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The English Civil War (1 Viewer)



“The war created radicalism; radicalism did not create the war”. In the light of this statement, explain why it proved impossible to create a settled form of government between 1646 and 1649.

The quote “The war created radicalism; radicalism did not create the war”, though it appears to be a simplification of a complex subject, is quite well founded.

The quote is by Kishlansky, a modern expert on the English Civil War, and it aptly reflects the mood of the majority of people that were around at the time. No one had had any expectation of Charles I being executed, nor did they see the need to facilitate this execution. The King was thought of as a legitimate ruler, he was the remaining heir of James I, after the death of Prince Henry in 1612, so his ascension had been rooted in hereditary principle. The Members of Parliament who were begging Cromwell for Charles’ execution were in a minority, and did not reflect the overall feeling of the population; Cromwell himself did not want the execution, and would much rather have reached a compromise. When Cromwell called for a trial to have the king judged, he was still open to a compromise. However, late in 1648, he was urged by the army grandees that ‘no settled peace was possible while Charles lived.’ Pride had to get rid of those members most likely to vote for the pardon of the king who were still in majority. In the end only 100 members remained to conduct a ‘fair trial’. In 1646 very few people were republicans, who were the people most likely to want to be rid of the king, and hence, the people most likely to be considered radicals, even Cromwell was not considered a republican. They executed the king because God Himself had caused Charles to lose the two Civil Wars. The second Civil War had been purposefully started by Charles, in his bid to win back the Monarchy; this caused the army to consider Charles as ‘that man of Blood’. The common folk, however, had rebelled in sympathy for Charles, because they were sick of the apparent ‘arbitrary rule’ of Parliament. This goes to show the widespread support for Charles as king, and it was only a minority in the New Model Army who had wanted to execute him. Charles had proved himself untrustworthy and the soldiery had no desire to see more of their comrades die.

This helps to introduce the many factors which prevented a settled form of Government from taking hold; Charles, believing that no settlement was possible without him, had decided to buy time by causing the various factions to become divided. When Parliament had sent him The Newcastle Propositions he met them with counter-proposals of his own. He knew that the majority of people, Cromwell included, didn’t want a Presbyterian Church of England, and used this to his advantage in playing off the Parliament majority against the army. Just as religion had divided the people in the first Civil War, so had it divided them now, though Charles at this point was purposefully instigating it, by refusing to agree to any propositions made to him. The Newcastle Propositions had been followed by the more moderate Heads of the Proposals. The Heads of the Proposals were less restricting on Charles’ personal rule, and instead of abolishing bishops permanently, and making Presbyterianism the national church, had wished to lessen the powers available to the clergy, and advocated religious toleration. They may have been less restricting because the army, not Parliament, had written them. It seemed though, that Charles was not to be intimidated into accepting any proposal offered by any faction; at this point he had been captured by the army (August 1647), and was a prisoner of them. He showed no fear for his safety, indeed, he was so vehement in defending his position as ruler of the country, he had been recorded as saying ‘I have long ago resolved rather to shipwreck my person, than either my conscience or honour’. This is a clear indication as to why he had behaved so foolishly in not accepting any of the terms which had been proffered to him, and his insistence in inciting the Scots to war. A blunter reason, and not at all noble, was that he resented sharing power with Parliament, being a devout believer in Divine rule. He hoped that, if he delayed settlement long enough, the people would become sick of quartering the soldiery, and being ruled by the Houses of Parliament.

A key occurrence at this point is the politicisation of the New Model Army. It was when the Army had become a political power, that Parliament had lost their support. Parliament had invited this upon itself, by withholding the arrears owed to the army, and by not promising the army indemnity for actions taken during the Civil Wars. They had only political awareness at this point; the army was not brimming with revolutionaries, people waving Leveller pamphlets, and baying for the blood of Charles. They merely made moderate demands upon Parliament. Holles and Stapleton, the leaders of the Political Presbyterian Majority, could be thought of as radicals, if we define a radical as a person who went against the majority, and had revolutionary ideals. Their very name suggests a certain degree of radicalism, for the Presbyterian faith was a minority in England proper, and was nationally recognised only in Scotland. These two had decided to campaign against the army’s demands and had voted for the motion to send the army to Ireland, in a reduced size, and with only 8 weeks of their arrears paid. This attack on the New Model Army had the affect of pushing the republican/Leveller minority into political activism in 1647.

The politicisation of the army has been the subject of historiographical debate, whether or not it was indeed politicised, and when. The older view of the politicisation of the New Model Army states that the New Model Army became politicised early in the decade, due to Leveller influence, and hence that was why no settlement had been made; Parliament’s decision to ignore the Army’s demands, and attempt to disband the Army when it sought to petition for its rights, merely added to their political fervour. The new view of the politicisation, stipulated by Mark Kishlansky, states that, it was because of Parliament’s decision to ignore the Army, and to prevent the Army from petitioning that caused them to heed the Levellers influence, and to become politicised. Kishlansky claims that the Leveller influence in the Army was slight initially, and required the catalyst of being denied their demands to speed along the politicisation of them.

The radical moves of Holles and Stapleton had pushed various regiments in the army into radical thoughts of their own. These radical regiments were a minority, however, and the majority of the army understood the importance of getting a settlement with the king. They had felt it was important to get Charles back into power, because they had become disillusioned with Parliament, and realised that Parliament had no intention of meeting with any of the New Model Army’s demands, at least not while the 11 Members were in favour. Of course, it was not the whole New Model Army that wanted ‘radical’ demands; mainly it was Lilburne, Overton and Wildman, who had advocated that the entire army adopts the Leveller ethos, and these were indeed radical. Some of their demands included Universal suffrage, any man, regardless of income or status, should be allowed to vote for Parliament, and to be able to engage actively in politics. This was a dangerous move, for if they had allowed any man to vote, then people who had lost their estates, i.e. criminals, or foreigners who had been born into the country, and who had no interest in maintaining the felicity and well-being of the people would be allowed to vote. People who had no ‘permanent fixed interest’ in the kingdom could help pass laws or motions which could prove ruinous for those who depended upon the survival, and prosperity of the kingdom for their livelihood. The other of their more radical demands was the abolition of the monarchy, and the House of Lords. The Lords had always been protectors in their shires of rule, and long had it been their right to raise and keep and army, and to hold trials amongst their subjects. Many people had been satisfied with the way the current social order was structured, and very few people had ever suffered at the hands of a Lord, so there was not very widespread support for this motion either, or indeed, for the execution of Charles Stuart.

The Levellers in the army were like a disease that could, and did, spread to other regiments. Besides preaching the levelling of the current social hierarchy, they played on the Army’s disappointment at not having been paid their arrears, and the lack of an indemnity, which caused consternation amongst more than a few people. By the end of September 1647 cavalry regiments had sympathised and in the next few weeks a few agitators appeared in the infantry regiments as well as the cavalry. The agitators produced a few pamphlets, ‘The Case of the Army Truly Stated’ and the radical ‘Agreement of the People’, which was a much more extremist version of the Heads of the Proposals. Cromwell then decided to invite the agitators to Putney and have a debate so as to reach some sort of settlement; the result, however, was to widen the gap between the Grandees and the Leveller agitators in the army. The officers, seeing that further debating was pointless, sent the ‘rebel rousers’ back to their regiments, and when they inevitably mutinied in 1647 at Ware, they were ruthlessly crushed by Cromwell and associates. Cromwell even went so far as to execute the more radical usurpers in the army. Incredibly, he did not lose his popularity with the majority of the army; that would have been disastrous.

The army’s negotiations with the king had failed for various reasons. Firstly, the conservative officers had long since departed, causing a slight increase in the radical element. Secondly, the army had not been united with the standard of the Heads of the Proposals, some of the men had seen it as being too lenient, and the radicals had written up their own constitution which had made no mention of a king or monarchy. Why did not the army use force? Many thought that a treaty was far more substantial, than using arms. ‘Whatsoever you get by a treaty… will be firm and durable… we shall avoid the great objection that will be against us, that we gave got things of the Parliament by force… that which you have go by force, I think of as nothing.’ The final straw for the New Model Army had been Charles betrayal, and the Scots entrance into the war on behalf of the King, called ‘The Engagement’. He had further proved his disloyalty by writing in private letters to his wife that he had no intention of reaching any settlement with either Parliament or the Army. He had hoped instead to drive the two to war, and after the dust had settled, resuming the crown as undisputed ruler of England.
Charles perfidy caused the army officers to pass the Vote of No Addresses, because they had been disgusted by Charles’ use of the Scots against his own subjects, whom he was sworn to protect. The Vote of No Addresses stated that any settlement with the king was impossible, so they would cease the attempt. The Vote of No Addresses so incensed the English people that parts of south-east England, and South Wales erupted into revolt. They revolted for many reasons; the people had been sick of billeting the soldiers into their houses, and having to provide food for them all. They also feared the army, because they were, after all, well armed, and what was to stop them from using their weapons on civilians? Their hatred of the army proved to be less powerful than their distrust of the king. The Vote of No Addresses was quickly revoked, and negotiations were restarted with the King.

It would appear that Cromwell’s victories had gone to his head, and that he now saw Charles as having brought displeasure into the eyes of the Lord. This also caused Cromwell to believe himself a ‘man of destiny’, and as having God’s blessing, for he had defeated Charles, and those affiliated with Charles, twice. This sense of Providence, and Cromwell’s own religious zeal, caused him to believe that the only alternative to settlements with Charles, was his execution. By the end of 1648 the army as a whole was convinced that the King must be killed; Cromwell was convinced by certain radicals to sanction it, and even then the decision was taken at a very late stage. A quote from the Old Testament sums up their reasons nicely ‘Ye shall not pollute the Land wherein ye are… for blood defileth the Land, [and it] cannot be cleansed of the blood [except by] the blood of him that shed it.’ Charles was no longer thought of as King of England but as Charles Stuart, ‘that man of blood’. Due to various blunders, and his misjudgement of the army’s shrewdness, he had brought about his own ruin. The decree to try and execute Charles was passed by a minority; Pride purged all those Parliamentarians who had no wish to see the death of Charles. Cromwell had been pushed to this radical act, not only by Charles obstinacy to reach a settlement, but also by his believing that he, Cromwell, was God’s favourite. Charles had incurred the displeasure of the Lord by ruling without Parliament, seeking to change the established church, marrying a Catholic, and then by causing the Scots to fight his English Subjects. A settled form of Government was impossible, while these two men believed themselves the chosen of God, and when one of the men, Cromwell, had proven himself in the eyes of the army, who at the time held the most power, by defeating Charles, there seemed only one possible way of reaching a settlement for the beleaguered English Nation. That was the radical act of finally sentencing Charles to death, and setting up in its place a commonwealth.

So indeed, the quote is largely correct; there had been few radical notions at the start of the First Civil War, the Levellers had been a minority, and republicanism was not even seriously considered, it had been caused by a necessity to check Charles’ power. The second Civil War was brought about by radical means on the part of Charles; he had made secret alliances with the Scots, and constantly and consistently refused any settlement that might curb his powers. Thus was Cromwell also pushed to radical solutions, by his army officers, and by his religious zeal, this quote from his speech to the House of Commons on 3 January 1648 sums up his view nicely, and why he had been pushed to the abolition of the monarchy. ‘We declared our intentions [to preserve] monarchy, and they still are so, unless necessity enforce an alteration.’ He goes on to command Parliament to ‘look on the people you represent, and break not your trust, and expose not the honest party of the kingdom, who have bled for you, and suffer not misery to fall upon them.’ This appears to be a warning to Parliament to beware the consequences of not meeting the Army’s demands, and in lieu of what happened, the total negligence of the Army, and inconsiderate treatment of them, it was truly justice being served to Parliament, though I personally do not feel that the execution of the king was necessary.
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