James I
James I

James I
Elizabeth was followed to the throne by James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England. James believed in the absolute power of the monarchy, and he had a rocky relationship with an increasingly vociferous and demanding Parliament. It would be a mistake to think of Parliament as a democratic institution, or the voice of the common citizen. Parliament was a forum for the interests of the nobility and the merchant classes (not unlike today, some would say).

The Gunpowder Plot
James was a firm protestant, and in 1604 he expelled all Catholic priests from the island. This was one of the factors which led to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. A group of Catholic plotters planned to blow up Parliament when it opened on November 5. However, an anonymous letter betrayed the plot and one of the plotters, Guy Fawkes, was captured in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament with enough gunpowder to blow the place sky high. Most of the plotters were captured and executed. (See our in-depth examination of the Gunpowder Plot here).

The Rise of the Puritans
During James' reign radical Protestant groups called Puritans began to gain a sizeable following. Puritans wanted to "purify" the church by paring down church ritual, educating the clergy, and limiting the powers of bishops. King James resisted this last. The powers of the church and king were too closely linked. "No bishop, no king," he said. The Puritans also favoured thrift, education, and individual initiative, therefore they found great support among the new middle class of merchants, the powers in the Commons.

James' attitude toward Parliament was clear. He commented in 1614 that he was surprised his ancestors "should have permitted such an institution to come into existence .... It is sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in the height of his power".

The King James Bible
In 1611 the King James Version of the Holy Bible was issued, the result of seven years of labour by the best translators and theological minds of the day. It remained the authoritative, though not necessarily the most accurate, version of the Bible for centuries.

Charles I (1625-49) continued his father's acrimonious relationship with Parliament, squabbling over the right to levy taxes. Parliament responded with the Petition of Right in 1628. It was the most dramatic assertion of the traditional rights of the English people since the Magna Carta. Its basic premise was that no taxes of any kind could be allowed without the permission of Parliament.

Charles finally had enough, and in 1629 he dissolved Parliament and ruled without it for eleven years. Some of the ways he raised money during this period were of dubious legality by the standards of the time.

Between 1630-43 large numbers of people emigrated from England as Archbishop Laud tried to impose uniformity on the church. Up to 60,000 people left, 1/3 of them to the new American colonies. Several areas lost a large part of their populations, and laws were enacted to curb the outflow.

Ship Money
In 1634 Charles attempted to levy "ship-money", a tax that previously applied only to ports, on the whole country. This raised tremendous animosity throughout the realm. Finally, Charles, desperate for money, summoned the so-called Short Parliament in 1640. Parliament refused to vote Charles more money until its grievances were answered, and the king dismissed it after only three weeks. Then a rebellion broke out in Scotland and Charles was forced to call a new Parliament, dubbed the Long Parliament, which officially sat until 1660.

Civil War
Parliament made increasing demands, which the king refused to meet. Neither side was willing to budge. Finally in 1642 fighting broke out. The English Civil War (1642-1646) polarized society largely along class lines. Parliament drew most of its support from the middle classes, while the king was supported by the nobility, the clergy, and the peasantry. Parliamentary troops were known as Roundheads because of their severe hairstyle. The king's army were known as Cavaliers, from the French for "knight", or "horseman".

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell

The war began as a series of indecisive skirmishes notable for not much beyond the emergence of a Parliamentary general from East Anglia named Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell whipped his irregular volunteer troops into the disciplined New Model Army.

Meanwhile, Charles established the royalist headquarters in Oxford, called his own Parliament, and issued his own money. He also allied himself with Irish Catholics, which alienated some of his supporters.

To the poor, the turmoil over religion around the Civil War meant little. They were bound by tradition and they supported the king, as they always had. Charles encouraged poor relief, unemployment measures, price controls, and protection for small farmers. For most people, life during the Civil War went on as before. Few were involved or even knew about the fighting. In 1644 a farmer at Marston Moor was told to clear out because the armies of Parliament and the king were preparing to fight. "What?" he exclaimed, "Has them two fallen out, then?"

Marston Moor
The turning point of the war was probably that same Battle of Marston Moor (1644). Charles' troops under his nephew Prince Rupert were soundly beaten by Cromwell, giving Parliament control of the north of England. Above the border, Lord Montrose captured much of Scotland for Charles, but was beaten at Philiphaugh and Scot support was lost for good.

The Parliamentary cause became increasingly entangled with extreme radical Protestantism. In 1645 Archbishop Laud was executed, and in the same year, the Battle of Naseby spelled the end of the royalist hopes. Hostilities dragged on for another year, and the Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold (1646) was the last armed conflict of the war.

The death of a king
Charles rather foolishly stuck to his absolutist beliefs and refused every proposal made by Parliament and the army for reform. He preferred to try to play them against each other through intrigue and deception. He signed a secret treaty which got the Scots to rise in revolt, but that threat was snuffed out at Prestonpans (1648).

Finally, the radical core of Parliament had enough. They believed that only the execution of the king could prevent the kingdom from descending into anarchy. Charles was tried for treason in 1649, before a Parliament whose authority he refused to acknowledge. He was executed outside Inigo Jones' Banqueting Hall at Whitehall on January 30.

Oliver Cromwell

Stuart attractions to visit (historic places to see tagged with 'Stuart')
Stuart London" in our "London History" guide