This article was first published in the April 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms were a series of bloody battles and rebellions that engulfed the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1638 and 1651. During these clashes, both the crown and parliament fought to exert their religious and political ideologies across all three territories – the culmination of which eventually led to the outbreak of civil war within and between the kingdoms. Charles I’s belief in his divine right as king, and his marriage to a Catholic princess, caused a great deal of friction between crown and parliament; his decision to dissolve parliament in 1629 strengthened many people’s belief that he wished for an absolutist monarchy.
Charles, together with his archbishop, William Laud, attempted to impose a number of religious reforms on the peoples of each kingdom. Most notable of these was the introduction of a new English-inspired prayer book to Scotland in July 1637, after which the bloodshed began in earnest (see Where History Happened: The Wars of Blood, March 2011 for details on the fighting). In 1649, Charles was sentenced to death for crimes of treason against his people; by 1651, the royalist cause had been crushed after some of the bloodiest, and largest battles Britain has ever seen.
The execution of Charles I was a landmark event for many reasons. The trial and public execution of a monarch by his own people sent shock waves around Europe. Meanwhile, the struggle for power during the clashes leading to Charles’s execution allowed radical religious and political movements – as well as ordinary people – to meet their leaders for the first time to set out their agenda for political and religious change.
One such group that arose during the shift in power between the crown and parliament during the 17th century were the Levellers, an organised political movement that believed all men were created equal and that no man was placed by God to rule over others: government should be subject to the will of the people. The Levellers issued a number of petitions to parliament, and eventually met with Cromwell at the now famous debates held at Putney in 1647.
John Morrill, professor of British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge, comments: “The debates at Putney confronted the issues of political and religious liberties for the first time and ultimately raised more questions than it resolved.
The Levellers were passionate about their cause, but liberty is often a double-edged sword. Should illiterate people who are dependent economically on others have been given the vote, or would this simply have empowered the rich to command their votes and to become more tyrannical?” He continues: “One of the big issues discussed at Putney was whether giving everyone the vote was indeed the correct mechanism by which liberty could be spread.”
Other radical groups that sprung up in the wake of the king’s death were less structured and more extreme in their actions than the Levellers. The Ranters, for example, were – or were at least suspected of being – an overtly sacrilegious group on which many contemporaries focused their concerns about social and religious deviance.
The devout Quaker movement, who shouted down preachers and organised strikes against the payment of tithes, instilled fear in the hearts of those who believed that the group wished to overthrow the entire clerical establishment and make organised religion a thing of the past.
Following the execution of Charles I, the old perceived tyrannies of monarchy, social distinction, the House of Lords, and the state church came tumbling down as individuals struggled to claim liberty for themselves, often at the expense of others. For some, claims Morrill, Charles I was a tyrant whose death was a moment of liberation. However, he also points out that the very reason Charles went to war was to protect the people from what he saw as the despotism of parliament and clerical theocracy. Even at his execution, Charles claimed he was dying to prevent his people being treated arbitrarily.
Some modern historians agree, regarding the death of the king as the beginning of a new reign of tyranny – that of Oliver Cromwell. And many people at the time came to believe that, by killing the king they had, in fact, merely replaced one tyrant with another.
Parliamentarians Colonel John Hutchinson and his wife, Lucy, on whom we have a great deal of contemporary information, are just two known examples of people who began the conflict as devout followers of Cromwell, but who became disillusioned with the regime after he declared himself lord protector in 1653, dissolving parliament to rule alone.
Morrill comments: “The Wars of the Three Kingdoms are full of the personal dramas of men like Colonel Hutchinson who went to war in defence of their religious and political liberties, but ended up becoming victims of the very system they tried to set up in place of royal tyranny.
“Cromwell was a man deeply committed to religious liberty and who tried hard to make government accountable to the people. However, like all rulers, he had to deal with real threats, which often resulted in tough action. If Cromwell had held free elections, as groups such as the Levellers desired, the majority of people would have voted for the restoration of the monarchy. Cromwell wanted to teach people the responsibilities of liberty so that they could then be trusted to exercise it properly.”
Eight related places
Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
Where Scottish Covenanters defied a king
Religious reforms already unpopular in England to the kingdom of Scotland. With the aim of bringing Presbyterianism, Scotland’s form of Protestantism, more in line with the Church of England, he imposed Archbishop Laud’s English-inspired prayer book to the Scottish church. The move caused outrage, triggering riots across Scotland.
After Charles’s announcement that those opposing the prayer book would be guilty of treachery, opponents of the new form of worship met at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh to sign a National Covenant, a statement of defiance to the king, urging him to abandon his religious innovations and reaffirming the independence of the Scottish church. This attempt to limit the king’s power was revolutionary and during the course of the wars, Scotland was split between supporters and opponents of the Covenant.
The Covenant continued to be a hot issue after the wars and in 1679, Charles II, son of the executed Charles I, declared the oaths taken at Greyfriars Kirk in 1638 to be illegal; around 1,200 covenanters who continued to defy the new king were imprisoned in Greyfriars Kirkyard before being hanged or deported as slaves to Barbados. A memorial stone now marks their suffering.
Today, little survives from the original church after fire gutted the building in 1845, but a 17th-century copy of the National Covenant, originally presented and signed in front of the pulpit, is on display in the visitor centre.
St Mary’s church, Putney, London
Where common men took on their masters, face-to-face
Many historians see the debates that took place at Putney in the autumn of 1647 – between senior parliamentarians and factions of the New Model Army, parliament’s full-time professional fighting force – as an important landmark in British political history.
Negotiations for a settlement to the conflict in England had been under way between the king and parliament throughout the summer of 1647. However, the New Model Army, which by now had become a political player in its own right, feared that parliamentary proposals for a strong monarchy and House of Lords would leave them out in the cold – and merely substitute one tyrant for another.
One of the more radical groups that gained support within the army was the Levellers, a faction that, among other demands, desired a constitution based on ‘one man, one vote’. This was summed up in their manifesto, the Agreement of the People, first issued in October 1647, which proposed giving the people political power.
So great had the group’s popularity become that, amid fears that the radicals had won the support of the army, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and other army generals were forced to discuss the Leveller manifesto at St Mary’s church in Putney, close to where the New Model Army had set up its headquarters. Although the demands of the radicals were eventually repressed and the debate suspended, the event saw ordinary soldiers argue head-to-head with their generals for greater democracy for the first time, and became a platform from which ordinary people could make their voices and opinions heard.
St Mary’s church contains an exhibition about the Putney debates, and an inscription of the words of Colonel Rainsborough, the highest ranking officer to have supported the soldiers’ demands, can be found inside the building. It reads: “I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he.”
Banqueting House, Whitehall, London
Where a Stuart king died for his beliefs
In January 1649, the years of turmoil and struggle between the power of the crown and the authority of parliament came to a head at the trial of Charles I. Now was the time for Cromwell and parliament to seek to force the king to “account for that blood he had shed, and mischief he had done to his utmost, against the Lord’s cause and people in these poor nations”.
The trial lasted eight days and Charles, refusing to accept any of the terms issued by parliament in return for his life, was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death “by the severing of his head from his body”. Fifty nine men, including Cromwell and Colonel John Hutchinson, signed the king’s death warrant and on the morning of 30 January 1649, Charles made his final journey from St James’s Palace to the Banqueting House at Whitehall, where a scaffold had been built for his public execution.
Sources state that the king was unrepentant in his last minutes and went to his death asserting his loyalty to the Church of England and maintaining the principles of his divine right that had contributed to the outbreak of civil war in England seven years earlier. Stepping directly onto the scaffold from an upstairs window removed for the occasion, Charles uttered the words: “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown where no disturbance can be,” and his head was severed with a single blow.
The country was shaken and Charles soon became a martyr to his people – in fact, 30 January later became known as Charles the Martyr Day. After remaining deserted for five years, the Banqueting Hall became Cromwell’s hall of audience in 1654 following his appointment as lord protector. The building is now a popular tourist attraction, boasting works of art by Flemish painter Sir Peter Paul Rubens.
Milton’s Cottage, Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire
Where a Puritan poet and propagandist remembered his time as spokesman for the Commonwealth
John Milton, perhaps better known by many for his works of literature and poetry, was a devoted parliamentarian and the chief propagandist for the regime that followed the king’s execution in 1649. Appointed Latin secretary to the Council of State in March 1649, at the birth of the Commonwealth, Milton was a great proponent of liberty and wrote many works in support of a kingdom free of both religious and political tyranny.
In fact, liberty and freedom were notions that clearly intrigued Milton and are evident in works such as his The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, published a few weeks after the execution of Charles I, in which he argues that all men have a natural right to freedom. In other works, however, he claims that liberty can be dangerous – often illustrated through the biblical example of Eden and the tree of knowledge – and that through liberty and freedom of choice, men have the ability to make bad decisions as well as good.
Milton’s Cottage, his last surviving house, was once home to the great writer and was the location for the completion of his life’s work, the epic Paradise Lost. Visitors to the property can enjoy one of the most extensive collections on open display of 17th-century first editions of John Milton’s works, both poetry and prose, and learn more about the man himself.
Clonmacnoise, County Offaly
Where Irish Catholic bishops issued a statement of defiance
Clonmacnoise, the ruined remains of an isolated Christian monastery founded by St Ciaran in AD 545, was the venue for the congregation of around 20 Catholic bishops in December 1649. It called upon the Catholic people of Ireland to cast aside their feuds and join forces to resist Cromwell and his 30,000-strong army, which had arrived in Ireland in October that year to reconquer the country for England and seek vengeance for the slaughter of Protestant settlers at the hands of Irish Catholics in 1641.
The bishops, who claimed liberty for the Catholic people of Ireland against their Protestant oppressor, issued a defiant statement to Cromwell in support of the religious freedom of Irish Catholics. In response, Cromwell delivered his famous rebuke, The Declaration of the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland: “For the undeceiving of deluded and seduced people, which may be satisfactory to all that doe not wilfully shut their eyes against the light: in answer to certaine late declarations and acts framed by the Irish popish prelates and clergy in a conventicle at Clonmae-Noise.”
The bishops’ pleas failed and the site continued to fall into disrepair. Situated on a ridge overlooking the river Shannon, Clonmacnoise is made up of the ruins of a cathedral, seven churches and two round towers. The site also boasts a ruined castle, built in the 13th century to protect the nearby monastery, as well as a visitor centre containing information about its long and colourful history.
Fox’s Pulpit, Firbank Fell, Sedbergh, Cumbria
Where a religious ‘radical’ preached to the masses
After the execution of Charles I, as England adapted to life without a monarch, some saw the new Commonwealth as a prime opportunity for change, and a number of religious movements flourished in the wake of the king’s death. One much-feared group was the Quakers, later known as the Society of Friends, established in 1652 and perceived by contemporaries as having similar ideas to those of the Levellers.
The Quaker movement grew quickly. By 1654, it numbered some 5,000 and by 1657 had swelled to around 20,000. The movement rejected much of the teaching of the established church, believing instead that all men and women could achieve salvation through God using their own ‘inner light’, rather than through external manifestations of belief.
Quakers’ opinions on social hierarchy, and other key demands for liberty of conscience, abolition of tithes, universities and the state church, was a cause of widespread fear, indicating to many that they wished to overthrow the clerical establishment entirely. Indeed,
in 1656 one opponent said of the movement: “The Quakers are not only numerous but dangerous and the sooner we put a stop, the more glory we shall do to God, and safety to this commonwealth.”
Some prominent Quakers were ex-soldiers, and by 1659, the movement was actively recruiting in the army. One of the group’s main leaders was George Fox, a skilful orator who gathered together those disillusioned with the established church and preached to huge audiences in open spaces, mainly across northern England.
One such venue is Fox’s Pulpit, an evocative site situated on Firbank Fell between Kendal and Sedbergh, where Fox allegedly addressed 1,000 people in June 1652. The site can still be visited, and a tablet marks the spot from where Fox preached.
Staunton Harold church, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire
Where a church was built in defiance of Cromwell’s regime
Built in 1653 by Sir Robert Shirley, a staunch royalist, Staunton Harold was one of the few places of worship to be built between the outbreak of civil war in England and the Restoration period. It is seen by many as an open act of defiance against Cromwell and the Commonwealth.
Staunton Harold church became a refuge for displaced Anglican clergymen fleeing Cromwell’s strict Protestant regime. It was built in the late perpendicular architectural style popular in the Stuart period, defined by its pointed arches, a fine panelled interior and painted ceilings, much of which still remains.
Shirley himself never saw the completion of his beloved church; he was imprisoned in 1655, quite possibly because the building of a large Anglican church was at odds with the Cromwellian regime, and because of his royalist leanings. One story states that Cromwell, after hearing of the sumptuous building, questioned why Robert could not afford to build a ship for the navy. Robert’s subsequent refusal to pay a new tax levied on all former royalists is said to have led to his arrest and imprisonment in the Tower of London, where he later died. He is now buried in the church.
Staunton Harold church still stands and is a wonderful example of Stuart taste, retaining much of its original interior. An inscription above the west door aptly sums up Shirley’s thoughts on Cromwell’s rule: “In the years 1653 when all things sacred were throughout ye Nation either demolished or profaned, Sir Robert Shirley Baronet founded this church, whose singular praise it is to have done the best things in ye worst times and hoped them in the most callamitous. The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.”
St Margaret’s church, Owthorpe, Nottinghamshire
Where a leading parliamentarian was buried after dying in captivity
A great deal is known about the life and beliefs of Colonel John Hutchinson. This is thanks, in no small part, to the writings of his wife, Lucy, who penned her book, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, as an instruction tract for the couple’s children after the death of their father in 1664.
John was a prominent parliamentarian, appointed governor of Nottingham Castle and town in 1643, and one of the 59 regicides who signed the death warrant of Charles I in 1649, an action that effectively guaranteed his own death several years later.
Although both John and Lucy were militant supporters of Cromwell and his Puritan cause, both were outraged by what they saw as his acts of betrayal – most especially his dissolution of parliament in April 1653. In fact, John resigned from the Council of State after Cromwell assumed the role of lord protector.
John surrendered himself at the Restoration and was spared the death penalty for his part in the regicide but he was sentenced to life imprisonment. He spent several months in the Tower and was then transferred to Sandown Castle. Lucy’s pleas for her husband’s pardon fell on death ears, and John died of gaol fever in September 1664, in appalling conditions.
John was buried in St Margaret’s church, Owthorpe, the village where he and Lucy had lived. Within its walls you’ll find a plaque commissioned by Lucy in memory of her husband, who “died resisting tyrants”.
The plaque reads: “He died at Sandown Castle in Kent after ij. months harsh and strict imprisonment without crime or accusation, upon the nth day of September, 1663, in the 49th year of his age, full of joy in assured hope of a glorious resurrection.” Interestingly, the date of Hutchinson’s death is incorrectly recorded on his memorial.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: John Morrill, professor of British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge, and author of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Read part one of this feature here.