Charles I and the descent into war in three kingdoms I 62542

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Charles I was a hard-working monarch with sincere convictions. However, some contemporaries and many historians have viewed him as a cold, formal, unattractive figure, unable or unwilling to explain himself, convince doubters or win affection, a man temperamentally and perhaps intellectually unsuited to holding power at a time of so many potential difficulties. From the outset, Charles pursued divisive and sometimes unworkable policies, refused to conciliate or compromise in the face of difficulties and instead pressed ahead in the belief that a combination of his own iron will, a widely-shared respect for monarchy, divine support, duplicity and if need be physical force would drive through his chosen policies and ensure obedience. Although his kingdoms appeared to remain internally at peace and orderly until the late 1630s, most historians believe that Charles' approach and policies were provoking a rising tide of tension and dislocation. This may explain not only why the king's position collapsed so rapidly in all his kingdoms in 1638-42 but also why instability in one kingdom quickly destabilised its neighbours.

By the late 1630s Charles had aroused considerable opposition in England and Wales. In the latter half of the 1620s he went to war against l-'rance and Spain, mounting expensive, badly-organised and poorly-led campaigns which were disastrous failures.

The royal arms from the facade of the King's Manor in York. In the pre-war years this was the seat of the king's Council of the North and a residence of SirThomas Wentworth. (Author's collection)

The royal arms from the facade of the King's Manor in York. In the pre-war years this was the seat of the king's Council of the North and a residence of SirThomas Wentworth. (Author's collection)

Royal Warant

Between 1625 and 1629 he conferred with three parliaments, each of which criticised his war policy and proved very slow at voting money. To cover his spiralling debts, Charles imposed exactions without parliamentary consent. The king's religious policies also caused problems, for he favoured high church, ceremonial Anglicanism, called 'Arminianism' or 'Laudianism', after William Laud, the king's closest religious adviser and, from 1633, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was opposed not only by godly reformers but also by many moderate believers who viewed Charles' innovations as undesirable and smelling of Catholicism. In the face of growing parliamentary criticism, the king determined to rule for a time without further parliaments in England and Wales and called none between 1629 and 1640.

During this period of Personal Rule, Charles directly oversaw government, employing his prerogative and executive powers to the full. Expenditure was curbed, not least by making and maintaining peace overseas, while income was boosted by exploiting existing sources and by reviving a range of feudal dues, so that for much of the 1630s the regime was financially strong. At the same time, Charles and Laud were able to push ahead with their religious policies, imposing more rigid, ritualistic and ceremonial forms of worship, physically beautifying and rearranging churches. Direct opposition was muted, for in the face of occasional legal challenges, the courts consistently found in the king's favour, and they were prone to punish harshly the few outspoken critics of royal policy. On the surface at least, the Personal Rule in England and Wales appeared to be running smoothly.

As king of Scotland, Charles was largely ignorant of, and unknown to, his subjects north of the border. In the 1630s he attempted to change religion in Scotland and to bring its church closer to the Church of England by imposing new canons and a prayer book modelled on English versions. This crystallised Scottish discontent, for they symbolised the approach of a distant and authoritarian crown careless of Scottish rights, the Anglicisation of Scotland and its government and the Anglicanisation of Scotland and its church. Most Scots viewed their Presbyterian church as purer and more reformed than the Church of England, and there was strong and widespread resistance to attempts to undo the Scottish reformation. The king lost control of the situation and the government and administration of Scotland passed to his opponents, the Covenanters, who in 1638-40 effected a revolution in church and state, leaving the king little power north of the border. Charles sought to re-establish royal control over Scotland by resorting to arms, seeking to use the military resources of his other kingdoms to crush the Scots. Charles fought two Scots' or Bishops' Wars, in summer 1639 and 1640. The first ended with an inconclusive truce, but the second resulted in a decisive Scottish victory and the occupation of the far northern counties of England by the Scottish army.

In April 1640 Charles had met an English parliament, thus ending his Personal Rule, and sought support and money to enable him to renew war against Scotland. Instead, that parliament proved overwhelmingly critical, seeking redress of grievances, and Charles dissolved this Short Parliament after barely three weeks and without a penny voted. However, having fought and lost another war against the Scots in summer 1640, Charles was in a very different position when he summoned and met another English parliament that autumn. He had been roundly defeated militarily, part of England was occupied by a hostile army demanding further payment, his two disastrous wars had left him saddled with huge debts and all-but bankrupt, his subjects in England and Wales had seized the opportunity presented by the king's difficulties to stop paying their taxes and above all Charles had been humiliated and left with little room for manoeuvre. When what became known as the Long Parliament began work in November, it held the whip hand and it knew it. Charles, too, recognised that for the moment he would have to give ground and make concessions to a parliament he could neither ignore nor dissolve at will.

The mistakes and divisions of the late 1620s, the personnel and policies of the Personal Rule, the disastrous wars against fellow-Protestants in Scotland, the dubious financial and religious innovations, all stuck in the craw of the vast majority of MPs and peers as they got to work in the closing weeks of 1640. During its opening year, a united parliament swept away much of the personnel and policies of the Personal Rule. Laud was imprisoned, the king's chief secular adviser, Sir Thomas Wentworth, Karl of Strafford, was condemned and executed, other royal ministers fled abroad, most of the feudal dues revived in the 1630s were abolished, it was firmly established that new taxes required parliamentary consent and some of the post-1625 religious innovations were reversed, though the king's critics trod more carefully here, aware of the divisive potential of religious reform. At the same time, the position of parliament itself was made more secure by legislation ensuring that the Long Parliament could not be dissolved except with its own consent and that henceforth no more than three years could elapse between two successive parliaments.

Civil war was not possible in England and Wales in 1640-41, for the king was facing a tide of opposition inside and outside parliament, and lacked a substantial body of support willing to fight for him. Instead, the crisis was apparently being resolved peacefully, within parliament. By the spring and summer of 1642 the position was very different. The political elite had split asunder, the king had gained a party at the centre and was rapidly gaining one in the provinces, and two different, distant and physically separated groups were preparing to go to war. What had occurred in the interim to account for these dramatic changes?

Part of the answer is to be found in Ireland, which had been governed by Sir Thomas Wentworth for most of the 1630s. His brutal rule alienated most groups there, including the majority Catholic population as well as some of the minority Protestant community who were deprived of their estates. Wentworth's recall to England in 1640 and his fall and execution in 1641 left an enormous power vacuum in Ireland, as well as a legacy of discontent. The majority Catholic population, in particular, became nervous, worried by virulent anti-Catholic sentiments emanating from both the English parliament and the victorious Scottish Covenanters, some of whom were airing grand plans for a British-wide Protestant religious settlement. On the night of 22-23 October 1641, acting in co-ordination, many of the Irish Catholics of Ulster rose up in rebellion, and in the following days and weeks rebellion spread to the rest of Ireland. By the end of the winter most of Ireland was under the control of Catholic rebels. Creatly exaggerated atrocity tales soon began circulating in England and Scotland, horrifying the English parliament and raising the political temperature. The Catholic rebels claimed to be acting with the king's support and waved a royal commission, almost certainly forged. Although he acted swiftly to condemn the Irish Catholics, Charles fell under suspicion that he had colluded with them and fear of Catholic plots intensified. Above all, while everyone was agreed that an army would have to be raised in England and Wales and sent over to protect surviving Protestant communities, crush the rebellion and restore English rule, many doubted whether Charles could be trusted to command it. There were fears that he would deploy it not in Ireland against Catholic rebels but in England against parliament and its supporters.

Thus the Irish rebellion brought into stark relief one of several unresolved issues concerning the role and power of the monarchy and the future settlement, upon which Charles now took a stand. In terms of the military arm, Charles stood firm that the king was automatically commander-in-chief and that all military power rested with him alone. But many felt that he could not be trusted with an army and that alternative arrangements had to be made. In terms of the executive arm, Charles stood firm that the king had full and sole power to appoint, dismiss and direct officers of state and various executive bodies, notably the Privy Council. Again, many critics were demanding that parliament should have the right to make or vet such appointments. Perhaps even more thorny was the question of religion and the church. Although most members of the political elite were agreed in 1640-41 that the Church of England should be de-Arminianised and the post-1625 innovations removed, some wanted no more than a return to the church of Elizabeth I and James I; by autumn 1641 that was the line being taken by Charles. But others wanted to push much further, to complete the work left half finished in the 16th century, and radically to reform the Church of England, perhaps by abolishing episcopacy.

In autumn 1641 some of the political elite wanted to press ahead further to limit the military and political powers of the king and to create a purer church. They genuinely believed that additional changes were needed in order to avoid renewed clashes and another crisis. Many also feared that if the reform programme stalled, Charles would retain enough power to enable him in the future to reverse concessions which he had made insincerely and only under duress during

1640-41. Hut by autumn 1641 other members of the political elite believed that reform had gone far enough, that the abuses of the Personal Rule had now been corrected and that the king should and must be tnisted. To push further was unnecessary and dangerous, and risked undermining the divinely appointed and anointed monarchy, destabilising the state and unleashing turmoil and heresy. In standing firm on remaining points of issue, Charles began consciously and effectively to portray himself as defending the traditional church and state, as a bulwark against parliamentary innovation and the anarchy it would unleash. It was a stance which struck a chord with many and brought tangible results. Parliamentary debates and votes during the autumn and winter of

1641-42 confirmed that the political elite was becoming increasingly fragmented, that support for further change was declining and that many former critics of royal policy were now moving to support the king.

The early 17th-century communion rail in St Mary's church. Chediston. Suffolk. One of the most contentious aspects of Charles' high church policy of the pre-war years was the introduction of permanent, east end altars which were railed off to prevent the laity approaching the altar Only the clergy could enter this privileged area, emphasising their enhanced role as intermediaries between God and the congregation. (Author's collection)

During the winter and spring of 1641-42 there was growing division and distrust between this royalist group and the parliamentary reformers. The latter pressed ahead with their programme, drawing up a list of royal abuses, advancing legislation implying or asserting that the king no longer had sole military power, and eventually laying claim to full control over the armed forces and the executive. Some of these were genuine goals, but others are better seen as part of a phoney or paper war. For his part, the king generally reacted moderately, agreeing to some limited reforms but also refusing to give assent to many of parliament's demands, and sticking by his line that he represented and was defending the existing church, constitution and rule of law. However, at times Charles acted rashly, over-estimating his strength or panicked into unwise moves. Amidst scenes of growing public disorder in London, in early January 1642 he personally intervened in parliament in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest some of his leading critics, whom he accused of treason. Soon alter, fearing for the personal safety of himself and his family, and aware that London's militia and the Tower of London were now in the hands of men loyal to parliament, he decided to quit the capital, heading first to Hampton Court, and then north, eventually setting up his court in York. From there, he and his advisers issued various declarations and rebuttals over the summer, engaging in the paper and propaganda war with parliament.

The physical separation of two substantial and increasingly hostile parties raised the possibility of civil war. But many historians suggest that war could only have begun if there were also deeper divisions within society, bodies of supporters within local communities who were prepared to fight. The thirst for news and information in the provinces had been whetted by the dramatic developments of the early 1640s and had in part been met by a huge expansion in printed material. Thus large sections of the population were probably well aware of the growing crisis in 1642

and had informed views about it. Despite widespread dismay at the drift towards war, with evidence of apathy, neutralism and a desire for peace, the call to arms met a sufficiently strong response to enable both sides to raise credible armies and begin a war.

As each side sought to raise an army in summer 1642, adopting very similar methods, there were inevitably a number of tense stand-offs or real and occasionally bloody fights, as rival recruiting agents worked in the same area or as one side sought to secure a stronghold then in the hands of the other. Thus in April the king and his forces were denied entry into Kingston upon Hull by its pro-parliamentary governor, in mid-July royalists attacked but failed to capture Manchester, whose townspeople were sympathetic to the parliamentary cause and were supported by some pro-parliamentary troops, and in early August parliamentary forces launched an operation to capture Portsmouth, then in royalist hands. Many other clashes are not so well documented and it is now impossible to say with certainty when and where the first fatality of the English civil wars occurred. A Mancunian weaver, perhaps called Richard Perceval, killed on 15 July in the defence of Manchester, is often pointed to as the first civil war casualty, but in reality we cannot be sure. There certainly were more fatalities in Somerset in early August, when a body of royalist horse and dragoons ambushed a much larger party of parliamentarians at Marshall's Elm, firing several volleys of shot and killing at least three outright and leaving a further 20 or so fatally wounded. 'And thus innocently began this cursed war', the royalist commander that day later recalled. Although other confrontations ensued in the following fortnight, the action at Marshall's Elm on 4 August may well have been the bloodiest confrontation of the summer to pre-date the formal outbreak of civil war. This occurred on 22 August when, in a theatrical and medieval gesture, Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham.

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