This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. This season, we’re talking about the British Civil Wars, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. This week, we’re going to be talking about the early reign of Charles I of England and Scotland - if you missed the first episode, you’re going to want to go back and start there, because history is full of names and terminology and that’s where we did all the introductions.
Last time, we got as far as the Petition of Right in 1628, which means we’ve got about a decade to go before there’s any fighting inside the British Isles, and about fourteen years before the start of the fighting that we actually refer to as “The British Civil Wars”. Today, then, we’re going to head boldly forward at the best pace we can go, but I warn you now that it’s going to be less about the swashbuckling and more about the politics.
This is going to be a bit of a feature all the way through this series: the things that really interest me, which you’ll probably notice over the coming weeks, are the interaction of King, Parliament and country from a constitutional angle, and also the development of the very early precursors to human rights. There are very few times in pre-twentieth century history where that interaction between the power and the people in Britain got prodded and nudged into the shape it is today more than in the mid-seventeenth century. This is also pretty tied up in places with national identity - in the sense of what does it mean to be English or Scottish, but also in the sense of how that identity informed people’s actions and allegiances and political views. Doing right by your national identity is a big deal in any civil war, and again here we’ve got a very early example of that, without an established discourse to point to and tweak about and play with, and that’s fascinating to me. Sure, there’s plenty of swashbuckling to be had in this part of history - although, I warn you, it’s going to be another few weeks at least before we get as far as the swashbuckling - but what I want to do is to come at the English Revolution, and the civil wars around it, with an eye on how they fit into local British history and identity, and particularly English and Scottish history, and particularly particularly the constitutional end. So if I sound really excited about that, it’s because I’m anoracking hard.
Also this week, we’re going to be tackling the first big question that might put me in hot water with actual historians, and that is, what ultimately caused the Wars of the Three Kingdoms? The reason I say that this is going to put me in trouble is that we left off last week at the beginning of 1629, and the English arm of the civil war is usually dated as having started in 1642. That leaves thirteen years, in which a whole lot of things happened, in a multitude of arenas - local government, the church, international relations in all sorts of directions - and what part of that actually led to the fighting really depends on who you ask, and also on when you ask. The things that historians thought were the most important a century ago, fifty years ago, even a decade ago, have ebbed and flowed, and they’re still asking the big questions about what people cared about in the seventeenth century - was it economics? Or religion? Or political emancipation? Or all of these things at once, plus a few other bits? Or none of the above at all?
This, my friends, is what we newcomers to the field call a “complete headache”. But it’s also indicative of one of those things that sets real historians apart from people like me: the big one is that they use a lot more primary sources, which is what we call original data and documents from the actual time period being studied - if you happen to peruse my bibliography which you can find on our website at pasttensepod.com (shameless plug!), you’ll find it’s not really got many of those, whereas proper historians work from primary sources first and foremost. The other thing, though, is if you like the history of history, the way our approach to history changes over the years as terminology changes, and our understanding of things like psychology and nutrition and climate and statistics all change. That continual reinterpreting and understanding of how and why we believe things in the past happened, that’s what a lot of academic history is about. I’m not doing any of that - so when I talk about “historians” as if I’m not one of them, that’s because I’m not, and that’s who I’m talking about.
So over the next hour or so we’re going to dive right in with the first decade or so of Charles’s reign, to get a bit of a grip on all those things that were happening at around the same time. Get your bingo cards out, because there are several countries’ worth of people here for Charles to drive to distraction, and he’s going to make a pretty good stab at offending them all.
When we left Charles last time, he had somehow managed to upset Parliament to the extent that they refused to give him any money to fund the war with France. He’d levied the Forced Loan anyway, and a lot of people had objected, and eventually Parliament had presented Charles with the Petition of Right, which he’d taken as a personal insult and decided that Parliament hated him, nobody loved him, he might as well go and eat worms.
And still he was short of money, and still war with the French and Spanish was happening over petty egos and not terribly much else - remember that the French and Spanish were also increasingly preoccupied with the Thirty Years’ War to their north and east - so Charles was reluctantly forced to accept the Petition of Right, even though, as he tried to point out, half the grievances in it wouldn’t have been an issue if Parliament had given him the money to be able to fix them. And then three months later his adviser (and his father’s former adviser) the Duke of Buckingham was assassinated.
So that’s one of the massive issues that people were arguing over - the other one was religion. Let’s take a minute to talk about what religion looked like in England and Scotland in 1629.
We talked before about the fact that Catholics were not looked on favourably in early seventeenth century England. The dominant category of Christianity here was Protestantism, then, and there are three big groups under that umbrella that are making their voices heard at the moment. First of all, we have Presbyterianism, which was the state religion in Scotland. The central distinguishing features of Presbyterianism were the belief that there’s a set group of people already predestined to get into heaven, and a belief in simplicity. They didn’t want any Catholic-style idols, any reminders of Catholicism if they could possibly help it. Another thing that entailed was a deep distrust of any kind of hierarchy - there were bishops and archbishops in Scotland, partly because James VI had insisted on it, but making them stick was another matter entirely. Large portions of the Scottish Presbyterian church were dependent on lay elders come directly from their communities, and decidedly leery of what I guess are the conventional sources of power. The fact was that the Scottish Kirk was both immensely powerful in its own right, and determinedly separate from the secular government. Understandably, that made Charles rather nervous, and it would end up causing serious problems, although not for another few years yet.
Secondly, there were the Arminians, who were much more dominant in England and particularly the south of England. Unlike the Presbyterians they didn’t believe that there was a set group of people destined to get into heaven, which meant that, controversially, doing good deeds and praying hard and taking the sacrament and so forth actually had an effect on whether or not you’d get into heaven. Arminians believed that you could showcase your faith and celebrate God by use of art, music, and architecture. They were also much more invested in episcopacy - which is basically a fancy way of saying having an ecclesiastical hierarchy of bishops and archbishops, with the king ruling the church from the top. To the Presbyterians, and indeed to a lot of people in England, that sounded a lot like Catholicism. But on the other hand, it fitted with Charles’s own tastes for order and beautiful things. He tended to have a lot of time for Arminianism, and it was very popular in court.
And the third group, who would get a bit more popular later on, were the Puritans. Puritanism developed a little bit later than Presbyterianism, but actually they agreed on a lot of things that they thought the Arminians were doing wrong. Puritans believed in predestination and the idea that it was only through the sacrament and prayer that you could get into heaven, and they also thought that art and decoration were a distraction from God rather than a celebration of him. They also had issues with episcopacy. In the 1620s and 1630s, “Puritan” wasn’t technically a term for a discrete religious group in England. It was actually a pejorative, used a lot by satirists. But increasingly at this time there were enough people reacting against Arminians and also against Catholics, and who were heavily focused on religion being very simple and pure, that eventually the name “Puritan” stuck.
Charles was most sympathetic to Arminianism, and one of his favourites at court was a man called William Laud, who in 1628 became the Bishop of London, and who’d eventually end up as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest office of the Church of England (aside from the king, of course). Laud was very heavily into his Arminianism, and equally very anti-Catholic, so it annoyed him no end when his brand of religion kept getting mistaken for Catholicism. One thing that Charles and Laud were both on the same page about, though, was religious unity - tolerance was still not something that was conceived of either in England or Scotland. And in a way, that’s logical, even if we wouldn’t these days call it reasonable - if belief in your particular strain of religion is a precondition to going to heaven, then it becomes a matter of imperative that everyone belongs to your religion, especially if you’re an Arminian who believes that your actions and deeds affect your chances in the afterlife. For a lot of people the idea of allowing religious diversity was basically “soul murder”, letting people be damned for eternity, and that was just how it was - any broader notion of living alongside people of other religions without persecuting the hell out of them (so to speak), be they Jew or Muslim or Catholic or even just the next branch of Protestant along, wouldn’t come around for at least another generation.
So the issue that we immediately face here is that Charles and Laud were very fervently Arminian, and wouldn’t put up with Puritan beliefs or anything approaching Presbyterianism. We’ll come back to how that went down in Scotland next time, because it was explosive, but in England there was a growing anti-Arminian sentiment which wasn’t helped at all by the fact that at the end of 1628 Charles pardoned some preachers, including Arminians. He also banned the discussion of predestination - which was a puritan thing, and a Presbyterian thing, but not an Arminian thing.
On 20th January 1629, he called a new session of Parliament to hash out the issues of both religion, and his payment of tonnage and poundage - on the one hand, Parliament was still sore about the king trying to collect taxes by himself without parliamentary consent; and on the other hand, Parliament also contained a lot of puritan sympathisers, who wanted Charles to stop trying to foist Arminianism on them, and instead align himself with their view of religion. As far as Charles was concerned, they were basically holding his finances hostage until he changed his religious position. Which wasn’t going to happen. On 2nd March, he told the haters where they could stick it, dissolved Parliament and told everyone to go home - he would rule England and Scotland by himself. Ultimately, he wouldn’t call a new Parliament again until 1640, which leaves eleven years in the meantime where Charles governed alone by royal prerogative. We refer to that time as the Personal Rule.
That sounds really odd to us today, that Charles could effectively tell Parliament to go away so he could rule alone. We still have the vestiges of that power today: the British Parliament still runs in seasons, and at the beginning of the season the Queen turns up to open it, and to explain what her Parliament is going to do for the next few months, and then at the end of the season she dismisses them all again until the next season starts. We also see things like, after a general election, the leader of the winning party goes to Buckingham Palace and is specifically invited by the Queen to become Prime Minister. It’s not quite automatic. Of course it might as well be - the Queen’s speech is written for her by the Prime Minister’s office, and if she didn’t extend that offer to the winner of general elections I think that would qualify as a major constitutional crisis. But while Charles instating the Personal Rule feels very four-hundred-years-ago, and Elizabeth completing the formalities feels very twenty-first century, we do have to somehow get from the one state to the other - and the very fact that Charles decided to rule alone for eleven years is one of the reasons that it would be impossible for Elizabeth to do the same today.
The British constitution is a really weird thing, because it’s not written down. It’s a whole collection of smaller statutes, and a web of conventions like “the Queen is not allowed to dissolve Parliament for a decade at a time”. And that terrifies a lot of nations that have either come into existence or had civil wars in the last three hundred or so years. The reason the UK doesn’t have something like that written down is that firstly those constitutional conventions are actually pretty good historically at changing with the times, and adapting to new ways of thinking, in a way that other constitutions are not - can you imagine, for example, a constitution these days featuring a right to bear arms like in the US Second Amendment? Such a thing might well exist, but I think it’s fair to say that if something like that were written today it would be phrased quite differently. And secondly, it’s usually a constitutional crisis like a civil war or a big boundary change in a country that triggers the writing of a constitution. And the UK has had one of those - obviously, or I’d be out of a job on this podcast - it’s just that it happened nearly a century before anyone else was doing it, before the idea of a constitution in the form we know it was really a thing. There is actually an English statute from 1689, so a generation or so after we’re talking about now, called the Bill of Rights, but that was mostly about how Parliament interacts with the people, and how both of them interact with the military - it’s got things in it like the right to free elections, and the requirement for regular parliaments which, you know, was at least partly in response to Our Charles failing to call a parliament at all for eleven years straight. The Civil War was very heavily in the minds of the people who wrote the English Bill of Rights, but it was still far more narrowly focused than we’re used to. And it’s out of this idea, at least in part, that a century later the French and Americans started to think, maybe we could do something like that but much better and more wide-reaching, and that became the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Constitution respectively, the two early blueprints for constitutions ever since.
So the English and Scottish had their revolution too early to attach a written constitution to the end of it, because nobody’d had that idea yet. We’ve got the very beginnings of the idea of there being a sort of something a bit like a contract between the state and the people, but that’s as far as it went. And part of the reason that written constitutions were conceived of as a good idea later on was because other people thought it would be a way that they could make their revolutions better than the British ones.
Personally I think early modern Britain deserves more of a reputation as a crap trendsetter. A very rough and ready trendsetter, with plenty of bad ideas that other people could later turn into something vaguely useful. We seem to have a long history of doing interesting things both early and badly.
I’m digressing. The point of this was, we can draw a direct line between Charles I dissolving Parliament in 1629 to embark on eleven years of Personal Rule, and the fact that it would be political suicide for Elizabeth II to do the same in 2017.
Another thing we have to remember is quite how much Parliament’s powers have expanded since the early seventeenth century - in the 1620s, its job was still mostly to rubber-stamp the King’s own decisions. That was what people expected of Parliament. So the Petition of Right that we talked about last week was probably a bigger deal to people at the time than Charles’s Personal Rule. What would have been huge, though, is Parliament, this body that mostly exists to symbolically show the King that the country was behind him and agreed with him… instead choosing to go to war with him. And in the end, twenty years give or take a month or so from Charles dissolving Parliament to rule by himself, he was executed for treason by that very institution.
That’s crazy to me. There’s a phrase that’s been associated with a whole raft of civil wars, that I think I’m right in saying originated from the English Civil War - that phrase is “the world turned upside down”. This is really what that’s talking about - such a huge, and fast, alteration in really how everything was run. That’s starting. That’s starting with this, with Charles dismissing Parliament and starting out on his own. We’re on the edge here of something huge.
The thing about Charles’s personal rule, though, is that it didn’t immediately go to hell in a handcart - of course, not everyone liked it, and the more Puritan end of folk did refer to it as the “eleven years of tyranny”, but on the other hand, plenty of people seem to have remarked on how great it was. One of the first things Charles did was to negotiate peace with the French and Spanish. This was made a lot easier by the fact that the Duke of Buckingham was dead so couldn’t gleefully stick his foot in everything with old personal grudges. Charles signed peace treaties with both countries, and although relations with the Spanish in particular remained frosty, and kind of distrusting on both sides, at least they weren’t in outright war. Likewise the Dutch were a threat at this point, mostly because their navy was more impressive than the English one, and Charles’s diplomats managed to manoeuvre such that, even if there wasn’t outright an Anglo-Dutch alliance, at least the Dutch weren’t teaming up with France to come across and attack.
So with a relative ceasefire with the rest of the continent - remember also that most of western Europe was still slugging it out in the Thirty Years’ War, so they were a bit preoccupied amongst themselves - Charles was free to concentrate on domestic affairs a bit more. And he did - there were a lot of reforms that he wanted to make, and now he didn’t feel like he had to get Parliament to rubber-stamp everything, he could go right ahead with some of the more controversial ones.
The first and foremost part of that was financial - the pressure was off economically in the sense that the king wasn’t having to finance an army to go abroad, but debt is universal and Charles was in it. Choosing to rule by himself didn’t actually make it any worse, at least to begin with - he’d just sold off a lot of the Crown’s lands, which again eased the pressure somewhat. So the next thing he did was try and maximise all his available avenues of income. That included selling peerages, and reinstating nitpicky little obsolete fines from the middle ages, which cased a bit of a stink but was technically legal so why not. There was also purveyance, which is basically the king’s right to take goods and services and so forth for his household at below market cost, and get the counties to pay the difference. This irritated a lot of them, but it did net the king about £30,000 a year - which in today’s money is probably in the region of about £6 million. Then there were the usual tricks of borrowing a lot of money from people who aren’t allowed to say no to you because it’s basically treason, and slapping new taxes on imports.
One of Charles’s most famous reforms involved issuing patents for common supplies like salt and tobacco - the most famous of those was a patent on soap, which inspired a hilarious amount of criticism partly because it was such a brazen money-maker for Charles, and partly because it forced people to use what was essentially not very good soap. In one sense, you can see why he might have thought the soap patent was a great plan - the idea was to standardise soap production so that it only used native English ingredients rather than imported ones. But in the actual event, a lot of people were mildly inconvenienced, and Charles made £29,000 per year from bad soap. I feel like there’s a parable for the ages in there somewhere.
For the first five years or so of his personal rule, then, Charles was largely treading water, at least in a financial sense. But alongside that, he was also trying to reform the way that his whole administration worked, and in particular, the Privy Council. Now, we still have the Privy Council in the UK today - it’s got about 500 people in it, so it’s kind of massive, and it’s made up of the current cabinet, the leaders of the main political parties, some senior judges and archbishops and other leaders from around the Commonwealth, and the idea is that they’re an advisory body for the Queen. These days, the Privy Council is largely ceremonial, partly because the Queen doesn’t have very much substantive power to be advised on; but in the seventeenth century it was far more important, and it also held a lot of executive function in its own right. When the Duke of Buckingham was alive, the Council had basically stagnated, because Charles preferred Buckingham’s advice to anyone else’s, but when Buckingham was assassinated, Charles started paying the Privy Council a lot more attention. So when he embarked on ruling without Parliament, the Privy Council’s role got correspondingly huge - it almost in some places completely took the place of Parliament. So they enforced Charles’s policies across the country reforming business and trade, they oversaw local justice, they dealt with a lot of foreign policy. And they were pretty good at it, for quite a while! We can almost imagine that this is what Charles had wanted from Parliament all along, and it worked a lot better for him with a smaller, hand-picked group of people who worked explicitly on behalf of the king rather than of their constituencies.
So that’s a really big change in how things were run. Alongside the increased influence of the Privy Council, about this sort of time there was a sea change in the atmosphere of the rest of the court, at least compared to Charles’s father’s time. We talked about this a little bit last week - James had been brought up in Scotland, where the king was expected to justify his position, and keep people on his good side; whereas when Charles was growing up, he was… well, he was nobody’s favourite person. So the court during Charles’s personal rule became quite formal, very ritualistic and rules-focused, very morally upright and quite straight laced. Obviously he wasn’t very popular among Puritans, but one thing that quite a few of them did approve of was Charles’s approach to morality in court. He didn’t like drunkenness or sexual promiscuity or gambling or swearing. He was very unusual for kings of the time because as far as we known he never took a mistress. He guarded his private space jealously. An old Scottish tradition was that certain nobles had access to the king’s bedchamber, and Charles restricted that hugely - everyone else, even the Privy Council and secretaries of state, had to meet him in an outer withdrawing room. I mean, the bedchamber was literally that - where Charles slept and got dressed and so forth, so honestly I can see his point - but he changed the locks and banned people from trying to sneak in up the back stairs to get access to his private rooms. It was a huge change, and it was at least in part about respect and reverence for the king, and putting distance between him and the people around him.
Outside his bedroom, though, there was much more of an emphasis on spectacle - big, lavish occasions and processions and events. There was often a very escapist feel to it - beautiful images of ideal people and places, and a lot of callbacks to classical Greek and Roman stories and religious imagery. Part of that is because of the Catholic influence of Queen Henrietta Maria, and the Arminian influence of people like William Laud, but equally, it’s sort of the last hurrah of that very Tudor, early-renaissance style before tastes changed and headed towards the Enlightenment. Again with being on the cusp of something new - it’s not just that this was a very politically turbulent time, but we’re just about to begin the flood of new ideas and worldwide trade and interest in new science and philosophy. That was on its way in. But in the 1630s, in terms of the arts, the old era was ending.
That’s not at all to say that there wasn’t a lot of art happening at this point. In fact, in some ways, the 1630s were a pretty seminal time for the arts. Charles I was a big fan of the Flemish painter, Rubens, and in 1632 he managed to convince another great Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, to come to London to be the official court painter. There are some beautiful portraits and paintings from around this time - at the same time very detailed and classically realist, and full of that symbolism and majesty that Charles really loved. You can see that European influence, from Spain, which Charles loved; from France, where Henrietta Maria grew up; from Germany and the Netherlands. It’s a really fantastic mash-up of styles and tastes.
Another artistic movement that reached its peak in the 1630s was the Cavalier poets. We call them that now, even though being a Cavalier was neither a term nor a political position that existed in the 1630s. These days, if you describe someone as being “a bit cavalier”, it means they’re irresponsible, they don’t really think through the consequences. But that’s rather doing them a disservice - what they were is a smallish collection of gentlemen poets, all part of Charles’s court, writing poetry that amused them, often just off-the-cuff. They were less likely to consider the metaphysical nature of the heavens and more likely to poke fun at it, and even more likely to ignore it completely because there’s a pretty girl nearby to attempt to charm the pants off. Now, since I’ve been researching this podcast, I’ve embarked on a minor love affair with several of these poets - there’s something rather twenty-first century, I think, about people making art that combines the enjoyment of frivolity with a taste for straight talking and the occasional cutting bit of satire. They weren’t interested in shoehorning in a lot of classical references, or writing poetry that spoke to the very depths of the human condition - it’s as if poetry for them described the rest of life, rather than them living to write it. There’s something rather refreshing about that - one of my favourites is a poem by Sir John Suckling, called “Love and Debt alike Troublesome”, where the first two lines are:
“This one request I make to him that sits in clouds above,
That I were freely out of debt, as I am out of love.”
This might be me reading into things a bit much, but I feel like there’s a sense of humour there that is almost peculiarly British - something to do with the self-deprecation, I think, but it feels very familiar somehow. On the other hand, colour me completely unsurprised that the Puritans might have taken offence. A fair number of the good ones are a bit bawdy.
On top of the poetry, there was also a lot of theatre, and masked balls, which Queen Henrietta Maria particularly loved. The masques in particular have a bit of a reputation for being very idealised, very out of touch with the rest of the country, and that accusation spread more broadly so that some people have argued that there was a huge divide between court and the rest of the country, so that the people at court, and the king in particular, had no idea what was going on outside his own bubble.
And sure, a lot of Caroline art and theatre and literature and so forth was very idealist - either because it was a form of escapism, because it either required or assumed a certain amount of wealth and status to partake in. And even though a lot of it, including the poetry, seemed to have a very light touch, to appreciate the good things, and even sometimes to have what I might call a recognisably British sensibility to it, it’s also very exclusive, and it papered over a lot of cracks. Not that any monarch before Charles could really be described as being on the same level with most of their subjects, or really knowing anything about them, but Charles went out of his way to build that difference. Actually, that’s not strictly fair - he travelled around certainly England as much as his father did, he was visible, but he also went out of his way to maintain that distance, that aura of majesty. And not only that, but he was also unusually distant from his court and his councillors too - not just because they weren’t allowed to gatecrash his bedroom any more. There might have been a huge difference between king and country, but it wasn’t because Charles never interacted with any of them. He just made sure to do it very much on his own terms.
One thing that I think is interesting here is that, for the first few years of his reign, Charles loved issuing proclamations to his people, pages of the royal word circulated around the country for the purpose of changing the law, or adding to it. But heading into his Personal Rule, they dried up - (temporarily, I might add - the closer we get to war, the more proclamations he started issuing again). It’s as if Charles stopped being so interested in making new laws, and more in cleaning up the enforcement of what was there already. He made great use of the Star Chamber, the infamous court staffed partly by Privy Councillors and answering directly to Charles. You can imagine, the Star Chamber was a pretty political court, because that’s what happens when you give up on the separation of powers and decide to do it all yourself - but outside of court, and outside London, he also promoted the use of the courts of assizes. The county assizes were an ancient tradition: a seasonal court, where judges - known as justices of the peace, or JPs - would travel round the countryside dispensing justice and solving disputes in the various towns. For Charles, they were a great opportunity to spread his ideas to the rest of the country, so he started out by requiring JPs to be more diligent in fining people who didn’t go to church, and to be more careful about recognising property and debts. Through the early 1630s, he expanded that to include other bits of social reform, like getting JPs to regulate alehouses, employment rules, and provisions for the poor.
So the JPs were pretty important to local justice, but if you think about how often you come into contact with judges on a daily basis, most people only really saw them close up when they had a dispute they wanted resolving. The people they’d be more likely to see would be the constables - the men in local towns and parishes whose job it was to enforce the rules and proclamations handed down to them, to collect taxes, to administer poor relief and road repairs, and anything to do with signing people up for the military. They tended to know their turf the best, and to keep a fairly close eye on what was going on - constables usually held their job for a year, before going back to whatever it was they did before, and handing it on to the next person. They were often very closely involved, or even related to, the people they were trying to police. On the one hand, that’s great for local sensitivity, but also it made for a lot of awkwardness, and people quite often turned the job of constable down when they were offered it. On top of that, constables saw JPs as interlopers who would swan in, pull rank, hand down some mighty judgement about something they didn’t know the local politics of, and disappear off to the next town.
During the early 1630s, then, the justice dished out by the JPs and local constables was probably the majority of your everyday folk’s interaction with Charles’s government. That was where they would have found out about any laws that really mattered to them, and of those, I guess the biggest two categories would be religion and taxes. And when Charles decided to make some big change or another nationwide, it was the constables and the JPs who had to enforce that.
For the first five years or so of the Personal Rule, then, everything went relatively well. And that’s where things started to go wrong, and we begin to go from common or garden annoyance with whoever happens to be in power at the moment, and into full-blown disagreement. In England, the thing that really marked that change was Ship Money. Ship Money was supposed to be a one-off levy in times of war, to help pay for the fleet, and crucially, it was only traditionally paid in coastal counties. In 1634, Charles levied Ship Money - and it wasn’t a small sum, he was asking for quite a lot of money. People didn’t really want to pay it, but it was Charles’s right to ask for it, and technically there was the Thirty Years’ War going on nearby so it was sorta-kinda a time of war, plus he kept talking about pirates, which, well, you know - so they paid up.
And then he levied it again in 1635 - only this time, it was bigger, and it wasn’t restricted to the coasts. This time, everyone had to pay.
Now, you may remember from last week the Petition of Right, where Charles promised not to levy new taxes without Parliament’s consent. If you’re making some people pay money, once, that’s a levy and the king is allowed to do it. But if everyone has to pay it, repeatedly every year, then that’s a tax, near as dammit. Which Charles had specifically promised not to do. And on top of that, this wasn’t a small new tax, it was actually a pretty big financial burden on all the people who had to pay it. So, you can imagine, there were quite a few reasons Ship Money was very unpopular.
There’s a big dispute over what actually the extended Ship Money was being spent on - with hindsight we know that a lot of it was actually spent on ships, but the majority opinion at the time was certainly not that. They thought Charles was using another one of his loopholes to make more money for himself and to pay off his own debts, and they were not at all happy with it. Some people heavily objected to paying. Charles set his poor JPs and local constables on them - many of whom were at least as unhappy about being pushed into this totally unreasonable levy as the people they were trying to enforce it over.
The upshot was that there was a smallish renegade group of people who just… didn’t pay. When Ship Money was levied again in 1636, they refused. Or else they paid, but just really slowly, and with a lot of complaining. The next year, the discontent had grown, and there were enough people refusing to pay the tax that Charles couldn’t ignore it any more.
The most famous objector is probably a gentleman called John Hampden, who was the Member of Parliament for Wendover in Buckinghamshire. Hampden had refused to pay the Forced Loan back in 1627 because he thought it was an illegitimate use of the king’s power; and he’d been right there in the middle when the Petition of Right was put together. When in 1637 his Buckinghamshire estate made him eligible to pay Ship Money, he once again refused to pay it, because Parliament hadn’t approved it - because there hadn’t been a Parliament - and therefore it was illegal.
And so John Hampden, who was already one of the biggest parliamentarians there could be even before parliamentarianism was a thing yet, took the king to court. Now here again, I’m a bit of a legal nerd, and Rex v Hampden is one of those cases that ought not to be terribly exciting, on the face of it - it is basically about tax law, after all - but actually, it was terribly dramatic. Twelve judges sat in the Court of Exchequer, and some of the best lawyers of the age represented the king on one hand and Hampden on the other - and so many people had such strong feelings about the legality of Ship Money that some of the reportage is absolutely wild. There’s preaching, there’s mudslinging - get your popcorn out, it’s legal drama at its finest.
To cut a long story short, though - so the court case started in May 1637, and lasted six months, (what were they arguing about for six months? I don’t even know) and finally in November the court found in favour of the king, by the narrowest possible margin: seven votes in favour, five against.
And Charles’s critics lost it. They accused the judges of incompetence, or else corruption - there was a very widespread feeling that it should have gone the other way, that the judges were thinking about politics more than they were thinking about law. Which personally I find hilarious, because that’s the accusation levelled at every judge ever when someone thinks their decision went the wrong way - look at some of the reactions to the Brexit case in the Supreme Court in 2017; it’s exactly the same. At any rate, you can argue about the bush - and a lot of people have, in both directions - about how much the judges in Rex v Hampden were motivated by deferring to the king, and what they ought to have decided, but the fact is that Ship Money was ultimately declared legal, and by that point there was so much general uproar about it that the next year, in 1638, so many people just ignored it and refused to pay that the whole thing became a bit of a joke. And finally, a few years down the line in 1641, Ship Money would be banned by the last Parliament to be called before the war started in earnest.
But the thing about Ship Money is that it was held up for a long time as a big example of Charles’s wrongs against England. The Personal Rule has sometimes been called the “Eleven Years’ Tyranny”, and Ship Money has invariably been wheeled out as an example of that tyranny - forcing taxes on innocent citizens and railroading judges in a way that is utterly unacceptable. Actually, I think it’s quite a good example of how different events have taken on a completely different significance over the years, depending on who’s describing them.
There was a school of thought in the 1960s that said that we could kind of look at the Civil War as being the lower classes rising up against a king who put his own interests before theirs - through levying Ship Money, through enforcing those patents and monopolies on goods, selling peerages, and basically screwing over the common man in favour of his own out-of-touch cronies. It’s not really true - the anti-Charles end of Parliament was also full of very privileged men - look at John Hampden with his estate in Buckinghamshire - as well as a significant number of Lords and Earls and so forth. Secondly, was Charles really much worse than his father? Or than Elizabeth, or any of the Tudors before her? I mean, not really: they tried to pull some stunts of one form or another. And finally, a big feature of the Civil War and the surrounding conflicts was that you really couldn’t tell which side someone was on by their social status, or their background. Often, different members of the same family would be on opposite sides. What is true is that the south-east and London, and a significant number of port towns, tended Parliamentarian, but Bristol didn’t. If you try and draw that broad-brush kind of distinction between A type of person being for the King and B type of person being against him, pretty soon you’re going to come across so many counterexamples that soon it’s just going to fall apart.
And this is really interesting to me - Charles’s personal rule is one of those points in history that has been described in very different ways over the course of the last hundred years, and it kind of tracks the way we think about the past. So, the late Victorian period was where historians really seriously started to consider what they knew about the Civil War, and whose fault it was, and why it happened. If you’re a bit of a history nerd you may have come across the book 1066 and All That, which is wonderful bit of satire written in 1930, and which describes the Roundheads as “right but repulsive” and the Cavaliers as “wromantic but wrong”. Which is pretty much the view of the two sides a century ago. After that, after the world wars, the view of history as progress suddenly seemed adorably naive, and other ideas started coming up - one, from the 1950s onwards, took a very sociological perspective on what caused the Civil War. Another, round about the 60s while the Cold War was in full flow, thought there was definitely a class-based answer. Around this time there was one of my favourite named historian arguments of all time, the Controversy over the Gentry, in which half of Oxford seemed to have very strong opinions about how important it was whether minor landowners in various parts of the country leaned towards the royalist or the parliamentarian.
There’s an overarching historical theory that everything is by and large getting better for everyone, over the course of centuries. There’s a case to be made for that, for sure, but it’s extremely broad brush and can quite easily lead you to ignore any parts of history where things actually got worse - and there are plenty of those to go around, four hundred years ago as much as today. More to the point, if you take that as your end point then you end up asking “How did the civil wars make things better?” which for a start is shoehorning history into your theory - if you asked any people around at the time of the civil wars, a lot of them had a really rubbish time, so they wouldn’t be about to tell you that the world was becoming a better place. On top of that, asking how the civil wars made things better is… well, it’s just not a very interesting question, not when you could be focusing on what happened on its own merits. The new approach, that’s been in vogue for give-or-take the last forty years or so, is not to say, this was an example of a higher trend, or the Civil War made the world better; but just to explain what happened and draw conclusions after the fact. Which is more difficult to do than it sounds - we naturally tend to try and interpret things with the use of hindsight, in the light of what we know now. Storytelling is just what people do, and trying to put narrative threads into history so that we can understand it better. And that’s how you end up with weird explanations that date badly. Ideally, history should not date badly.
So what do we have here, towards the end of 1637, five years before the English Civil War technically starts? We have some very unpopular economic policies, like Ship Money, and like some of those patents and monopolies. We have a king who’s doing his best to appear aloof and majestic, to present himself in a spectacular way, as if he’s some kind of physical embodiment of a higher power. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it doesn’t - if Charles is trying to make himself seem all-powerful, there’s still a fair amount of dissent, and he’s already making some decisions that are being ignored. And we have a lot of religious feeling, bubbling under the surface. The next thing that’s going to happen - not to spoil it, but it is - is that the religious disagreements are going to get bigger.
Ultimately, we have a lot of people who have some kind of beef with Charles, for one reason or another, but what we don’t have yet is many people who might call themselves royalist. The reason there is no civil war yet in England at the end of 1637 is that two sides haven’t really coalesced yet. But they’re definitely starting to come together, and over the next few years, some alliances and antagonisms started to form that would make up the basis of who would ultimately be on whose team.
So that’s where we’ve got to now - an overview of Charles’s England in the first two thirds, I guess, of his Personal Rule. Next time, we’re heading north, because while there’s still technically no civil war in England for another five years, some fighting is about to kick off. How does that work? Never underestimate the Scottish capacity for getting stuck in early.
Past Tense is brought to you by Feasibly Productions. It was 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’re interested at all in the workings of this podcast, or if you’re a massive overachiever, you can find episode notes and a bibliography on our website at pasttensepod.com, where there are also maps and contact details and quite a lot of pictures of the Duke of Buckingham’s shoes. What can I say, it’s a thing. This episode relied particularly heavily on Kevin Sharpe’s book The Personal Rule of Charles I, which is an absolute doorstop, but which I had an awful lot of fun reading. That being said, other superb tomes about Stuart kings are also available. If you like what we do here, you can sling us a couple of quid on our Patreon, at patreon.com/pasttensepod. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter as @pasttensepod. 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. And we’ll be back in two weeks.