This article is an edited transcript of Charles I Reconsidered with Leanda de Lisle on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 15 March 2018. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Charles I, in a way, saw himself in the mould of Louis XIV, even though obviously Louis had not been born yet. But unfortunately, he overextended himself.
He decided he wanted uniformity of religion, which his father hadn’t achieved, across the three kingdoms. He began looking at Scotland, and brought in this Anglicised prayer book to impose on the Scots and the Scots got very annoyed.
Whereas English school children are always taught this was a war between King and Parliament, the war was started because of the complexity involved in ruling England, Scotland and Ireland simultaneously, which were distinct and yet joined by the personal union of the crowns.
The Tudors didn’t have to deal with the complexity of ruling three kingdoms. But now there was Scotland to deal with, and when Charles tried to impose the prayer book there, it triggered a riot.
His supporters later said that he should have rounded up the ringleaders and had them executed, but he didn’t.
This emboldened his enemies who then decided they didn’t just not want this prayer book, they also wanted to abolish episcopacy, which is the government of a church by bishops, in Scotland. It ended up with an English invasion, which was part of the First and Second Bishop’s Wars.
The divine right of kings
His opponents and his detractors in history have drawn a link between his fondness for extra-parliamentary taxation and his religious ideas about the importance of kings and bishops as central figures at the very top of these fixed hierarchies.
There were parallels between these structures. Charles saw that and his father saw that.
But this wasn’t a simple sort of megalomania. The point of divine right kingship is that it was an argument against religious justifications for violence.
After the reformation, obviously there were Catholics, Protestants, and many different varieties of Protestants as well.
Arguments started to happen, which began in Britain in fact, that monarchs drew their authority from the people. Therefore the people had the right to overthrow any who were of the wrong religion.
Then the question emerges: Who are the people? Am I the people, are you the people, are we going to agree on everything? I think not. What is the right religion?
There was a free for all of people saying, “Right, well, now we’re going to rebel because we don’t like this king or we’re going to blow him up with gunpowder or we’re going to stab him or we’re gonna shoot him, and so forth.”
James argued against this with the divine right of kings, saying, “No, kings draw their authority from God, and only God has the right to overthrow a monarch.”
Divine right monarchy was a bulwark against anarchy, against instability and religious violence, religious justifications for violence, which is something we should understand now.
It doesn’t sound so crazy when viewed in that light.
It is a kind of sort of arrogance when we look back in the past and go, “Those people, they must have been so stupid believing in these idiotic things.” No, they weren’t idiotic.
There were reasons for them. They were products of their time and place.
The return of Parliament
Charles’s Scottish subjects rebelled against him because of his religious reforms. That was the beginning of, per capita, the bloodiest war in the history of the British Isles.
The Scots had allies in England, members of the nobility like Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, who was the greatest privateering peer of his day, and his ally John Pym in the House of Commons.
These men had formed a secret treasonous alliance with the Scots.
Charles was forced to call what became known as the Long Parliament, to raise the taxes to buy off the Scots to get them out of England after they’d invaded.
The invading Scottish army means that Charles’s attachment to peace without Parliament collapses, because he’s got to have money to fight this war.
The one thing he can’t afford without Parliament is war. So, now he has to call Parliament.
But the opposition now, particularly the extreme end of it, is no longer willing to just get guarantees from Charles that Parliament will be recalled, or guarantees for the Calvinist credentials of the Church of England.
They want more than that because they are fearful. They need to take away from Charles any power that might allow him to revenge himself on them in the future, and allow him to essentially execute them for their treason.
There is then a need to push through radical legislation, and to do that, they have to persuade a lot of people who are more conservative than they are, both in the country and in Parliament, to back them.
To do that, they raise the political temperature and they do this in the way that demagogues have always done. They raise a sense of national threat.
They suggest that “we’re under attack, Catholics are about to kill us all in our beds,” and you get these atrocity stories, particularly about Ireland, repeated and greatly inflated.
The queen is blamed as the sort of papist in chief. She’s foreign, God, she’s French.
It could hardly be worse. They sent soldiers into the Catholic homes to search for weapons. Eighty-year-old Catholic priests are being hung, drawn, and quartered again suddenly.
All really to sort of raise ethnic and religious tensions and a sense of threat.
Header image credit: The battle of Marston Moor, the English civil war, painted by John Barker. Credit: Bridgeman Collection / Commons.