How far was Charles I responsible for causing the Civil War?

Time Title Content
Introduction The causes of the English civil war have been a subject of historical debate since the late seventeenth century. While many potential causes have been identified, from social and economic pressures to religious division, this talk will focus on the degree to which the king himself was responsible for the conflict.
0.00 The instigator of civil war? Very few historians think that Charles I was a highly competent monarch. However, the main difference lies between historians who see the king as the fundamental instigator of the crisis that engulfed England and Wales in 1642 and those who see the civil wars as essentially the product of structural weaknesses, longer-term trends and broader, international contexts.  As we will see, while a case can be made that Charles faced significant challenges in governing his kingdoms, it will be argued that it was the king’s own behaviour and poor political choices which played a significant part in triggering the civil war.
0.36 A king faced with significant challenges? Charles I certainly faced a number of problems that would have tested any monarch: navigating foreign policy while the European continent was engulfed by a war many in England saw as a struggle between the forces of Christ and those of anti-Christ; balancing the books at the same time as maintaining an expanding royal household in the face of a Parliament unwilling to vote him money; ruling multiple kingdoms each with a different majority faith. Yet, it was Charles’ particular responses to these challenges which escalated a difficult situation into a full-blown crisis. The king’s responses and those of his opponents, however, were both conditioned by well-established, competing conspiracy theories which eroded trust and frustrated attempts at compromise. Charles’ belief that his opponents meant to usurp his authority was therefore grounded in entrenched contemporary beliefs.
Part 1: Charles I faced significant challenges
Charles was continuing Jacobean Policies
1.30 Religious Policy One historical argument made in Charles’ defence is that, especially in religious and foreign policy, he was essentially continuing the policies of his father James VI and I. In 1622 James had issued directions that demanded ministers avoid controversial theological positions or fierce rhetoric against Catholics. In 1626, Charles would issue a similar proclamation ‘for the establishment of the peace and quiet of the church.’ This directed the clergy to avoid raising questions or entertaining opinions that questioned the doctrine or discipline of the Church of England. Charles also continued James’ policy of attempting to contain controversy provoked by Puritan objections to the playing of games on Sunday through the re-issuing of the Jacobean Book of Sports’ which outlined lawful recreations that could be enjoyed on the Sabbath. It had also been James who had first pursued a policy of ‘congruency’, to bring the churches of England and Scotland into closer alignment. James had strengthened the power of the Scottish bishops and imposed the Articles of Perth in 1618 which sought to bring worship in the Scottish church into line with England (for example, by requiring worshippers to kneel when taking holy communion). Charles would follow this approach, notably commissioning his Scottish bishops to draw up a new Prayer Book, again drawing the Scottish liturgy into close alignment with its English counterpart.
2.58 Foreign policy These shifts in church policy had been dictated by the increasing tensions in Europe which would soon erupt into warfare. Despite the urging of churchmen and Parliamentarians, James had favoured a pacific foreign policy. This was a great disappointment to more puritanically inclined Englishmen who believed that the country should join with other Protestant states in challenging Catholic Habsburg power. They were concerned that the Catholic threat was such that the reformed faith might not survive the conflict. Many also saw it as an insult to the English Crown and national honour that the Habsburgs had deposed James’ daughter Elizabeth as Queen of Bohemia. Towards the end of his reign, James was persuaded to intervene militarily in what, under his son and favourite Duke of Buckingham, would prove to be a series of disastrous military expeditions to France and then Spain. Charles would then return to the same pacific foreign policy as his father for most of his Personal Rule.
One argument, therefore, is whether we see these policies as effective or not, they were not of Charles’ invention but rather represented the continuation of later Jacobean approaches.
Charles faced the challenge of ruling multiple kingdoms
4.09 A Europe-wide crisis? Equally, they were also responses to structural issues faced by other European monarchies, notably the problem of governing multiple kingdoms. Other monarchies, notably the Spanish monarchy, faced similar challenges presented by ruling over kingdoms with different representative bodies and different legal systems.
This is not only posed problems of effective governance but most pressingly in an era of continental warfare, represented a serious financial problem, in that it made it harder for monarchs to extract tax revenue to fund their armies.
In other monarchies besides the Stuart kingdoms, these tensions between the demands of the centre and the semi-autonomy of the localities provoked Rebellion in Portugal and Catalonia and even civil war in France.
Contemporaries and later historians saw these rebellions and wars as part of a ‘general crisis’ that afflicted the continent in the mid-seventeenth century. Some historians, notably Geoffrey Parker, have even connected these disorders with the pressures imposed by climate change in the early modern period.
It was not only then, that Charles was in many ways following in his father’s footsteps, he was also facing comparable challenges to other European monarchs and experiencing similar responses to attempts to bring disparate kingdoms into greater harmony.
Charles’ actions were governed by mainstream contemporary ideas
5.30 Religious diversity harmfulAbsolute monarchy essential In pursuing these policies, Charles was also operating in line with what we might regard as ‘mainstream’ ideas – Since the Peace of Augsburg of 1555 it had been held that the religious identity of the kingdom (or kingdoms) was determined by the religious identity of their ruler (distilled in the maxim cuius regio, eius religio – whose realm, his religion). This in turn was connected to early modern views of religious diversity as essentially harmful to states, generating heretical beliefs, even atheism, and encouraging social and political disorder. Similarly, in choosing to rule without Parliament from 1629-1640, Charles was also following European trends which also saw other monarchs dispense with or weaken troublesome representative institutions from the French Estates-General to the Spanish Cortes. These moves were also indebted to contemporary absolutist political theory. In this view, elaborated by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, the wielding of absolute monarchical power was necessary to ensure the peace and happiness of the realm. Without such absolute sovereignty, kingdoms would fall prey to disorder and Rebellion, and countries and individuals would be left unprotected from foreign and domestic foes.
Charles I faced opposition from among the aristocracy
6.48 Noble jealousy? And there certainly were home-grown challenges for Charles to contend with. Contemporaries and later historians have suggested that the civil war was in no small part provoked by Charles’ most powerful opponents, members of the English aristocracy who sought significant changes in constitutional arrangements. This was a view endorsed by Hobbes. In his The Elements of Law, composed during Charles I’s Personal Rule (1629-1640), Hobbes commented that rebellions could be provoked by men who ‘live at ease’ but who were excluded from power:
‘such men’ Hobbes said ‘must needs take it ill, and be grieved with the state, as find themselves postponed to those in honour, whom they think they excel in virtue and ability to govern. And this it is for which they think themselves regarded as but slaves.’
Complaints of royal tyranny, for Hobbes, were therefore no more than the product of noble jealousy. Those of the ‘better sort’ who objected to Charles using his prerogative powers to impose levies on his subjects, Hobbes argued, misunderstood that
‘without such sovereign power, the right of men is not propriety to anything, but a community…Those levies therefore which are made upon men’s estates, by the sovereign authority, are no more but the price of that peace and defence which the sovereignty maintaineth for them.’
Absolute sovereignty protected then, rather than threatened, private property.
8.14 John Pym, The ‘Junto’, and constitutional change The problem, however, was not simply that the ambition of some of the nobility and gentry had been thwarted but also that a significant proportion of them had become ideologically wedded to non-monarchical government. Hobbes wrote a history of the civil war, titled Behemoth, (after a Biblical monster), in 1668. In this work, Hobbes laid part of the blame for the civil wars on those he described as a the ‘democratical gentlemen’: members of the ‘better sort’ (as he put it) whose reading in the history of the Athenian and Roman republics had led them to fall in love with these forms of government, identifying these ‘commonwealths’ with liberty and monarchy with tyranny.
Hobbes claimed that the ‘democratical gentlemen’ constituted the majority of the members the Long Parliament, summoned in 1640. While most historians would be sceptical of that claim, some scholars have nonetheless argued that there was a significant grouping of MPs and Lords, the so-called ‘Junto’ who wanted to secure far-reaching constitutional changes. This group was led by John Pym in the Commons and the earls of Bedford, Essex and Warwick in the Lords. According to the historian John Adamson, this ‘Junto’ sought to ‘Venetianize’ the king, profoundly limiting his power to appoint his own ministers, to call or dismiss Parliament, and to veto legislation.  In the Nineteen Propositions of June 1642, Parliament even went so far as demanding control of the education of the king’s children. As the King’s Answer to these Propositions made clear, Charles viewed this as an attempt to essentially hollow out his authority:
“we may be waited on bare-headed; we may have Our hand kissed; The Stile of Majestie continued to Us; And the King’s Authoritie, declared by both Houses of Parliament, may be still the Stile of your Commands. We may have Swords and Maces carried before Us, and please Ourself with the sight of a Crown and Scepter, (and yet even these Twigs would not long flourish, when the Stock upon which they grew were dead) but as to true and reall Power We should remain but the outside, but the Picture, but the signe of a King.”
The ‘Junto’s’ motivations in pushing for these reforms were pragmatic as well as ideological: by 1640, members of the ‘Junto’ were vulnerable to treason charges, having colluded with Charles’ Scottish opponents. These concerns pushed members of the ‘Junto’ to seek greater control over the security apparatus of the English state, notably the Militia, edging the country closer to a military confrontation. The King’s fears that the ‘Junto’ wished to reduce his powers to that of a ‘duke of Venice’ were not, therefore, unfounded.
Part 2: Charles I was the instigator of civil war
Charles I was politically naive
10.54 The death of Prince Henry

An unwise king

Charles undoubtedly faced significant challenges as a king, and, in some ways, responded to these challenges in ways that were consistent with the approach of both his father and of other European monarchs. He also had powerful critics who, for both self-interested and ideological reasons, were intent on significantly reducing his authority. As an individual, though, Charles was not well-equipped to respond effectively to these challenges and, in the crisis years of 1637-1642, his actions clearly played a significant role in driving the country towards civil war.
Even those historians sympathetic to Charles I, such as Kevin Sharpe, have acknowledged that he was not a good politician. Charles’ position as a younger son has often been identified as leaving him ill-prepared to rule. He had only become heir the throne in 1612 on the death of his older brother, Henry, from typhoid fever. Hostile contemporary assessments in the early years of his reign presented Charles as a fool, unfit to exercise the office of king. The Somerset magistrate Hugh Pyne, shortly after Charles had succeeded to the throne in 1625, described his new monarch as ‘unwise a king as ever was, and so governed as never a king was: for he is carried as a man would carry a child with an apple’. (This was a reference to a proverb that a child ‘like a witless worldling…dost esteem an apple more than is father’s inheritance’). Pyne concluded his unflattering portrait of Charles by stating that he was ‘no more fit to be king than Hickwright’ a reference to Mr Pyne’s elderly, and it was said ‘simple’, shepherd.
Charles I was an interventionist monarch
12.35 The Beauty of Holiness Charles, however, was not only politically naive but, in contrast to his father, an active, interventionist monarch, who was far less content to allow local communities to manage their own affairs. This shift of approach meant that similar policies could have very different outcomes. For example, Charles’ reissue in 1633 of the Jacobean Book of Sports was now much more clearly connected to acceptance of Caroline religious policies (in particular the concern with separating the sacred from the prophane). Under the leadership of Charles’ Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, English churches were being transformed to reflect Laud’s emphasis on the ‘Beauty of Holiness’. A key element of these changes was the railing off of the altar, creating a physical barrier between the public and the clergy at the administration of the sacraments. The Book of Sports was also being imposed on a much more religiously divided society, in no small part due to strict line against non-conformity pursued by the Laudian church. Puritan critics now presented attempts at regulating lawful Sunday recreations as part of a Satanic conspiracy. In the Puritan lawyer William Prynne’s Newes from Ipswich published in 1636, he claimed that the bishops had turned the Sabbath into the ‘Devil’s day… to advance his own kingdom and service on it.’ Similarly, although both Charles and James had sought to prohibit controversial preaching, under Charles this measure was combined with policies and ecclesiastical appointments which demonstrated that the king clearly favoured one faction within the church. It seemed, therefore, much more a measure directed at silencing Puritan critics than an even-handed attempt to quell religious disputes. Historians are divided as to the extent to which the king was directly driving religious policy during his Personal Rule. However, Charles’ approach, in which he frequently took direct personal responsibility for his government’s policies meant that it was harder to sustain the argument that political conflict was the fault of the king’s evil counsellors.
Charles I viewed opposition as Rebellion
14.40 Demand for obedience Support for the Book of Sports was also made into a test of loyalty: Charles ordered that ministers who refused to read it would be deprived of their positions. This demand for obedience has been noted as another key aspect of the king’s personality, a constant concern with loyalty which revealed an underlying sense of insecurity. Despite their ascendency in the Church of England, this outlook also appeared to be shared by the Laudian clergy. Laud himself drew up lists of ministers, marking individuals with the letters O -for orthodox – and P – for Puritan. This ‘us and them’ outlook could lead to responses to opponents that bordered on the paranoid. One notorious incident illustrates this mindset: Archbishop Neile of York had ordered that all paintings of William Prynne, perhaps the most celebrated critic of Charles I’s court and his religious policies, should be destroyed. When Neile found out that the paintings had already been destroyed privately, he ordered that the picture frames should be burnt in a public bonfire.
Most of all, Charles’ approach to politics was structured by his exalted sense of his own authority and his deep sensitivity to what he saw as attacks on his honour. Charles’ view of kingship had two critical consequences: he tended to regard all opposition as an affront to his authority and tantamount to Rebellion; and he viewed his title as king as giving him the freedom to use underhand and violent strategies to achieve his political ends. This meant that political or religious disputes were quickly escalated but not so easily diffused as Charles’ duplicitous approach eroded confidence that any settlements with him would be binding.
Charles I’s responses to key events were incendiary
16.20 The Bishops Wars All of these traits were brought together in the events that led to the end of the Personal Rule and forced Charles to recall his Westminster Parliament. The introduction of new Prayer Book in Scotland in 1637 had prompted widespread protests and rioting against a new form of worship that many saw as introducing Catholic elements into the Scottish liturgy. Charles, however, immediately blocked off options for compromise by refusing to acknowledge there was anything in the book contrary to ‘true religion.’ As a consequence, Scottish opposition hardened, coalescing in the drafting of the Scottish National Covenant of 1638, a document which affirmed the independence of the Scottish church and Parliament. Charles viewed the Covenant as an out-and-out assault on his authority, telling his chief adviser, the marquis of Hamilton, that while it was in effect ‘I have no more power in Scotland than a duke of Venice, which I will rather die than suffer.’ In February 1638, Charles issued a proclamation taking personal responsibility for the Prayer Book and denouncing all who opposed it as traitors. By raising the stakes in this way, Charles made armed resistance virtually guaranteed, ensuring that his opponents would take up arms to save their own skins if nothing else.
17.35 The Army Plot The victory of the Covenanter forces in the so-called Bishops’ Wars forced Charles to recall Parliament but again, the king’s view of his own authority and his readiness to use force against those he regarded as traitors thwarted opportunities for compromise or negotiation. By early 1641, the king seemed to be building a body of support in Parliament as result of making a number of concessions to his opponents and as a consequence of growing concern about the radicalism of some demands for further religious reform. This promising situation for Charles, however, was squandered by revelations about the so-called Army Plot. The plot centred on an attempt to rescue the king’s leading counsellor, the Earl of Strafford, who was imprisoned in the Tower of London, under threat of execution for treason. A group of mercenaries, led by the courtier poet Sir John Suckling attempted to seize control of the Tower of London on 3 May and free Strafford. The failure of what was effectively an attempted coup, undertaken with the king’s blessing, not only sealed Strafford’s fate, but also encouraged the ‘Junto’ to make further inroads into Charles’ prerogative powers, as a means to safeguard themselves and Parliament from other nascent Royalist plots.
18.47 The arrest of MPs While the revelation of the Army Plot had been damaging, it was not catastrophic and by the end of 1641 there was still a good chance that Charles could convince majorities in both the Commons and the Lords to dissolve Parliament. This prospect was scuppered, however, by another attempted coup against Charles’ opponents. This time it was a stratagem in which the king was personally and conspicuously involved. On 3 January 1642, the Attorney-General read out treason charges against five MPs along with Lord Mandeville. The Lords, however, rather than proceeding to prepare for their trial, instead questioned the legality of the charges and passed a vote requesting an armed guard. Charles’ response was to up the ante: he arrived in person at the Commons chamber the following day with three hundred troops to arrest the Five Members. The MPs, however, had been forewarned. The attempt at decapitating the ‘Junto’ had been both a practical failure and a political disaster. It precipitated Parliament being given control of London’s military forces and whipped up popular hostility to the king. On 10th January, Charles and his family fled his capital. The next time the king would return to London would be seven years later, for his own execution.
Polarise Political Culture
20.05 Conspiracy theories As the attempt on the Five Members demonstrates, Charles’ actions between 1637 and 1642, driven by his view of his political authority, were critical in bringing England and Wales to the brink of civil war. They transformed opposition into armed resistance and encouraged the drive towards military rather than political solutions. As Ann Hughes has argued, however, these incidents were so politically explosive because they took place within an already polarised political culture. Events were understood through the lens of two powerful conspiracy theories, one anti-Catholic and one anti-Puritan. These conspiracy theories profoundly shaped how many people understood political events. For Charles’ critics, they could transform what could seem like fairly innocuous policies, for example, guidance on what recreations it was lawful to pursue on a Sunday, into part of a diabolical plot. Similarly, although the Crown meted out severe punishments to a mere handful of its most vocal critics, such as William Prynne, the sufferings of these individuals were understood by some as evidence of the king’s increasingly tyrannical behaviour. Conversely, for Charles and his leading supporters, the vociferous rhetoric of some these critics, led them to believe all non-conformist religious activity was fundamentally seditious. Viewed through this anti-Puritan lens, aspects of non-conformist religious worship, for example private religious meetings held for spiritual support, were transformed into conspiratorial ‘conventicles’, in which the king’s opponents hatched their plots against the state.
21.40 Conclusion As the historian Peter Lake has shown, these competing conspiracy theories had become firmly entrenched by the 1620s. This process of ideological polarisation was only accelerated by Charles’ approach to government. For the king’s opponents, Charles’ actions added to the credibility of the Popish Plot which threatened to overturn both Parliament and Protestantism. For the king, on the other hand, the actions of the Covenanters and the English ‘Junto’ confirmed instead that there was a Puritan conspiracy to strip him of his power, foment popular Rebellion and, as the Answer to the 19 Propositions put it
‘Destroy all Rights and Proprieties, all distinctions of Families and Merit; And by this meanes this splendid and excellently distinguished form of Government, end in a dark equall Chaos of Confusion, and the long Line of Our many noble Ancestors in a Jack Cade, or a Wat Tyler.’
The ‘Answer’ offered a deliberately alarmist vision of England’s future, intended to paint the king’s Parliamentarian opponents as enemies of the social as well as political order. Yet, it was also ultimately, a prophetic vision. By 1649 Charles was dead and England a republic.