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The English Civil War: Aftershocks - 1650 - 1701 - Introduction

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

Tristram Hunt introduces the final chapter - what happened next, as the nation struggled to live with the aftershocks?

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The execution of Charles I solved one problem, but created many others. Who would govern? And what sort of legitimacy would they enjoy? And what form of religious settlement would bring peace to the land? A large part of the next 50 years would be consumed trying to devise solutions to these questions.

Oliver Cromwell got the first chance to resolve these dilemmas. Politically and militarily pre-eminent following his victories at Dunbar and Worcester, Cromwell was King in all but name.

Cromwell made two attempts to resolve the political and religious conundrum - the Instrument of Government and the Humble Petition and Advice. However, the country was still bitterly divided by the turmoil of the 1640s and the conservatives (who objected to religious freedom) and the radicals (who objected to the power enjoyed by the executive) couldn't agree. Unable to find enough general support for his plans, Cromwell died in 1658, and was succeeded, briefly, by his son Richard. In May 1660, the Stuarts returned in the person of Charles II.

Uninterested in major affairs of state, Charles II initiated no major constitutional or religious innovations, but his determination to guarantee his brother's right to succeed generated a major constitutional crisis. James, Duke of York, was an open and unapologetic Catholic, and his succession re-awakened all the old spectres of religious persecution, political absolutism and Catholic revanchism dreaded by many Protestants. Alarmed by the prospect of an entrenched Catholic monarchy, the Anglican elite reacted by inviting William of Orange to invade in defence of the Protestant settlement. William landed at Torbay in November 1688 and James's support evaporated almost immediately. Although he tried to return via the backdoor of Ireland in 1689, he was decisively defeated at the Battle of the Boyne.

The political and religious settlement of 1689- 1701 was far more permanent than that of earlier years. Catholicism was a dwindling force on the mainland, the religious differences between Scotland and England were relatively minor and most people supported the idea of Crown and Parliament working together.

Between 1689 and 1701, Crown and Parliament worked in partnership to create a political and religious settlement which still underpins Britain's constitution. Standing armies without Parliamentary consent were forbidden, Royal tax-raising without Parliamentary consent was forbidden, the Crown lost its power to suspend or ignore laws enacted by Parliament, and Parliament had to meet at least once every three years. The 1701 Act of Settlement conferred the crown to the house of Hanover and stipulated that only Anglicans could ascend to the throne. That law is still in force today. Religion still haunts our politics.

Charles I's execution solved one problem but created others- who would govern? And with what legitimacy? Politically dominant by 1649, Cromwell made several attempts to fashion a lasting political solution during the years of the Republic, 1649- 60.

Britain was a Commonwealth during 1649- 53, with executive power vested in a Council of State and legislative authority vested in the Rump. However, when the Rump proved unable to provide clear, decisive leadership, Cromwell dissolved it, and the three kingdoms became a Protectorate with Cromwell acting as Lord Protector. The enthusiastic Parliamentarian was now King in all but name. Cromwell declined the offer of the throne in 1657, probably because he knew the army would object.

Cromwell died in September 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. However, as the state drifted towards anarchy during 1659, only one solution seemed possible and so, in May 1660, the Stuarts were restored to their thrones in the person of Charles II.

An avowed sensualist, Charles had more in common with his grandfather than with his highly moral father. He also knew when to bend and compromise and his uninterest in major constitutional issues provided the three kingdoms with the tranquility they needed after twelve yeas of turmoil.

The only political principle to which Charles was wedded was the principle of legitimate succession for Charles, in the absence of legitimate heirs, was determined that his brother James should succeed him on his demise. James' open Catholicism precipitated an Exclusion Crisis during 1679- 81 which Charles weathered because his finances were sound and he was able to govern without Parliament. When Charles expired in February 1685, the three kingdoms and Wales had their first Catholic monarch for 130 years.

Catholic monarchs were suspected of absolutist and religiously intolerant tendencies and James VII/II did nothing to allay these fears during his short reign. Catholics were appointed to senior army and navy posts, Catholics (and dissenters) received Freedom of Worship through non-parliamentary means, a standing army was formed, and local government and the judiciary were packed with royal sympathisers.

As long as the succession was going to pass to James' Protestant daughter Mary, all this was tolerable, but when James' wife, Mary of Modena, produced a son and heir in June 1688, concerned Protestants and lovers of liberty were terrified. They would have to move quickly.

In July, a group of Protestant nobles and clergy invited William of Orange (Mary's soldier- husband) to invade England to save it from 'popery'. William landed at Torbay in November and support for James quickly melted away. When James tried to return two years later, he was decisively defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and William's victory was assured.

The Glorious Revolution's political victory was secured during 1689- 1701. Much of the seventeenth century's political conflict had been created by the absence of clear guidelines to regulate relations between Parliament and Crown, and the Glorious Revolution endeavoured to resolve this friction by creating a new framework based on co-operation.

Under the Revolution settlement, Parliament was to sit at least once every three years, no standing armies were allowed without Parliamentary approval, and the Crown was prohibited from suspending or implementing laws or raising money without Parliamentary approval. Political stability was to be secured on the basis of Crown and Parliament working in partnership.

The inability of Mary and her sister Anne (1702-14) to produce healthy heirs prompted Parliament to pass the Act of Settlement in 1701. Under this legislation, succession was settled on the House of Hanover and all future monarchs were required to be communicating Anglicans. This eighteenth century legislation still underpins Britain's uncodified twenty-first century constitution.

The Aftershocks

Civil War





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