In her great bedchamber at Richmond Palace in the early morning of 24 March 1603 Queen Elizabeth turned her white and wrinkled

EARLY STUART ENGLAND ( 1603 – 1660 )


In her great bedchamber at Richmond Palace in the early morning of 24 March 1603 Queen Elizabeth turned her white and wrinkled face to the wall and died. Three hours later, as soon as it was light, a messenger galloped away to Edinburgh to inform her kinsman King James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, that he was King now, too, of England.

A few years later, after the arrival in London of this the first of the Stuart monarchs, Ben Jonson’s Masque of Augures was performed in the recently completed Banqueting House in Whitehall. Nothing could have more fittingly symbolized the opening of a new age. The Banqueting House, designed by Inigo Jones and with a ceiling painted by Peter Paul Rubens, was the first purely Renaissance building to appear in London. While it was being built William Harvey, physician to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, was working on the treatise which was to explain the circulation of the blood; William Gilbert’s De Magnete had established the magnetic nature of the earth and founded the study of electrical science; John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s, was writing the verse which proclaimed him the most notable poet of the metaphysical school; the Authorized Version of the Bible, recently completed, was already becoming recognized as a masterpiece of English prose; Francis Bacon was revising the great works which propounded his radical system of philosophy; the group of English Puritans known as the Pilgrim Fathers had just sailed in the Mayflower to North America and had estab­lished a flourishing colony in New England at New Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The king who now ruled in the country which they had Left was not a man to command respect. Described by the Iuc de Sully as ‘the wisest fool in Christendom’, he was cer­~ainly most learned and as pedantic as he was undignified. conceited and slovenly, he spoke in the ‘full dialect of his zountry’ and in a very loud voice, expressing his opinions with an ‘exasperating dogmatism’. Terrified of witches and naked steel, he hated the sea and pigs and wrote a diatribe against smoking, a habit now far more widespread than it had been in the recent past when a servant, seeing smoke emanating from Sir Walter Ralegh’s mouth, had thrown a pot of ale over him, supposing him to be on fire.

Instead of occupying himself with the evils of smoking and witchcraft, and with the handsome young men about his court, it was felt that the King should expend more thought upon the needs of the navy — much neglected since the end of the long war with Spain — upon the problems of Ulster — where Presbyterians were being settled on lands from which the Catholic Irish were being expelled — and upon the growing discontent in England of Puritans and Catholics alike. In 1605 there had been a plot, engineered by Catholics, to blow King James and his ministers up in the Houses of Parliament where Guy Fawkes had planted barrels of gunpowder in the cellars, a ritual search of which is still made by the Yeomen of the Guard before the State Opening of Parliament.

It was, however, not so much the Catholics as the radical Protestants whom the King saw as the ‘chiefest enemies’ of his authority and most of whose requests for reforms in the Anglican Church he firmly turned down at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604, rejecting their demands for changes in the government of the Church by bishops and in the Prayer Book, though agreeing to a new translation of the Bible which eventually appeared as the King James or Authorized Version in 1611.

His authority as King, James I insisted, was exercised by the ancient doctrine of divine right. He held that all his sub­jects should obey him as God’s lieutenant on earth. Even women were required to kneel when presented to him; and Parliaments were regarded as mere instruments of the royal will, summoned to give their assent to royal decisions and to grant the money the government needed for the adminis­tration of the realm. Naturally most Members of Parlia­ment were resentful of the low esteem in which the King evidently held them and the menial role in government to which he seemed determined to relegate them. More and more insistently, they were claiming the right to be con­sulted on important affairs of state, not to direct policy but at least to have a say in its formulation.

At odds with his first Parliament over money matters, the King dissolved it and contrived to manage without another for ten years, raising money by selling peerages and baronetcies. He was driven to summon Parliament again in 1621 by shortage of money, but the unresolved disputes over the Members’ right to be consulted as to the purposes to which the finances the King demanded were to be put, soon resulted in further quarrels; and once more the King sent them home, complaining of their insolence, resolute in his determination that Parliament should not presume to take more power into its hands than he deemed appropri­ate, that its functions should mainly be limited, as they had been in the Middle Ages, to voting the monarch the finances necessary for the conduct of the affairs of the realm. King James died soon after this last quarrel with his Parliament, leaving his son, Charles I, to cope with a problem which was to be resolved only by his own violent death.

Charles I had many admirable qualities but he inspired more respect than affection. His grave reserve, fastidious constraint and lack of humour were barriers to intimacy that all but a very few found it impossible to cross. His slight stammer, which in another man might have been appealing, was in him merely a defect which made it the more difficult for him to put strangers at their ease, seeming to emphasize the atmosphere of melancholy that sur­rounded him, a melancholy so well conveyed in Van Dyck’s Charles I in Three Positions that when Bernini saw the por­trait he described the countenance depicted as a counte­nance ‘doomed’. ‘Never,’ the sculptor said, ‘never have I beheld features more unfortunate.’

Charles was a studious rather than an intelligent man. He understood books better than people, and seemed incapable of making that kind of contact with his subjects which had ensured such popularity for the young Elizabeth I. With Parliament his dealings were from the start disastrous. Believing no less firmly than his father in the divine right of kings, he treated Parliament with a shy and distant reserve which seemed like contempt. Its Members, increasingly Puritan in sympathy, regarded both him and his foreign Catholic wife, his intimate friend, the Duke of Buckingham, as well as his High Church allegiance and his foreign entan­glements, with the utmost suspicion. When asked to vote him the usual import duties for life, they declined to do so, granting them for one year only. The King responded by dissolving Parliament, collecting the customs duties which had been denied him, raising a forced loan and threatening those who refused to pay with imprisonment. Compelled once more by shortage of money to call another Parliament in 1628, he found himself faced by a formidable opposition led by Sir John Eliot whom he had arrested and thrown into the Tower, but not before he had been forced to accept a Petition of Right which forbade the levying of taxes without parliamentary consent, and not before his dear friend, the Duke of Buckingham, had been murdered. After Parliament’s dissolution, Charles managed by various financial expediences to survive for eleven years without calling another until 1640 when, having tried to impose his High Church practices north of the Tweed, a rebellious Scottish army marched into England. Another Parliament was now essential; and so the Members of what was to become known as the Long Parliament assembled at Westminster.

Immediately they ordered the arrests of the Earl of Strafford, the King’s most ruthlessly efficient minister, and of William Laud, his Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘a little low red-faced man of mean parentage’, in the words of one of his many enemies, unimaginative and outspoken, some­times irritable and often rude, a passionate upholder of High Church doctrines. After the King had been obliged to consent to the execution of Strafford — who was later fol­lowed to the scaffold by Laud — the drift into violent conflict between Crown and Parliament was much accelerated. A whole series of measures were introduced by the Long Parliament limiting the authority of the Crown while in­creasing its own. These measures were passed without undue difficulty; but plans for religious changes revealed wide differences of opinion among Members. So did a Militia Bill which proposed the transfer of military command from the Crown to Parliament, and a Grand Remonstrance — brought forward by John Pym and other leaders of the House of Commons — which urged radical reforms in the Church, including the curbing of the power of bishops, and the replacement of the King’s counsellors by ministers approved by Parliament. This was too much for the King to tolerate. Having hesitated too long, he now went too far. Leading a party of swordsmen, he marched to the Commons to arrest Pym and four other Members. When he arrived there, he discovered that ‘all the birds [were] flown’. They had escaped to the City where the authorities refused to deliver them up. War was now inevitable; and on 22 August 1642 in a field near Nottingham King Charles unfurled his standard beneath a glowering sky.

At that time there were scarcely more than a thousand men at his command; and many of those who had declared their allegiance shared the reluctance of Sir Edmund Verney— shortly to be killed fighting for the King in Warwickshire— who declared, ‘I do not like the quarrel and heartily wish the King would yield.’ Many who might have supported the King, if only out of the simple loyalty displayed by Verney, hung back: it was harvest time for one thing; and, for another, the King was still making overtures to Parliament as though he hoped, even now, to reach a compromise. Men were reluctant to jeopardize their future by openly declar­ing their support of a cause which might at any moment be abandoned or betrayed by a man so widely distrusted because of his underhand dealings and prevaricating manner. But then Parliament declared that all men who did not support it were ‘delinquents’ and that their property was forfeit. This meant that those who would have been happy to stay neutral were virtually obliged to fight in their own defence; and men whose fortunes might have been lost had Parliament won, now undertook to raise troops to fight for the King in whose victory their own salvation might be secured.

If self-interest provided the spur for this early surge of support for the Royalist cause, other reasons, no less vital, played their part in swelling the numbers of men who even­tually decided to throw in their lot with the King. It was not only that the King’s majesty was considered by many to be sacrosanct. There was also the strong feeling that King Charles was the defender of the true Church, as he himself contended, anxious as he was to steer a steady and true course between the rocks of popery on the one hand and Puritanism on the other. He had read with admiration Richard Montague’s Appelo Caesarem which identified popery with tyranny, and Puritanism with anarchy, and which concluded ‘popery is originall of Superstition; puri-and powerful, self-confident patriotism. ‘His linen was plain and not very clean,’ wrote a Member of Parliament who heard him speaking in the House of Commons for the first time; ‘and I remember a speck or two of blood upon his little band which was not much larger than his collar. His hat was without a hat band. His stature was of a good size, his sword stuck close to his side; his countenance swollen and reddish; his voice sharp and untunable, and his elo­quence full of fervour.’

‘Pray, Mr Hampden,’ another Member had once been asked by a colleague intrigued by Cromwell’s rough-skinned face with its conspicuous mole beneath his lower lip and his generally dishevelled appearance, ‘Pray, who is that sloven?’ ‘That sloven,’ Hampden had replied, ‘that sloven whom you see before you hath no ornament in his speech; but that sloven, I say, if we should ever come to a breach with the King, in such a case, I say, that sloven will be the greatest man in England.’

So it proved to be. By his defeat at Marston Moor, the King lost the north; at Naseby he lost most of his army; and after the battle of Preston, it became ever more clear that he would lose his head. This he did on a scaffold outside the windows of the Banqueting House on a bitterly cold January day in 1649; and Oliver Cromwell, who had signed the death warrant of the royal ‘Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy’, became, indeed, the greatest man in England.

Dealing ruthlessly with his other enemies, he imprisoned or shot mutineers in his army; crushed without mercy a rebellion in Ireland; routed the Scots who had proclaimed Charles I’s son their King; won a final victory over his enemies in September 1651 at Worcester; constructed a fleet with which Admiral Blake defeated the Dutch; sup­pressed the Levellers who, led by John Lilburne, proposed a radical political programme not at all to his taste; and furi­ously dissolved the so-called Rump, the ineffective remnant of the Long Parliament that had survived a purge by one of his officers, Colonel Thomas Pride, a London brewer’s drayman, who had arrested or excluded over a hundred dis­sident Members.

Cromwell replaced the Rump with an assembly largely chosen by himself; but this lasted a few months only, and in December 1653, by an Instrument of Government, he became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England. Ruling increasingly by decree, he instituted direct military rule by dividing the country into eleven districts com­manded by major-generals.

Severe as Cromwell’s rule was, it was a generally benevolent despotism which allowed a large measure of intellec­tual freedom and religious toleration, permitting the Jews to return to England. But it was also a joyless one which witnessed the wanton destruction of numerous treasures in churches and cathedrals throughout the country on the grounds that they were ‘graven images’, condemned to destruction, like the heads of the lovely medieval statues and the painted windows in the Lady Chapel at Ely Cathedral.

When the Lord Protector died, and was succeeded by his son, Richard, the regime began immediately to collapse. One of his generals, George Monck, later Duke of Albemarle, occupied London, and arranged for new parlia­mentary elections. The Parliament thus elected in 1660 resolved the crisis by asking the late King’s son to return from his long exile in France as King Charles II.

The experiment with republicanism was over. Parliament proclaimed that ‘according to the ancient and fundamental laws of this kingdom, the government is, and ought to be, by king, lords and commoners’. Yet, although a king was once more to sit upon the throne, the struggle for power had ended only superficially in the monarchy’s favour . There was to be no return to the absolute rule of the king. Just as the father had been defeated, so too might the son be. Parliament had established not only its right to financial control but also its right to be consulted on foreign policy and religion as well as trade and domestic affairs. In the future the problem for the monarch was not how to defeat Parliament but how to influence the rival political parties that alternately controlled a majority of its seats, until the monarch was seen to be above the strife altogether.




NATIVES                              ROMAN BRITAIN                                  ANGLO-SAXON              NORMAN RULE 


Crown and People            Twilight of Middle Ages                  Tudor England           Early Stuart England


EMPIRE AND INDUSTRY         THE AGE OF REFORM                             20th century