There are many phrases which have remained in popular use but whose original context, and sometimes author, has been forgotten. A good example is the stark depiction of life being “nasty, brutish and short”. Only recently this phrase was evoked to describe the likely career path of modern football managers. The man who coined it was correctly identified as the 17th century English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, but what was the historical context in which it was made? It was the English Civil War. Simon Court explains.
Thomas Hobbes was writing during the turbulent years of the 1640s and early 1650s which saw a bloody military conflict between the Royalist supporters of King Charles I and his Parliamentarian opponents; the defeat of the King and his trial and execution, and the imposition of a Commonwealth in which the monarchy and the House of Lords was abolished. Whilst not directly engaged in this political upheaval Hobbes was horrified by it, and he sought to show in his political theory how the catastrophe of the civil war could have been avoided, and how future conflicts could be averted.
A ‘state of nature’
Hobbes had been developing his political thought throughout the 1640s but it received its most famous (indeed notorious) articulation in 1651, two years after the execution of Charles I, in his work Leviathan. Hobbes’ central idea is wonderfully simple. He contemplates what life would be like for people if they were not organised under a sovereign political power. He looks at them in this ‘state of nature’ and sees that they are driven by a common passion: a desire to be superior to others for the dual purpose of self-gratification and self-protection. This is of course impossible to achieve: all men cannot dominate each other. So they find themselves in perpetual conflict with a restless anxiety about the future. It is a bleak world where there is:
“continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
When King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham Castle on 22 August 1642 and declared war on his own people he did so with his customary appeal to regal pomp and circumstance. Yet the ceremony degenerated into farce as Charles made last minute corrections to the Proclamation which the Herald then had difficulty reading out, and when the Standard was blown down in a storm on the same night it was interpreted by many as a bad omen. This fiasco symbolised the incompetence which hampered the Royalist campaign, and compared unfavourably with the organisation displayed by the Parliamentarian military forces during the years of conflict. For after raising the armies and an indecisive period of hostilities, what proved to be the determining factor in the war was the command, discipline and conviction of the New Model Army. Simon Court explains.
Raising the armies
The Royalists (or ‘Cavaliers’) found it initially more difficult to raise funds and troops because it was harder to persuade men away from their harvest and towards a political cause which was purely reactionary and sought to defend the King’s absolute right to govern unfettered by Parliament. (Pictured: Charles I). By contrast, the Parliamentarians (or ‘Roundheads’) could appeal to the need to make the King more accountable to his people through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and were also able to draw on the support of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians whose religious conviction was that God was on their side. Both politically and religiously, the Roundheads were more highly motivated.
Mary Queen of Scots was born at Linlithgow in Scotland on December 8, 1542, the daughter of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise. Her father had been ailing for some time, possibly of a complete physical and mental breakdown and finally died six days after Mary was born. Mary was crowned Queen on September 9, 1543 at Stirling Castle. Mary’s great uncle, King Henry VIII of England, made it clear he wanted the baby Mary to marry his young son Edward when she turned ten, and come to England to be brought up. The Treaty of Greenwich confirmed the marriage.
When, in January 1547, the nine-year-old Edward became King of England as Edward VI, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, was appointed his Protector and ran his government. His regime was to harass the Scots unmercifully with the object of capturing the Queen. The government of Scotland decided the young Queen must be spirited out of the country and negotiated a treaty for her to marry the Dauphin of France, thus breaking the Treaty of Greenwich. She left Scotland for France where she grew up with the French royal children in the Catholic Faith. She and the Dauphin Francis were married in April of 1558. She was fifteen. Henry II, King of France died from a grisly jousting accident and Francis and Mary became King and Queen of France on July 10, 1559.
Make sacrifice of me
Francis suffered acutely from an abscess in his inner ear and died on December 5, 1560. Mary had been Queen of France for less than two years. It was decided her best option was to return to Scotland and take over her government. Before leaving she asked permission from Elizabeth I, who had been queen of England, and Ireland, since November 1558, to have safe passage through England if she was blown off course. Elizabeth refused permission. In response, Mary said if Elizabeth “shall have me in her hands to do her will of me; and if she be so hard-hearted as to desire my end, she may then do her pleasure, and make sacrifice of me; peradventure that casualty might be better for me than to live. In this matter, God’s will be fulfilled.” Little did she know she was predicting her own denouement.
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.
Such 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.
On the afternoon of 20 January 1649 a slightly-built 48 year old man with long greying hair stood before a court in London, charged with treason. But this was no ordinary court of law; it was the High Court of Justice sitting in Westminster Hall. And this was no ordinary charge of treason against the Sovereign; it was treason against the people by the Sovereign. For the man who stood trial was the King himself.
The trial and execution of Charles I was a microcosm of the English Civil War which had preceded it, in that both trial and war hinged on whether the King should be accountable for his actions to his people. The war had been bitterly fought since 1642 between the Royalist supporters of Charles I and the Parliamentarians led by Oliver Cromwell and had claimed an estimated 185,000 lives.
The Royalists defended the ‘divine right’ of the King to rule unfettered by Parliament, and to account for his actions ‘but to God alone’. By contrast, the Parliamentarians sought to limit the King’s powers by requiring him to obtain the consent of the House of Commons: what we now recognise to be a constitutional monarchy. Many of them, including Cromwell, were devout Protestants who believed that God was on their side.
The Immovable Object
By 1647 the Parliamentarians had won the military battle, scattering the Royalist armies and holding Charles in custody at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Their leaders, Cromwell and General Henry Ireton, made a number of attempts to negotiate a new constitutional settlement with Charles but he refused to co-operate with any of them. Indeed Charles, who was by turns awkward, aloof and devious, had no compunction about lying or breaking agreements.
Unlike the notorious Guy Fawkes, the name Robert Catesby is not one familiar to many. This is rather surprising when one considers that it was in fact he, and not Fawkes, who was the principal architect of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Born in 1573 to a wealthy Catholic landowning family from Warwickshire, Robert Catesby (also known as Robin) was the only surviving son of Sir William Catesby and Anne Throckmorton. The Catesby family were highly respected and well-established. However, their Catholic faith meant that they were in constant conflict with England’s Protestant establishment. Robert’s father was subjected to crippling fines and frequent imprisonments for his recusant ways. It is not surprising, then, that the young Catesby adopted an anti-Protestant stance from a relatively young age.
It is believed that Robert studied for a time at a Jesuit seminary in Douai, where he was taught theology and classical languages. He also attended Oxford University but his refusal to take the Oath of Supremacy (which declared Elizabeth I to be Supreme Head of the Church in England) meant that he left without gaining a degree.
The defeat of Charles II by Cromwell’s forces at the Battle of Worcester on September 3, 1651 set off one of the most astonishing episodes in British history, writes Gillian Bagwell, Charles’s desperate six-week flight to reach safety in France, which came to be known as the Royal Miracle because he narrowly eluded discovery and capture so many times.
Charles had been forced to flee England in 1646 during the Civil War and had lived in exile since then, bouncing between France, Holland, and Jersey, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of France. When his father, Charles I, was executed in 1649, he had no country to rule, as England was in the hands of Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. But in 1650, Scotland offered an army to help him take back his throne, and he readily agreed, hoping that Royalists in England would rally to his cause.
The 21-year-old Charles marched across the border into England on August 8, 1651 at the head of a mostly Scottish army and was proclaimed king at Penrith and Rokeby. But Carlisle did not surrender to his call and he failed to gain as many English supporters as he had hoped. By the time he and his exhausted troops limped into Worcester on August 22, he had lost many men to desertion. Cromwell’s New Model Army, which was converging on Worcester, outnumbered the Royalist forces almost two to one and had an overwhelming superiority in artillery.
“A crown or a coffin”
Charles James Stuart was born on June 19th, 1566 at Edinburgh Castle. He was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots and her second husband Lord Darnley. James’s arrival into the world coincided with a period of extreme religious and political unrest in Scotland. His mother’s Catholic faith had brought her into conflict with the powerful Protestant Presbyterians. After James’s birth, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her infant son, who became James VI of Scotland at the age of one. A succession of regents acted as caretaker rulers until 1581 when, at the age of 15, James took control in his own right.
After the enforced abdication of his Catholic mother, James’s guardians ensured that he was educated in a strict Calvinist tradition. This move was calculated to further alienate the young King from his mother’s religious beliefs, while at the same time securing the success of the Scottish Reformation.
From quite early on, the King of Scotland set his sights on the English throne (as the grandson of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret Tudor, he had a legitimate claim to it). If Elizabeth I of England were to die childless, James was the most likely successor. With a view to gaining favour with the ageing queen, James signed the Treaty of Berwick with her in 1586. The treaty agreed that, should either country be invaded by the King of Spain’s Catholic forces, the other would come to its aid. The fact that the Treaty survived intact even after Elizabeth executed James’s exiled mother the following year was indicative of the extent of James’s ambitions for the English crown.
Guy Fawkes was executed on 31 January 1606. Sinead Fitzgibbon offers a brief summary of his life, the Gunpowder Plot and his death.
Guy Fawkes was born in York around 13 April 1570. Although there is some uncertainty surrounding the exact date of his birth, church archives confirm that he was baptised on 16 April 1570 at the church of St Michael le Belfrey. His parents Edward and Edith Fawkes were Protestant, and as such, it is believed that Guy was raised in the Protestant faith.
When he was eight years old, the young Fawkes attended St Peter’s School in York. It was here that he first made the acquaintance of two brothers, Jack and Christopher Wright, who would become his comrades in the plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament some thirty years later.
Like all good conspiracy stories, the tale of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 is one that combines elements of mystery, intrigue, suspense and of course, deception. It is the story of a small band of disaffected Catholics who, unhappy with the constraints placed on their religion by Protestant monarchs, undertake to challenge the religious status quo by committing the ultimate act of terrorism – the destruction of both King and Parliament.
The Break From Rome
The malcontent felt by this group of would-be terrorists did not spring up overnight. In fact, the seeds had been sown some seventy years earlier during the reign of Henry VIII. During the 1530s Henry, in his desperation to divorce Catherine of Aragon in favour of Anne Boleyn, incurred the wrath of Rome by declaring that he, and not the Pope, was the Supreme Head of the Church in England. This act of defiance on Henry’s part culminated in England’s break from Rome and gave the new Protestant religion, which had been sweeping the Continent, a foothold in England.
Thanks to the legitimacy afforded to it by Henry VIII and subsequent Tudor monarchs (apart from a brief interlude during the reign of the staunchly Catholic Mary I), Protestantism became England’s official religion. Catholics were forced to abandon their allegiance to the Pope and instead accept the reigning monarch as leader of the Church. Anyone who refused to do this was viewed as a potential traitor to the Crown and was subjected to heavy fines, imprisonment or even death. In the face of such persecution, many Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secret. Tensions simmered and an insidious atmosphere of mistrust, suspicion and fear prevailed. It was against this sinister backdrop that the Gunpowder Plot was hatched.