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The English Civil War

Nottingham Castle

The English Civil War is perhaps the definitive cautionary tale for revolutionaries. Cromwell's idealistic young men thought they were the future. The reality is that their future came to reflect the past.

In 1625 James I died and was succeeded by his son Charles I. Half way through James's reign Parliament had come to realise its power over the king. The crown could only obtain money through taxation granted by Parliament. Sometimes Parliament would resist royal demands for taxes it knew would be unpopular. Parliament also resisted the power of royal favourites such as the Duke of Buckingham. When Charles took the throne he decided that Parliament was more trouble than it was worth. After a difficult initial relationship he simply stopped calling Parliament. The extremism of the 1629 Parliament had led to a loss of sympathy for Parliament. The assassination of the Duke of Buckingham removed an awkward unpopular figure close to Charles, which also helped dissipate bad feeling towards the king. From 1629 Charles ruled a generally peaceful country, and lived through his happiest years. He had the beautiful Queen's House finished in Greenwich Park for his French wife Henrietta Maria. The ceiling of Banqueting House in Whitehall was decorated by Peter Paul Rubens with huge painted panels portraying the divine right of kings.



St James's Palace

The summer of Charles's reign, however, was not to last long. Without Parliament Charles was cut off from the general run of opinion in the country, and while this was with him in 1629, by 1637 it increasingly was not. Attempts were made to raise money by extending nationwide a "ship money" tax formerly levied only on port towns to pay for naval protection. Merchants in port towns might gladly pay for a navy to protect shipping, but the rest of the country could not see such an immediate benefit. Religious policy was also causing problems. In 1628 William Laud was promoted from a small bishopric to the position of Bishop of London, and began his career as head of the Church of England. Laud was an opponent of the Roman Catholic Church. But ironically Laud remained rather catholic in outlook. He felt that Catholicism had gone astray, and that the true catholic tradition was, surprisingly, actually embodied by the protestant Church of England! Laud's view was a problem when there was so much prejudice against catholics in England at this time. Religious division between catholics and protestants had been a feature of life since the Reformation of the sixteenth century. On the continent the Thirty Years War was raging between catholics and protestants, and many feared such conflict might spread to England. Any suggestion of Catholicism in the government of England was going to be viewed with deep suspicion. Since 1627 there had been a catholic chapel, the Queen's Chapel at St James's Palace, used by Henrietta Maria. This beautiful building, which survives, added to a gathering fear of the king's religious intentions. Charles himself was a staunch protestant, but he believed in religious toleration, something which did not sit well with most people. The fact that he had a catholic wife, and an archbishop with catholic leanings, all tended to cast suspicion on Charles himself. Slowly the goodwill which had been given to Charles by Parliament's anti-monarchial extremism in 1629 was being eroded.




Painted panels on the ceiling of Banqueting House portraying the divine right of kings

By 1637 some of the gentry were refusing to pay their ship money tax, which had previously only been levied on port towns. And an attempt to impose the pattern of English church services on Scotland was causing huge resentment. In a riot at St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, a stool was thrown at a priest. By spring of 1638 the National Covenant had been signed by Scots of all classes, swearing to resist religious innovations to the death. A reluctant army was raised to put down Scottish rebels. Some aimless skirmishing was followed by the Peace of Berwick in June 1639. Charles had set out to give a show of strength, but managed to end up doing the opposite. Charles resolved to try again, but not being a tyrant himself he decided he needed help from someone to whom tyranny came more naturally. He called in Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Strafford's first advice was to call Parliament in 1640. This was done to raise money to fight the Scots, and also to allow parliamentary extremists to air their radical views, which would hopefully bring discredit upon them, as had happened in 1629. But those days had gone. The national mood was now much more sympathetic to Parliament. The formidable figure of John Pym led MPs in presenting grievances to the king. Charles had called Parliament to raise money to fight the Scots, but Pym was clearly in touch with the Scots, and working with them. Seeing the danger Charles dissolved Parliament, the "Short Parliament", after less than a month. But with no money the campaign against Scotland was doomed. A few disorganised armed bands moved north, but were defeated in late August 1640. The English retreated quickly to York. The Scots, in partnership with Parliament now called for a large indemnity before they would retreat back across the border. Of course this indemnity could only be paid for with a parliamentary grant. On 3rd November 1640 Charles was forced to face the inevitable and call another Parliament. This was to be the Long Parliament, which was to preside over the end of Charles I's reign.



Tower of London, from Tower Hill

The crisis now gathered pace. Strafford was taken to the Tower, and Laud joined him there in December. With all his advisors in hiding Charles turned to Henrietta Maria. She advised her husband not to lose faith in his vision of the divine right of kings to govern. Charles, disastrously, listened to her. He resolved to continue fighting Parliament. By May 1641 Charles's enemies had sealed Strafford's fate. Charles did his best to save his friend, but was fearful of what London's mobs would do if the hated Strafford was spared. Charles finally agreed to the execution, which took place on Tower Hill, on the open area in front of today's ticket offices where tourists queue up before heading into the Tower. Parliament admitted that Strafford's crime, that of treason, could not be supported legally, since he had never been disloyal to his king - quite the contrary in fact. But the letter of the law was secondary to interests of national security. This was a world that Charles would never accept, where law seemed arbitrary, and loyal royal servants should somehow be condemned for treason. The world was upside down. Charles never forgave himself for allowing the execution, and in a sense saw everything that followed as a divine punishment for his failure to save Strafford.

In January 1642 the King made a last desperate bid to regain control, and tried to have five senior parliamentarians arrested. But all five were forewarned and were not at Westminster when Charles arrived personally to arrest them. The King was humiliated. Charles withdrew, and demanded that the fugitives be handed over. But the mood in London meant this wasn't going to happen. On 10th of January Charles fled to Hampton Court with his family. Then they moved to Windsor Castle, and Dover, where Henrietta Maria and the younger children left for Holland taking the Crown Jewels with them. Charles rode along the white cliffs waving his hat as his family disappeared out of sight. He then headed for York, taking his two eldest boys, Charles and James, with him. Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham Castle on 22nd August, and the war officially began. This was to be a war dividing communities and families. One parliamentary general wrote to a friend on the royalist side: "With what perfect hatred I look upon this war without an enemy. We are both upon the stage and must act the parts assigned us in this tragedy" (quoted in This War Without an Enemy by Richard Lawrence Ollard).



Broad Street, Oxford

Initially things seemed to go well for Charles. The first pitched battle took place on 23rd October 1642 at Edgehill in the Cotswolds. Even though this was an indecisive encounter an advanced guard of royalists still reached Thurnham Green, a few miles outside London. But instead of pressing on, Charles decided to retreat and spend the winter in Oxford, which was to be his headquarters throughout the conflict. The following year brought a few indecisive battles, such as Newbury. It also brought the death of John Pym, who had done so much to coordinate Parliament's war effort. But before he died Pym had put in place a structure that would win the war. An efficient source of funding, via a tax on common goods, and an efficient army organisation meant that Charles began to lose ground. On 2nd July 1644 parliamentarian organisation was tested against the royalists' best general, Prince Rupert, the king's nephew. The armies met at Marston Moor near York, and after hours of hard fighting, the parliamentary army prevailed. The king had lost northern England. Then after another winter the New Model Army as it was now called really showed its power. Commanded by Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, this formidable force defeated the main royal army at Naseby in June 1645. Charles was now trapped in his stronghold in Oxford. Another defeat followed at Torrington, Devon in February 1646. By May Charles realised that his position was hopeless. He escaped from Oxford and gave himself up to the Scots. He was soon turned over to the English, and in August he was taken to Hampton Court.



In the royalist ranks at a re-enactment of the Battle of Maidstone, 1st June 2008

Charles could easily have come to an agreement with Cromwell. All that was required was some compromise. But Charles wasn't like that. On 11th November 1646 the king escaped from Hampton Court, where he was not closely guarded, and made for the Isle of Wight. Here he gave himself up to Robert Hammond, governor of the island. Perhaps he thought that Hammond would be sympathetic. Perhaps there was some idea of escaping to the continent. Whatever Charles had in mind, his trip to the Isle of Wight ended in confinement at Carisbrooke Castle, where he continued to plot and conspire. The plan was now to try and exploit natural divisions between various parliamentary factions, between Scots and English, between various shades of Protestantism, between Parliament and the New Model Army, which had much more extreme views than the Parliament it was meant to be serving.The result of these efforts was another flare up of war. In May 1647 there were royalist risings in Wales, Kent, Essex and the north. Scotland also threatened to turn on its former allies in England. These rebellions, sometimes known as the Second Civil War rumbled on into 1648. With the New Model Army quickly mobilised, royalist forces couldn't hold out for long. Last stands took place in Maidstone, at the castles of Dover and Deal, and in East Anglia at Colchester. Once resistance had been crushed, Cromwell invaded Scotland, replacing governor Hamilton, who had royalist sympathies, with the more dependable Aygyll.




John Milton's Cottage, Chalfont St Giles

The divisions that Charles planned to exploit were very real during this period. The New Model Army which had won the war was generally much more radical than Parliament. Parliament and Cromwell were amenable to reaching an accommodation with the king.The army was less inclined to religious toleration, less inclined to come to an agreement with the king, and more enthusiastic about wider voting rights and abolishing the House of Lords. Parliament and its army became opponents, and in 1648 Colonel Pride led a purge of Parliament, leaving only those MPs the army considered acceptable. This was the Rump Parliament. Cromwell who owed his position to his career in the army now almost ended up as a new Charles I, battling with a Parliament packed with New Model Army sympathisers. Cromwell even reached the stage where he was entertaining the prospect of becoming king himself. The poet John Milton who worked for the government found himself reluctantly supporting an increasingly king-like Cromwell, since Cromwell was more inclined to religious toleration than Parliament. It was almost as if the old battles were being fought out again.


The army acting independently imprisoned Charles in Hurst Castle in Dorset. Charles then went on trial at Westminster Hall, charged with subverting the natural laws and liberties of England. At this point Cromwell, despairing that Charles would ever compromise, argued for his death. Charles resisted by claiming quite rightly that Parliament was not a court of law, and it was not representative of the country, seeing as everyone who disagreed with the radicals had been purged. Charles argued powerfully for the rule of law and precedent. When he was asked to understand that he was facing a court of law, Charles answered: "I see I am before a power." In this he was correct. Charles was so convincing that a number of his inquisitors started to waver. Cromwell, who by now was determined that Charles must be dealt with once and for all, had to bring his forceful personality to bear in back room arguing. Eventually his view was accepted, and fifty nine people signed the king's death warrant, a document which survives and is now kept at the National Archives. An iron hat worn by chief prosecutor John Bradshaw, to ward off assassination attempts, and the seat Charles sat on at the trial, are both preserved at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.



Banqueting House - the scaffold was placed beneath the lower line of windows

On a freezing day, 30th January 1649 Charles was led through the Banqueting House. There is a sad irony in the location of this execution. Charles took his last walk through the grand hall at Banqueting House, the ceiling of which was decorated with a huge painting by Peter Paul Rubens. Charles had commissioned this painting to portray the divine right of kings. Charles stepped through one of the windows onto a scaffold built against the wall outside. He gave a speech in which he appealed to the rule of law, to which he and his people were subject, an ironic counterpoint to accusations made by Parliament that the king had put himself above law:

""For the People, and truly I desire their liberty and freedom, as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having a share in government, Sirs: that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things."

Just opposite Banqueting House is the archway of Horse Guards Parade. If you look carefully at the clock over the arch you will see a black mark on the clock face. This commemorates the time of execution, which was 2pm.



Corfe Castle, Dorset


The revolutionaries then thought the future had arrived. The past was something that deserved little respect, as demonstrated by their decision to wreck Corfe Castle in Dorset, and pull down the theatres, including Shakespeare's Globe. Windsor Castle, which stands today as a seemingly indissoluble link to the past, was only saved by a single vote in Parliament. And yet these revolutionaries were not the future, because in many ways their outlook preserved the past. In Charles's vision there was a higher law, beyond human vagaries, and it was a king's job to bring that law to his people. Parliament did not accept this view. A subject and a sovereign were not clean different things, and both had to accept the same law. This law was not something written down by a higher power. It was rather something made by people themselves. This was of course an unnerving idea, especially when laws are made by very human and imperfect institutions such as Parliament. Most people now accept this as the reality of life, but you could argue that the people who actually pioneered democratic law were afraid of it. Puritanism permeated Parliament, a dour, hard-line, proscriptive religious outlook. The deposition of Charles I was a revolution, but like all revolutions there was a fear of the new world, and in the absence of a monarch appointed by God to tell people what to do, puritans came along with an ever sterner God to tell people what to do.




Windsor Castle, saved by a single vote

In some ways the Civil War heralded a revolution. In other ways revolutionaries only recreated their past. History tends to go in circles as it rolls into the future. Even during the revolution itself, Cromwell the great leader of the move to abolish kingship almost became king himself. Perhaps Cromwell would have become king, if - according to Antonia Frazer - a possible combination of malaria and blood poisoning from a bladder infection in 1658 hadn't killed him. While Cromwell lay on his deathbed he was asked to nominate a successor, and is supposed to have given the name of his son Richard, although there is some doubt about this. Richard turned out to be an unsuitable leader, and soon plans were in hand for the return of Charles II from exile. The monarchy was restored in 1660, and continues to exist today.




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