Under his son. Charles I, all James’s difficulties came to a head very quickly. England was involved in a minor war against Spain, and though the members of Parliament hated Spain, they were most reluctant to grant Charles funds to support the English forces. Meanwhile, despite his French queen, Charles became involved in a war against France, which he financed in part by a forced loan from his wealthier subjects and by quartering troops in private houses at the householders’ expense.
His financial position was tenuous; as a French observer remarked, “They wish for war against heaven and earth, but lack the means to make it against anyone.” The military preparations were the greatest since 1588, when there had been a visible enemy; in 1626-1628 Charles’s subjects were less certain of the need for extraordinary measures.
Consequently, in 1628 Parliament passed the Petition of Right—”the Stuart Magna Carta”—which for the first time explicitly stated some of the most basic rules of modern constitutional government: no taxation without the consent of Parliament; no billeting of soldiers in private houses; no martial law in time of peace; no imprisonment except on a specific charge and subject to the protection of regular legal procedures. All of these were limitations on the Crown.
Charles consented to the Petition of Right to secure new grants of money from Parliament. But he also collected duties not sanctioned by Parliament, which thereupon protested not only against his unauthorized taxes but also against his High Church policy. The king now switched from conciliation to firmness. In 1629 he had Sir John Eliot (1592-1632), mover of the resolutions, arrested, together with eight other members.
He then dissolved Parliament, in part for refusing to vote supplies to the king, in part because he felt Parliament was meddling in matters of religion beyond its authority, and in part because Eliot intended to appeal over the king’s head to the country. Eliot died a prisoner in the Tower of London, the first martyr in the parliamentary cause, having in effect driven Charles I to take a calculated risk.
For the next eleven years, 1629-1640, Charles governed without a Parliament. He squeezed every penny he could get out of royal revenues that did not require parliamentary authorization, never quite breaking with precedent by imposing a wholly new tax but stretching precedent beyond what his opponents thought reasonable. For example, ship money had been levied by the Crown before, but only on coastal towns for naval expenditures in wartime; Charles now imposed ship money on inland areas and in peacetime. John Hampden (1594-1643), a rich member of Parliament from inland Buckinghamshire, refused to pay it. He lost his case in court (1637) but gained wide public support for challenging the king’s fiscal expedients.
In religious matters Charles was guided by a very High Church archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573-1645), who systematically enforced Anglican conformity and deprived even moderate Puritan clergymen of their pulpits. Puritans were sometimes brought before the Star Chamber, an administrative court that denied the accused the safeguards of the common law. In civil matters Charles relied on an opportunist conservative, Thomas Wentworth, first earl of Strafford (1593-1641), who had deserted the parliamentary side and went on to become lord lieutenant of Ireland, a country that was a source of continued conflict and expense.
England was seething with repressed political and religious passions underneath the outward calm of these years of personal rule. Yet to judge from the imperfect statistics available, the relative weight of the taxation that offended so many Englishmen was less than on the Continent, and far less than taxation in any modern Western state. The members of Parliament who resisted the Crown by taking arms against it were not downtrodden, poverty- stricken people revolting out of despair, but self-assertive people defending their concept of civil rights and their own forms of worship, as well as seeking power and wealth.
Why, then, was there a revolution? Historians are not agreed, especially about the economic motivations of
the English revolutionaries. There is evidence that the more capitalistic gentleman farmers—rural bourgeoisie— supported the Puritans; but other scholars argue that the elements from the gentry who supported the Puritans were those who saw themselves sinking on the economic scale, because of inflation, because of the enclosure of once common lands for sheep farming, and because of competition by the new secular owners of the old monastic lands.
This debate about the nature and role of the gentry illustrates two problems faced by the historian: first, that of definitions, since the debate turns in part on how social classes are defined, or defined themselves in the past; second, that of interpretation, since two historians examining the same evidence, or different evidence that overlaps at certain points, may arrive at quite different conclusions about the meaning of that evidence. Was the English Revolution caused by despair—a declining gentry seeking to turn the clock back, so that the revolution was actually conservative in its goals—or was it caused by the perception of the need to modernize, to change the institutions of government to more rational, efficient purposes—that is, the final stage of the long movement away from feudalism?
The English Revolution did not, in fact, greatly alter the face of England. The laboring poor played almost no role in the Revolution. Nonetheless, a precedent of great significance was established, for a king was brought to trial and executed and his office abolished; an established church was disestablished and its property taken; less emphasis was placed on deference. All this would later be undone, the monarchy and the established church restored.
Yet in the process, many would perceive that human beings could alter their world if they chose, and many would see the importance of the political process. And they would see that the Crown was neither rational nor truly responsible in various aspects of finance; in government credit, in the use of improper taxes for purposes considered immoral, and in placing the government’s financial interest before its social responsibilities. Thus religion, economics, and politics would prove inseparable, a linked chain of causation.
Charles I could perhaps have weathered his financial difficulties if he had not had to contend with the Scots. Laud’s attempt to enforce the English High Church ritual and organization came up against the three-generations-old Scottish Presbyterian kirk (church). In 1638 a Solemn League and Convenant bound the members of the kirk to resist Charles by force if need be. Charles marched north against the Scots and worked out a compromise with them in 1639. But even this mild campaign was too much for the treasury, and in 1640 Charles had to call Parliament back into session.
This Short Parliament denied him any money unless the piled-up grievances against Charles and his father were settled; it was dissolved almost at once. Then the Scots went to war again, and Charles, defeated in a skirmish, bought them off by promising the Scottish army £850 a day until peace was made. Since he could not raise the money, he had to call another Parliament, which became the Long Parliament of the revolution.
Since the Scottish army would not disband until it was paid off, the Long Parliament held it as a club over Charles’s head and put through a series of reforms striking at the heart of the royal power. It abolished ship money and other disputed taxes and disbanded the unpopular royal administrative courts, such as the Star Chamber, which had become symbols of Stuart absolutism. Up to now Parliament had been called and dismissed at the pleasure of the Crown; the Triennial Act of 1640 required that Parliament be summoned every three years, even if the Crown did not wish to do so. Parliament also attacked the royal favorites, whom Charles reluctantly abandoned; Archbishop Laud was removed, and Strafford was declared guilty of treason and executed in May 1641.
Meanwhile, Strafford’s harsh policy toward the Irish had led to a rebellion that amounted to an abortive war for national independence by Irish Catholics and caused the massacre of thirty thousand Protestants in the northern Irish region of Ulster. Parliament, unwilling to trust Charles with an army to put down this rebellion, drew up in 1641 a Grand Remonstrance summarizing all its complaints.
Charles now made a final attempt to repeat the tactics that had worked in 1629. Early in 1642 he ordered the arrest of five of his leading opponents in the House of Commons, including Hampden of the ship money case. The five took refuge in the privileged political sanctuary of the City of London, where the king could not reach them. Charles left for the north and in the summer of 1642 rallied an army at Nottingham. Parliament simply took over the central government, and the Civil War had begun.
During these years of political jockeying, signs were already evident that strong groups in England and in Parliament wanted something more than a return to the Tudor balance between Crown and Parliament, between religious conservatives and religious radicals. In politics the Nineteen Propositions that Parliament submitted to the king in June 1642 would have established parliamentary supremacy over the army, the royal administration, the church, and even the rearing of the royal children.
Charles turned down the propositions, and they became the parliamentary positions in the war that followed. In religion a Root and Branch Bill, introduced in 1641 but not enacted into law, would have radically reformed the Church of England, destroying “root and branch” the bishops and much of what had already become traditional in Anglican religious practices. In the midst of such extreme contentiousness, a middle path seemed impossible to find.