The English Civil Wars

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The English Civil Wars

Rising Puritan Dissatisfaction.

Before the specter of religious conflict completely disappeared from Europe altogether, one final conflict, the English Civil Wars, was to answer questions that had long raged over the course that the state church should take in that island country. Since the later years of the reign of Elizabeth I (r. 1558–1603) English Puritans had been agitating for change in the rituals and doctrines of the Church of England. The Reformation settlement in England had been crafted, not by theological directives formulated by a Reformation leader like Martin Luther or John Calvin, but in response to political realities. Henry VIII had been pulled into the realm of Protestant states only gradually as a result of the circumstances arising from his famous divorce from Catherine of Aragon, but other than dissolving England's monasteries and taking a few tentative steps toward reforming the church establishment, Henry had left much of England's religion untouched. Under the reign of his son Edward VI (r. 1547–1552), the first English Book of Common Prayer had come into circulation, but it was carefully fashioned as a translation of the Sarum rite, a version of the Mass that had originated in England's Salisbury Cathedral and which had been in wide circulation throughout the country in the later Middle Ages. Although he was personally Protestant in his own religious ideas and he did invite a number of continental reformers to come to England—most notably the Strasbourg reformer Martin Bucer (1491–1551)—few definitive steps were taken to foster Reformation teachings throughout England until the year of Edward's death. At that time a new austere and definitively Protestant Book of Common Prayer was printed, but the king's premature demise prevented it from being circulated throughout the country. By contrast, Edward's successor, Mary Tudor (r. 1552–1558) tried valiantly to restore Catholicism in the island, putting to death more than 300 Protestants, and beginning tentative steps to re-establish English monasteries. But her early death, too, prevented these measures from being carried through. And while her half-sister Elizabeth I was a Protestant, she promised at the outset of her reign to make "no windows into men's souls." The church she thus fashioned continued to be a halfway house between outright Protestantism and traditional medieval practices. In 1559 she issued a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer more traditional in outlook than her brother Edward's second work, but more Protestant in its teachings than the first edition of 1549. And although she was to persecute some Catholics in the course of her reign, she generally tolerated a broad range of opinion, so long as she did not sense that it was a threat to her authority. The solutions that she crafted worked well for most of her reign, but by the 1580s and 1590s the Puritan movement had gathered increasing strength in Parliament. Puritanism, a theological and devotional movement that aimed to do away with vestiges of the Roman church's practices, had largely been inspired by the teachings of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the Scottish divine John Knox (1508–1572). The most extreme of English Puritans desired the abolition of the episcopate, and the substitution of a Presbyterian style of church government—something that Elizabeth and her successors steadfastly refused to do. In the Church of England, as elsewhere in Europe, the power of bishops served to buttress and support the power of the state. Both the Tudor and Stuart monarchs realized that to do away with these powerful links between state and church might subject the crown to powerful centrifugal forces it could not control. Not every Puritan, though, supported such radical measures. Others were content with more piecemeal measures to remove "popish" abuses and superstitions from the English prayer book and to curtail the elaborate ritualism of the state church.

James I.

Elizabeth resisted such innovations, and although she was largely able to forestall the growing Puritan demands of her later reign, she left the dilemmas that Puritanism raised as a legacy to her successors, James I (r. 1603–1625) and Charles I (r. 1625–1649), neither of whom evidenced the queen's same skill for managing the English Parliament. A central feature of Elizabeth's success had been her decision to call Parliament relatively infrequently, and to conduct a royal administration notable for its great economy. Despite these measures she had left the crown heavily indebted at her death, and royal finances continued to worsen during the first decade of James I's reign. James soon learned, like Elizabeth before him, of the dangers of calling the English Parliament, who regularly required concessions in exchange for new taxes. In the first years of James's reign he came face-to-face with the religious issues that had also troubled the later years of Elizabeth's rule. As he made his way from Scotland to London, he was presented with the "Millenary Petition," supposedly signed by 1,000 English Puritans who desired a purified English church. News of these efforts soon reached the country's Catholics, a few of whom began to hatch a plan to tunnel under the houses of Parliament in Westminster and blow them up while the king was speaking there. This Gunpowder Plot, planned for November 1605, came to the attention of officials and, when thwarted, did a great deal to destroy the hopes of those who longed for a re-establishment of Catholicism as the state religion of England.

The Situation Worsens.

Although James I may have been drawn to some of the theological conclusions of Calvinism, he had regularly battled with Scottish Presbyterians while king of Scotland. That experience continued to condition his reign as king of England. When he called a conference at Hampton Court palace outside London in 1604 to converse with Puritans, he was faced with the demand that he abolish the episcopate in England. His response, "No bishop, No king," alienated many in the movement. Still James did accede to their request for a new authorized translation of the Bible, the version that has since become known as the King James Version since its issuance in 1611. Yet in the years that followed, James instructed officials in the Church of England to reverse Elizabethan policies toward Dissenters, those who refused to attend Anglican services. Elizabeth had been relatively tolerant of those who refused to attend, but in the following years James's ecclesiastical establishment levied heavy punishments on those who refused to participate. Puritan dissatisfaction with his regime also grew when in 1618 James made clear his animus against the movement's custom of "keeping the sabbath." At that time he issued a proclamation that decided between a group of Puritans and Catholic-sympathizing members of the gentry. James's declaration made it legal to dance on Sundays, to go about "vaulting and leaping," to set up "May-poles," and to drink "Whitsun ales." James insisted further that the declaration be read from every pulpit in the land, but when the Puritan outcry was too great, he backed off from his plans.

Worsening Fiscal and Political Crises.

In the years that followed his initial encounters with the English Parliament, James decided, like Elizabeth before him, that it was better not to call the representative body to meeting. Still he was faced with an ever-increasing shortfall of funds, and during the second decade of his reign, he made up this shortfall through the sale of offices and the awarding of royal monopolies to trade in certain commodities. Elizabeth, too, had practiced such a policy, although her greater popularity had tended to stanch criticisms. James, by contrast, was not a popular figure. At the same time, he continued to uphold the Church of England while prudently promising persecution for Catholics who practiced their religion openly, a popular policy. In the final years of his reign, any goodwill that he had amassed through such policies was spent. In these years criticism mounted because of his tendency to fall prey to young favorites like George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, with whom James apparently nourished a long-term sexual obsession. In 1521, James secretly sent off his son and heir Charles with his favorite Buckingham to Madrid to arrange a marriage with the Spanish Infanta. When the scheme came to light it caused a scandal and had to be abandoned since an alliance with Spain had been particularly unpopular in England since the Spanish Armada of 1588. In that failed offensive Spain had launched an invasion force against the island with the intention of accomplishing its re-conversion to Catholicism, and since that date most in England had turned a wary eye toward Spain. With the Spanish marriage discredited for his son Charles, James considered other possible marriage alliances. But his decision to wed his heir to Henrietta Maria, the sister of Louis XIII of France, was hardly a prudent choice. France, too, was a Catholic country that had long nourished a rivalry with England. Thus the last years of James's reign came to be particularly uncomfortable, especially when the dire financial situation of his government required the calling of Parliament to set England's finances aright. He now faced a chorus of criticism, particularly from his Puritan opponents who desired widespread reforms in exchange for new taxes.

Charles I.

If James left his son a dangerously unstable situation, Charles I soon offended just about every faction in England. Quarrelsome and high-handed by nature, he came to alienate even his supporters. Early in his reign he dissolved two meetings of Parliament when members insisted that the king's ministers should be answerable to the body. By 1628 when he called his third meeting, he was forced to sign the Petition of Right, a document that outlawed many of his previous revenue-raising schemes. Chastened by the defiance of Parliament, he resolved not to call the body again, and between 1629 and 1640 he ruled largely without any representative assembly, a decision that forced the king to rely on the sale of offices and other monopolistic practices that had long excited the outrage of Parliamentarians against him and his father James. At the same time, Charles's religious policies offended the sensibilities of many in England, who feared that his High Church formalism and support of pomp and ritual was a precursor to a restoration of Catholicism in the island. This strain of criticism only worsened, particularly after Charles installed William Laud (1573–1645) in 1633 as archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the church of England's establishment. Laud soon persecuted members of the Puritan party, including the popular London attorney William Prynne. Prynne, an avid opponent of the theater and a critic of the lax standards of morals evidenced at court, had for several years conducted a pamphlet campaign against the High Church party. Laud had Prynne seized and tried, but when Prynne began a term of imprisonment in 1633, he continued to write from his jail cell, having his works smuggled out of prison to be published and circulated secretly. King Charles and Laud continued to move Prynne about the country, hoping that they would find a spot secluded enough that he would be unable to work his intrigues. But in 1637 as the prisoner continued to defy their orders, they had him seized, his earlobes shorn off and both his cheeks branded with the letters "SL" for "seditious libeller." Prynne, ever the showman, promoted his marks as "Stigmata Laudis," meaning literally, "the marks of Laud." Laud's other measures did little to quiet fears that a restoration of Catholicism was imminent in England and Scotland. He refused to engage in dialogue with Puritans and openly tried to offend the party. Between 1634 and 1637, the archbishop ordered Visitations of all English and Scottish dioceses, which turned up evidence of widespread Puritan practices. To counteract this threat, Laud insisted that observance of his policies was synonymous with loyalty to the king. Among the particularly despised measures he enacted were a revival of James I's measures against the "keeping of the Sabbath," a measure that now excited even more outrage in the 1630s than it had in 1618. Laud's measures re-installed the force of James I's proclamation allowing Sunday games and the opening of public houses. These measures were explained to the country in the so-called Book of Sports that King Charles issued in 1633. Laud's other directives sought to redecorate English churches with costly furnishings; in the past generations many of these churches had been whitewashed as Puritan ideas were in the ascendant. While his measures were popular among some quarters, they were greeted as "godless popery" among the Puritans, who generally were more organized in their opposition to state policies than moderates or the High Church party that supported such initiatives. By 1639, his efforts to establish an Anglican-style worship in Scotland produced the brief, but vicious "Bishop's War" in that country, a precursor to the great civil conflicts that were soon to come to England.

The Long Parliament.

Matters of church and state were to clash in the years after 1640, when Charles I was forced once again to call Parliament in an effort to alleviate his chronic shortage of revenues. The first meeting that the king convened in the spring of the year, however, lasted only three weeks, when negotiations on both sides broke down and the king dismissed them. A few months later, though, Charles's financial situation had grown even more perilous and he summoned a second Parliament. This body was to become known as the Long Parliament because it continued to sit in some form or other until 1660. It eventually sentenced Archbishop Laud, Charles I, and other royalist supporters to death. In the months that followed its first deliberations, tensions between the Parliament and the king rose, thus necessitating Charles' departure from London in 1642. He raised an army, but in the capital the Puritan opposition began to exact its vengeance upon Charles's religious policy. Measures were enacted that did away with the office of the bishop and established a style of Presbyterian church government similar to that in Scotland. Late in 1644, the archbishop of Canterbury was imprisoned on a bill of attainder, a Parliamentary writ, and he was tried, convicted, and executed soon afterward. By this time forces of Parliament and the king were already skirmishing on battlefields in the north and west of England. In 1645, though, the conflict took a new direction when Parliament raised the New Model Army, an exemplary fighting force. In the months that followed, the leadership of the New Model army, particularly Oliver Cromwell, began to exert its influence over the religious situation. The king took up residence in Oxford not far from London, while the New Model Army laid siege to his outpost. Charles escaped for a time, but in 1647, the Scottish forces that controlled the retreat where he was hiding handed him over to Parliament. Yet again he escaped, and continued to lead a number of intrigues against the government. Finally, in August of 1648 the king was recaptured, tried, and on 30 January 1649, he was put to death. Thus the bitter rivalries over religious policies and political power that had characterized much of the reign of both of the Stuart kings seemed to come to an end. Until 1653, England continued to be ruled by the Long Parliament, but increasing disagreements and dissension in that body prepared the way for the rise of the Puritan leader and New Model Army hero Oliver Cromwell, who served as Lord Protectorate of the English Commonwealth until his death in 1658. Social and religious unrest persisted under Cromwell's government, with ever more diverse groups of dissenters multiplying throughout the country. Some of the most famous groups that multiplied at the time were the Quakers (who recognized the lordship of the Holy Spirit and rejected Christian laws), the Levellers (who advocated the elimination of all elements of rank and social privilege), the Diggers (who supported the abolition of private property), the Ranters (who rejected all forms of religious ritual), and the Fifth Monarchy Men (an apocalyptic group who argued for the abolition of taxes). Most of these groups actively worked against the regime and, coupled with the actions of Puritan fanatics, the increasingly tangled religious and political situation came more and more to discredit the Commonwealth's rule. In truth it must be admitted the Cromwell showed the wisdom of an enlightened despot in dealing with English society at a very troublesome period. Despite his Puritan religious convictions, Cromwell was a friend to George Fox, founder of the Quakers, and he protected Quakers from outbreaks of sporadic violence. At the same time the tide of Puritan extremism and religious radicalism that rose in the years of the Protectorate, and which began to spiral out of control, meant that his regime eventually came to be painted with the same broad brush of despotism that had once tarnished Charles I. And in the two years following his death in 1658, the vacuum of authority in England meant that even the generals of Cromwell's New Model Army began to realize that a return to the monarchy was preferable than the contemporary drift of affairs. Thus the way was prepared for the Restoration that occurred in 1660, an event that paved the way for the re-establishment of Anglicanism in England but at the same time did little to resolve the lingering issues of religious dissent in the country.


Edward C. E. Bourne, The Anglicanism of William Laud (London: Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, 1947).

Charles Carlton, Archbishop William Laud (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1987).

Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England (New York: Schocken Books, 1967).

Peter Lake with Michael Questier, The Antichrist's Lewd Hat: Protestants, Papists and Players in Post-Reformation England (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002).

Nicholas Tyacke, Anti-Calvinists: the Rise of English Arminianism, 1590–1640 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965).

see also Literature: English Literature in the Early Seventeenth Century

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The English Civil Wars

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