None comes into the world with a saddle on his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him. Richard Rumbold, Leveller.
Politicians, mainstream historians, constitutional lawyers and the like would have us believe that there is something uniquely decent about the way in which the British conduct their affairs of state. These are marked out, so they say, by tolerance, hatred of violence, a sense of justice and fairness, willingness to compromise and by gradual, evolutionary change. Not for us, they continue, warming to their theme, are the extremism, the violence and the awful revolutionary upheavals witnessed in France, Russia or elsewhere.
In reality, the stormy events which occurred in much of Britain in the middle of the seventeenth century give the lie to this facile but, from their point of view, convenient view of historical development. The conditions for the development of modern capitalism in Britain came about as the result of a bloody civil war and revolution which saw the execution of a king and the violent overthrow of those who tried to defend the old way of doing things.
There is a need to revisit these events of the past to counter what should be the totally discredited ‘argument’ repeated by generations of reformists within the Labour Movement which ‘explains’ that in Britain things change for the better by evolution rather than revolution. Those putting forward this specious argument, if they believe in socialism at all and many of them never have done, view the achievement of socialism as the music of the distant future and something that can be achieved through piecemeal reforms in Parliament. The reality is very different. Reforms won through struggle when capitalism is prosperous enough to be pressured reluctantly into conceding them turn into counter-reforms when the system is in crisis. Politics is about power and history teaches that the change from one form of economic and social organization to the next and higher stage, can only occur through revolution – no ruling class has ever peaceably voted itself out of existence; no ruling class has ever given up the source of its power and privileges without a struggle. This is a lesson totally lost on the reformists.
In the first part of this article, we will take a preliminary look at some of the economic, social and political processes at work in England in the period from the late fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries.
From the early fifteenth century, great changes had been afoot in much of England. The country was starting to undergo the transformation from a feudal to a capitalist economy. Merchants, financiers and industrialists were the up-and-coming class, gaining rapidly in economic power. They wanted a system of government that would provide maximum encouragement to what is now called ‘the enterprise culture’. In addition they craved the political power they felt they were entitled to given their increasingly prominent economic position. This class, the ‘bourgeoisie’, found their interests frequently opposed by those who traditionally held power – the King, the Church and the so-called nobility, the latter in reality being men who were often nothing more than gangsters with posh titles.
The Tudor monarchs were mostly competent and forceful. Between them they reigned from 1485 to 1603 and while centralizing power in their hands, they did so by taking advantage of a temporary balance of class forces where, with the exception of Mary I, they leaned for support on a coalition of the increasingly powerful and forward-looking bourgeoisie with sections of the landed gentry. The Tudors were progressive to the extent that they supported the development of industry, commerce and trade, including that with overseas nations and territories. They worked to rid the country of many of the last vestiges of feudalism and were supported by the bourgeoisie for the way they set about ending disorder and establishing stable government, internal peace being a requirement for economic development. With the support of the middle classes therefore, the Tudors subverted the power of the Church and the nobility and helped to create the preconditions for the development of capitalism.
Henry VIII appropriated the monasteries in the late 1530s and raised money by selling their assets off, mostly at bargain-basement prices. In doing so, he endeared himself to substantial numbers of opportunists who, in snapping up the confiscated monastic property, laid down the basis of what were to become enormously rich and powerful business dynasties in the future. He also made himself head of the Church in England. By these actions he attacked a major source of support for the ‘old order’.
Religion was a major presence in everyday life in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Attendance at worship was almost universal and the Church continued to play a major role in education and learning. It is not surprising that religion became one of the battlegrounds as a new order painfully gestated in the womb of the old. The Church, even in its state of being ‘nationalized’ by Henry VIII, was largely a bastion of reaction. The Church taught respect for authority and acceptance of inequality and injustice as part of the citizens’ duty of obedience to God.
By the early seventeenth century, elements within the bourgeoisie were developing their own brand of Christianity, conveniently if not very precisely defined as ‘Puritanism’. It was hostile to the Church of England for retaining too much Catholic rite and ritual. The Catholic Church was viewed as a sinister international conspiracy bent on regaining the power it had enjoyed before the Reformation. Every Puritan thought he or she was one of God’s chosen people, a member of an elite. As the chosen, they could use any methods to confound their enemies; such enemies were, in their eyes, the enemies of God.
Puritanism was a self-serving religion. The pursuit of worldly wealth was elevated to a virtue and it could be achieved through hard work, sobriety, thrift, moral conduct and the rejection of shallow, pleasure-seeking pursuits. Success in piling up material riches was taken as evidence of God’s approval. It is worth remembering that the Church before the Reformation had, in words at least, condemned usury and excess profiteering and advocated what would now be called ‘ethical trading’. Many Puritans were rich bankers and traders. No wonder many of them had a fanatical loathing of Catholicism and all its trappings.
The Puritans may have hidden their material interests behind a mass of Biblical verbiage and cant but they saw themselves as what they actually were, a historically progressive class making the world, as they saw it, a better place. The Puritans were no respecters of hereditary status and power and welcomed those from humble origins who improved their economic and social position through their own efforts. In that sense Puritanism contained a powerful drive for economic growth and democracy. In general, the Puritans were energetic, some of them were extremely wealthy and they had much support for example among the masses in London and the artisan workers in the East Anglian clothing industry. This made them into a force to be reckoned with.
James Stuart, who ruled from 1603, disliked the Puritans for political reasons. He had experienced confrontations with them when he was King of Scotland. In that country the presbyterian aspect of Puritanism had considerable support. It meant that there the Church or Kirk was governed from the bottom up through various democratically elected bodies. James believed in a Protestant Church governed from above by bishops, appointed by and subordinate to the state, which ultimately meant himself. A strong current within English Puritanism argued for a democratic structure within the Church. This was incompatible with the royal absolutism which James craved.
At a time when Catholicism was widely feared and loathed, deep suspicions were held that both James and his son Charles ultimately wanted the country to return to its earlier place within the Church of Rome. Those who had bought monastic assets so cheaply during the reign of Henry VIII feared that if the Catholic Church was restored to power, they would have to surrender those lands. Charles I, in league with Archbishop Laud, allowed Catholic practices to creep back into England and attempted to ally England with feudal Catholic states such as Spain and Austria. However it was the heavy-handed attempt of Charles to impose a new prayer book in Scotland, based on the English one, which was seen as the thin end of the wedge. It provoked a violent response from the Scottish Covenanters and drew Charles into an ill-judged attempt to enforce the prayer book on the Scots by force of arms. This was a precursor of the Civil War.
England had a Parliament. This consisted firstly of the House of Lords, mostly hereditary landowners, some with a lineage dating back to the eleventh century and including many who hankered for a return to their past status in a feudal society. It also contained bishops, the so-called ‘Lords Spiritual’. The Lords mostly resented the emergence of the bourgeoisie. The House of Commons was growing in stature and consisted largely of members of the country gentry and of the rising urban bourgeoisie, many of them strongly influenced by Puritanism. In constitutional terms, Parliament had no specific powers. The Commons had little to do with the day-to-day government of the country, nor were the King and his advisers responsible to Parliament. Charles stated quite clearly that he was responsible to God alone for his acts. James and especially Charles viewed Parliament as a collecting box, to be summoned when they needed extra money.
The Tudor monarchs, although building up their own power, had usually managed to find an accommodation with Parliament, but the early Stuart Kings who followed them believed in the Divine Right of Kings and wanted to be absolutist monarchs like the contemporary French Kings. Neither James I nor Charles I thought that the Commons should interfere in their right to raise their own income from taxes, to spend their money on whatever they chose or to rule in any way they wished. James, however, handled this conviction more circumspectly than his successor. The first half of the sixteenth century was a time of inflation. James and Charles were both permanently broke and demanded more revenue from taxes. Those who refused to pay or protested against the fiscal exactions of Charles were brought before the Court of Star Chamber. This in effect was the King’s private kangaroo court and he used it to bypass the normal courts where proceedings took place under the common law. Members of the House of Commons were reluctant to vote increased taxes without the quid pro quo of increased political power.
The Stuarts wanted to create a state apparatus to support their despotic rule. This, among other things, would require a standing army which could only be paid for by a significant increase in taxation. They could not do this without attacking private property and profit-making. The King’s powers and the backward-looking institutions which supported him had become obstacles to the development of the productive forces along capitalist lines. Such a situation was unacceptable to the bourgeoisie. This was a class struggle. The scene was set for confrontation.
The second part of the article will provide a more detailed look at the processes leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War.