Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War

The English are admired for the stability of their political constitution and their healthy scepticism towards any radical ideas which threaten it. Yet when King Charles I raised his Royal Standard at Nottingham and declared war on Parliament in 1642 he plunged his country into a chaos which saw families divided in mortal combat, a frenzied explosion of religious zealotry, the trial and execution of a king, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the imposition of a military dictatorship.

Charles ISuch violent upheaval of the nation-state, its institutions and society was a fully-blown revolution on English soil. But what is striking is that this revolution was not inevitable: for although it was rooted in deep conflicts in political ideology and religion, the extraordinary course of events could have taken a different direction at several crucial points if key people in the drama, especially the King, had made other decisions. Simon Court explains.


Charles succeeded the throne from James I in 1625 and his early years of reign were hampered by numerous conflicts with Parliament over the raising of taxation. He was uncommunicative, uncompromising and, as we saw in my piece Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I, he was also devious and untrustworthy. When in 1629 Parliament objected to Charles’ collection of ‘tonnage and poundage’ taxes without their authorisation he took the arrogant step of dissolving Parliament and decided to rule without it. He did this because he believed that he was God’s representative on earth and demanded that his word simply be taken as law. For him the authority of a king was ordained by God and he was accountable only to God, not to his people, for “it is not the place of the subject to question the royal prerogative”. Unsurprisingly this absolutist approach to government met with increasing opposition from those who sought to limit Charles’ powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of Parliament as the elected representatives of the people.

Charles’ position worsened when in 1635 he decided to make ‘ship money’, which had previously been levied on only coastal counties to fund the upkeep of the navy, a national levy. The payment of this tax was fiercely resisted, and in 1637 John Hampden argued that any tax levied without the approval of Parliament was illegal. Although Hampden lost in court he won the battle for public opinion and collection levels for ship money collapsed further.

By 1640 Charles was running out of money and in April he was forced to recall Parliament for the first time in eleven years to approve the raising of necessary finances. The House of Commons, led by the Puritan John Pym (pictured), refused to grant Charles the unconditional subsidies which he demanded and Charles promptly dissolved it. This was rash and ill-advised because when a Scottish army occupied the north of England he was again forced to recall Parliament in November 1640 to levy the taxes required to suppress the rebellion.

Parliament realised that Charles’ authority had been weakened and took the opportunity to try and wrestle power away from him. Still feeling unable to criticise a monarch directly, Pym led the assault on his ‘evil counsellors’. The obvious target was Sir Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who was the most feared and loathed of Charles’ allies. Strafford had vigorously collected ship money for the King during the 1630s and was rewarded by being made Lord Lieutenant in Ireland, where his bully-boy tactics were equally successful. In a royal circle generously endowed with mediocrity, Strafford stood out as an efficient and intelligent enforcer. In a bold move the Commons impeached Strafford on charges of high treason in December 1640, as well as declaring ship money illegal and passing an Act for three yearly parliaments to end the king’s personal rule.

In March 1641 the trial of Strafford began. He was accused by Pym of urging the King to use Irish troops to invade England and launch a military coup against Parliament. Strafford was successful in refuting this charge but the mob wanted his blood. Faced with a petition of 20,000 demanding execution, Charles weakly abandoned Strafford, granting the Royal Assent necessary to execute him. This was a monumental mistake by Charles (which he later acknowledged in his death speech before his own scaffold in 1649) because it showed Parliament that he could be pushed around.

In the autumn of 1641 Charles faced a revolt in Ireland between the Gaelic Catholics and the Protestant Scottish and English settlers. Charles demanded the resources necessary to send an army to Ireland but Pym and the radicals again opposed him, counter-demanding that Parliament must control any military campaign, and must have a veto over key royal appointees. Horrified at this attack on his royal prerogative, Charles accused Pym and four others of high treason. On 4 January 1642 Charles stormed into Westminster with an armed guard to arrest them. He sat in the Speaker’s Chair and, on observing that “all the birds are flown”, departed in pursuit of them.

Charles’ failed attempt to seize his opponents by military force whilst Parliament was in session was an act of pure folly which caused an irreparable rupture between the King and his MPs. He was seen as a tyrant and his error was compounded when he chose to flee his capital for the safety of Hampton Court. Abandoning London to Parliament, he persuaded his wife Queen Henrietta-Maria to flee to Holland to sell the Crown Jewels to raise continental support. He had lost political control and decided to declare war on Parliament in August 1642.


Charles’ father, King James I, had succeeded in achieving the balancing act of preserving the Protestant doctrine within an essentially Catholic structure of archbishops, bishops and clergy. English Catholics were largely law-abiding, and the radical Presbyterians (or Puritans), who sought to abolish archbishops and bishops, were held in check while James lived. However, the tensions which existed between the Church, Catholics and Puritans were unleashed during Charles’ reign, and the rebellions which he faced in Scotland and Ireland stemmed from religious disputes.

Queen Henrietta MariaAlthough Charles was a deeply religious man, his own Protestant faith was questioned when he married a Catholic, Henrietta-Maria (pictured), and allowed her to continue to be one. She was a deeply unpopular figure, and the suspicion grew that Charles was becoming unduly influenced by a court “replenished with Papists” who sought to bring the Church closer to Rome. Not only did Charles fail to appreciate the intensity of anti-Catholic feeling, he contributed to it by supporting the attempts of Archbishop Laud to reassert the importance of prayer and the sacraments (especially holy communion) in church worship.

Many Puritans interpreted Laud’s reforms as an attack on their central religious convictions. Puritans believed in the individual’s direct, personal relationship with God, and denied that a priest could act as an intermediary. Many also adhered to the doctrine of predestination, which taught that God had already elected the chosen few for heaven: no amount of devotional prayer or taking of sacraments would alter that. Therefore the role of the clergy should be limited to the preaching of sermons and the reading of scriptures. They therefore dismissed as popish superstition the Catholic belief (shared by Laud and Charles) that only through prayer and the ritual of the sacrament would the individual gain divine grace.

In addition to these profound theological differences there was also a deep-seated Puritan fear that the Pope as Antichrist was actively seeking to destroy them. From the Spanish Armada onwards, England had feared a Catholic invasion from the Continent, and the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes had enflamed paranoia about popish conspiracies at home. Cathedrals were described as “nests and nurseries of superstition and idolatry where the old beldame of Rome hath nuzzled up her brood of popelings”. Charles lacked the judgement and sensitivity to understand the potency of that fear and in supporting Laud’s reforms he lost the confidence of his people that he was a trusted ‘Defender of the Faith’. This was most clearly manifest in Scotland, where his attempt in 1637 to impose the English Book of Common Prayer and re-establish sacrament and ritual in service led to the Scottish Presbyterians abolishing bishops in 1638, and forming an army which defeated Charles and precipitated the political crisis of 1640.


Aloof, ascetic and humourless, Charles was a remote figure, choosing to hide behind the pomp and decorum of his court, and his authoritarian style alienated him from his people at a time when diplomacy and compromise was necessary.

Henry Prince of Wales Isaac OliverBut the most crucial fact about Charles is who he was not. In other words his handsome elder brother Henry, Prince of Wales (pictured). Henry had been heir apparent to James I, an assertive young man of whom Michael Drayton wrote “Britain, behold here portray’d to thy sight Henry, thy best hope, and the world’s delight; ordain’d to make thy eight Henries nine”. Yet tragically in 1612 Henry died from fever at the age of eighteen. Henry would probably have been a dynamic and successful king: his father had written him a book on the art of kingship, he had already sat confidently by his father’s side in Parliament, and his Protestant faith was uninfluenced by Catholicism. Charles had watched in awe his brother’s exuberance, and was devastated by his death, which was met across the land with widespread public grief.

Charles was never meant to be king, and he possessed an insecurity born out of a fear about his ability to fulfil his duties. He lacked insight, tact or flair, and he knew throughout his life that he was not in the same class as Henry. Comparisons between them were regularly drawn as advisers implored Charles to try to act like Henry – “men looke upon your worthy brother in your princely self: holding you the true inheritor of his vertues as of his fortunes”. Even as late as 1641, on the eve of civil war, a book written in 1613 on the Life of Henry was finally published to guide Charles. But he failed to emulate Henry during his reign, making crucial errors of judgement at pivotal moments, and leaving us with the suspicion that if Henry had lived, could the disaster of the English Civil War have been avoided?

Simon Court

See also Simon’s articles on Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles IThe New Model Army: why Parliament won the English Civil War and Key Battles of the English Civil War.

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