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The term ‘English Revolution’ refers to the profound changes experienced by the English political system from 1640 to 1660. Generations of historians have labeled this as one of the decisive political events of modern European history; at the same time it connected the social, political and religious changes of the sixteenth century with those occurring after 1660, up to the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688–9.
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1. Outline Of The Debate On The English Revolution
Contemporaries such as the Earl of Clarendon, as a rule, did not use the term revolution (see instead he wrote The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England (Macray W D (ed.) 6 vols. 1880, repr. London 1958). Although a generation later the word was added to the political vocabulary, it was applied to the events of 1688–9, that is, the overthrow of the Stuart monarchy, the succession of William and Mary and the new constitutional settlement. It was a foreigner, Francois Guizot, who, after the French revolution, was the ﬁrst to refer to the events of the years 1640 to 1660 as the ‘English Revolution’ in his Histoire de la republique d’Angleterre et de Cromwell (2 vols. 1854). At this time, liberal British historians such as Hallam and Macaulay were still describing those years as an untidy interruption in the process of the evolution of parliament and liberty, which had reached its ﬁrst climax with the 1689 Bill of Rights. Then vs. R. Gardiner developed his concept of the Puritan revolution (The First Two Stuarts and the Puritan Revolution, London 1876). His magisterial History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War 1603–1642 (10 vols., repr. New York 1965), which he later continued in his History of the Great Civil War 1642–1649 (3 vols. London, 1886–91) and his History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate 1649–1656 (3 vols. London 1894–1901), placed these years ﬁrmly into the context of the heroic struggle of the English House of Commons against arbitrary monarchy. This Whig interpretation of early modern English history dominated for nearly a century, despite the vigorous attacks of Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill, who understands the English revolution as the violent replacement of a feudal society by a new capitalist order. This enhances the importance of the events which Hill regards as ‘comparable in many respects with the French Revolution of 1789’ (The Century of Revolution 1603–1714, Edinburgh 1961). Thus in Whig and Marxist accounts alike the revolution in general and the parliamentary cause in particular were progressive and dynamic, and thereby contributed to the patriotic myth of the distinctiveness and exceptionalism of English political tradition.
Such comprehensive views of a wide-ranging English revolution have been challenged fundamentally by recent scholarship. This new revisionism disputes the notion of an inevitable, long-term historical process of unfolding progress, culminating in the revolutions of the seventeenth century. Detailed research on events rather than trends, often concentrating on the regions rather than the capital, not only pointed to chronological ﬁssures and contingencies, but also deconstructed the concept of a progressive parliament as the main historical agent. Every post revisionist assessment of the English revolution must take care not just to repeat old paradigms, to avoid anachronistic conceptualization and to pass judgment on the basis of varied and often contradictory evidence.
2. Origins And Causes
Up to Stone’s magisterial summary of The Causes of the English Revolution (1986) these have been placed into the context of the major economic and social changes of sixteenth-century England: the long-term inﬂation of the so-called price revolution, the secularization of the massive properties of the church in the wake of the Reformation, and new developments in trade and industry. All this contributed to the destabilization of the traditional social fabric, that is, to a temporary decline of the aristocracy and to a rise of the gentry wherever its members started to exploit their estates by the rules of an incipient capitalism. But no direct links between economic and social change on the one hand and the English revolution on the other have yet been established. Thus the latter cannot be labeled an early bourgeois revolution.
2.1 The Long-Term Crisis Of The Constitution
The political philosopher James Harrington (1611–77) attributed the outbreak of the civil war of 1642 to ‘the dissolution of government’ and this opinion has stood the test of time, remaining valid in the light of modern research. Since the Middle Ages the English monarchy has been based on the consent and co-operation of the political nation, that is those who, like the aristocracy, had an interest in participating in their country’s politics, and possessed the means to do so. In this relationship parliament had served as the point of contact, giving its assent to the legislation of the crown and voting taxes to support its policies. This vital constitutional role had been conﬁrmed and even strengthened during the Reformation, which had been eﬀected by the King in Parliament. But towards the end of the sixteenth century this relationship began to disintegrate. The political elite was no longer willing to shoulder the rising ﬁnancial and bureaucratic burdens of eﬀective royal government, which represented the emergence of the early modern European state on the road towards absolutism. The structural weakness of the English monarchy became evident, when in the early years of the reign of Charles I, the more localistminded members of parliament refused to meet the rising costs of war and thereby prevented the king from acting as a major player in the ﬁeld of European politics in the age of the Thirty Years War. The crown, trying to bypass parliament’s assent to taxation, mounted a constitutional oﬀensive, which provoked a crisis of the constitution. Whereas the king and his advisers stressed the unlimited powers of the monarch, who ultimately was answerable only to God, the Commons accused them of trying to abolish the ancient English constitution and claimed to be the last bulwark of liberty. The conﬂict reached its climax when parliament forced Charles I to assent to the Petition of Right (outlawing nonparliamentary taxes, arbitrary imprisonment, and the billeting of troops) in 1628. Then, in 1629, the king dissolved parliament and declared that he would not call it again, but establish a government of personal rule.
2.2 Conﬂict Over Religion
Historians always have agreed that religion was the cardinal issue of the English revolution, and John Morrill has recently described the English civil war as the ‘last great war of religion.’ With the ﬁnal triumph of the Protestant Reformation, anti-Catholicism became the distinctive mark of English political culture. In the age of counter-Reformation Popery, especially in alliance with monarchical absolutism, was regarded as a constant threat to the ancient liberty of an English nation still haunted by the memory of the Armada. In the ﬁeld of religion, transcending the limited sphere of the political nation, a wider public could be addressed and even mobilized. Contesting Popery promoted activism at all levels of society.
In this context the politics of religion implied momentous consequences, and contributed to the aggravation of tensions even more than the constitutional oﬀensive of the crown. The king, as head of the English church, gave the impression of undermining the Calvinist foundations of the Anglican faith when he obviously favored a novel Arminian stance in theology and worship. At the same time, under the protection of his Catholic queen, Catholicism gained inﬂuence at the royal court. Soon many contemporaries believed that their king was, if not the author, then at least the instrument, of a comprehensive Popish plot to subject England to papal rule again.
2.3 The Multiple Kingdom
Historians in search of the origins of the English revolution have only recently stressed the British dimension of the conﬂict. Since the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne in 1603, a regal union of both kingdoms had existed, and since 1541 the English monarch had also held the title of King of Ireland, reﬂecting the fact that the island had been an English colony since the Middle Ages. In addition to their diﬀerent social and economic structures, the three kingdoms were separated by contrasting religious establishments, with the result that the repercussions of the English crown’s religious policy were enhanced. When Charles I tried to adapt a radical Calvinist Scottish church to the doctrines and/or ganization of the English Anglican Church, he provoked the armed rebellion of his Scottish subjects in 1639. This was to be an important precondition for the formation of eﬀective English opposition to Charles I. In the face of English pressure to introduce the Reformation, the Irish had remained staunch Roman Catholics. In 1641, in view of the conﬂict between the king and the English parliament, they seized the opportunity to take up arms against their oppressors. This contributed decisively to the outbreak of the English civil war, which might also be called the war of the three kingdoms.
2.4 Charles I—The Personal Factor
The English revolution was not an accidental event because it took place in a political and cultural system, which could not stand crisis and strain. Nevertheless, its outbreak and course were also determined by certain elements of contingency, in the ﬁrst place, the personality of king Charles I. Revisionist historians in particular have exposed the numerous political blunders of his constitutional and ecclesiastical policies, which ﬁnally led to the breakdown of the monarchy. This is, thus, presented more as a contingent event in itself than as the result of structural conditions and long-term developments. Yet his personality and his aims and actions were neither erratic nor contradictory. Right up to his end on the scaﬀold, they were linked to one single great purpose: the establishment and preservation of a monarchy, in which the king’s powers would be limited neither by law nor by consent, because the ruler is answerable only to God. He always stood for absolutism and thus the quarrels he provoked raised fundamental issues, which form the subject matter of revolutions.
3. From Resistance And Rebellion To Revolution And Restoration
3.1 Stages And Turning Points
In 1639 the Scots rose against the ecclesiastical policy of Charles I, forcing the king to abandon his personal rule and to recall parliament in order to ﬁnance ﬁrst the war and later the costs of military defeat. The unpopularity of his policies meant that he could command no following, either in parliament or elsewhere, and therefore had to give his assent to those statutes and measures which the opposition in parliament regarded as the necessary safeguards against royal absolutism and popery. They abolished the instruments of arbitrary rule and unparliamentary taxation, secured the position of parliament, and had the king’s chief adviser, the Earl of Straﬀord, executed. This policy of enforced reforms changed from a defense of the traditional political order into a violation of the ancient constitution as soon as the leaders of parliament had to take precautions against a potential royal backlash and proposed to abolish the king’s right to appoint ministers and control the army. Revolutionary aims like these soon alienated conservative members of the political nation, provided the king with a party, and ﬁnally opened the way for the escalation of the constitutional conﬂict between crown and parliament into civil war between Cavaliers and Roundheads (1642–5).
But even the military victory of parliament, which commanded superior resources, did not put an end to the conﬂict with the monarch. In the eyes of the majority of the nation there was no alternative to monarchy, and so even after defeat Charles was never willing to assent to, or even compromise on, the reduction of his royal prerogative. He counted on divisions among his adversaries and the second civil war in 1648 seemed to vindicate him, when risings of the royalists who were now supported by the Scots had to be put down. The confusion and turmoil of those years gave rise to and accelerated a process of political radicalization. The victorious army with its leading general, Oliver Cromwell, became the center of power, purged the House of Commons of those who still favored negotiation, and staged the trial and execution of the king (January 30, 1649). Together with the abolition of the House of Lords and the proclamation of March 17, 1649, in which parliament declared ‘that the oﬃce of a king in this nation … is unnecessary, burdensome, and dangerous to the liberty, safety, and public interest of the people …’ this marked the climax of a political revolution in which the British monarchy was replaced by the republic of the Commonwealth.
At the same time new rifts opened between the more conservative ‘Rump Parliament,’ as it was called after the purge and the army which, in the ﬁeld of religion, pressed for a ‘godly reformation.’ In 1653, Cromwell dissolved parliament by force and the Protectorate was established. Though parliaments still formed part of the new constitution laid down in the ‘Instrument of Government’, power rested with Oliver Cromwell, who became head of state as lord protector and his council. Thus, an only thinly veiled military dictatorship led the way back to the monarchy. After Cromwell’s death in 1658 the revolutionary process came full circle when, with the overwhelming assent of the political nation, the Stuart monarchy was restored in 1660.
3.2 Forces And Factors
A common denominator of revolutions is the active role of the people, the masses applying ‘violence from below.’ Especially during the ﬁrst stage of the English revolution, the populace of London repeatedly exerted pressure on the House of Lords and the king, whose assent was needed to sanction decisive reforms. They acted in accord with the leaders of the opposition in the House of Commons, who were able to organize mass demonstrations and petitions through a network of Puritan congregations. And when in December 1641 parliament published its program for radical political and ecclesiastical reform in the so-called ‘Great Remonstrance,’ this revolutionary move testiﬁed to the new revolutionary alliance between the representatives of the nation and a wider public. More than 20,000 sermons, pamphlets, and newsletters were printed between 1642 and 1649, opening up a public sphere for a general debate on religion and politics. New radical forces emerged, such as the popular democratic movement of the Levellers. This movement confronted parliament with a wide range of grievances, and, in its Agreements of the People, presented its drafts for a new written constitution, which was to guarantee every freeborn Englishman’s birthright. And when the victorious army became a major factor in politics, this was also aﬀected from below. Common soldiers elected agitators as their representatives to the council of the oﬃcers and declared that they were not a ‘mere mercenary army,’ but had the right of political participation.
In the end, the revolutionary regime was based on the minority in Cromwell’s army that took an active interest in politics. This points to the extent to which, in consequence of progressive radicalization, the popular basis of support for the revolution was shrinking. But at the same time it was becoming more forceful, especially when linked to radical Puritanism, which, through the doctrine of predestination, could provide its members with the self-conﬁdence that it takes to want to turn the world upside down.
Because they refuse to take a long-term perspective and sometimes even try to separate the period of resistance and the civil war from the republican experience, many revisionists do not concede that the English Revolution in the long run secured the place of parliament within the framework of the constitution. But after a second attempt to establish absolutist rule in England had been averted by the resistance of the political nation in the Glorious Revolution of 1688–9, the introduction of constitutional monarchy, which had been proclaimed as the policy goal of the parliament of 1642, was ﬁnally achieved. Though it did not eﬀect substantial social change, the English Revolution had unfolded the complete repertoire of political change: not only the right of resistance but also the idea of the sovereign people sitting in judgment upon the king, and the theory of individual rights and social contract as the basis for a written constitution. Thus, it both marked a decisive step in the process of political modernization, and provided a case study for future revolutions, as the American struggle for independence was to show.
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