Crowned King of England in 1625, Charles I progressed north for his coronation as King of Scots in 1633. On his visit, he basked in the compliance of Scotland’s still separate Parliament and the utter obedience of his instruments of government in Scotland – Privy Council, Church and Court. His power within the multiple monarchy of Britain and Ireland, newly made at the accession of his father James I in 1603, seemed absolute. Yet just five years later, Scotland was convulsed by a revolution that caused monarchical authority to evaporate throughout the Three Kingdoms of England (with Wales), Scotland and Ireland, and eventually led to Charles’s execution in 1649. Intelligent, flexible yet tenacious, James proved a much better king of Scotland than of England, but he was able to keep all his kingdoms together – and apart. His second son, Charles, proved good at neither.


At the heart of his failure was the close link between religion and politics. Europe’s Renaissance princes had grown politically powerful – too potent for many subjects. They feared monarchs were ready to use the authority they had by virtue of simply being princes (“prerogative” powers) to establish arbitrary or “absolute” government untrammelled by representative institutions like England’s Parliament or the rule of law. Rulers also preferred their subjects to follow their religion. James was a Protestant, but not a Calvinist. Charles was thought a closet Catholic and was married to an open one, Henrietta Maria.

To a modern reader, dislike of “big government” may be understandable, but religious affiliation seems a personal choice. In the 17th century religion had very public implications, especially for a monarch, because princes ruled as well as reigned. To contemporaries faced with the last great war of religion on the Continent, the Thirty Years War (1618–48), and the real threat of the extirpation of Protestantism, Catholicism or “popery” was viewed as a danger not only to faith, but also to all rights, liberties, property and privileges enjoyed by British Protestants. Catholics were seen as an early modern fifth column, forever ready to plot and implement treason. More specifically, William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury since 1633, introduced religious changes around a Catholic-leaning doctrine known as Laudianism, which emphasised ceremony in church and what he called “the beauty of holiness”.

Charles’s desire for a more traditional and visually reverent Church encountered opposition, though English people worried more about the purely political side of his policies as he tried to enforce “absolutist” rule, dispensing with Parliament from 1629. His drive to extend his personal authority and dispense with what he saw as a penny-pinching and sometimes insolent Parliament went well in the 1630s. He used traditional means of raising money coupled with prerogative courts like High Commission, the supreme power in the Church under the crown, and the hated Star Chamber (a civil and criminal court) to curb religious and political opposition and force through questionable taxes. Discontent at his perceived tyranny was widespread in England at the end of 1637, yet he was riding high – as symbolised by Van Dyck’s portrait of him in 1636. In spring 1638 he won an important test case (Hampden’s Case) about the legality of one of his exactions, “Ship Money”, and looked set to continue pursuing his vision of divine right absolutist monarchy.

1638 in context

Charles I’s subjects comprised a disparate set of groups with an uneasy mix of customs, languages and religions – beset by economic problems

To appreciate the importance of 1638, we need to understand the diversity of British politics, religion and society in the early 17th century. England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland only became a unified monarchy in 1603 with the Union of the Crowns. Administratively, Wales and Ireland had been closely integrated into the English state since the time of Henry VIII. Scotland had its own Parliament, a separate legal and administrative system, a different currency, and a distinct Church of Scotland. The 1603 Union worked to secure the English succession and to reduce lawlessness on the Border. Yet there was always a legacy of what John Morrill calls “distrust, double-dealing, broken promises, and betrayal”.

Understanding was limited by the diversity of the Three Kingdoms. England was firmly Protestant (less than 10 per cent were Catholics) as was Lowland Scotland; the Church of Ireland was Anglican, but most Irish people were Catholics, as were many in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Land ownership was widespread in England, but society was much more polarised in Scotland and Ireland. At least a third of the population of Scotland spoke only Gaelic, 90 per cent of Irish and a similar proportion of Welsh. Few people had a direct political voice. Restricted to perhaps a quarter of adult Englishmen, the parliamentary franchise in Scotland was miniscule, but riots gave more opportunity for women, workers and the young to express themselves.

England and Wales was the wealthiest and most economically dynamic part of Britain. It had about five million people, Ireland just over a million and Scotland 8–900,000. Most lived in the countryside: ten per cent of English people lived in towns of 5,000 or more, but just three per cent of Scots and one per cent of Irish. Men married for the first time at about 26, women at 23 and a third of marriages were remarriages caused by a partner’s death. Life was short. Diseases like plague and typhus, over which people had almost no control, could kill thousands and one child in five born alive was dead by its first birthday. This was a violent society, which saw the highest rate of capital punishment in recorded British history.

As much as a quarter of employment was in manufacturing, but most industrial production, notably of textiles, was carried out in the home. Trade was mainly in foodstuffs and raw materials, but exciting new commodities like tea, coffee, sugar, and tobacco were beginning to be imported from the New World. Energy came mainly from water, wood or the muscles of people and animals and was thus almost all renewable. Expanding population, rising prices and increased unemployment combined with subsistence agriculture to create serious economic problems, particularly in Scotland. Communications were slow, yet migration within Britain was extensive, mostly of agricultural workers over short distances, but London drew people from all over England. Many moved to the New World, but the best opportunities for social mobility in the early 17th century were found in Ireland or in continental Europe.

Scots made of stern stuff

It was Scotland that brought his ambitions crashing down. The religious reaction there was both stronger and swifter than in England because the Scottish Reformation had followed a more radical trajectory. English Protestantism was a relatively mild creed, albeit with a more militant, “Puritan” wing that aimed to push forward its vision of a godly kingdom on earth. Scots Calvinists were made of sterner stuff, basing their Reformation on a strict version of Protestantism and a “Presbyterian” form of church government that involved chosen laymen as well as the parish clergy in decision making. Scots disliked, and did all they could to subvert and bypass, the Episcopalian church order imposed across Britain by James I. Charles’s government in Scotland was less popular than it had been in 1633 – but not irrevocably so – when he had the Scottish bishops and Laud draw up a Book of Common Prayer for Scotland in 1637. Anti-Calvinist, its attempted introduction acted as a catalyst to the organisation of petitions against what was seen as arbitrary rule, as well as a series of riots, the most famous in July 1637 at St Giles Kirk, Edinburgh.

Trying to bring the Scots to heel

Charles at first saw the opposition as a little local difficulty, but in February 1638 a group of nobles, magistrates and clergy signed a National Covenant in Edinburgh. On the face of it, this simply bound together liked-minded Presbyterians protecting their religion – written by and for people who wished to unite in a special relationship with God. But it went further. Striking at the heart of Charles’s government, it asserted the primacy of the law, Presbyterian Church and true reformed faith (Calvinism) over royal prerogative, episcopacy and crypto-Catholicism.

During summer 1638 the Marquis of Hamilton acted as Charles’s commissioner or viceroy in Scotland and in the autumn both the Scottish Parliament and the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland since 1617 were called. Hamilton hoped these representative bodies could be used to legitimate a measured introduction of liturgical reform and thus restore royal authority. In fact, they were dominated by Presbyterian clergy and pro-Covenant nobles and together they swept away the royal supremacy over Church, bishops, the Court of High Commission and the Prayer Book.

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Too late, Charles was swayed by Thomas Wentworth, Lord Deputy of Ireland since 1632, who urged a strong line to bring the Scots to heel. Acutely aware of the seething discontents of the Irish, Wentworth believed (prophetically) that concessions in one of the Three Kingdoms would only provoke similar demands elsewhere. Charles raised an army to bring the Scots back to obedience, but its effect in the so-called Bishops’ Wars of 1639–40 in Scotland was further to destabilise all the countries over which he ruled. Eventual defeat by the Scots alarmed the English parliament, which blamed Charles for the unrest and tried to curb his powers of taxation and military command.

Failure in Scotland gave encouragement to opponents of absolutism and “popery” in England, first in withdrawing the grudging consensus in local government and taxation that had allowed the decentralised early Stuart state to function. Lacking a standing army or anything except the most rudimentary bureaucracy, Charles could only watch the obedience of his subjects drain away. The Scottish debacle also emboldened opponents of Charles’s policies when he was obliged to call Parliament after 11 years of “personal rule”. Amid mounting disquiet, the king was forced to flee London when rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1641. Military fortunes ebbed and flowed until the decisive defeat of the royalists at Naseby in 1645. Charles, duplicitous as ever, tried to do a deal with the Scottish nobility, but that alliance too was defeated in 1648. Throughout the decade from 1638 the fortunes of all parts of Britain and Ireland were inextricably entwined.

Yet even at the end of 1638 cracks were beginning to appear in the Covenanting theocracy. In parts of Scotland like the north-east that would in the 18th century provide many supporters for the Jacobite cause, Episcopalianism was strong. The Covenanting movement meanwhile contained a fundamental tension between Presbyterians, whose main interest was in protecting their Calvinist Reformation, and the broader political drive to create a more limited monarchy. The later decision to try to confirm the Scottish Revolution by entering into the Solemn League and Covenant with English Parliamentarians in 1643 led to the fateful Scottish invasion of England. This openly divided the Covenanters and gave Charles the chance to try to divide and rule his Scottish enemies. However, the alliance remained unified long enough to defeat Charles, only to fragment irrevocably in 1647–8.

Rising tide of sullen disobedience

In short, the Scottish Revolution of 1638 both reflected and further encouraged a rising tide of sullen disobedience and active opposition that culminated in England with the calling of Parliament in 1640 and in Ireland with the rebellion of 1641 onwards (see facing page). Charles realised too late both the strength of feeling against his political and religious policies and that the concessions he had made to the Scots struck at the basis of his authority. At the end of 1638 he had capitulated to a Scottish Revolution that nevertheless continued ruthlessly and relentlessly, by intrigue and force of arms, to dismantle the political and religious establishment his father had created in Scotland. “Too weak to be absolute, too ambitious to be anything else” Charles’s arrogant and inept religious policies squandered an inheritance of political stability and plunged not only his dynasty, but monarchy itself, into crisis.

The English Civil Wars and Interregnum that filled the years up to 1660 are unthinkable without the events in Scotland in 1638 that began what are known broadly as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The Scots began Charles’s downfall and their Covenanting ideas set the tone for armed resistance throughout Britain in the following decade. It was a true watershed in British history. Above all, 1638 highlights the way that events in one part of Britain influenced the development of others and indeed of the whole United Kingdom. It exemplifies the need for a British rather than purely an English history of the “north Atlantic archipelago” in the early modern period.

History facts: 1600–1649

Less than a third of men and less than a tenth of women across England and Lowland Scotland could sign their name circa 1640

35 per cent of the population was 15 or under, 6 per cent 60 or older (c 1600)

In 1649 London’s population was 400,000, but Edinburgh, the second city of the British Isles, had only 35,000 and Dublin 20,000

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 17th century

1603 – Union of the Crowns. Elizabeth I never married and without an heir her crown passed to the man whose mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, she had allowed to be executed in 1587. King of Scots at just 13 months old after Mary was deposed by her own nobility in 1567, James VI inherited a much richer kingdom than his own and quickly moved to London where he was crowned James I of England with “silent joye, noe great shouting”.

1608 – Plantation of Ulster. Following the shock of a rebellion by Sir Cahir O’Doherty of Inishowen, previously a loyal ally, James I adopted a radical scheme for systematically colonising Ulster with English and Scots Protestants, in the belief it would subdue unrest and win over the “rude and barbarous Irish” to “civility”. 100,000 Scots and 20,000 English settled in Ulster over the century, sowing the seeds of discontent among the indigenous population that are still evident in sectarian tensions today.

1609 – Statutes of Iona. James’s parallel response to his other problem area, the Gaelic-speaking, Catholic-leaning, clan society of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. A coherent and ideologically driven attempt to alter the nature of the region, it represents an early form of ethnic cleansing of people who allegedly manifested “grite crueltie and inhumane barbaritie”. The Statutes struck at the heart of clan society, which was not principally about kinship, but about feasting and fighting.

1623 – Last English subsistence crisis. While Scotland still had famines in the 1690s and beyond, and Ireland tragically until the 1840s, the last time large numbers of people died of hunger in England was at the end of James I’s reign – and that mainly in the north-west. Thereafter England became the most agriculturally productive country in Europe and the one with the highest average standard of living, creating the preconditions for the 18th-century “consumer revolution”.

1628 – William Harvey and the circulation of blood. First demonstrated in 1616, he published a book about his discovery of the motion of the heart and circulation of the blood, challenging existing theories that saw “humours” determining the function of the body. His work ultimately became recognised as the most important medical advance in a millennium.

1629 – Foundation of the Massachusetts Bay Company. This royal chartered company established the New England colony and marked the beginning of the systematic settlement of North America. The first settlers were Puritans anxious to set up an exemplary “city upon a hill”. Between the 1620s and 1775 roughly 750,000 white people moved voluntarily from Europe to North America and perhaps as many as five million far-from-willing black Africans.

1641 – Rebellion in Ireland. Dispossessed and oppressed by the Plantation Protestants, native Irish Catholics rose in bloody rebellion, stirring up the fears of popish plots and threats of invasion that had haunted English people since the days of the Spanish Armada (1588) and Gunpowder Plot (1605). Extensive and prolonged, the rising permeated British politics during the 1640s and was not finally suppressed until Cromwell’s arrival in Ireland in 1649.

1645-6 – Peak of English witchcraft executions. While most English witchcraft accusations were very personal, the actions of Matthew Hopkins, Puritan, lawyer and self-proclaimed Witch-finder General, single-handedly created the most intensive hunt for witches in English history: over 100 women were executed. Witchcraft accusations show a mental world saturated by the supernatural.

1649 – Execution of Charles I. Being a monarch had always been a dangerous occupation and plenty of previous English kings had died in battle or by assassination, but none had been judicially murdered by his own people. The death sent a shudder through the elites of early modern Europe. It also introduced a bold experiment in both social engineering and republican government that was reversed (but never forgotten) in 1660.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1662: Restoration tragedy

Go back: 1588: The Spanish Armada

Rab Houston is professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews. His books include Autism in History (Blackwell, 2000), The New History of Scotland (2001) and Punishing the Dead: Suicide in England and Scotland, 1500–1850 (OUP, 2010)

Further reading: The British revolution, 1629–1660 by Allan Macinnes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004); The fall of the British monarchies, 1637–1642 by Conrad Russell (Clarendon Press, 1991); The Civil Wars: a Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1638–1660 edited by John Kenyon and Jane Ohlmeyer (Oxford University Press, 1998)


This article was first published in the April 2007 issue of BBC History Magazine