The horseman watches the action atop his steed. His grip on his sword, still sheathed at his side, has slowly tightened, to the point that the handle is now making indentations on his sweaty hand. He glances at his commander. He’d been there, as one of his Ironsides, from the beginning, but now, he subtly questions his leader. Their comrades in the center were in desperate trouble – outnumbered and being pushed back by the King’s men. Was this “New Model Army” all hype? Then, suddenly, the Royalist horse charges and Cromwell gives the order to meet them! If they could do so successfully, victory might yet be won. If not, the long war would continue, and Parliament would lose much of the advantages it had gained.
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After the death of the childless Elizabeth I on March 24th, 1603, her first cousin twice removed, James VI of Scotland, inherited her throne. For the first time, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland now had the same monarch, a historical milestone that came to be called the Union of the Crowns. Nevertheless, this union was a personal one. The two kingdoms remained constitutionally separate states, and would remain so until the 1707 Acts of Union.
Elizabeth’s reign was long and relatively prosperous. She was also one of the most gifted communicators and propagandists in history. The result was that her 44 years on the throne strengthened the monarchy and made it an institution of carefully cultivated respect and obedience. Like most standouts in history, Elizabeth was more controversial in her own time than afterward, being magnified after her death, but such reverence wasn’t entirely counterfactual. Elizabeth’s monarchy was one of those that came close to absolute, but such authority came largely as a result of her ability to work with her ministers and Parliaments. Her skill at mollifying her Parliaments is most emblematic in her famous “Golden Speech” of 1601. Indeed, during the turmoil of the civil wars and the buildup to them, Elizabeth’s reign was seen as the ideal. Most in Parliament originally had no desire to fight the King, much less execute him. They just wanted to return to the golden Elizabethan Era, where Crown and Parliament seemed to be in perfect harmony.[i]
Elizabeth’s immediate successors were nowhere near as politically talented. The differences between them can be summed up in two quotes. Elizabeth’s mentality is exemplified by what her Lord Keeper, Sir Nicholas Bacon, said of her:
The queen is not, nor ever means to be, so wedded to her own will and fantasy that for the satisfaction thereof she will do anything…to bring any bondage or servitude to her people, or give any just occasion to them of any inward grudge whereby any tumults or stirs might arise as hath done of late days.[ii]
In contrast, James wrote in his Trew Law of Free Monarchies:
And the last objection is grounded upon the mutual pact and stipulation (as they call it) between the King and his people, at the time of his coronation: For there, say they, there is a mutual pact, and contract bound up, and sworn between the king, and the people: Whereupon it follows, that if the one part of the contract or the Indent be broken upon the King’s side, the people are no longer bound to keep their part of it, but are thereby freed of their oath: For (say they) a contract between two parties, of all Law frees the one party, if the other break unto him.
As to this contract allegedly made at the coronation of a King, although I deny any such contract to be made then, especially containing such a clause irritant as they allege; yet I confesses, that a king at his coronation, or at the entry to his kingdom, willingly promised to his people, to discharge honorably and truly the office given him by God over them: But presuming that thereafter he broke his promise unto them never so inexcusable; the question is, who should be judged of the break, giving unto them, this contract were made unto them never so sicker, according to their allegiance. I think no man that hath but the smallest entrance into the civil Law, will doubt that of all Law, either civil or municipal of any nation, a contract cannot be thought broken by the one party, and so the other likewise to be freed therefrom, except that first a lawful trial and cognition be had by the ordinary judge of the breakers thereof: Or else every man may be both party and judge in his own cause; which is absurd once to be thought. Now in this contract (I say) between the king and his people, God is doubtless the only judge, both because to him only the king must make count of his administration (as is oft said before) as likewise by the oath in the coronation, God is made judge and avenger of the breakers: For in his presence, as only judge of oaths, all oaths ought to be made. Then since God is the only judge between the two parties, the cognition and revenge must only appertain to him: It follows therefore of necessity, that God must first give sentence upon the King that broke before the people can think themselves freed of their oath.[iii]
Elizabeth may have been a believer in the Divine Right of Kings, but she recognized the limits of monarchy. James did not, and as a result, had frequent squabbles with his Parliaments. Additionally, his court soon became a center of disrepute. There were rampant rumors that he was in a homosexual relationship with his favorite, James Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. Whether true or not, these rumors and the atmosphere of the court undermined the institution of the monarchy, the respect for which Elizabeth had so carefully cultivated for so long.
Charles I succeeded his father in 1625 and soon proved to be even less politically skilled. Charles inherited his father’s belief in royal absolutism, but unlike the gregarious James, he was a man who held himself to a standard of rigid, regal dignity. A modern spin would be that Charles was “less likeable” than James. This combination meant that he had even worse relationships with his parliaments than his father had. He took any questioning of his authority, such as his trust in the Duke of Buckingham (who Charles retained as royal favorite), as a personal insult and an assault on the institution of the monarchy.[iv]
In the first four years of his reign, Charles dissolved three parliaments, which questioned his appointments, his trust in Buckingham, his disastrous foreign expeditions against Spain and France, and his forced loans to pay for his wars, which amounted to an illegal, extra-parliamentary tax.[v] Parliament then tried to force Charles to agree to the long-held custom of not raising any taxes without its consent with the Petition of Right. Instead of considering this, Charles ultimately dissolved Parliament in early 1629.
After three tumultuous parliaments, Charles now resolved to rule without one. From the years 1629 to 1640, no parliaments were summoned. For Charles, these were the golden years of his reign. They are known variously as the Personal Rule or the Eleven Years’ Tyranny. While nothing constitutionally prohibited the monarch from ruling this way, there was still a big problem.
By Charles’ reign, it had been a centuries-established precedent that the monarch could not raise new taxes without Parliament’s consent. This came as a result of a long evolution beginning with the Magna Carta of 1215, which stated that “No scutage nor aid shall be imposed on our kingdom, unless by common counsel of our kingdom.” [vi]
Throughout the later Middle Ages, this idea evolved, extending from the original baronial classes outlined in the Magna Carta to the gentry and their constituencies. By 1260, no taxes were levied without the latter’s approval. The constant wars of Edward I and Edward III meant that these assemblies were summoned frequently, as their consent was needed for the routine, unproblematic raising of revenue. [vii]
As a result, Charles quickly found himself unable to raise sufficient funds to run his government. Nevertheless, monarchs could, and did, find ways around Parliament’s power of the purse. Charles was now about to try his hand at finding the extra money. His solution was novel, and indeed, creative – ship money.
It was understood that the monarch could levy a tax on coastal communities to finance the construction of ships. In essence, the ship money was a way to ask for these settlements to help pay for their own defense. Charles, however, stretched this to its limit, transforming this limited levy into an annual tax on the entirety of England, for matters entirely unrelated to coastal defense. In effect, Charles had found a loophole in the law and was levying general taxes without Parliament’s consent. Naturally, this was highly unpopular.
Charles’ problems were worse in Scotland, however. Scotland adhered to a Presbyterian form of Protestantism which was very different from that seen in the Church of England. Charles now wanted to impose the Anglican system, with its Book of Common Prayer, ornate ceremonies, and bishops, onto the Scottish Kirk, which was less ceremonial and governed itself based on assemblies of clergy.[viii] Naturally, these attempts at changing Scotland’s church were widely derided. In response, Charles’ attitude was to double down. In much the same way as he had when his English subjects resisted his policies, he felt personally insulted and disrespected, believing that the King should be able to do what he wished in matters of both state and church. The Scots’ response was to riot and revolt, beginning what appropriately became known as the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640. Unfortunately for Charles, things went badly for him. He tried to quell the revolts of the Scots by his own devices, but failed to do so, and was left with no choice but to summon Parliament.
Parliament, however, didn’t forget the disputes of the 1620s, and wasn’t in the mood to meekly give Charles the money he needed to deal with the Scots. True to form when it came to dealing with troublesome subjects, Charles quickly dissolved this “Short Parliament” after only a few days, but the situation in Scotland had become so dire that he was forced to call another one six months later. This was the “Long Parliament,” and unsurprisingly, it drove a hard bargain. To make matters even worse for Charles, Ireland had also risen up in rebellion against his religious policies and his practice, enacted by Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, of confiscating land from Irish Catholics to support Protestant settlement.[ix] Thus, Parliament had even more leverage against the King, and they were keen to use it.
Among other things, Parliament demanded the fall of Charles’ new favorites. Strafford was impeached and executed. William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the architects of Charles’ religious policies, was arrested and imprisoned (later to be executed in 1645).
The biggest issues in dispute, however, were taxation, religion, and the army.[x] Ship money was declared illegal. The Long Parliament was also filled with many members who were either Presbyterians or “Independents.” The “Independents” who rejected religious structures and instead believed they should follow where God led them.[xi] This faction was even more opposed to some of the Church of England’s procedures as being too “Popish.” In matters of arms, some members of Parliament insisted that they take control of the military forces that were to be sent to put down the rebellion in Ireland.
Charles was willing to accept Parliament’s demands on matters of money, but refused to allow his authority on matters of religion or the military to be undermined. “By God, not for an hour!” Charles exclaimed when presented with Parliament’s military demands.[xii] When Parliament passed the Grand Remonstrance – a list of grievances against Charles’ conduct, and threatened Queen Henrietta Maria, Charles responded by trying to arrest five members of the House of Commons and one in the Lords – Edward Montagu, later to be Earl of Manchester, who he believed were the key rabble rousers and co-conspirators with the rebellious Scots.[xiii] He failed in this attempt and fled London soon afterwards, fearing for his safety. Both sides understood that war was now inevitable. They gathered their supporters over the ensuing months and finally clashed at the indecisive Battle of Edgehill on October 23rd, 1642.
The early years of the First English Civil War mirrored Edgehill. Neither side was truly winning. The King’s support came mainly from the north and west, while Parliament’s support came from the south and east. Parliament had more money and a greater supply of manpower, but its armed forces suffered a great disadvantage, namely, that it primarily consisted of local militiamen that were reluctant to campaign in regions far away from their homes.[xiv]
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[i] Trevor-Roper, Hugh. The Crisis of the 17th Century. Page 317. Liberty Fund. Indianapolis, Indiana. 1967. https://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/roper-the-crisis-of-the-seventeenth-century.
[ii] Starkey, David. Elizabeth: Woman, Monarch, Mission. Pg. 7. Chatto & Windus in Association with the National Maritime Museum. London, United Kingdom. 2003.
[iii] Stuart, James. The Trew Law of Free Monarchies. 1598. http://www.constitution.org/primarysources/stuart.html. Retrieved April 1st, 2020.
[iv] Greene, Robert. The 48 Laws of Power. Page 290. Viking Books. New York, NY. 1998.
[v] Cust, Richard. Charles I: A Political Life. Page 67. Pearson Education Limited. Harlow, United Kingdom. 2005.
[vi] Magna Carta. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/10000/pg10000.html. Retrieved April 1st, 2020.
[vii] Payling, Simon J. The History of Parliament, “Parliament and Politics Before 1509.” http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/periods/medieval. Retrieved April 1st, 2020.
[viii] David Starkey (host). “Monarchy: Cromwell the King Killer.” Presented by Channel 4. October 10th, 2005.
[ix] Coward, Barry, and Peter Gaunt. The Stuart Age: England, 1603-1714. Page 172. Routledge. New York, NY. 2003.
[x] David Starkey (host). “Monarchy: Cromwell the King Killer.” Presented by Channel 4. October 10th, 2005.
[xii] Spivey, Nigel (host). “Kings and Queens: Charles I.” 3BM Television Production for Channel 5. 2002.
[xiii] Starkey, David. Monarchy: From the Middle Ages to Modernity. Page 113. HarperCollins. London: United Kingdom. 2006.
[xiv] Rickard, J. (11 December 2000), New Model Army (England), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_newmodel.html. Retrieved April 1st, 2020.