The Road to Civil War

In this episode, we look at the roots of the English Civil War or the Wars of the Three Nations

Episode 14

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: the Road to Civll War. The English Civil occurred less than a century before John Wesley’s birth. The conflict and the response to the conflict shaped the world in which he lived and we cannot understand him or early Methodism without a cursory understand of this period. However, the Civil War did not take place in a vacuum. The direct causes of the war, as well, blend the religious and the political in unique ways. This episode is a little longer than usual with a lot more names, but I hope it will give you a sense of the complex landscape, even in a simplified form, of a land and a church on the brink of war.

John Wesley begins his account of the reign of Charles the First with the following words. “Few princes have ascended a throne with more apparent advantages than Charles and non ever encountered more difficulties.”

These words could also serve to describe England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales in the early 17th century. New agricultural techniques were leading to big harvests across the countryside. As well, the colony of Jamestown would seem to portend great things for the country.

Charles was not supposed to be king. He was the second son of James VI (before he had been made King of England) and Anne of Denmark. His older brother, Henry, went with his father to England in 1603, after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Charles was small (he had a childhood case of rickets) while his older brother was vigorous and brave. Yet Henry died of typhoid fever when he was 18 and Charles was left as heir to England and Scotland. Charles enjoyed books and golf (holding onto his Scottish roots) and kept a journal of his faith. He was not supposed to be king. Even when he had been made heir because of the death of Henry, King James I was not a very present father. James spent time with his friends (about whom we shall hear more soon) and he wrote text books for his son on how to be a king, but that was the depth of his affection.

For many years, there were plans for Charles to marry Maria Anna of Spain, the Daughter of the Hapsburg ruler, Philip IV. Because of the incompetence of the King’s “friend,” the Duke of Buckingham (a key theme of the early years of Charles’s reign), the engagement fell apart. The English looked to Spain’s norther border and were able to clinch an engagement with the youngest daughter of Henri IV of France.

Charles married Princess Henrietta on May Day, 1625, just outside Notre Dame in absentia with the Duke de Chevreuse, a distant cousin of Charles, standing in for him and allowing the Catholic wedding to take place. A month later, a second wedding took place, though by this time James had died and Charles was the new king.

The England and Scotland Charles now ruled was much changed since even the time of Elizabeth. Elizabeth had been a wonderful politician who kept few people close and so was able to balance out the expectations of the barons and nobles around the country. James I had favorites that shifted over the years. James would throw lavish weddings for people he barely knew. He also reportedly visited the beds of newly weds early in the morning the day after and lounge about in their room without visitors. James gave his favorites titles and lands and money, none more so than George Villiers, the son of a minor figure who caught the King’s attention, and was soon given clothes and money. Villiers was made an earl, a marquess, and finally the title of Duke of Buckingham. Debates have continued since the time of James I, as to the true nature of the king’s relationship to Buckingham.

The lavish lifestyle of Buckingham, as well as his Catholic in-laws, represented a new England with decidedly Spanish tendencies. Many people then as well as many historian’s today assume there was a sexual aspect of their relationship, as evidenced in some of the letters and reports of witnesses. This also played into the idea that England was changing and was being perverted by Spanish and Papist agents.

Despite his flaws (and Wesley saw many of them), James I had been a politician who had placated those frustrated with the status quo in England and in Scotland, especially Parliament.

Charles did not have his father’s gifts. After the death of James, the Duke of Buckingham remained influential at court. Charles was not close to Queen Henrietta during the early years of their marriage and the early years of his reign, but he was close to his father’s friend. Buckingham had been named Lord Admiral shortly before the death of James, and in that position, his rashness and incompetence led to a number naval and military catastrophes. All of these catastrophes cost money. A lot of it. The most recent disaster being an attempt by Buckingham to protect French Protestant Huguenots at La Rochelle, which was bungled and led to even icier relationships between England and France and Parliament and the King.

Wesley details the conflict between Buckingham and the Commons in his history. Buckingham was a lousy admiral and general and lost often, so the Commons did not support him, but Charles still did. Parliament refused to allow taxes from the king unless questions about Buckingham were addressed and the king refused to address them. Charles thought that King’s were above everyone and answered to no one but God. Parliament had the purse strings, but Charles found other ways to fund his military failures, principal of which was the forced loan controversy of 1626, which was a loophole Charles found to get funding from people. Like any good loophole, it was perfectly legal, and when parliamentary opponents tried to sue in the courts to have it struck down, Charles won the case.

In 1628, the Duke of Buckingham was murdered by a former soldier of his. This changed Charles dramatically. To start with, it led him back to his wife. The iciness of the first few years of their marriage now turned into a sincere love.

Wesley approves of Charles’s actions after Buckingham’s death, in bringing on Sir Thomas Wentworth (soon the earl of Straffard) and William Laud (soon Archbishop of Canterbury) as advisors. (3:123) Wesley calls Laud “rigid, severe, punctual, and industrious,” all positive qualities for Wesley, and yet Wesley also found Laud’s “desire to keep the (ceremony of the Church) imprudent and excessive.”

The death of Buckingham also led Charles to dismiss parliament and not call them back for a decade; a period known as personal rule. At this point in English history, there were no fixed times for parliamentary elections. Parliament came when called for by the king. Men were elected across the country, often by literally standing in a town square and asking for support. Parliament’s main role concerned taxes, but as Charles had already found with the forced loan incident, the king had powers to raise funds, one way was called his prerogative, which will become a major issue soon.

It is important to remember that during the personal rule of Charles, on continental Europe, the heart of the Thirty Years War was taking place, with many soldiers from England and Scotland fighting on both sides of the conflict. Sometimes, these are called the Wars of Religion, but there were Protestants on both sides and Catholics on both sides. Charles tried to keep England out of the conflict because he didn’t want to call a Parliament to levy taxes to support the army.

In 1633, Charles names William Laud Archbishop of Canterbury to replace the Puritan, George Abbot, who had been Archbishop since 1611. The very presence of Abbot was able to mollify Reformed voices in England. Laud had a much more liturgical view of the church and Arminian beliefs, which at that point, in England, was equated to Popery or Roman Catholicism. As well, Laud had a prickly personality that turned people off quickly. Laud’s work in the church would be the principle cause of the Bishop’s War between England and Scotland (which were still two separate kingdoms with the same monarch), but Laud was not entirely to blame.

Wesley traces the roots of the Bishops’ War back to 1633 when Charles attempted to receive the royal prerogative from Scotland that he had been receiving in England since he had disbanded parliament after the death of Buckingham. It was a controversial vote. Both sides claimed victory, but Charles settled the matter and made new enemies in Edinburgh.

In his history, Wesley also takes a moment to add the intrigue of Cardinal Richelieu, assuming that his hands were involved in stoking mischief. Conspiracy and invasion is constantly on the minds of people in England, and Catholicism served as a bogeyman for foreign influence and invasion.

In 1635, Laud starting advocating for altar rails in church’s. You know those kneelers and altars in older churches? This seems a minor thing today but it was seen as an extreme affront to many in England. Some even considering Laud a trojan horse by which Popery could enter England. A deep antagonism was fomenting against Laud as well as against Queen Henrietta Maria, whose personal Catholicism was very public. She had mass celebrated often and encouraged Catholic ambassadors to attend and participate. There was even a riot in London in 1638 after the Spanish ambassador processed on Holy Thursday.

Charles did not help things with his desire to make the religious practice of Scotland more in line with the Church of England. The Church of Scotland, or Kirk, had been established with King James along much more Reformed lines than the church in England. As well, Scotland was united by the Kirk in ways it would gave otherwise been divided. The lowlands spoke Anglo-Scots (think Robert Burns) while the Highlands spoke Gaelic like Ireland. Charles wanted to bring the Kirk in line with the English church and so he commissioned Laud to write a Scottish prayerbook. In October of 1636, the Scottish Privy council (basically the cabinet of the country) ordered the adoption of the new prayerbook. This did not go well.

After the Liturgy was read, there was a riot and the Earls rose up against the new prayerbook. Some of the changes Laud made have lasted and were instituted by Charles II in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer that Wesley read and used, including the ending to the Lord’s Prayer: Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. The Scots had a problem with the liturgy but especially with the role of Bishops. The Church of Scotland did not have Bishops and Charles wanted Bishops. New Bishops in the land would dilute the power of the earls and lords so folks from all classes were opposed to the prayer book. In 1638, a committee of nobles set up the Covenant, which promoted the confession of faith signed by Charles’s father in 1581 which supported the Church of Scotland and the Stuart Monarchy. The covenant was with God, not Charles. The Covenanters set up their own assembly and met in Glasgow in November of 1638 to oppose the prayer book.

This eventually led to the Bishops’ War between the Covenanters and King Charles. Though England was far larger, the Scots were much better trained and funded and had a general in Alexander Leslie, who had fought with King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden in the Thirty Years War, and understood some of Adolphus’s innovative tactics. Charles had to call parliament back to raise funds in April of 1640. However, a staunch puritan named John Pym and others in parliament refused to grant the power to tax unless Charles answered questions about one aspect of his prerogative called ship money, which was a fee on coastal dwelling peoples. After three weeks, Charles dismissed what became known as the Short Parliament. He was getting nowhere.

At the end of 1640, Charles called parliament again hoping that the radical elements would be absent this time. He was severely mistaken. Over 15,000 people signed the Root and Branch petition delivered to the king, which called for the abolition of bishops, among many other demands. It did not succeed but point to the power and bite of this new parliament. John Pym was now the most influential member and was goading Charles on. Sir Thomas Wentworth, now earl of Strafford, had returned from a post in Ireland and recommended to Charles that he should arrest Parliamentarian agitators. Charles hesitated and Pym ordered the arrest of Stafford, who was taken to the Tower of London. Parliament’s power at this time was so great that they passed what is called a Bill of Attainder, which allowed for the execution of Stafford without a trial, and Charles even signed it. After Strafford’s execution, Parliament began to fund Charles but they also started to make more demands and Charles continued to acquiesce, but with the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion in October of 1641, pressure rose significantly. If there was anything Parliament and the king could agree on, it was that they both hated the Irish. Each side knew something needed to be done and an army needed to be raised, but neither side trusted the other with said army. Parliament sympathizers worried Charles would crush them with his Irish army and vice versa.

While this was going on, anti-catholic and anti-episcopal mobs continued to grow in London, causing some Bishops to fear for their lives and thus not attend sessions of the House of Lords. Charles thought that this was his solution to the problem of Parliament. He thought he could invalidate the actions of the (not quite so) Long Parliament because all the members of the Lords were not seated. Twelve bishops signed Charles’s petition, but they were all soon arrested.

Finally, on January 3, 1642, Charles had articles of treason drawn up against Edward Montague, the Earl of Manchester, and Five Members of Parliament, including John Pym. At the time, Parliament met at Saint Stephen’s chapel. A cramped space not far from Whitehall palace. The Sergeant at arms took the articles to parliament with no response. The next day, Charles himself marched at the head of a group of soldiers and royalists into parliament with plans to arrest the accused men. The king walked in and asked the speaker for his chair. No king had ever the house of commons. The speaker stepped aside, unsure what to do. Then the king sat down and announced the people he wanted to arrest and asked that they come forward. Not a sound was made. He asked again. Still Silence. Then the speaker of the house, William Lenthall, said on his knees, "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here." The king replied, “All my birds have flown.” No one came forward. Pym and the others had been tipped off and were in hiding.

Dejected, the king left the Commons and left London. Parliament quickly passed a set of laws taking over rule of London. By entering Parliament, Charles had offended even his supporters. Parliament and Charles had back and forth negotiations for months. Finally, though, it became too much for Charles. As Wesley quotes him.

“Should I grant these demands, said he, in his reply, I might be waited on bare-handed; I might have my hand kissed, the title of majesty continued to me, and the king’s authority signified in both houses of parliament, might be still the style of your commands; I might have swords and maces carried before me, and please myself with the sight of a crown and sceptre (tho’ even these twigs would not long flourish, when the stock upon which they grew was dead); but as to true and real power, I should remain but the outside, but the picture, but the sign of a king.”

Commenting on these words, Wesley wrote: “War on any terms, therefore esteemed preferable to such an ignominious peace.

What was the manner of this war? How long did it last and how did it shape the nation? Next time on the History of Methodism Podcast.


Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War

Christopher Hibbert, Cavaliers and Roundheads

Charles Harding Firth, The Parallel Between the English and American Civil Wars, 1910.

Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Up, 1965).