In July, 1642, as the English House of Commons debated whether to raise an army against the king, a dismayed MP, Bulstrode Whitelocke, wondered how parliament had
‘insensibly slipped into this beginning of a civil war by one unexpected accident after another [so that] we scarce know how, but from paper combats, by declarations, remonstrances, protestations, votes, messages, answers and replies we are now come to the question of raising forces.’
Historians have come up with a variety of explanations. The beauty of Michael Braddick’s book is that he does not feel compelled to deliver one. At the war’s end England had neither a king nor a House of Lords. At its beginning almost no one had such an outcome in mind. The salient, perhaps extraordinary, fact about the descent into armed conflict was that both sides, the king’s party and the Puritan parliamentarians, spoke the same anti-revolutionary language and pledged themselves to the same objectives, the maintenance of true religion and the security of liberty under the law.
Religion was the key and, after an opening chapter which as a summary of the complex, nuanced meanings of the words ‘Reformation’ and ‘Protestantism’ could scarcely be bettered, Braddick does not let us forget it. One effect of the Reformation, and the spectrum of Christian species that it spawned, was to change European conflicts by raising ideological and national quarrels above dynastic ones. The English civil war coincided with the Thirty Years War on the continent. Underlying both was the same disturbing question, ‘whether,’ as John Knox had asked in 1544, ‘obedience is to be rendered to a magistrate who enforces idolatry and condemns true religion’. Even if the answer were ‘no’, there remained a more perplexing question. Who was to judge when magistrates were miscreant? The Scotch Presbyterian Covenanters were undaunted by the question. When, in 1637, Charles tried to impose the English Prayer Book upon the Calvinist Kirk, they rose in revolt and from that moment the spectre of war haunted England.
Charles had a difficulty. ‘It was widely acknowledged in Reformation Europe,’ Braddick writes, ‘that a people divided from their monarch on matters of religion could not be depended upon as loyal subjects.’ Charles ruled over three kingdoms, each with a different national church. Not unreasonably, he sought to impose a religious uniformity on his subjects. The trouble was that in England there was no agreement about what constituted either the doctrines or the forms of true religion. The widest agreement, very nearly universal, was that popery was not the true religion. Alas for Charles, the Laudians, followers of Archbishop Laud whom Charles had allowed to secure themselves at court and in much of the episcopacy, were, because of their interest in high ceremonial — a raised altar behind rails, priestly vestments, choral services — vilified by most of the English people as papists. Anti-popery fears mounted, and virulent anti-court sentiment found vent in an explosion of printed materials — pamphlets, tracts, ballads, satires, newsletters — that in its abundance was new to English politics. Also new, and shocking to many, was the printing and distribution to the populace of parliamentary debates. All this popular airing of views in a public arena foreshadowed the prominence of Independency in Cromwell’s New Model Army and the radical programme of the Levellers. Braddick’s treatment of the ‘paper combats’ and other manifestations of popular feeling is the most valuable part of his book. Never before has a history of the civil war been so rooted in the sentiments and behaviour of the whole population.
Braddick proposes that, both by taking part in the paper combats and and by learning from them, the English people became to an unprecedented degree an informed political nation. There were about 9,000 parishes in England, each with its parish council, and one thing that everyone knew about and cared about was the conduct of services in his parish church. Hating popery and Laudian ‘innovations’, the common people were drawn by religion into far-reaching constitutional controversies. Even women entered the lists. In January, 1642, a group of them presented to parliament a petition relating to the army and the reform of the Church. Braddick does not suggest that pressure from below had a direct influence on the actions of King Pym and his followers, but large street demonstrations by Puritans, especially but not only in London, gave succour to those reformers, with episcopacy in their sights, who were denounced by opponents as ‘Puritan populists’. Moreover, the people who, up and down the land between 1640 and 1642, tore down altar rails and smashed stained-glass windows, were not mobs, but organised groups with a political cause. What S. B. Chrimes many years ago called ‘self-government at the king’s command’ had brought ordinary men in the shires into the administration of local government. Braddick argues forcefully that participation in local activities such as quarter sessions and the raising of militias combined with immersion in the ‘paper combats’ made ‘political awareness … available to the villagers of Stuart England’. He calculates, also, that at the elections to the Long Parliament in 1640 an astonishing one in three adult males had the right to vote.
As to how ‘political awareness’ influenced an individual’s choice when the time to take sides came, Braddick treads softly. Many a Puritan had to weigh in his mind whether true religion at the cost of bloodshed, the destruction of crops and the breaking of social ties was preferable to peace at the cost of supporting a distrusted king. And when the latter option receded, a range of other considerations came into play. What is clear, Braddick writes, is that ‘the two sides consisted of complex coalitions of allies, with varying concerns and differing degrees of conviction and commitment’ and that ‘maps of military control are not maps of popular allegiance’. In the end, of course, the most convinced and committed gained ascendancy and brought republicanism to England. Their legacy was long-lived. But their heyday was brief. Not the least achievement of Braddick’s dissection of the political nation beyond the great and the powerful is to add to our understanding of why (though the question lies outside the scope of his book) the English people took so readily to the restoration.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated March 1, 2008