Origins of the Civil War

“The religion of England”, wrote john Evelyn towards the end of the Protectorate, “is preaching  and sitting still on Sundays.” This was not precisely as it was but much as the Puritans wished it to be. Their drive to simplify church services, to abolish ritual, to ensure austerity upon the Sabbath day, and finally to reduce or destroy the powers of the bishops, was consistently resisted by the monarchy. Aided though she was by such conscientious administrators as Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft of London, it was Queen Elizabeth I herself who had been the real obstacle to the progress of the Puritan movement during her reign, even if it had received support from some of her most intimate lay advisors and from within the House of Commons.

When King James I came to London he listened to the claims of the Puritans for reform at a conference held in Hampton Court in 1604. He allowed the Puritans to put their case and examined what they had to say. But they responded in a heavy-handed and tactless way, and turned the King against them. It is possible that for the same reasons as Queen Elizabeth, the new monarch would in any case have rejected much of the Puritan position. But the Puritans certainly believed that, coming as he did from Presbyterian Scotland and reared in the Calvinist doctrines, King James was reasonably friendly towards them. Clearly he was not impressed by the truculence of their chief adversary, Bishop Bancroft. But a born controversialist himself, the King was revolted by the Puritans’ arguments, telling them that their aim was to “strip Christ again”, and he “peppered them soundly”. Although some points were conceded to them, afterwards Convocation passed new canons enforcing conformity, and it has been estimated that about three hundred clergy were suspended or deprived of their functions in consequence.

As his reign went on, King James I grew more emphatically anti-Puritan. In May 1618 he published a “declaration of sports”, allowing his people to play games, drink ale, or take part in Morris dances after they had attended services on Sundays. Moreover, the King came to regard the Puritans as subversive elements in much the same way that his predecessor had done. He once said that “his mother and he from their cradles had been haunted with a Puritan devil which he feared would not leave him to his grave; and that he would hazard his crown but he would suppress those malicious spirits”. Yet Puritanism was dominant in the House of Commons, and at its very first meeting in his reign defiantly declared that the King could not alter the religious laws of the country without its consent.

King James’ Queen was a Roman Catholic (though by birth a Danish Lutheran), and several of his councillors had Roman Catholic affiliations. But the Court was not, in fact, Catholic in tone, and there was no question of the King wishing to come to terms with the Papacy after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot against him, which had been organized by Roman Catholic. Moreover, the King was a Calvinist in theology. When he sent over representatives to discuss doctrine with the Dutch at the Synod of Dort, he approved an attack upon the “Arminians”, who believed in free will as opposed to predestination, though he instructed his delegates to moderate Calvinistic asperities. He appointed George Abbot, who looked favourably upon the Puritans, as Archbishop of Canterbury in succession to Whitgift, preferring him to Lancelot Andrewes, one of the adopted fathers of modern Anglo-Catholicism. King James I was also doubtful about the wisdom of conferring promotion upon William Laud, the outspoken and unremitting antagonist of the Puritans. thus, while the first Stuart King had scanty sympathy with the Puritan approach and disliked their “prattling sermons”, their unpremeditated prayers, and their disruptive or subversive tendencies, he was equally opposed to the “Arminians and papists”, and when he died, the Puritans, though still restlessly trying to capture the Church, had not yet been provoked into a revolutionary frame of mind.

Upon King Charles I’s accession to the throne the situation changed sharply. The new King had been brought up in the faith of the Anglican Church, was an austere Christian gentleman, unlike his father a lover of order and ritual, with a French Roman Catholic wife. from the outset of his reign he took extremely seriously his duties as Supreme Governor of the Church and Defender of the Faith. He was determined to impose uniformity and decency upon the Church, and he selected William Laud as his principal adviser; Laud was first Bishop of London, reputedly the most Puritan of dioceses. In 1633 King Charles I appointed him Archbishop of Canterbury on Abbot’s death, and encouraged him, as Queen Elizabeth I had impelled Archbishop Whitgift, to repress the Puritan movement.

As soon as he became archbishop, Laud revived an old practice of ‘visitations’ by bishops to ensure religious uniformity. Under his advice the King refused to allow the Puritan lecturers to preach without the approval of the local bishop, even if their services were paid for by laymen. Orders were given that afternoon sermons, the delight of the Puritans, were to be done away with and catechizing to take their place. The authorities made no secret of the emotional exhortations of Puritan-minded clergy. The communion table, which was often placed in the middle of the nave and only sometimes moved from there for the administration of the sacraments, and in the meantime proved useful as a hatstand or writing desk, was by the archbishop’s order to be placed at the east end of the church and treated as an altar; the Book of Sports was reissued; the ecclesiastical prerogative court of High Commission was vigorously employed to uphold catholic ritual; offending church men were called upon to take an oath before answering questions put to them there. In 1633 the Attorney-General brought an action before the Court of Exchequer against the Puritan group in London which was buying up impropriations with the object of peopling the Church with its own sort of clergy, and had it suppressed. Parishioners were told to attend their own churches and not to stray elsewhere in search of more popular sermons. Finally, the King openly approved of the so-called English “Arminians”, who believed in free will, rejected rigid Calvinism, and favoured the retention of Catholic ceremonies. The King insisted that it was the sole right of himself and the Convocation of his clergy to determine the doctrine and practices of the Church. That was denied by the Commons and by the Puritans in general.

It is not easy to estimate numerically the distribution of the Puritans throughout the country. Many influential people agreed with criticisms of the bishops without necessarily accepting all the puritan tenets or wishing to transform the Church. The word Puritan, after all, was a catch-phrase or term of abuse and covered a multitude of beliefs and attitudes. There were, besides the Presbyterians of Scottish as well as English hue, various separatists, Brownists (after a certain Robert Browne), Independents, Congregationalists, Baptists, or Anabaptists, Peculiar or other, with a number of leaders and small groupings in different parts of the nation. Thus no statistical guess about the Puritans of the time is satisfactory. Puritanism was powerful in London, the outports, like Hull, and the clothing towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, and it had a grip upon merchants and industrialists. Churches set up by Protestant refugees from the Continent, largely craftsmen, at places like Norwich and Canterbury, were allies of English Puritanism. It had strong intellectual support in Cambridge University from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, and was popular in the eastern counties, where Cromwell was reared. On the other hand, it hardly touched Wales or the south-west corner of England, and in all likelihood it was weakest in precisely those western areas which proved most loyal to the King in the civil wars.

But Puritanism was unquestionably fully represented in the House of Commons, which was more Puritan than the country. In the third parliament of King Charles I’s reign several attacks were launched upon the bishops, in which Cromwell took part. Sir John Eliot, himself no Puritan asserted that the bishops could not be trusted with the interpretation of the Thirty-nine Articles. John Pym claimed it was the duty of parliament to stamp out “Arminianism”. Already Puritan ministers were seeking refuge in Holland and in New England and puritan congregations were beginning to emigrate. The King actually considered prohibiting sailings.

The Puritan leaders were neither poor enthusiasts nor obscure fanatics. Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, were Puritan sympathizers among the aristocracy, and they acted in association with men like John Hampden, a wealthy Buckinghamshire landowner, John Pym, a West Country squire of great business ability, and successful barristers like Oliver St. John and William Lenthall. this group was concerned to establish a puritan settlement in a small island off Nicaragua, whence piratical attacks upon the Spanish “papists” might be initiated. Their plan failed, and other Puritans tried to form a colony in Connecticut. These commercial enterprises afforded the opportunity to create the nucleus of a Puritan opposition to the royal supremacy.

But the early opposition among the gentry to the policy of the Crown in the reign of King Charles I was less of a religious than a constitutional character. “Gentlemen,” observed John Selden, “have ever been more temperate in their religion than the common people, as having more reason, the others running in a hurry.” towards the end of the previous reign King James I had reluctantly involved the nation in a war with Spain, under the influence of his favourite, the first Duke of Buckingham, who had also become the personal friend of the heir to the throne. To pay for the war, King James I, like Queen Elizabeth I, had been compelled to alienate Crown lands, and his financial advisers had sought desperately for expedients to refurbish his coffers. proposals for abandoning outmoded feudal dues in return for a subsidy to be voted by the Commons had broken down. Then the King had exacted “impositions” over and above the usual customs dues in the nominal cause of regulating trade by right of his prerogative. It was because they disliked such methods of raising money, as well as the foreign policy of Buckingham, that the first House of Commons in the reign of King Charles I had refused to grant the King the right throughout the reign to levy customs duties, known as “tonnage and poundage”. Thus from the outset the new King was in grave difficulties.

The second parliament of the reign equally refused to vote taxes until the grievances of the nation had been redressed. The monarch then sent a demand through the Justices of the Peace for a “free gift”, and when the response was poor, turned to a “forced loan” to secure the amount that had been denied to him by parliament. Several leading parliamentarians, including Sir John Eliot, John Hampden, Sir Thomas Wentworth, refused to pay, and seventy-six recalcitrants were sent to prison. A test case upheld the King’s right to commit his subjects to prison without “cause shown”. Although a largish sum was produced by such methods, the King’s government still could not meet the costs of the unsuccessful war being waged against Spain. Soldiers were billeted to the displeasure of unwilling hosts at various homes throughout the country, and in 1628 a general election was held to which such “martyrs of the loans” who stood were all returned. In this parliament Oliver Cromwell represented the borough of Huntingdon. Whether he was a “martyr of the loan’ or not is uncertain, but he was a cousin of one of them, John Hampden; he now found himself the member of a parliament seething with indignation against the government’s policies. It was lad by the most celebrated figures of his time – Eliot, Wentworth, Pym, Digges, and the aged Sir Edward Coke – all of them eager to launch a formidable assault upon the government of which the Duke of Buckingham was the leading spirit and all claiming vehemently that forced loans and imprisonments without cause shown were contrary to the fundamental laws of the kingdom.

The parliamentary leaders of King Charles I’s and King James I’s reigns were steeped in a constitutional approach which was dependent upon a profoundly false view of history. Most of the landed gentry who filled the House of Commons had received their higher education at the Inns of Courts, which have been described as the third university of the time, while other members were professional barristers. All of them had thus acquired the idea that the monarchy was, and always had been, subject to “fundamental laws”, those laws being comprised of what was called the law nature, or the law of reason, the moral law, or the laws of God, and above all the Common Law, or case law, dating back to time immemorial. The high priest of the Common Law was Sir Edward Coke who, though a servant of the prerogative under Queen Elizabeth I, has earned the modern title of the “father of the Whig interpretation of history” Coke thought that the rule of law and the jury system bath dated back to before the Norman Conquest, and that the Common Law, representing, as it did, the wisdom and experience of all the subsequent ages, was infinitely superior to the reason of any mere man. The Common Law, in his view, was expressly designed by Providence to preserve the English Commonwealth against arbitrary government. Magna Carta was to him the historical reaffirmation of pre-Norman law, while the House of Commons itself he believed to have originated at least in the time of King Henry I, if not in that of Edward the Confessor. Such persuasive myths were used with gusto to support the attacks made by Coke and his disciples on King Charles I’s arbitrary taxation and the imprisonment of members of parliament.

The monarchy, for its part, forced upon the defensively by its growing financial needs, extended practices which had been employed by the Tudors in order to achieve independence from an increasingly assertive House of Commons. After all, had not Queen Elizabeth I exacted “ship money” by prerogative and arrested her subjects, including M.P.s, without cause shown? Admittedly, the advisers of the early Stuarts pressed the prerogative powers pretty hard. But both historically and practically there was no question that the executive could take such action as it thoughts fit during what it regarded as a national emergency in the interests of the general good of the country. the two early Stuart kings were reasonably suspicious of the historical interpretations of the rights of the courts and of parliament as presented by constitutional lawyers and antiquarians. The Society of Antiquaries, to which scholars like Sir Robert Cotton and Sir Henry Spelman (both famous figures in the historiography of Great Britain) belonged to impound Coke’s papers after he died. Magna Carta, as well as the Petition of Right, was invoked to condemn King Charles I’s treatment of the “martyrs of the loan”. Clause 39 of Magna Carta was quoted with enthusiasm, and the King had been obliged to agree that he was bound by this ancient document. Yet history was broadly upon the side of the King.

The trouble was that King Charles I had allowed his prerogative rights to be stretched and stressed to an offensive extent, partly in an understandable reaction against the growing claims to political power, which under the guise of dubious precedents, were being increasingly put forward by the Commons. While one ought not to place too much emphasis on all this in assessing the origins of the civil war, it is important to remember that the appeals that were made by critics of the monarchy for the purification of the ancient constitution, like the Puritans’ pleas for the purification of the Church, were a dressing up of a revolutionary outlook in a pseudo-historical garb. The King wanted to attain financial independence for the Crown and impose uniformity upon the Church, and the means by which he attempted to do so were perfectly in accordance with the practices of earlier English monarchs.

But though the leadership of parliament was thus, in fact, revolutionary, no small group of fanatical plotters can be named who conspired to bring a revolution about, such as may be detected in revolutions in our own times: John Pym was no Lenin or Hitler or Moa Tse-tung. The constitutional assault upon the monarchy, which was primarily inspired by the dislike of the Duke of Buckingham’s policies and administration, found its open justification in the Petition of Right and later in the Grand Remonstrance, and the Acts passed in the first year of the Long Parliament were a general expression of opinion within the House of Commons and not of any “formed opposition” in a later sense. The King had only a handful of spokesmen or “courtiers” within the House, and men who later became Royalists were all anxious to reform the monarchy and the Church. The numerous analyses of the composition of the House of Commons dividing it into Court and Country ‘parties’ or into Parliamentarians and Royalists do not throw any complete light on the social impulse behind the civil wars. It was unquestionably the middle classes, including London merchants and a rising professional group, well represented in the Commons, who gave the impulse to the original attacks upon the monarchy; whether among these middle classes there was a driving group of “backwood squires”, as one historian asserts, or of politically-frustrated merchants, as another claims, is a matter for argument; undoubtedly when it came to the crux, some members of these classes drew back and found that their traditional loyalty to the Throne and the Church demanded that they should fight for the King and not against him. But right up to the beginning of the first civil war, apart from a few officials, the whole of the House of Commons – that essentially middle-class institution – was in broad agreement that the prerogative powers of the monarchy must be restricted, and hoped to come to a settlement of the kingdom upon that basis.

Oliver Cromwell once said that it was not religion that originally brought about the civil wars, but that it came to that in the end by way of “redundancy”. Up to 1638 when Charles I tried to impose a version of the English Book of Common Prayer by force upon Scotland, the main grievances and ambitions of the parliamentary class against the Crown were of a political nature, relating to financial exactions, such as forced loans, impositions, monopolies, ship money, revived feudal dues, billeting and requisitioning, and the means by which they were obtained. Thus the whole question of the prerogative powers was raised and re-examined in the light of the so-called “fundamental laws” of the kingdom. But parallel to this was the Puritan rejection of ritualism and ecclesiastical uniformity as pursued by Archbishop Laud fully backed by King Charles. Puritanism lent inspiration to many of the parliamentarians: “The preachers,” professor Haller has said, “were the men who did most in the long run to prepare the temper of the Long Parliament.” It was Puritanism that aroused, by its spiritual or idealogical appeal, the ardour of Oliver Cromwell, and men like him who in the last resort were prepared to do battle with the monarchy: and it may be doubted if without that inspiration the parliamentary armies would have had the moral strength to overcome the disappointments and setbacks of the first year of the war. Indeed, one Puritan wrote at the time: “Kings and armies and parliaments might have been quiet this day if they would have let Israel alone.” As Dr. C. V. Wedgwood has said, when the war came there was a wonderful ferment, a sort of cracking of the surface, which clearly derived from the individualistic approach of Puritan Christianity; and when victory was finally won it was naturally the extreme Puritans rather than the moderates who acquired the power in the land. To that extent it is fair enough to describe the overthrow of the monarchy and the Church in the middle of the seventeenth century as a “puritan” revolution. But the origins of the movement against the monarchy were to be sought in the expansion of a politically-conscious middle class, which had enhanced the assertiveness of the house of Commons, armed with the increasingly significant power of the purse, ever since the early years of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.