Hello! This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. Over the next few months, we’re going to be talking about the British Civil Wars.
It’s entirely possible that I studied this at school, and that you did too, but if I did, I don’t remember it. It seems to me like the seventeenth century in England, from the end of the Tudor dynasty through to the Act of Union, is comparatively overlooked. And it’s the same in Scotland - as soon as James VI went down to England to take over from Elizabeth in London, there’s fairly little in popular history until you get to the Jacobites three or four generations later. That’s interesting to me for several reasons: first of all, why is it overlooked? Because it never used to be. A hundred years ago, most people in Britain would know the big names and key dates in the British Civil Wars, because to them it was an astonishingly important part of British history, that tangibly shaped the world they lived in. (I say British rather than English, and indeed Scottish - we’ll come back to that.)
Not long after I started researching this podcast, which was in the spring of 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Up until that point, I had been intending this to be an interesting bit of history, a step between where we used to be and where we are now that people tend to skip over. But over the last year, it’s become clear that there’s a lot about how the UK looks now that people just don’t understand, that has its roots in the seventeenth century. I can’t understate this: between 1600 and 1700, the UK had two real periods of constitutional crisis. The second one, in 1688, is what is referred to as the Glorious Revolution - again, it always kind of delights me that there’s a thing in British history called the Glorious Revolution! - and it shaped the balance of power between Crown, Parliament and people in a way that is still vitally important to how the UK is governed today. But even the Glorious Revolution wouldn’t have happened, and certainly not in the same way, if it hadn’t been for the Civil War a generation beforehand. It changed what monarchy means, how the people interacted with their governments. It started up conversations about who deserves to have a say in how the country is run that we’re still talking about today. England and Scotland were still separate countries for the whole of the seventeenth century, and it still had a huge effect on how the English and the Scots interacted with each other which, again, is so relevant at the moment that it feels like quite a lot of pressure to be trying to explain it to you. I’m going to do the best I can, though, because as the old saying goes, history doesn’t often repeat itself, but it does rhyme. There is no clearer callback to the seventeenth century than the last few years of British politics. This is important to us, and we need to talk about it.
And secondly, and on a note that is perhaps more to do with storytelling, the British Civil Wars are interesting to me in a way that other civil wars aren’t, because there’s no really clear narrative these days about who to cheer for. If you think of the French or American revolutions, there’s one relatively clear side that, looking back, we pretty much want to win. But in the British Civil Wars, there’s none of that. Partly that’s because it wasn’t actually one distinct war with two distinct sides: we all probably know about the King versus the English Parliament - or Cavaliers versus Roundheads - but when the King in question handed himself over to the Scots and was basically taken out of play in 1646, that wasn’t anything like the end of the fighting. After that, there was fighting between parts of Parliament and the Army, between Parliament and the Scots, and the Irish - and then in the early 1650s, England was also at war with the Dutch for two years. And we still quite often count that period as being part of the Civil Wars.
So I think the fact that the narrative is so complicated has put a lot of people off trying to learn about it, which is a shame, because that’s one of the things that makes it so very interesting - and, again, it’s another thing that makes it so relevant today. Historians have noted over and over that you could not tell by a person’s class, or their location in the country, or their job or level of education, which side they were going to be on at any point. Different members of the same family, even, would end up on different sides at different times - and some people didn’t even choose as side at all. The point is, there are no clear lines. And while that’s harder to learn about, again, the parallels with Britain today seem so striking to me - the types of discussion that people are having, their reasons for picking their political positions on everything from EU membership to Scottish independence to the level of human rights protection we have, all of those are in a way so arcane that it’s difficult to tell what a person’s views are on them unless you ask them outright. So I can’t tell you how the next decade is going to end. But I hope by the end of this series you’ll have some idea about what happened on a previous occasion we as a nation - as a collection of nations - were asking ourselves these kinds of difficult questions.
We’re going to go back over the whole course of what happened, over the next couple of months. The plan is to release a podcast once a fortnight, but there may be a few bonus mini episodes scattered in among that. We’ve got a lot to talk about - apart from the battlefields and the many statesmen being absolute pants at negotiating with each other, there are also a whole host of religious tensions, diplomatic intrigues, economic crises, and of course a lot of ordinary people who just had to live through it. At this time, a lot of battles on the main European continent tended to take place on fields outside of towns, but the British Civil Wars were different - there were relatively few big orchestrated battles, and quite a lot of smaller skirmishes and ambushes and sieges of cities and castles - there were a few people near the top who had done this before, but generally speaking, this was war largely improvised by people who weren’t terribly sure what they were doing but were damned if they weren’t going to take every opportunity they could get. So while there wasn’t as much military innovation as there was in other conflicts, the British Civil Wars were played dirty in a lot of ways, by soldiers and by all the other people who had to give up their homes to them, or who supplied them, or supported them, or who were just sucked into the action while it was happening.
While I’ve been researching and writing this podcast, I’ve been asked a few times questions along the lines of: But does it even matter? The British Civil Wars might have looked a bit in places like they rhyme with some events going on in the UK today, but did it itself have any effect on the rest of history? After all, it didn’t have much of an effect on how warfare was conducted in conflicts that came later, and the Cromwellian republic only lasted for about a decade before Charles II came back and resumed the line of Stuart kings. And usually, the first thing I say is, if you were Irish you wouldn’t be asking that. The Civil War shaped England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales for generations - in Ireland in particular you can still see some of the effects today.
But that’s easy for me to say - I’m an Englishwoman living in Scotland, so that alone makes me think the Civil Wars are important. The period we’re talking about is the first half of the seventeenth century, through to about 1660, which is more than a century before the American Revolution and about a century and a half earlier than the French Revolution. So while we don’t see any particular change in how wars are conducted, we do start to see a shift in why they happen. This is Britain all over: what we don’t see in the British Civil Wars is the ideological clarity of either the French or the American wars, but we do see a very early example of a war where private citizens had ideological reasons for getting involved beyond their religion or the wishes of their monarch. During the 1630s and 1640s we see a huge range of really quite advanced social movements advocating for everything from universal male suffrage to the need to hold all property in common and mete out to each according to his need. It’s actually quite impressive! Before the seventeenth century, there just hadn’t been much thought attached to questions like, is monarchy necessary? Why? How does that interact with Parliament, or popular democracy more generally? How does that interact with religion, and can we separate religious governance from civil governance? What do private citizens owe to the state when they’re at war - and who counts as the state, is that the King’s person, or is it actually Parliament, however patchily democratic we in the 21st century might think Parliament was back then? The British Civil Wars didn’t answer any of those questions, but they were a very early example of people starting to ask them. And without their influence, without having it in recent-ish memory, perhaps those questions might have taken a very different form later on.
Let’s talk about terminology, just quickly, and then we’ll dive right in at the beginning. The war certainly wasn’t just restricted to England, for instance, so calling it the English Civil War is right out - and there’s some great but extremely pedantic debate among historians about what the best thing is to call it. The first reason for that is that a civil war is by definition internal, taking place within one country’s borders. And that’s completely not true here. In the early 17th century, the United Kingdom did not exist. It was two separate countries: one is England-and-Wales, which have been the same country since the 13th century or the mid-16th century, depending on who you ask, and the other is Scotland. Ireland is a completely different country again, which at this point was under English rule. So one term you might find quite often is the War of the Three Kingdoms. But then, we’re also talking about several distinct wars, with different sets of combatants in each, so another term you might get - and this one’s the most popular one, I’d guess - is the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. But then again, some people still aren’t happy with that: another term is the Wars of the Five Peoples, the five peoples being English, Welsh, Scots, Irish, and Cornish.
You might be looking at me a bit askance here and thinking, well, if there’s no Great Britain as a single country, then why do I keep calling it the British war? Well, the political term for the country we know today is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Great Britain itself is a political term for the big island that is most of England-and-Scotland-and-Wales, and the surrounding smaller islands like Anglesey, the Isle of Wight, and Orkney. That’s not what we want right now, because that political term wasn’t in use in the seventeenth century. The union hadn’t happened yet, there was no political thing called Great Britain. But, just to keep things complicated, Great Britain is also a geographical term - and in the geographical sense, it describes the single big island that is most of England-and-Scotland-and-Wales. The British Isles is another geographical term, meaning Great Britain, all the little fiddly island bits round the edges, and also Eire and Northern Ireland. It’s all a bit convoluted, but what you really need to know is that when I talk about Britain, here, I mean it in the geographical sense, and not to refer to any political union. Because the political union hadn’t happened yet.
It’s not just geography that we can nitpick, though. If we’re being really picky about it, the Civil War - or Civil Wars, plural, are usually counted as being 1642-46, and 1647-49. But if we started talking about England in 1642 and stopped again on the dot in 1649 we’d miss a lot of the fighting, and most of the political upheaval, and we’d miss entirely that period of eleven years where England was technically speaking a republic. So to get the whole story in England, we need to not just be looking at the Civil Wars, but more broadly at the English Revolution, which is usually dated from the start of Charles I’s last parliament in 1640, through to the restoration of his son Charles II to the monarchy in 1660.
And then there’s a Scottish Revolution, and another war in Ireland, but with quite a few of the same people getting involved - and even that doesn’t account for the fact that the French and the Dutch and the Spanish were sat on the sidelines of all of this, and they very much had parties they wanted to win. When a civil war happens, or even a revolution, history doesn’t ignore that country and carry on without it until it’s finished, and there’s actually an awful lot of international diplomacy going on at the same time. People don’t just give up invading you because you’re busy fighting among yourselves. In the rest of Europe, the Thirty Years War was actually going on alongside the first part of the unrest in the British Isles - and we’ll come back to that in just a minute.
So on the basis that the Miscellaneous Fighting and Political Wranglings in the British Isles Among Everyone Nearby is a terrible name for a historical event… the term you’re going to hear me use is the British Civil Wars. Plural. It might not be strictly accurate, but you know what I’m talking about, I know what I’m talking about, we can go right ahead and focus on the more interesting stuff than semantics.
So let’s move on to the fun stuff.
We’ll start a little bit earlier than strictly necessary, to put this in a bit of context. In 1603, Elizabeth I of England died, the last of the Tudor monarchs, and famously without children. In the absence of a direct heir, the crown of England went to the son of Elizabeth’s cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, who by this time has been dead for sixteen years, because Elizabeth had her beheaded for treason - that’s a whole other story, but probably one you’re at least vaguely familiar with. Mary’s son, at this point, was King James VI of Scotland, and when Elizabeth died, he became James VI of Scotland, and James I of England. There’s no Act of Union now, not for another century, so what we’ve got is one king with two titles, of two different countries, England and Scotland.
England and Scotland at this point were pretty different. Scotland was pretty small, not terribly highly populated, and it had an increasingly strong Presbyterian church. That’s a branch of Protestantism, and if you know much about Mary Queen of Scots, you’ll know that she was very Roman Catholic, and she grew up in France, and both of these at this point were really sore spots with the Scottish. Apart from a in a few leftover spots in the highlands, they did not like Roman Catholicism. They did not like foreign influences. As countries in western Europe go at the beginning of the seventeenth century, they were quite poor and didn’t have very much diplomatic influence, so perhaps it’s understandable that they were quite defensive about their customs and borders. One thing they definitely didn’t want was English Protestantism. They might not be having anything to do with the church in Rome, but they didn’t want it from England either. As I say, they’re a small country next to much bigger powers in the south and east, so these things were very important to them.
Compare that to England, which had been Church-of-England Protestant since Henry VIII set up the Church of England in the 1530s. And they’d also had half a century of religious upheaval: since Henry VIII they’d been Church-of-England Protestant, then they’d been ruled by Catholic Queen Mary and her Spanish husband, and finally Protestant again under Elizabeth. The Spanish Armada’s attempted invasion of England in 1588 was still within living memory for people, so they were also extremely leery of Catholics in general, and the French and Spanish in particular. But, that said, England actually had quite a lot of diplomatic influence in western Europe. They showed up to fight and negotiate and trade and what have you, and in the last century they and the Dutch and Spanish led the expeditions to the New World.
Ireland at the moment was pretty much an English colony. It was governed from Dublin but with a strong English influence, and while Ireland was historically a Catholic country, just like the rest of western Europe before the Protestant Reformation, by now it had an increasing number of Protestant English and Scottish settlers coming across to look for work, and to run plantations. At the moment, that was largely going fine, and everyone was fairly harmonious. Hold that thought, because it’s not going to last for very long.
So politically, religiously, at the turn of the seventeenth century, we’ve got a situation that has quite a few tensions in it in the British Isles. Just to set this in context, let’s mention very quickly other things happening around the world at this point: in North America, we’re just beginning to expand the immigration from the European continent. The Mayflower sailed from Plymouth in 1620, and in the 1630s we see see a massive uptick of emigration from England to the New World - the figure I’ve heard is around 20,000 people, many of them Puritans, and we’ll talk a bit about why they found it necessary to leave later on. The British East India Company was founded in 1600, and spent the next few decades fighting it out with the Dutch for the trade routes. Likewise, the Spanish at this time were busy expanding their own colonies in South America. Western Australia had just been accidentally discovered by a European, although again there were indigenous people all over that continent already, so calling it a “discovery” might be a bit fatuous.
In the Middle East, the Ottoman Empire was still at the height of its power, but by far the richest places on earth were still India and China: in India, the Mughal Emperor Akbar died in 1605 - what’s cool about him, I think, is that while half of western Europe was still arguing over whether Arminian Protestants were better than Calvinist Protestants, further east Akbar was bringing Muslims and Hindus and Parsis and Christians together to talk about art and the meaningful questions of life. Which puts things in a bit of perspective! And on that note, the Taj Mahal was completed the year before Charles I was executed in the Civil War. I think weird juxtapositions like that are great - my favourite one is that in 1643, a year into the Civil War proper, Isaac Newton was born, and four days later, Galileo Galilei died.
And finally, a bit closer to home, most of Europe was engaged in a fully-fledged war that started in 1618 - the Thirty Years War.
Now I want to talk about this specifically for a moment - the Thirty Years War started out in Bohemia in what’s now Germany, as a series of religious tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and within Protestantism between Calvinism and Lutherism. We’ll talk a bit more about what the differences are between these various subcategories of Christianity later in this series, because it all gets a bit People’s Front of Judea after a while, but in 1618, a couple of Bavarian diplomats were thrown out of a 70-foot window in the Royal Palace of Prague, in an event which I am mostly mentioning because it is known as the Defenestration of Prague and I love that, and then increasingly over the next fifteen years or so the rest of continental Europe got sucked into this war. After a while it became less about the relative merits of Calvinism and Catholicism, and more about politics and economics, and it also spread further than south Germany and Austria to include France, Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands, bits of Poland and Italy, and that between them is pretty much the vast majority of central and western Europe.
The Thirty Years War lasted the three decades from 1618 to 1648, when it ended with a quite famous treaty called the Peace of Westphalia, although it really got going in 1631 when the Protestant Swedish and the Catholic French formed an unlikely alliance against the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand II, and tried to invade Germany. I’m telling you, it was all go in early seventeenth century Europe. In terms of the timeline of what we’re talking about here, the British Civil Wars started heating up in the mid to late 1630s, the fighting really got started in the early 1640s, and Charles I was finally executed in 1649, barely two and a half months after the Peace of Westphalia was concluded. So all of these things are happening at around the same time, which is no coincidence. In some respects, the nearest continental neighbours of the British Isles were busy in the middle of their own massive great war, which meant that they were less able to jump in and try and affect the outcome of the fighting in England, Scotland and Ireland. On the other hand, that other massive war was also heavily religiously motivated, with a lot of the same denominations - so if you found yourself as a Roman Catholic anywhere in western Europe at this time, there were a very limited number of places you could go and be safe. And that’s hardly going to make people like each other more.
One other thing here is that, by the time the British Civil Wars started, the Thirty Years War was already two decades old, and so there were a lot of very experienced fighters hanging around the European continent at this time. Particularly, there was a significant group of Scottish mercenaries who had fought in the Thirty Years War in positions of command, who then came home to fight for their own people and their own religion when the fighting in Scotland started to take off. And so we start to see some of the techniques of one war bleeding into the other - the weaponry, the battle formations, and so on, as well as just the mental and intellectual approach to how you conduct a war.
But that’s all still very much in the future - we’ve not got nearly that far yet.
Back in the 1610s, Charles of England who was going to die in 1649 wasn’t even king yet. James VI and I was still on the throne, and Charles wasn’t even the first in line to succeed - his older brother Henry was still alive, and everyone was expecting Henry to become king, including his dad, and his little brother. And… it’s not necessarily important here, but I think it makes a lot of his future attitudes and actions make a lot more sense, is that Prince Henry bullied his little brother really badly. Charles had rickets as a baby, which meant that he had weak muscles and bowed legs and it probably hurt quite a bit, and on top of that he had a stammer, and, completely understandably, was quite shy. Henry was the clear favourite of both their mother and their father, and he liked to humiliate his little brother. James himself was no better - he used to play them off against each other, trying to make them compete for his affections. There’s a terribly sad letter that a couple of historians quote as an example of this - a letter that Charles wrote to Henry when he was nine years old, and in it he says, “I will give everything I have to you, both horses, and my books, and my pieces [guns], and my crossbow, or anything you would have. Good brother love me and I shall love and serve you.” It’s absolutely heartbreaking.
James actually wrote a book addressed to his eldest son, when he was still only king of Scotland, called the Basilikon Doron, and it was about how a king ought to act - the rule of law, economic and foreign policy, as well as just how to hold yourself. A few years later, he added to it and reprinted it so that his subjects could also see what James thought a king ought to be like, and it sold thousands of copies. And then in 1612, when Henry was eighteen, and Charles was twelve, Henry died of typhoid, and so James gave the Basilikon Doron to Charles.
Can you imagine? Particularly how someone who’s grown up like that feels when they’re an adult? How does that person behave? And then we look at a lot of the accusations thrown at Charles later in his life - that he had poor judgement, and a tendency to double down on it and need to save his own face. That he failed to listen to experts or to a wide range of views, and instead trusted a small, select number of friends. That he often mistook honest disagreement for disloyalty, and thought that loyalty was so incredibly important that he’d ignore his obligations if loyalty was what was at stake. That he was secretive, and often refused to explain himself, so that he seemed distant from his people. And historians have noted before that this sounds very much like someone who’s been bullied as a child. So that’s a thing to bear in mind, as we carry on through this period in history.
So throughout the rest of the 1610s, we’ve got Charles growing up with the knowledge that he was going to inherit the throne; and yet his mother and father still didn’t want to spend any more time with him - he got James’s big book of how to be a king, but for a long while he was kept outside the statesroom. One thing that changed all that, when Charles was a little bit older, was the intervention of James’s favourite, George Villiers, who’d end up being made the Duke of Buckingham. One of the things I found kind of amusing while researching this podcast was that, to a certain extent, you can tell the age of a history book by how carefully they explain that Buckingham was a very close confidante of James’s, who just happened to also be widely acknowledged as a beautiful specimen of masculinity. Let’s be clear about this: they were lovers, from 1617 or so right up until James’s death in 1625. And the older Buckingham got, the more he realised that if he wanted to keep all the influence he had in court, then he’d have to make friends with the heir to the throne. So he did, and that was really Charles’s way in to his father’s affections.
At this point, the Thirty Years War had really kicked off in Bohemia, where Charles’s older sister Elizabeth happened to have just been married to Frederick IV, who in short order had just been elected King, and then a year later deposed again by the Holy Roman Emperor. We’re not going to get too deeply into central European politics at this point, or even the extent to which the Stuart monarchy got involved with it, but when Elizabeth’s husband was deposed and she asked her family for help, it suddenly became quite a good idea for Charles to marry someone politically useful, so as to leverage more power to help her. So off he went to Spain, with Buckingham along with him cheering him on, and in 1623 the two of them spent several months chasing round Madrid after the sister of Philip IV of Spain, the Infanta Maria, trying to get her to marry Charles. And she wouldn’t, mainly because she was very Catholic and Charles was very much not, and in the end Charles had to face the facts and just embarrassedly come home and pretend that had been his plan all along.
What this means, though, that’s quite interesting, is that unlike the last few English monarchs, Charles had been to mainland Europe, and seen how other monarchs ran their countries and how they were viewed. James VI had grown up in Scotland, in the very Scottish tradition of monarchy which is “first among equals”, where the king had to justify himself to his people and interact with them and show his leadership that way. Charles had this extra influence of monarchy as an institution that ought to be displayed almost as self-evident rather than straight-up advocated for. And later on, when his right to rule was being challenged at home, that would have a bit of a tendency to wind people up.
The other thing is that you might expect the prospect of a Catholic queen to not go down so well back home in England. That’s a bullet dodged right there, you might think to yourself. And that would be very optimistic of you, because not two years later, in March 1625, James died and Charles became king, and not three months later he married Henrietta Maria of France, who was, very definitely, Catholic. The very first thing he did was to relax the laws forcing Catholics to attend Church of England services, which apart from anything else offended the very C of E Parliament. After that, there was suddenly a whole wave of conversions to Catholicism among the aristocracy - not because they had all been secretly Catholic before and now they could suddenly come out of the woodwork, but because the Queen was doing it. It was fashionable! If there’s something Catholicism did well, it was drama, from the architecture to the ceremony to the art. And if you add that to Charles’s Spanish-influenced ideas about being visibly majestic, you end up with an increasingly Catholic-looking aesthetic among the most influential people that made the rest of the population very nervous indeed.
So while Charles at this point was pretty popular among his subjects, we’re beginning to see a trend here of his advisers and confidantes being quite unpopular among the wider population. The Duke of Buckingham was hated because he was impulsive, he led England into a series of battles with France and Spain, all of which the English lost embarrassingly, and he gave Charles consistently dreadful advice - he was actually assassinated by a soldier in Portsmouth in August 1628. And Henrietta Maria’s overt practice of her religion did not make her popular. Later on, there would be a handful of other advisers who were just devastatingly unpopular, for a whole host of reasons - we’ll meet a few of them in the next episode. And it gets to a certain point and you just think - there’s something, or someone, in common here, and it’s Charles. So what does that tell us about him? Well, if you remember him getting bullied by his brother Henry, and his reaction to that, then maybe this closeness and reliance on a small set of personal relationships makes sense. Charles I made a lot of mistakes in his life - an awful lot of them. But we can see why. And I think that’s part of what’s so fascinating about him, certainly to me, and I think to a lot of historians. He’s not a despot or a villain, he’s not a weak-willed idiot, he’s a man with a set of experiences and prejudices who worked himself, and was worked by others, into an inescapable hole. He wasn’t the world’s mightiest strategist, but that means in a way that it’s easier for us to trace his motivations. So that’s a thing to bear in mind going forward.
Now we’ve introduced the big guy, let’s talk about the other five million people in England in 1625, when Charles took the throne. It’s easy to focus on one and ignore the rest, but where’s the fun in that?
In the very basic sense, trying to work out what the rest of the population looked like in 1625 is both a very difficult task and a very nerdy one: the science of demographics involves a lot of trawling through records of deaths, baptisms and marriages, a lot of ticking off surnames, and a lot of extrapolating from incomplete records. Honestly this is a rabbit hole you only go down if you’re really committed - so of course I went down it. In the first half of the seventeenth century, we’re looking at about five million people in England, which is about the population of Yorkshire today, and one million in Scotland. Of the English population, most of them were rural - only about 6-8% of people lived in towns with a population of 10,000 or more, and in Scotland the proportion was closer to 3%. Of the English population, in 1600 about 5% of the total English population lived in London, which was just shy of 200,000 people, and by 1650 it was 375,000 people. The capital was thirteen times bigger than the second largest city in England, which it may surprise you to discover was Norwich. Those facts are important apart from anything else because we can start to get a sense of how information was spread at this time - if people in London had one way of looking at things, so for instance if people in London were particularly sympathetic to Parliament, then that information could spread very quickly around the city. On the other hand, more rural populations tended to be more insulated from political trends. Noting as well the difference in population sizes between England and Scotland, what’s interesting is that that difference is more pronounced today - there are more people living in London today than there are in the entirety of Scotland - but it gives you a bit of an early idea of the respective sway of English and Scottish politics. And by that I mean that sorry Scotland, Scottish Presbyterianism was never going to take off just because you wanted it to.
It’s hard to say how long people were likely to live in the first half of the seventeenth century, partly because there were several big famines in the 1620s, 1640s and again in the 1650s, and partly because there are so few records to be had. One study I looked at said that life expectation at birth was round about 36 years, but that’s a gross simplification - so many babies or young children died that if you made it to 25, you’d probably make it as far as 50. But again, it’s difficult to say with any more certainty because the records just aren’t there.
A thing that always seems completely strange to me is that all the women in the seventeenth century were pretty much constantly pregnant. On average, a woman would probably have six or seven full-term pregnancies in her lifetime, and remember that’s just on average - with time out for breastfeeding, the majority of women are looking at a decade of constant pregnancy. Honestly, I’m exhausted just thinking about it. On top of that, overall maternal mortality was anything up to 20% for women in their late twenties and early thirties, and maybe 11-14% for women aged 20-24 or 35-44. That sounds huge, but first of all your risk of dying of anything was much higher in the early seventeenth century, and most men were also spending their lives doing eye-poppingly dangerous jobs, like coal mining, or working in docks where heavy things could fall on you, if the exciting foreign diseases didn’t get to you first.
If you lived in England you’d probably live five-ish years longer than if you lived in Scotland, and that is partly a function of diet and living conditions, which again would be more likely to put you in the way of diseases and also make you less likely to be able to fight them off. England was significantly richer and more powerful as a nation than Scotland at this time - that wasn’t new, that’s been going on for centuries, because of the various natural resources available in each country, and also their relationships with various foreign powers. Over the course of the seventeenth century, both England and Scotland were going to profit hugely from trade from the New World, including people trafficking and slavery. But that’s more a thing of the second half of the seventeenth century and beyond - or that’s certainly when it hit its stride. At this stage, British slavery in Africa and beyond certainly existed as an institution, but it was far smaller and more localised than it would end up being.
Feudalism wasn’t a thing in England any more, but it wasn’t too far in the past, either, and you could still see its effects in how society was organised - many people were very aware of their social status. As well as the aristocracy, there was a new class, very broadly speaking, of gentlemen - often they were landowners because their great-grandparents had got hold of former monastic lands being sold off cheaply or given away during Henry VIII’s Reformation a century beforehand. Or alternatively, they were merchants - even if trade with the New World hadn’t taken off yet the way it was going to later on, business and trade were still a bigger deal than they had ever been before. Before this point, the growing of a business was something you might do over a couple of generations, but now we’re starting to see things that look like the forefathers of start-ups: a single merchant working his way up from country yeoman, to apprentice, to master of a thriving business complete with riches and some kind of political clout in one generation.
What these newly rich folk often had in common with a lot of the aristocracy - and this is going to be a running theme - is debt. Debt is as old as the hills, and in the early seventeenth century, living over your means was the way to go if you had cash to spare. The early seventeenth century didn’t have much of a cash economy - most transactions from the highest to the lowest end of society tended to be based on credit, and interestingly, many merchants and tradesmen and so forth tended to be in debt to the poor for wages. One of the things I always wondered about massing big armies, for example, was: how do you pay so many people a regular wage? And of course the answer is you don’t, a lot of it is done on credit, and that credit spreads outwards further and further as people promise to pay each other, and then you tot it all up at the end. But even though credit was such an acceptable thing, and had been for centuries, you did have to net out eventually - and that’s where the aristocracy ran into problems. By 1641, just before the Civil War kicked off, the aristocracy were, on average, £12,000 in debt. In new money, that’s nearly two and a half million pounds each.
In a more general sense, the steep increase in debt meant that some families with old money were declining, and at the same time newer ones were coming up to take their place, and with the rise of newly rich families comes a lot of conspicuous consumption, and a lot of snobbery from the ones who were there first. It has been argued before that part of the battle between crown and Parliament was actually a class war. It wasn’t, or it 90% wasn’t, but it’s easy to see where that assumption came from. This is a very old-fashioned English kind of social upheaval.
One other thing I want to mention is education. Estimating literacy levels is a fool’s errand when we don’t even have a very good idea of how many people there were, but one thing left over from the late Tudors, and particularly Elizabeth, was a proliferation of boy’s grammar schools. Normally these would be for boys aged between seven or eight and about fifteen, and most towns probably had one - some bigger towns like York and Bristol and Rochester even had two whole schools. Boys would learn to read and write, and speak Latin and sometimes Greek. There might be a bit of arithmetic, mostly focused on keeping accounts, but most of it was Latin. Beyond that, there were a few universities - Oxford and Cambridge had about 3,000 students apiece.
As far as girls were concerned, when Henry VIII dissolved the convents, their chances for learning largely disappeared too - although in the seventeenth century we start to see girls’ private schools popping up around London teaching things like needlework, music, and French. In Queen Elizabeth’s day, an accomplished woman would be expected to speak and read languages, to know something of botany, history, science. But forty years later that was no longer a sign of prestige - this was increasingly a century where women with a certain social status were expected to be pretty but largely useless, and when you look at the opportunities they had for learning things, that bears out. I’ve got to say, it would crush my spirit, at the very least. Obviously, the further down the social scale you go, the less women were likely to be doing music and French. From a certain point down the ladder, women have always worked. They’ve always been badly paid compared to men, but they’ve always worked. (Thanks Mary for reminding me this <3)
So that’s very broadly where we’re at in terms of how people lived - other things like religion, transport, and diet, we’ll look at as the series goes on.
We’ve got, then, the hang of what the British Isles, and England in particular, looked like in 1625 when Charles was crowned. And at that time, what with the Thirty Year War going on and Charles’s sister being caught right in the middle of it, England was on the very brink of war with both France and Spain. And the very first thing that happened when Charles became king was that he went to Parliament for money for this war. There was a precedent for this - for the last 200 years, Parliament had gone ahead and granted every new king a stipend for life, known as tonnage and poundage. This time, they gave Charles only a small amount, and only granted it for a year. There are a couple of reasons for this - firstly, it was a 200-year-old system and they wanted to clean it up a bit, work out how much Charles actually needed and give him that rather than just chucking a blank cheque at him once a year. And then, the plague had hit London that year, and the MPs mostly just wanted to get out of the city for the summer months, when the plague was the worst. So they stuck a bookmark in it, and meant to come back to it.
But we’ve already seen that Charles was one to see any disagreement with him as a personal insult, and the worst of the worst disloyalty. So in the spirit of projecting the most regal image he could muster, he threw a tantrum and started collecting tonnage and poundage anyway in the form of a forced loan, just as if Parliament had agreed to it. And when the courts refused to declare it legal in advance, he sacked the Lord Chief Justice and kept going. This might sound quite drastic, but by now the war with France was a thing that was definitely happening, and he had to pay for it somehow - and we should remember that at the very beginning Parliament had been in favour of the war, even if they had now suddenly got cold feet about it. As it was, Parliament was seriously starting to think that Charles’s financial problems were his own fault. At this point the Duke of Buckingham was still alive, too, and still putting his foot in it repeatedly - in the summer of 1627 he personally took a sizable fleet to France and lost almost half of it. Charles was losing money, and Parliament were losing patience. For Charles’s own part, the levying of the forced loan was almost like a test of Parliament’s loyalty to him, to see whether they were really on his side and how seriously they took him. As far as Charles was concerned, by querying his motives and refusing to give him every penny of the money he needed, Parliament failed that test. Neither of them would ever really recover from that loss of trust, which went both ways.
By March 1628, Charles was in so much debt that he had to sell off some of his lands. The Privy Council advised him to call a new Parliament. Parliament by this point was having none of Charles’s nonsense, and they offered to grant him some money - not as much as he wanted, but some - if he passed a Bill of Rights saying that he’d never tax his people without Parliament’s consent again.
Now, that’s a no-brainer to us. Basically it was a promise that Charles wouldn’t try to levy any taxes that were technically illegal. But Charles, feeling like he was being backed into a corner and given conditions, refused to agree. So instead it was presented directly to him as a petition, known as the Petition of Right, which Parliament drafted and resolved upon on May 6th, 1628, and then formally presented to Charles three weeks later.
The main provisions of the Petition of Right were that there should be no taxation without the consent of Parliament, that there should be no martial law imposed during peacetime, that soldiers should not be quartered with subjects, and that no one should be imprisoned without cause. If you’re anything like me, your ears are pricking up a bit here, because those sound ever so slightly like the beginnings of human rights - you might recognise that the ban on imprisonment without cause is habeas corpus, which had been part of English law since the Magna Carta, and all four tenets were directly related to ways Parliament believed the King was beginning to overreach himself, through his illegal taxes, through his waging of this unpopular war with France, and through trying to shut down the people who disagreed with him. Don’t get too excited, though - within fifteen years, both the King and Parliament would be breaking those rules, left, right and centre.
Another thing to bear in mind here is that the term “Bill of Rights” had never really been used before this point, and it doesn’t mean anything like what we mean by it today. The phrase “human rights” wasn’t going to turn up in the English language for another century and a half. Some of the language being used just before and during the British Civil Wars does have a distinct look of early human rights discourse - even though it bears hardly any relationship with that at all. In the 1640s, we’d start to see people asking the sorts of questions about what people deserved just by virtue of being people, but in a way that is almost unrecognisable nowadays. It’s actually fascinating to start seeing these discussions happen where they had never existed before, about concepts that people at the time had never really considered, or certainly not in that way. But we’ll definitely come back to those in a bit more detail later on in the series.
In the end, Charles did actually accept the Petition, and then explained to everyone that he wasn’t giving up anything new, he was just enumerating old rights that already existed. But he wasn’t happy about it.
Within three months of the Petition of Right being presented to Charles, the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated, and the general feeling among people who weren’t the king was that, well, he wouldn’t be dreadfully missed. But with his friend and mentor gone, and his relationship with Parliament beginning to get a bit dodgy, Charles found himself on the back foot. And when the king is on the back foot, everyone knows about it.
So that’s the scene set - and already we have quite a few potential things for people to argue very vehemently about. Next time, we’ll talk about a whole lot of personal grudges, some fantastic parliamentary tantrums, and one of the very few instances in history where obscure tax law is properly relevant - and actually surprisingly dramatic.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was researched and written by me, Fiona Barnett. The producer is Emily Benita, and the sound editor and technical producer is Ali Alnajjar. The historical consultant was Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and performed by Harry Harris. If you’d like to see my sources for this episode, or you just like gigantic pictures of Charles I, you’re in luck - you can find both of those things on our website, at pasttensepod.com. Word of mouth is the best way for us to get Past Tense to people who might find it interesting, so please do point us at any of your history-loving friends - we’d also really appreciate it if you could spare a moment to review us on iTunes or wherever else you found us. Putting Past Tense together takes quite a bit of time, so if you’d like to buy me a coffee to power me through Episode 2, first of all I like you already, and second of all you can do that at patreon.com/pasttensepod. In the meantime, we’ll be back in two weeks.