England to deliver the King and with that the second civil war began.
So, after so much hope of a settlement, so much generosity in the terms which had been offered to Charles in the Heads of the Proposals, this renewal of the war hardened the hearts of the army’s leaders. On the 29th of April, 1648, they called the whole army to a general assembly at Windsor to the west of London for a prayer meeting before they divided into various bodies, each of which was to take on the Royalist threat in different areas of the kingdom. And the mood at Windsor was very different from that at Putney. The mood was one of heightened religious anxiety, anger, and expectation amongst men who had not wanted or expected to fight again. They saw the renewal of the war as being both a judgment from God upon their previous actions and a test of their resolve, and they resolved that Charles was “a man against whom God [correction: the Lord] hath witnessed” — I’m quoting from the declaration which ended the meeting — and therefore “that it was our duty if ever the Lord brought us back to peace to call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for that blood he hath shed and the mischief he hath done to his utmost against the Lord’s cause and people in these poor nations.”
And in that mood the army departed, Fairfax to the east, Cromwell first to Wales and then to the north where on the 17th to the 19th of July he met and utterly shattered a much larger Scottish-Royalist army at the Battle of Preston, a hard-fought running battle which stretched for miles along the road from Preston to Manchester. Cromwell saw that victory as divinely ordained. In the dispatch he sent back he could see “nothing but the hand of God” in it, as he put it. God had spoken again as far as he was concerned and the army began returning slowly to London in a mood of religious exultation, pausing in Yorkshire to mop up Royalist resistance at Pontefract Castle before proceeding south. At the brief siege of Pontefract, Thomas Rainborough, the Leveller, was killed.
But meanwhile parliament had reopened negotiations with the King. The King was king still. This proved too much for the officers in London. On the 6th of December, 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride stationed troops at the entrance to the House of Commons and conducted what’s known as Pride’s Purge. He refused to allow into parliament anyone who did not sympathize with the army’s cause. Parliament was reduced to only 150 members known as the Rump. While this was going on Cromwell was mysteriously absent. He returned to London only after Pride’s Purge had been completed. Exactly where he was isn’t certain. It’s possible that he’d gone home to Huntingdonshire. That’s one idea. He seems to have been undergoing one of those periods of reflection before deciding on decisive action which were very characteristic of him; but once he came back he was prominent in driving things ahead. On the 1st of January 1649, the Rump, the remaining 150 members of parliament, set up a high court of justice to try the King. The House of Lords refused to participate. The House of Commons therefore declared that its own decisions would have the force of law since “the people are, under God, the original of all just power.” On the 20th of January, Charles I was arraigned. The charge — I’m quoting — declaring him to be “a tyrant, a traitor, a murderer, and a public and implacable enemy to the Commonwealth of England.”
The King with great dignity attended his trial in Westminster Hall but refused to recognize the authority of the court. He was condemned. On the 29th of January, only fifty-nine of the more than 150 members of the court could be prevailed upon to actually sign the King’s death warrant. And then the following day the King was executed on a scaffold outside his banqueting hall in Whitehall Palace. It’s still there today, the Banqueting Hall, the only surviving building of Whitehall Palace. If you visit it, the room that you enter on the first floor is the former banqueting hall itself. The ceiling is decorated with a wonderful painting by Rubens of the apotheosis of King James I. Charles’ father is shown ascending into heaven. It’s a wonderful artistic statement of divine right monarchy, and ironically it was under that painting that Charles walked to step out from the window on to the scaffold, wearing two shirts because it was a cold January day in case he should shiver and people might think he was afraid. He met his death with great dignity, perhaps knowing that this was the best thing he could do for the monarchy, to die well, and so he did. And as his head was struck off one witness says that from the crowd there came “such a groan as I never heard before.”
It’s ironic for those of us who live in New Haven that in Broadway we have a high Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian church which is one of those that recognizes the execution of King Charles I, commemorates it as a martyrdom for the Episcopal church, and we have running from Broadway three streets named after three of the men who signed his death warrant, Goffe, Whalley, and Dixwell. So the fingerprints of these events are here.
A Commonwealth and Free State
St. Laurence’s Gate, the last remaining of the ten original defensive gates at Drogheda / Photo by Kieran Campbell, Wikimedia Commons
What next? They had tried and they had failed to reach a settlement with the King. Could they achieve one without him? Well, it was attempted. In March 1649, parliament declared the monarchy and the House of Lords abolished. In May 1649, England was declared “a Commonwealth and Free State.” All writs were to run in the name not of the King but of the “keepers of the liberties of England.” A new great seal was made for the kingdom which bore a picture not of the King but of the House of Commons in session surrounded around the edge with the legend “In the first year of freedom by God’s blessing restored.”
Well, perhaps in time those lofty aspirations might have acquired some real substance, but for the moment the fact was that this was a regime run by a committed minority supported by a somewhat larger body who were willing to conform to its authority out of pragmatism or for the sake of order or out of mere political opportunism. But despite its lofty claims the survival of the regime depended ultimately upon the army and the army of course had an agenda of its own. Above all, defense of liberty of conscience for the godly and the pursuit of a rather vaguely defined ‘godly reformation’ in the kingdom.
These tensions were initially disguised by the fact that there was an immediate need to defend the new regime. In 1649 to ’50, parliament undertook the re-conquest of Ireland to prevent its use as a base by Charles II, now aged nineteen and in exile — and that re-conquest was brutally initiated by Cromwell himself. Cromwell was now appointed lord general since Sir Thomas Fairfax, after the execution of the King, in which he had no part, was not willing to go any further and retired. Cromwell blundered in to Ireland with very little understanding of the complexities of the Irish situation and blinded by the 1641 propaganda stereotype of the barbarities committed by the Irish rebels. At the fortress town of Drogheda near Dublin in 1649, a massacre of the defenders of Drogheda was committed. This was justified by the laws of war. They had refused to surrender honorably and, under the laws of war at the time, a city taken by assault, with the losses that that involved, would be one which would be permitted no quarter. Nevertheless, it was an act probably partly fueled by religious bigotry and zeal. Cromwell himself in the dispatch he sent back to England after Drogheda appears troubled by what he had ordered. It has a very defensive tone. Nonetheless, it was done and it initiated a bloody pacification of Ireland which continued for two years and culminated in confiscations of land from Irish landowners and the founding of a Protestant ascendancy in Ireland with the land being granted to adventurers, who had given money for the re-conquest, and soldiers. It didn’t create the Protestant Ireland they envisaged. It created a deeply divided society dominated by British landowners and the roots of the subsequent animosity which remains even in the current fragile peace.
Meanwhile, in 1650 Charles II landed in Scotland where he was crowned king. Cromwell moved north to campaign there against Charles. On the 3rd of September 1650, he took on the army of the Covenant at the Battle of Dunbar. Heavily outnumbered, his troops hungry and many of them sick, and nevertheless by a brilliant tactic of attacking the center of the Scottish line and splitting it they won an unexpected victory. Again Cromwell exulted. “The Lord hath done this,” he said in his dispatch. A second Scottish invasion force was formed in the west and moved south. Cromwell then chased it down the east, moved across and met them at Worcester a year after Dunbar where again on the 3rd of September, exactly a year later, they were completely defeated. The Battle of Worcester was described by Cromwell as “the crowning mercy.” Charles II, who had been with that army, fled in to exile again, after the famous incident in which he hid in an oak tree at Boscobel House while Parliamentarian soldiers searched the grounds beneath for him; a story he liked to tell later after he’d been restored to the crown.
By 1653, the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland created by these military actions and conquest constituted the first all-British state, and meanwhile in 1652 to ‘4 a victorious naval war was fought against the Dutch. Initially, at the very foundation of the English Commonwealth the idea had been put forward of forming a union with the Dutch republic. That had been rejected and subsequent quarrels, the Dutch sheltering of Charles, and trade rivalry led to a brief naval war in which the Commonwealth was victorious. So, by 1653, the Commonwealth was militarily triumphant. Its forces, now battle hardened and possessed of the extraordinary morale which had come from victory after victory, were apparently invincible.
Cromwell as Lord Protector
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper, 1656 / National Portrait Gallery, London
But with the peace, tensions re-surfaced. This was not the popular regime which had been envisaged by the Levellers. It was not the godly regime which had been envisaged by Cromwell. The Rump had passed a Toleration Act in 1650 granting toleration and religious sects of all kinds proliferated, as you know. Some steps had been taken to improve the financial position of the clergy in the church to get a better quality of clergy and some cosmetic reforms had been made to the law. But apart from that the Rump showed little reforming zeal. There was also a good deal of suspicion in the army that the members of the Rump planned to perpetuate themselves forever. There was talk that when a seat fell vacant they would hold what were called “recruiter” elections for a single constituency rather than holding a general election for the election of an entirely new parliament. The army didn’t like that.
Finally, on the 20th of April 1653, when it appeared that the Rump was about to go ahead with that scheme Cromwell, who had been waiting patiently, precipitously acted. He stood up in parliament, called in troops, and dissolved the Rump, famously declaring as he drove them out of their chamber, “Begone. You have sat here too long for all the good you do [correction: have been doing].” Well, what followed in the next five years was a series of constitutional experiments in which Cromwell, who now held supreme power, attempted to divest himself of that power, but at the same time retained the right to intervene when necessary to defend what he took to be the central cause, which to him meant above all liberty of conscience and rule by men of “godly and honest conversation,” as he put it.
The trouble was that too few others in the nation shared his aspirations and, as he later remarked to Bulstrode Whitelocke, one of his advisers, “I am as much for government by consent as any man but where will I find that consent?” His first attempt was to win consent by establishing a reforming government and a so-called Nominated Parliament of 140 members was established to promote godly reform. The members were simply nominated. Cromwell described this as “a door to usher in those things that God hath promised.” He was quite enthusiastic about the idea. It was the brainchild of one of his officers, Major General Thomas Harrison. This parliament, the Nominated Parliament, sometimes known as ‘Barebone’s Parliament’ after one of its members, sat between July and December 1653 and it did indeed begin to consider radical reforms in the law and the abolition of compulsory tithes in church. But even in a parliament of godly men such steps occasioned too much anxiety for most of the members. In December 1643, while some of the more radical members were attending a prayer meeting more conservative members of the Nominated Parliament seized the moment and dissolved themselves and handed the power back to Cromwell.
Next, between 1654 and 1657, they attempted government under a constitution called the Instrument of Government. This was based on the Heads of the Proposals which had been put to the King in 1647. Cromwell was head of state with the title of Lord Protector. Government was to be in the hands of the Lord Protector advised by a council of state, parliaments were to be elected every three years, and the Lord Protector was denied the power to delay any legislation for more than thirty days. This provided a measure of stability, but when the first parliament met under the Instrument of Government in 1654 it immediately began to attack both the Instrument itself and the religious toleration which was so dear to Cromwell’s heart. Consequently, he dissolved it at the first opportunity.
In 1655, the risk of a royalist uprising and a small attempted uprising in the West Country led to the experiment of appointing regional military governors to govern the country. Major Generals were appointed for a variety of English regions. They were to oversee government and to promote godly reformation. This measure was bitterly resented by the county gentry and when parliament met again in 1656 they violently attacked it as “sword government.” Cromwell gave way. Then in February 1657 parliament presented him with what was called the Humble Petition and Advice, a call upon him to restore the ancient constitution and to accept the crown. He took three months to think about it and then in May 1657 rejected the offer of the crown. He used the phrase “I will not build Jericho again.” “I will not build Jericho again.” But he accepted all the rest. The Protector with a council and triennial parliaments was continued, but the ancient constitution was largely restored including a so-called Other House, a kind of House of Lords of nominated members.
Well, Cromwell’s rejection of the crown when it was actually offered to him is perhaps a test of his personal integrity, but the truth was that as Lord Protector he was king in all but name. He was probably sincere in seeing himself as he described himself as “a good constable set to keep the peace of the parish,” and above all to preserve God’s cause of religious toleration. Domestically, his rule was relatively mild. Roman Catholics were not persecuted. He was much preoccupied with “healing and settling.” He employed many ex-royalists if they would accept his government. Abroad he was successful. The Protectorate took part in a brief war against Spain which involved the capture of Jamaica and also the distinction of the New Model Army defeating the Spanish army at the Battle of Dunkirk. But it was not government by consent and to many of the political nation Cromwell remained an unforgivable regicide. To some of those who had been his former allies he appeared to be a hypocritical opportunist. John Lilburne, the former Leveller, said of Cromwell, he “will weep, howl and call upon the Lord even while he doth smite thee under the first rib.” To still more people in the country he appeared to be the protector not of tender consciences and English liberties but of wild religious sectaries and fanatics who threatened to turn the world upside down and bring confusion in society, above all the Quakers who in their early, more radical phase, caused great alarm as they spread their message across the kingdom. And ultimately everyone knew that the entire regime still depended above all upon the swords of the New Model Army, an army which was increasingly an army of professionals. Only Cromwell himself could hold it all together by the curious blend of pragmatism and militancy which characterized him and by of course the intense devotion which he inspired in his troops. And then on the 3rd of September 1658, aged exactly fifty-nine, he suddenly died.
Dissolution of Parliament
A drawing of the head of Oliver Cromwell, from a copy of Pennant’s London / Wikimedia Commons
Well, the rest of the story can be swiftly told. In 1659, following Cromwell’s death it all collapsed. He was succeeded as Protector temporarily by his inadequate son, Richard. Parliament refused to recognize Richard’s authority. In May 1659, under pressure from the generals, Richard resigned, and the Rump Parliament was recalled. In October 1659, General John Lambert, dissatisfied with its proceedings, dissolved the Rump again. There was the threat of chaos in the kingdom. In December 1659, General George Monck, commander in chief in Scotland, decided to intervene. He marched his troops south to restore authority. That meant first of all, after he arrived in London, restoring the Rump, and then in February 1660 readmitting to parliament all survivors of the Long Parliament of 1640. All of them who were still alive, all those who had been expelled for various reasons, were permitted to resume their seats. By now almost everyone expected the restoration of the monarchy.
In March 1660, the Long Parliament voted to dissolve itself at last, and to hold free elections. In April 1660, Charles II appealed from exile in the Netherlands in an attempt to allay the anxieties of his former opponents and issued the Declaration of Breda, in which he said that if restored he would promise to respect the liberties of parliament, he would rule by the law, he would extend a free pardon to all former enemies, and he would grant liberty of conscience. This seemed to allay all anxieties. In April 1660, the so-called Convention Parliament met, complete with a House of Lords, and on the 8th of May Charles II was recognized as king. A few weeks later on the 25th of May he was brought home on a battleship, the flagship of the navy ironically named the Naseby after the battle at which his father had lost the first civil war. It was swiftly renamed the Royal Sovereign.
So the revolution was over. It had been defeated, or one could say it had defeated itself. But it would never be forgotten and it left a legacy. First of all, the restored monarchy under Charles II lived under the shadow of the events of the 1640s. These could never be forgotten. There were tacit understandings about the acceptable limits of royal authority and the Stuarts would do well to remember them. Secondly, the politicization of a much larger section of society, which had been part and parcel of the dynamic of the dramatic events of the 1640s and 1650s, was not reversed; it remained. Thirdly, the Church of England could never again encompass the sheer diversity of English Protestantism. The Church of England was restored, but religious dissent was an enduring fact throughout the kingdom. And finally there was a fourth legacy, what Professor Lawrence Stone described as “an immensely rich reservoir of ideas that were to echo and re-echo down the ages.” Those ideas, political ideas, religious ideas, generated by the events and the dilemmas of the 1640s and the 1650s, were in a sense what really made the English Revolution the first of the great European and Atlantic revolutions, and of course you will be discussing those ideas in section. As John Davenport put it, observing all this from afar in 1647 at the height of it all, “the light which is now discovered in England… will never be wholly put out though I suspect that contrary opinions will prevail for a time.” He was right.
Okay. Oliver Cromwell’s head; we have time. Following the Restoration, Cromwell’s body was exhumed. He died of course in 1658. The body had been embalmed and he’d been buried in state. His body was exhumed along with that of Henry Ireton and they were gibbeted — the bodies were gibbeted in public — and Cromwell’s head was struck off. It was put on a spike high on the walls of Westminster Hall, where it remained for over twenty years until in a gale in 1684 it disappeared. It’s thought that it was probably blown down and one of the guards took it and sold it. It resurfaced in the eighteenth century in the cabinet of curiosities of a gentleman, then vanished again for a while. It resurfaced again at the end of the eighteenth century when it was put on public exhibition and people paid to see it. Then later on in the nineteenth century it came in to the possession of a scholarly antiquarian clergyman who looked after it and passed it down in his family.
Eventually, in the early twentieth century it was offered to his former college, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Extensive forensic examination was done of the head to see if it was genuine. Well, it was a head — there’s no doubt about that — [laughter] but it was extensively forensically examined and an extensive report was prepared. Well, they decided that the balance of probability was that it was indeed Cromwell’s head. It has a spike through it for a start, which is really [laughter] one clue. It had been embalmed. There are still scraps of skin and hair. The — there was other forensic evidence consistent with Cromwell’s death mask — a plaster mask had been taken of his face after his death — and there was even pitting on the skull in places where his face was famously disfigured by prominent warts. So they decided it probably was Cromwell’s head and it was eventually reburied in — almost 300 years after it had been exhumed — in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where it’s still there. Only the master of Sidney Sussex and the dean of the college chapel knows exactly where.
It’s a closely guarded secret. I knew someone who was elected master of Sidney Sussex a few years ago and did suggest that it would be nice to know but I was told very politely to get lost. [Laughter] So it’s a closely guarded secret. It’s still there. So if you go to Cambridge and visit Sidney Sussex College and go in to the chapel area where it’s probably buried you may be walking over Cromwell’s head. Meanwhile, in the hall of Sidney Sussex beside the high table they have a portrait of Cromwell, “warts and all.” He famously told a portrait painter that he didn’t want to be prettied up, paint me “warts and all,” he said. And he is there and the portrait has curtains and if a member of the royal family happens to visit Sidney Sussex, which happens from time to time, they draw the curtains across Cromwell’s portrait in order not to cause embarrassment. But the rest of the time the curtains are open and he looks down on the students of his former college, who probably know little of his career, but there he is and make of him what you will, either a cynical, power-hungry, hypocritical opportunist, or the defender of what people still refer to as the “good old cause,” or, as one biographer described him, “God’s Englishman,” but there we are.