Neil Faulkner looks at the how the unresolved contradictions in English society and the attempt to establish Continental-style absolutism led to the execution of the king, and the establishment of a bourgeois republic.
In Central Europe, in the first half of the 17th century, attempted counter-revolution ended with the mutual ruin of the contending classes. The Habsburg-Catholic juggernaut was halted only after 30 years of war. The effort broke the power of feudal-absolutist Spain, but also wrecked the advanced economy of Germany.
In England, on the other hand, attempted counter-revolution led to the downfall of feudal-absolutism, the execution of the king, and the establishment of a bourgeois republic.
The Reformation in England turned on two major political crises. In the first, during the 1530s, a state-imposed Reformation from above involved a break with the Papacy, royal control of the English Church, and nationalisation of monastic estates (the so-called ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’).
Most historians focus on the dynastic needs of the Tudor regime. It is true that Henry VIII wanted a divorce so that he could remarry and sire an heir. But two other factors were of equal importance.
First, the Tudor regime rested partly on the support of ‘the middling sort’ of small farmers, traders, and artisans. These were the pioneers of England’s relatively advanced economy, and many were early and enthusiastic converts to the new religion.
Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540), Henry VIII’s chief minister from 1532 to 1540, was from this class and a staunch Protestant. Anne Boleyn, whose marriage to Henry was engineered by Cromwell, was also a Protestant. Henry himself was a religious conservative, but under his son and successor, Edward VI (1547-1553), the English Church was radically reformed.
Second, nationalised monastic land was rapidly sold off or given away. It amounted to the biggest transfer of landownership since the Norman Conquest of 1066. It enlarged and enriched the English gentry, and thereby created a strong base of support in the landowning class for both the Tudor dynasty and the Protestant religion.
The English Reformation ‘from above’ was therefore a deep-rooted process of religious, political, and social change. That is why attempted Catholic restoration under ‘Bloody Mary’ (1553-1588) was doomed. It is also why the Protestant regime of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) was so popular and resilient. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 was only the most notable measure of the regime’s strength.
But the old order had not suffered decisive defeat. Regional magnates, especially in the North and the West, often retained great power. Top aristocrats used their positions at Court to secure honorific titles, appointments to high office, grants of land, and business contracts and monopoly rights. Feudal competition, once a matter of military force, now depended on court intrigue.
The Reformation of the 1530s had left the central contradiction in English society unresolved. Indeed, by strengthening the new economy, it caused it to deepen over subsequent decades.
The old aristocracy became increasingly dependent on Court patronage and sought to entrench its privileges. Meantime, the lesser gentry, the yeomanry (rich peasants), the industrialists, and the burghers developed their farms and businesses.
The population of England more than doubled between 1500 and 1650, by which time, one in twelve people were living in towns, and hundreds of thousands were employed in rural industries.
The rural gentry and urban burghers represented in Parliament became increasingly resentful of barriers to enterprise. Royal taxation, customs duties, and trade monopolies seemed designed to enrich idle courtiers.
The early Stuart kings - James I (1603-1625) and Charles I (1625-1649) - who succeeded the Tudors clashed repeatedly with their Parliaments. A turning-point in relations between ‘Court’ and ‘Country’ was reached in 1629, when Charles I dissolved Parliament and attempted henceforward to rule without it.
The ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’ (1629-1640) was an attempt to establish Continental-style absolutism in England. The experience triggered all the class anxieties of England’s gentry and burghers.
Arbitrary taxation, requisitioning, and billeting were threats to property. Political centralisation undermined the traditional authority of local elites. Alignment with Catholic powers abroad conflicted with City trading interests. Catholic influence at Court cast a long shadow over the security of titles to confiscated Church lands.
An Irish Catholic army formed by Charles’s chief minister, the Earl of Strafford, had the appearance of a coercive force, capable of being deployed to impose royal absolutism on England.
The crisis broke in 1637. The issue was religion. Archbishop Laud’s ‘High Church’ Anglicanism was a conservative brand of Protestantism barely distinguishable to many from Catholicism.
Religious conformity had become synonymous with political obedience. The main line of division was between Calvinists on the one hand - or ‘Puritans’ as they were known in England - and High Church Anglicans and Catholics on the other.
In Lowland Scotland, nobles, burghers, and Calvinist ministers had united to carry out their own Reformation long before. Charles I, King of England and Scotland, was attempting to impose his authority on both sides of the border. Laud’s attempt to impose the Anglican Book of Common Prayer on Scotland provoked a riot.
When the Dean of St Giles in Edinburgh began to read from the new prayer book on 23 July 1637, Jenny Geddes, a market-trader, threw her stool at him, shouting, ‘Dare you say the Mass in my ear?’
Jenny Geddes detonated the English Revolution. (Scotland was heavily involved throughout, and ‘British Revolution’ would be the more appropriate term, but ‘English Revolution’ is too firmly embedded in the literature.) The St Giles service broke up in chaos, and shortly afterwards a huge crowd of Calvinist Scots assembled in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle to sign a ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ to defend their religion.
The King attempted to suppress the Scottish Covenanters by force. But the mutinous militia of the northern English counties were no match for the Scots, and the ‘First Bishops’ War’ petered out inconclusively in 1639.
The following year, a much larger English army was recruited, but the Covenanters crossed the border, found their enemy, and swept them away with artillery fire.
The Scots - with secret encouragement from the English Puritans with whom they were in contact - settled down in occupation of the three most northerly English counties, pending payment of the £400,000 indemnity they were due under the terms of the Treaty of Ripon that had ended the ‘Second Bishops’ War’.
To pay the bill and see the back of the Scots, Charles was left with no choice but to summon Parliament. The extraordinary tax-raising measures of his Eleven Year Tyranny were legally dubious, increasingly contested, and hopelessly insufficient to pay the indemnity.
The proto-absolutist Stuart state had collapsed. Its rupture with the propertied classes of Scotland and England had left it insolvent in the face of revolt.
But the Long Parliament which assembled in November 1640 was in no mood to grant the funds either to create a royal army or to pay off the Scots. Its aim was nothing less than a dismantling of the entire evolving apparatus of absolutism. And this, it turned out, could not be achieved short of civil war.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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