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  The English Civil War Information: Level 3

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Level 3. Narrative source - The origins of the English Civil War of 1642

The situation before Charles I came to the throne

  • After William the Conqueror's invasion of England in 1066, kings and queens (usually kings) wielded considerable power. In medieval times there was no parliament to limit that power. However, if there was a monarch who was not very competent, or showed signs of weakness, the great nobles might take advantage of this to challenge the king's rule. One example of this was in 1215, when the barons forced King John to sign the Magna Carta; another was in the fourteenth century when Simon de Montfort set up the first parliament to challenge the authority of Henry III.
  • Up to the 16th century, most people in England believed that it was right that the king or queen should rule the country. Parliament could offer advice, but everyone agreed that the king or queen had the right to rule the country. Kings or queens who were reasonably competent (good at the job) did not usually have people challenging their right to rule the country. However by the reign of Elizabeth parliament was already gaining a sense of its own importance. The monarch needed to ask them to vote taxes whenever extra money was needed for wars or other emergencies. This gave them quite a lot of power although Elizabeth usually kept parliament under control.
  • The history of England from 1066 to 1625 seemed to show that a monarch had to be very weak, very incompetent or both, for a major section of the country actively to oppose them over a period of time. Monarchy was the accepted form of government and even when the Civil War started in 1642, few people wanted to get rid of kings altogether. That being so, any inquiry into the causes of civil war would have to look closely at the part played by the monarch who was in power at the time.
  • One major problem for monarchs by the start of the 17th century was a financial crisis. When James I came to the throne in 1603 some long term changes in England's economy had weakened the monarch's position. The crown had been financially secure after the financial reforms of Henry VII, but Henry VIII spent everything left to him by his father and more. Increasing defence expenditure, inflation, court expenses and royal gifts meant that the financial strength of the monarchy was gradually eroded. This made the monarch more dependent on parliament to raise extra taxes when needed.

The situation when Charles came to the throne

  • When Charles came to the throne in 1625 he faced several problems. Some school text books claim that his father, James I, had not been a popular king. Because he had come from Scotland some people viewed him as a foreigner. There were also problems over religion. It should be remembered that in the seventeenth century, a much higher proportion of the population had very strong views about religion than they do today Most of the country was anti-Catholic and very suspicious of any monarch who was sympathetic to the Catholics. Charles himself was a Protestant and supported the Church of England but he was married to a Catholic (and a foreigner at that). Some people were worried that he might tolerate, or even favour, the Catholic religion. Charles encouraged a form of worship that some people thought was too much like Catholicism. This made him unpopular with the 'Puritans' who wanted simple services. It would have been difficult for any king or queen to have a religious policy that would please all religious groups at this point in English history.
  • Another problem which faced Charles I was money. James I, Charles' father, spent 35,000 a year on himself, his court and his family. This was four times as much as Queen Elizabeth I, the previous monarch, had done. Some text books claim this made the monarchy unpopular, but there are historians who suggest that people were proud of kings who looked rich and prosperous, and this actually did the the monarchy no harm.
  • However, Charles certainly faced the problem of not having as much money as he needed when he inherited the throne. A hundred years before, in the 1530s, the king had not needed to raise taxes because he earned enough money from rents on his lands and customs duties. However prices had gone up five or six times since then, and revenue (money) from these sources had only gone up by three times, so there wasn't enough money to run the country even in a normal year. Finance had been a source of tension between king and parliament before Charles came to the throne: in 1614 and 1622 parliament refused to give James I the tax increases he wanted. What made things worse for Charles was that he also spent a lot of money on himself, his court and his family; he particularly liked spending lots of money on expensive paintings by famous artists. Charles tried to raise money through forced loans and taxes such as Ship Money which he could raise without the permission of parliament. In 1635, Charles extended the Ship Money tax from coastal areas to all parts of the country. Some people refused to pay and it made the king even more unpopular.
  • Charles also needed a lot of money to fight wars against other countries it was his misjudgement to enter conflicts with France and Spain which he could not afford. In 1625, one of his first decisions as king was to continue the hostilities against Spain. Wars against Catholic countries were popular if the campaigns were successful: most people in England thought of these countries as "the enemy." However the expeditions against Spain, in 1625, and France, in 1628, were disastrous and achieved nothing. It could be argued that the campaigns were unsuccessful because parliament refused to raise the money to fund them adequately, but these wars caused much bad feeling and made parliament unwilling to vote further taxes. This made the financial situation worse. People did not understand that some of the problem with money was due to the fact that the usual sources of the king's income were no longer enough to run the country. They blamed it all on Charles and his ministers.
  • The King's choice of ministers and advisers was another factor which caused trouble with parliament. In 1626, although parliament was in favour of war with Spain, they had refused to grant taxes for war because they hated the king's general, the Duke of Buckingham. In 1629, desperate for money, the king forced nobles and merchants to lend him money, and put them in prison if they refused to do so. By 1628, Buckingham had fought three campaigns against Spain and France, and lost all of them. Instead of getting rid of Buckingham, a bad general, and a highly unpopular figure, the king stood by his friend, displaying loyalty but perhaps bad judgement. In 1629, parliament criticised Charles for allowing Catholics to attend his court, for raising taxes without its permission, for his expensive foreign policy and for forcing changes on the church. Relations between Charles and parliament were so bad that in the same year, the king dissolved (decided to do without) parliament, and ruled without them for the next 11 years. Charles did not display the same skill in handling parliament that Elizabeth I and other previous monarchs had shown.
  • Charles' choice of advisors was unfortunate. As well as the hated Buckingham, some other advisors were very unpopular. Parliament hated Strafford, who had governed Ireland for Charles. Unlike Buckingham, Strafford was very efficient and Parliament feared he might try to use an Irish army of Catholics against Charles' enemies. In 1641, they voted for him to be put to death as a traitor. Charles did not use his power to save Strafford. Perhaps this gave parliament a sense of their power over the king and encouraged them to oppose him even more. Certainly Charles later felt that the sacrifice of Strafford had been one of his greatest mistakes.
  • Charles' chief adviser on religious matters, Archbishop Laud, was particularly unpopular with the Puritans. In 1633 Laud brought in a policy to bring back very richly decorated churches. It made people fear that the king might be going over to the Catholics who also liked to have very richly decorated churches. The Puritans were also angry when, in 1637 Laud had the ears of three of them chopped off for protesting against his religious policies.
  • In 1637 Charles ordered the Scots to use a new prayerbook which they hated, and they rioted and rebelled against this. In 1639, Charles sent an army to crush them, but it was badly led, underpaid and achieved nothing. In 1640, the Scots occupied the north of England, refusing to leave unless they received 850 a day, which Charles could not pay. To make things worse, in 1640, there was a Catholic rebellion in Ireland. Some protestants were killed so there would be pressure on him to fight another war. The king was now desperate for money, so later in 1640, he had to go back to parliament to ask for taxes. They would only agree to this if he gave in to their demands. Eventually in 1641, he did give in to many of their demands as there seemed to be no alternative, but by this time parliament hated and distrusted him. If he had compromised with parliament at an earlier stage perhaps relations would not have become so bad.
  • In 1642 Charles tried to regain control of matters by arresting the five members of parliament who were leading the opposition to him. This went badly wrong because the five members fled before Charles arrived with soldiers, and it lost him what goodwill there was left towards him in parliament. There were demonstrations against the king in London. It was suspected that Charles might try to use the army against parliament, so parliament voted to take control of the army. For Charles, this was a last humiliating blow which he could not endure. He left for Oxford to gather support against parliament, and in summer, raised his standard against parliament in Nottingham.

Why did Charles do so many things that made him unpopular and which caused so much trouble with parliament?

Why did he not change his policies when he realised that parliament and the people did not like them ?

  • Most school text books argue that underpinning all his decisions was his belief in the "divine right of kings". This was the belief that God put the king on the throne and no other person or group, such as parliament, had any right to question his decisions. As A.J. Patrick remarks, "Charles believed that he had a God given right to do as he pleased without consulting anybody. He was determined to keep parliament in its place. A quarrel was inevitable."
  • Perhaps another king with the same problems could have avoided war by knowing when to compromise without losing face and how to win over some of his opponents without major confrontations. There is little disagreement over the main sequence of events leading to the civil war- but there are differing interpretations of what caused the war, and these interpretations have changed over time.

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