The English Civil War

King Charles I (1600-49), Studio of Sir Anthony van Dyck

 The English Civil War

by Mark Wegierski


The English Civil War of 1642-1648 and its aftermath, the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, constitutes one of the defining experiences of the cultural identity that can be termed Anglo-Americanism. The English Civil War is really the first great modern revolution and it set the pattern for subsequent revolutionary upheavals in the entire Anglo-American cultural sphere, and especially in America itself.

As in the American Civil War, with which it offers many parallels, the forces in this conflict were unevenly matched, because of the economic predominance of the Northern and Parliamentary sides, respectively. The Royalists, centered in the rural hinterlands of the country, with virtually no navy, and poor sources of munitions and supply, fought a losing war against the increasingly powerful forces paid for by the enormous resources of London and other trading-centers. The panache of the Cavaliers was no match for the iron drill and discipline of Cromwell’s New Model Army. The sense of the historical inevitability of Cromwell’s victory has a profoundly tragic dimension.

America, despite its proclamation as a Novus Ordo Seclorum, was not without a historical tradition. The locus of that tradition was the new English state, particularly as it emerged after the short but extremely critical period of Cromwell’s ascendancy. The historical outcome of the English Civil War can thus be seen as a pivotal point for the emergence of America. The idea that Cromwell’s Puritans are the essential progenitors of America helps explain various phenomena in American history, from major trends such as “political correctness” and televangelism, to ephemera such as Jonestown and David Koresh.

The Puritan ascendancy itself was a culmination of a long series of social and civil conflicts in the British Isles, which began with Henry VIII’s break with Rome, the sacking of the monasteries, and the coming of the Protestant Reformation to England. By the time of the outbreak of the English Civil War, a number of fundamental divisions in the societies of the British Isles had emerged, which can be characterized as follows.

Religious Divisions: The extremes were the Roman Catholics versus Calvinist groups such as the Puritans. The Roman Catholics were pejoratively called “Papists”, and the often highly exaggerated fear of, and contempt for, “Popery”, or “the Romish Church”, typified by the bogeyman of “the Spanish Inquisition” and “the Jesuits”, became an increasingly strong element in the new English society. Some of the initial impetus for these sentiments had been given by the Roman Catholic Queen Mary’s short reign as “Bloody Mary”, and the threat from Spain under Philip II (the Spanish Armada) during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

The Anglo-Catholic or High Anglican (High Church) tradition lay between these two extremes, but tended towards Catholic ritual, while recognizing the distinctiveness of the Church of England, and considering the Pope as merely the Bishop of Rome, with no special authority in England. The Anglicans did not at this time characterize themselves as “Protestant”, but rather as a third group between Roman Catholics and the radical Protestants. In contrast, the radical Protestants saw the Papacy as the embodiment of the Antichrist. The offices of Bishop and Archbishop, as well as the notion of the Apostolic Succession (i.e., that the ultimate legitimacy of the Church lay in the transfer across millennia, beginning with the Apostles, of the priestly authority) were recognized in Anglicanism as in Roman Catholicism.

The Low Anglican tradition (Low Church or Broad Church), which emerged in greater strength later, identified itself with more Protestant, anti-Catholic and anti-aristocratic English tendencies. The equivalent of the Anglicans in Scotland was the Scottish Episcopal Church, which claimed to be the real Church of Scotland — not the Calvinist Presbyterian Church which eclipsed it while using the same name. There was also a substantial English Presbyterian group. They formed one of the larger factions in the Puritan-dominated Parliament, before Cromwell’s full ascendancy.

“Puritans”, from the Latin puritani, meaning “the pure ones”, is a general term for various Calvinist, radical Protestant groups of the period. The Puritans were known for their moral earnestness, their disdain for worldly pleasures, and their ascetic industriousness. The constant reading of the Bible to the members of the congregation, and the exhortation to every person in the congregation to read and study the Bible on their own to confirm their faith — without the mediation of an organized priesthood — was one of their most pronounced religious characteristics. Puritanism stressed the sincere profession of one’s faith and condemned Catholic and Anglican ritual, churchly splendor, and a hierarchical priesthood set apart from the congregation.

The obsessive reading of the Bible, particularly certain parts of the Old Testament and the Book of Revelation, reinforced the Puritans’ sense of their own righteousness, and encouraged all manner of radical ideas. The Puritans sought to impose the Kingdom of God on Earth, by force if necessary. They were concerned with every aspect of a person’s daily behavior, and detected “paganism” everywhere in society, and  construed almost any monarch as an “Oriental despot”. James I, for example, was characterized as a “British Nebuchadnezzar”. It was widely suspected by Protestants that George III, who in fact dealt severely with Roman Catholics, had secretly converted to Rome.

Defaced Statue, Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral

By a curious twist of reasoning, extending tolerance to Catholics was seen as advancing oppression in England (or America). Roman Catholicism was generally considered decadent and immoral. The first major known and popular work of semi-pornography in England was Confessions of a Nun. The prurient uncovering of supposed Catholic moral turpitude was a constantly recurring theme in Protestant polemics and criticism. As late as the end of the nineteenth century, Protestants in America referred pejoratively to “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion”. Puritanism was also intensely masculine-centered, rejecting the special place of the Virgin Mary in Catholicism, and also radically monotheistic, considering the Catholic “veneration of the saints” as gross idolatry. The profound difference in the two religious styles is typified in the contrast between the Protestant Barnkirche (literally, “barn-church”) and the sumptuous Baroque cathedral. The more radical Puritans were opposed to all graven images, which lead to mass outbreaks of iconoclasm (the defacing or smashing of statuary in Catholic or Anglican churches). The English countryside contains many picturesque ruins of such churches (viscerally considered “heathen temples”) sacked by Cromwell’s soldiery.

Political Allegiances: Broadly speaking, these were between Tories and Whigs (as these terms were defined in the second half of the seventeenth century). The term “Tory” is derived from the Irish Gaelic, toraidhe, from a phrase meaning “Come, O King”. The term “Tory” was originally used as a term of abuse denoting an “Irish Papist or Royalist bandit”, with the added meaning of “the pursued”. Toryism at this time denoted a belief in the ultimate supremacy of the monarchy in the realm (with Parliament a distinct but junior partner) which was justified as constituting the ultimate, organic, and unifying element of the kingdom. Religiously, it generally embraced Roman Catholicism, or Anglicanism, or the Scottish Episcopal Church. Royalist is another general term, while Cavalier is used to describe this side in the English Civil War itself. The term Cavalier, roughly equivalent to “knight”, “gentleman”, or “armed horseman”, was derived from the medieval French chévalier. The stereotypical image of the Cavalier was as a horseman in a fancy, “musketeer-type” hat, richly-dressed, with long, flowing hair, sword in hand. The Cavalier lifestyle was said to include a large portion of “wine, women, and song”.

The term Whig was derived from the shortening of the Lowland Scottish word whiggamore, which was originally a cry used for herding horses or cattle. It had been adopted as a battle-shout of the most radical faction of the Presbyterian Covenant in Lowlands Scotland. The term was extended to refer to advocates of the ultimate supremacy of Parliament in the English constitution, which was justified as being the best political arrangement: as a so-called mixed constitution of checks and balances (King-in-Parliament, House of Lords, House of Commons); and as the best guarantee of “ancient rights of Englishmen”. The term Parliamentarian is used to describe this side in the English Civil War. Roundhead, often used as a synonym for Parliamentarian, refers more specifically to Puritan soldiers, and was derived from the closely-cropped hair typical of Cromwell’s cavalry. The stereotypical Roundhead wore the “lobster” helmet and a plain coat of hard leather, with no vain adornments. One should note a degree of divergence between the Parliamentarians and Roundheads, as Cromwell eventually came to rule as Lord Protector. Ultimately, however (after 1688) the Parliamentarian position prevailed.

Dynastic Allegiances: The Stuarts, originally Kings of Scotland, came to the throne of England in the person of James VI (of Scotland) and James I (of England). The term Jacobites (derived from the Latinized name of James — Jacobus) refers to partisans of the Stuarts in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution in England had effectively deposed King James VII (of Scotland) and James II (of England). The Protestant William of Orange was brought over from Holland to England as King William III. Upon his death, the Protestant Hanoverians were drafted in to keep the Catholic Stuarts from the throne.

Territorial Allegiances: Ireland was an almost exclusively Roman Catholic society, although there was an ongoing influx of English and Protestant settlers in the Pale of Settlement. Ironically, the spark for the English Civil War was a great Catholic uprising against the English in Ireland. Charles I needed money to raise troops to prosecute the war, which Parliament refused to grant, suspecting they were more likely to be used at home. The King managed to reach an effective truce with the Irish when the fighting began in England. Another major trigger of the conflict was the execution in 1641 of Lord Strafford, the king’s chief adviser.

Scotland, at this time, was a kingdom unified with England only in the person of the monarch, with its own Parliament, law-courts, system of customary law, foreign relations, and coinage. It was divided between the basically Jacobite Royalist Highlands, and the Whig-oriented Lowlands, although even the Scottish Presbyterians had a degree of allegiance to their native Stuart dynasty. All Scots participated in the great invasion of England in 1648 (at the behest of Charles I), but their army, three times larger than Cromwell’s, was decisively defeated at Preston.

In England, support for the King at the beginning of the war was centered in Wales, Cornwall, and northern England. Wales and Cornwall were the last Royalist bastions in England. The university town of Oxford was briefly (especially in 1642) the Royalist political capital of England.

Economic/Class Divisions: Although there was support for both sides among all social classes, it is traditionally considered that the English aristocracy centered in the House of Lords favored the Royalist cause, while the middle-classes centered in the House of Commons favored Parliamentarianism. 302 members of the House of Commons and 40 Lords supported Parliament, 236 Commoners and 80 Lords followed the King. Yet royalist support in the House of Commons was larger than might be expected, while the image given by these numbers, with respect to the House of Lords, is largely illusory. In fact, much of the high aristocracy allied itself with Parliament. Lord Fairfax, a dashing cavalry commander and seemingly a natural supporter of the King, was in fact a leading Parliamentary leader. Many of the great aristocratic families were on the side of Parliament, or had certainly become Whigs by 1688. The monarchy could count on the support of only a handful of high aristocrats, such as the redoubtable James Graham, Earl of Montrose. Many of the King’s foremost agents and supporters were in fact men of common origins, for example, Archbishop Laud, the zealous champion of Anglicanism, so hated by the Puritans that he was executed in 1645.

There are conflicting opinions where the support of the grouping called “squires” lay. On the one hand, in Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, one of the squires portrayed (Squire Western) is a caricature of an English Jacobite, a common social type of the period. On the other, Cromwell himself was a squire, and the Whig supremacy which emerged after 1688 is often characterized as “the squirearchy”. Perhaps the richer and more prominent squires supported Parliament, while the more indigent ones tended to support the King.

The House of Commons represented a very small section of society at the time, and it was often considered that there existed an alliance of the monarchy and the common people against the haute-aristocracy and the increasingly important (and rapacious) merchant-classes (haute-bourgeoisie). The poorest and most rural sections of the kingdom were generally the most likely to support the monarchy. It should be noted also that the entire aristocracy in England numbered less than 1% of the population. 

Country/Urban Divisions: London, as well as all the large trading-cities, supported Parliament. It is possible to interpret the entire war as a struggle between the English metropolitan node, the capital city, against most of the rest of the countryside and hinterland. One of the classic interpretations of the English Civil War is as a conflict between the interests of the remnants of feudalism, and emergent capitalism. Note, however, that the monarchic and aristocratic interests were not necessarily coterminous, and that many peasants perceived the emergent capitalism as a greater threat than the feudal remnants. Furthermore, the notion of a classic “feudalism” ever existing in England has also been challenged. The peasantry of England represented “the free peasantry” typical of Western Europe, as opposed to the “serfs” of Eastern Europe, who were being subjected to the so-called “new serfdom” after 1500 or so.

“Ethnic” Divisions: There is a large degree of congruity between basically “Celtic” areas of the British Isles on the Royalist side, and the most “Saxon” or “Anglo-Saxon” parts of England supporting Parliament. One of the strongest centers of Parliamentary support was the Eastern Association area in East Anglia, which was probably the most “Saxon” part of England (lying closest to the area of Denmark and the North Sea coast from which the original invasions had come) — and which had also later been part of the Danish Viking area of the Danelaw. The support for Parliament in that area is also connected to the economic wealth of East Anglia derived from the wool trade. Concerning the divergence in allegiance between Highland and Lowland Scots, some historians have hypothesized that the Lowlands had been settled by Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Danish invasions, or at a later point as part of the policy of the Norman Kings. Scots-Gaelic was in fact virtually extinct at this point, the common language of Scotland being Anglo-Scottish memorialized in its later form by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns in the Eighteenth Century. For example, “Auld Lang Syne” is a typically Anglo-Scottish, not Scots-Gaelic phrase.

Mark Wegierski writes from Toronto


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3 Responses to The English Civil War

  1. Stoddard Martin says:

    Excellent review of the history. One was hoping that you might go on to flesh in the parallels you mention to the American civil war and indeed speculate on their relation to the fractures in Anglo-Saxony of the moment, reflected in Brexit and Trump.

  2. Alwyn Edgar says:

    Scots-Gaelic wasn’t “virtually extinct at this point” – the middle of the 17th century. For 200 or more years after that, Gaelic was the language of the Highlands – the greater part of Scotland. – Alwyn Edgar, author of “Clans and Clearance”

  3. David Ashton says:

    Is there a religious difference between people living in hilly or mountainous country and those who live in flat lands (grass or desert)?

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