Revolution, 1646–9




One might think that, with the war won by Parliament, the issues which had provoked it could now be settled. But how? After all, the consequences of Naseby were unprecedented in early modern England: a rightful and undisputed king had been defeated militarily by a rebellious army which sought not to depose him but to limit his power. Previously, during the Wars of the Roses, the struggle had been between rival claimants to royal power – one king versus another. But in 1646 there was only one king and everyone agreed who he was. The question was now, what to do with him? Would he agree to a compromise with Parliament limiting his prerogative? And, if not, what then? Recall Manchester’s fear that if he “beat us once we shall all be hanged.” Even if Charles was disposed to be conciliatory, there was a deeper constitutional problem to be addressed. How could the king accept limitations to make him behave as his subjects wanted and still be king? There were few precedents or models in the early modern world for a compromise: that is, a constitutional monarchy. In their absence, few people wanted to confront the real question left over from the First Civil War: “king or no king?” Because they were unable to confront this larger question, the interested parties began to negotiate over smaller ones.

Before turning to the negotiations themselves, it must be understood that the interested parties were not confined to king and Parliament. They included the Scots Covenanters, Irish Confederates, and the European powers who considered sending aid to both sides at various points. Parliament itself continued to be divided between the Presbyterian “peace party,” who feared disorder and so wanted an agreement with Charles at any price, and the Independent “war party,” who had sought his abject defeat in order to pursue religious reform and preserve the new constitutional framework erected in 1641. And finally, there was the instrument of victory itself, the chief consumer of the government’s revenue and the greatest concentration of ordinary people on either side, the army. No wonder that Sir Jacob Astley (recently created Baron Astley; 1579–1652), one of the last important Royalist officers to surrender, supposedly said to the victorious parliamentary forces, “you have now done your work, boys, and may go to play, unless you will fall out amongst yourselves.” The various stakeholders in these negotiations meant, on the one hand, that the king could play each side off against the others. Having lost the war, he might still win the peace. On the other hand, he might become the prize, like the king in a colossal game of chess.

For the next two years Charles negotiated with each interest group, sometimes simultaneously, often repeatedly. But he never did so sincerely. As in his dealings with the Long Parliament in 1640–2, he played for time and, perhaps, a continental, Scottish, or Irish army. He never had any intention of giving up one iota of his prerogative. Rather, he felt that he had already given up too much in signing Strafford’s death warrant and that his recent military defeats were a punishment from God for his earlier compromises. So, once again, he prevaricated, dissembled, and, when push came to shove, refused to budge. He knew full well that this course might be personally fatal; his goal was to preserve the monarchy for his children and successors. As he told Prince Rupert just prior to surrendering in 1646:

I confess that, speaking as a mere soldier or statesman, there is no probability but of my ruin; yet, as a Christian, I must tell you that God will not suffer rebels and traitors to prosper, nor this cause to be overthrown; and whatever personal punishment it shall please him to inflict on me, must not make me repine, much less give over this quarrel. … Indeed I cannot flatter myself with expectation of good success more than this, to end my days with honour and a good conscience.

For the king, honor and a good conscience had meant sneaking out of besieged Oxford in disguise and riding to surrender himself to the Scots outside Newark, Nottinghamshire, in May 1646 because he thought they might offer him the best deal. He was correct, but when he balked at giving up episcopacy the Scots gave him up to Parliament in January 1647 for £400,000. For a few months Holles’s Presbyterians controlled both Parliament and the king. Their most pressing problem was the army and the swingeing taxes it consumed. Despite the soldiers’ obvious service to the parliamentary cause, the conservative Presbyterian majority in Parliament did not know what to do with them now that the war was over. The soldiers were demanding their back pay (about £600,000) and an Act of Indemnity, that is, a law absolving them of responsibility for acts committed in wartime. In fact, many Presbyterian MPs were more worried about what former soldiers might do in peacetime. They feared the disorder that such a large, experienced force of relatively common warriors, trained in violence, could bring to the countryside if they got hungry, or greedy. Since the army was said to be full of religious zealots, they also feared that the soldiers wanted to turn their victory into revolution by breaking down the existing religious, social, and political order.

In 1647 Parliament decided to deal with the issue by disbanding as much of the army as it could without pay, and sending the rest to pacify Ireland. But the soldiers took a dim view of being sent off to die in the bogs of Ireland before their pay and indemnity were resolved. The resulting crisis politicized them. Unpaid and unloved by their parliamentary masters, the soldiers began to listen to radical notions of independence in religion, equality in society, and even a degree of democracy in government. Their leaders came to see the only hope of getting justice for their men in having a say in the negotiations to settle the State. Regiments each selected an “agitator,” a sort of union shop steward, to represent them – an example of democracy in action. In June the army declared that it was no “mere mercenary army” fighting for pay but was, rather, dedicated “to the defence of our own and the people’s just rights and liberties,” and that they would not disband until their grievances were settled. In other words, the army and the army alone (not Parliament) truly represented the national interest – and would now decide where the revolution stopped. To emphasize the point, a group of subordinate officers seized the king and deposited him at army headquarters at Newmarket, Suffolk. In August, the army entered London, forced out Holles and other Presbyterians, and began to negotiate with the king on the basis of a document entitled the Heads of the Proposals. It proposed that a bicameral Parliament be elected every two years; that Parliament control the army and navy and nominate all royal ministers; and that all Protestant churches be tolerated in England under a non-coercive episcopacy. This document, if enacted, would have been the first written constitution in English history. Instead, as usual, the king prevaricated, then refused it outright.

At this point the army itself divided. The generals and most officers, known as the Grandees, wanted to maintain military discipline and gentry control of the localities. The rank-and-file, led by their agitators and a small group of political activists known as the Levellers, wanted a fundamental change in how England was ruled. For starters, they demanded near universal manhood suffrage, liberty of conscience and, at most, a constitutional monarchy. They also advocated legal reform, urging that court ducuments be written in simple English, that punishments fit crimes, speedy trials by juries, and equality under the law. Finally, they sought a welfare state for widows and orphans of soldiers. The Levellers put their case to the Grandees in a series of debates at Putney Church, just outside London, at the end of October 1647. The Putney Debates focused on a proposed Leveller constitution, The Agreement of the People (1647), and, specifically, its suggestion that the franchise be enlarged. Though many spoke, Ireton best advanced the Grandee position, arguing that they had fought the king to restore the Ancient Constitution, not to change it. He therefore defended the time-honored requirement of 40 shillings (£2) of land for would-be voters and maintained that the franchise should always reside in those with “a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom,” that is, in “the persons in whom all land lies, and in those corporations in whom all trading lies.” We have seen this argument before, though Ireton’s admission of those “in whom all trading lies” was a progressive concession to the growing wealth and ambitions of the mercantile community. In response, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough (d. 1648) set forth the Leveller position that “the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he.” His corollary was “that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” Here, with eloquent simplicity, the common man demands to be part of the political process irrespective of birth or wealth. Rainsborough’s rationale, based not on civil law (statute), common law (Ancient Constitution), nor God’s law (the Bible), but on natural law (Reason), was a new and dangerous concept that seemed to undermine the hierarchical principle heretofore at the heart of English life. Later in the century it would receive an even clearer and more decisive exposition by John Locke and others. In the end, though the army left Putney with nothing really decided, the Debates remain a monument to the political consciousness of ordinary people, and, more immediately, reveal the army discussing the future with little or no thought about the king.

Soon after Putney, the king fled once again, this time to the Isle of Wight. This put him no closer to safety: though he might look across the English Channel to France, Cromwell’s cousin, who governed the island, held him in Carisbrooke Castle. After more negotiation, Parliament gave up in despair and, in January 1648, voted to make no more addresses to the king. The Scots, however, had continued to parley and, in December 1647, a group of conservative Covenanters signed an “Engagement” with Charles. In return for an army, he promised to establish Presbyterianism in England for three years. This led to a Second Civil War, comprising a series of Royalist revolts in the South, in Wales, and in Scotland. Unfortunately for the rebels, these revolts were not simultaneous, and Fairfax and Cromwell were largely able to mop up the English and Welsh outbreaks before marching north to subdue the Engagers. Any moderation shown toward the enemy during the First Civil War evaporated as Cromwell and his men now saw the Royalists as resisting the evident “Providences of God” revealed in the outcome of the earlier conflict. Some prisoners were summarily executed, and, ominously, both officers and soldiers began to refer to “Charles Stuart, that man of blood.” It was becoming clear that there would be no peace in England while the king lived.

The Presbyterian MPs, however, reached a quite different conclusion from the Second Civil War. Surely, now, chastened by a second defeat, Charles would be ready to negotiate? On the morning of December 5, 1648, Parliament voted 129–83 to resume discussions with the king. For the army, which had been forced to fight this king a second time, the vote was the last straw. The next morning, December 6, Colonel Thomas Pride (d. 1658) positioned his men outside the House of Commons, refused entrance to those who had voted for treating with the king, arrested some 45 of the Presbyterian leaders, and secluded another 186. A further 86 members protested this coup, which became known as Pride’s Purge, by withdrawing. Although many MPs later drifted back, this still left only about 200 MPs, less than half the original, to make up a reduced House of Commons; in fact, over the next few weeks, the fate of the Crown and nation would be decided by an average attendance of only about 70. Soon, the few remaining Lords ceased to attend their house. The resulting rump of a Parliament no longer represented even the original supporters of the parliamentary cause, let alone the entire kingdom.

But the Rump Parliament, as it soon came to be called, knew what it had to do. In January, it set up a High Court of Justice to try the king on a charge of high treason. This statement is, on the face of it, a logical absurdity. Allegiance in a monarchy is always paid to the person of the king. How could Charles have been guilty of treason against himself? They got around this problem by alleging that the king had violated not statute law or even common law but a more fundamental principle, part of the Ancient Constitution, as expressed in his coronation oath. The legislation establishing the court read as follows:

Whereas it is notorious that Charles Stuart, the now King of England …, hath had a wicked design totally to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws and liberties of this nation, and in their place to introduce an arbitrary and tyrannical government, and that … he hath prosecuted it with fire and sword, levied and maintained a cruel war in the land against the Parliament and kingdom, whereby the country hath been miserably wasted, the public treasure exhausted, trade decayed, thousands of people murdered, and infinite other mischiefs committed.

Put simply, the king was charged with committing treason against the Ancient Constitution and, by levying cruel war against them, the English people. This was, of course, a revolutionary idea. At its heart was a notion relatively new to early modern Europe: that the king had a responsibility not only to God but to the people over whom he ruled; that should he fail in that responsibility, he could be tried by the representatives of the people and, if found wanting, removed from office. These principles and their implications would have earth-shattering effects not only in England but abroad over the next century and a half.

In the meantime, King Charles could not, of course, agree. When the trial convened in Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649, he immediately went to the heart of the matter by questioning the court’s jurisdiction and refusing to plead. After all, the law, in a monarchy, is always the king’s law; the courts are his courts. How, therefore, could any court put the king on trial?

I would know by what authority – I mean lawful – there are many unlawful authorities in the world – thieves and robbers by the highways – but I would know by what authority I was brought from thence and carried from place to place, and I know not what. And when I know what lawful authority, I shall answer. Remember, I am your King – your lawful King.

In fact, Parliament had already answered this: on 4 January they had resolved that “the people are, under God, the original of all just power; that the Commons of England, in parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in the nation.” This was parliamentary sovereignty, a flat denial of the divine right of kings. But it was every bit as fictional, as the king noted on the 22nd, in language oddly reminiscent of Colonel Rainsborough’s:

Certainly you never asked the question of the tenth man in the kingdom, and in this way you manifestly wrong even the poorest ploughman if you demand not his free consent; nor can you pretend any colour for this your pretended commission without the consent of the major part of every man in England of whatsoever quality or condition.

Refusing to recognize the court’s authority, Charles stood or sat impassively and disdainfully, but with great dignity, as the prosecution sought to make its case. The spectacle must have been impressive: the largest medieval hall in England packed to the rafters with spectators. At its south end, on several tiers of red velvet benches sat the commissioners: assorted army officers, MPs, and gentlemen, presided over by a heretofore obscure judge, John Bradshaw (1602–59). Before them sat an array of lawyers and clerks, all in black. At the north end and in the upper galleries, crowds of spectators, held back by wooden rails and soldiers in their red coats. On the other side of a hastily constructed wooden partition, in a makeshift dock in the middle of the hall, the magnetic object of all eyes, a solitary figure in black, but for the brilliant blue and silver of the Star and Garter – the king. Given his refusal to plead or make a case, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. King Charles was found guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors against the people of England. On January 27 he was condemned to death by beheading. At this point he demanded to speak, but Parliament was not about to let him do so now. Instead, 59 commissioners signed the most notorious death warrant in English history.

Years earlier, upon losing the first English Civil War, Charles I had stated “that if I cannot live as a king, I shall die like a gentleman.” He now set about to do precisely that. The night before his execution, the king burned his papers and saw his youngest children for the last time. The next morning, January 30, 1649, he rose and, after asking about the weather outside, put on an extra shirt for the walk across St. James’s Park to the scaffold: ever concerned with the dignity of his appearance, Charles did not want to create an impression of fear by shivering. He was escorted by armed guard through the park to the Banqueting House at Whitehall – one of those expensive building projects of his father’s which had so alienated the English taxpayer. One wonders what he thought as he walked through the hall under its magnificent ceiling – a depiction of his father’s apotheosis in heaven by Peter Paul Rubens – and thus the sort of expensive art project which had proved controversial in his own ill-fated reign. At the end of his walk was an open window facing west; outside it a scaffold draped in black, at the center of which was the block. Beyond and below stood a crowd of ordinary Londoners, held back by soldiers. The king emerged into the gray light of the January day and asked to speak, but, dogged by his weak voice and bad luck to the last, he was inaudible. He then turned to his archbishop of Canterbury, William Juxon (1582–1663), and remarked that the executioner sent him “from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown.” Turning back to the block, he knelt down, said a brief prayer, and, in a signal worked out with the henchman beforehand, stretched out his hands. The axe fell and, as was customary, the executioner raised the late king’s dismembered head for all to see. It is said that at this sight, which normally elicited cheers, the crowd uttered a deep groan.

And well they might, for the events of that January day would have grave consequences for all members of the English polity. For the first time in their history, the English people – or at least some English people – had judicially and publicly murdered their king. Such an act violated the Great Chain, Divine Right, and a thousand years of sermons and royal propaganda. And this was only the beginning of the demolition of the old world. On March 17, Parliament abolished the kingly office; two days later they abolished the House of Lords. And so, on May 19, 1649, England was declared a commonwealth, that is, a republic.


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