The attempt to impose Absolutism by Charles I led to a revolutionary civil war in which the King would be executed - Neil Faulkner looks at the English Civil War.
The ‘English’ Revolution began in Scotland in 1637 with a revolt by Scottish Presbyterians against Archbishop Laud’s religious reforms.
Charles I was attempting to establish an absolute monarchy based on the state-feudal court aristocracy. To achieve this, he needed to impose ideological conformity on both Scotland and England (he ruled both kingdoms).
He faced opposition from some lords and many gentry, burghers, and commoners in both countries. Absolutism threatened the powers, privileges, and property of local elites. A victory for the Court would have been a victory for arbitrary authority, state monopolies, and countless restrictions on freedom of trade.
Laud’s High Church Anglicanism was the Court’s ideological spearhead. Its target was the radical Protestantism of the opposition ‘Country’ party. The attempt to impose it on Scotland provoked revolution.
By defeating the King, occupying part of northern England, and demanding a huge war indemnity, the Scottish Covenanters, in league with the English Presbyterian opposition, forced Charles to summon Parliament.
Parliament demanded ‘redress of grievances’ before granting funds. This included: the abolition of arbitrary taxation; the dismantling of the royal courts of justice; an end to the King’s power to dissolve Parliament without its consent; the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords; and prosecution for treason of the Earl of Strafford, Charles’s military strongman, commander of his Irish-Catholic army.
The men of the Long Parliament were conservative property-owners. They acted in a revolutionary way for two reasons. First, they regarded absolutism as a direct threat to the security of their property. Second, they were (variously) buoyed, cajoled, and pressurised by extra-parliamentary mass mobilisations of London’s ‘middling sort’.
During the ‘December Days’ (27-30 December 1641), huge crowds of Londoners converged on Whitehall and Westminster after the King appointed a court loyalist as Lieutenant of the Tower. This was the most important military post in the capital. The Tower was London’s Bastille. The new appointment meant Charles was preparing a coup.
In the face of demonstrations, the appointment was reversed. But now it was not enough. The cry went up, ‘No bishops! No bishops!’ The bishops were the most reactionary members of Parliament. As they tried to take their seats, many were physically prevented. At least one bishop was thrown in the river.
Royalists attacked the crowd with swords. The crowd fought back with bricks, tiles, and cobblestones. As news of the fighting spread, London as a whole mobilised. Parliament was put under siege by 10,000 armed apprentices. The London Trained Bands refused to disperse them.
On 30 December, the Commons impeached 12 leading bishops, and the Lords dispatched them to prison. Church bells pealed across the City and bonfires blazed in the streets. The revolution had been driven forwards by mass action from below.
Less than week later, the King went ahead with his coup attempt. On 4 January 1642, he entered the House of Commons with an armed guard of a hundred officers, intent on arresting five leading oppositionists.
Forewarned, the five members had fled to the City. Gates were shut, portcullises lowered, chains put across streets. For several days, thousands of men stood ready, armed with halberds, swords, staves, and whatever came to hand. Women brought stools and tubs from their homes to build barricades, and boiled water ‘to throw on the cavaliers’.
But the cavaliers did not come. London, it was clear, had passed to the side of the revolution. It was not to be recovered with the forces to hand. On 10 January, the King fled the capital. The following day, the five members returned to Westminster through cheering crowds.
Charles established a rival capital at Oxford and was soon raising an army. The revolution was transformed into civil war. An urban insurrection was followed by hundreds of local struggles between Royalists and Parliamentarians for control of arsenals, strong-points, and militia units across the country.
Because Parliament represented the economically advanced sections of society, it controlled, as well as London, the Home Counties, the South East, East Anglia, and most ports and walled towns elsewhere. It therefore had the financial, manpower, and strategic resources to wage an effective war.
But that was not enough. One problem was amateurism and parochialism. Local wars were fought all over the country, but only a fraction of the men involved were willing to be amalgamated into large field armies with national strategic reach. Many soldiers refused to leave their own counties.
A second problem was the conservatism of Parliamentarian leadership. One third of the Lords and two-thirds of the Commons had remained loyal to Parliament in 1642. But the majority were Presbyterian property-owners who feared that the war might unleash ‘the many-headed hydra’ of social revolution.
Only a minority favoured all-out war by whatever means necessary. Most of these were minor gentry. Because they wanted more decentralisation and democracy in church government than the Presbyterians, they were known as ‘Independents’.
As a politico-religious tendency, the Independents merged on their left with the increasingly important ‘Sectaries’ - radical Protestant groups who gave expression to the democratic and ‘levelling’ aspirations of many ordinary Parliamentarian supporters.
The Independents became dominant among Army officers. The Army was the concentrated expression of revolutionary force. Here, the contradiction between conservatism and military necessity was an immediate life-and-death matter. Here, too, the pressure from below - from an armed rank-and-file - was felt most strongly.
Oliver Cromwell, a middle-aged squire who was MP for Cambridge and a Parliamentarian cavalry commander, emerged as a leading Independent among the officers, a protector of Sectaries in the ranks, and the foremost advocate of all-out revolutionary war.
To his own regiment of ‘Ironsides’, he deliberated recruited ‘men of a spirit’, for, Cromwell believed, ‘he who prays best will fight best’. ‘A few honest men are better than numbers … If you choose godly, honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them … I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing more.’
The aim was clear. Presbyterian lords and generals sought a compromise peace between the propertied classes ranged on either side. Cromwell, on the other hand, declared, ‘If the King chanced to be in a body of the enemy I was to charge, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as at any other private person.’
On 15 February 1645, the conservative opposition in Parliament was defeated and the Self-Denying Ordinance passed into law. At a stroke, all members of both Houses of Parliament were debarred from holding military commands. The existing army structure - rooted in conservatism, parochialism, and vested interests - was swept away. In its place arose a ‘New Model Army’.
The New Model was a revolutionary army of the middling sort. Though many recruits were newly pressed men, they were grouped around a revolutionary spine of veterans and radicals. The tone was set by the sermons of preachers like Hugh Peters, by the broadsheets and pamphlets circulating among the soldiers, and by the role of political and religious enthusiasts in debate.
At Naseby, on 14 June 1645, the New Model Army defeated and destroyed the main Royalist field-army. The King was never able to raise another. The New Model never gave him the chance. Within a year, all Royalist military resistance had been suppressed.
The revolution was victorious. But what sort of revolution was this? What vision of a new society was to guide its future work?
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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