The English Civil War, part 2

Oliver Cromwell, by Robert Walker

The English Civil War, part 2

By Mark Wegierski

All the aforementioned religious, dynastic, political, social, economic and ethnic tensions flared into armed conflict in the English Civil War. The term “English” is, however, misleading: although the primary focus of operations was England proper (as well as Wales and Cornwall), Scotland was also critical and Cromwell, of course, extended fighting to Ireland in the aftermath of the Civil War itself. The personalities of the two main protagonists were very different. Charles I was “a mild and placid King”, genuinely concerned about the shedding of brotherly blood, with a somewhat quixotic aspect, and a strong streak of pessimism. (Even in his time, the Stuarts were often considered an ill-starred or unlucky dynasty.) This made him a poor politician and military leader. He went to his execution believing that the revulsion it would cause would result in the almost-instantaneous restoration of the monarchy in the person of his son, Charles II. Cromwell, by contrast, was generally able to see to the essence of the matter, utterly convinced of his rightness, never wavering and ruthless in political struggle. He understood the need for a well-drilled, professional force to win the war, and formed the New Model Army as his personal instrument. The heroic but impetuous Cavaliers were no match for its iron drill and discipline. There has been some debate about the character of the New Model Army: were they really “true believers”, fanatically-enthused Puritans, or rather well-drilled and disciplined professional mercenaries, assured of more regular pay than any other force in the war?

Cromwell is probably the foremost architect of the new English state and cultural identity which appropriated the term “British”. After he had won the war in England with the support of London, the merchants, the haute-aristocracy, etc., he pushed all these social sectors aside and ruled as Lord Protector, from 1653, through the New Model Army and the very small, ultra-Puritan sector of society. In 1649, he crossed over to Ireland, to begin probably the most vicious anti-Irish war ever waged. After the virtually complete confiscation of Irish Catholic landed property, he proposed confining Irish Catholics to a small, barren reservation in the west part of Ireland which would, furthermore, be completely cut off from the sea, by a ten-mile-wide coastal zone to be settled by Protestants. In 1650-1651, all of Scotland , likewise, was crushed and brought under Cromwellian rule. It is possible to see in Cromwell’s regime a precursor of the totalitarianism of the twentieth century, while Charles I’s stance can be considered the doomed, “authoritarian” resistance of a premodern type of regime.

Cromwell’s regime then scored brilliant military victories against the Dutch who were commercial rivals and the Spanish. The punctilious Puritan social regime (cutting down maypoles, banning Christmas and the theatre, the supervision of public behaviour in minute detail, etc.) was then carried out, against an increasingly recalcitrant but helpless population.

The Cromwellian period was short but extremely critical for the history of the British Isles. For the first time in centuries, the entire territory of the British Isles was united de facto in the hands of a single man. This unification was effected, however, not by a traditional monarch, but by a revolutionary warlord whose supporters numbered a miniscule fraction of the British Isles’ population, organized in a revolutionary vanguard.

In England itself, if not in Scotland and Ireland, Cromwell carried out possibly decisive social and political transformations. The impact of the execution of King Charles I, in 1649, cannot be overestimated. It undermined whatever shards of belief remained in the King’s supreme place in English society. Even when restored, the monarchy had been fatally weakened, in spiritual and also practical terms. (Virtually none of the lost Crown lands were returned to Charles II.) Much of England, swelling with patriotic pride at Cromwell’s great victories over the Dutch and Spanish, now defined itself in an implicitly Parliamentarian position. England would thus become in the base and touchstone on which the new English society (called British) would be built, and then extend itself into the entire British Isles.

Earlier illustrious figures in the history of the British Isles, notably Shakespeare, were subsumed into a new English myth, despite his manifestly royalist, aristocratic, and anti-mercantile predilections. To Shakespeare, the execution of a monarch by a revolutionary cabal claiming to represent the people, carried out in the name of their “rights”, would have been an unspeakable, if not almost inconceivable, crime. Thus, in Richard II, the removal of the ineffectual, sometimes cruel but legitimate sovereign, who is replaced by the energetic Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), leads to ongoing disaster for the kingdom.

Ultimately, it was not the dour Puritans who reaped the benefits of Cromwell’s victories, but the Whigs, properly defined. This was the haute-aristocracy and rising merchant-classes, who prevailed after 1688, in the period known as “the Whig supremacy”. Discarding the earlier royal and feudal paternalism, the Whigs created what basically was an open oligarchy, enjoying little sense of legitimacy, and maintaining itself largely by naked force, the prison and the press-gang, as well as by the ideology of “anti-Popery”. A paradigmatic example of their system of rule was the class of absentee landlords in Ireland. England had passed from being a society defining itself by monarchical and aristocratic honor (which at least nominally acknowledged the paternal responsibilities of a ruling-class) to a society defined by capitalist money in which the starving to death of the poor was deemed to be a fitting result of their “idleness”. Typical of this stance was the depiction of Charles I’s extensive distribution of food to the poor in a time of famine as profligate and unnecessary state-intervention. Ultimately, the religious idealism of the Puritans did not lead to a renewal of asceticism and fundamentalism but to unprecedented new forms of industrial development, money-making and exploitation.

A transition which was vital to the future emergence of the United States had been made in the English Civil War, and its real fruit, the so-called Glorious Revolution. The American Colonies, especially in New England, intensely concentrated Protestantism, as well as the new English system and its ideas, transforming it in the unencumbered atmosphere of the “open” New World into something even more potent. The justifications for the American Revolution were arguably responses to comparatively minor administrative encumbrances. It would be instructive to compare the impositions of King George III to the impositions of the U.S. federal government today. As in the English Civil War, it was a revolutionary vanguard that strove to carry out its program. And again, it was primarily the interests of the oligarchs that were served.

American and Canadian patriotisms are quite different in their origins. The harried refugees of the American Revolution — stripped of their erstwhile social position and most of their possessions — the so-called “Tories”, or “United Empire Loyalists” – settled mostly in Upper Canada (Ontario) and the Maritimes. They allied with the traditional French society of Quebec to eventually form the Canadian state (polity) in 1867, which remained culturally quite distinct from America right up to the 1960’s, and politically even to this day.

The American Revolution, which would have probably been impossible if Cromwell had been defeated in the English Civil War, created what became a restless society constantly pushing at the envelope of social and technological change, while at the same time dominated by an entrenched and virtually impermeable world-level oligarchy, which seems to have grown in power with every revolutionary surge. For example, although the 1960s protest movements were hostile to the large corporations, by the 1990s, transnational corporations had reached new pinnacles of economic influence and power.

Nevertheless, one can see in the history of America an ongoing conflict between an “organic America”, which can be captured by terms like “the heartland” or “fly-over country” and an “oligarchical America”, encapsulated by terms like “the megapolitan centers”, or “the bicoastal elites”. Without the workers, farmers, soldiers, policemen and small-businessmen of the “organic America” – the “oligarchical America” would have foundered. Yet the “oligarchical America” appears to have little sense of stewardship, gratitude, or care for the “organic America.” Just how did the ongoing “de-industrialization” of America – with its massive outsourcing and loss of jobs — become an acceptable policy? And why were policies of high immigration imposed on America since 1965, despite widespread popular opposition.

The history of America was characterized by an ongoing series of revolutionary and transformative upheavals, which share many features with the English Civil War. Just as an “oligarchical Britain” has tended to undermine the “organic Britain”, an “oligarchical America” has – at virtually every point in its history — continued to undermine the “organic America” – until there is little remaining of the latter.

Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and researcher

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