The causes and origins of the English civil wars

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The debate on the causes and origins of the English civil wars is intense and unresolved. Since the emergence in the 19th century of scholarly, source-based interpretations, very different theories have been advanced. At times, something approaching consensus has been achieved, but discordant voices have always challenged the then orthodoxy and produced contrasting theories, and in due course the consensus has collapsed. At other times, no single line has carried much weight and a range of differing interpretations have been given currency. In the early 21st century we are going through a period of discordance, with no single interpretation which most historians either hold to or are reacting against. Instead, the field appears rather cluttered.

It is hardly surprising that later generations of historians have struggled to locate the origins of the wars, for many contemporaries were unsure or divided about their causes. The parliamentarian Bulstrode Whitelocke, for one, professed himself baffled, writing of the position in summer 1642, 'it is strange to note how we have insensibly slid into the beginning of a civil war by one unexpected accident after another, as waves of the sea which have brought us thus far and we scarce know how'. But other contemporaries attempted a more sophisticated analysis and claimed to detect a pattern. The royalist Edward Hyde, later Earl of Clarendon, believed that war resulted from a series of blunders made by both sides in the years before 1642 in their handling of problems in central government and administration. In other words, he pointed to a war whose causes were short-term and in essence political and constitutional (including the handling of religion and the state church). On the other hand, James Harrington believed that the war sprang from changes in society and the economy which he traced back to the reign of the first Tudor, Henry VII, and to developing tensions between the old landed elite and a newer, rising middle group. In other words, he pointed to a war whose causes were long-term and in essence socio-economic. These key variables - long-term or short-term, political and constitutional (including religion and the church) or socio-economic -provide a matrix into which most subsequent interpretations can be placed.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries the emphasis was upon long-term political, constitutional and religious causation, with the so-called Whig historians focusing on a political and constitutional power-struggle between crown and parliament, particularly the House of Commons, underway by the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, compounded by disagreements between a conservative crown supported by the religious elite and a group of radical, reform-minded puritans over the future of the state church. For the Whigs, the civil wars of the 1640s, as much a Puritan Revolution as a political and constitutional contest, were the culmination of a century or more of secular and religious conflict. During the middle decades of the 20th century many historians, Marxists and others, argued that the civil wars resulted from long-term socio-economic change and were the consequence of growing tension between a declining feudal order dominated by the old aristocracy and a new, emerging, innovative, capitalist class of gentry and urban and rural middle classes. For Marxist historians, these changes in the socio-economic balance of power, which could be traced back to the early Tudor period, if not before, resulted in a bourgeois revolution of the mid-17th century. During the 1970s and 1980s the field was dominated

Bulstrode Whitelocke claimed that the descent into war in 1642 was the result not of a logical sequence of events or of any deep-seated and long-term causes, but rather of a succession of unexpected accidents, writing gloomily of the imminent conflict, 'what the issue of it will be no man alive can tell. Probably few of us now here may live to see the end of it.' (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

A contemporary or near-contemporary portrait panel of James I, the first Stuart king of England, from a window of Corpus Christi church,Tremeirchion, North Wales. (Author's collection)

by revisionist historians, who returned to political, constitutional and religious causation but who emphasised short-term explanations. Most revisionists argued that the early Stuart state was strong and united, with evidence of harmony, co-operation and consensus, and that civil war resulted from problems in the running of church and state which emerged predominately after the accession of Charles I in 1625, many of them stemming from Charles' own personal, political and religious approach to government. During the closing decades of the 20th century many historians sought rather deeper, longer-term causes of the war, some within England and Wales - including the weakness of royal finances and religious division over whether the Church of England needed further reformation - others found further afield. In particular, during the 1980s and 1990s many historians stressed that the English civil wars had been preceded and shaped by failed wars against Scotland and rebellion in Ireland and argued that all these conflicts stemmed from one or more common causes, a British problem or problems. They suggested that when, in 1625, the British multiple kingdom passed to a monarch who was careless of the rights and distinctiveness of his component territories and who tactlessly sought to impose change and greater religious conformity, Charles created crisis, collapse and war throughout his three kingdoms.

Although all these 'top-down' interpretations attracted considerable support for a time, none has proved durable and each in turn has produced a growing tide of criticism and scepticism. Meanwhile, over the past few decades some historians have explored divisions at the local level in the period before and during the civil wars. Taking a 'bottom-up' approach, these historians analyse how and why the nation as a whole, or particular parts of it, divided in the early 1640s, and seek to explore the views and outlooks not only of the provincial elites but also of the ordinary mass of the population. They have often found that the provincial population took an active and well-informed interest in developments at the centre, that ordinary people held strong views about developments in church and state, which overlay provincial and local concerns. Many historians have gone on to suggest that the secular and religious policies pursued at the centre in the pre-war decades created or exacerbated fractures in provincial society and that these not only help explain how the people of England and Wales divided once war began but also formed an essential element in causing the civil wars. Deep and wide divisions in English and Welsh society - for some historians principally over religion, for others involving a wider mixture of social, economic and cultural factors too - mirrored the divisions at the centre, and this explains why the towns and countryside of England and Wales divided into civil war so quickly and readily after elite relations at the centre had broken down.

In short, historians remain divided on the causes of the English civil wars. Some focus on local and provincial society and argue that divisions amongst the masses are crucial in explaining the outbreak of war, for no matter how and why the political or social elites may have fallen out, full-scale civil war occurred only because of much broader and deeper fractures within English and Welsh society. Others see this as a secondary issue, helping to explain the spread of war and the pattern of loyalties once it began, but arguing that the war was actually caused by divisions within the elites. A few historians continue to focus on socio-economic elites, on changes in the fortunes of, and tensions between, the old aristocracy and the landed gentry or middle classes. Many more focus on problems in the running of church and state, on a range of long-, medium- and short-term difficulties in the political, constitutional and religious structure and administration of England and Wales. These often include the strains caused by an outdated system of state finance which by the 17th century left the crown struggling to run the country in peacetime and in dire straits in times of emergency or war (whose

A portrait panel of Charles I, again from a window of Corpus Christi church, Tremeirchion. While most civil wars in England had been fought between rival claimants to the throne for possession of the crown, the civil wars of the mid-17th century were exceptional, for no-one seriously doubted that Charles was the rightful king. What was at stake during the 1640s was how Charles should rule, the policies he should pursue and the powers he should exercise, not whether he was the true king. {Author's collection)

costs and complexities were escalating); unease with and within the state church about its future direction and the desirability and course of further reformation; and evidence of growing political dislocation amongst the elite, with conflict between crown and parliament, disagreement over key policies and perhaps also over matters of broader principle, ideology or political philosophy. Historians who point to these sorts of tensions often emphasise that their origins lay in the Tudor or early Stuart period, but that they deteriorated markedly after Charles I came to the throne in 1625. They tend to emphasise the shortcomings and failings of the new king who, by mishandling a difficult inheritance and through his own personality and policies, turned potential problems into real ones, needlessly kicking awake dogs which had slumbered under James I. In this interpretation, Charles I was not the only cause of the civil wars, for their origins lay far deeper and pre-dated his accession, often by many decades. But his mishandling of the situation contributed greatly to the crises and confrontations which during the 1640s dragged England and Wales down into civil war.

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