In late April 1646 Charles I, a monarch very jealous of his dignity and personal authority, slipped out of Oxford disguised as a servant. A week later, after some apparently hesitant wanderings in the company of his chaplain and one personal friend, he surrendered to a Scottish army camped at Southwell, Nottinghamshire. Eight years earlier he had set out to crush religious protests in Scotland, never quite able to see the protesters as anything but rebels. But their campaign had set off a political and religious crisis that reverberated through all three of Charles’s kingdoms – Scotland, Ireland and then England. Charles had been unable to establish military control in any of them and, following defeat in England, surrender to his original tormentors had come to seem his best option.


Charles I leaving Oxford in disguise, April 1646

This personal humiliation signalled the end of one of the most destructive conflicts in English history, in which a larger percentage of the population may have died than in the First World War, and huge amounts of property had been destroyed. Armies had tramped the land, bringing in their wake terrible plagues. The coming harvest was bad, the crops ruined by wet weather, and over the next four years famine threatened. To many contemporaries these were unmistakable judgements of God on a sinful land: war, disease and famine, three of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. After four years of war in England, however, there was still no agreement about which sins, specifically, were being punished.

Three days after the surrender of the King a London bookseller called George Thomason bought a tract, Gods Fury, Englands Fire, which promised the answer. Thomason, an avid (perhaps obsessive) collector of pamphlets, had acquired around thirty tracts published during or dealing with the events of that week. They were dominated by two issues: the surrender of the King and the chaos of religious opinion that many now saw in England. With the King defeated, God’s judgement on the battle of arms now clear, it did not take much imagination to identify religion as the issue which should now be addressed. John Benbrigge, the author of Gods Fury, took as his text Isaiah xlii, 24-5:

Who gave Jacob for a spoil and Israel to the robbers? Did not the Lord? He against whom we have sinned? For they would not walk in his ways, neither were they obedient to his Law. Therefore he hath poured on him the fury of his anger, and the strength of battle, and it hath set him on fire round about; yet he knew not; and it burned him, and he laid it not to heart.

The general relevance was clear, but what was it that English sinners should lay to heart? Benbrigge promised to identify ‘those spiritual incendiaries which have set church and state on fire’ and exhorted ‘all persons to join together in seeking to quench it’. He also promised to explain how to ‘prevent the fire from being unquenchable in our ruin’. Like many others he set out his partisan view in a laboured and formalistic argument, based on scriptural authorities. His difficulty though was that reasoning of this kind, and scriptural authority, could not convince doubters. In the lush world of civil war print there were too many competing voices of reason, and divergent readings of scripture, to clinch an argument this way. Other partisans could make a competing case in the same style, from similar authorities, while some renounced scholarship and scripture altogether for these purposes. Benbrigge had nothing to say on this deeper problem, and is now forgotten.1

Thomason eventually bought around 20,000 tracts between 1640 and 1660, a collection which reveals another dimension of the crisis: the very wide publicity given to these fundamental political disagreements. From the very beginning of the Scottish crisis partisans had distributed tracts, mobilized petitions, organized demonstrations and, eventually, raised armies. Benbrigge was by no means the most obscure figure to be given a public voice as a result – leathersellers preached, women spoke of their visions to senior army commanders, men of pre-eminent obscurity purged churches of scandalous ministers and offensive images. Here was a challenge to the cultural authority not just of scripture and reason, but also of kings, bishops and gentlemen, of courts and institutions of government, of learning and universities. Contemporaries had no shortage of languages in which to describe the resulting chaos or to express anxiety: Thomason’s collection is full of discussions of portents and wonders, and of the principles which, if agreed, might bring an end to fighting. But there were no such terms. As long as people like Benbrigge offered different versions of the nature of the problem, to a wide public and without finding new grounds on which to convince people, there remained a chaos of highly principled and competing certainties.

In one sense this was a crisis in Reformation politics – over the nature of the true religion, how to decide what that was, and of the proper relationship between religious and secular authority. In Scotland a religious party, the Covenanters, took control of the discontents, mobilizing pretty much the whole kingdom around a manifesto for a new settlement. They created a radical movement but one that had clear goals and, therefore, clear limits. The combination of a unified Scottish church and a revolutionary constitution gave control to identifiable political leaders: it was a revolution defined in theory and practice by Reformation politics. In Ireland, Catholic elites excluded from power on the basis of their religion took advantage of the crisis, seeking to recover their position by appealing to their king, in opposition to his English parliament and the Protestant political establishment. In the process they unleashed a popular revolt against Protestant settlement. Armies from Scotland and England were sent to defend the Protestant interest and Ireland eventually suffered the greatest devastation: a bloody, sectional conflict whose memory and relevance live on.

England’s experience of this crisis was more hesitant, anxious and divided than Scotland’s; but also more radical in its outcomes. And unlike Ireland the conflict was for most people an argument within a single church and state, about its true identity, past and future; it never quite became a war between rival confessions. Almost everyone was against popery (although they could not necessarily agree what it was) and the bitterest public recriminations about religious belief were often within the parliamentary coalition. England, the metropolitan kingdom, was the cockpit of the British crisis, its armies and battles the largest, its presses by far the most active, its public discussion completely open-ended and almost without social restriction.

This conflict over religion had profound political implications: Sir John Eliot, for example, thought ‘religion it is that keeps the subject in obedience… [it is] the common obligation among men; the tie of all friendship and society; the bond of all office and relation; writing every duty into the conscience, the strictest of all laws’.2 Confronted by the demands of the Covenanters, Charles had said that to concede would reduce him to the condition of the ‘Duke of Venice’: refusing to concede, it subsequently turned out, had reduced him much further. Criticisms of his rule implicitly raised fundamental questions not only about him, but about kingship, the normal form of government in seventeenth-century Europe (aside from city republics such as Venice that made do with a Doge). Over the coming decade the effort to make Charles see a different sense failed, and it became increasingly difficult to avoid asking what to do with a king who was unfit to rule, or to deal with. Fundamentally, that was a question about monarchy: a king governed by his subjects, or chosen by them, was a peculiar kind of king, perhaps no king at all; but a king who stubbornly led his people into religious error and civil war could hardly be said to be doing God’s work, which was surely the purpose of kings.

Three years after his surrender to the Scots, Charles chose martyrdom to an ideal of the Anglican church and sacred monarchy rather than a deal with his English subjects. A powerful minority among his subjects, supported by the army, chose to execute him and establish a kingless government, rather than try any longer to get a deal from him. Fired both by a Reformation certainty (that God had called them to take charge of the commonwealth) and by an idea more associated with the Enlightenment (that the purpose of government was the good of the people, and should be answerable to their representative), these militants put their king on trial, then abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords. Like many modern revolutionaries they made this a year zero: according to their supporters this was the first year of England’s freedom.

Out of a chaos of opinion and anxiety, and of the catastrophe and trauma of civil war, had come ideas about freedom and citizenship, religious toleration and the exclusion of secular power from matters of conscience. These arguments had deeper roots in the English past but were newly public, and newly in power. These English discussions about the origins and limits of political power were of profound significance for Enlightenment Europe – indeed, to the more celebrated revolutions in eighteenth-century America and France. But they were not, as far as we know, representative of average opinions: others sought resolutions to the crisis in astrology, the prosecution of witches, or the restoration of older forms of religious and political authority. Neither did this minority remain united, or command political power for very long – in 1660 a monarch was restored who indulged freely in the practice of touching for the King’s Evil, curing a tubercular disease by virtue of his divinely sanctioned power. In that sense the revolution was of limited significance, and civil peace might have been established on other terms sooner than 1660.

It is conventional to tell that constitutional story – of a republican failure ending in restoration – but to do so is to limit the significance of the 1640s to that single constitutional question. There is much more to say, and to remember, about England’s decade of civil war and revolution. Political and religious questions of fundamental importance were thrashed out before broad political audiences as activists and opportunists sought to mobilize support for their proposals. The resulting mass of contemporary argument is alluring to the historian since it lays bare the presumptions of a society very alien to our own. At the same time, by exposing those presumptions to sustained critical examination, this public discussion changed them. This was a decade of intense debate and spectacular intellectual creativity – not just in politics and religion, but in understandings of the natural world and in how political opinion was mobilized. The implications of this English experience reverberated around the world of the Enlightenment and English politics were permanently changed by the experience of popular mobilization: much more was at stake than the fate of Charles I and hence the restoration of his son did not settle the arguments, or erase the memory of what had been said.

England’s civil wars were components of a larger crisis, of all three Stuart kingdoms. Nonetheless, although English experience cannot be understood outside that British context, this is a book about the distinctive English experience of that shared crisis. England was the last of Charles’s kingdoms to rebel, and the one with the most spontaneous royalist party, but also the one with the most radical and creative politics. Part of the resolution of that apparent paradox is to study the conditions which made this extraordinary creativity possible. Crucial among them was the appeal to ordinary people, often those without a vote, to support particular platforms, and the creative dialogue between activists, opportunists and their wider publics. In this fluid and confused political world public support was courted, opinions were mobilized and, in the name of the people, a revolution was carried out. My aim here is to understand that political process in England, to capture the anxiety and trauma of civil war, the plurality of responses and the creative confusion to which it gave rise. To say that God’s fury had caused England’s fire was in these circumstances to start an argument rather than end one. Therein lay the crisis of Reformation politics.

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