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Historians are sometimes asked to say what the verdict of history will be upon the issues and personalities of contemporary politics. The only certain answer is that whatever history decides, it will change its mind. On no subject can it have changed its mind more often than the civil wars of mid-seventeenth-century England, an event on which the passions of posterity have run almost as high as those of the participants. The participants themselves cared deeply how posterity would judge their choices and their conduct, a concern generally ignored by historians and yet largely responsible for the memoirs and diaries on which historical interpretation has depended and by which it has been shaped.
How and why did the convulsions of the mid-seventeenth century come about? There were many upheavals in Europe at the same time—the Frondes in France, the revolts of Portugal and Catalonia against the Spanish monarchy, coups in Sweden and Holland and Denmark—but the underlying explanation of those crises, which were less radical and less protracted than those in England, lies in the strains of the Thirty Years War, in which England was scarcely involved. The rebellion in England was preceded by rebellions in Ireland and Scotland, and would not have occurred without them, but they lacked the ideological complexity and novelty of the English revolution. There had been English civil wars before, in the Middle Ages, but they had been either wars of succession, fought to determine the occupancy of the throne rather than its powers, or quarrels between Crown and nobility. Kings had been deposed before and slain before, but none had been convicted and executed in the name of the people, the fate of Charles I in 1649. There had been nothing to parallel the eleven years of republican rule that followed, and nothing in the political and religious conflicts of the earlier seventeenth century to intimate that the institutions of state and Church would collapse.
The contemporary explanation of the civil wars was simple: they were caused by sin. The English people, blessed with the favor of a Protestant God, had provoked His wrath by their incorrigible ingratitude. The miraculous deliverances He had vouchsafed them, from the Papacy at the Reformation, from the Spanish Armada in 1588, from the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, had been answered by the contemptuous neglect of His ordinances and by an unending epidemic of sexual and alcoholic iniquity. The peace and prosperity that were divinely bestowed in the 1630s, and that would be yearningly recalled during the succeeding turmoil, prompted not thankfulness but wantonness and vanity. Yet while royalists and parliamentarians were agreed in blaming the whole nation for the wars, they were sure that God’s indignation had been especially provoked by the sins of their opponents. The royalists, claimed the parliamentarians, had aimed to extirpate Protestantism, to debauch the nation’s morals, and to extinguish its constitutional and legal rights. The parliamentarians, claimed the royalists, cloaked ambition and private grievance as public virtue, and were …
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