Battle of Naseby, hand-coloured copper engraving by Dupuis after Parrocel, 1727. The victory of the Parliamentarian New Model Army, under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, over the Royalist army, commanded by Prince Rupert, at the Battle of Naseby (June 14, 1645) marked the decisive turning point in the English Civil War. / Wikimedia Commons
By Dr. William A. Pelz
Professor of History
Elgin Community College
From A People’s History of Modern Europe, 2016
Left: Episode of the Fronde at the Faubourg Saint-Antoine by the Walls of the Bastille, c.1648 / Louvre Museum, Paris
Center: The Acclamation of the King John IV, by Veloso Salgado. The Portugese Restoration War, the declaration of John IV as king. / Wikimedia Commons
Right: The Catalan Revolt, Battle of Montjuïc (1641), by Pandolfo Reschi / Galeria Corsini Florenci
Even conservative historians have had to acknowledge that Europe in the middle of the seventeenth century was in a period of revolutionary upheaval. Most famous is the English Revolution that may be said to have run from 1640 till 1660. But other crises marked the period as well. France saw a series of revolts known as the Frondes, there was revolution in the Netherlands, an unsuccessful revolt in Catalonia and a victorious rebellion in Portugal. Add to these upheaval in Naples, Bohemia, Ireland and some of the German states and it would seem that European society was in general crisis. For some Marxist historians, this “general crisis” was “the last phase of the general transition from a feudal to a capitalist economy.” That is, an economy that had been based on a land-owning nobility was shifting into one run by a capital-owning business class. Wealth increasingly mattered over and above title or nobility, as the old feudal lords lost control over the economy and struggled to maintain their traditional political power.
None of these changes took place without disruption, struggle and even violence. The very economic changes that society witnessed caused crisis within portions of society. Though there was rapid industrial development in Switzerland, Sweden and England, production was not uniformly progressing across the continent, and more generally, there was a commercial crisis. In fact, there is even evidence that the average height of Europeans declined during this period due to malnutrition.
For the common people, the seventeenth century was a time of social revolt. To the examples listed above may be added the Swiss peasant war of 1653, the Ukrainian revolution of 1648–54 and various peasant uprisings in Hungary, Russia and Brittany. While there were many causes, like the oft-cited effects of the Thirty Years War (1618–48), a major factor was that the economic expansion of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries created its own crisis, as “feudal businessmen” struggled to overcome the results of their enrichment. All the different economic aspects of the crisis may be summed up as “economic expansion took place within a social framework which it was not yet strong enough to burst, and in ways adapted to it rather than to the world of modern capitalism.”
The seventeenth century saw considerable concentration of economic power, suggesting that the old feudal structure had already been greatly weakened, as witnessed by the inability to revert to an economy of small local producers. Of course, had the English Revolution failed, these economic developments may have been retarded. The rise to Empire accomplished by Britain, it is interesting to note, was done against the free trade policy of the Dutch. In fact, the British upheld “protectionist policies backed by aggressive wars for markets.” It may come as a slight surprise that this general view of the crisis of the seventeenth century was widely unpopular with many, particularly more conservative, historians. While the details of the various disputes are best left for a scholarly study of historiography, it is notable that half a century later the basic tenets would be supported by fresh research.
Let us now turn to a specific case study of how rebellion developed in the Netherlands. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, feudal relations were weakening as capitalist businesses had successfully been established in such diverse economic spheres as textiles, brewing and shipbuilding, while trade became re-organized along non-feudal lines. In the countryside, very profitable dairy farming combined with an increase in other forms of commercial agriculture. By 1600, there were more towns in the Netherlands with over ten thousand inhabitants than in Britain and more than a quarter of the Dutch population lived in one of these urban areas. These shifts all pointed towards future capitalist development. They faced, however, a serious obstacle in the form of Spanish absolutism that did not favor this, or most other forms of socioeconomic change. As the Roman Catholic Church was the most visible supporter of Spanish feudal domination, the more critical or radical elements of Dutch society gravitated towards the Protestant ideas of John Calvin, which by the 1560s had clearly replaced the Anabaptists as the main opposition. The latter had made a credible bid to be the alternative to Catholicism earlier in the century, but that soon diminished with the brutal suppression of the German Peasants Revolt of 1525.
The Dutch Revolt, Prince Maurice at the Battle of Nieuwpoort, by Pauwels van Hillegaert. / Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
The hand of Spain on the Netherlands grew heavier under the reign of Philip II, who ascended the throne in 1556. His policies limited Dutch economic development, resulting in a decline in the common people’s standard of living. By the 1560s, this helped increase the support for Calvinism which in turn led Spanish officials to order the arrest and execution of heretics. That is to say: Protestants. In August 1566, an uprising broke out in Flanders and spread quickly across all the Netherlands. The revolt heavily targeted Catholic institutions, with thousands of monasteries and churches attacked and looted. By the following summer of 1567,
Spanish troops had arrived in some force and carried out what was seen by the residents as a reign of terror. Over ten thousand citizens were charged and many executed. Fierce resistance from the Dutch was aided by German Protestant princes, but the movement was suppressed. A mere four years later, in 1571, Spain introduced a tax that crippled the commercial sectors of the Netherlands, resulting in shop closures, bankruptcies and unemployment. Under the banner of Calvinism, a broad struggle against Spain and, implicitly, feudalism, broke out. The Netherlands was increasingly a commercial society based on trade and led by businessmen, placing them at odds with the agrarian nobility of Spain. A truce was later signed on November 8, 1576, that established peace between the Calvinist northern and Catholic southern provinces.
After years of conflict, both covert and open, the Protestant north inflicted a series of defeats on Spain. In 1609, Spain accepted the de facto independence of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. By 1648, this new Dutch Republic was given international recognition in the Treaty of Westphalia. Although it was the common people who did the majority of the fighting, dying and suffering during these decades of struggle, the fruits of victory fell to the big commercial capitalists who dominated the Netherlands. This was not the end of matters. The masses of common people would continue to struggle against their domination by commercial elites in variegated ways.
The Dutch uprisings illustrate the importance of popular self-activity. Thus, rising food prices were behind a dozen riots and eighteen demonstrations in the seventy years before 1760. Meanwhile tax riots were more common and more violent, with thirty- eight riots and seventy lesser protests largely in the period 1600–1750. Dutch women were active in these as well as other political riots. To cite only a few examples, in 1624 a tax riot saw a woman shouting: “Instead of introducing new taxes on butter, my children should [be fed].” Later in 1672 in Brill, fishwives surrounded the mayor and lifted their skirts, causing him no little discomfort. There are many “cases in which men were humiliated by women, which made their humiliation even more shameful. During riots women ruled, and men were forced to obey.” This is all taking place in the context of a Netherlands that was the dominant financial power in Europe and the core of the world economy in the seventeenth century.
Popular unrest was far from limited to the Low Countries during the seventeenth century. In Central Europe, the end of the Thirty Years War led to the revival of the southern German economy. This in turn caused economic distress among the Swiss, notably among the peasantry. The decline in exports and a devastation of the currency conspired with growing hostility towards the concentration of urban power to produce the Swiss peasants’ war in 1653. From the rural population, armies were created, and a representative assembly gathered on February 10, 1653. The idea of having representative gatherings was far from unknown during the medieval period. Mainly, they served as window dressing for the actual power brokers, who remained the nobility. The 1653 assembly differed in that it was an institution thrown up by the common people themselves. It was decided to suspend all tax payments until the authorities agreed to a reduction in financial demands. The Swiss peasants were particularly upset by taxes on cattle, salt and horse trades. At first, negotiations between the elite and commoners seemed promising, but an impasse was soon reached. The authorities thought the revolt could be crushed, while peasant rebels were attempting to organize new support in hitherto unaffected rural areas.
The allegiance oath of Huttwil, in the Peasant War of 1653 / Wikimedia Commons
In April 1653, the Huttwil League was formed on the part of the peasants. It is significant, in the context of the times, that the new organization united Catholics and Protestants across the land, in a movement based upon class rather than confessional considerations. The urban-based elite found itself in a dilemma, as they normally recruited their soldiers from the very same
peasantry that was now in revolt. The Zürich urban elite hired an army of 8,000 soldiers from unaffected rural areas. When these troops marched on a peasant army that was 24,000 strong, they routed the more numerous rebels. One immediate result was the Huttwil League was ordered to be dissolved.
The victors promised the defeated peasants an amnesty for all but their most important leaders. These proved to be empty words, as a vast purge reached well beyond anyone who could be considered a leader. The rural population was disarmed and, in some regions, forced to pay for the cost of suppressing the rebellion. The peasant losers in this class war were first defeated and then required to bear the cost of their enemies’ expenses. Although the peasant revolt apparently failed, from a historical point of view, it is interesting that it was a national and class, rather than a local or religiously, based movement. In the long run, the revolt was not completely without success for the rural insurgents. Rulers, fearing another revolt in the future, quietly granted many of the peasants’ original economic demands.
Another incident of profound unrest, this one in Naples, deserves a brief mention. By 1650, Naples had a population of much more than 250,000 and was well known for both its wealth and instability. In 1646, Spain sent the Duke of Arcos to Naples to rapidly collect huge sums in the hope of propping up the finances of the cash-strapped Hapsburg Empire. When a tax was raised on fruit, the duke all but guaranteed mass discontent. The son of a fisherman, named Masaniello, led a demonstration of young, unemployed workers and a riot soon broke out. The duke’s armed defenders, dispatched to the scene to restore order, were pelted with fruit by the youths who were often referred to in the historical literature as “street urchins.” The defenders’ assault failed in the face of determined resistance.
Tommaso Aniello, known as Masaniello, was the leading spirit of revolt in Naples, 1647, by Tancredi Scarpelli / Wikimedia Commons
Masaniello led a thousand-strong crowd that seized arms depots and freed those in prison. It was quickly apparent that Masaniello and his supporters were in control of Naples. To placate the angry citizens, the government gave him honors and proclaimed Masaniello to be captain-general of the people. Of course, the old powers were far from accepting the situation passively. To regain power, they had their newly minted “captain-general” assassinated and repealed the hated fruit tax. When order still could not be restored, the rulers appealed to Spain for help. The Hapsburgs finally regained power in April 1648 by using Spanish troops. Unrest and crisis, as noted previously, was widespread throughout seventeenth-century Europe up to and including the Ottoman Empire.
Few serious historians would doubt the widespread unease amongst the common people at various times during the 1600s. While social tensions between the people and those who controlled the commanding heights of society were present throughout seventeenth-century Europe, it was to be England where a successful revolution would have lasting, historical consequences. Although what is sometimes called reductively the “English Civil War” is often thought to be about religion, there is evidence that class relations were primary and theology was a secondary means of whipping up popular emotions. Numerous contemporaries understood matters in this way, including Oliver Cromwell, who was to become the leader of the New Model Army and ultimately dictator of a (brief-lived) nonmonarchical England. The New Model Army was original in that it was a national army rather than a federation of regional armies, as was the case with King Charles’s forces. It operated under a merit promotion system within the ranks that allowed for the rapid promotion of those who showed talent and courage; likewise, rapid demotion threatened those wanting in the necessary martial skills and attitudes. High birth did not assure, nor did low birth preclude, important appointments.
To understand the massive outpouring of opposition to King Charles I in London and elsewhere, it is important to look at the populace’s economic situation. While Europe in the seventeenth century was notable for its lack of equalitarian societies, the gulf between rich and poor was especially glaring in England. A population explosion in the 150 years before 1640 resulted in an almost 300 percent increase in the number of stomachs that needed to be filled. Food production had not kept pace; as a result, food
prices increased more rapidly than those of other commodities. The price of cheap grains, the mainstay of poorer English people, increased most of all.
Had the vast majority of the people still had access to at least some agricultural land, the impact would have been mitigated. Throughout the Tudor era, vast sections of the populace had been forced from the land and were ever more dependent on wage labor. Earlier, many of the poor had survived by access to the commons, that is, land that belonged to the community where the poor could hunt, gather firewood for heating or even plant modest-sized crops. More and more the wealthy had closed off or enclosed the commons and made it private rather than public property. One motivation for this was the growing need for land for raising sheep to supply the wool trade. Thus, as early as the reign of Henry VIII, Sir Thomas More could remark that England had become a land where sheep eat men. Having lost their land or access to the commons, many more than before were forced to buy food at market prices. Existing conflicts between rich and poor now saw growing tension, with merchants, nobles and rich farmers on one side and the bulk of the population on the other. This would not have been sufficient cause for a revolution in and of itself as the long-suffering patience of average people is legendary, but it was an important precondition. In this context, it is little wonder that people often destroyed the enclosure fences that led to so much poverty. As noted, these fences had prevented the rural poor from grazing their animals, collecting firewood, or trapping small animals on the common lands that had for centuries provided the thin margin that allowed many of the rural poor to survive.
Portrait of Charles I, from the studio of Anthony van Dyck, 1636. / National Portrait Gallery, London
Much has been made of the marriage of Charles I to Henrietta Maria, Catholic daughter of France’s King Henri IV in June, 1625. No doubt this was a matter of no little concern for those who feared the kingdom’s return to papal obedience would violate their conscience or cause the Church lands they had obtained from Henry VIII to be put at risk. In the secular sphere, Charles I undertook a series of actions that suggested he had little of the sensitivity to the common people that many of his predecessors had. Though the Tudor monarchs like Henry VII, Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I made more pretence than practice in advancing the well-being of their subjects, Charles I seemed completely tone-deaf to the feelings of those below him. For over a decade, Charles ruled England without the advice or consent of Parliament. While Parliament had limited power, it did have the power to raise taxes. It had two houses, the House of Lords, made up of wealthy titled men, and the House of Commons, made up of men without titles but with money. Elections for this house were limited to men and to a small minority of very wealthy men at that. Although the House of Commons was hardly a radical rabble, Charles managed to alienate the property owners with his tax policy, the lower classes due to their poverty and the religiously zealous Protestants with the reputed Catholic influence of the Queen. This king retreated from previous Tudor practice and returned to “the old politics of ruling without parliament and without patience for church reformers of any variety.”
When, in April 1640, Charles I summoned together Parliament to vote in taxes for his unpopular war with Scotland, this being the one real power the Houses had, he found the members disinclined to support his wishes unless he would be willing to grant a number of demands increasing the power of Parliament. The leaders of the House of Commons were more than willing to compromise. Yet, after a mere three weeks, the king dissolved Parliament and sought other fund sources. He went so far as to attempt to raise loans from Spain, France and the Pope. These and further efforts were all in vain. Having run out of alternatives, Charles I was forced to recall Parliament in November. The elections were brilliantly managed by Charles’s enemies to ensure an anti-Court majority. It is little surprise that the Crown and Parliament clashed almost constantly. Parliament defied the king’s authority and passed laws trimming the power of royal courts, establishing a regular meeting of the legislature and declaring all taxes passed without the consent of Parliament to be illegal. In a comic attempt to regain control, the king assembled a large crowd of swordsmen and led them into the House of Commons to arrest the radical leadership of that body. All, however, had fled in plenty of time.
In 1642, the king fled London and called on his feudal barons to rise up with armies to put down the impertinent commoners and their bourgeois leaders. This started the Civil War that would ravish England. Although one would assume the Royal forces would have overwhelming military superiority, this was not the case. The king’s men were not as formidable as they might have been in an earlier age. The Parliamentary forces led by the extremely able Oliver Cromwell were innovative, utilizing the newest European military knowledge. Moreover, Cromwell created a national army bound together by at least some sense of purpose. As discussed prior, in Cromwell’s New Model Army, ability often counted more than birth in terms of promotion whereas the Royalist army was mired in the dead weight of tradition.
Space does not allow a full recounting of the military campaigns fought until Cromwell’s popular forces defeated the royal military at Naseby in June, 1645. Soon thereafter, the victors began to disagree over what should be done next. Much of Parliament was content to consolidate the anti-Royalist gains of the first years of rebellion, most of all the greatly enhanced power of the wealthy commoners’ representatives in the House of Commons. Beyond this, there existed a large number of radicals in the New Model Army. These radicals, whatever divisions existed between them, were united in the idea that things could and should change much more fundamentally than the moderates in the House of Commons wished. At first, Cromwell was willing to listen to these new ideas but as the agitators moved beyond disobeying Parliament to discussing far more revolutionary democratic ideas, the army leadership parted company with them.
Charles I learned little from his defeat. He continued to believe that he was God’s chosen ruler and plotted a return to absolute divine right rule. He was also not the cleverest of men: he wove plots and conspiracies by writing to those he hoped would support him, communications the agents of Parliament easily and systematically intercepted. He had, from the radical view, committed treason as well as broken his word. Some wished to quietly dispose of him, a fate that has befallen so many monarchs throughout the ages. The argument won out within Cromwell’s leaders that he should be given a trial. Charles I was tried, found guilty and executed in public. Kings have often been murdered but to legally execute the sovereign … this had not been done before. This set the precedent that no one, not even the monarch, was above the law or the nation.
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper, 1656 / National Portrait Gallery, London
As he had driven conservatives from Parliament, Cromwell now threw radicals into prison. He distracted the army from radical ideas with a vicious and successful war against the Catholic Irish. He settled his soldiers on Irish land expropriated from its Irish owners. Growing intolerant of criticism even from the rump of Parliament, Cromwell issued a new constitution with power given to him as “Lord Protector.” Like George Washington 150 years later, Cromwell was offered the Crown. And, just like Washington, he rejected it. But unlike his later colonial counterpart, Cromwell died in 1658 before a clear political order could be organized. On his death, Cromwell’s son Richard became Lord Protector but the Army’s revolutionary energy was soon exhausted. Thus, a new Parliament
restored the Stuarts, Charles I’s royal family, by giving the Crown to Charles II on conditions that protected the newly ascendant bourgeoisie’s property interests and religious leanings.
The most widespread democratic ideas that Cromwell felt bound to suppress were those of radicals called the “Levellers.” Named because of their supposed desire to make all equal or to level society This group, which rejected the name given to them, were less radical than alleged, as they wanted the vote only for men with property and excluded women, servants and the homeless. They wanted the right to work their own land and to have some real say over their lives. In seventeenth-century England, they
represented something new and, to the wealthy, subversive. In our day, the New Model Army rebels have been seen by one British radical author
… as workers struggling to maintain control over their own labour by organizing themselves into a military soviet … [struggling to see whether the English Revolution] … would be the bourgeois revolution of a new capitalist ruling class, or a democratic revolution of small producers.”
Even more radical, if far less significant, is the group called the “Diggers,” led by Gerrard Winstanley. In various published tracts, he argued for a community based on the abolition of individual possessions and even money. Abolishing and redistributing private property would benefit all of England, Winstanley argued, as he wrote what we might call the outline of a utopian socialist theory.
Left: Woodcut from a Diggers document by William Everard / Wikimedia Commons
Right: Plaque commemorating three Levellers shot by Oliver Cromwell in Burford. / Photo by Kaihsu Tai, Wikimedia Commons
The Diggers movement never amounted to anything approaching the significance of the Levellers. Diggers’ occupations of untilled soil were short-lived and posed little difficulty for authorities when it was determined that they were a public nuisance. At the same time, the Diggers movement, so weak in practice, was to become a beacon of inspiration to later generations of radicals. Winstanley began as a Christian dreamer and after years of conflict with the authorities, evolved into a secular thinker. His message that “there shall be no buying and selling of the earth nor of the fruits thereof ” remains a powerful vision.
With the execution of Charles as a traitor to the nation on January 30, 1649, divine right was crushed forever in England. When conservative reaction to popular radicalism led Parliament to invite Charles II to return home and be king, it was to be monarch, not by God’s will but by assent of an elected legislature. It would be easy to see the English Revolution as a failure or even, as is often said, a short period of disorder in the otherwise peaceful, gradual evolution of society. The reality is that a fundamental transformation had taken place. Divine right monarchy had been superseded by a monarchy that ruled not by the grace of God, but by the grace of Parliament. Now, the king could lead, but all the basic policies of the realm had to have Parliament’s approval. The capitalist classes gained more security for their investments and freedom from arbitrary royal taxation. The rising bourgeoisie, in both town and countryside, no longer had to fear the old nobility. A century of bitter arguments over religion were largely laid to rest. The revolution made England a capitalist nation ready to embark into industrialization in the next century without the dead weight of the old aristocracy. The new moneyed class had eclipsed the nobles economically, while the increased importance of the House of
Commons, elected by men of property not noble birth, now limited the nobility’s political influence. The half-century after the English Revolution saw wages rise significantly above other European nations. Moreover, this was reflected physically, as the British appear to have become, by at least the eighteenth century if not earlier, the tallest Europeans, with the Dutch very close in height. Meanwhile, the French and Spanish were significantly shorter, often explained by the nutritional deprivation suffered by so many under the feudal system. Economic data further indicates that northern Europe’s relative prosperity was due, not to cheap labor,
but high productivity, which can be argued, was a result of the bourgeois revolutions.
Now, it was wealth based on trade, banking and soon, industrial innovation, that mattered. Tradition was still paid lip service but what really mattered was production and results that could be recorded on the market. The old nobles were still in office in the House of Lords and a king sat on the throne. These men still had the trappings of power, but not real power itself. That resided with the new class who everywhere in the nation grew richer, bolder and more prominent.
1. H.R. Trevor-Roper, “The general crisis of the 17th century,” Past & Present, 16, November 1959: 31–32.
2. E.J. Hobsbawm, “The general crisis of the European economy in the 17th century,” Past & Present, 5, May 1954: 33.
3. Ibid., 35.
4. Caroline Arcini, “A plague on all your houses,” Current World Archaeology, 4(10), April/May 2011: 26–30.
5. Hobsbawm, “The general crisis,” 41.
6. Ibid., 48.
7. Ibid., 46.
8. Ibid., 54.
9. Jan de Vries, “The economic crisis of the seventeenth century after fifty years,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 40(2), Autumn 2009: 151–94.
10. Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998, 115.
11. The Anabaptists had been leaders of the Dutch Reformation from 1530 until 1560 when decades of persecution and defeat had driven them underground or into inactivity. See ibid., 85.
12. Rudolf M. Dekker, “Women in revolt: Popular protest and its social basis in Holland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” Theory and Society, 16(3), May 1987: 339.
13. Ibid., 340.
14. Ibid., 342.
15. Ibid., 343.
16. Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II: Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World Economy, 1600–1750, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
17. For a detailed history, see Peter H. Wilson, The Thirty Years War: Europe’s Tragedy, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 2009.
18. Lynette M. Deem, “Swiss Peasants’ War of 1653,” in Immanuel Ness (ed.), International Encyclopedia of Revolution and Protest, London: Blackwell, 2009.
19. Karen Barkey, “Rebellious alliances: The state and peasant revolt in seventeenth century France and the Ottoman Empire,” American Sociological Review, 56(6), December 1991: 699–715.
20. In fact, urban disorder was more important and widespread in medieval England than often thought. See Samuel K. Cohn, Jr., Popular Protest in Late Medieval English Towns, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
21. C.H. George, for example, argued that the English Revolution “has determined a great deal of the course of world history in the past three hundred years. The bourgeois triumph … [decided] … the geography and the timing of the Industrial Revolution.” See Charles H. George, Five Hundred Years of Revolution: European Radicals from Hus to Lenin, Chicago, IL: Charles H. Kerr, 1998: 69.
22. Ibid., 72.
23. Christopher Hill, “Parliament and people in seventeenth century England,” Past & Present, 92, August 1981: 115.
24. Ibid., 124.
25. Thomas Penn, Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.
26. C.H. George, “Puritanism as history and historiography,” Past & Present, 41, December 1968: 82.
27. George, Five Hundred Years of Revolution, 90.
28. James Holstun, Ehud’s Dagger: Class Struggle in the English Revolution, London: Verso, 2000: xiii.
29. Thomas Corns, Ann Hughes and David Loewenstein (eds.), The Complete Works of Gerrard Winstanley, 2 vols., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.
30. George, Five Hundred Years of Revolution, 100.
31. Ibid., 108.
32. Robert C. Allen, “The great divergence in European wages and prices from the Middle Ages to the First World War,” Explorations in Economic History, 38, 2001: 415.
33. Ibid., 431.
34. Ibid., 432.