Saturday, 13 January 2018

Plague, fire and war

By the mid-1660s Charles II's honeymoon period was over and the situation worsened when two natural disasters seriously weakened crown finances, and dented national self-confidence: bubonic plague and the Great Fire. These calamities were compounded by an avoidable disaster, the humiliation at the hands of the Dutch navy, which seriously undermined the prestige of the monarchy.

Collecting the dead for burial
Public domain

The plague of 1665

The effects of the plague, which seems to have arrived at Yarmouth in 1663 and reached its height in the summer and early autumn of 1665, can perhaps be exaggerated. The mortality was high (70,000 deaths) but plague was a common phenomenon and it probably had more effect on the poor than on the trading and governing classes (Pepys’s life was not disrupted). It is known as the Great Plague because it was the last major incident of bubonic plague to hit England.

A plague doctor, from a
contemporary Italian print

The Great Fire of London

The effects of the Fire (3-6 September) were more serious. Contemporaries estimated that it gutted most of the City and destroyed 13,200 houses, 89 churches and goods valued at £3.5 million. The overall damage is estimated to have been £10 million. London’s commerce was brought to a standstill for six months. Pepys gives the classic account.

A painting of the fire, probably from the
seventeenth century.
Public domain

The Second Dutch War

Throughout the early 1660s relations with the United Provinces (the Dutch Republic) steadily declined. The fundamental causes of the war that England were economic, but the war also sprang from Cavalier Anglican dislike of the Calvinist republic. While Charles II admired France, he snobbishly viewed the Dutch as a society of low-born merchants. He also wanted to promote the interests of the future Stadtholder, his nephew William, Prince of Orange, against the States-General.

Monday, 8 January 2018

The reign of Charles II: the Clarendon period


Until 1667 the king’s chief minister was his Lord Chancellor, Edward Hyde, created earl of Clarendon in 1661. In the reign of Charles I he had been seen as the face of constitutional royalism - a believer in a balanced constitution rather than an absolute monarchy. From the mid 1640s he became the future Charles II’s guardian - a position Charles came increasingly to resent. He saw his former tutor as stuffy and self-righteous and resented his attempts to influence his policies. 

Edward Hyde, 1st earl of Clarendon
Public domain

The Braganza marriage

In 1661 Clarendon secured the marriage of Charles II to Catherine of Braganza, the daughter of King João IV of Portugal. He regarded this as a great diplomatic coup. Since 1640 Portugal had been engaged in a struggle with the crumbling Spanish Empire for her independence. She was also a major colonial power. Catherine's dowry was Tangier (which would give England a Mediterranean base), Bombay (which would secure the trade of the Indies) and 2 million cruzados (c.£300,000). This marriage was encouraged by France, which offered £50,000.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

The Restoration

Charles II, Coronation portrait
by John Michael Wright, c. 1661.
Public domain

‘The Restoration of Charles II was both an event and a process. The King’s peaceful accession ... put an end to twenty years of internecine war. What were left were the intractable problems that had created the conflict and the bitter legacy it had engendered (Mark Kishlansky, A Monarchy Transformed. Britain 1630-1714, 1996, p. 216).
Restoration England was a society that desperately wanted to be able to forget its past, but which forever remained haunted by it. (Tim Harris, Restoration. Charles II and his Kingdoms, 2005, p. 46). 

The story is a great deal more complicated than a simple narrative of the merry monarch presiding over the reopening of the theatres.

A decisive shift? 

The Restoration was an attempt to put the clock back. Charles II’s rule was dated from 1649 rather than 1660.  An Act of August 1660 ordained that 29 May be kept as a perpetual anniversary of thanksgiving for his escape. Partly out of a feeling for  constitutional propriety, the Convention Parliament that had summoned the king to England did not impose any conditions on him. 

However, the clock was turned back to 1641 not 1640. The constitutional reforms of 1641 – the destruction of the prerogative courts, the abolition of the Crown’s feudal revenue, and prerogative taxes such as Ship Money – all stayed in place. But the issue of the militia, which had led directly to the Civil War, was settled in the king's favour. He retained ‘sole right of command’ over the militia, though day-to-day control was delegated to the lords lieutenant.

In some respects, the monarchy was strengthened as a result of the Interregnum. The shock and horror of Charles I’s execution drove some towards support for a strong authoritarian monarchy and religious intolerance. This was part of a Europe-wide trend. Others were less willing to abandon religious and parliamentary liberties. The Restoration was full of ambiguities, and the great constitutional and religious issues of the Civil War remained unsettled. 

The character of Charles II
Charles sailed to England on the Naseby (hastily rechristianed The Royal Charles!) and landed at Dover - the town celebrated all night. On Tuesday 29 May he entered London. What type of man was he?

Restoration House, Rochester, where Charles
spent his first night in England.
The model for Satis House in
Great Expectations

He had had a very chequered life. In 1644, at the age of fourteen, he had been appointed commander of the king’s western forces in the civil war and subsequently fled abroad. In February 1649 he had been proclaimed King of Scots and crowned in the following year. After his defeat at Worcester in 1651 he had set up his own court in exile, taking refuge in France, Germany, and Holland.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

The Protectorate (2)

A 1658 issue Cromwell half-crown, with the Latin inscription
 translated as "Oliver, by the Grace of God
of the Republic of England, Scotland and Ireland etc. Protector".
Public domain

Penruddock’s Rising

In January 1655 Cromwell dissolved his first Parliament. So far he was proving no more successful than Charles I in managing his parliaments. The situation became still more tense in March-April 1655 when the Protectorate faced the first serious royalist conspiracy to confront the regime since the Second Civil War. 

The rising led by Colonel John Penruddock was a royalist revolt in the west of England. Cromwell was to be assassinated (though the plans for this were intercepted by his secretary John Thurloe,  the highly efficient head of the security operation. The general rising planned for March failed to come off, but Penruddock captured Salisbury and proclaimed Charles II. The rebellion was suppressed by Major-General John Desborough in command of the militia. The rebels were convicted of treason. About fourteen, including Penruddock, were executed and about seventy sent to Barbados. The rebellion had been put down quite easily but it revealed a worrying apathy among the population. There was no popular support either for the royalists or for the Protectorate.  

Foreign policy: the 'Western Design'

The regime's successful war against the Dutch left Cromwell over-confident, leading him to make the biggest military mistake of his career. 

Although the Thirty Years' War had ended in 1648, the war between the two European superpowers, France and Spain, was continuing. England could have stayed out of this war but, in a mood of bellicose providentialism, Cromwell and the majority of his Council took the decision to relive the glories of the Elizabethan age by attacking the Spanish Empire in what came to be known as the 'Western Design'. 

In December 1654 a fleet of thirty ships left England for the Caribbean under the command of Admiral William Penn carrying an army of about 3,000. In March the expeditionary force left Barbados to attack the valuable colony of Hispaniola and landed on the island on 14 April. The attack was a predictable disaster as the English were repulsed at San Domingo. On 4 May Penn re-embarked what was left of his men and transported them to the undefended island of Jamaica, which surrendered on 17 May. The 1500 Spanish settlers were forced to leave. 

When the news of the defeat at Hispaniola reached Cromwell in July he experienced a deep crisis of self-doubt. He shut himself in his room for the whole day and inaugurated a series of exercises in national humiliation and self-scrutiny that went on until September 1656.  At the time the failure to take Hispaniola overshadowed the occupation of Jamaica, though this was to have huge long-term implications for British history. (Spain finally surrendered Jamaica by the Treaty of Madrid, 1670.)  

In October 1655 England formed a defensive alliance with France and declared war with Spain. This forced Charles Stuart to take refuge in Bruges.

England was punching above her weight and grave mistakes were made in the war, but Blake continued to organize the navy, and pirates and royalists were swept from the seas. England’s diplomatic standing had never been higher.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Protectorate (1)

The statue of Cromwell, erected in 1899,
 the three-hundredth
anniversary of his birth. 

Note that he is
outside the Houses of Parliament, not inside!

The key theme of the 1650s is the unsuccessful search for a lasting political settlement to replace the government of the king. The failure of this search made the restoration of the monarchy inevitable. However, if Cromwell had lived longer, or been succeeded by a son of equal ability, the story might have been different!

Barebone's Parliament

Although the dissolution of the Rump looked like a military coup, Cromwell’s primary aim was to get governing authority back into safe, and preferably reforming, civilian hands. This shows the cautious conservative side of his baffling character. Some historians have seen the dissolution of the Rump as a transitional moment for him: the shift from holy warrior to cautious pragmatist and conciliator - though one could argue that the holy warrior was always there beneath the surface..

For the Fifth Monarchists these were ‘Overturning days'. Many 'godly' congregations saw the expulsion of the Rump as the moment when God’s people might leave the wilderness behind and achieve the Promised Land – and they wrote to Cromwell to tell him so. Thomas Harrison wanted to see an assembly of seventy godly men, based on the Sanhedrin, to fit the land for the imminent coming of Christ. Cromwell had some sympathy with this view, but he repeatedly declared his belief that the kingdom of Christ would be realized spiritually in the hearts of men, not physically on earth; the way to it was through liberty of conscience and the elimination of evils. 

The compromise solution was to summon a surrogate (and temporary) British assembly of 138 men ‘of approved fidelity and honesty’ (121 from England, six from Wales, five from Scotland, six from Ireland) with supreme authority to make a constitution. This parliament, which met in July 1653, is officially known as the Nominated Parliament because it was not elected but nominated by Cromwell and the Council of Officers collectively. However, it was derisively known as ‘Barebone’s Parliament’ after one of its members, the Baptist leather-seller, Praise-God Barbon, a warden of the Leathersellers’ Company and lay preacher to a congregation of his own. 

Praise-God Barbon
Public domain

Far from being the mad assembly of religious fanatics of royalist propaganda, this was in the main a thoughtful body with radical ideas for reforming society. It spent most of its brief life discussing much-needed reforms, and in the space of five months it passed over thirty acts and had other major ones in preparation. In order to fill the vacuum created by the abolition of church courts, it established machinery for the probate of wills, and for registering births, marriages and deaths. Civil marriages solemnised by JPs were legalised (though were probably not popular). Measures were taken to abolish the excise. Acts were passed for the relief of creditors and poor prisoners, and to regulate the conditions under which lunatics were held. Discussions were held on how to replace tithes by salaries. 

Saturday, 4 November 2017

The British Republic: the Commonwealth

Oliver Cromwell
Public domain

The Commonwealth proclaimed

The putting to death of an anointed king was a shocking event, and no-one, either in Britain or Europe knew what was to happen next.  The king had been executed by the orders of a minority of parliamentarians, probably against the wishes of the great majority of the people. To its enemies the new republic was a betrayal and a military tyranny. To its supporters such as the poet John Milton, it was a commonwealth whose achievements which would rival those of Greece and Rome. To others it was the beginning of true godly reformation. 

On 6 February the Commons abolished the House of Lords. In March two acts of Parliament gave statutory force to the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords. In May an Act of Parliament declared England a Republic or Commonwealth 
‘governed by the representatives of the people in parliament … without any king or House of Lords’. 
This was untrodden ground and the propaganda war began early. Ten days after Charles’s execution, the royalist Eikon Basilike was published illegally and went into thirty editions within the year. On 13 February John Milton published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates. In it he argued that kings derived their power from the people and that men were born free. In October he responded to Eikon Basilike with Eikonoklastes, which helped ruin his failing eyesight.

Title page of Milton's Eikonoclastes

The Council of State

From 7 February the government was in the hands of a Council of State, an executive body of forty-one members chosen by Parliament and set up to run the new Republic. On 10 March John Bradshaw was nominated president of the Council, a position he held until November 1651, when his office went into rotation. The Council was under the overall control of Parliament - the ‘Rump Parliament’ left over from the Civil War and Pride’s Purge (December 1648).  It consisted of two hundred MPs, many of whom were readmitted after their expulsion in December 1648.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

The Second Civil War and the execution of the king

The return of the king 

The Putney debates continued during the following days but made little progress. On 11 November Charles escaped from Hampton Court
The gateway of
Carisbrooke Castle
and fled to Carisbrooke castle on the Isle of Wight.  Two days after his arrival he re-opened negotiations with Parliament on the basis of a three-year trial period for Presbyterianism.

In the face of a renewed threat by the king, the army closed ranks. Discussions of religious and constitutional issues were suspended, and on 15 November a Leveller-inspired mutiny in two
regiments near Ware was easily crushed. 

On 26 December Charles concluded a secret ‘Engagement’ promising to establish Scottish Presbyterianism in England for three years; in return the Scots recognized the king’s right to control the militia, veto legislation, appoint officers of state and promised to invade England and restore him to the throne. These were far better terms than those offered by parliament.  Inevitably it meant war. 

The Second Civil War

News of the agreement soon leaked out. On 3 January 1648 parliamentary radicals pushed through a vote (majority 50) that they would no longer negotiate with the king.  During the debates Cromwell ominously warned the Commons not to break its trust to ‘the honest party of the kingdom’ or else ‘the godly’, especially in the army ‘might take such courses as nature dictates to them’.  The meaning of these words would become clearer later in the year.  

At first the king benefited from a Royalist backlash. In April, May, and June 1648 this desire for a return to traditional forms of government exploded into rebellion in south Wales, Essex, and Kent, a series of uncoordinated risings that hardly deserves to be called a war.