VI: THREE WEEKS IN WESTMINSTER
This is Past Tense, a podcast about history. We’re talking about the British Civil Wars, otherwise known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in the British Isles. If you’re just joining us here, I recommend starting from the beginning so that you don’t get lost. If you’re up to date - hello! It’s been a while since we put out a podcast, and I’d like to explain why that is. Essentially, over the last few episodes, we’ve managed to cover quite a lot of ground. The idea was, with Episode 6 - which is the last of this volume - we’d keep going at that same breakneck pace, and end up by my reckoning somewhere towards the end of 1642, which is to say, about the time the fighting broke out in England, and about the time we date the English part of the Civil War as properly starting. So I started writing with that intention, and immediately found that there was a lot more to say than I had anticipated. I ended up writing this episode, and then rewriting it, and then finally deciding it wasn’t going to work as a single episode. So, surprise - I accidentally wrote an extra full-length episode. This is Episode 6; in a couple of weeks we’ll release the entirely unexpected Episode 7, and that should get us up to speed to where I’d intended for us to be at the end of Volume I. If you’ve stuck with us while I’ve quietly laid waste to my best laid plans for several months, I salute you.
Incidentally, given the gap between the last episode and this one, if you’re finding it a bit difficult to keep up with who everyone is, we’ve got you covered: head over to our website at pasttensepod.com, where you’ll find notes for every episode so far, including this one, and each one has a quick cheat sheet of who all the important players are. I’m saying this particularly because there are going to be quite a few names in this episode. It’s the nature of history, unfortunately - I’ll try not to bombard you with too many, but in a story that takes place over such a huge geographical area, it’s inevitable that there are going to be some moments with a lot of important people in them, and given that all of this is in the British Isles, quite a lot of them are going to be called Thomas and William. I’ll do my best to keep it as straightforward as possible, but just in case, the episode notes are your friend.
Another quick thing that I’d like to mention, speaking of episode notes, is that thanks to producer Emily for doing the necessaries, we now have transcripts available of all the episodes of Past Tense that now exist. If you go to pasttensepod.com, at the top of the notes for every episode is a link to the transcript. We also have them in PDF format and large print as a PDF, if you’d prefer - going forward, all our Patreon subscribers will get a PDF transcript automatically if they’d like one, but if you aren’t a Patreon subscriber and you’d like a PDF anyway, that’s also a thing you can get, and the information for how to do it is on our website, at pasttensepod.com/accessibility.
Over the last few episodes, we’ve looked at the situations in England, Scotland, and Ireland - all of which were in very different places over the 1630s. The last time we talked about England was ages and ages ago, though, so today I’ll quickly recap where we’d got to in England and Scotland, and then we’ll head forwards through the last few years before fighting broke out in England. We usually count the start date of the English Civil War as being 1642 - but in truth that’s only the start date in England. In Scotland we’ve already seen fighting in the Bishops’ Wars - and indeed a little bit of that fighting was in the north of England between the English and Scots, so even if it doesn’t count as civil war, there was at least some war going on in Britain from 1640 onwards. And in Ireland, of course, the civil war known as the Irish Confederates War kicked off at the end of 1641, after the Ulster massacres that we talked about last episode.
So the upshot is, between 1638 when we left England last, and 1642, there was a whole lot of what I can only describe as drama. So let’s recap where we’d got to up to this point, and then go from there.
In England at the end of the 1620s, King Charles threw a tantrum over not being given the money and unqualified support he wanted from Parliament, so he dismissed them and ruled England by himself, with the support of the Privy Council. Even though those years of personal rule are sometimes referred to as the “eleven years’ tyranny”, they actually went fairly well for the first few years, and he managed to claw his way out of debt an impressive amount, especially for monarchs at the time. But as the 1630s wore on unrest started to brew - people started to take issue with more of Charles’s wacky financial measures, and the one in particular that got people’s backs up was Ship Money. Ship Money was supposed to be a one-off charge rather than a regular thing, with the goal of helping to pay for the fleet, which it partly did - apart from anything else, there was quite a lot of piracy around the south coast of England at about this time, so having a better-equipped naval force in the area was good for everyone - but some of the Ship Money also lined Charles’s pockets along the way. It was also, crucially, supposed to only be paid in coastal counties, and only with the consent of Parliament - because it looked very much like a tax, and Charles had promised not to levy taxes without the consent of Parliament. So lots of people started to refuse to pay. And in 1637, a member of Parliament - the Parliament who hadn’t been called in nearly eight years by this point - by the name of John Hampden took the king to court in Rex v Hampden, and Charles ended up winning the case by the tiniest possible margin. There was uproar, with people accusing the judges of bias and Charles of overstepping his power… and that’s where we left England, in Episode 2.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, over the course of the 1630s the king had become increasingly unpopular, for all sorts of reasons that we talked about in Episode 3. But the biggest reason of all was a plan he hatched with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, to standardise the prayerbook in both England and Scotland into one book of common prayer. That didn’t go down so well, partly because in Scotland the dominant religious sect was Scottish Presbyterianism - which in terms of flavour had a lot in common with English Puritanism, or it would do in a few years, when English Puritanism started to become a bigger thing. So the Book of Common Prayer wasn’t Presbyterian enough for the Scottish Presbyterians, and at the same time, the taking of criticism about anything wasn’t Charles’s forte. The opposition to the prayer book grew and grew, and in July 1637, when the prayer book was phased into Scottish church services, riots broke out in Edinburgh, and the Scottish Privy Council’s hold on law and order began to break down. On February 28th, 1638, the National Covenant was signed in Edinburgh, and copies of it were distributed around Scotland, complaining about the prayer book and other aspects of Charles’s regime. After that, the Covenanter movement (as it was called) grew, so that after the Glasgow Assembly had concluded at the end of 1638, the Covenanters were effectively in charge of Scotland. And that’s why I’ve spent the last few months practising saying “Covenanter government”, over and over very fast.
But we’ll get back to that - at the moment, let’s return to England at the end of 1637, at the end of Rex v Hampden. In Parliament, in the more powerful parts of London, there was uproar. For people at the time it stank of corruption on Charles’s part. People thought he had leant on the judges to get them to decide that Ship Money was okay even though by rights it ought to have been struck down immediately. There’s a load of debate among historians about whether the judges actually did decide the right way, and how much Charles actually did lean on them, but the most important thing is that everyone at the time thought the case had been decided wrongly, and that shift in public opinion is what matters. After 1637, lots more people than just John Hampden stopped paying Ship Money.
And Ship Money was not the only thing that was causing people to not look so favourably on Charles in 1637. We know already that in Scotland, he was trying to enact religious reformation with the prayerbook, and also that it was to be a book of common prayer, rather than just an English prayerbook being foisted onto Scotland. So while all that was going on, Charles and William Laud the Archbishop of Canterbury were trying to reform the church in England as well. And where that religious reform used to be about stomping out Catholicism, now, in the mid-1630s, there was a new threat in England to the established church, and that was Puritanism. Puritan beliefs were growing in England, partly as a kick back at what some people saw as the growing influence of Catholics in court - remember that Queen Henrietta Maria was a Catholic, and in some circles that made it quite a fashionable thing to be. If you weren’t in those circles, though, having so many Catholics so close to the Queen, and by extension the King, was good reason to be scared of them - or at the very least suspicious. For the most part, though, Puritanism in England was a response to the same sort of things that its cousin Presbyterianism was in Scotland, which is to say, it’s a logical spinning out of the Protestant Reformation that swept across western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries - it’s all those people who’d listened to Martin Luther and then John Calvin and decided those men had a point but also that the dominant religious practices in England still seemed a bit too much like Catholicism for them to feel comfortable. And just like in Scotland, where some people could still just about remember Mary Queen of Scots trying to reintroduce Catholics back into the top of Scottish society and government, down in England the sort of memories that involved Catholics were the attempted Spanish invasion in the time of Queen Elizabeth, and then the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. So between those memories and also seeing Henrietta Maria and her Catholic friends at the very top of the social hierarchy… it’s not surprising that parts of society, and parts of Parliament as well, started to swing quite far in the opposite direction, towards Puritanism.
But Charles was not interested in hardcore Puritanism, and neither was Laud; just as neither of them really wanted to bring back Catholicism. It’s easy to look at all this arguing over religion today and see cynicism, and politics, and any number of hidden ulterior motives. But as far as I’ve been able to find out, that’s not the case - both Charles and Laud were ultimately idealists about Christianity, who seemed genuinely to think that they’d got it right and the Catholics and the Puritans and the Presbyterians and so forth had got it wrong. I don’t know if it makes it better or worse to think that all these beliefs were sincerely held by people who were genuinely scared that everyone around them was going to hell, while they were doing their best to save them. All I know is that it’s a really difficult thing to imagine taking at face value, at least in Britain today. This is where I get culture shock, thinking about how people thought about things in the seventeenth century.
At any rate, Charles and Laud thought Puritanism and Catholicism were basically as bad as each other, and that at any rate some kind of reform was needed to make the state religion consistent around the country. So alongside reforming the prayerbook they started enforcing other measures to do with how Christianity was spread - and that included cracking down on preachers. Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest office of the Church of England aside from the King himself, in 1633, and immediately he started trying to bring parishes across England into line with his own views - which is to say, episcopacy, the hierarchy of bishops; enforced attendance of church (but in particular the parish church, none of these radical breakaway ones); Arminian-style prayers; and a certain amount of religious art and architecture. It didn’t help that Henrietta Maria had a small collection of Catholics at court who she’d either brought across from France and Spain or else she just gave her protection to, and they were all about the art and architecture, and so poor old Laud got to be resentful both of the Catholics’ influence in court, and of the fact that his own reforms got associated with them in public perception. But Laud was convinced that he was right about religion, so he doubled down, and over the next few years, he doubled down on enforcing his ideal view of the English church, and at the same time, his popularity around the country sank like a stone.
In June 1637, barely a month after the Ship Money case started - and months before the final judgement was made in it - three men were convicted in the Star Chamber for publishing offensive tracts. Their names were Henry Burton, John Bastwick, and William Prynne, and what they’d done was to write some pamphlets arguing against the bishops. Now, if that sounds at all familiar, then you’re about a month early - the Edinburgh riots against the Book of Common Prayer by people who really didn’t want to have bishops would happen about a month after the trial of Burton, Bastwick and Prynne. In England, their views on religion weren’t that popular, and the fact that they’d written these pamphlets was almost seen as a bit embarrassing. At any rate, Burton, Bastwick and Prynne were found guilty of sedition, they were fined excruciatingly heavily, and exiled from London to the furthest reaches of England. But as if that wasn’t enough, even before being sent out of London, all three were put in the pillory, and they had their ears cropped. That’s almost a euphemism - what I mean is that their ears were cut off, in front of a crowd. Actually, Prynne had already had his ears cut off for libel, for pamphlets of a not dissimilar nature that he’d made before, but the remaining stumps of his ears were cut off again, and he was branded on his face. Before the trial, most people seemed to agree that the things the three had written were pushing it a bit, but such was Laud’s popularity at this point that as soon as they were sentenced, Burton, Bastwick and Prynne were immediately called martyrs, suffering for their religion. It’s not that the views they were pushing were popular - they weren’t - or even that freedom of expression through the medium of pamphlets was something anyone liked - because it wasn’t. But all three men had significant social standing, and for Laud to treat them so harshly caused uproar.
And when Laud’s popularity suffered a hit like that, so did Charles’s. By the end of 1637, the Covenanters in Scotland were starting to assemble - the Covenant itself started to be signed around the country from February 1638 - and at the same time down in England, these radical anti-bishop sentiments were starting to gain popularity. Many people thought that Archbishop Laud was just awful, that Burton, Bastwick and Prynne had been dealt with extremely unfairly, just for voicing their opinions, and there was considerably sympathy in parts of England for the Covenanters north of the border - the Covenanters and some English Puritans genuinely saw themselves as having a lot in common. Then in November the judgement was given in John Hampden’s Ship Money case, and the king just squeaked a win, and a lot of people cried foul and thought he was overstepping his powers in the law courts as well as in terms of religion.
So with all of these people objecting to Charles’s policies at the end of 1637, thinking he was going far too far in ways that they cared about a lot - why wasn’t there a civil war in England already? Lots of people were angry with Charles, and he was slowly negotiating himself into a corner with most of them, but they hadn’t really coagulated into a single oppositional group. On the other hand, and I think a little bit more pathetically, there weren’t yet many people who felt desperately moved to fight on Charles’s behalf. Over the next couple of years, the biggest change at least in England was not really that a larger number of people were getting upset at Charles, so much as the two sides were forming into actual sides - essentially deciding whether they could live with the governance of England as it stood. If they couldn’t live with it, if they thought it was intolerable and preferred to try and fight against it, those people grouped together and discovered the things they had in common, that might cause them all to work together. And then there was the other group - the people who didn’t necessarily agree with Charles or think he was behaving well, but who thought that at least he had the right to behave the way he did, who valued I guess the stability of the royal government over ideological change. That’s quite a subtle distinction to make - being a Royalist didn’t necessarily mean agreeing with Charles about anything, or even thinking that his behaviour was okay. More often it just meant believing that he was entitled to behave how he did, even if it was misguided, even if it was unfair, even if it upset people or put them in difficult moral positions.
Charles certainly believed that he was entitled to make all the decisions he was making - he was a great believer in the divine right of kings, which is the sort of concept that sounds like it ought to involve a lot of smiting. In reality, it means the God-given right of the king to rule in just the same way as it’s my God-given right to choose what I want for dinner - which is to say, it’s less about the giant hand of God pointing down at Charles and decreeing that he alone was entitled to walk the path of Ruler, and more that it’s a description of how the world is. If you believe that it’s just how the world is for the king to make decisions - under advisement or not - then that’s the divine right of kings. And believing that the king still gets to make those decisions, even if he won’t listen to anyone and makes them really badly… that’s what makes someone a Royalist.
In 1637, nobody had really actively challenged that right enough that people had to pick one side or another. They’d lived in a world that had had a king at the top of it for hundred of years; outside London people’s main problem with Charles wasn’t that he didn’t have the constitutional right to keep making them pay new taxes, their problem was that the taxes were getting pretty sizeable and they didn’t want to pay, which I think - especially over the next few years when Charles started having wars to fund - is entirely fair enough. But that lack of ideological division is why there weren’t really Royalist and anti-Royalist sides yet, certainly outside the capital. And without those two sides, there could be no civil war yet.
In 1638, Charles’s attention was mostly focused on Scotland - in February the Scottish National Covenant started to be signed in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh, and over the next few months the Covenanters slowly but surely tightened their grip on the halls of power in Scotland. The more they did, the more obvious it seemed that Charles was going to have to get together an army to take up north and assert his position. So as far as England went in 1638, Charles was mostly worrying about how on earth he was going to pay for that army - especially given that nobody was bothering to pay him Ship Money any more. Incidentally, on the subject of Ship Money, in the summer of 1638 there were several raids on the south-west coast of England by Portuguese and North African pirates - so there was actually need for money to keep the navy in good repair, even if nobody wanted to pay for it. From Charles’s perspective that must have stung a bit, but still, as the year wore on, he had to concentrate more and more on Scotland. In November, the Glasgow Assembly met, and effectively took over the government of Scotland, and in January 1639, Charles started making his way north to York, gathering his forces for the first Bishops’ War.
So it’s fair to say he was a bit preoccupied. While all this was going on with the Scottish church, incidentally, Christianity down in England was becoming more polarised - all those people with Puritan leanings and sympathy for the Covenanters, who had seen how Burton, Bastwick and Prynne had been treated, were also looking up at Scotland, and seeing a pretty well-organised government, with religious leanings they approved of. England wasn’t going to turn Presbyterian any time soon, but by the end of 1638, disagreeing with the king started to seem like a much more plausible thing to do - not in a “take arms for England and St George” kind of way, but just in the sense of voicing criticism out loud.
One of the biggest things that united Charles’s detractors was Thomas Wentworth, who you may remember from having been over in Ireland in Episode 5. That’s what he was doing at the moment - based in Dublin as Lord Deputy of Ireland, overseeing the colonisation of Ireland, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t wind people up in England as well. Wentworth was a great strategist - he ruled Ireland with ruthless efficiency, making the plantations profitable for Charles and presiding over various factions in Ireland without everything falling completely to pieces - but nobody can get by just on being a brilliant strategist. You also have to actually get along with people. In Ireland that meant Wentworth ignored a lot of ethnic divisions that would end up exploding into the Confederates War. In England, that meant winding up half the Privy Council by being greedy and not caring about who he annoyed in the process. One of my historian heroes, Veronica Wedgwood, wrote a biography of Wentworth, where she basically argued that he was mostly working for the greater good, he was just really bad at stepping on other people’s toes. Later on in her career, she came across evidence that actually, Wentworth was a ruthless, grasping bastard who cared only about himself, and she ended up revisiting her old work. If Veronica Wedgwood can do it, so can I - in Episode 5, I told you at great length about Wentworth’s strategising, and kind of downplayed how personally responsible he was for exploiting the Old English and Gaelic Irish in Ireland. There is a lot of scope, particularly in the events after he made it back to England, for saying “Poor old Wentworth” and making him out to be terribly hard done by, but he did huge amounts of damage to a lot of people at the bottom of the social scale and upset plenty of people at the top of it. Let’s not forget that getting along with people is an important skill and you can’t just ignore it, especially if your goal is political power. Charles learned that the hard way, and Wentworth learned it even harder. In England in 1638, he was very unpopular. Partly that was because of his background, which was from the more minor gentry than most MPs came from, so there was some social snobbery in there; but part of it was just that he was out for his own gain, never mind whoever he offended, and consequently he tended to rub people up the wrong way. And because the English Parliament is and always has been a hotbed of drama, there were rumours that Wentworth had an affair with his daughter-in-law - he didn’t really, but what that tells us is that he was the sort of person it was okay to make up rumours about.
While Wentworth was away in Ireland, though, he was far enough away from everyone else in England that he couldn’t wind them up too much in person. Until, of course, the end of the First Bishops’ War - which was where we got to at the end of Episode 4 - when Charles signed the Pacification of Berwick with the Covenanters, agreed to negotiate with them while once again he played for more time… and called Wentworth back from Ireland to come and join him in York. He arrived in the autumn of 1639, took one look at Scotland, and decided that the best thing to do was to crush the rebellion entirely. It was a very Wentworth way of going about things. But to crush the Covenanters, there would need to be a bigger English army, and the only realistic way to do that - to fund that - was to buy time for a bit, and then at the earliest opportunity to call a Parliament. Between Wentworth, and Laud, and Hamilton, they finally convinced Charles to call a Parliament in London.
And this, I think, tells us something about the situation with the Scottish Covenanters. In March 1640, Lord Traquair gave Charles a letter written from some of the leading Covenanters to Louis XIII of France, asking for his help mediating between Scotland and England. Now… Louis XIII was Catholic, so good luck trying to get him to mediate between English Protestants and Scottish Protestants, but the fact that the letter got written in the first place means that the Covenanters were actively trying to get a foreign power to interfere in Scottish affairs. That’s a big deal. Charles had to take the Covenanter threat seriously, and what’s interesting here is that he knew he couldn’t fix this with his usual methods.
Because the Parliament that was called in the spring of 1640 was the first one after eleven years of Personal Rule. Eleven years is a pretty long time, all things considered. By 1640 it must have seemed normal to English people that the king just ruled by himself with the Privy Council, without a Parliament. Just on that basis, this must have felt like a big deal. But also, this is two years after the Ship Money case, and that tells us that Charles was having to dial back how he tried to raise money. Five years before this, he might have just bent a couple of rules, called in a few favours, and raised the money himself. That would no longer fly. For a start, nobody was actually bothering to pay Ship Money any more. But just as importantly, as a direct result of the Ship Money case, and the public disapproval that came along with it, Charles was already having to moderate what he did, and how he interacted with his people - or at least with the English component of his people. Can you imagine, for a man like Charles who placed such importance on the image of the monarchy as something big and powerful, who cared so much about pride and dignity and the loyalty of his subjects, what kind of situation might lead him to call another Parliament after eleven years of not having one? It tells us how serious he thought the Covenanter threat was.
That being said, nothing feels quite as scary or infuriating eleven years down the line, so perhaps Charles remembered Parliament a bit more kindly with distance. I don’t know if that’s true or just wanton speculation, but it would make sense.
Wentworth, on the other hand, had just spent the last few years ruling the Irish Parliament with an iron fist. Wentworth thought he was great at parliaments, and particularly great at getting them to do what he wanted. Unfortunately for him, he was already eye-wateringly unpopular, and that matters, and now that he was back advising Charles, his unpopularity started to rub off on the king as well.
This, by the way, if you’re getting your British Civil War history from anywhere other than me, is where Wentworth got promoted to the title he’s quite often known by, which is the Earl of Strafford. I’m not going to call him Strafford, because why break the habit of an entire series, and also because enough people use enough different names in this period already. But if this isn’t your first foray into the 1640s, and you’re wondering where that guy Strafford turns up - it’s Wentworth. And now, at the very beginning of 1640, is when he actually gets known as Strafford. It was important to him because he got to be called an Earl - which is a nice step up from being a Viscount, which he was before that - and also because Strafford was in Yorkshire where most of his lands were. Nobody in Yorkshire really liked Wentworth either - he’d not treated them well back when he was Lord President of the North. So add that to the list of places where Wentworth was really unpopular, but either didn’t get why or didn’t care.
The Parliament which was called in the spring of 1640 is referred to as the Short Parliament. Charles called it in February; it started sitting on April 13th, and by the end of the first week of May Charles had dissolved it and gone his own way again. It was doomed right from the get-go: Charles had spent more than a decade just ruling by himself, and he wasn’t used to having to compromise, or even to have to persuade people. He showed Parliament the letter that the Covenanters had sent across to France. But they didn’t care, and they really didn’t want to give Charles any more money. They started complaining about Ship Money, then called for a reinvestigation of the Hampden court case that some people thought had been wrongly decided, and finally they refused to grant Charles any money at all until he’d fixed all the grievances they had against him.
Charles refused, and even though Parliament tried to negotiate they couldn’t find any common ground. He promised to get rid of Ship Money completely if Parliament would grant him a dozen subsidies. But Parliament smelled desperation - quite rightly, I think, or at least some very deep frustration - and they wouldn’t give in. The King dissolved Parliament on 5th May. They’d got nowhere. Nothing had got done. It was a fiasco.
The way I’m putting this so far sounds like Parliament is one group of men with all the same priorities, who all agreed with each other and completely disagreed with King Charles. But just like the Covenanters didn’t all completely agree with each other all the time - in fact quite the opposite, the people who signed the Covenant had a really broad spread of opinions - and the same was true of the English Parliament. For a start, just like today, in 1640 the English Parliament had two houses - the House of Commons, where Members of Parliament (or MPs) were elected by different geographical areas of the country (albeit far fewer people had the vote in the seventeenth century), and the House of Lords, where the Lords were basically all noblemen, which is to say, men with hereditary titles.
There’s a logic to these particular men being the ones involved in early democracy which I do want to mention - universal suffrage was not a thing that anyone had ever thought about in 1640, and even some of the radical groups like the Levellers who started to appear over the next few years didn’t think as far as every single adult having a vote. (We’ll come back to those radical groups later, by the way - they’re pretty interesting.) In 1640, your default state was not to have a vote. But in some circumstances, like if you were a landowner or you had long-term freehold rights to land, or sometimes if you were a certain kind of freehold trader, the situation was different. Remember in Scotland, where people could kidnap the king and nobody could go and collect him for a whole year because he was on someone’s private land - in England too, having that level of independence, often through land but not always, was a big deal. I’d love to give you a list of ways to tell if you’d have been allowed to vote in the seventeenth century, but it turns out early modern franchise rules are incredibly arcane, so let’s just say it varied from place to place. The point is, freehold rights over land or having a business or whatever the rules happened to be wherever you were gave you a certain amount of independence that nobody else really had, which put you in a different position to, say, a leasehold renter, or a servant living in someone else’s house - having that independence meant that you interacted with the law of the country in a different way, essentially you had skin in the game in a way that the majority of people just didn’t. And very broadly speaking, it was that which meant that you got a vote, which is to say, you got a little bit of a say in how the laws affecting your property were made. I want to tell you that voting was a privilege rather than a right - actually, the idea that a vote is a thing you get just from being an adult is very new. In the seventeenth century you also had to be the head of your household - and because there were one or two women who had found themselves landowners and heads of households, usually because their husbands had died, and because women obviously couldn’t handle that much responsibility without their pretty little heads exploding, you also had to be male to get a vote. In the 1640s in England, that meant that a little over 200,000 men in total had the vote.
Obviously it’s a little bit more complicated than that, but that’s generally how it worked - what’s particularly interesting about the Levellers in particular (that we’ll come back to later) is that they talked about enlarging what it meant to have enough skin in the game to deserve the vote. For example, they thought if you fought for your country as a soldier, that ought to be enough to give you a say in who represents you in Parliament. This is all very new, though. My point is that in 1640, being able to vote came with some very different implications to the ones we recognise today, and so the men who were actually Members of Parliament, diverse opinions though they undoubtedly had, were also people of a certain kind who viewed their responsibilities in a certain kind of way.
This being very early in the history of Parliament, there was no such thing as a Prime Minister yet - and wouldn’t be for another eighty years - and there weren’t any official political parties. Allegiance tended to be a bit more flexible, then, as groups of men tending to vote the same way came and went. There was a Speaker for the House of Commons, just like there is today, who was usually a lawyer by training and whose job it was to keep a certain amount of order in terms of making sure nobody spoke over each other, no fistfights broke out, and so forth. But what that does mean is that we can’t point to a single, clearly defined party or group of people leading Parliament, or a clearly defined group of people who we might think of as an opposition. All we can look for is a few particularly loud voices, who contributed a significant proportion of the big ideas, and who kind of set the tone for everyone else.
When I’m talking about Parliament for the foreseeable, by the way, I’m talking about the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The Commons - the elected house - was where the majority (although certainly not all) of the opposition to Charles came from. The Lords tended to be more sympathetic to him - I guess being part of a House mostly consisting of hereditary peers probably doesn’t lend itself to wanting to shake up the institutions of authority. Actually - just as a side note here - a decade along the line when England was declared a republic, one of the first things the new government did was to abolish the House of Lords. It was brought back with the Restoration, alongside other terribly un-Puritan things like Christmas, and fun.
The Commons, on the other hand, contained men from a little bit lower down the social scale - which is to say, the gentry, non-noble landowners. There’s a fabulous argument which I absolutely dare not wade into, even though it’s seventy-plus years old now, known as the Storm over the Gentry, the general gist of which is a whole lot of academic fisticuffs over how important the gentry were - that is to say, non-aristocratic landowners were - in causing the civil war in England. They’re the ones who were hit most by Ship Money, by Charles’s weird patents; a number of them veered Puritan or were suspicious of the influence of Catholics at court; and plenty of them were either Members of Parliament or were friends and allies of men who were. One theory is that the gentry were having their buttons pushed in ways that were unprecedented, and if they hadn’t been upset by that, the English part of the civil war would have been either much smaller or non-existent.
It’s a nice thought, even if it has enough of a “power to the people” vibe to it that personally I’m sceptical. The English Revolution is different from a lot of later revolutions because it wasn’t really an uprising of the lower strata of society to overthrow the higher. We’re still a good century before anyone in Europe had really thought of civil war in those terms - this isn’t a case of the gentry versus the aristocracy. For a start, there were plenty of Parliamentarian or anti-Royalist leaders coming from the aristocracy as well; and for another thing, the gentry hardly counts as the lower classes. But, that being said, a good number of the big movers and shakers of the early 1640s were Members of Parliament, of the House of Commons, and also members of the gentry.
One of the biggest ones was our old friend from the Ship Money case, John Hampden. After the end of the Ship Money case, Hampden had no real reason to be sympathetic to Charles, and plenty of reasons to disagree with him on principle. Interestingly enough, one of Hampden’s greatest strengths was bringing together the disparate views of the people around him, and acting almost as a moderating force on some of his more hard-line colleagues.
But the man who, at least at the end of the Short Parliament, was probably the biggest figure of opposition to Charles in Parliament, was a man called John Pym. He was a friend of Hampden’s, but from the very beginning of the Short Parliament, Pym was the one who was essentially the de facto leader. Later on, when the Members of Parliament each had to decide which side they were ultimately on, the choice was between King Charles on the one hand, and John Pym on the other - that’s how important he was. In a year or two, the Royalists would be calling him King Pym - partly to make fun of him, but partly because that genuinely was a fair description of his place among the anti-Charles group. When I say that Parliament tried to negotiate with Charles, and tried to convince him to get rid of Ship Money, and refused to give him all the subsidies he wanted, it was John Pym who was talking.
Pym and Hampden and three other MPs in the House of Commons - Denzil Holles, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, and William Strode - were known as the Five Members, which I think makes them sound a bit like a boyband, but apparently that was the thing in 1640. If Pym was the one doing the speaking, and Hampden was quite often the one doing the schmoozing, Holles, Hesilrige and Strode were just as outspoken at the top of the opposition in the House of Commons. The Five Members I think are exactly the sort of people you want in opposition in your government - principled, vocal, very good at holding people to account. Charles obviously thought they all had it in for him. Anyway, they’re definitely going to turn up and have their say over the next few episodes.
You might be wondering right now: where’s Oliver Cromwell in all this? Isn’t he a bit of a big deal in this bit of history? In 1640, Cromwell was the MP for Cambridge; he was around for the Short Parliament and definitely joining in with the opposition to the king… but he wasn’t central yet. It would be another few years before his tactical military skill brought him centre stage. We’ll come across him soon enough, but right now, he was just John Hampden’s cousin. Present but not yet prominent.
So that’s the state of play in Parliament on May 5th 1640 when Charles dissolved the Short Parliament. But he hadn’t put all his eggs in one basket when it came to trying to pay for troops to send up to Scotland - on the afternoon of May 5th, a meeting took place at Thomas Wentworth’s house in London, between Wentworth, two ambassadors from Spain, and one from the Spanish Netherlands. They agreed to take some English warships, in exchange for a huge amount of money. I’d love to tell you exactly how much money - the figure I’ve found is four million ducats, but I’ll be honest with you, I’ve no idea what that means in today’s money. On the basis that four million of anything is pretty big today, though, I think we can safely assume that it was absolutely whopping in 1640. Certainly it would have wiped Charles’s debt off the board. He wouldn’t ever have to worry about Parliament’s opinion or John Pym’s opinion ever again, and quite frankly, after everything that had happened on the morning of 5th May, that wasn’t a minute too soon for him.
With this agreement apparently firmly in hand, then, and the knowledge that he could basically do what he liked now, Charles ordered the arrests of John Pym, John Hampden, and four other men from the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The very next day he hauled four more MPs in front of the Privy Council to explain why they didn’t think the King should have asked Parliament for money. Then he doubled the loan he’d previously asked for from the City of London, apparently entirely out of spite, and immediately London went into meltdown.
I… honestly… don’t know what to tell you about that. It’s so phenomenally tone deaf, it’s like he’d been living in a world of his own. Here’s a king who is literally in the middle of raising an army to beat down one of his kingdoms that he’s almightily upset, he’s just had to come back to Parliament with his tail between his legs to ask for money, and at the first opportunity to make life more difficult for them, he took it. It’s not even the entitlement that astonishes me, it’s the lack of common sense and self-preservation instinct. The City of London’s immediate response was to riot. It was May Day. There was a festival going on, and people were out on the streets anyway. Hundreds of them took to the streets to protest - and this wasn’t a very big city, there were only about 300,000 people living in London in 1640, so you can at least halve that figure to get the number of adults able to riot. Some stormed Archbishop Laud’s palace at Lambeth before they were arrested. Others groups started to form at Southwark and Blackheath on the south bank of the Thames, and Charles was just getting a trained band together to fight back when they dispersed.
The riot didn’t last long - it didn’t carry on over several days like the riots in Edinburgh a few years earlier. The man who broke Laud’s door down was hanged and quartered for treason, and some people called him a martyr and other called him a reprobate. But the main thing I think we should take away from the various events of May 5th is that Charles and a lot of his people, at least in London, were already talking past each other. On Charles’s mind, as was basically always on his mind, was the fact that he needed money. For a good reason at this point - there was a Covenanter army which had already basically taken control of Scotland from him, and that’s not a bad reason for needing to fund an army. So Charles was seeing the purpose of his actions, and the people of London right now were seeing the effect of them, which was a honking great tax, the fact that they had to pay a forced loan that had just doubled in size, and a war against the Covenanters who, frankly, some of them thought might have a bit of a point. Charles didn’t see the effect of his actions on the people, and they either didn’t understand or didn’t care what the various levies were for. The problem now was that neither king nor people understood each other. It might have been in London that this erupted - because on May 5th it was London that bore the brunt of Charles’s request - but plenty of people around the country were starting to feel the same way. Ship Money at this point still existed - the Short Parliament hadn’t managed to make Charles get rid of it yet. People everywhere were feeling the financial burden.
And of course Charles’s most effective advisers, Laud and Wentworth, were just like him because they saw the purpose of what he was doing and not the effect. Convocation, which was basically the Church of England’s internal version of Parliament, was sitting in May 1640, and Laud pushed through a handful of his own reforms as well as an edict saying that local clergy had to preach about how important the divine right of kings was, and also how important it was to conform to the established church and not be, for example, Puritan. It didn’t go down well. And then, just to make everything worse, the Dutch told Charles that if he made his deal to give warships to Spain, England would stop being considered neutral and start being considered at war with the Dutch. It wasn’t possible. The negotiations broke down. The Spanish money wasn’t coming. Charles would have to raise his army funds by himself after all.
Let’s take a quick look at where the Covenanters were at the moment anyway. Because the short answer is, “preparing to march on northern England”. The longer answer is both preparing to march on England, and shoring up their own position in Scotland, and arguing amongst themselves a bit. You might remember the extraordinarily dashing Marquis of Montrose from the bonus episode we did about him - in the summer of 1640 he was still on the Covenanter’s side, but the word was that he was arguing with the Marquis of Argyll, who was pretty much the de facto Covenanter leader by now. So the Covenanter government under Argyll made the decision to prepare for war with England from the beginning of June, and spent the rest of their time mopping up dissenters in the Scottish highlands. There were a few dissenters left around; there were also a few pro-Charles strongholds to be sacked and pillaged, and Argyll was happy to get that out of the way before the Covenanters could start to focus all their attention on England in the Second Bishops’ War. So off they went to do that throughout June and early July, and did it with such violence that Montrose and a few others objected, and blamed Argyll… and now we have a rift among the Covenanters. That’ll make a difference a bit later on.
The Second Bishops’ War was barely any bigger than the first one - remember, neither of them contained any actual bishops, they’re called the Bishops’ Wars because they were caused by arguing about the church and episcopacy. The only reason the second one is a bit more exciting than the first is that, in August 1640, the Scots preemptively invaded England. They circled Newcastle and met the English army coming the other way at Newburn at the end of August, and it was a decisive Scottish victory - the English barely put up a fight. Then they decided that Newcastle itself couldn’t be effectively defended, so they retreated back to Durham. On August 30th, the Scottish army under General Alexander Leslie marched into Newcastle and took it with no opposition. And that, I believe, is the last time the Scots successfully invaded any of England.
Now, this is a bit embarrassing, because Charles had spent the last six months or so certain that bringing the Scots back into line wasn’t going to be too difficult; he’d promised all those Spanish diplomats that he was in total control of his own kingdom; Thomas Wentworth had spent most of that time assuring him that it would be an easy victory and now here the Scottish Covenanters were, in Newcastle. So Charles was embarrassed, Wentworth was brought crashing back to earth and started to wonder whether it was even possible to bring the Scots back under Charles’s control. And back down in London, Parliament which had been losing patience for so long that I’m surprised there was any left to go gave him another remonstrance. A remonstrance is basically a strong letter of disapproval, but a very public one - if you will a kind of Parliamentary Howler. This one was written by John Pym which means it was a bit of a beast - complaining about Ship Money, about all the Catholics in the army (because the Catholics seemed to be the people who seemed most inclined to help Charles out at the moment), and complaining that he kept trying to bring troops across from Ireland to fight his losing battle up north.
Charles was in York with the army at this point, so instead of going back to London and calling a new Parliament in the middle of all the chaos, he summoned what he called a Great Council up in York, to try and talk his critics down, and get them to work with him. If he thought that would be easier to work with than calling a Parliament, he was entirely wrong - they actually forced him to call a new Parliament back down in London, and in the meantime, the Covenanters were going to occupy northern England and get paid £860 a day to do it until they’d come to a proper agreement. So the king headed back to London bleeding money, with the makings of a credible opposition down in England who were starting to discover they had a fair amount in common with his opposition in Scotland; his best advisers, Wentworth and Laud, were so unpopular it’s a wonder they didn’t just burn to a crisp on the spot; it was just a disaster all round for him.
He made it back to London at the end of October of 1640. It’s all downhill from here. Shots are about to get fired. And we’ll talk about that, at great length I’m sure, next episode.
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. Our historical consultant is Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and performed by Harry Harris. You can find notes for this episode, including a bibliography and a list of key names (because I know there are a lot of them) on our website at pasttensepod.com - and, as I said at the beginning, there are also transcripts, but if you’d like one as a PDF or in large print you can get that at pasttensepod.com/accessibility. For this episode, you may have spotted her mentioned earlier, I’ve read quite a lot of the work of Veronica Wedgwood - and if you want to read anything off the back of listening to Past Tense, she’s without doubt the one I’d recommend; every single thing she wrote is fantastic. If you like what we do here, you can help to support our work - find out how at pasttensepod.com/supportus. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter as @pasttensepod, so do drop in and say hello - and if you could possibly find a moment to review us on iTunes or wherever you found us, we’d be delighted. That and telling your friends are the best ways there are for us to get Past Tense to people who might enjoy it. In the meantime, we’ll be back soon.