Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Glorious Revolution: Scotland and Ireland


John Graham of Claverhouse
Viscount Dundee

Public Domain
Scottish politicians found themselves reacting to events in England. In December 1688 James’s ministers fled Edinburgh in the wake of anti-Catholic rioting, leaving the control of the city to radical Presbyterians.

In January 1689 William summoned a Convention of Estates to meet in Edinburgh on 14 March. Scottish Jacobites (supporters of James) refused to attend and on 4 April members voted, with only five against, that James had attempted ‘the subversion of the Protestant religion, and the violation of the laws and liberties of the kingdom.’ The Claim of Right, the Scottish equivalent of the Bill of Rights, was accepted on 11 April. 

It was also a Presbyterian revolution. On 22 July William reluctantly agreed to an act abolishing bishops.  664 ministers were dismissed in the following decades and many Episcopalians, who still held to divine right monarchy, looked to the restoration of the Stuarts to secure their rights.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Glorious Revolution

William III
by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Public domain
There is a useful account and analysis on the History of Parliament site.

The decision to invade

When did William decide to invade England? By April 1688, that is, before the birth of the Prince of Wales, William told Admiral Edward Russell, then visiting his palace at Het Loo, that he was considering an English invasion. He had come to believe that James’s actions were threatening the monarchy. He believed that an English republic would be a disaster for Holland; another Cromwell, bent on colonial expansion and commercial enterprise, would have ruined his whole European strategy, which was to protect the United Provinces (the Netherlands) from the ambitions of Louis XIV.
Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud .
William's life was devoted
to resisting his territorial
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

In June, William sent an emissary to England on the pretext of a congratulatory message on the birth of the prince. The real purpose was to procure the letter of invitation from ‘the immortal seven’. But the invitation was vaguely worded and there is no evidence that the signatories were inviting William to seize the throne.

James II

James II and VII
Sir Godfrey Kneller
Public domain

A Catholic accession

James came to the throne with a clear aim: to establish the rights of Catholics to worship without persecution and to take full part in the political life of the country. However, to do this,  he would have to persuade Parliament to repeal the penal laws -  the Corporation Act of 1661 and the Test Acts of 1673 and 1678. He believed that once this was done, Catholicism would triumph without any compulsion from the state. However, this belief shows his political naivety. He failed to understand the profound anti-popery of the majority of his subjects, and was unable to realize that his actions were likely to be misinterpreted. In his attempts to alleviate the rigours of religious discrimination, he had to fall back on the royal prerogative at a time when, thanks in part to the policies of Louis XIV in France, the association of ‘popery’ and ‘arbitrary power’ was taken for granted. His naturally authoritarian temperament did not help.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Charles II: The Restoration

'Charles II of England in Coronation robes'
by John Michael Wright -
Licensed under Public Domain
via Wikimedia Commons

The clock turned back?

Historians used to argue that the Restoration marked a decisive shift. The events of 1649 had permanently weakened the monarchy and the country was irrevocably on the road that led to a constitutional monarchy; religion was no longer central in political and social life. In support of this argument it can be noted that the Restoration settlement consciously sought to turn the clock back to 1641 rather than 1640. The constitutional reforms of 1641 – the destruction of the prerogative courts, the abolition of the Crown’s feudal revenue and prerogative taxes such as Ship Money – all stayed in place. So Parliament had won?

Or had it? It can also be argued that the reverse was the case. The English could not execute another king! The monarchy was strengthened as a result of the Interregnum, and the king’s prerogative remained largely untouched. In particular, the Militia Acts of 1661 and 1662 stipulated that the king retained ‘sole right of command’ over the militia, though day-to-day control was delegated to the lords lieutenants. This means that the issue which in 1641 and 1642 had tipped the country into civil war had apparently been settled - in favour of the king. It was he, not Parliament, who commanded the nation's armed forces.

The British Republic: II The Protectorate (1653-60)

The statue of Cromwell, erected in 1899,
 the three hundredth
anniversary of his birth. 

Note that he is
outside the Houses of Parliament, not inside!
The key theme of this period is the unsuccessful search for a lasting political settlement to replace the government of the king. The failure of this search made the restoration of the monarchy inevitable. However, if Cromwell had lived longer, or been succeeded by a son of equal ability, perhaps the story would have been different!

Barebone's Parliament

In July 1653 an assembly was summoned known as the Nominated Parliament, or more colloquially as Barebone’s ParliamentThis was a surrogate (and temporary) British assembly of 138 men ‘of approved fidelity and honesty’ (121 from England, 6 from Wales, 5 from Scotland, 6 from Ireland) with supreme authority to make a constitution.

However, one of the first acts of the Assembly was to vote itself a Parliament, to sit in the traditional Commons Chamber, and to elect a traditional Speaker. Far from being the mad assembly of religious fanatics of royalist propaganda it spent most of its brief life discussing much-needed reforms in the law and taxation. But it could not overcome the fact that it was not an elected Parliament, and although religious radicals such as Fifth Monarchists were in the minority, they were well-organised and aroused the fierce hatred of traditionalists.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

The British republic: I The Commonwealth (1649-53)

The putting to death of an anointed king was a shocking event. What was to happen next? The king had been executed by the orders of a minority of parliamentarians against the wishes of the great majority of the people. To its enemies the new republic was a betrayal and a military tyranny. To its supporters such as the poet John Milton, it was a commonwealth liberating, its supporters for achievements which would rival those of Greece and Rome. To others it was the beginning of true godly reformation. 

On 6 February the Commons abolished the House of Lords. In March two acts of Parliament gave statutory force to the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords (this latter was against Cromwell’s wishes). In May an Act of Parliament declared England a Republic or Commonwealth 
‘governed by the representatives of the people in parliament … without any king or House of Lords’. 
From 7 February the government was in the hands of a Council of State of 41 members. It was to elect a new chairman every month and Cromwell acted as the first of these. Socially, the Council was conservative. It included five peers, three judges and two senior lawyers. It was under the overall control of the ‘Rump Parliament’, which consisted of 200 MPs, many of whom were readmitted after their expulsion in December 1648.

Radicalism and regicide

Holdenby Hall, where Charles 
was imprisoned
until seized by the Army
In January 1647, the Scots delivered the king to parliamentary custody. He was imprisoned at Holdenby (Holmby) House in Northamptonshire.  The Scots then returned home.

With the king in prison and the Scots departed, divisions opened up between Parliament and the Army. Parliament was dominated by Presbyterians, who wanted to disband the Army and open up negotiations with the king, who had indicated that he was prepared to accept a Presbyterian settlement. However, the Army was dominated by Independents (Congregationalists), who believed that each congregation should be self-governing, and they were resolutely opposed to a settlement with the king. There was now considerable hostility in Parliament to the New Model Army, which was seen as a hotbed of religious sedition and subversively radical political beliefs. 

The Civil War

Among the books I have consulted, the following have been especially useful: 
Barry Coward, The Stuart Age. England 1603-1714 (Longman, 2nd edition, 1994)
David L. Smith, A History of the Modern British Isles 1603-1707. The Double Crown (Blackwell, 1998)
Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2002)
John Wroughton, The Longman Companion to the Stuart Age 1603-1714 (Longman, 1997)

The period between 1640 and 1660 is the most momentous in British history. It saw a series of dramatic events, all of them with major constitutional implications:

  1. The creation of the New Model Army and the rise of religious and political radicalism within the Army
  2. The trial and execution of the king and the setting up of a republic (the Commonwealth)
  3. The brutal conquest of Ireland
  4. A series of parliamentary experiments that saw the dissolution of the Long Parliament and the establishment of Cromwell as Lord Protector
  5. The growth of religious dissent in the 1650s.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Long Parliament

The Long Parliament in session,
Speaker Lenthall
in the chair

The Short Parliament

The First Bishops' War had concluded with humiliation for Charles's army, forcing him to summon Parliament and end the Personal Rule. This Parliament, known as the Short Parliament, assembled on 13 April 1640. Contrary to Strafford’s optimistic predictions, the Commons had been elected on an anti-court programme, with Ship-money a major issue. Parliament refused to grant the subsidies Charles demanded in spite of his major concession - the repeal of Ship-money - until their religious and political grievances received a hearing. On the advice of Strafford, who promised him an Irish army of 8,000, Charles dissolved Parliament on 5 May - this was his fourth Parliament and the last he would be able to dissolve.

The Second Bishops’ War

In August the Scots, galvanized by their new radical agenda, seized the initiative when the veteran soldier, Alexander Leslie led an army of about 18,000 across the Tweed. On 28 August they routed a hastily assembled English army at Newburn.  Then, while the English reinforced the fortifications of Berwick, they by-passed the town and went on to take Newcastle.  While they advanced without opposition, the king arrived in York.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Charles I: the Personal Rule (1629-40)

In April 1629 Charles made peace with France, and in November 1630 with Spain, calculating that if he avoided war, he would be able to rule without Parliament. 


The Personal Rule has also been called the ‘eleven years’ tyranny’, though, after the horrors of the Civil War, many came to see it as a golden age. The period is significant constitutionally because it saw a clash between two views of kingship:

  1. the king subject to the common law; 
  2. the king able to rule through the sole exercise of his prerogative. 

These conflicts had already come to the fore in Charles’s parliaments. 

Some consensus is emerging among historians about the personal rule.

  1. The Crown was genuinely attempting to reform the machinery of government and make it more efficient. Similar policies were being pursued by other monarchs in western Europe.
  2. Charles and his court became increasingly isolated from the mainstream of contemporary religious, intellectual, and cultural life, and did not bother to explain their policies. This shows the political disadvantage of ruling without Parliament. By 1640 Charles had created a climate of distrust that was to prove a disaster for him.