It’s been mentioned to me recently that the English Civil War is difficult for readers to get to grips with, too much confusion in the reasons behind it to grasp the driving motivation for characters in novels. You know, I actually get that. Whilst I think readers are discerning and intelligent enough to figure it out, it is about how we present the period to them. It’s partly why I wrote The Last Roundhead in the first place (ever the teacher).
So, what caused the English Civil War?
Well, it was a long time cooking. After the death of Henry VIII, the English crown went through three swift changes in monarch, none of whom were as secure as their father on the throne. The minority of Edward VI, was followed by the reigns of the neurotic Mary, and her equally neurotic but infinitely more charismatic sister Elizabeth. Edward and Mary’s reigns had been characterised by dramatic changes in religious policy. Under Edward it was full on Protestantism (rather than his father’s hotch-potch of reformed English-Catholicism) whilst Mary swung the pendulum back as far as the 1520s with Catholicism on steroids. These changes diminished the prestige of the crown from the near absolutism of Henry, and led to an increased role for Parliamentary power.
By the time Elizabeth I came to the throne, she was faced with the immediate prospect of a religious war breaking out, as well as a distinct lack of hard cash. Elizabeth defused both situations with her typical aplomb. The religious roller coaster under her siblings was stopped, and the Elizabethan religious settlement compromised between the competing factions. It was a settlement that worked extremely well.
Elizabeth also dealt with her Parliaments with intelligence and man management that politicians of all ages could learn from. Only Parliament could raise new taxes, so all English monarchs were reliant on it to pay for the Royal administration. She did not bulldoze Parliament as her father had done, but cajoled, manipulated and schemed to get her own way. In this, she was just as successful as Henry had been in controlling the nation, and almost always kept the majority in Parliament on her side. Elizabeth wrapped the Commons and Lords around her little finger with brutal charm. All done in the face of potential invasion by the first global superpower - Catholic Spain.
The victory over the Armada was seen as national salvation, and God’s judgement on the English church, and Elizabeth’s legacy was secured. She may have suffered from unpopularity in her later years, but after her death the reign would be remembered as a golden age. She cast a long shadow over the Stuart kings.
James I, had neither his predecessor’s wit nor wisdom but as a foreigner relied, at least initially, on Elizabeth’s administration. This was to prove vital in 1605 when the Gunpowder Plot was exposed. The impact of the plot on the protestant majority of the population was dramatic and heightened a deep sense of distrust in Catholicism and Catholics in general. Rather than reigniting the papist cause, the failure of the plot finished any real prospects of an English return to Rome. Many expected a protestant backlash, but James was not about to dismantle the Elizabethan settlement that had kept the peace for fifty years. This angered the Puritans - protestant extremists - who wanted the elements of Catholicism in the English church that remained to be stamped out.
By the end of his reign, there was an increasingly large minority of Puritans in England - concentrated in the wealthy middle class - but James had just about managed to keep the English church together. Given the religious wars that tore apart France and Germany during this period, it was a significant achievement.
Parliament was a different matter. Elizabeth and Cecil had been the arch manipulators of the Commons and Lords. James approached them with less sophistication, merely expecting his will to be done as it generally had been in Scotland. In 1611, when Parliament reminded James that he could not raise customs duty without their consent, he had a typical Stuart fit of petulance and dismissed it. James then ruled without Parliament for ten years, relying on his sycophantic favourites to govern the country. This unsurprisingly alienated the burgeoning middle class, who had grown dramatically in wealth and political power under the Tudors.
In 1621, James recalled Parliament to discuss his son’s marriage to a Spanish princess. The protestant commons, with an increasing number of radical puritans, was horrified. Not only was she Spanish - England’s traditional enemies for a century - but she was also Catholic. The marriage was stopped (despite Charles taking off for Spain on a ill advised, and disastrous, holiday) but it exacerbated the deep sense of distrust between the Monarchy and Parliament.
Finally, we come to Charles I - poor, conceited, deluded Charles. From the start of his reign - 1625 until 1628 - Charles squabbled with his Parliaments. There were a multitude of issues but they all boiled down to two factors - religion and money. In the end, in 1629, he followed his father’s example and dismissed Parliament preferring to rule alone, no matter what the financial constraints, rather than work with the Commons and Lords.
What followed was termed a personal rule by his supporters - royal tyranny by his detractors. Charles used every trick in the book to raise revenue rather than calling Parliament. He resurrected ancient laws and privileges long dormant to keep the cash flowing.
In the light of the recent Panama Papers revelations on tax avoidance, it’s perhaps notable that one of his conspirators to fiddle the tax take was Sir Edmund Sawyer. Sawyer, a Berkshire MP, had been expelled from Parliament in 1628 and declared unfit to ever serve again. He had lied to the House over illegal tax gathering with the connivance of the King, and tried to persuade others to lie for him. He would later face prosecution for swindling a widow out of £500 (perhaps £140k today) and was forced to get the King to indemnify him from prosecution until Parliament ordered him to pay up. Sawyer is the nine times great grandfather of our current Prime Minister - Rt Hon David Cameron MP - apples and trees spring to mind.
Charles literally did everything he could to raise money, and more. He sold titles at a rate even Lloyd George would be embarrassed by, and levied extreme fines through the Court of the Star Chamber (A royal court that could circumvent established legal precedence). This approach made him extremely unpopular with the taxpaying middle class who were most likely to end up fined, and culminated in the Ship Money crisis of the 1630s.
Ship money was a tax levied on all coastal towns to pay for the upkeep of the Royal Navy. In 1635, Charles decided that as the whole nation benefitted from the defence the navy provided, then the whole nation could pay. This was not so unreasonable, however, it needed the consent of Parliament to be legal - at least in many people’s eyes. John Hampden (a Buckinghamshire MP) refused point blank to pay until it was affirmed by the Commons. Charles put him on trial, and when he was found guilty levied a fine. Hamden’s defiance made him a national hero in the face of Royal power.
Whilst the financial arguments were going on the problems with religion bubbled away. The Spanish match may have been stopped, but Charles had married the catholic French Henrietta Maria, instead of a good protestant princess. There was an increasing fear that Charles was turning towards Catholicism - urged on by his wife - which after the Armada and Gunpowder Plot was unacceptable to the majority of the population. During the 1630s, this fear grew into manic paranoia as Charles persecuted Puritan sections of the population (he also persecuted Catholics but that was overlooked by most people) driving many to emigrate to the colonies to be free of him. The Pilgrim Fathers were merely the first in a tidal wave of colonists that almost included Oliver Cromwell.
Charles was determined to reform the successful Elizabethan religious settlement. Admittedly, changes in religious demographics meant that it was fraying at the edges - more Puritans, less Catholics. He appointed William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury and the architect of this reform. Laudianism involved a rigid hierarchical structure with bishops, diocese, priests and parish. This system was largely in place (if unpopular) in England and Wales, but had been mostly supplanted in Scotland a century before. On top of that Laud favoured ceremonial elements in the liturgy - such as singing, incense, religious images, and clothing - that smacked of Catholic ritual and were an anathema to the Puritans.
In 1638, Charles made a fatal mistake and, for a Scot, an incredibly stupid one. The Scottish church had never been a part of the Elizabethan religious settlement - it was a different country. The Scots had reformed their church along a more radical protestant system, and had abolished most of their bishops (Charles and James had increased the number) in favour of a Kirk - a grand conclave of elected ministers that governed the church - known as Presbyterianism. Catholicism was just as repugnant to them as the radical Puritans in England. Charles decided that Scotland would be the first nation to take his new prayer book - shades of the Poll Tax? The Scots were having none of it. They promptly raised an army and told Charles and Archbishop Laud to stick their reforms where the sun doesn’t shine, invading northern England in 1639.
Wars cost money. There was no standing army, only a poorly trained and equipped militia (in London the quality of the Trained Bands was considerably higher). Charles emptied his coffers to raise a force to subdue the Scots but the campaign never got off the ground. When he finally managed to gather a force it was hamstrung by lack of funds. Desperate for more money to fight the Scots, Charles recalled Parliament.
Parliament had no interest in raising money for the King, instead they wanted to discuss his infringements on their liberties, his raising of illegal taxes, and his persecution of the Puritans. Charles swiftly dissolved Parliament once again, and tried to carry on the war without the money. He had little success; the Scots routed his troops at the Battle of Newburn (1640). In August 1641, The Treaty of London was signed with the Scots but Charles needed to recall Parliament to ratify it.
The members that gathered were incensed with the King and his advisor the Earl of Strafford, and the House of Commons was overwhelmingly hostile. Instead of ratifying the treaty and signing off funds for the King, they openly attacked his administration. Firstly, under the leadership of John Pym, they impeached Strafford and forced Charles to sign the death warrant of his closest advisor. Strafford's record in ireland was questioned, and wild stories of Papist atrocities there whipped up a storm. In the fevered atmostphere Parliament passed the Grand Remonstrance - a list of criticisms of Charles rule. The remonstrance was perhaps a step too far by the radicals, as many moderate members of the Commons and Lords were appalled. Parliament and the country was dividing into two camps.
In January 1642, Charles made a desperate attempt to regain control of the situation by arresting the most prominent radicals whilst they sat in Parliament (including John Pym and Hampden but not Cromwell as the film claimed). This was in defiance of centuries old privilege that MPs could not be arrested whilst sitting. Pre-warned, the five members escaped but Charles had gone a step too far. He was forced to flee London, and started gathering an army to fight his enemies. By August 1642, skirmishing and fighting had broken out and the King raised his standard, effectively declaring war on his own people.