The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Economic and Social Development of the Country on the Eve of the Revolution

Category: 17th century

The English bourgeois revolution of the 17th century ushered in a new period of world history when the capitalist mode of production triumphed and the bourgeoisie became the ruling class in capitalist society.

The English revolution took place in a country where capitalism developed faster than in any other country of Europe. As a result of this development England 100 years after the bourgeois revolution became world workshop, freighter and banker, the first industrial state in the world, a power which had created the largest colonial empire. The triumph of capitalism in England gave a powerful fillip to the development of capitalism all over the globe.

Capitalism began to develop in England already in the 16th century. Karl Marx speaking of the process of accumulation of capital singled out England as a classical example in this respect. However, this progressive process was hampered by the feudal relations of production in all spheres of life, both in town and in the countryside.

By the 17th century England gained renown not only as a major producer of woollen cloth, because new industries emerged on a wide scale. Coalmining, steel production, shipbuilding were becoming most important. By 1640 England accounted for 80 per cent of all European coal. Silk production, glass, soap also developed. Skilled craftsmen were encouraged to come to the country. The manufactory was becoming a typical industrial feature.

Capitalist development was hindered by the existing guild restrictions, prohibiting spinning or weaving in one shop, or restricting the number of artisans employed.

However, a most serious obstacle for the development of private enterprise was the existing system of granting monopolies and patents to individuals or companies, which was extensively practised by the crown as well as the practice of selling charters. Monopolies were grants to individuals or companies for the exclusive right to manufacture or sell inside the country or abroad some particular article. It enriched the person or company possessing the monopoly, but it was detrimental to the rest who were banned to be engaged in similar activity. The charters and patents worked in much the same way as the monopolies. The chartered companies could fix wages and prices, and reduce quality, without fear of competition. In one year of James I’s reign, the East India Company made a profit of 500 per cent.

The crown encouraged these practices because it received huge profits, which made it less dependent on parliament. The bourgeoisie and the gentry were utterly displeased with such policies, for it was a direct attack on the principle of freedom to buy and sell goods to the best advantage without any interference.

Feudal relations in agriculture also hampered the development of the economy. The common open field was becoming an event of the past. The enclosures of the 16th century had contributed to the creation of free labour ready for exploitation both in the towns to where many migrated in search of a subsistence and in the countryside. The growth of towns increased the demand for food and this in its turn checked the enclosures, making arable farming attractive again. However, arable farming developed now on capitalist lines, exploiting the ruined peasantry which had been ousted from their lands during the enclosures as agricultural wage-earners.

Land was becoming a source of profit. However, feudal relations in agriculture, based on the sovereign’s right to all the land and the entailing dues of the landlords mainly exercised in monetary terms due to marketing were a serious obstacle to capitalist land exploitation, free trading in land, etc.

Most important for the English social scene of the 17th century was the close alliance, economic and political, between the bourgeoisie and the gentry. These classes were becoming more and more wealthy and powerful and they were no longer satisfied with the balance of political power established by the Tudor monarchy.

Noteworthy in this connection is the fact that by the beginning of the 17th century the objective economic law according to which the relations of production should correspond to the character of the development of the productive forces began to make its way in England. In 1603 James I became king of England (1603—25). Thus a new dynasty was established, the Stuart dynasty. James Stuart had been king of Scotland for more than 30 years, hence he was a foreigner in England. The English people did not respect their new king because of his policies. James I envied the despotic powers of the European monarchs greatly and he made his claims in the most tactless way at a moment when the Tudors would have probably made concessions. The most important reason was the fact that James I came from a poor country (Scotland) to one moderately rich and regarded the resources of his new kingdom as unbounded. In fact, they were far from it. James I by his extravagances soon increased the crown’s debt. The king resorted to many unpopular schemes for raising money: selling peerages, titles, monopoly privileges of trading, charters to companies. Moreover, he levied heavy taxes. Likewise unpopular was his foreign policy. The bourgeoisie and the gentry always hated Spain, for they considered it to be their chief enemy in their attempts to seize new colonies and to ‘rule the waves’. Spain was a Catholic country. Now the new king made peace with Spain. Moreover, James was under the influence of Spain and for some years the Spanish ambassador was the real power behind the king.

An event which inflamed the public mind greatly was the Gunpowder Plot (1605). A group of English Catholics, led by Catesby and Guy Fawkes, placed large quantities of iron, gunpowder and fagots in the cellars under the Parliament house to destroy its members on the opening day of the session (November 5, 16,05). The government discovered the plot just in time. Guy Fawkes and most of the plotters were arrested and then executed. Thereafter Guy Fawkes’ Day became a national holiday, and at every opening of Parliament a perfunctory and ceremonious search is made of the cellars under the building. A great wave of fear swept across the nation in connection with the plot. The country was so aroused that Parliament responded by demanding that all officials should take an oath denying the papal power. Though James did not enforce the act, nevertheless it angered both Catholics and Protestants: the Catholics because it had been passed by Parliament, and the Protestants because it was not enforced.

James’ relations with Parliament were extremely strained. He was constantly wrangling with Parliament over monetary issues. When Parliament refused the claims of the king, the latter would dissolve it. The antagonism between the king and parliament vividly manifested that the bourgeoisie and gentry would no longer tolerate a situation when the monarch disregarded their interests.

It was in the reign of Charles I (1625—49) that the struggle between crown and Parliament reached its climax. Charles I was full of desire to strengthen his power and needing money for this purpose he resorted to compulsory loans and fines. He continued to sell monopolies, imposed heavy customs duties and feudal fees. Also there was ‘ship money’ — a direct tax intended to pay for the royal navy.

The king also resorted to repressive institutions such as the Star Chamber (the court for all political trials) and the High Commission (the court for the clergy) to crush all growing opposition in the country.

The king gave a free hand to favourites. Among them was Sir Thomas Wentworth, who became president of the Council of the North. Wentworth at York used the Star Chamber court to break down the resistance of the northern gentry. After that he was sent to govern Ireland for the king, and later was made Earl of Strafford and became the king’s chief adviser.

During the third year of the reign of Charles I in 1628 the Parliament, discontent with the monarch’s policy, compelled the latter to sign the Petition of Right. The Petition of Right forbade the king to resort to martial law in time of peace, to imprison freemen without cause shown, and to collect any loan, fine, tax, or similar charge without the consent of Parliament. In general, it contented that the king should govern according to law, and not according to his own arbitrary whim.

However, having granted the Petition of Right Charles I soon forgot about its existence and continued with his old arbitrary practices. When Parliament protested against these actions Charles I dissolved it and there was no Parliament for 11 years. These were years of his personal rule when he disregarded public opinion and relied upon the advice of his chosen favourites: the Earl of Strafford and William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Laud was a fanatic and he demanded a purge of the Anglican church in order to crush the growing religious opposition. He became extremely unpopular in his persecution of the Puritans in England and of the Presbyterians in Scotland who were closely linked with one another.

The Puritan movement in England was a further development of the Reformation. The Puritans regarded the reformation of the church in England as incomplete. They wanted even more change. They wanted to see the Anglican church purer, with a simpler form of worship. The word ‘Puritan’ comes from the Latin ‘purus’ which means ‘pure’. The Puritans considered that church discipline should be more rigid and that all people should lead a more modest life. Many of the Puritans wished to replace the Anglican church by a Presbyterian one on the model of the Scotch Kirk, which was modest in service and means. Hence the close ties between the Puritans in England and the Scotch Presbyterians. The Puritan movement gave birth to such religious trends as the Quakers, the Baptists and others. Puritanism arising as a purely religious movement later developed into a mighty political movement of the seventeenth century expressing the interests of the bourgeoisie which required a modest church. The Puritans were persecuted in England and in 1593 a special act of Parliament was issued against them. Many radicals emigrated to the Netherlands and later to the new colonies of North America.

Laud, acting on behalf of Charles I and persecuting the Puritans in’ England and the Scotch church deteriorated the whole explosive situation in the country. Hatred for royal power was ripening among the popular masses as well as among the bourgeoisie and the gentry.

When Laud attempted to enforce the Anglican church system throughout the kingdom, especially in Scotland the Scotch rebelled. Then Charles I invaded Scotland in 1639. He hurriedly summoned Parliament in 1640 to vote money for an army to crush the Scotch. However, the Parliament known as the Short Parliament was a shortlived one, because within three weeks the Commons were dissolved by the king when he learned that its members insisted on discussing grievances instead of voting money. The Scotch forces then invaded northern England and pushed back the king’s forces. Under such circumstances Charles 1 was forced to summon another Parliament in 1640 which came to be known as the Long Parliament for it sat for 13 years, it was restored for a short time in 1659 and finally voted its own dissolution in 1660.

The summoning of the Long Parliament in 1640 marks the beginning of the English bourgeois revolution which continued up to 1660 when monarchy was restored.

Three periods stand out clearly in the history of the revolution: first — the peaceful period from 1640 to 1642 — from the summoning of the Long Parliament to the beginning of the civil war in England.

The second period — from 1642 to 1649 — the period of two civil wars (the first one, from 1642 to 1646, the second in 1648), the execution of the king in 1649 and the proclamation of Commonwealth or republic, which marked the climax of the revolution. The third period — from 1649 to 1660 — the period of Commonwealth, which existed till 1653 when Protectorate or military dictatorship was established. The third period continued till 1660 when restoration of monarchy occurred thus marking the end of the bourgeois revolution.

The bourgeois revolution in England was the seizure of power by the bourgeoisie which headed the popular uprising. On coming to power and consolidating itself, the bourgeoisie intensified its oppression of the popular masses.

One of the first acts of the Long Parliament was to bring the Earl of Strafford to trial. He had returned from Ireland and was now advocating a policy of force against all opponents of the king. Through a special Bill of Attainder they charged him with treason, condemned him to death, and promptly had him executed. Some years later (in 1645) Laud, too, was executed. Parliament then decreed that it could not be dissolved without its own consent, that it should meet every three years whether the king called it or not, and that no taxes should be levied without its permission. It also abolished the Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission. Then a Grand Remonstrance, a kind of second Petition of Right, was made. It demanded that the king should reduce the power of the bishops and that he should appoint to the government only ministers approved by parliament. The Grand Remonstrance then listed the evils of government since the beginning of the reign. Parliament abolished many of the illegal taxes, fines which had been introduced by Charles I. The king was forced to yield to these demands because now the popular uprising was widespread. An angry crowd of the populace surrounded the royal palace at Whitehall and threatened to break in.

However, the king decided to take revenge by arresting the most active leaders of the House of Commons: Pym John Hampden and three other men. Accompanied by 300—400 royal swordsmen, he rode to the House of Commons to arrest the leaders of the opposition. But these five members, warned of his coming, had escaped to the City of London.

A king had never dared to enter the House before. When Charles asked where the missing members were, the speaker told him: “I have neither eyes nor tongue to speak in this place, except as this House shall direct me”. Charles looked along the crowded seats in silence. ‘I see’, he said at last, ‘the birds have flown’. Charles I suffered a humiliating defeat. Moreover, this intrusion had caused a tremendous uproar of protest. Hence the king by his personal invasion of Parliament had lost control of London’s City. In fact he had lost the whole of London and the south-east of the country. He decided to move to the north, where there were large estates of the aristocracy and to gain necessary material and military support. Charles I set up court and capital at York. In general, the north of England, which was a backward part of the country where the feudal lords were still powerful supported the king. The south and south-east of England, including London, which were economically advanced areas, and where the bourgeoisie was numerous and powerful became the stronghold of Parliament. The situation grew tense. To complicate matters a revolt for independence broke out in Ireland.

At first Charles I carried on negotiations with Parliament, but in August 1642 he declared war on it. The king’s supporters were called ‘Cavaliers’. Their name came from the Spanish ‘caballero’ or soldier. The Puritans liked to compare the Cavaliers with the cruel soldiers of Catholic Spain. They were luxuriously dressed. They wore large feathers or plumes in their soft wide hats. Their hair was shoulder-length and they grew pointed beards and flowing moustaches. A good Cavalier was a good swordsman and horseman. The most daring cavalry commander was the king’s nephew Prince Rupert. At the beginning of the war there was no cavalry man in the Parliamentary army who could defeat him.

The supporters of Parliament were called Roundheads. The latter were at first the apprentices whose shaven heads had been seen leading riots in the London streets. Then the name was extended to the short-haired Puritan soldiers in the parliamentary army. The Cavaliers were mainly Anglicans. ~T

At the beginning the well-trained royal army beat the Roundheads, the hastily mustered army of Parliament. In one violent fight with Rupert’s cavalry, John Hampden received a mortal wound. John Pym also died. The royalists made serious gains. However, deep in the heart of the country a new spirit was moving among the Puritans. The situation changed when the parliamentary forces were joined by detachments of peasants, small land tenants, artisans and workingmen. The first of these detachments were mustered by a member of the House of Commons named Oliver Cromwell (1599—1658). A rough, tough country squire with heavy bones and a heavy face he was a determined man with one idea above all others: Roundhead victory, whatever the cost. As colonel of a cavalry regiment he imposed iron discipline and taught his men strictly.

Prince Rupert’s cavalry sometimes charged too far from the centre of battle when hunting the enemy. Cromwell’s ‘Ironsides’, as his armoured horsemen were called, seldom made that mistake. Cromwell’s powers of organization took him high in the parliamentary army. He became a general and commanded the Roundheads. His name became well known in the armies of both sides.

The decisive element in the victory of the revolution was Cromwell’s disciplined army of soldiers and officers who were convinced of the justice of their cause and hence fought with full determination.

In 1644 Oliver Cromwell’s Ironsides gave the Cavaliers the worst shock yet at Marston Moor near York. In the following year, in 1645, the Cavaliers suffered an equally terrible defeat at Naseby in the Midlands. The Roundheads now were no longer militia, but a regular army — the New Model Army formed according to Cromwell’s ideas. The royalists lost not only the battle at Naseby, but the whole war of 1642—6. The queen and Prince Charles had escaped to France.

The king now put himself into the hands of the Scots, who had sent an army to England to assist the Roundhead cause. However, there were also supporters of the Stuarts. After a few months the Scots gave him to the English parliament. After the king’s arrest in 1646 Parliament announced that the war was over and ordered the army to dissolve.

However, serious differences emerged between the army headed by Cromwell (the Independents) and the majority of members in the Long Parliament known as the Presbyterians.

These differences were not only religious, they were mainly political. The Presbyterians were in fact the right wing of the Puritans. They favoured the establishment of the Presbyterian church in which the congregations were headed not by bishops appointed by the king, but by presbyters (or church elders), who were usually elected from among the gentry and the rich bourgeoisie. Hence the name of the church. However, the oligarchy structure of the Presbyterian church, church centralization, the existence of a regular church to control all religious life distinguished the Presbyterians from the democratic trends of puritanism. The Presbyterians expressed the political interests of the rich bourgeoisie (the London bankers and merchants) and also of some of the land-owning aristocracy connected with the bourgeoisie by their involvement in capitalist forms of agricultural production. They were against feudal monarchy, but favoured a compromise with the king so that the revolution should not proceed further and deeper.

The Independents on their part headed by Cromwell voiced the interests of the radical wing of the bourgeoisie and of the gentry. They were for a church completely independent of the state and were against the existence of a uniform church dominant in all spheres of life. Hence, the name of this faction. The Independents favoured a compromise with the king. Voicing the interests of the rich bourgeoisie and gentry they were opposed to absolute monarchy and advocated establishing a limited monarchy which would faithfully fulfil their interests. Supporting a two-house Parliament they opposed universal suffrage and considered that only people with property could vote and be elected to Parliament. They also remained hostile to a mass democratic movement known as the Levellers. The latter emerged as a radical movement of the petty bourgeoisie in 1645—6. They were in favour of abolition of monarchy, of the House of Lords and of all aristocratic privileges. They favoured a republic based on universal suffrage and considered that everyone should be equal before the law. The name of the movement is derived from the verb ‘to level’ in the sense ‘to make equal’. The Levellers considered that men were borne free but owing to the power of the king, the aristocrats, the rich they found themselves degradingly dependent on the latter.

However, the Levellers were not always consistent in their beliefs, for instance, they favoured private property.

The Levellers were headed by John Lilburne. They fought against growing taxes and prices and said that the revolution did little to change the lives of the poor people. The Levellers were very popular in the army. This frightened both the Presbyterians and the Independents headed by Cromwell. The ruling classes considered that the Levellers’ aim was ‘to raise the servant against the master, the tenant against the landlord, the poor against the rich’.

Cromwell took severe measures against the Levellers. Lilburne and other leaders of the movement were arrested. Later on when the Levellers revolted in the army he suppressed the rebellion very severely.

Cromwell suppressed another democractic movement, known as the ‘Diggers’ or ‘true Levellers’. They made a practice of occupying common lands and digging them for cultivation. They had an ideal of achieving common property and opposed private ownership of land. Their leader I. Winstanley explaining his ideas in 1649 noted that England would never become a free republic until the poor were granted the right to cultivate the land freely. The Diggers represented the extreme left wing of the revolutionary movement. Their ideological background included ideas of primitive communism. They were popular with the toiling masses in the towns and the countryside, for they alone consistently voiced their demands for justice and equality. Though the movement was brutally crushed in 1649—50, their noble cause was never forgotten by the democratic movement in the country.

The lack of unity in Parliament, the split in the army was made use of by the royalist forces.

At the end of 1647 Charles I escaped. He went south to the Isle of Wight. From there he reached an agreement with the Scotch reactionaries and began another war. The ensuing events of 1648 are traditionally interpreted as the second civil war. The New Model Army faced a Scottish invasion together with royalist-presbyterian alliances in England. However, Cromwell’s army beat them all, and Cromwell himself became the most powerful person in England.

His main enemies were now the Presbyterians in the Long Parliament. They had worked for the return of the king. The way he dealt with them is called Pride’s Purge. Colonel Pride, one of his officers, was sent with musketeers to the House of Commons. There they arrested about 50 Presbyterian members and sent home many more. All that remained at Westminster was ‘the rump’, fewer than 100 members, who became known as the Rump Parliament. The work of the Rump Parliament was to appoint a court which would judge the king guilty. So Charles I was brought back to London and accused by the court of acts of tyranny, of making war upon his subjects. The trial took seven days. The king was condemned to death and beheaded before a huge crowd of people on January 30, 1649. Shortly afterwards, in February the House of Lords was abolished as useless and dangerous and England was proclaimed a Commonwealth or republic. This was the climax of the English bourgeois revolution when the country began to develop as a bourgeois republic. However, the revolution had its serious limitations, it was a far cry from a genuine democratic republic. There were no real democratic reforms. The Levellers were suppressed. Cromwell and his officers had arrived at the opinion that the bourgeoisie and gentry were the natural rulers of the state. There should be no vote for wage-workers and other people who owned no part of the nation’s wealth. The ‘free’ people in the ‘free’ state would remain those with property in it.

The formation of the republic was a triumph of the bourgeoisie and gentry :over the feudal monarchy. However, at the same time the new regime suppressed all movements aimed at the further development of the revolution. The Independents headed by Cromwell preserved big landownership and levied heavy taxes in the interests of the new regime, deteriorating the position of the peasantry and the toilers of the towns. In the interests of the bourgeoisie the new republic carried out an expansionist colonial policy. Especially unpopular was Cromwell’s Irish expedition of 1649—52. An uprising for independence had been raging in Ireland uninterruptedly for 8 years. It was headed by the Irish nobles and Catholic clergy. This fact offered Cromwell a good pretext — it could be fought against under the guise oft fighting the papists (the supporters of the Pope) and the Catholics. Thus religion was used as a cover to carry out a typical colonial venture. Cromwell’s expedition was a bloody massacre against the Irish population. His army killed thousands of Irishmen, cruelly and bloodily, and terrorized the whole population. The survivors were ousted from their lands and driven to the barren lands in the west of the country. The popular phrase was ‘To hell, or to Connaught’ (the western province which was unfit for living).

It was then that the new landed aristocracy was created which served as a social basis for the coming counterrevolution in England. The soldiers and officers of Cromwell’s army were promised the confiscated lands of the Irish peasantry. The promise was kept. However, most of the lands were sold and resold to the rich commanders, land speculators, because the soldiers themselves had no resources to begin farming anew. Thus a new class of rich landowners was formed which supported reaction and considered the revolution a menace to their immediate interests. Karl Marx referring to these events noted that the English republic under Cromwell met shipwreck in Ireland.

The wars in England and abroad were accompanied by a sharp decline in industry and agriculture. Prices went up. The poor suffered awful privations and died from hunger. The popular masses began to protest against the new regime. Royalist elements and the new rich tried to make use of the existing situation. The Rump Parliament, the tail-end of the Long Parliament, was becoming increasingly unpopular. The army in particular could not see that it had any further purpose, Cromwell decided it must go. On a spring day in 1653 he copied the action of Charles I. With 30 musketeers behind him he marched to the House of Commons and entered it. Then the soldiers pushed the members out, and Cromwell locked the doors behind him. Hence, Parliament was dissolved and England was to be ruled by a council of officers who established a military dictatorship. Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector for life. Actually these events marked the end of the republic and the revolution itself, though monarchy was fully restored some time later. Ever in this period of military dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and gentry attempts were made to restore monarchy as a convenient tool in the hands of the new classes. The Parliament of 1656, for instance, offered Cromwell the crown. Understanding that such a development would be quite unpopular with the army he rejected it. Cromwell needed the army and relied upon its support. All England was divided into areas headed by generals who were loyal to Cromwell. Scotland, for instance, was ruled by George Monck.

In 1658 Cromwell died. There was trouble almost immediately. The army started quarrelling with the Parliament which had been formed in Cromwell’s lifetime to make the military regime more favourable in the eyes of the populace, Richard Cromwell, the son of the dictator who had been named to be Protector after him and who was quite inferior to his father, resigned. George Monck with the army had come back from Scotland to keep the peace at Westminster. Monck was a royalist who had changed sides late in the civil war when offered a general’s command by Parliament. Monck restored the full Rump Parliament. It included the Presbyterian members who had been turned out by Cromwell. That was the first turn of the wheel. Then a new parliament was summoned where the royalist elements gained majority. The House of Lords was restored. The upper layers of the bourgeoisie were inclined to see eye to eye with the royalists: the masses in the towns and countryside were their common enemy. The House of Commons passed a statement recognizing that government ought to be ‘by King, Lords and Commons’. A week later there was an official declaration saying that Charles II (the son of the executed king) was king. The wheel had turned full circle. In May 1660 monarchy was restored in England. The bourgeoisie and the gentry scared by the growing democratic movement in the country needed monarchy as a convenient tool to oppress the masses. Having achieved their aims in the bourgeois revolution they needed this ancient institution which would enable them to consolidate their power.

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