Part 1: Was The 17th Century English Civil War A Prelude To America’s 21st Century Identity Crisis?

What Was The English Civil War And Its Historical Effect On A Newly Independent United States?

The English Civil War (1642-1651) was a religious and cultural battle over the institutional powers of the English monarchy and the succession of English leadership. It was an epic battle of politics and religion that helped shape the political culture of the United Kingdom. The outcome of the ensuing battles helped build the institutional framework for representative governance and instilled democratic ethos throughout England, now defined as a Constitutional Monarchy. But to reach this point of development, the English had to overcome religious fervor, factional infighting, and popular insurrections throughout Scotland and Ireland. The lack of political unity throughout the continent, layered with the popular mobilization of fervent anti-Catholic Puritans, whom sought to resist the monarchy, encased England in a legendary battle over the political identity of the country.

It was a battle between the pro-monarchy Royalists (the Cavaliers) and Puritan led Parliamentarians whom were composed of English Parliamentarians, Covenanters in Scotland, and Confederates in Ireland. The Parliament was mainly made up of a faction against the rule of Charles I , colloquially known as the Roundheads. The Puritans were against the influence of Catholics over the Church of England and sought to build a military resistance against Catholic domination of the English throne. Charles I was seen as having Catholic leanings and was accused of wanted to put England under the influence of the Catholic Church.

The English Civil War was not only a battle over the institutional power of the monarchy, but was a fight over whose religion was befitting of cultural reign. Was it that of the divine right of kings or that of the Puritans? Was it that of an authoritarian or of populists?

King Charles I was a divisive and unpopular king as he became more authoritarian in his demands for more control over the English Parliament.

The English Civil War was mainly started because of a military buildup orchestrated by Charles I to deter an Irish and Scottish insurrection. Because Charles I was known to rule without the consent of Parliament, the military buildup upset the Parliamentarians and caused them to refuse the king’s desire for military adventurism against religious and political allies in those territories.

A major cause of contention was who would control the army. One of the reasons for the political mistrust between the king and Parliament was instigated by an event in 1639 and 1640, where a Scottish army seeking religious concessions invaded England. This act precipitated political deadlock in London, which paved the way for a rebellion by Catholic Ireland in October 1641. The struggle between King Charles I and his Westminster Parliament was over which religious faction would control the state army needed to crush the Irish and Scottish insurrection. In order to control the army to thwart an attack on his throne, Charles recalled Parliament but it backfired. Parliament resisted and many were tried to treason. The theological dimension of the conflict turned deeply political, with Parliament outwardly challenging the authority of Charles I, hastening the outbreak of civil war in England by August 1642.

Run Up To The Civil War

It is important to note that during the lead up to the English Civil War the European continent was engaged in the religiously infused 30 Years’ War (1618-1648) that culminated in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the first known treaty to give birth to the idea of the nation-state. Differences over the theological nature of Christianity and how it is used to define the communal order of society helped to shape the political identity of burgeoning states, acting as a legitimate enforcer to the unofficial borders of Europe for that time period.

The same was happening on a smaller scale within England. In 1620, the crown under King James I sought to keep religious infighting to a minimum, but Parliament insisted on boycotting trade with Catholic countries. As King James I was dying, Parliament did not want his son, Charles I, to marry a Catholic, but he decides to marry a Catholic anyway and unites the English throne with a Catholic French princess.

Different shifts in Anglican protestant theology were exacerbated by political infighting between the powers of the English crown and that of Parliament, which in today’s time might be considered akin to mob democracy. The fight was not so much over English political institutions, but that of the character of those systems and the cultural ethos, as defined through religion, which would be used to define the underpinnings of British society.

Exacerbating the ongoing religious divisions, a war of propaganda was ensuing between Royalists and Parliamentarians. There was no domestic news press because King Charles I was concerned about popular discourse and its discontents. Since there was no freedom of the press at this time, Puritan Pamphleteers came into existence. They were used to spread Puritan propaganda about the inner workings of the throne, with one pamphlet undermining Charles I political authority by stating he was being controlled by the queen. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the main adviser to King Charles I, was attacked because he preferred a return to Catholicism. Puritans had their ears cut off for being caught publishing the pamphlets.

With the aid of the Pamphleteers, the absolute power of the English monarchy, under the reign of Charles I, was challenged by Parliament. As Parliament sought to define the English Church with the theological underpinnings of Protestant (Puritan) doctrine, the politically inept Charles I was unable to use his power to balance inter-religious relations between Catholics and Protestants. His marriage to the Catholic French princess inflamed religious tensions with many Protestants distrustful of an alliance with the Catholic French King. This further debilitated Charles I legitimacy to reign. With his bombastic display of monarchical power, the seat of the British monarchy under Charles I was increasingly losing its ability to wield absolute power in the style of French Absolutism, i.e. the decree of power from God and not that of a representative political body. A lack of agreement on issues such as tax policy, the scope of Parliament’s role in advising the crown, the if the crown’s ecclesiastical policy was undermining Protestantism played a major role in exacerbating tensions both within Parliament and throughout greater society.

As Charles I was king of Britain and Scotland, he wanted to impose the Book of Common Prayer on Scotland, which was seen as not Protestant enough, more like a piecemeal document. The Scots rebelled. In 1639 Charles I goes to war with Scotland without Parliament’s approval. His war fails. He then asks Parliament for money, they say no, he tries to dismiss them, but they don’t close their session. This is the opening to civil war.

One of the key markers leading up to the British Civil War was Charles I choice of impropriety over socio-political decorum. His decision to dissolve the Parliament officiated his war against the Puritans, whose powerful reach within society only grew more succinct with the leadership of Oliver Cromwell.

Legendary Tale of Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was an English statesman, solider, and later that of colonel for the pro-Parliament faction against King Charles I. He was a Puritan who launched attacks against Charles I’s bishops and distrusted the Church of England. He thought it was being overrun by Catholic influence and sought to remake England into a strictly Protestant nation. By 1640, he used his platform in Parliament to mount attacks against his theological enemies and was viewed as a radical by some of his colleagues.

The civil war was the nexus of changing attitudes towards the powers of the king and the fear of a slide towards French style absolutism. The push for more representative government was represented by Oliver Cromwell’s revolt against the institutional abuses of Charles I. Laced within Cromwell’s revolt was the push for religious and social reform of English society, one in which a strict form of Protestantism, that of the Puritans, would be used to rebuild the social contract of the governors and the governed.

But was Cromwell’s revolt a nascent form of democratic civil society seeking to challenge the corrupt institution of monarchical rule? There were many battles being waged during the English Civil War, it was not only Protestant vs. Catholic but also Royalists fighting Parliamentarians over geopolitical influence in surrounding territories. An important question seems to have been drowned out by the mainly religious dimension of the conflict. Was the seat of the king the true problem of English governance? Was it necessary to void the power of the king’s seat in order to attempt to instill socio/religious reforms to English society?

Cromwell’s rule was tainted by the public execution of King Charles I in 1649. It is hard to consider his short reign (1653-1658), that of Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, to be anything other than guided by the decree of mob rule, what we know today as populism. Cromwell did not rebuild institutions or reform Parliament to be more democratic.

England was less authoritative only in its name change, with its attempt at being a republic rather than a monarchy. Cromwell sought a religious change to the heart of English society, and with that came a top down issuance of new cultural norms in the guise of Puritan theology and morality. People of the time were quite divided between accepting the new moral leadership of Cromwell’s Puritanism and pushing back on his use of Parliament to enact laws that where seen as religiously dogmatic.

The forceful application of Puritan theology was mostly seen as another form of authoritarian rule. Once the king is executed Parliament convenes and produces the Westminster Standards to impose a theologically prudent Protestant England. Cromwell may have sought to reform England to his understanding of what constitutes a principled society, but was unable to legitimize the governing authority of the new republic. The son of King Charles I, Charles II, was able to reclaim the throne in 1660 after Cromwell’s son was unable to build the political validity of English republicanism. When Charles II comes back he bans the Westminster Standards, leading to further division between the Puritan and Anglican (English State Church) branches of Protestantism.

The Significance Of The English Civil War

The development of the English Parliament is quite fascinating. The seed of its origin is said to begin with the signing of the Magna Carta of 1215. Drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and signed by King John of England, it set out to negotiate a settlement between King John of England and his barons. The barons were akin to a land owning nobility whom demanded more rights from an unscrupulous king. The negotiation between King John and his barons that resulted in the Magna Carta did not include the underclasses, thus historically being viewed as a business contract rather than a pure foundation for democratic representation.

Nevertheless, the barons tried to break the absolute power of the king by wanting protection from illegal imprisonment, access to swift justice, and limits on feudal payments/ taxes to the crown. Though protections were negotiated on behalf of the noble class, the resultant document did provide a nascent framework between the king and his subjects.

By the mid- 1500’s, ritual declarations and negotiations between the king and his people were starting to become formalized. Over the course of ensuing centuries these procedures helped to create Parliament as a modern institution of English governance and eventually the formation the United Kingdom as we know it today. Scotland became a part of the United Kingdom in 1707. Ireland came in late 1700s.

The United States owes many of its political traditions to the history of the United Kingdom, with a large part of American political culture having been influenced by English Puritans fleeing persecution during the time of the English Civil War. From the institutional makeup of our government to our democratic political culture, the United States was founded on Enlightenment ideals and birthed as a rebel republic. A huge part of American political identity is due to its historical revolt against the British monarchy during the American Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783. The United Sates Bill of Rights (1791) is influenced by the Magna Carta, which provided the foundation for how America’s founding fathers sought to define democratic freedoms in the newly independent country.

Part 2 of this blog post will analyze the history of the English Civil War and its relevance to modern America’s deep political divisions.


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