The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: 17th century

The open struggle of the private property owner against the aggressions of the “Prince” begins inEnglandfar back in the twelfth century. The phase in this struggle that we have to study now is the phase that opened with the attempts of Henry VII and VIII, and their successors, Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth to make the government of England “a personal monarchy” of the continental type. It became more acute when, by dynastic accidents, James, King of Scotland, became James I, King of both Scotland and Eng­land (1603), and began to talk of his “divine right” to do as he pleased.

In all the monarchies there had been a tradition of a po­pular assembly of influential and representative men to preserve their general liberties, and in none was it more liv­ing than in England; the English assembly was peculiar in two respects; that it had behind it a documentary declara­tion of certain rights, and that it contained elected “Knights of the Shire” as well as elected burghers from the towns.

These two features gave the English Parliament a peculiar strength in its struggle with the Throne. The document in question was Magna Charta, the Great Charter, a declara­tion which was forced from King John (1199—1216), the brother and successor of Richard Coeur de Lion (1189—1199), after a revolt of the Barons in 1215. It rejected the power of the king to control the personal property and liberty of a citizen — save with the consent of that man’s equals.

The presence of the elected shire representatives in the English Parliament — the second peculiarity of the British sit­uation— came about from very simple beginnings. From the shires, or county divisions, knights seem to have been summ­oned to the national council to testify to the taxable capacity of their districts. They were sent up by the minor gentry, free­holders and village elders of their districts as early as 1254, two knights from each shire. This idea inspired Simon de Montfort, who was in rebellion against Henry III, the suc­cessor of John, to summon to the national council two knights from each shire and two citizens from each city or borough. Edward I, the successor to Henry III, continued this prac­tice because it seemed a convenient way of getting into fi­nancial touch with the growing towns.

Quite early, if not from the first, these representatives of the general property owners in town and country, the Com­mons, sat and debated apart from the great Lords and Bish­ops. So there grew up inEnglanda representative assembly, the Commons, beside an episcopal and patrician one, the Lords. There was no profound and fundamental difference between the personnel of the two assemblies, but on the whole the Commons was the more plebeian assembly.

We will not follow the fluctuations of the power and pres­tige of the English Parliament through the time of the Tudor monarchs (i.e., Henry VII and VIII, Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth), but when at last James Stuart made his open claim to autocracy, the English merchants, peers, and pri­vate gentlemen found themselves with a tried and honoured traditional means of resisting him such as no other people in Europe possessed.

Another peculiarity of the English political conflict was its comparative detachment from the great struggle between Catholic and Protestant that was now being waged all overEurope. There were, it is true, very distinct religious issues mixed up in the English struggle, but upon its main lines it was a political struggle of King against the Parlia­ment embodying the class of private-property-owning citizens.

The struggle of King and Parliament had already reached an acute phase before the death of James I (1625), but only in the reign of his son Charles I did it culminate in civil war.

Charles embroiled the country into a conflict with bothSpainandFrance, and then came to the country for supplies in the hope that patriotic feeling would override the nor­mal dislike for giving him money. When Parliament re­fused supplies, he demanded loans from various subjects, and attempted similar illegal exactions.

This produced from the Parliament in1628 avery mem­orable document, the Petition of Right, citing the Great Charter and rehearsing the legal limitations upon the power of the English king. Charles dealt with this Parliament with a high hand; he dismissed it in 1629, and for eleven years he summoned no Parliament. He levied money illegally, but not enough for his purpose. In 1638 Charles tried to ex­tend the half-Protestant, half-Catholic characteristics of the Church of England to his otherkingdomofScotland. The Scotch revolted, and the English levies Charles raised to fight them mutinied. Charles, without money or trust­worthy troops, had to summon a Parliament at last in 1640. This Parliament, the Short Parliament, he dismissed in the same year; he tried a Council of Peers atYork(1640), and then, in the November of that year, summoned his last Par­liament.

This body, the Long Parliament, assembled in the mood for conflict. It published a “Grand Remonstrance”, which was a long and full statement of its case against Charles. It provided by a Bill for a meeting of Parliament at least once in three years, whether the king summoned it or no. It prosecuted the king’s chief ministers who had helped him to reign for so long without Parliament, and in particular the Earl of Strafford.

To save Strafford the King plotted for a sudden seizure ofLondonby the army. This was discovered, and the Bill for Strafford’s condemnation was hurried on in the midst of a vast popular excitement. Charles I, who was probably one of the meanest and most treacherous occupants the Eng­lish throne has ever known, was frightened by theLondoncrowds. Before Strafford could die by due legal process, it was necessary for the king to give his assent. Charles gave it — and Strafford was beheaded.

Meanwhile the King was plotting and looking for help.

Both parties prepared openly for war.

The King was the traditional head of the army, and the habit of obedience in soldiers is to the King.

The Parliament had the greater resources.

There followed a long and obstinate civil war, the King holdingOxford, the Parliament,London. Success swayed from side to side.

There emerged among the Parliamentary commanders a certain Oliver Cromwell, who had raised a small troop of horse and who rose to the position of general. He disregarded all social traditions and drew his officers from every class. “I had rather have a plain, russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than what you call a gentleman and is nothing else”.

This cavalry set the tone for the whole army. Under their influence the infantry, who were at first, except for someLondonregiments, mainly unwilling conscripts or unprincipled mercenaries, gradually acquired a determination and purpo­se which welded the whole of the army into a first-rate fighting machine and a formidable political instrument.

These men swept the Cavaliers before them. The King was at last a captive in the hands of Parliament.

The English were drifting towards a situation new in the world’s history, in which a monarch should be formally tried for treason to his people and condemned.

Parliament put the King on trial.

The King was condemned as a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and enemy of his country”. He was taken one January morn­ing in 1649 to a scaffold erected outside the windows of his own banqueting room atWhitehall. There he was beheaded.

This was indeed a great and terrifying thing that Parlia­ment had done. The like of it had never been heard of in the world before. Kings had killed each other times enough; but that a section of the people should rise up, try its king solemnly and deliberately for disloyalty, mischief, and treach­ery, and condemn and kill him, sent horror through every court inEurope. The Tzar of Russia chased the English en­voy from his court.FranceandHollandcommitted acts of open hostility.Englandstood isolated before the world.

For a time the personal quality of Oliver Cromwell and the discipline and strength of the army he had created main­tainedEnglandin the republican course she had taken. The Irish Catholics had made a massacre of the Protestant English inIreland, and now Cromwell suppressed the Irish insurrec­tions with great vigour. AfterIrelandcameScotlandwhere Cromwell shattered a Royalist army at the Battle of Dunbar (1650). Then he turned his attention toHolland. An English fleet went into theMediterranean— the first English naval force to enter those waters.Englandalso intervened to pro­tect the Protestants in the South of France.France,Sweden,Denmarkallied themselves withEngland. Came a war withSpain, and Admiral Blake destroyed the Spanish Plate Fleet at Teneriffe.

Such was the figure thatEnglandcut in the eyes of the world during her brief republican days.

The republic, the Commonwealth, rested on the uneasy support of two antagonistic groups, the merchants and the lower middle class, both of which together still formed only a small minority of the total population. Its efforts to find a basis acceptable to both consistently failed and both were in turn alienated by efforts to seek a backing in other classes. The last years of the Commonwealth were marked by a steady loss of mass support, an increasingly precarious balance of the generals and the army, only held together by the prestige of Cromwell.

The end of the Commonwealth coincided with a pro­longed period of famine, lasting from 1658 to1661. Inaddi­tion the Spanish war was proving both costly and ruinous to trade. Shipping was seriously interfered with, the export of cloth declined and there was much unemployment among the weavers. The collection of taxes became more difficult and as a consequence the credit of the Government fell so that loans had to be negotiated on increasingly unfavourable terms. However popular the Spanish war may have been among the merchants at the beginning, its effects soon turned them against both it and the government.. Although national finances had been modernised they were still quite inadequate to maintain a large standing army. Yet without such an army the Commonwealth could not exist.

Cromwell’s death on September 3rd, 1658, exposed the whole weakness of the regime and brought it to an abrupt conclusion, but it was the economic stresses and political contradictions which have been outlined that gave his death its instantaneous and decisive effect. The urban middle clas­ses had proved too weak by them$elves to afford a permanent basis for a government.

In 1660 Charles II, the son of Charles the “Martyr”, was welcomed back toEnglandwith all manifestations of personal loyalty. “MerryEngland” was herself again.

The Restoration of 1660 was in effect a re-combination of class forces to establish a government more in harmony with the real distribution of strength. It was less a restoration of the monarchy than a new compromise between the landown­ers and the upper classes in the towns.

The French Ambas­sador inLondonwrote shrewdly to Louis XIV: “This government has a monarchical appearance because there is a King, but at bottom it is very far from being a monarchy.” Charles I had claimed to be King by Di­vine Right. Charles II knew that he was King by permission of the landlords and merchants in Parliament and could be dismissed as easily as he had been summoned.

The character of the Restoration is most clear­ly shown in the land settlement which fol­lowed it. The Church and Crown lands that had been confiscated during the Commonwealth were restored. As a set-off the landowners freed themselves from all the remaining feudal dues owed by them to the Crown, giving Charles as an equivalent an Excise Duty and thus shifting their obligations on to the rest of the nation. By this action, Marx says, they “vindicated for themselves the rights of modern private property in estates to which they had only a feudal title.” In this respect the Restoration was a completion rather than a reversal of the Revolution.

When in 1685 Charles was succeeded by his brother James II, who was too dull to recognize the hidden limitations of the monarch inBritain, the old issue between Parliament and Crown became acute.

In 1688 the great lords and merchants called in another king, William, Prince of Orange, to replace James. The change was made rapidly. There was no civil war and no release of any deeper revolutionary forces in the country.

Englandentered into upon a phase which Lord Beacons-field has called the “Venetian oligarchy” stage; the sup­reme power resided in Parliament, dominated now by the Lords, for the art of bribery and a study of the methods of working elections had robbed the House of Commons of its original vigour. By ingenious devices the parliamentary vote was restricted to a shrinking number of electors, old towns with little or no population would return one or two members (old Sarum had one non-resident voter, no pop­ulation, and two members), while newer populous centres had no representation at all. And by insisting upon a high property qualification for members, the chance of the Com­mons speaking in common aspects of needs was still more restricted.

The end of the story, thus far, is a complete triumph of the British private property owner over the dreams and schemes of Machiavellian absolutism.

With the Hanoverian Dynasty (1714)Englandbecame a “crowned republic”. She had worked out a new method of government, Parliamentary Government.

From The Outline of History by H.G. Wells; A People’s Histo­ry of England by A. L. Morton

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