VII: RAISE YOUR STANDARDS
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. One thing you’ll find in this part of history also is a lot of people called Charles and William and James. If you have any difficulty at all keeping track, then don’t worry, I’ve been there: head over to our website at pasttensepod.com, which has episode notes, and bibliographies, and a cheat sheet of who everyone is in every episode.
Last episode, King Charles called his first parliament in eleven years, which went disastrously for him, then attempted to set an army on the Scots, which resulted in the Scottish army occupying Newcastle and making him give them money to do it. So I think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t in a terribly strong position, as far as monarchs go, and when we left him at the end of October 1640 he was heading back down to London to face his critics and try to avert completely losing his hold over two countries. Thomas Wentworth, recently Lord Deputy of Ireland and now Earl of Strafford, was taking a lot of the flak for the fiasco with Scotland, so he decided to stay in Yorkshire for a little bit longer - mostly so that he didn’t get eggs pelted at him the moment he went anywhere near the capital - and Archbishop William Laud was trying to keep a low-ish profile because right now he was almost as popular throughout England as Wentworth was.
So that’s where we’d got to - Charles being very embarrassed, but still, nowhere near outright war. That was still far more doom than anyone was prepared for. Buckle in, though, because in this episode everything’s about to go downhill very fast.
At the end of October, then, Charles had just been pushed into calling a new Parliament down in London. So while he was making his way down south from York, there was another round of elections. Now, the last round of elections had been in the spring of 1640, so about six months previously - no elections for eleven years and then two rounds in a year, it must have been quite sensational. Not to pass too much judgement on the United Kingdom at present, but several elections in quick succession is hardly a sign of resounding stability - now take that back four hundred years and think about how unstable it must have felt, after eleven years of Charles ruling England at least with a fair amount of day to day steadiness. I always find it a very strange thing to look at political situations in the past and think, we live in interesting times at the moment, but how must it have felt to be in November 1640, knowing that something was coming next but not quite knowing yet what it would be or how big it would be?
This being an election in the seventeenth century, there was a mad scramble in both the pro- and anti-Charles camps to get their allies into the House of Commons, and there was a particular battle over who to make Speaker of the House. Last episode I told you about the Speaker of the House - his role was a bit different in 1640 than it is today - in 1640 there was no such thing as a Prime Minister yet, so because the Speaker got to decide who could give speeches, he essentially led the house. Charles really wanted Sir Thomas Gardiner as Speaker, but in the end, the chips fell a different way, and he got John Pym.
We met Pym last episode - he was a friend of John Hampden’s and by 1640 he was already basically leading the opposition to Charles in Parliament. And John Pym is one of those men in history who is just an absolute machine. Everything I’ve read about him makes him sound like the seventeenth century Robocop. He was scared of nobody, least of all Charles, and depending on the political allegiances of whichever historian you ask, he was either a champion of justice and a one-man check on unbridled and arbitrary royal power, or he was just extremely experienced and hard-headed, and sympathetic to the Puritans without being the most rabid of them. Pym barely ever stopped working; he barely ever seemed to sleep. He led a faction that included everyone from people who were a bit upset at having to pay Ship Money, through to hardcore religious radicals along the lines of the Covenanters - and I can’t overstate this, that is not a natural alliance at all. It is very difficult to keep all of those people on even vaguely the same page, but somehow John Pym was the one to manage it. He was a fierce negotiator, consistently well-prepared for any eventuality, and aside from that he assembled a faction with a wide range of talents. Personally I think he’s one of England’s greatest underrecognised leaders - and the reason he’s underrecognised is one we’ll get to in another episode.
But right now, in the Parliament that sat from November 1640, was John Pym’s time to shine. Very soon he was being referred to as King Pym - it’s a couple of hundred years too early to be a play on “kingpin”, but to me it seems rather elegant that they sound alike. What the people who called him King Pym at the time meant was that he led the House of Commons, not just in the sense of being Speaker, but because, from the very beginning of this Parliament, King Charles didn’t direct what Parliament did, what it talked about, or the laws it chose to enact. John Pym did. At the time, after eleven years of Charles’s personal rule, it was unprecedented. Pym had no real rivals. He was very quickly accepted as leader by the rest of Parliament - both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.
Now, a thing that I think is kind of telling about this new Parliament was that it did contain men with a wide range of views - those hardcore Puritans, and those people who were just a bit annoyed about Ship Money, and plenty of people at every point along that spectrum - but even so, the overwhelming majority of the House of Commons thought the King was making bad decisions. Obviously that’s not every single one of them - because Charles did have some of his own courtiers still in Parliament, but all these people with all their different backgrounds and interests and religious persuasions - well, some of them - and from different areas of the country, all of them on roughly the same page, wanting roughly the same things. That’s as difficult to do as herding cats, and it happened now partly because John Pym was such a fantastic leader and bringer-together of people, and partly because of Charles’s own decisions, which, let’s recap for a minute here: he’d spent a decade of his Personal Rule charging increasingly unreasonable-sounding levies that looked very much like taxes, without the consent of Parliament - which was illegal; on top of that there were plenty of other patents and little money grabs that seemed purposely designed to annoy people; he’d put a lot of effort into standardising religion, including sicc’ing Archbishop William Laud on anyone who tried to disagree, and inflicting some very harsh punishments on vocal dissenters - remember Burton, Bastwick and Prynne having their ears cut off and being fined more than their personal net worths for disagreeing with Charles’s religious policy. And at the same time as this, he was being notably soft on Catholics - Queen Henrietta Maria was a Catholic, and many people were convinced that Charles was so sympathetic to them that they were in real danger of a Catholic takeover. They weren’t, but lots of Protestants in seventeenth century England were scared of Catholics, by which I mean papists, and popery in general, and that difference in how Charles treated them - well, it was a piece of information about him.
On top of that, his attitude to wars was concerning - the disastrous Bishops’ wars in Scotland, and don’t forget, the Thirty Years’ War was still going on across the rest of Europe, and Charles’s own sister and his in-laws were all caught up in it - England as a country had largely avoided getting involved but there were a few close calls and wars cost an enormous amount of money. And on top of all of this is just Charles’s own attitude - kind of aloof, never really feeling the need to explain himself, putting his trust in a few courtiers who seemed to have the knack of ranging from moderately unpopular to universally hated across the British Isles. It almost didn’t matter that Charles’s intentions were good, that he still had a chip on his shoulder from his childhood, that by all accounts he was a nice man when you got to know him properly. As a king, he was just terrible.
So perhaps it’s not such a surprise that Parliament was unusually united about what they wanted - it’s an impressive display of sort-of-unity, sure, but after a point it’s difficult to blame them. But John Pym was canny, and there were plenty of things he wanted to do, especially now he had the confidence of the House of Commons behind him. And the first thing on his list was to get rid of Thomas Wentworth. It wasn’t going to be easy, because Wentworth’s self-preservation instincts were tip-top, but don’t forget, John Pym was a machine. Parliament opened on November 3rd 1640, and Wentworth was still up in Yorkshire. And so Pym waited. Wentworth would come back to London soon - he was a member of the House of Lords, plus important governing stuff was going on that he wouldn’t want to miss. He was a brilliant strategist, so there’s no way he didn’t know exactly what was going to happen when he set foot in the capital. I think he just thought he could get away with it, that the law was on his side - and frankly it probably was, if you’re the sort of person who plays strictly by the rules. And if you aren’t a human bulldozer with a grudge to settle.
Thomas Wentworth came into London on the evening of November 10th. On the morning of November 11th, he was at Whitehall with Charles when the news came that Pym in the House of Commons had just called for him to be impeached - that is to say, to be formally accused of serious crimes against his office, to be stripped of his position, and prosecuted. Now, impeachment back in the seventeenth century was exactly the same as it is today in the sense that broadly speaking if a politician has the support of their fellows, it’s not going to happen to them, but I think it’s fair to say that, given the last decade or two of his career, this was not a position that Wentworth enjoyed. So there were plenty of accusations they could chuck at him - they chose to focus on some of his dealings in Ireland - but the question was whether they could make any of them stick. Pym and his colleagues obviously thought so, and Wentworth thought he could defend every decision he’d made. Plus, he thought, he had Charles’s protection - so the question is, is this impeachment going to be about the facts, or is it a straight up popularity contest? And, of course, how much does King Charles’s favour count for right now?
Wentworth trusted in the process. He went over to the House of Lords, knowing exactly what was most likely to happen when he got there, to find a crowd of Pym’s supporters outside yelling at him to withdraw. The rest of the House of Lords made their decision very quickly - he was impeached, and placed under arrest in the Tower of London, until they could give him an actual criminal trial. A couple of weeks later, Archbishop Laud was also arrested for treason. Again, treason is one of those accusations that, at least in this part of history, mostly means that you’re very unpopular. But for the moment, at the end of 1640, both Wentworth and Laud were out of play. To be fair, Charles had other strategists, but a few of them quietly left the country in November and December. Just in case.
Round about this time, to go back to another big old crisis that was happening, a delegation from the Scottish Covenanters came down to London to come and negotiate the things they wanted from Charles, and also whether they were going to give Newcastle back. When Charles came back down fresh from losing the Second Bishops’ War, I think he thought he would easily get Parliament to agree to help him send the Scots back across the border. But actually, this was when the English Parliamentarians - because now they’re mostly agreeing with each other I think we can start to call them Parliamentarians - and the Scottish Covenanters realised that, actually, they had quite a bit in common. They didn’t like Wentworth or Laud, their religious views weren’t always exactly the same but, as far as any of them agreed with each other, they tended in similar directions and none of them wanted the new prayerbook. So now, at the end of 1640, we’ve got a pair of potential allies across both England and Scotland, both led by some very able politicians who might be able to join forces and lean on Charles very heavily indeed. I do want to point out here that the Covenanters wanted something quite similar to what the English Parliament wanted, which is, they wanted Charles to get his act together and start making the right decisions. The Covenanters wanted Charles to be a better king, not to get rid of him. There was still that belief, among the Scottish Covenanters and English Parliamentarians, that it wasn’t Charles himself who was wrong, it was his evil councillors leading him astray. Now that Wentworth and Laud were out of the way, at least for the time being, perhaps there’d be room to negotiate. Except, of course, that with both of them out of the way it was only a matter of time before everyone properly realised that Charles’s decisions were his own. He wasn’t the king they wanted him to be, and he wouldn’t ever be it.
For now, though, the Scottish delegation was down in London, and negotiations were happening, and they kept on happening with not very much progress right the way through the new year, into 1641. The English House of Commons took the opportunity to finally declare Ship Money illegal, not that anyone was really bothering to pay it any more, and they also started making the necessary movements towards a law making it mandatory to call a Parliament every three years. Imagine if you will what Charles was thinking right now about his financial situation, and his diminishing opportunities to improve it. The balance of power in England was wobbling.
In January, Wentworth was brought out from the Tower of London to hear the charges against him. There were nine of them, mostly to do with the fairly sizeable army he’d managed to scrape together in Ireland. Since it came from Ireland, it had a large contingent of Catholics in it, which is part of what scared the English - if Charles and Wentworth had this massive army of Catholics who weren’t needed to fight the Scots any more, what else might they do with it? So part of the charges against Wentworth were that he’d got this whole army together with the intent to do something treasonous.
But Charles was, in general, being quite conciliatory right now. He offered concessions to the Scots, and signed off the Acts of Parliament that limited his funds and made calling a Parliament mandatory every three years - it’s like he could tell that he couldn’t chuck his weight around the way he had been doing. Behind the scenes he was advocating as hard as he could manage for Wentworth, while his resources and just the number of men both on his side and still in the country dwindled. In the most shameless move possible, the Scottish delegation offered to mediate between Charles and Parliament - which I just think is so delightfully patronising, given what they’d come down south to do. It’s funny, actually - because of course Charles was not receptive to mediation at all, and the English Parliament was starting to think they could bring Charles back in line without needing the help of the Scottish - actually in 1641 the Covenanters were quite seriously arguing for religious unity between England and Scotland, and civil unity, and the governments working closely together, and a full free trade agreement. They were the ones pushing for interdependency, and it was a point of agreement between Charles and the English Parliament that that was probably a thing they didn’t want.
Wentworth’s trial opened on March 22nd, and I don’t think there’s any other way to put this - nothing else happened politically until it was finished. People were transfixed. Forget Charles himself eight years later, this is the trial of the century, this is Pym versus Wentworth and honestly it could have gone either way. It’s like the unstoppable force hitting the immovable object. John Pym, the absolute machine, the charismatic man of the House of Commons who was always six weeks more prepared than you were and had allies everywhere who knew everything, versus Thomas Wentworth, probably the single best strategist in the entire British Isles, by this point certainly one of the most experienced and with the instincts of a bloodhound. That’s a courtroom you want to be in.
There were demonstrations outsides. There were pamphlets. A lot of people had very strong opinions. This being the middle of London, which was increasingly Parliamentary territory, there was very little talk in support of Wentworth - certainly all the loudest voices were dead against him.
That first day of the trial, someone in the House of Commons suggested that instead of impeaching Wentworth, they should try instead for an act of attainder. That’s a bit of a relic, which we don’t see any more these days - an act of attainder is an Act of Parliament, a piece of primary legislation, which declares that someone is guilty of a crime. We don’t use them these days, for obvious reasons - apart from the fact that it designates something a crime after it’s already happened, it also means you don’t have to bother with such vulgarities as having an actual trial, or presuming someone innocent. But on the other hand, for a bill of attainder to become a legally binding act, it has to be passed in three places: by the House of Commons, by the House of Lords, and by the King. That bit is still how most Acts of Parliament work today, in fact - these days the royal assent is just a formality; whatever Parliament decides, the Queen always signs off. But in 1641, with Wentworth, there was a choice: either they could impeach him, in which case there had to be a trial and there was a possibility he could be found innocent; or they could enact a law of attainder saying that Wentworth had committed treason - and they had to get that law passed in the Commons, the Lords, and by the King.
Now we already know Wentworth was convinced he’d be found innocent in a trial. But a bill of attainder is another matter entirely. That’s a straight-up parliamentary popularity contest. To be fair to him, he put up a very good fight - shooting down accusations of treason point, by point, by point, so that Pym had to chuck a load of new charges at him, trying to find something that would stick. But with a bill of attainder, you don’t need charges to stick. All you need is those three assents, from the Commons, the Lords, and the King.
To be fair to Charles here, he did his damnedest to get Wentworth out of the Tower of London. He pulled as many strings as he could manage. But John Pym is seventeenth century Robocop, and there was nothing he could do. There’s a letter, that Charles wrote to Wentworth on April 23rd, 1641, and this is one of the things that got thrown in his face over the next few years. I’m just going to read you the letter, it’s very short. Charles says:
The misfortune that is fallen upon you by the strange mistaking and conjuncture of these times, being such that I must lay by the thought of employing you hereafter in my affair; yet I cannot satisfy myself in honour or conscience without assuring you (now in the midst of your troubles), that upon the word of a king you shall not suffer in life, honour, or fortune. This is but justice, and therefore a very mean reward from a master to so faithful and able a servant as you have shown yourself to be; yet it is as much as I conceive the present times will permit, though none shall hinder me from being
Your constant, faithful friend,
Remember how touchy Charles got about people not being loyal to him. Remember the high price he put on loyalty.
The Bill of Attainder was passed in the House of Commons, by 204 votes to 59, which isn’t half bad - and then again in the Lords by 26 votes to 19. Could Charles defy Parliament, and insist that he alone ruled England, like he’d done for more than a decade? Well, no. Not any more. Two and a half weeks after he wrote that letter, reluctantly, regretfully, he signed the Bill that would condemn Thomas Wentworth to death.
And this is a turning point, for Charles, and for generations of onlookers ever since that day in 1641. He had fought for months, ever since Wentworth was arrested, to have him released, to get him to safety. It’s not as if he just sat there watching things happen and quietly going “oh no” in the background - Charles pulled every string he could manage to get Wentworth out. He didn’t even like the guy personally, for goodness’s sake. The wording of that letter tells you how much responsibility he took on for Wentworth’s personal safety - for Charles it was tied up with so many principles, so much of what defined him as a person and as a king. He never forgave himself for Wentworth’s death. It was a reminder of what he had lost, what he wasn’t capable of any more. And that betrayal stayed with him for the rest of his life.
So on top of everything that’s about to come, there’s also that sense of responsibility, and that original, unforgivable failure.
Thomas Wentworth was beheaded on May 12th, on Tower Hill. They say that his final words were so dignified, so statesmanlike, that even the people of London who had hated him for years had to concede that he deserved better. But, Parliament had won its first battle. Right now, outright war in England is a little over a year away. Honestly I’m kind of impressed it didn’t come any sooner.
One of the reasons it didn’t come any sooner is that everyone also had to deal with the little matter of Newcastle still being occupied by the Scottish Covenanters. The negotiations for a settlement were pretty much finished by the middle of June, and the document was called the Treaty of London, and sent up to Scotland to be approved by the Scottish Parliament. Charles followed it up the country soon after, and arrived in Edinburgh in the middle of August. I think his intentions here were to get away from London for a bit, which to be honest I can understand because nobody really liked him in London at the moment, but also he was in full-on conciliatory mode with the Covenanters. He knew the way the wind was blowing. The Covenanters were still in Newcastle when Charles arrived in Edinburgh, and they weren’t going anywhere without a good bit of grovelling. They were quite suspicious of Charles’s motives, coming all the way up to Edinburgh - it was a thing he’d only done once before, after all, and they smelled a rat. Down south, the English Parliament also smelled a rat - given Charles’s usual MO of playing nice to buy time and then trying to set the armies of his various different kingdoms on each other, you can see why they might suspect he was up to something.
King Charles entered the Scottish Parliament on August 17th, and offered to ratify all the legislation that the Covenanters had made in the meantime - they actually turned him down on that one, because it would make the legislation look like it hadn’t been legal all along. He signed the Treaty of London, and the Covenanter troops finally left Newcastle. But they made him work for it - all the Royalist lords he’d brought up with him were refused entry to the Scottish parliament, and my favourite bit of trolling - do you remember Lord Balmerino, who Charles accused of slander, and then had sentenced to death, and then had to back down over because it caused universal uproar back in 1635? Now, the Covenanters made Charles accept Lord Balmerino as president of the Scottish parliament. They were really pushing their luck, is what I’m saying, and they got away with it.
So Charles spent a couple of months up in Edinburgh, putting out fires, and getting thoroughly walked over, and in the meantime the Covenanters were starting to fight among themselves. A couple of people we’ve met before saw their influence crumble into dust - Lord Traquair, the formidable former Lord Treasurer, was labelled an incendiary and had to make himself scarce. Lord Rothes, the Covenanter leader - well, Rothes died suddenly of consumption, just after Charles arrived in Edinburgh. No foul play or anything - it’s just that this is history, this is a true story, and sometimes people drop dead in it. But the ones I really want to mention now are the two men I did a bonus episode on, way back after Episode 3 - Hamilton and Montrose. Hamilton had been a Royalist all along, and now he was trying to broker some sort of agreement between King and Covenanters, but he just wasn’t very good at it. I’m chucking a lot of names at you right now but hopefully you remember all these people - the Marquis of Argyll was basically the de facto leader of the Covenanters now, and Hamilton tried to cosy up to him. Montrose, on the other hand… well, Montrose is my historical boyfriend, for a start. And just as Hamilton was becoming a bit too Covenant-y for the Royalists to trust him, Montrose had been writing to Charles, and the rumour was that Montrose was going to switch sides. The Covenanters imprisoned him in Edinburgh Castle, and that’s when this event happened that gets referred to as The Incident.
Now, we talked about the Incident back in that bonus episode - when Hamilton started cosying up to Argyll, Montrose and his friend Lord Ker accused both of them of treason, and Lord Ker plotted to have Hamilton, Argyll, and Hamilton’s brother the Earl of Lanark secretly kidnapped, put on a boat out of Leith harbour to the east of Edinburgh, and then quietly disposed of. What gives The Incident its capital letters is that nobody really believed that Lord Ker was acting alone. They thought Montrose was in on it, even though he was still locked up in Edinburgh Castle, and more to the point they also thought King Charles knew about it and endorsed the plan. Depending on which historian you ask, they either say, “I wish he did, but he probably didn’t,” or “I wish he didn’t, but he probably did” - so frankly who knows. It’s a little bit more likely that Montrose knew about it - although, again, far from certain - and either way, it was a political disaster and public opinion in Scotland lurched very quickly towards the Covenanters.
This all takes us through to October 1641, by the way - Charles spent most of the third week of October vehemently denying trying to have the leaders of the Covenanters assassinated. And maybe that would have been the most exciting thing to happen in October, had it not been for the fact that days later, over in Ireland, the Irish Catholic nobleman Phelim O’Neill invaded half a dozen castles in Ulster, and the Irish government crumbled pretty much immediately into chaos. This is the Ulster Rebellion we talked about in Episode 5 - in the context now of what was going on across in mainland England and Scotland, maybe it’s a bit more obvious why their various governments’ attention was elsewhere. In Ireland itself, the Old Irish and Old English joined forces, to form one great big Catholic group, rebelling against the Protestant English and Scots in command. That one big group is probably best known as the Confederacy - this is long before, and entirely unrelated to, the American Civil War - and this is the beginning of the Irish Confederates Wars, going on alongside the English and Scottish wars, and no less brutal or divisive. Some English and Scottish soldiers got diverted back out to Ireland now to fight, not particularly effectively it must be said, but that’s something we’ll definitely go into in more detail later on in this series. For now - well, the fighting’s started, hasn’t it? The British Isles are officially at war. This is it. It feels… almost like it came from somewhere unexpected. But that’s not true, of course - something was brewing in Ireland for years and years. The truth is there were just too many candidates for a place that fighting might start.
In England and Scotland, the Ulster Rebellion was seen as a sign that the Antichrist was coming, that the infinitely powerful Catholics were brutally slaughtering Protestant settlers. Given that people suspected Charles of having Catholic sympathies, it’s easy to see how that could get wrapped up in the rest of the politics in England, and make the chance of war spreading just one step closer to inevitable. Up in Edinburgh, Charles was still carrying on trying to be as conciliatory as possible, and by the time the Scottish Parliament was dissolved for the end of the season in the middle of November, he’d basically given the Covenanters everything they wanted. They ran Scotland now. He’d pretty much given the whole country away.
Which is an interesting position to be in. In the civil wars, in a lot of ways, the positions of Scotland and England echoed each other. Both places had a puritan or presbyterian-leaning Parliament, with legitimately-gained power, based in their respective capital cities. Those two parliaments each had a wider support group in the army, and in popular religious groups, and just the community at large - so that the Scottish side we call the Covenanters, the English side I’m going to refer to as Parliamentarians. And both of those groups had something ideological to bind them together. With the Covenanters that’s obvious, with the Parliamentarians we’ll get to that in a minute. On the other hand, both countries also had a Royalist group, but it tended to be one group of English and Scots who considered themselves a single group of Royalists rather than followers of one Parliament working with another Parliament. This all fed into tactics, and focuses, and ideas of what an endgame should look like, for each of the different sides. Military strategy is interesting to me in the sense that it’s so fluid, in the short term, and the medium term - how strategists think about it changes as opportunities appear and disappear with minutes’ or hours’ notice, but also as their political opinions shift over months or years. I’m really excited to tell you about this in Volume Two, just the psychology of it - it’s mesmerising. Before I started this project I never understood what the appeal was in getting into the head of a military strategist from history. Now I’m having mutinous thoughts about Napoleon, it’s brilliant.
But anyway, right now in November 1641, Charles was heading back down to London. Let’s us do the same. It was in an interesting place, compared to how he’d left it - after Wentworth’s death, but before he went up to Scotland, the biggest issues in the English Parliament were, one, slagging off the bishops as much as humanly possible, and two, the fact that Charles was hugely in debt. And I know I’m repeating myself here when I say Charles was in debt and Parliament wasn’t giving him any money, but with the Bishops’ Wars in Scotland he now had to pay the wages of a whole army - an army which, I might add, Parliament didn’t really want to be running around the country in the first place. By the time Wentworth died, Charles was about £240,000 in the red - in today’s money that’s a little over fifty million pounds. That’s just the bits he wasn’t paying off. Part of the reason he’d gone up to Scotland was to avoid having to answer awkward questions about that, which honestly I think was probably a very good idea.
While he was away, Parliament took that time to basically start to cement their own ideological position, and a large part of that was religious. The trouble is with all of these religious groups, all these variations on Protestantism, is that in the religious sense they didn’t see compromise as a virtue. Neither did Charles, to be fair - this isn’t just a Puritan thing, this is everyone - but while Charles was away in Scotland, this cohesive group of Parliamentarians was not just forming, but also aligning itself with a particular selection of beliefs. This is when “Puritanism” is really something we can start to talk about. So while there might possibly have been room for compromise on money-related issues, on things about the functioning of government, religion was really where nobody was going to give an inch.
Does that make the English Revolution a religious war? Not really, I don’t think so. Now, this is one of those claims that I put in front of Past Tense’s resident historian Mary, and she told me was a very bold thing to say. And, well, she has a point, but I’m still going to say it. The Parliamentarian side in particular, throughout the Civil Wars, skewed heavily religious. The New Model Army, which was Oliver Cromwell’s army later on and which basically ended up winning the war for the Parliamentarians, had an explicitly religious dimension to it - Puritanism is a big part of what glued the Parliamentary side together. So when I say the English Revolution wasn’t a religious war, it’s not to deny any of that. But I think you can’t underestimate all the secular reasons people got involved as well - the bizarre taxes, the social groups of various kinds, the sheer belief in whether King Charles was acting legally or illegally. I think if you call this a religious war, it’s like saying that the Confederates’ War in Ireland at the same time was Catholic versus Protestant - which, by and large, that’s the way the demographics went, but you’re missing an awful lot of the ethnic dimensions, and the colonial ones, and the international allegiances. People have called the English Revolution all sorts of things - a region-on-region war, a class struggle, a war for democracy - and I don’t think it was any of those things either (particularly not the class struggle, which comes from a very 1950s way of looking at the world, but that’s beside the point). Basically, religion was a big deal, and there were enough people in England with reasons of their own to join in that sure, some of them inevitably fought for their religion. But it wasn’t the only deal, and it was mixed in with enough other stuff that I wouldn’t call it a religious war. But it’s debatable! And I think a lot of the fun these days is in the debating!
At any rate, before I go off on too huge a tangent, religion and religious intolerance were definitely making things worse at the moment, because in religion more than anywhere else compromise was seen as a bad thing. And I’m not just talking right now about the men inside actual Parliament - there were about 300,000 people living in London at this point, which was more than 5% of the population of England, and already London was skewing very Parliamentarian, very Puritan. And there were riots. There were marches. There were petitions. A few churches had their artwork destroyed - there was a lot more of this later on, but it was already starting to happen. Popular sides were already starting to form.
So that was all gathering speed while Charles was away, and religion was a place where nobody was going to compromise at all ever, and it all came to a head around the time that Charles was leaving Edinburgh to head back to London. Over the summer, with Charles away, John Pym and co drafted a document called the Grand Remonstrance. Now, I don’t know about you, but for me after a while all these big open letters of complaint almost seem to blend into one - we’ve had the Petition of Right, the Irish Graces, a load of little remonstrances peppering the time around the Short Parliament, and then there was that Scottish supplication that got written but never sent to Charles in 1635, that nearly got Lord Balmerino beheaded for having a draft copy of it - but the Grand Remonstrance is, if anything, the biggie. As I was writing this bit of the podcast, I was also following the news with some sort of fascinated masochism, and seeing the gears grinding in Westminster in the first half of 2018, trying to get a proposal together for how Brexit might work. I don’t think any group these days would try and call their list of demands a Grand Remonstrance - “remonstrance” after all basically means a protest or ticking off, but it seems to me to have a similar feel as all these grand overtures about whether or not we should be in the European customs union. It’s that kind of political strongarm. And it was controversial! The Grand Remonstrance basically listed everything that John Pym thought King Charles had done wrong since he came to the throne sixteen years ago, it demanded a selection of religious measures - very Puritan ones - and also that quite a bit of legislative and executive power be essentially handed over from the King, to Parliament.
That last bit doesn’t sound so controversial these days, but just to remind you, this is 1641 we’re talking about. We’re 150 years before the French Revolution; this is a demand for an unprecedented change in the balance of power. Some people hold up the Magna Carta as a similar sort of change - trust me, the Magna Carta was piddly next to this. So when we say the people who sided with the king were the ones that believed in the divine right of kings, that’s understating it - they were just the ones who disagreed with this gigantic, completely unprecedented shift in who made legislative decisions in England. And when I say it was controversial, I mean that it passed in the House of Commons at ridiculous o’clock in the morning after some very heated debate, by 159 votes to 148. It was a beast.
This is one of those occasions where I really want to know what some of the leading Parliamentarians were thinking. The Grand Remonstrance took months of drafting and debating, it was so audacious, it was passed literally three days before Charles made it back to London. And they must have known, at the end of November 1641, that what they had just written and presented to the king could never be undone. This is the moment where Pym and co can’t go back. If they suddenly had a change of heart here and decided they didn’t want to go down the path of war any more, they wanted peace and safety and just to go back to the old status quo, they couldn’t do it. They’d have found themselves with their heads on spikes faster than you can say “Thomas Wentworth deserved better”. And not only that, but they couldn’t give up any ground at all, because if they did, even just a little bit, King Charles would find the very first opportunity to have them arrested and then it would be all over. He was backed into a corner as well right now, he also was in too deep to get out. And people backed into a corner fight back. They lash out. And that’s how you get what happened next.
What in fact immediately happened, when they presented Charles with the Remonstrance on 1st December, is the most Charles response you could possibly imagine, which is to say, he completely ignored it, and in the meantime he marshaled his resources, making sure he still had control of the trained bands in London, and making it as clear as he could manage that he was the best person to head up the Church of England. On 7th December, the House of Commons passed the Militia Bill, which would have the military be controlled by Parliament. The Militia Bill was passed by almost as narrow a margin as the Grand Remonstrance. On the 10th, Charles addressed the House of Lords, calling for all unnecessary disputes to stop until the situation in Ireland - which was quickly spiralling out of control - could be resolved. He didn’t mention the Grand Remonstrance at all. But there was no chance it would go away, not now - a week later, copies of it started being printed and distributed around London.
Two days before Christmas, Charles presented his response to the Remonstrance. It was drafted by a gentleman called Edward Hyde, no relation at all to Dr Jekyll, who was a leading Royalist who was also still clinging on to being a Member of Parliament. Just a quick aside here about Ned Hyde - a few years later, Charles made him the Earl of Clarendon, and if you go into a high street bookshop these days looking for something to read about the civil wars, one thing you will almost certainly find is Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. It’s the same guy - Edward Hyde wrote the first deliberate historical account of the English Revolution, start to end, six volumes, in painstaking detail. Obviously, he’s a bit biased, but I think it’s amazing that we can hear about the events of December 1641 straight from this guy who was in the middle of all of it. Sometimes the past feels like it’s a very long way away, like it might as well be a story, with as much relevance as anything else fictional. Other times you’ve got the man who was in the room with Charles I telling you exactly what he told him. And it looks a bit like this - he talks about himself in the third person, which I assume is an attempt to look scholarly and disinterested - but he says:
“As soon as the remonstrance… was printed, Mr Hyde, only to give vent to his own indignation, and without the least purpose of communicating it, or that any use should be made of it, had drawn such a full answer to it, as the subject would have enabled any man to have done who had thought of it: and the Lord Digby, … desired him… that he might shew it to his majesty; who found it absolutely necessary to publish some answer in his own name to that remonstrance, which had so much poisoned the hearts of the people.”
I love that, partly because of the whole pantomime “Who me? I just drafted this extensive lawyerly response to Parliament, purely for my own amusement!”, - I mean, obviously, there is no commentator more biased than Mr Hyde at this point. But it also tells us that Charles was thinking about the Remonstrance this whole time - I mean, of course he was; just because he hadn’t mentioned it for a month didn’t mean he wasn’t manoeuvring like hell under the surface. It also tells us how big an effect the Remonstrance had on the rest of the population. Keep an eye out for Edward Hyde. He’ll turn back up later.
So Charles took that response and presented it to Parliament, and Parliament was completely unimpressed, and just after Christmas another round of riots spread through London. And again, the riots weren’t directed against Charles, and nor was a lot of the criticism, or at least not directly - the riots were against the bishops, and the Papists. It’s that whole “evil advisers” spiel again - it’s not the king making bad decisions, it’s those horrible evil advisers around him, giving him bad information and telling him lies. I wondered for a while whether directing the criticism at Charles’s advisers was some way of attempting to stave off being charged with treason, but again and again, Papists turn up as suspects for who’s doing the evil advising, and let’s face it, that’s code for Queen Henrietta Maria, which doesn’t exactly suggest an attempt to not hit the king where it hurts. At any rate, the leading Parliamentarians were sailing very close to the wind by Christmas 1641.
This, incidentally, is about the moment where the terms “Cavalier” and “Roundhead” first turned up. “Cavalier” as a term for Royalists probably makes you think of a dashing man with a long curly wig; it comes from the Spanish “caballero”, and was originally meant as an insult - not so much because calling someone a horseman in another language is the height of social burns, but because Spain was associated with Catholics, plus your average English person in the seventeenth century was a big old xenophobe so anything foreign - or even from a different part of the same country, actually - was automatically a bit bad. “Roundhead” is another classic English put-down, because if you can’t insult your opponent’s mother and get away unscathed, you can at least go after his haircut.
On January 1st, Charles did something you might not have been expecting - he offered John Pym a job as Chancellor of the Exchequer. If you’re not in the UK, I’ve no idea if that term means anything to you - the Exchequer is the treasury, and the Chancellor is the guy who’s in charge of it. Offering Pym the top job over the government’s treasury is a glorious idea, and of course Pym had to turn it down, because come on, you can’t spend years complaining about how the king runs his money, write the Grand Remonstrance, and then agree to be head of the treasury. Again - Pym absolutely can’t back down by now, or even give up the slightest bit of ground. Anything other than absolute strength and conviction and the king would eat him alive.
Now, you may remember from last episode, the five members of the House of Commons who, generally speaking, were leading the charge against Charles in Parliament. Those five Members of Parliament, MPs, were John Pym, John Hampden who you definitely know already by now, Denzil Holles, Sir Arthur Hesilrige, and William Strode. They weren’t the only big names in Parliament or on the Parliamentary side, but I think we can safely call them ringleaders, at least in the House of Commons, at this point.
Two days after Pym turned down the job of Chancellor, the Five Members and Lord Mandeville (who was in the House of Lords, not the Commons), were indicted for treason. This is what I mean when I say Pym couldn’t back down at all - the first possible opportunity Charles could get, he’d go for the jugular. And so he instructed the Attorney-General Sir Edward Herbert to present the charges of treason to the House of Lords. But he pushed it a little too far - instead of immediately starting to interview witnesses, the House of Lords decided to appoint a committee to decide whether bringing the charges was legal. The House of Commons agreed - obviously - and announced that it too would be appointing a committee, to decide whether this was a breach of privilege on Charles’s part.
And that is how, on January 4th, Charles set out from Whitehall with three hundred or so armed men, right up to the front doors of the House of Commons to arrest the five men himself.
Now, you can’t do that. If there had maybe been a breach of parliamentary privilege before this - which yes, I think that’s a fair way to characterise it - arresting MPs while they’re literally inside Parliament is definitely not okay. Which is not to say that English law has defined set-out consequences for what happens when a king decides to do that - it would be hilarious if they’d decided that in advance but alas no - but what it does mean is that everyone between you and those MPs suddenly becomes one gigantic sledgehammer of obstruction. So Charles walked up to the front door of the House of Commons, with his three hundred and some men behind him, and demanded the surrender of the Five Members… only to be informed that they weren’t there. Someone had tipped them off, and they’d snuck out the back door and down the Thames.
Next time you do something embarrassing in public, lift your eyes skyward and thank your stars that you are not His Majesty King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland, improvising your way into the House of Commons on the afternoon of 4th January 1642, insisting that you’d meant to do this all along and that you’re definitely going to do this in - and this is a direct quote - “a legal and fair way, for I never meant any other.”
He never managed it. It was obvious by then from the armed escort of 300-plus men that Charles was ready to resort to violence. Now he couldn’t back down either. There were huge protests across London, again, in favour of Parliament. On January 10th, Charles and his family left London in a hurry and went to Hampton Court. They hadn’t been expecting him, and it was at such short notice that they hadn’t even had time to make the beds up for his arrival.
And that’s the last time King Charles was in London, this side of the war. Next time he’d be there, he’d be a prisoner.
Let’s just take a step back for a moment, because Charles came back into London from Scotland at the end of November 1641; it’s now the middle of January and he’s left London basically for good. That’s about seven weeks, that this has all happened in. The historian Conrad Russell called those two months “alarmingly eventful”, which I think is a delightfully historian way of saying, brakes are off, we’re in freefall, this is what freefall looks like. Seven weeks. What have you managed to do in the last seven weeks?
While this is all going on, by the way, Scotland is pretty much entirely under Covenanter control, and Ireland has descended into all-out war. This is what freefall looks like!
On the basis of which, you may well be thinking that this is it. Charles has lost military control of his capital; this is the war starting. One of the first things he did from Hampton Court was to write up to Scotland telling them not to butt in, but the Covenanter position was that they absolutely were going to butt in and they agreed with the English Parliament. This has got to be it. But this is not, in fact, it. We’re still eight months away from war.
Part of the reason for that - and this is the sort of thing that seems obvious when you say it, but when you don’t it’s easy to forget - is that London doesn’t speak for the whole of England, and the gentry doesn’t speak for everyone. Outside the capital city, a lot of those issues were less acute, and at any rate, let’s face it, the only people who really care about constitutional change like this are the ones it directly affects - your average man or woman doesn’t give two hoots about the legal underpinnings of Ship Money, what they care about is whether they’re going to have to pay it. So across the rest of England, reactions to what was essentially a coup d’etat in London were a bit more muted. A lot of places saw the potential for civil war and thought, oh no, this is going to cost a lot of money. So plenty of people, across a lot of England, started out determined to be neutral - not declaring for one side or the other, and trying to keep their noses down and stay out of it as much as possible.
That seems to me to be a very fair thing to do. This isn’t the French Civil War, the overthrowing of a ruler amid widespread miscarriages of justice and growing starvation and hardship. What mattered most to a lot of people across the rest of England was stability, and stability means not partaking in a mighty great war that might get your stuff pillaged and your house burned down if you could possibly help it.
There are three things that would make a difference to that. First of all, if someone’s army pillages your stuff and burns down your house, you’re probably going to start having more of an opinion on that army and that person. That’s not happened yet - give it a year or two. Second of all, when local community leaders took a side, so did the people around them. That doesn’t mean that everyone did exactly what their local lords told them to - right now every county in England except Middlesex had Members of Parliament on both sides of the divide. But that said, the views of the people around you are going to affect your own views, even if just because that’s where you get most of your information from. And finally, the biggest effect that anyone was going to feel of picking a side was about religion. Nobody liked Archbishop Laud’s policies, but if someone was broadly in favour of the bishops, then they were probably broadly Royalist. If they couldn’t stand the idea of bishops, they probably veered Parliamentarian. Beyond that, it’s all up for grabs - there were people on both sides, and neutrals, of all incomes, geographical areas, sometimes different members of the same family aligning in different directions. All of that is super broad brush, of course, but in 1642, that’s roughly how anyone who’d picked a side already was going to pick it. And most people, certainly at the end of January, hadn’t.
Another reason there’s no fighting yet is that the person with the most incentive to fight was Charles, and he’d just poured a lot of his political capital down the drain. It just wasn’t feasible right now. So he tried, again, to negotiate, and meanwhile Parliament spent the next few months consolidating their power - taking control of the army, impeaching some of the Royalists in the House of Commons and reducing the effectiveness of the House of Lords, cutting off the tonnage and poundage that would have given the king a supply of money. In February, Charles sent Henrietta Maria abroad - don’t forget, the Thirty Years’ War is still going on, so that tells you a bit about how serious he thought the situation might become at home. And then he started to move slowly up the country towards York.
As he was travelling, both king and Parliament were issuing rapid-fire declarations at each other. And this is a place where the English Revolution feels really qualitatively different from the French or American ones a century and a half later. These weren’t declarations of the rights of individuals or Parliaments. Rights still weren’t a thing anyone had thought about, certainly not in those terms. These declarations were basically trying to pin the fault for the last few years’ worth of troubles on each other; bickering on paper with a fancy seal. It didn’t help. This went on for months - there’s none of that ideological clarity about justice and democracy and fairness that you might expect from a revolution. Some people have tried to paint it on later, but don’t listen to them. It wasn’t there.
Now, York was a great location strategically for Charles to camp out. It had a garrison already, and it was easy to get from York to any other place that he might need to be. That being said, the number of people he had around him was severely limited, and if he’d tried to start an actual war, he would have been wiped out easily. He barely had enough money to run a household, never mind an army. Maybe counterintuitively, that was bad for Parliament as well - persuasive as John Pym might be, it was hard to call Charles a credible threat while he’s holed up two hundred miles from London with no army. In May, there was a scuffle over the arsenal in Hull: Charles rode over to Hull to get it, and wasn’t allowed in. But the rule saying no one was allowed in was allegedly on the king’s authority, as signified by the Houses of Parliament. And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it - could the king exercise his own authority, on his own, or did everything have to be rubber-stamped by Parliament? And the answer seemed to be the latter. Would anyone have told Elizabeth I that, fifty years earlier? I’d like to see them try.
Even in May, though, there was still back and forth between Charles and Parliament - but it wasn’t aimed at finding common ground, and it hadn’t been for some time. It was aimed at bringing people over to their respective sides, and amassing their armies, and convincing the Scots to side with them. The Covenanters in May actually offered to negotiate between the two sides, but I don’t think anyone wanted that and there wasn’t much chance of its happening at all, never mind successfully. When it came down to it, the Covenanters and the English Parliamentarians had far more objectives in common than the Covenanters ever did with the king. And in the meantime everyone was manoeuvring, getting ready to go, preparing for that moment when they felt like they’d have enough firepower to knock the other guys out. There were a few little scraps that are hardly worth mentioning because they’re more about angling for supplies than actually declaring war.
King Charles raised his standard at Nottingham on 22nd August, and that’s where we generally date the beginning of the war from. In its own right, it’s more symbolic than practically important: there wasn’t a proper big battlefield-type battle for weeks and weeks. But the British Civil Wars played out like this - in symbolic gestures, in small, explosive skirmishes and careful tactical shifts. It’s not like Napoleon sweeping through a countryside, or a mob with pitchforks burning down a palace. It’s more complicated than that.
The trouble with history is that we so often couch it in terms of good and bad - this side was good and that side was bad; this guy was selfless but deluded so we like him despite himself; that guy was ruthless and sometimes mercenary so we don’t like him. It happens all the time because it gives us an emotional connection to the people in the stories, it lets us feel something about them. Look, for example, at all the apologists for Richard III, the people who are fascinated by Anne Boleyn; we naturally want to care about historical figures and know who to cheer for.
I believe that’s why the English Revolution, and the British Civil Wars, slip through the cracks of the history we know. Because there are centuries’ worth of arguments over who to cheer for and who to despise. Is it good king Charlie with his art and his good intentions and his childhood of being bullied? Is it the forerunners of parliamentary democracy, trying to renegotiate how political power works in the face of a hereditary ruler determined to keep it all for himself? The humourless Puritans who banned Christmas, or the elitist monarchists who cared more for poetry than for ordinary people? These are all positions that have been bandied about pretty much since the Restoration, with varying degrees of accuracy, and when it comes down to it there is no one single side that you can look at and say they were on the right side of history. There are always going to be things about both sides that we like, and other things that make us wince; these aren’t superheroes and villains, and that makes history difficult - to get into, and to remember. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s fallen off the school syllabuses, for example, because trying to find a clear way through a pretty complicated story is difficult enough, even when you have a clear idea of who you like, who the good guys and the bad guys are - when you don’t, it’s an order of magnitude harder. I’ve spent a long time talking about Thomas Wentworth in this volume, even though that’s him finished - he’s never turning up again - because I think it’s so hard to decide how to feel about him, whether to like him, or even just whether to think he’s right.
When we look back at the British Civil Wars, a lot of people like to ask which side they’d be on, to pick someone to cheer for. And it feels to me a bit like picking a football team, you know? There are all sorts of reasons you might choose to support one team or another, but at the end of the day, for the vast majority of people, you’re there for the football. It almost doesn’t matter if you insist that you’d definitely be a Cavalier, or Roundhead til you die, because that’s a way in, a way to feel personally involved in the events of the past. But the actual Roundheads, the actual Cavaliers, weren’t like football teams at all, they did things we wouldn’t countenance these days for reasons that might seem completely alien to us, but which were really important to them. The past is messy, and where we are today comes from that messiness. That’s what makes it important. And, if you can find your way into it, that’s what makes it so very interesting.
And that’s where we’ll leave Volume One of Past Tense. In Volume Two, we’ll talk about the war proper - how it was fought, who fought it, and how they felt while they were doing it. We’ll take a bit of a break before that - or you will, I won’t because I still have to write some of it - so I expect Volume Two to be available to go in your ears some time in the autumn.
In the meantime, 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 Dr Mary Jacobs, and the music was written and performed by Harry Harris. You can find notes for this episode, including a bibliography and a reminder of who everyone is on our website at pasttensepod.com. If you or anyone you know would like a transcript of any episode of Past Tense, you can get that at pasttensepod.com/accessibility. Just like Episode Six, for Episode Seven I’ve read quite a lot of the work of Veronica Wedgwood - everything she’s written is entertaining, accessible for us lay folk, and doesn’t sacrifice depth. She’s a bit more of a King Charles fangirl than I am, to be sure, but nobody’s perfect. I’ve also lately been working through the collected works of Conrad Russell - if you find yourself anywhere near a copy of The Fall of the British Monarchies, it’s a rabbit hole well worth falling into.
Now we’re at the end of Volume One, there are a few other thank yous I’d like to share - first of all, to our wonderful supporters, without whom we couldn’t make this podcast. So thank you in particular to our trifecta of Patreon-based superheroes, Tom W, Tom V, and scarybiscuits. If you’d like to join their ranks, by the way, I would be absolutely thrilled, and you can find out all the various ways to do it at pasttensepod.com/supportus. I’d also like to thank a few other people, who’ve either given me valuable feedback on some of the episodes in Volume One, or helped with technical troubleshooting, or library access, or just listened to me and Emily and Ali spouting off about our pet project for about the last year. So thank you in particular to Catrin, Ned, Andrew, Helena and Marc David.
If you have thoughts or opinions about Past Tense, or you’d just like to nerd out with us about history, we’re on Facebook and Twitter as @pasttensepod - and please, please do find a moment to review us on iTunes or wherever you found us, and to tell your friends about Past Tense. That’s how we get the podcast to people who might love it. And hey, thanks for listening yourself. You’re pretty great. See you in a few months.