What sparked the Civil War?

Was it religious turmoil? Financial meltdown? Or Charles I's seemingly unique ability to alienate his subjects? Jonathan Healey reveals what really propelled king and parliament into conflict in the 1640s

The battle of Marston Moor, the largest clash of the Civil War, depicted in a 19th-century painting. Preventing a slide into chaos required "diplomatic panache, not Charles's fabled stubbornness", writes Jonathan Healey. (Photo by A 16th-century portrait of Bess of Hardwick. Bess's talent, ambition and eye for a well-connected husband elevated her to dizzying levels of wealth and power in Tudor England. (Photo by Bridgeman Art Library)

This article was first published in the August 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Was it religious turmoil? Financial meltdown? Or Charles I’s seemingly unique ability to alienate his subjects? Jonathan Healey reveals what really propelled king and parliament into conflict in the 1640s

Late on 10 January 1642, King Charles I, his queen and his eldest three children left the palace at Whitehall and slipped quietly into the night, away from London, away from Westminster and away from parliament. Arriving at Hampton Court, they found it unprepared, so they slept – the five of them – all in one bed. Charles wouldn’t see London again for seven years.

The next few months were given over to preparations for war. Charles’s wife, Queen Henrietta Maria, was told to pawn the crown jewels and sail to the continent to raise money. In April, Charles tried to seize the arsenal at Hull, but was rebuffed by its governor. In the summer, he issued ‘Commissions of Array’, ordering his people to muster and fight his enemies. Finally, on 22 August, on a rainy day in Nottingham, King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland raised his royal standard to call his people to arms. He had declared war on his own parliament.

Charles had, in fact, seen all this coming. The slide to war had started in Scotland. The Stuarts were of Scottish origin. Charles had been born in Dunfermline Palace, in 1600. But before his fourth birthday, he moved to England. The northern kingdom had become profoundly alien to Charles.

Scotland and England were still separate states, had separate parliaments, and crucially had separate state churches. The Reformation in Scotland had taken a more radical turn and, to many Protestants, its Kirk was among the most advanced churches in Europe. Managing these two churches required diplomatic panache, not Charles’s fabled stubbornness. He desired uniformity in his realms and so, in 1636, he tried to bring the Kirk in line, imposing on it a new, Englishstyle Prayer Book.

The first real trouble came on 23 July 1637: James Hannay, dean of Edinburgh, tried to read from the new prayer book at St Giles’ Cathedral. He was faced with a barrage of flying stools, the first one – according to legend – thrown by the market-trader Jenny Geddes. By 1638, Scotland was in open defiance. In February, a gathering in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh signed a National Covenant, recently drawn up by Presbyterian divines with the view to resisting “papistical” innovations. Through the year, the Covenant swept the Lowlands, and made some progress too in the more conservative Highlands. In November, a general assembly of the Kirk at Glasgow struck a defiant tone by continuing to sit after Charles’s government had dissolved it. Such was the shock that the king told his chief man in Scotland, the Marquis of Hamilton, that this was tantamount to declaring the country a republic: “So long as this covenant is in force,” he wrote, “I have no more power in Scotland than as a duke of Venice, which I will rather die than suffer.”

The following year, rebellion led to war. Charles ordered Hamilton to face the Covenanters down, but they were ready and committed. So much so that even Hamilton’s own mother fought for them, raising a cavalry troop and, allegedly, threatening to shoot her own son. Charles was forced back to the table, and a truce was signed. Charles, though, still believed he could defeat the Covenanters in battle. But to do so he needed money, and there was only one way he could get it. He had to call his English parliament.

The Westminster parliament had, by the time Charles came to the throne in 1625, become a crucial fixture in the English political scene: not so much because it was always sitting – it usually wasn’t – but because its statutes were the most constitutionally secure way of getting things done. But it could also be a space for opposition and Charles had bad relations with it from the outset. Early in his reign, he had tried to raise taxes through a ‘Forced Loan’. Refusals to pay led to imprisonments without trial or even charge, and, meanwhile, the costs of a disastrous war against France led Charles to impose martial law and the quartering of troops in the households of ordinary families. Parliament had responded by passing a Petition of Right, setting out what they considered to be fundamental English liberties. Charles, bitterly, accepted it.

Absolute rule

Things then came to an ugly head in 1629, when Charles tried to dissolve parliament, but a group of MPs held the speaker down in his chair while the house passed a series of bills. From this point on, Charles decided that he would rule without consulting his assembly of representatives.

It was a dangerous path. In the early 17th century, many European states were struggling with the rising costs of war, and the corrosive effect of inflation on their tax and estate resources. If monarchies thought themselves unable to work with their representative bodies – the Estates General and Parlements in France, or the Cortes in Spain, for example – then they increasingly tried to work without them, building up a paid bureaucracy of tax collectors backed by military force. This was absolutism, and it was the way the political winds were blowing in many a European state. Was this the future for England and Scotland?

Parliament passed a Petition of Right, setting out fundamental English liberties. Charles, bitterly, accepted it

Yet, looking back, some saw the 1630s, and Charles’s ‘Personal Rule’ without parliament, as a golden age – days of calm before the maelstrom of the 1640s. Such peace, wrote the royalist Earl of Clarendon rather later, “and universal tranquility for 10 years was never enjoyed by any nation”. But there were signs of the gathering storm nonetheless.

One problem was finance. Without parliament, Charles relied on controversial expedients to raise funds: he fined people who had lands in the old medieval forests, or who failed to be knighted despite being wealthy enough. Most controversial of all, he levied a tax called ship money on inland counties – it was traditionally restricted to coastal ones. When a leading Buckinghamshire gentleman refused to pay, Charles won the lawsuit, but only just: five of the 12 presiding judges defied him.

The other problem was religion. Charles was not a Catholic, although his French wife was. However, he was drawn to the world of the pugnacious theologian William Laud.

Laud was sceptical of the Calvinist belief in double predestination, the idea that God had predetermined who would go to heaven and hell. He allowed the possibility that the way you lived your life on Earth might influence where you were headed afterwards.

He believed that it was acceptable, nay, to be encouraged, that people might beautify their churches, as had been the case before the Reformation came with its plaster and whitewash. More to the point, he wanted services to be carried out with more dignity and hierarchy. One of the central battlegrounds was the position of communion tables. For convenience, they were often housed open in the middle of the nave, symbolically at the heart of the congregation, but equally open to profane uses, even to the extent of being used for storage.

It was a deceptively complex issue: Laud ordered communion tables to be railed off and placed “altar-wise”, at the east end of the chancel. There they could exist with more dignity, but they were symbolically cut off from the congregation, and either way the whole thing felt rather, well, Catholic.

Society was changing too. In the century leading up to the 1630s, England had gone through a series of profound social shifts. The population had grown from a fairly paltry 2.2 million or so in 1500 to a positively teeming 5.5 million by the 1630s. This had put pressure on land, but it also caused a startling rise in the price of food and rent, while wages were stagnant or worse. In the long run, it created grinding poverty among the labouring classes.

A growing city

London, meanwhile, grew from around 80,000 people in the reign of Henry VIII to some 400,000 by 1640. The first proper maps of the city date from around this time, and they show dense lanes within the old city walls, but also a sprawling mass of new housing in the suburbs of Southwark and the Tower Hamlets, and Westminster, where fashionable new squares vied for space with slum housing. The poor rubbed shoulders with the rich, but there was also a growing literate class of small tradespeople. They picked up books and pamphlets from the hawkers at St Paul’s, they attended plays, and they ‘gadded’ to sermons. The tight knots of parishes in the capital meant that there was a marketplace for ideas: if you didn’t like your local minister, you could easily go and find another. Theologians lectured large crowds. William Gouge, for example, remembered a tough audience of London women when he tried to lecture them on their marital subjection. You were, in fact, probably much more likely in this era to watch a sermon than you were to see a play.

Sermon-goers had plenty to think about, too, and not just in London. England in the 1630s was in the midst of a nasty culture war, fought between Puritans and Laud’s supporters. In 1633, Laud was promoted to archbishop of Canterbury, and he was particularly aggressive in enforcing his doctrinal ideas on England’s 9,000 or so parishes.

Muscular Christianity

Perhaps most controversial of all, he threw his weight behind a new ‘Book of Sports’ (also 1633) which specifically allowed people to play games on Sundays and holy days. Such merry latitude had been royal policy since 1618, but until now it had been left to local communities to decide how far to implement it. Under Charles and Laud, ministers were forced to read the book, going against years of teaching by many Protestants that the Sabbath was wholly sacred, a day for prayer and little else. Some ministers resisted, some even emigrated to America. One London Puritan read the Book to his congregation, followed by the Ten Commandments (“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”). “Dearly beloved,” he said, “You have heard now the commandments of God and man, obey which you please.”

Charles was faced with a better-read, more legally and administratively literate society than any of his predecessors

Issues like this were prompted by the government, but they were fed into by the social changes of the previous 100 years. Rising literacy and a growing book trade meant that middling people – farmers, traders, craftspeople – had come into contact with religious debates. They were exposed to questions about salvation and the proper organisation of a church. And they governed. England’s ‘middling sort’ were the ones who collected taxes, decided who got poor relief, as well as who got prosecuted. They had to make moral decisions about which of their neighbours had committed the worst sexual transgressions, or kept their alehouse open too late. They had to decide whether it was better to allow football on a Sunday or not. They were readers, administrators, governors, and litigators. Charles was, quite simply, faced with a better read, more legally and administratively literate society than any of his predecessors.

They were not, of course, unified against him. Far from it. Many thoughtful people looked at the crisis of the 1640s and decided that challenging the king was illegal, that community cohesion was more important than a strict implementation of the church law, and that the Book of Common Prayer was a more attractive source of doctrine than the Scottish Kirk. But the point was that these were debated in the fields, the churchyards, and the alehouses of England: Pandora’s Box had been opened. The armies of the 1640s had many a man who “knows what he fights for and loves what he knows”, as it was put by an East Anglian farmer, serving as a cavalry officer in 1643. The farmer’s name was Oliver Cromwell.

Humiliating treaty

The parliament called by Charles in the spring of 1640 didn’t give him the money he wanted. Instead, it tried to debate the Personal Rule. He dismissed it and went to war anyway. It was a disastrous decision.

The Scots invaded northern England, rolled over the royalist forces, and occupied Newcastle. Desperate to stop them taking York, and faced with demands from his nobility that he recall parliament, Charles signed a humiliating treaty at Ripon, by which he agreed to pay the Scots army £850 a day until a perpetual peace could be agreed. The writs for elections went out and parliament met on 3 November 1640.

At this moment, though, there was little possibility of war in England – not because Charles had too much support, but ironically because he had too little.

In 1640, the political nation was largely unified in demanding reform. And reform they got. But as this progressed, many fellow travellers of 1640 dropped away. The radicals tried to abolish bishops, and this lost the support of those who loved church tradition. They attempted to control appointments to the Privy Council, but this shocked constitutional conservatives. When parliament bypassed normal legal process and executed Thomas Wentworth, one of Charles’s leading administrators, simply by passing a statute declaring him guilty, it offended those who respected due process. When the opposition leader John Pym used the London crowd to pressurise parliament, it seemed to conservatives like they were handing power to a rabble, even if it was often literate tradespeople who made up that much of that crowd.

The divided nation

By late 1641, parliament had become dangerously fractured. It was possible to talk of two sides, and in the street politics of the capital, these had started to be nicknamed Roundheads and Cavaliers. In November, an attempt by the opposition to collate their grievances into a ‘Grand Remonstrance’ had passed the Commons only by 159 votes to 148. There were two sides in the house, and there were also two sides in the country.

Ireland was the match that lit the powder. Since early Tudor times, Ireland had been exploited by England. From the late 16th century, England had pursued a policy of plantation whereby Irish lands were given over to settlers. Under James VI and I, the plantations were accelerated, with thousands of Protestant families from England and Scotland brought over and settled in Ulster.

Nonetheless, anger at Anglo-Scottish colonisation could be tempered by effective rule. Partly through conciliation and partly through military force, Thomas Wentworth (he called his policy “thorough”) had managed to hold Ireland’s government together. He had even raised an army in Ireland that Charles hoped to use against the Scots Covenanters.

By October 1641, though, Wentworth was dead, and his army had been disbanded. The success of the Scots, meanwhile, encouraged aggrieved Irish to believe they too could win better treatment by rising in force. When the rebellion came, it was swift and it was bloody. A plot to seize Dublin Castle failed, but settlers in Ulster were cast off their land, and many were murdered.

Lurid reports of atrocities – some true, some fictional – filtered back to England, encouraged by a rabid London press. The effect was like a bolt of lightning. Now an army would have to be raised, although neither side trusted the other to lead it.

The winter of 1641–42 brought a climactic power struggle. Charles tried to gain control of London by putting Thomas Lunsford, a hardline royalist ultra, in charge of the Tower. Paper ‘libels’ spread around the City alleging that Lunsford was a baby-eating cannibal. He was so vociferously opposed that the king had to back down and remove his man. Council elections, meanwhile, brought a radical clique to power in the City.

The coup de grace happened on 4 January. Charles, realising his grip on his capital was slipping, decided to make a desperate move against parliament. He would strike against five leaders of the opposition in the Commons and one in the Lords. It was like a retrospective of Charles’s leading critics, from Denzil Holles, who had held the speaker in his chair back in 1629, to John Hampden, the Buckinghamshire gentleman who had opposed Ship Money, to Charles’s nemesis in the Commons, John Pym.

Setting out from his palace with a gang of armed Cavaliers, Charles marched down Whitehall and into the Commons. It was a terrifying, dramatic scene: an attempted coup by the king against his parliament. But the men had gone. “I see the birds have flown,” Charles said, and they had. Forewarned, they had hastened away down the river, and slipped into the knotted lanes of the city.

Charles spent the next few days at Whitehall. The city at his gates threatened to snap at any moment. On 10 January, he and his family stole away into the cold winter night. The slide to war had begun.

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Jonathan Healey is associate professor in social history at the University of Oxford. In 2012 he was chosen one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Thinkers