How people power fuelled England's century of chaos
King Charles I’s clashes with parliament, the decades of bloody civil war, and the spell of republican government followed by the restoration of the monarchy – these are the major events that dominate the chapters about the 17th century in the history books. But, as Jonathan Healey explores, behind the turmoil lay something deeper: a political awakening of the people
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On an autumn day in 1640, poor Arthur Duck found himself caught between rocks and a wet place. On the north bank of the Thames in London, he faced a hostile and rapidly swelling throng. Hastily boarding a boat, he fled across the heaving river to the safety of Lambeth Palace as his assailants hurled stones at him, chanting and making cacophonous quacking sounds.
This assault marked the nadir of a particularly fraught period for the unfortunate Duck – and also reflected rising tensions that defined the 17th century. Born in the Devon countryside, Duck had by 1640 reached the venerable age of 60. A church lawyer, he had held legal posts in several of England’s great bishoprics. Indeed, he’d made an ally of the prickly archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, who found Duck’s expertise useful in a litigious age.
By the later months of that year, though, Duck was in the service of another prelate: William Juxon, bishop of London. It was on Juxon’s orders that Duck embarked on a “visitation”: touring the diocese to assess the state of things. Were parishioners behaving themselves? Were the church laws being obeyed? What Duck found was very worrisome.
Anger at religious reforms
Far from complying with the laws, people were angry about recent religious reforms. Supported by King Charles I, Archbishop Laud had pushed a policy of “beautifying” churches, enforcing strictly hierarchical forms of worship, and exalting the clergy. These Laudian reforms had some support, but plenty of people – especially in the more religiously radical areas near London – saw them as authoritarian, and too close to Catholicism.
Passing through villages around London and in the rolling cornfields of rural Essex, Duck was accosted by jeering crowds. Parishioners, youngsters and “amazons” (angry women) jostled his entourage and chanted against him and Bishop Juxon. When some of the rioters that assailed Duck in London were prosecuted in Convocation House next to St Paul’s Cathedral, the trial was interrupted by another huge protest.
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A crowd crammed into the building, shouting and throwing cushions. In the melee, Duck was chased out of a window by Londoners who once again quacked loudly at him, and hooted “as birds at an owl”. A man like Arthur Duck was not accustomed to such treatment.
The dominant ideology of the time was one of order: the king and his officers could not be questioned, let alone resisted. The people had no role in the affairs of state. Indeed, the common folk were considered little more than a “many-headed monster”, “giddy” and “fickle”, without “brains for government”.
Challenges faced by monarchy and state
In the 17th century, though, the fragile government of England collapsed into revolution – not once, but several times. It was a uniquely tumultuous era for monarchy and state. Though it’s tempting to explain this by invoking a clash of personalities – bad kings, ambitious soldiers, incompetent officials and arrogant churchmen – the reality was that there were deeper problems at play.
There were the challenges facing a single monarchy ruling the three distinctive kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. There was the fact that the cost of wars and armies was rising faster than a traditionalist state could cope with. And there were the aftershocks of the previous century’s Reformation, when Protestantism threatened (and, in England and Scotland at least, overcame) the hegemony of the Catholic church.
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But there was something else, too: society was changing. To a much greater degree than in previous centuries, the people were finding a political voice. It was their desire to make this voice heard that drove much of the turbulence buffeting the three kingdoms throughout the 17th century.
The cost of wars and armies was rising faster than a traditionalist state could cope with. And there were the aftershocks of the previous century’s Reformation…
Even within a chaotic century, the atmosphere in 1640 was particularly electric – and much of that energy was generated by the masses. Everywhere, those in charge complained about a decline in proper deference. The common people were sick, declared one news writer: they “are struck in the head” so that they “rave and utter” against the king and his government.
They had plenty to “rave and utter” about. As the cold winter weather began to bite, the price of coal – the main domestic fuel in London – was sky-high. Everyone knew why this was, too. Scottish Presbyterians had rebelled against the king and raised a dissident army, which then occupied Newcastle – the source of most of London’s coal.
Failings of Charles I
The previous decade had seen Charles I try to rule without parliament. Now all that lay in ruins. Charles’s desire to force his anti-Puritan religious policies on Scotland had stirred serious resistance there. His attempt to stamp out that rebellion by force had ended in fiasco. In the late summer of 1640, a large Scottish army had trailed its pikes across the border into northern England. The only way Charles could pay off that army was to climb down and call parliament again.
This parliament, unlike one that had sat briefly in the spring, was here to stay. It came to be known as the “Long Parliament”, to contrast with its “Short” predecessor – and it changed everything. Just two years later, in 1642, members of the Long Parliament raised their own army against Charles. Having fought him once, they raised a new army in 1645, fought him again in 1648 and, in the revolutionary year of 1649, put him on trial and cut off the king’s head.
- Read more | Has history been unfair to Charles I?
Bishop William Juxon himself accompanied Charles as he mounted a scaffold out side Whitehall Palace. The cleric watched his master beheaded as another London crowd watched on – this time silent, in shock. For all the horror, though, the regicide was an act undertaken in the people’s name. The king, his enemies charged, had undertaken a “wicked design” to “overthrow the rights and liberties of the people”.
When the monarchy itself was abolished soon afterwards, it was because the “office of a king”, was “unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people”. Now, argued one republican in 1650, government was “in the people, from the people, and for the people”.
Relationship between ruler and ruled
Whatever the grubby realities of how the country had reached this point, this was a remarkable thing to say. Both the regicide and the religious and social dissent of this period arose out of the same burning question that underlay the whole Stuart age: what was the relationship between those in power and those they ruled? This was not simply a matter of authoritarianism versus democracy, but something much more tangled and subtle.
The sheer complexity of that relationship is illustrated by a famous incident during Charles I’s trial in January 1649. As the king faced his accusers, a masked lady interrupted proceedings, haranguing the court with the accusation that “Not half – not a quarter of the people of England” supported it. It was a palpable hit. Not only had parliament recently been thoroughly purged by the army but, even in its full glory, it was nothing close to a democratic body in the sense that we would understand it today.
As the king faced his accusers, a masked lady interrupted proceedings, haranguing the court with the accusation that 'Not half – not a quarter of the people of England' supported it
The vast majority of people could not vote: women were excluded, as were most men in the towns, plus anyone in the countryside who didn’t own land worth £2 a year. In any case, most “elections” were not even contested. Instead, the great and the good of the community got together and picked the right man for the job; he was duly presented to the “electorate”, who happily cheered their approval.
Contested elections did become more common as the century wore on, and the electorate did expand slightly, but change was glacial. Major reform movements – which might have given the vote to “the poorest he”, as one parliamentarian soldier put it – were defeated. Voting, though, is not the only form of politics. Rioting and demonstrations are as old as the hills.
The Tudor age had seen several major uprisings for faith and farmland, and disturbances of the old type continued under the Stuarts. Back in 1607, when James VI & I was on the throne, a rising in the Midlands, led by a tinker calling himself “Captain Pouch”, had torn down enclosures in the region. (When the charismatic ringleader was captured, his satchel was emptied – and found to contain nothing more than old cheese.)
Peasant uprisings and public debate
In the 1620s and 30s, the royal forests of Wiltshire and Dorset were convulsed by peasant disturbances led by men dressed in women’s clothing, symbolising the way the enclosures had turned their lives upside down. There were food riots across the century, too, and none more dramatic than those in Maldon, Essex in 1629, led by “Captain” Ann Carter. Charles I’s government responded by hanging her – even then, an unusual punishment for a poor protester with an empty belly.
There was also something new, however, and it became obvious – at least, by the 1620s: public debate. This was a decade of food shortages, inflation, religious controversies and foreign-policy disasters. There was, therefore, plenty for people to discuss – and discuss they did. Fierce arguments raged in alehouses across England. Rumours pulsed through the countryside, following in the wake of travelling traders and pedlars.
Public sermons electrified the debate about Stuart foreign policy, and popular demonstrations rocked London. Then there was printed news. When people met, the key question (once the weather had been discussed) would be raised: “What news?”
The root of all this lay in deep, gradual social change, creating a nation that was more politically engaged and difficult to rule. Most obvious was a growth in literacy. By the second half of the 17th century, the majority of men in the capital could read, as well as plenty of women. Literacy brought access to a world of religious, political and legal writings: everything from histories to plays to sermons could be mined for ideas and things to have opinions about.
Another critical development was the expansion of London. A city home to about 50,000 people during the reign of Henry VIII swelled by the 1640s to become a metropolis of some 400,000. That burgeoning population crammed into an urban sprawl largely to the west of the City, with streets and lanes spreading north of the Strand and creeping ever nearer to the royal palaces of Whitehall, St James’s and Westminster.
Literacy brought access to a world of religious, political and legal writings
In 1640, 1641 and 1642, those London streets boiled over. Riots in Lambeth in May 1640 provoked savage reprisals from Charles I’s government, with one protester tortured on the rack and another – probably a teenaged lad – hanged, drawn and quartered. Street demonstrations and chanting provided a menacing backdrop to the political breakdown taking place in parliament.
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Outbreak of the Civil War
Then, over Christmas 1641–42, popular anger erupted once again. There was fighting in the streets, and people started dividing into camps. The terms “roundhead” and “cavalier” began to be used, and things became so hot for the king that, fearing for the safety of his family, he left London altogether. Within months, the country was at war with itself – a war that saw a mass mobilisation of the English people fighting to settle questions of religion and the constitution.
There was one group that was especially important in the political awakening that propelled the country towards the Civil War. It comprised – as the famous astrologer William Lilly put it – neither the rich nor the very poor, but people “of a middle quality”. Members of society’s middle were also prominent in the New Model Army – the military juggernaut created by parliament in 1645, which promptly smashed the royalists at the battle of Naseby.
The New Model Army was explicitly led by men from outside the traditional aristocracy. The titled and the rich were out; middling men were in. Some were country gentry like Thomas Fairfax. More typical, though, were minor gentry such as Oliver Cromwell (who became the most powerful man in the three kingdoms) and officers from outside the gentry altogether – including Thomas Pride, who led the purge of parliament in 1648.
As politics raged, the thinker William Petty published a piece of “advice” for his friend and correspondent Samuel Hartlib. In it, Petty argued for the transformative power of education, which he hoped would leave no one “now holding the plough which might have been made fit to steer the state”.
“Rise of the middling sort”
The Civil War helped to open the door to men of talent from outside the social elite. Cracks at the political centre allowed those traditionally outside politics to push their way in. Thanks to the rise of the middling sort, the extension of literacy and the growth of London, there was a reservoir of politically engaged people who now saw their moment. Farmers would occupy the highest reaches of the government. One dramatic consequence of the democratisation of education and power was an effervescence of popular religion.
- Read more | What sparked the Civil War?
New ideas sprung up from the bottom: from alehouses and street pulpits, from the press, and from spontaneously gathered congregations in marketplaces and farmyards. In London, a religious radical ascended one pulpit and uttered an hour-long stream of profanities. In Oxford, a freethinking woman walked through the streets in her underwear. In the Wiltshire Cotswolds, a minister with wild, frizzled hair took a male parishioner as his “man-wife”.
The Quakers: religious radicalism
Most impressive of all was a new group that first appeared in the Midlands, calling themselves “Children of the Light”. Their enemies noticed the way that adherents’ bodies shook with religious enthusiasm, and came to call them “Quakers”. The Quakers, whose influence took hold rapidly in the north, represented perhaps the greatest peasant radical movement in English history.
Their beliefs left no formal need for an organised church, and allowed women an equal role to men. And their public performances could be shocking. In 1656, a Quaker Yorkshireman named James Nayler rode into Bristol on an ass, imitating Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem. It was a dramatic enactment of the idea that Christ works through every person, not just through a formal church. Nayler was arrested, tried before parliament, and sentenced to savage physical mutilation for what MPs decided to call “horrid blasphemy”.
With the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660, the Quakers and other sects endured, now joined on the outside of the establishment by the old Puritans. Puritanism had thrived under Oliver Cromwell; after the Restoration, though, its followers found themselves pushed beyond the Anglican communion. To do so was a conscious and dangerous choice by the monarchical regime.
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In fact, managing a society with so much religious diversity proved too much for the later Stuarts. Charles II just about held things together when the Catholicism of his brother, James, led to calls for the latter to be excluded from the throne. The crisis passed but, when Charles died in 1685, his brother, ruling as James VII & II, faced the same need to balance the different forms of faith that had emerged among the realm’s restive population.
His laudable goal was to protect his fellow Catholics, but to do so he pursued an unlikely alliance with Protestant Dissenters, which angered the monarchy’s supporters among the conservative Anglican majority. In 1688–89, James fell victim to an intervention from abroad in the shape of his son-in-law (and nephew) William of Orange.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688
A vast amphibious expedition sailed along the Channel, made landfall in Devon, and thrust its way towards London as James’s army and government collapsed. William’s invading army may have hailed from the Netherlands, but the seeds of this revolution were sown among the people of England. Like so many of the crises that preceded it, the Glorious Revolution had roots in the deep popularisation of politics across the 17th century.
James's laudable goal was to protect his fellow Catholics, but to do so he pursued an unlikely alliance with Protestant Dissenters
By the time James II & VII came to rule, English politics had become divided into something completely new: political parties. The Whigs – who advocated greater parliamentary restrictions on the power of the monarchy and who allied with the old Dissenters – faced off against the Tories, who leaned towards absolutism and enjoyed support from conservative Anglicans.
In both cases, party loyalty was drawn from deep engagement with the wider political nation. Mass public demonstrations – bonfires, street parties, even riots – were backed by vibrant and virulent printed propaganda aimed at coffee-house readers in London and across the country.
- Read more | How glorious was the Glorious Revolution?
Active monarchy or politicised people?
Charles II had been able to face down calls to exclude his brother James from the succession only by allying himself closely with the Tories. But there was a cost: by 1685, when the old king died, the Stuart monarchy had become party political. In a world in which the people had grown to have complex views on politics, the monarchy had been forced to pick a side. And in a period in which the ideological fissures had become so deep, the crown couldn’t help but fall in.
If the story of 17th-century England teaches us anything, it’s that you can either have an active monarchy or a politicised people, but not both. It is a lesson that the first king Charles and his son James learned the hard way. After the Glorious Revolution, the monarchy was able to survive by shrinking back from politics, and leaving government to parliament.
The philosopher Thomas Hobbes recognised the new reality as early as the 1660s. Perhaps with a tinge of regret, he saw how “the power of the mighty hath no foundation but in the opinion and belief of the people”. This was the great revolution that underpins the 17th century – and its consequences are still with us in our modern world of petitioning, protest, new technologies of communication, and political engagement by the people.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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