The English Civil War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

At a point well into The English Civil War, Ashton makes a statement which seems to express the fundamental thesis of his study: “Most of the Members of Parliament,” he writes, “who came up to Westminster in 1640 . . . aspired, if anything, to put the clock back rather than innovate: to restore what they thought of—however mistakenly—as the traditional local ways of doing things as against royal centralizing innovation.” Thus it is Ashton’s basic contention that the Stuart kings were the perceived revolutionaries of the early seventeenth century, not the Puritans, parliamentarians, and common lawyers, and that by attempting innovations in church and state, the Stuart kings and their agents aimed at subverting the constitution and imposing absolutist, divine right monarchy upon the kingdom. It was to preserve their traditional local rights and the constitution of church and state that many of the king’s subjects were forced to take up arms and ultimately to bring down the monarchy.

Ever since the arrival of James I from Scotland in 1603, there had been mounting hostility and division between “Court” and “Country” in England. This unrest stemmed from several sources. One of the most significant was the sweeping assertion by King James of the authority of the monarchy: “the state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth . . . and kings sit on God’s throne.” Although James assured his new English subjects that he did not intend to be a tyrant, nevertheless as God’s vice-regent on earth, he would be sole master of the kingdom and a surrogate, but loving, father to his people. Moreover, King James inculcated his absolutist divine right theories into his son and successor, Charles I, so much so that Charles eventually paid with his own life for his firm adherence to those doctrines.

Adding to the growing dislike of the country gentry of England toward the Stuart kings was the emergence of a distinctive “court culture” which represented a divergence from traditional English ethos and aesthetics. Most historians have passed over the Stuart court culture rather lightly; Ashton places considerable emphasis upon the court culture as a source of division between the kings—particularly King Charles—and their subjects. King Charles, as is well known, was an outstanding connoisseur and patron of fine arts, as were several of his courtiers. On the face of it, that would have been unobjectionable except the King showed a proclivity for the work of foreign, especially Roman Catholic, artists. This was encouraged by Charles’s Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria, and that was what much alarmed the English Protestants of the country. Protestant suspicions were further aroused by similar foreign novelties in architecture and music as part of the court culture. To the Puritans and ordinary country gentlemen, the creations of the royal architect Inigo Jones were as offensive as polyphonic music, organs, and choirs in church services. All those, it seemed, were pointing the court culture in the direction of Rome; nor was that all. The masques, the banquets, the pageantry of the court, and the supposed sexual immorality that presumably flourished at the courts of James and Charles much offended the Puritans and the sober country gentry. In short, contemporaries tended to “identify the Country with the maintenance of traditional standards and the Court with cultural, political, religious and numerous other varieties of innovation.”

The growing dichotomy between court and country was also expressed in the matter of local administration, focusing particularly on the office of Lords Lieutenant. These were men whose function it had long been to represent the Crown in their districts, and their districts to the Crown. In line with their bent toward centralism, the Stuart kings attempted to enlarge the first function of the Lords Lieutenant—representation of the Crown in their districts. During the 1620’s, the Lords Lieutenant and their deputies were, as agents of the Crown, ordered to carry out such measures as the billeting of soldiers in private homes, demanding forced loans from the gentry, and even imposing martial law although England was nominally at peace. The unpopularity of those measures and of the Lords Lieutenant would find expression in the celebrated Petition of Right presented to King Charles in 1628 by the Parliament. Charles accepted the Petition, agreed to end those practices, and then dismissed the Parliament.

For the next eleven years, from 1629 to 1640, Charles would not summon a Parliament. The King resumed the centralizing efforts, including the resumption of some of the measures he had promised would be halted in the Petition of Right. Without the forum of a Parliament to air their grievances, the country was largely unheard during that time of royal “personal rule,” but they nursed their complaints and would act on them when the Parliament was called again.

There was also the intensifying religious quarrel between the Puritans and Archbishop William Laud, Primate of All England. Laud, a good and honest man, aimed only at restoring “church government as it hath...

(The entire section is 2111 words.)