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Long-term causes versus explanatory contexts of the English Civil War

By Tim Harris


Historians have been arguing over how far back to trace the origins of the civil war that broke out in England in 1642 ever since the war itself. Should we start with the accession of Charles I in 1625, and the controversial policies Charles pursued in Church and state: the promotion of Arminianism, rule without Parliament from 1629, the imposition of prerogative taxation, and the brutal suppression of critical dissent via the prerogative court of Star Chamber? Do we go back to the reign of James VI and I (1603 in England; 1567 in Scotland), or even earlier, to explore the fiscal weaknesses of the English crown and the religious divisions and tensions bequeathed by the Reformation? Or no further than 1641, since it was not until the second half of 1641 that the nation was to polarize into the two sides that were to fight the civil war?

Part of the disagreement stems from how we define a ‘cause’. Lawrence Stone, who began his account of the causes in 1529, nevertheless stressed the importance of medium-term precipitants and short-term triggers. Revisionists, who favour short-term explanations, tend to treat only the triggers as direct causes, holding that whatever underlying problems may have bedevilled the early Stuart polity it was not inevitable that it would collapse and that civil war remained avoidable until quite late in the day.

I find the logic of the Revisionists’ case compelling up to a point. Those who were opposed to Charles I’s style of kingship and to his religious policies wanted reform not revolution. They were not looking to re-model the system or to seize control of the machinery of government for themselves, by force if necessary. A peaceful settlement was still what everyone hoped for in 1641. Nothing is inevitable until it happens; different choices by key actors could have produced different outcomes. If pressed on what literally caused the civil war to break out, I would reply Charles I’s decision to raise his standard at Nottingham in August 1642. Yet this hardly gets us very far. It does not help us understand why Charles I made the choice he did, nor why, when the triggers came, the situation proved so volatile.

The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642 by Charles Landseer
This is my quibble with the quest for causes. Historians, I would suggest, are less interested in identifying causes (at least ‘causes’ so narrowly defined) as they are in understanding why things happened in the way that they did. Factors that don’t possess causal significance might nevertheless possess explanatory significance. The search for understanding and explanation forces us to address the long-term.

The need for longer-term explanations is immediately obvious when we include Scotland and Ireland in our account. Revisionist scholars who felt there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the English polity in the 1630s tended to stress the prior revolts in Scotland (1638-40) and Ireland (1641) as key in bringing about the eventual collapse of Charles’s regime in England. Yet both the Scots and the Irish saw their grievances as long-term. The Scottish Covenanters were unhappy about developments in the Kirk that had started with the revival of episcopacy and the intrusion of Anglican-style ceremonies under James VI and I, as they made explicit in their numerous declarations. For the Irish, a major grievance was the system of plantation that the English had been promoting in Ulster and elsewhere since the Flight of the Earls in 1607, as can be discerned from both the manifestoes and the actions of the Irish rebels in 1641.

We also have to explain why the English polity was so fragile that it collapsed so easily in the face of the prior revolts in Scotland and Ireland. England was much larger and wealthier than Scotland and should have been able to defeat the Scots in war. The fact that it could not is tied up with what was going wrong in England — both during Charles I’s personal rule of the 1630s and over the longer-term (since the English state’s fiscal and military weaknesses had deeper roots). Why had the English government become so unpopular by the late 1630s that many English people, traditionally rather Scotophobic, wanted the Scots to win? Why did some of the soldiers recruited to fight against the Scots instead mutiny and start pulling down altar rails in churches in England? With regard to Ireland, why did the Irish Rebellion of 1641 divide the English and not unite them against a foreign Catholic threat?

There are less direct ways in which longer-term contexts can be said to possess vital explanatory significance even if they have little causal significance. Take the rise of royalism, for example. Civil war could not have broken out in 1640 because Charles I did not yet have a party; it took a skilful propaganda campaign from late 1641 onwards to build up enough support for Charles to make civil war a possibility. But it is impossible to understand where royalism came from without appreciating that royalist propagandists sought to tap into and build upon a latent hostility towards Puritans that already existed in English society, the roots of which can be traced back to the late sixteenth century. Indeed, royalist authors deployed the same stereotype of the hypocritical, uncharitable, and subversive Puritan that we find portrayed on the late-Elizabethan and Jacobean stage and reflected in anti-Puritan libels from that time. The development of this stereotype is thus vital to our understanding of the emergence of royalism in 1641-2; yet no one would suggest that late-Elizabethan anti-Puritanism was in any way a cause of the English civil war. The political, religious and cultural contexts that need to be explored across three kingdoms to explain why things reached the crisis point they did in 1642, in other words, all require examination over the longer term.

Tim Harris is Munro-Goodwin-Wilkinson Professor in European History at Brown University. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books on British history in the early modern period, including most recently Rebellion: Britain’s First Stuart Kings, 1567-1642.

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Image credit: The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642 by Charles Landseer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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