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The English Civil War: Tremors - Introduction

Updated Tuesday, 9th June 2015

Tristram Hunt introduces the section that explores the gathering rumblings before the war.

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The Civil Wars of the 1640s did not emerge out of thin air. They were the accumulated result of over a century of religious and political tension.

Religion was the major source of conflict. After Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Europe became a religiously divided continent. Protestant and Catholics came into violent conflict, while more radical, militant Protestants fought those whom they regarded as less devout than themselves. These religious tensions scarred Europe for two centuries and, in some places, still mar the political landscape today.

The significance of religion is clearly evident in Irish affairs. England was relatively uninterested in Ireland prior to the 16th century, but after England was expelled from the European mainland in the 1550s and started to emerge instead as a major maritime power, Ireland suddenly became more attractive.

However, the colonisation of Ireland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was very different from that of the Middle Ages. In the medieval era, the English colonists had been Catholic and relatively few in number - and they were ultimately absorbed into the mainstream of Gaelic society. The new planters, on the other hand, were militant Protestants who tended to regard the Gaelic locals as backward, savage and, because of their religion, potentially rebellious. As the planters pushed the indigenous Irish from their lands with increasing fervour, it created violent tensions which would explode into bloodshed in the 1640s.

After 1603, Scotland and England were tied more closely together in the person of James Stuart (James I) and his descendants. James's succession had initially appeared as a recipe for amity between the two countries - and a solution to the problems caused by Elizabeth's childlessness. Yet, in time, subtle but important differences between the two Protestant states would lead to war - which would in turn quickly infect other parts of the Stuart kingdoms.

Finally, relations between Crown and Parliament became increasingly fraught during the early years of the seventeenth century. The Stuart monarchs claimed to rule by divine sanction and demanded unyielding obedience. However, Parliament also claimed a place in the polity, and it exercised some influence over the Crown through its power to sanction royal tax-raising. Without clear and unambiguous guidelines to govern relationships between these two entities, friction was almost inevitable. James I knew when to bend and how to trim. His son, Charles, had far less imagination.

The background

Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe provided the backdrop against which the Civil Wars of the 1640s were played out. Before 1517, Europe was religiously united, with all states and virtually all subjects acknowledging the Pope as their spiritual leader. However, following Luther's revolt of 1517, Europe inexorably divided into two hostile camps-the mainly southern Catholic states, and the generally smaller states of the north which embraced Protestantism. In time, moderate and radical Protestants would also came into conflict with each other, and this conflict spread to the British Isles.

Reformation and Counter-Reformation England reflected European events in microcosm. Henry VIII set England on a path towards Protestantism after 1534 but, desperate for a male heir, he was partly motivated by dynastic considerations. Henry dissolved the monasteries, broke with Rome and created a national English church but he shied away from the theological implications of Protestantism. Indeed, many of his reforms from the 1530s were repudiated during the last years of his reign.

Henry's only surviving son, Edward VI, extended his father's tentative reformism. Images and altars were discouraged, Protestant bishops replaced Catholic ones and 'justification by faith alone'- a key tenet of Protestantism- was endorsed. However, Edward died in 1553 and was succeeded by his Catholic half-sister, Mary Tudor. Mary reversed many of her father's and brother's innovations: transubstantiation was defended, images and altars returned, Protestant bishops were ousted and some Catholic religious orders returned. Mary also persecuted religious opponents- almost 300 Protestant martyrs were burned at the stake-but this only formed an indelible link in the popular mind between Catholicism and repression.

Having witnessed the way in which religious instability undermined national unity, Elizabeth I, the 'virgin queen' pursued a religious 'middle way' during her 45-year reign. Although she retained her father's role as Supreme Head of a national church, she tended to favour theological compromise and expected only outwards religious obedience from her subjects. Elizabeth kept royal expenditure to a minimum and this fostered good relations with Parliament, but the next monarch proved to be very different.

James VI of Scotland was the first king of Scotland to also rule England. After 1560, both nations were Protestant, but Scotland favoured a more rigorous anti-episcopal Calvinism in comparison with the more moderate Anglicanism. This would ultimately create bitter tensions between the two countries.

Where Elizabeth was frugal, James was lavish and soon ran up large debts. He never mastered the art of 'managing' the English Parliament and so Crown- Parliament relations became increasingly tense during his reign. James consolidated and extended the Irish 'plantation' policy whereby the native Irish were driven from their lands by Scottish and English Protestants, and the resentment this policy provoked would later explode in violence.


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