Charles I was “a small fastidious king”. In his youth he was described by the Venetian envoy as “very grave and polite” and “with no other aim but to second his father”. His elder brother, who died young, was by all accounts an attractive boy, and Prince Charles was over-shadowed by him and by the quick intellect of his father. That may explain his stutter, which he never overcame. At first his relationship with his father’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, was ambivalent; but he lost his jealously, and a friendship was cemented between them when they travelled together to Spain in search of a royal bride. On the first night of the new reign, Buckingham lay in the King’s chamber. Three years later he was stabbed to death in Portsmouth. King Charles never forgave either the House of Commons or the Puritans for Buckingham’s assassination which, though carried out by a fanatic with a grievance, was influenced by the vehemence of the political accusations spread against him.
In the King’s nature was a streak of obstinacy. He said that he could not defend a bad nor yield in a good cause. Though he loved his wife, who was a stronger character than he was, he did not much care for statesmen old spirit, and did not send for his ablest minister, the former parliamentarian leader, Thomas Wentworth, whom he had created Earl of Strafford, until it was too late to prevent disaster to his throne. Later he mishandled his nephew, disaster to his throne. Later he mishandled his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the soldier who might have won the civil war for him. He preferred less able advisers, and was never really in touch with the people he ruled, as Queen Elizabeth I had been. He took after his father in his devotion to hunting, although he also had a taste for art and music; but he tended to let affair of State fall under the control of his less competent servants.
In the parliament of 1628-9 prolonged attacks had been directed against the King’s “evil counsellors”, and continued even after the Duke of Buckingham was stabbed to death. Eliot, Pym, and a group of nine, who gathered to concert tactics at the Three Cranes Tavern in London, claimed that the King had no right to levy taxation without the consent of the House of Commons, and added, somewhat irrelevantly, that to seize the goods of a member of parliament because he refused to pay customs duties was a breach of privilege. They also insisted that it was parliament’s right to interpret the doctrines of the Church of England and not that of the Supreme Governor or the clergy in convocation. In the Commons, too, claims were staked to regulate trade and prescribe foreign policy. While the lawyers and antiquarians in this parliament found plenty if ingenious precedents for such demands, in terms of history they were in reality far-reaching and revolutionary. Everything was wrapped up in becoming language: classical authors were quoted, medieval chronicles were invoked, the King was spoken of with extraordinary deference. Yet before the parliament was prorogued by Charles I, the Speaker, the royal representative in the Commons, was pinned down in his chair while the House defiantly resolved that the King’s levying of tonnage and poundage was illegal and that anyone who attempted to introduce “Popery or Arminianism” into the State was a capital enemy. This was a direct assault upon the King’s policy in Church and State, and Charles I promptly dissolved parliament and ordered the arrest of its leaders who had foregathered at the Three Cranes.
Affronted by the challenges of the Commons to what he regarded as his inherited rights, the King now set out to govern without calling parliaments at all: he concluded peace with France and Spain, raised money by various expedients, leaving most of his debts unpaid, and depended upon the judges (who could be dismissed at his orders) to uphold his actions as being compatible with his prerogative powers. A principal source of royal revenue was “ship money”, which was at first levied upon the ports of the country in 1634 in order to pay for the navy, and was fully in accordance with precedent. When the writs for raising ship money were extended from the ports to inland towns a number of gentlemen refused to pay, as they had previously refused to contribute to the forced loans. Cromwell’s cousin, John Hampden, was involved in a test case over ship money in which weighty historical and constitutional arguments were deployed on both sides. Although the case was finally decided in favour of the Crown in 1638, a minority of the judges dissented and the arguments brought forward by defending counsel made a profound impression on the educated classes. Afterwards, ship money, which had been universally unpopular, became extremely hard to collect.
About the same time, martyrs were made of three Puritan propagandists, including the antiquarian, William Prynne, while a London apprentice of precocious talent named John Lilburne was whipped and put into the pillory for distributing tracts. This last incident evidently disturbed Oliver Cromwell, for later he angrily attacked the government itself to the Puritans. In 1630 King Charles I concluded a treaty with Spain which allowed Spanish silver to be minted in England, and then transported to Amsterdam to pay the Spanish armies fighting against the Dutch. This indirect assistance to the Spanish empire against fellow Protestants, a startling reversal of Queen Elizabeth’s policy, was a source of much Puritan indignation.
But what brought about the end of King Charles I’s period of personal rule was neither his financial nor his foreign policy, but the war that he waged against his own subjects, the Scots. The King had neglected Scotland, but in 1638, in pursuance of his desire for religious uniformity, he tried to impose a version of the Book of Common Prayer upon Scotland, where many of the people were convinced Presbyterians. The King soon recognized that this could only be done at the point of the sword. The Scottish Calvinists retorted by organizing a National Covenant by which they swore to defend their severe but beloved religion to the utmost of their power for all the days of their lives. King Charles I, ignoring the restraining advice of the Earl of Strafford, his Lord Deputy in Ireland, and the fact that he possessed no regular army and very little money, rode north in the summer of 1639, bent upon enforcing his will; but when his troops eventually crossed the Tweed they were repulsed by a fanatical Covenanting army, and he was compelled to patch up a temporary and humiliating peace.
The Scottish Assembly of the Kirk then met and abolished the bishops (who had been reintroduced in a modest way by King James I), and made it plain that it intended in future to prescribe the religious policy of his northern kingdom. This striking Scottish example strengthened and stimulated the English Puritans: could not they, too, transform the Church and be rid of the bishops? But the failure of what was called the first bishops’ war did more than that. By calling up the nobility to fight at their own expense against the Scots with the aid of an untrained militia, the King angered the wealthy and influential magnates of the realm whom he had already pinpricked with his ship money and other exactions. At the same time he infuriated the inhabitants of the unruly north by billeting his makeshift army upon them and requisitioning supplies for its support. Moreover, the costs of the war put the government in such financial difficulties that no alternative remained open to the King but to recall an English parliament and ask humbly for money.
The House of Commons that assembled in the spring of 1640 – to which Oliver Cromwell was elected as one of the two members for Cambridge – was treated by the king as though everything that had happened during the eleven years since the last parliament had met had been perfectly normal and proper, and as if its only duty was to vote him taxes so that he might affirm his authority over his Scottish subjects. Understandably, the new House, which contained many of its old leaders, apart from Sir John Eliot who had died in prison, was unwilling to lay aside it previous complaints about the royal policy, particularly those that concerned the privileges of its own members. Inspired by John Pym, a parliamentarian of genius, it turned back the clock, protesting once again against the levying of tonnage and poundage without its consent and the introduction of what is regarded as novelties into the Church by the archbishops or their fellow “Arminians”. Pym also called attention to “grievances against the propriety of our goods”, including “that unparalleled grievance of ship money”, impositions, monopolies, misuse of the prerogative courts, and the revival of medieval methods of raising money. The claim was urged, although seldom in so many words, that parliament had the right to speak “for the nation”, and even veiled threats were not wanting. “We know,” said Pym, “how unfortunate Henry III and other princes have been, by the occasion of such breaking of their laws”; that is, “the fundamental laws of the realm”. Where was the new Simon de Montfort? The death of Sir John Eliot upset the Commons, as the assassination of Buckingham had provoked the King. An attempt, suggested by Strafford, to use the House of Lords and Convocation to counter-balance the Commons merely annoyed its members the more. Possibly a moderate offer of concessions might have improved the temper of the House, but when the proposal was put forward by his ministers to waive ship money in return for a grant of subsidies, it came too late, and after three weeks the “Short Parliament” was dissolved.
In spite of this distinct rebuff to his plans, the King was determined to renew the war against the Scots, and once more resorted to ship money and forced loans to pay for it. He himself again journeyed north to direct the campaign, and summoned the Earl of Strafford to assist him. The City of London refused to lend money, and riots took place there. Though both Strafford and Laud favoured vigorous action, the outlook was hopeless. The King called up the militia again, this time from points as far distant as Devonshire and Cornwall, thus widening the area of dissatisfaction with the demands of the Crown. The soldiers were the scum of the land, untrained, undisciplined, insufficiently armed, and many deserted. Not only the former leaders of the Commons but also some of the peers turned against the king and appear to have entered into secret communication with the Scottish Covenanters. Another humiliating treaty was concluded at Ripon by which the Scottish army was allowed to remain on English soil (it had crossed into north-east England) until reparations had been paid and a new parliament was called to meet in November 1640. This was the famous “Long Parliament” in which Cromwell was again elected a member for Cambridge.
The Structure of the Long Parliament has been closely analysed by modern historians, but we do not know a great deal about the elections. Broadly it seems to be true that “the richest and most populous part of the country (with the exception of Somerset) declared against the King” and that relatively few “courtier” were chosen. Pym is supposed to have ridden about the country “to promote elections of the Puritanical brethren to serve in Parliament”, but there is no proof of any highly organized electioneering.
In this parliament, Oliver Cromwell gradually took his place as an active political leader. He was forty-one, a man of property in Ely, a figure of importance in Cambridge and a spokesman for the Puritans in the eastern part of England. He was the father of seven children (his eldest son, Robert, had died in 1639), and had been prominent on local affairs at Ely and made many friends in Cambridge. If we may judge from the reports of the debates that have come down to us, his chief concern was over religion. He wanted the bishops to be abolished, as in Scotland, or at least to have their civil powers and political rights taken away from them. He was also anxious that the prayer-book should be revised or done away with, that all remnants of Roman Catholic ritual in services should be suppressed, and that more sermons should be preached in every parish. In fact, he was a violent Puritan at this stage in his career. He was a rough but eloquent speaker and an incessant worker upon committees. How was it that this comparatively modest Cambridgeshire gentleman, who took little part in previous parliaments, became by the time the civil war began, a recognized revolutionary leader? Is there any parallel that may be drawn between him and, say, Robespierre in the French Revolution, or Lenin and Mao Tse-tung in the revolutions of modern times?
In the case of these other protagonists of revolution they had devoted themselves through much of their early life to plotting for an ideological cause and to awaiting the great day. But it is impossible to detect in what little we know of Cromwell’s first forty years of life any such purposeful devotion. Although he was loosely linked with the group that concerned itself with colonization and evangelization and which staged protests against the King’s use of his prerogative, he does not seem to have taken any active part in their early consultations. But one thing may be said: he had for a long time been a convinced Puritan. Neither Eliot nor Pym nor Hampden was a Puritan in the same extreme radical sense that Cromwell was. In his determination to destroy or “make over” (to use a telling American phrase) the Church of King Charles I’s and William Laud’s ideals and to free it from the tyranny of the bishops, he was dedicated, uncompromising, and single-minded. Like Abraham Lincoln, to whom he may perhaps be best compared as a leader in a revolutionary time, he was a fatalist. He did not want civil war, let alone the destruction of the monarchy. But he was resolved, as it was expressed in a “protestation” signed by him in May 1641, to defend with his life, power, and estate “the true reformed Protestant religion” as against “popery and popish innovations”, and to maintain the power and privileges of parliaments, as well as the rights and liberties of the subject, against any form of arbitrary government. If he was obliged to do so, he would raise an evangelist’s sword. He, more than any man, gave the revolution its Puritan colouring.
During the first session of the Long Parliament, the Commons conducted an all-out attack upon the King’s policies and sought to strip him of many of his traditional powers. English kings had often been attacked before, from Henry III to Richard III, but by their peers. This, however, was essentially a revolt of the gentry, a bourgeois but hardly an intellectuals’ revolution. When the Commons first assembled the King once again, this time in person, pleaded for a vote of money to pay for his campaigns against the Scots. But John Pym, the little bearded orator, who had already assumed the effective leadership of the House in the Short Parliament, was now minded, undercover of old-fashioned phrases about grievances, evil counsellors, and fundamental rights, to create a new constitution in State and Church. Pym was neither the head of a formed opposition not even of a country party; with the exception of a few courtiers, most of whom were spineless, the whole House was behind him in his offensive upon “arbitrary government”. So also, if it is fair to judge from the petitions that reached parliament, was a substantial part of the country. Edward Hyde, who afterwards became King Charles II’s first minister, led an assault upon the prerogative courts; Sir John Culpepper, later a keen Royalist, denounced ship money; Sir George Digby, who within a year was to engage in an army plot on the King’s behalf, proposed a “grand remonstrance” against the government’s iniquities; sir Edward Dering, another later Royalist, criticized the temporal powers of the bishops; Lord Falkland, who died fighting for the King, exposed what he regarded as the subservience of the judiciary. Thus Pym commanded a formidable all-round or, if you like, non-party team which rejoiced in the backing of the Scots. Cromwell was one of his lieutenants.
Pym began by concentrating his fire upon the Earl of Strafford, the Lord Deputy of Ireland, outstandingly the most capable of the King’s ministers and the greatest parliamentarian among them. As Strafford was about to take his seat in the House of Lords, Pym unleashed an impeachment against him; that is to say, he caused the Commons to accuse him of high treason before his peers in the House of Lords. Strafford hoped and believed that he could refute every accusation, and by allowing the attack to fall upon himself alone to relieve the menaces to his master. Pym was resolved to avoid all miscalculations; even as he marshalled the charges against the earl, he prepared a Bill of Attainder, last used in the reign of Queen Mary I, which would, if passed by both houses and assented to by the King, warrant the execution of the Lord Deputy upon the grounds without any legal proof of his guilt. The Earl of Strafford put up such a magnificent defence of his actions before the House of Lords that Pym was compelled to make use of this terrible instrument in the end. Strafford, consistent with his heroic determination to save the throne at all hazards to himself, advised the King to consent to his attainder. Reluctantly and weakly Charles I agreed. In our own times, other public men, tortured by dreadful pressure, have also betrayed their beliefs and their friends. It is impossible for any outsider to measure such pressures. But King Charles never forgave himself.
The King had already yielded upon a number of points. Once Strafford was executed in April 1641, he gave way all alone the line. The prerogative courts were swept away; ship money and other exactions were declared illegal; other ministers and judges were impeached or frightened into exile; a bill was passed ensuring that parliament should in future be called at least once every three years. Finally, the existing parliament was permitted to continue sitting as long as it wished to do so.
In so far as the King had any programme of his own at this period, it was to play for time while exploring more desperate plans. He could see that Pym was holding together a loose coalition, and he thought he might in the long run secure help against his unruly English subjects from abroad or even, once peace had been patched up, from his Scottish subjects. The King was invariably optimistic and a tireless weaver of schemes. His Queen, indifferent to the fate of the martyred Strafford and looking at the situation through her French eyes, aspired to organize some kind of military coup d’etat. But her husband, though he had his political principles – he declared later that he would never betray the Church or his friends (in fact, he betrayed both) – vacillated. He abandoned both Strafford and Archbishop Laud, who, like Strafford, was executed solely for his loyalty to the throne. It was no wonder that Laud recorded in his diary written in prison that King Charles I “knew not how to be made great”.
In this first session of the Long Parliament, Oliver Cromwell, though extremely energetic in committee and debate, was most insistent upon the need to overhaul the Church. He had moved the second reading of a Bill for holding annual parliaments, which was afterwards converted into the Triennial Act. But he seems to have taken no part in the attacks on Strafford. He wanted to abolish the bishops, and supported what was known as the “root-and-branch” Bill with that end. Pym, however, recognized that at this stage at any rate a far-reaching Puritan policy would confuse and divide his supporters; men like Hyde, Culpepper, and Falkland, though willing to reduce the temporal powers of the bishops, were no more anxious to overthrow the existng Church than they were to destroy the monarchy. Their aim was reform and not revolution. Thus religion was to some extent soft-pedalled while the other pillars of the old Tudor monarchy were toppling. Some concessions were granted to the Puritan point of view, but in 1640 and 1641 Cromwell, because of his eagerness for the destruction of the Church establishment, was regarded as an extremist, and was evidently distressed that the other parliamentary leaders were less enthusiastic for immediate and radical religious changes than he was himself.
The second session of the Long parliament marked the turning point towards civil war. In his heart King Charles I had never accepted the restrictions that had been forced upon him, and during the later summer he visited his Scottish kingdom in the hope of enlisting allies. He assented to all that was asked of him by the Scottish parliament, and even tried to ingratiate himself with the Covenanters by attending Presbyterian services. Meanwhile in England the cracks were showing in Pym’s coalition; not only were old differences over religious questions becoming accentuated, but difficulties arose with the House of Lords which did not care for being dictated to be the House of Commons. To maintain his position, Pym took up George Digby’s suggestion for framing a “grand remonstrance”, outlining every public grievances ventilated during the reign. At the same time, events in Ireland were coming to the aid of the Puritans. For the Irish Catholics in Ulster rose in 1641 against their alien masters, as the direct result of the withdrawl of Strafford’s strong hand. The Irish rebels claimed to be fighting, among other things, for the preservation of the Roman Catholic religion, and the priests were among their ringleaders. Thus a gigantic “Popish Plot”, long forecast by the English Puritans, of which the abortive Gunpowder plot of King James I’s was the forerunner, suddenly became a frightening reality. In London they asked might it not happen here?
The Commons, distrusting King Charles I and suspicious of his doings in Scotland (where that had sent a commission to watch him), were unwilling to put an army under his command to suppress the Irish rebellion lest he should turn it, as they believed Strafford had advised him against themselves. When the King returned to London he was presented, not with a firm offer of military aid, but with the Grand Remonstrance. This contained a demand that in future all officers and ministers of State should be appointed only with the approval of parliament. The Remonstrance passed the Commons by a small majority on 23rd November.
Olive Cromwell was enthusiastically in favour of the Grand Remonstrance. The supporters of the King, including Lord Falkland, had tried to postpone or adjourn the debate upon it. According to Edward Hyde, who led the opposition to the Remonstrance: “Cromwell [who at that time was little taken notice of] . . . asked the Lord Falkland ‘why he would put it off, for that day would quickly have determined it’. He answered: ‘There would not have been time enough, for it would have taken some debate.’ Cromwell replied, ‘A very sorry one’, supposing few would oppose it,” thus Cromwell was astonished by the turn of events and by the deep division in the Commons. After the debate ended, Falkland twitted Cromwell for his bad judgement. Cromwell replied that “he would take his word another time”, and then whispered in his ear “that if the Remonstrance had been rejected, he would have sold all he had and never have seen England more”. This conversation recalls clearly Cromwell’s political excitement and anger with the policies of King Charles I. It also provides confirmation for another story that Cromwell about that time thought of emigrating to America.
The King, convinced by the narrow vote on the Grand Remonstrance that he had won a large body of friends in the House of Commons, now at last undertook the coup d’etat for which his Queen had long pressed him. He tried to arrest John Pym and four leading members of parliament with the intention of impeaching them for treason. But the members were warned and escaped to hiding in the city. The city refused to surrender them, and the King, who had no army, realized he was beaten.
By the failure of his own coup King Charles I played into the hands of his opponents in the Commons, whose leadership naturally passed to the extremists. The shadow of civil war hung over the land, and Oliver Cromwell moved that the kingdom should be put into “a posture of defence” – against the King! A Bill was at last passed for excluding the bishops from the House of Lords, and the two Houses jointly sought the right to control the militia. But during the early months of 1642 both sides still hoped for a compromise over their differences. Although the King, after he had failed to arrest the five members, left his capital and refused to return, he assented to the Bishops’ Exclusion Bill and to a plan for selling forfeited Irish land to pay for the suppression of the rebels. He temporized over the command of the militia, but refused utterly to surrender the “power of the sword”. While he was once more playing for time, the Queen sailed to Holland to pawn the royal jewels and rase sinews of war, and in April the King vainly tried to gain control of the city of Hull so as to keep open his communications with the Continent and have its arsenal at his disposal. Gradually members of both Houses who sympathized with the King melted away to the north. Pym framed “Nineteen Propositions” requiring for those who remained the complete control of the army and navy as well as of ecclesiastical policy and the right to appoint all ministers of State and judges. This was an ultimatum which the King dared not accept without completely abandoning his own cause. There had been a peace party in his camp, led by Edward Hyde, who had vainly fought the Grand Remonstrance, but the Queen complained even when the King offered concessions over the militia that he was beginning his “old game of yielding everything”. He liked manoeuvering’ she wanted to fight it out; and after the rejection of the Nineteen Propositions both Parliamentarians and Royalists prepared for war.
In the last resort the civil war came simply because neither side was prepared to trust the other. On the face of it the King had certainly surrendered a good deal, but especially after the attempt to arrest the five members, Pym, Cromwell, and their friends were willing to concede nothing; even the most moderate of the growing party of the King recognized that compromise had become impossible. In the Commons, the extreme Puritans, including Cromwell – the “root-and-branch”men as they were called – took over command. They were the men who had been aroused by the Grand Remonstrance, who thought the bishops had betrayed the Church and were almost indistinguishable from the Irish papist rebels, and who therefore wanted absolute parliamentary control of the militia and of any force sent to Ireland. Throughout the summer small skirmishes took place in different parts of the country, preliminary to the war all saw was coming once the harvest was in.
As in most revolutions, the leadership was in the end grasped by the extremists and the moderates swept aside. On the parliamentary side John Pym, who for all his conservative phraseology had blazed the trail, remained the master- mind; on the King’s side his determined French Queen. In the autumn of 1641 after the men of the middle had broken away, Cromwell was left revealed as one of Pym’s chief supporters, the root-and-branch man par excellence.
Yet neither Cromwell nor Pym would have admitted for one moment that they were revolutionaries. They had persuaded themselves that they were defending old institutions like the Common Law and the Elizabethan Church against the King’s wicked advisors and popish-minded clergy. Though in fact they were stating in drastic terms the claims of an expanding middle class to political power, sustained and inspired by the austerities of their predestinarian faith, they maintained passionately that they were acting in defence of an ancient order of English society. For a purified monarchy and a purified Church they contended, in the name of parliament and people, against an arbitrary King. Such at least is what Oliver Cromwell believed.