Self-Government at the King's Command

Politics and Society in Caroline England

On the face of it Charles’s English subjects were more reconciled to his rule when the Prayer Book rebellion broke out than they had been a decade earlier. In the late 1620s a number of interrelated grievances had reached a public climax, in parliaments, alehouses and presses. The main target of this discontent was the King’s favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.

On 23 August 1628 the duke was in Portsmouth preparing an expedition to aid the French Protestants in La Rochelle, then besieged by Catholic forces. Between nine and ten o’clock in the morning, having taken breakfast with ‘men of quality and action’, he left the chamber where he had eaten, intending to take his carriage to see the King. In a small passageway outside the chamber, however, he was stabbed by John Felton. The blow was so quick that those around the duke did not see it. Villiers himself said only one word, ‘villain’, before plucking the knife from his wound. In fact, those around him thought that it was a fit of ‘apoplexy’, until, that is, they saw the blood gushing from the duke’s mouth. Felton was probably motivated by bitter experience of service under the duke, whose influence over the King and conduct of the military campaigns were widely resented. The parliament of 1626 had prepared charges against Buckingham, intending to impeach him as responsible for a number of perceived acts of misgovernment. However, in killing Buckingham, Felton effectively sacrificed his own life ‘for the honour of God, his King and country’.1

Felton had obviously expected to die in the act of committing the murder, and for that reason had sewn a note explaining his actions into his hat. The note has not survived, but the various accounts of what it said agree on the main points. The fullest reads:

That man is cowardly base and deserves not the name of a gentleman or soldier that is not willing to sacrifice his life for the honour of his God, his king and his country. Let no man commend me for doing it, but rather discommend themselves as the cause of it, for if God had not taken away our hearts for our sins he would not have gone so long unpunished.2

Felton’s claim, then, was that this assassination – of the King’s favourite in the midst of military preparations – was a godly and patriotic act, and one intended for the service of the King.

Felton could have escaped following the murder, since in the surprise no-one tried to stop him. Indeed no-one seems to have known who had struck the blow, and while people rushed to help the duke and to secure the gates and the ramparts of the town, Felton was able to walk to the nearby kitchen unmolested. As a group of soldiers went through the house calling out for the ‘villain’ and ‘butcher’, Felton, drawing his sword, stepped out ‘amongst them, saying boldly, “I am the man, here I am” ’. It was only hasty action by some of those present that prevented him being killed there and then.3

Following his capture Felton explained that he was owed £80 for previous military service and had been passed over for command of his company, but he also claimed to be acting for the Protestant religion. Significantly, too, he said that while ‘reading the Remonstrance of the House of Parliament it came into his mind, that in committing the act of killing the Duke he should do his country good service’.4 In all then, Felton’s was a premeditated, political act, in the commission of which he claimed some legitimacy, even perhaps a degree of parliamentary sanction. According to one eyewitness he said, ‘God have mercy on thy soul’ as he struck the fatal blow.5 It turned out that there were many others who thought that Felton had done a public service, but in committing the murder Felton had also accepted his own death, apparently preparing for it and eschewing the chance to escape. Several months later, having been found guilty of the murder, he was hanged at Tyburn and his body was taken to Portsmouth, where it was hung up in chains ‘in manner as is usual upon notorious murders’.6

While in prison awaiting trial Felton became something of a celebrity and was frequently visited by people anxious to ‘see the man who had committed so bold a murder’ and others wishing ‘to understand what were the motives and inducements thereunto’. His captors in fact were a little concerned that he was becoming ‘puffed up with the vain applause of the multitude’. Felton admitted that he had committed the murder and that he was wrong to have done it, but he told his visitors that ‘he had long looked upon the Duke as an evil Instrument in the Commonwealth and that he was convinced there for by the Remonstrance of Parliament’. Such considerations, ‘together with the instigation of the Evil One’, had led him to his action. Under examination before the council he expanded on some of these comments, saying that he had killed the duke, ‘partly for private displeasure, and partly by reason of a Remonstrance in Parliament, having also read some books which he said defended that it was lawful to kill an enemy to the republic’.7

The Privy Council was anxious to discover who had incited him to commit the murder, suspecting the ‘Puritans’, but Felton insisted that he had acted alone and had not told anyone of his intentions. In the face of this insistence William Laud, then Bishop of London and emerging as an influential anti-Puritan, threatened him with the rack. But Felton was clearly made of stern stuff, and even though he was a ‘person of little stature’ he had ‘a stout and revengeful spirit’.8 In these tense moments he demonstrated considerable sang froid, replying that if he were put to the rack:

he could not tell whom he might nominate in the extremity of torture, and if what he should say then must go for truth, he could not tell whether his Lordship (meaning the Bishop of London) or which of their Lordships he might name, for torture might draw unexpected things from him.

After this there were no more questions for the prisoner.9

Legal proprieties were observed throughout. Charles wanted to put Felton on the rack but respected the judges” unanimous opinion that it would not be lawful.10 At his trial, on 27 November, Felton offered ‘that hand to be cut off that did the fact’, but even though the offer was made by him the court found that it could not inflict this further punishment. Once again this decision was made despite the evident wishes of the King, who had ‘sent to the judges to intimate his desire that his hand be cut off before execution’.11

On the scaffold Felton would have been expected to make a good end. Felons often made, or were said to have done, ‘last dying speeches’ which affirmed the validity of social and political order and the rightness of their own execution. The drama on the scaffold was a crucial demonstration of the power of the state, and its claims to legitimacy.12 Felton seems to have done his part. A pamphlet recounted his ‘prayer and confession’ on the scaffold, ‘word for word’. According to this account he asked several times for the forgiveness of God, acknowledging the punishments that he deserved and admitting that he had been driven by the Devil. He also sought the pardon of the Duchess of Buckingham and her household, including ‘the veriest scullion of her kitchen’. Better still, from an official point of view, he told his auditors: ‘That which drew me to this horrid sinful fact, was some foul reports, which though they had been true it was damnable in me, in committing so foul a sin’. He wished the King long life and hoped that ‘the parliament may agree, and be united in one’. He went further, expressing gratitude for official mercy: ‘I did not think but that I should come to a crueller death, as I have deserved’. On this account, then, Felton was a model of contrition on the scaffold: ‘I beseech you, none of you think that the fact was done well, it was abhorrent, I have so much dishonoured God in it, Lord forgive me this bloody sin, and all my other sins’.13 This printed version accords with other, briefer, descriptions which noted the depth of his repentance and the dignity of his death.14 The power of the regime, it seems, was unequivocally affirmed and the drama of the scaffold vindicated.

It was a feature of these dramas, however, that they were not closely controlled: the leading players were the condemned felon and the crowd, and there were occasions when they departed from the script. The execution scene was a moment of negotiation, where claims to legitimacy were not simply asserted, but also tested.15 Although in this case the condemned man seems to have played his part, there are hints that the audience might have been less willing. Felton was quite aware of the possibility that his audience might think his action justified, or even laudable, and he twice asked that the executioner should not be held to account for his death.16

There is other evidence of public sympathy for Felton and approval of the murder. Drinkers in Dover were in trouble for drinking a health to Felton only a week after the assassination, and as he passed through Kingston on his way to London from Portsmouth an old lady shouted out, ‘God bless thee, little David’. As he arrived at the Tower by water crowds gathered to see him. When he asked that they pray for him they, ‘with a general voice cried “Lord comfort thee”, “The Lord be merciful unto thee”, or such like words’.17 His trial was brought forward and expedited18 and the execution may not have been a very public spectacle: one correspondent reporting the scene was not sure on which day it had been enacted, having heard different days from different sources.19Charles’s advisers could not have been sure it would be a good death.

After the execution Felton continued to elicit sympathy and even approbation. At Trinity College, Oxford, in 1628, Alexander Gil, later to be schoolmaster to John Milton, got into trouble for proposing a toast to Felton’s health ‘saying that he was a sorry fellow and had deprived him of the honour of doing that brave action’. Many of his hearers, apparently, approved the sentiment. This, and other outrages such as suggesting that Charles would make a better shopkeeper than king, earned him a summons to appear before Laud. Under examination he claimed that such toasts were common in London and elsewhere.20 Numerous poems survive which applaud or excuse Felton along with many others abusing Buckingham, whose funeral was marked by public contempt for the dead duke.21 In 1629, during a quarrel in Middlesex, a man threatened to ‘Felton’ his adversary, and as late as 1645 a London woman was reported to have asked, ‘Is there a Felton yet living?’ ‘Her target seems to have been the “stuttering fool”, Charles I’.22

Felton had touched a deep vein of hostility to Buckingham and the policies associated with his influence over the King. Against the assassin was ranged a Privy Council convinced that this reflected a deeper subversive movement, associated with Puritanism, which was self-evidently both populist and lawless. Felton himself respected the course of the law, and Christian strictures against murder, and regretted that they had not restrained him earlier. Many of those who might have wished Buckingham dead were presumably less willing to see that happy day arrive by these means. That both Felton and Charles I were denied permission to get the fatal hand severed revealed in extreme circumstances a fundamental respect for the rule of law which was second nature to Stuart Englishmen, and which was deeply offended by lawless violence. But these were obviously very troubled times: on one hand there was a strong sense that there was a populist Puritan conspiracy whose agents claimed some excuse in the attitude of Parliament; on the other there was a regime that, even on the eve of an expedition to help besieged Protestants, tested the conscience of the godly and patriotic soldier, anxious to do good service to the King and to the ‘commonwealth’ or ‘republic’. This debate was not restricted to the councils of the powerful: it was carried out before a public audience, on the scaffold, in print and through the networks of gossip and rumour that bound English political society together.

This assassination occurred close to the climax of a crisis of parliaments. During the 1620s James and Charles had faced pressure to join the defence of Protestantism in the Thirty Years War, particularly in pursuit of an actively anti-Spanish foreign policy. They had not been able to get the money from parliaments to pay for it, though. The crown blamed this on the reluctance of parliaments to pay on a realistic scale; in fact, it seems, the reluctance arose at least as much from a sense that the crown was fighting the wrong wars, in the wrong way. At the same time Charles in particular was castigated for extending patronage and favour to Arminians. The difficulties of raising money and men for war had also intersected with divisions over foreign policy. Political difficulties over money and troops led to policies which raised constitutional concerns, while the direction of foreign policy alarmed the hotter sort of Protestant, a reaction compounded by the promotion of anti-Calvinists. It was not only the paranoid who could see here an intertwining threat to religion and liberty.23

War with Spain came in 1625, but its fruit was a disastrous expedition to Cadiz, where, among other problems, some soldiers found that their muskets did not have fire holes and that many of the bullets were the wrong size. Parliament met the following February but failed to produce more money for war, preferring instead to impeach the Duke of Buckingham. Exasperated, Charles sought to raise money without Parliament by means of a forced loan. Direct pressure was applied to individuals, and those who refused to pay risked having troops billeted on them, or imprisonment. Five prominent resisters were imprisoned at the King’s pleasure. When they sued for the protection of habeas corpus (the fundamental right of the accused to have cause for their arrest shown), the King successfully sought to persuade Attorney Heath that he had the right to imprison in these circumstances without showing cause. It is likely that these men, the ‘Five Knights’, had intended to secure a day in court in order to test the legality of the loan; instead their cause had become a test case of the King’s right to arbitrary imprisonment. It was later said that Charles had caused the records of this opinion to be falsified, in order to make it a matter of record that he had the right to imprison without showing cause: the judges claimed that they had merely adjourned the matter for a later hearing. This use of the prerogative powers of the crown, and possibly felonious falsification of judicial records, raised questions not just about foreign policy and military affairs, but about the balance of the constitution. It caused a sensation in the parliament of 1628.24 If Felton threatened a lawless politics so too, in a way, did arbitrary royal power.

In the meantime England had gone to war with France as well and in 1627 an expedition was launched to La Rochelle and the Île de Ré. Once again it was a military disaster, which came nowhere near achieving its objective despite the cost in lives and money.25 Although the military dividend was negligible the expeditions to Cadiz and La Rochelle had imposed considerable burdens on the country – impressment of troops, rates to pay for the food and clothes, billeting and martial law.26 The disaster at La Rochelle was freely criticized when a new parliament met in its aftermath and this gave encouragement to Felton in his murderous response. The attacks on Buckingham in the 1628 parliament further soured relations between crown and Parliament, and fears about the crown’s attitude towards the law culminated in the passage of the Petition of Right. Once thought to be a manifesto for parliamentary resistance to the crown, it is now often seen as a measure specific to its time – offering statutory protections against forced loans and the unpopular measures taken to achieve the failed military expeditions. Charles at first gave it an unwelcoming response but was persuaded to accept it. With the King’s approval secured, it was enrolled on the parliament roll, with a number, which seemed to suggest that it had the power of a statute. When it was printed, however, there was no statute number, and it was published with both the King’s answers, not just the more welcoming one. Charles’s line, throughout, was that it simply declared the situation as it existed: Parliament had won nothing from him.27 It was in the course of these debates about the Petition of Right that the House of Commons had drawn up a remonstrance against Buckingham; in the aftermath, a new force was gathered at Portsmouth for a renewed assault on La Rochelle. While it was in harbour, waiting for parliamentary moneys to arrive, Felton had struck his fatal blow against the regime. A few weeks earlier Dr Lambe, Buckingham’s doctor, had been attacked and killed by a crowd in a London street, amidst accusations of witchcraft.28

In one sense these were symptoms of practical problems, matters of policy; but they revealed and helped to harden quite different views of the political world. English constitutional thought was a common-sense system, not a theoretical one. It had many elements, some of which were apparently contradictory, but which could co-exist so long as it was understood that particular arguments worked in particular circumstances and not others. While the common law and parliamentary statute were acknowledged to be supreme, the royal prerogative existed to deal with areas or circumstances beyond their reach. So, for example, the prerogative was used to regulate international affairs and to deal with conditions of emergency. A number of monarchs had raised revenue using the prerogative by imposing duties on overseas trade (impositions), or by creating monopolies over particular trades and raising fines for breaches of the monopolies. To the extent that these were measures for the regulation of trade these were clearly matters for the prerogative. To the extent that they were revenue devices they threatened the role of Parliament in authorizing taxation, and the common law in protecting the property of the subject. There was then a crucial ambiguity as to whether the impositions should be seen as illegal taxes, or revenues arising from the legitimate use of the prerogative to regulate international trade – an area beyond the common law. The trick was to avoid making people have to choose, but in the later 1620s and then again during the 1630s the questions were put quite clearly by a number of financial and military policies.29 When consensus failed, fundamental issues were raised: about the relationship between the subject and the crown, the nature of political liberty, and the means by which it was to be preserved.30

An important element of fears about fundamental threats to liberty was of course anti-popery: those seeking to subvert religion would first need to subvert the law. Buckingham had also been a prominent patron of Arminians or anti-Calvinists in the English church. This rising tendency was characterized by a suspicion of predestinarian preaching, even an active hostility to the doctrine, and a correspondingly stronger emphasis on the practices and rites of the visible church. It had roots in the tradition represented by Hooker, and enjoyed increasingly powerful backing during the 1620s, but it elicited stringent criticism from opponents and disrupted the uneasy Calvinist consensus that had prevailed in the English church under Elizabeth and James. These anti-Calvinist churchmen tended to be less worried by the threat of the Antichrist than their opponents and more concerned about stability and order in the visible church. The best hopes for salvation lay in the educated ministry, acting under episcopal authority. Doctrinal Arminians shared a taste for more ceremony and order in the visible church with a wider group – the link between the theology and the liturgical preferences was not exact, but it all looked like popery to hotter Protestants. A number of these ceremonialists were also identified with a defence of the aggressive use of the prerogative and the apparently casual attitude of Charles and his advisers towards the authority of parliaments and the common law. For example, Roger Maynwaring, a royal chaplain, and Robert Sibthorpe, rector of Brackley, caused a storm during the Forced Loan controversy by preaching that the monarch did not need the consent of his subjects in order to raise financial supply.31 This kind of argument seemed to threaten property rights – what could an Englishman call his own if the monarch could make financial levies without securing consent? In the 1629 parliament heated rhetoric about the popery of Arminians was closely tied to threats to liberty, the threat of the introduction of a ‘Spanish monarchy’.32

Richard Montague, Bishop of Chichester, had gone further than most anti-Calvinists in his New Gagg for an Old Goose (1625), arguing that double predestination was a false doctrine and attacking the view that the Pope was the Antichrist. In 1626 Buckingham had hosted a meeting convened to discuss this, the most inflammatory anti-Calvinist publication of the period, and the meeting had failed to condemn it.33 Those who defended or failed to condemn Montague’s views, or those like them, enjoyed increasingly powerful patronage under Buckingham, William Laud and Charles, fostering considerable anxiety among the godly. The increasing prominence of this strand of opinion reinvigorated the longstanding debate about the identity of English Protestantism, a debate which was almost as old as English Protestantism itself.

This debate had often been very public and fractious. On the Puritan side the language of anti-popery was very prominent and often associated with accusations about plots to undermine law and religion. Hostility to popery was set against the background of a view of English history in which God had intervened repeatedly to deliver His chosen people from these dangers. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs made this case in numerous editions, and it drew further strength from the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot.34 Inevitably, this view of English history intersected with a view of England’s place in the world, with its foreign policy. In 1623 Charles had travelled in secret to Madrid, accompanied only by Buckingham, in the hope of securing the hand in marriage of the Spanish infanta. His mission failed – the Spanish had been stringing the English along for diplomatic reasons, hoping to prevent their entry into the European war on the wrong side, and were embarrassed by the arrival in town of the English sucker. Charles’s return to London was triumphant, rather than sheepish, however, as bonfires were lit and the bells rung out to celebrate another delivery from the clutches of the Antichrist, harbinger of a ‘blessed revolution’ in foreign policy.35

Zealous opponents of popery, those offended by ceremonialism and medieval survivals, were on the other hand branded in conversation, pamphlets and on the stage as Puritans – their hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness were pilloried in stereotypes such as ‘Zeal of the Land Busy’. The term ‘Puritan’ really described a relationship to current orthodoxy rather than a fixed body of ideas. It was a label (often used with hostile intent) for those pushing for further reform, or offended by some aspect of the current settlement: those labelled Puritans in the later sixteenth century were people agitated by different aspects of church practice than those labelled Puritans in the 1630s.36 As Francis Rous put it, the word ‘Puritan’ was an ‘essential engine’ of the attempt to push English religion towards conformity with Rome, a word consisting of only a few letters, but one of which the Devil could make manifold use: ‘this word in the mouth of a drunkard doth mean a sober man, in the mouth of an Arminian, an Orthodox man, in the mouth of a papist, a Protestant. And so it is spoke to shame a man out of all religion, if a man be ashamed to be saved’.37 One man’s Puritanism was another man’s quite reasonable concern about the encroachments of popery – the terms were two sides of a polemical battle about the boundaries of purified Christian practice.

At stake too was the location of the Royal Supremacy. ‘Puritan’ opponents of crown policy looked to the King-in-Parliament as the seat of the Royal Supremacy – it was a parliament which had given Henry VIII power over the English church – and sought an active foreign policy in defence of the Reformation in Europe at large. Hooker offered an authority for this view too.38 The battle might erupt over any number of issues, and when it did the means of publicity, and handy stereotypes, lay close to hand.

Print was not the cause of this, nor its only medium, but the growth of printing in England in the later sixteenth century had been associated with the development of a pamphlet culture encouraging open debate of political issues in print. Much printed matter was in expensive formats, large bibles or learned tracts written in Latin and not intended to inspire reflection on current affairs by the vulgar. But there were also genres of cheap print which targeted wider audiences. In particular ballads were produced in huge numbers, illustrated and set to well-known tunes with the intention of amusing but also educating audiences in alehouses and elsewhere. Although literacy in England may have been as low as 30 per cent among the male population, and less than that among the female population, this form of print was not primarily textual. Ballads were sung, and pasted on the walls of village alehouses, their woodcut images offering a spur to the memory of what the text contained. In the second half of the sixteenth century there may have been 4 million of these ballads in circulation – nearly one each for the whole population.39

Many of these ballads were entertainments, dealing with chivalric stories or romances between young swains and country maids. They also had a didactic function, of course, giving their audiences examples with which to think about, for instance, moral qualities and the dangers of adolescence. Others were intended to educate the populace about the demands of a Protestant life, and, by the 1640s in any case, about tyranny and virtuous government.40 Alongside these religiously improving ballads and stories of civic virtue huge numbers of printed catechisms circulated, teaching people to read at the same time that they offered religious instruction. In the early seventeenth century there were about half a million official catechisms in circulation, as well as three quarters of a million alternatives.41 An unknown number of broadsides – large single sheets illustrated with a woodcut – were also in circulation, again often with the purpose of offering religious instruction that reached beyond the formally literate population. By the late sixteenth century more elaborate works were making their way in a more sophisticated print market – the chapbook. Costing a penny or two, and consisting of up to twenty-four small unbound pages, many of these books also took up the themes of love and chivalry, but they might also seek to edify and inform about more narrowly religious or political issues.42

In the later sixteenth century and the first half of the seventeenth century there was also a steady growth in the publication of ‘news pamphlets’, alongside ballads and broadsides. They were not serial publications, but were one-off, topical and (at least ostensibly) factual.43 Many of these pamphlets sought to give advice or example about the active Christian life by lending a providential meaning to disasters, murders, monstrous births and unusual natural phenomena. The hand of God could be discerned in the life and repentance of a Puritan, for example, evidence of the need to avoid excesses of zeal, introspection and spiritual pride. Once again, this was a form of print that intersected with a common cultural form – many parishioners were exposed to these providential lessons every Sunday. Print circulated and fixed accounts of events which were at the same time politicized. Its messages were intended to reach well beyond the formally literate.44

These news pamphlets fed, and fed upon, what was pretty clearly a growing appetite for news, fuelled by rumour and circulating manuscripts as well as print. This caused unease among the country’s governors, but the circulation of news was restrained rather than controlled. Semi-regular news pamphlets, the ‘corantos’ (the name is related to courant), appeared in the 1620s. Forerunners of the later newsbooks, they published news of European affairs, respecting the ban on domestic news but still causing enough concern for them to be closed down during the 1630s. An unfulfilled appetite existed, and reliable news (and reliable guidance as to its meaning) was at a premium, even for those who could pay around £20 a year for the services of a manuscript newsletter writer. For governments the destabilizing effects of the news culture lay partly in the danger of misinformation – ill-founded rumours had played a part in riot and rebellion – and their solution was to try to stop the circulation of news rather than to improve its quality. When governments sought to regulate information, therefore, they were not simply seeking to safeguard hierarchy. It was a losing battle however: it is clear that comment on public affairs was opinionated, common and widely circulated. Libels and seditious verses, penned in response to particular incidents or personalities, circulated in manuscript copies, and news spread orally with the passage of trade around the country. Alehouses and taverns were often alive with the buzz of news.45

In all this represented an increasingly sophisticated print market, reaching a wide section of the population directly, and much of it intended to be passed on to the non-literate by being read out or sung. Official publications circulated too, pasted up or fixed to posts in prominent places – the marketplace or the porch of the church. They could be deciphered by the literate for their neighbours, reaching into every corner of the kingdom. Oral and literate forms of communication overlapped and informed one another – print seeping into networks of gossip and rumour, rumours and stories finding their way into print from these conversations.46 Central to this world of opinion was religious and political awareness, often attached to critical views of particular events or personalities.


The Royal Exchange in 1644: a centre of trade, gossip and news

The royal court was the nerve centre of the political system, the seat of royal patronage and the place at which the fortunes of particular views of church, state and foreign policy were most easily to be followed. Here was another source of the hostility to Buckingham – he had managed to become a favourite both of the old king and of the new, so that those who had hoped he would fall with the death of the father were disappointed. In fact, there was a persistent rumour that the change of master had been facilitated by the poisoning of James I, arranged by Buckingham and even, perhaps, connived at by Charles. At court in the later 1620s ‘new counsels’ were increasingly influential, advising against participation in the European war, advocating support of Laud and the anti-Calvinists, very hostile to ‘popularity’ and in favour of avoiding parliaments. These voices did not have a monopoly at court, but they were increasingly powerful.47

Parliaments, presses and crowds offered opportunities to try to pressure the royal court, the affairs of which were a frequent topic of public comment. Periodically since the reign of Elizabeth prominent politicians, including courtiers, had appealed to wider publics, often presenting current political issues in terms of highly polarized language, or the stereotypes of Puritan hypocrite or popish agent of the Antichrist. These stereotypes were associated too with conspiracy theories – in a political system so dependent on personal authority, personal intrigue was an obvious means of securing political ends. Another theme in such conspiracies was the corruption of political virtue by private interest, a politics of commonwealth which drew on classical histories for its view of republican virtue.48

Meetings of Parliament might stoke all this up, particularly in London. Felton, after all, had been encouraged to murder Buckingham not just by the promptings of his conscience, but by a declaration of Parliament and by what he had read. He clearly moved in a world of easy private connections. Two of his lodging house acquaintances were later examined about the assassination. Elizabeth Josselyn, the wife of a stationer, testified that she and her mother lived in part of the same house as Felton in Fleet Lane, and that she had lent him several books. The only one he did not return was a ‘History of the Queen of Scots’. Like many others she found him a melancholy man ‘much given to reading of books, and of very few words. She never saw him merry’.49 But he had spent two hours discussing a copy of Parliament’s remonstrance with Richard Harward at the Windmill in Shoe Lane. Felton knew a scrivener – a professional writer of manuscript copies – by the name of Willoughby who had written petitions for him in the past. It was from Willoughby that Harward had got his copy of the remonstrance. After the murder of Buckingham, Willoughby was found to have copies of a verse in his desk – ‘Let Charles and George [Buckingham] do what they can / Yet George shall die like Doctor Lambe’.50 Books and declarations could be dangerous things, and they circulated easily in the taverns and lodging houses of early Stuart London. Felton’s own fate, of course, also became a public issue – in his scaffold scene, and in the circulation of opinions and verses about him. In the late 1620s Charles not only turned his back on parliaments and Puritans but on the public too, refusing to resort to print to explain himself.51

In these public controversies – over religion, foreign policy and prerogative powers – religious, legal and political concerns intersected. This was true at several levels: the fact that prominent Arminians seemed to support a generous view of the prerogative or that Puritans sought also to clip the King’s wings; an argument about how far to emphasize the King-in-Parliament as the seat of the Royal Supremacy; that foreign policy was irreligious and could not be funded because of the corruptions of the court; that harmless ceremonies should be respected as the preference of the monarch and the legal heritage of the church.

It was a matter of faith that the common law enshrined human reason, arrived at by accretion of the ages. So too the view that the Reformation had been achieved by statute, and that the law was literally omnicom-petent – able to provide solutions to all social and political questions and the ultimate safeguard of civil and religious rights. Over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries this view had been entrenched as governments used the law to widen the scope of their powers. Paradoxically, therefore, as the governments became more ambitious they became more trammelled by the common law – the uses of the prerogative in the 1550s resembled those of the 1620s, but caused much less alarm.52 Part of this mix was a language of commonwealth which drew, ultimately, on the classical heritage that was a standard part of the education not just of Stuart gentlemen but of anyone who had been at a grammar school. This education, broadly termed humanist, informed a sense of public activism among these men as holders of public office and, more generally, as leading figures in local society.53 More theoretical questions were open too: Roman histories of ‘free states’ were widely available in early Stuart England, to the extent that they had become, in effect, works of English political theory, at least in some circles.54

It is at least possible, for example, that one of the books that Felton had read ‘which defended that it was lawful to kill an enemy to the republic’ was Thomas May’s translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia, published the previous year. Pharsalia was a poem about the civil wars from which Julius Caesar emerged as dictator. It championed the virtues of the republic against Caesar, and dealt with his murder by Brutus. May’s edition was dedicated to figures associated with support of the international Protestant cause and opposition to an extensive view of royal prerogative powers. The poem itself is ambiguous: it is clear about the horrors of civil war but claims that imperial peace is worse; it recognizes virtue in Caesar while despising his victory; it champions the republican armies, but blames their defeat on a lack of will. At one point May commends the war for having produced Nero – critics differ as to whether this is an ironic point or not. But in the context of early Stuart England republican virtue lay in the selfless service of the public, not in government without a king. Readers of Pharsalia could be found on both sides at the outbreak of civil war in 1642, and it was more than possible to read it without approving of Felton’s actions. Nonetheless, May’s translation was sufficiently sensitive, politically, that the dedicatory pages were removed from many of the early editions.55

Felton’s fate was marked and celebrated in an outpouring of ‘underground verse’, like that found copied out in the desk of his friend the scrivener. This was an important feature of the political culture of the 1620s: poems circulated in manuscript, employing rough verse and expressing anti-courtly sentiments, in marked and deliberate contrast to the refined culture of the court. In Felton’s case there was an ambivalence, akin to his own, between a Christian revulsion at murder and sense of civic virtue in his dramatic act on behalf of the commonwealth. The classical heritage offered a fund of republican thinking, and practical examples, on which those anxious to defend the commonwealth could draw. One of the verse epitaphs to Felton contains very clear echoes of Pharsalia – if Felton had not read May then some of his supporters certainly had. The republican virtues of active citizenship which animated much of the government of the kingdom offered too the resources with which to criticize royal government, and to imagine alternative political worlds.56

Charles’s policies, then, caused outrage but also outrages. In 1629, Parliament met again, following Buckingham’s death. Hostility to Arminianism and the collection of tonnage and poundage (customs duties with disputed legal status) led to speeches which came close to personal attacks on Charles, and which seemed to make radical claims for the constitutional position of Parliament. Charles moved to adjourn the sitting, but the Speaker of the House of Commons was not allowed simply to call an adjournment by members anxious that they were about to be deprived of a platform. The Speaker was physically held in his chair while resolutions hostile to Arminianism and tonnage and poundage were read. In the meantime the door was barred to Black Rod, who had arrived to end the session.57 For Charles, this sudden dissolution of Parliament was a repudiation of Puritan populism in more than one sense, a solution to the problem posed by the plotting of ‘envenomed spirits which troubled… the blessed harmony between us and our subjects’.58

Compared to the fraught politics of the late 1620s it could be claimed with some reason that the 1630s were halcyon days in England. Two crucial elements of the situation had changed – the country was not at war, and parliaments were not meeting. The dissolution of Parliament in 1629 signalled the opening of the ‘Personal Rule’, what turned out to be eleven years of government without recourse to Parliament. Without parliaments England was still an informed and participatory political society, in which classical and Christian notions of an active life enjoyed much currency. War, money and religion remained potentially controversial and so the absence of parliaments, and the heated publicity of the late 1620s, was a palliative, not necessarily a cure. It was, though, undoubtedly a palliative and by 1637 Charles probably had good reason to be pleased with the Personal Rule. England remained much more governable than it had been at the time of Buckingham’s assassination.

Doing without Parliament was not in itself a violation of constitutional principle. The institution had no continuous existence, but was an assembly called at the royal will for a particular purpose – Parliament was in that sense an event rather than an institution. Parliaments could provide money (only parliaments could grant taxation) and legislation. They might also offer counsel on the basis of wide knowledge of the affairs of the kingdom, and give voice to the grievances of the subjects, asking for redress from the monarch. But the crown had many sources of revenue that were not, formally speaking, taxes; and if there was no need for new laws then there was no need for parliamentary legislation. Parliament was not an executive body, and had no permanent place in government – if the King did not want taxes, legislation or the advice of Parliament there was no obligation on him to call one. In practice, it is difficult to see how such circumstances could persist for long, however: Parliament had no right to existence, but it was not easily disposable either. Nonetheless, James I had called only one parliament between 1610 and 1621, and in the reign of Elizabeth parliaments met on average once every three and a half years, for sessions lasting only ten or eleven weeks. Even during the 1620s, parliaments were in session only 20 per cent of the time.59

During the 1630s, in the absence of parliaments and war, it was clear that in many respects English government was in rude health. Notably, local government was clearly capable of energetic and effective action. The strengths of this system, frequently described as ‘self-government at the King’s command’, had been clearly revealed in its response to rapid social and economic change. Population growth over the previous 130 years had placed great strain on the economy. The supply of necessities did not expand rapidly enough to meet demand, and there was rapid inflation in the price of basic foodstuffs. At the same time, economic growth did not create employment quickly enough to absorb the increased population. As a result there seems to have been an over-supply of labour and the value of wages fell. Over the long run this was bad news for those who bought more food than they sold, and those who earned wages rather than employing labour. England’s economy was regionally diverse and all sorts of social practices served to mitigate these crude economic facts, but it is clear that there was a large increase in the number of people suffering some degree of want as basic food prices rose and wages failed to keep up. In bad harvest years food prices went up even further, since food was an absolute necessity, no matter how scarce it became. At the same time there was less work in agriculture, and less demand for non-agricultural goods, so that employment in the whole economy was affected. With work and wages less easy to find and food prices steepling upwards serious privation threatened for many people. In Cumberland, in 1623, some people starved.60

Others thrived. Those who sold food and employed labour prospered, particularly if they owned their own land, or held long leases at fixed rents. In arable areas there was a tendency for village society to polarize, as wealthier farmers bought out their less successful neighbours, creating a newly assertive middling sort, below the level of the gentry but very clearly distinguished from their poorer neighbours. Those who had been bought out turned to wage labour or took to the roads for places where a living could be made without land – town, forest and fen were common destinations. In arable villages in particular the prospering middling sort confronted a society of labouring poor, chronically vulnerable to want and, in periods of harvest failure, threatened with catastrophe. They were also acutely conscious of the tramping vagrant poor, moving across the country in search of work or a livelihood without land.61

In the face of these problems there was a remarkable harmony between crown policies and local officeholders: an ideological consensus among social elites supported active government and underpinned the social and political position of those benefiting from economic change. The deserving poor (the old, the young, the sick and, increasingly, the honest but unemployed) were offered help; the undeserving were set to work or punished. Vagrants were whipped and sent home. Many of these measures, and the refinements that accompanied them, originated in local solutions. Boroughs, in particular, faced the social problems associated with migration, a population with a high proportion of wage earners and a dependence on the market to supply food. Statute and Privy Council urgings lent authority to local initiative as much as they gave leadership. Where particular measures were ignored this was not because they were disapproved of in principle, or were thought to be of dubious legality, but because they were thought to be inappropriate to specific local conditions. There might be a preference in some places for Christian charity rather than bureaucratic dole as the solution for the deserving poor, but these were differences of accent rather than language.62

Over three generations prior to 1640 this system had developed flexibly and without significant tension between national and local governors. This harmony of vision reflected a harmony of interest. Local government was staffed by volunteers, who held office in order to cement their local social standing and, no doubt, out of a sense of duty. Measures intended to protect social order and the commonwealth also served the interests of these local elites. Village constables, who served for one year at a time without payment, were drawn from the middling sort, the group prospering from long-term economic change, and they were implementing measures to control the adverse consequences of the change, not to reverse it. In offering relief to their poorer neighbours, or imposing discipline on them, they reinforced their own social position. There was in general to tension for them in co-operating with national legislation or the promptings of the Privy Council. Above them stood high constables – responsible for numbers of parishes within a county and drawn from a slightly more elevated social rank – and magistrates (Justices of the Peace) – county gentlemen serving voluntarily in the Commission of the Peace appointed by the crown. These men higher up the ladder of local government and of correspondingly higher social status had no more reason to resist these measures than the village constables. In general the hierarchy of local officeholders corresponded pretty closely to the hierarchy of social status, and measures designed to preserve social order drew on this congruence of political and social aspirations. The result was successful, if we measure success in terms of a harmony of purpose between national and local governors.63

This was no less true during the 1630s than over the previous three generations. Prompted by harvest failures between 1629 and 1631, and by outbreaks of the plague, the Privy Council drew up Books of Orders which regularized practices that had evolved over a number of years. Dearth orders requiring magistrates to seize and sell stocks of grain at a fixed price were implemented in the bad harvest year of 1631 but not in the later 1630s, and this might reflect some disaffection with the implications for the property rights of the middling and richer sort. But there were marked continuities in these social policies into the 1640s: the Earl of Manchester was author both of the Caroline and of the parliamentary plague orders, and the hard years of the later 1640s seem to have witnessed a fairly uncontroversial use of the powers regularized in the 1630s in the absence of Privy Council oversight.64

The system of local government which generated and enforced these measures also bound Stuart England together as an intimate political community, densely populated with officeholders. Communications were slow by modern standards although not quite as slow as is sometimes imagined. Between 1570 and 1620 royal posts took, on average, 65 hours to reach Newcastle, 80 to reach Berwick and 95 to reach Penryn. A region bounded by Newark, Chester and Exeter was within 40 hours of London, although letters slowed down considerably once they were off the main highways.65 For private letters speeds were more variable. One letter reached Ludlow in 36 hours from Charing Cross but this was unusual. Although the Harleys of Brampton Bryan in Herefordshire might know in advance of business coming before Parliament, news from London was often two weeks old by the time it got to them.66 In that sense many areas of England were somewhat remote from the seat of government.

But the chains of government were comparatively short: the localities were not in that sense at all remote from the centre of political authority. Every parish had at least one resident who was representing royal government, as a petty constable. A crude indication of what this implies is that a total population of 5.1 million was divided into about 9,000 parishes, an average of 570 people in each. Of that number 285 were men, of them 140 or so over the age of twenty-five.67 Since parish constables held office for one year at a time, there might be a dozen or more men who held, had held, or would hold office: nearly one in ten of adult males, or one in forty of the total population. Moreover, there were not many degrees of separation between a parish official and the King. A demand for reports on the implementation of the Books of Orders passed through a small number of hands before arriving in a village: from Privy Council to magistrates” bench to the high and then petty constables. Ordinary English people had little formal influence over the executive: parliaments met infrequently, the franchise was restricted, there was no ballot box, and parliamentary elections were frequently acclamations of candidates put forward by the county elite. But much more than in a modern bureaucratic state there was an intimate and continuous connection with the exercise of political power and, also, a degree of control over the detailed implementation of general instructions.68

The practice of active self-government connected with and confirmed the commonwealth and Calvinist ideals that were common amongst the gentry, and which were broadcast to inferior officers and wider publics in church and in court. This was particularly true among the university-educated gentry, of course, but a practical ideal of active citizenship was common too in the towns. The same period that saw the rise of the middling sort also saw a rapid increase in the number of towns enjoying independent legal powers – the boroughs. In 1640 England and Wales boasted 194 boroughs, of which only forty-eight had achieved that status a century earlier. Collectively they represented a kind of urban network, or system, in which active self-government was connected with ideals of civic identity, and civic virtue. With or without the gloss of a classical education many of the country’s governors were acting under the influence of republican values, ideals that saw in the virtuous man an active servant to the commonwealth.69 This system of participatory administration was a means of exclusion too, of course, for those outside the ranks of the village elite, those who were governed, not governors. But the language of commonwealth, in fact, was another means by which the governed could hold their betters to account – it was a term frequently invoked against grasping landlords or neglectful magistrates.70 Of course, even if neither side may have been genuinely interested in civic virtue, by choosing it as their battleground they nonetheless gave the ideas wider currency.71

Participatory administration brought politics into the villages and towns of early modern England in a more direct sense too. Those in the officeholding population, which included men of relatively humble status, as well as those with whom they dealt, made decisions about how to interpret general policies in the light of local circumstances. This served as a political education for a still wider group. Grain riots, for example, reveal both an awareness of official policies and ideals on the part of the poor, and a capacity to deploy those ideals to their own advantage. Local officeholders proclaimed themselves to be fathers of their country, taking on a duty of care for their inferiors as a consequence of their social position. When grain prices were high this paternal responsibility required them to intervene in the market to restrain profiteering and to ensure that the local population was fed. On numerous occasions the local poor acted on their own initiative, stopping and distributing loads of grain destined for the market, imposing a fair price or calling for magistrates to take up their duties. The same seems to be true of the parish poor, who were able to deploy a language of entitlement in order to secure supplements to their income. The politics of subsistence, and of the parish, brought even the poor into contact with official prescription and practice.72 During the later 1640s, when there was no Privy Council to prompt local governors to implement dearth orders, they may in fact have been responding to pressure from below, as petitioners called them to account. In doing so they used the values and terms routinely employed to justify the authority of magistrates.73 This is not evidence of informed opinions about the membership of the Privy Council, or the trend of episcopal appointments, but it does bear testimony to the administrative and political integration of seventeenth-century England.

It was not just in routine administration that politics resonated in local life. Quarter sessions were convened and presided over four times each year by the Justices of the Peace. The sessions were both a criminal court and an administrative authority, and operated with the help of juries composed of substantial freeholders – village worthies. Twice each year judges from the central courts in London went on circuit, hearing more serious criminal cases and bringing with them messages about current priorities at the heart of government. Here, too, local officeholders and jurymen (drawn from the ranks of the local gentry and middling sort) were brought into direct contact with essential functions of government. Many of them would have had experience of the law in more local settings too: in manor or borough courts, defending their property rights or participating in the regulation of local society.74

English criminal law was not inquisitorial – crimes were presented to the courts, rather than sought out and investigated by officers of the court. Here, too, local discretion was a regular and informed feature of the system and in many cases it seems that there was a preference for more informal sanctions. Those cases that did come to court usually required the agreement of juries that there was a case to answer, and the judgement of juries about the guilt or innocence of the accused. This participatory legal system overlapped with the institutions of local government, and was dependent for its life on the voluntary action of substantial local inhabitants.75 Institutional connections between the political centre and the English localities therefore offered a practical political education, both about what was going on and how things worked, and the social depth of that political education was marked. In some institutions, such as the assizes, quarter sessions or Parliament, national and local interests mixed. At the assizes local legal and administrative issues took their place alongside the transmission of ideas and policies from the King and Privy Council.76

Godly Protestants, the Puritan populists of hostile stereotype, were as likely as anyone to see the virtue in measures of social regulation, perhaps more so. Most of those who saw popery in the religious policies of the late 1620s were not natural rebels; nor were they necessarily radical on social questions.77 In fact, many of the leading figures behind secular policies of social discipline were ‘Puritans’ in relation to the established church. In the Essex village of Terling, for example, illegitimacy rates were successfully reduced in the early seventeenth century, suggesting that an alliance of magistrate and minister could affect the most intimate areas of human life. In Dorchester, after a catastrophic fire in 1613, a similar alliance of magistrate and minister sought to appease God’s righteous anger through an assault on sin, and an invigoration of charity, again with notable results.78 Similar alliances have been observed in the Stour Valley, on the Essex and Suffolk borders, in Gloucester, Salisbury and Ipswich. In such places, before popery was intruded into the church, there was no necessary tension between local views of the correct form of reformation and royal government. There might be a difference between an indulgent paternalism, willing to wink at the harmless festivities of the poor, and a more austere Puritan social discipline; but it was certainly not the case that all disciplinarians were Puritans or that there was anything socially levelling or necessarily anti-monarchical about Puritanism.79 For those who were not particularly offended by Laudian practices the tensions were even less marked. But the smooth running of local government rested on informed consent among county and village elites: the King’s command was hugely influential, but so too was the practical reality of self-government. In that sense there was a republic of officeholders, acting independently and with discretion to preserve local religious and social order. No doubt many of them had not read Lucan, but many of them knew about the importance of active service of the commonwealth. That could clearly work for the crown.

In the absence of parliaments and active warfare some of the heat had gone out of English politics. Charles, an art collector of refined and fashionable tastes, was entertained at court with elaborate masques, designed by Ben Jonson and at the cutting edge of literary and dramatic fashion. Criticism was voiced, but so too was compliment, and a prominent theme was the reconciliation of conflict through the love and wisdom of the monarch.80 However, some of the problems with parliaments were problems not only for parliaments but also for local governors, and they had not gone permanently away. Military mobilization, for example, was close to the heart of the political difficulties with parliaments and tensions were to re-emerge in the mid- and later 1630s even in the absence of parliaments.

Across the whole of Europe the increasing use of gunpowder weapons by infantry made it more expensive to equip soldiers, and increasingly important that foot soldiers were properly trained and drilled. This too was expensive and a number of governments in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe got into financial trouble as a result of over-spending on military mobilization. England had been relatively protected from these developments by the sea, a far more effective defence. Over the long term, however, there were attempts to improve the military potential of the nation through reform of the militia. In the end, then, this made it a problem for local officeholders.

There was a longstanding obligation on adult males to present themselves at the general muster each year, and to offer military service when called upon. From the mid sixteenth century onwards this peasant army was gradually transformed and from within the general body of able-bodied men a more select group – the Trained Band – was given something more like proper equipment and training. This was supported by local rates so that for many people an obligation to serve in the militia was transformed into a cash payment to support the Trained Bands.81

Naturally enough, this created frictions. From the 1590s onwards the militia was increasingly run by Lords Lieutenant – usually relatively prominent noblemen – responding directly to the promptings of the Privy Council. They passed on their instructions via deputies to village constables. General demands from the Privy Council were translated, in a short series of steps, into the imposition on particular villages and towns of the duty to provide a particular number of men, armed and equipped according to a specified standard. It was not necessarily a smooth process, however. Rates were unpopular, and it proved impossible to establish a basis on which they could be raised without also producing wailing and gnashing of teeth about inequalities. There was also a legal difficulty in that the statute which empowered the Lords Lieutenant was repealed in 1605, leaving them with duties but perhaps no legal authority. The mustering and drilling of the Trained Bands was a palaver, causing considerable inconvenience both to the mustered and to those mustering them. Many of the local officeholders responsible for achieving all this – even Lords Lieutenant, but certainly village constables – clearly thought it a chore that was not worth losing much sleep over. These were men, after all, who held office in order to cement their social standing and the good opinion of their neighbours. Mustering and raising rates, in other words, offered little by way of direct benefit to local people, and the level of co-operation achieved was often unimpressive.82

As a result militia reform was at best patchily and intermittently impressive. Attempts at reform under Charles I were no more popular than previous efforts. After 1625, in the light of the war in Europe, Charles had pursued an ‘exact’ or ‘perfect’ militia. Pressure was applied to hold regular musters, at which meaningful training took place and appropriate weapons were produced. In order to overcome a common evasion, weapons were to be marked, so that the same weapon could not be produced in different places on different days. Overall, said Charles, he was no longer prepared to accept the appearance; he wanted a real performance. After the fractious parliaments of the 1620s Charles had sought peace in order to avoid having to call them, and treaties were signed with France and Spain. In the early 1630s, it seems that there was little pressure to improve the militia, but with a worsening diplomatic situation in 1635, the Privy Council turned once again to militia reform. One feature of this campaign was to ensure that local militias appointed, and paid, muster masters – men of professional experience who could oversee the arms and training of the militia, and ensure that higher standards of preparedness were maintained. This was not the first time that this had been urged and, not for the first time, it produced political problems in the counties.83

Administration by local officeholders did not just bring the burden of military mobilization into the villages and towns, but also the negotiation of that burden – the politics of administration. Questions about the wisdom and legality of crown policies could get a wide airing. For example, in Shropshire at the Easter meeting of the quarter sessions, the Grand Jury presented the muster master’s fee as a grievance, saying that the office was unnecessary.84 In making presentments Grand Juries responded to the information and representations of a wider circle of men of similar status – village constables and their superiors, the high constables. A presentment by the Grand Jury, therefore, was understood to be the voice and opinion of the county, expressed by its respectable inhabitants to leading figures from gentry circles, sitting as JPs. It was also a very public statement since meetings of the sessions were major events in the county year. In addition to the JPs, jurymen and constables, they were attended by the sheriff and numerous petitioners. The promulgation of Privy Council orders, the hearing and redress of grievances, and the prosecution of crime were the focal point of a larger event, and the practice of meeting in a number of towns in rotation may have reflected a desire to spread the commercial benefits.85

There had been grumbling and foot-dragging in Shropshire over the muster master and his fee for many years. In fact, Edward Burton, the muster master during the 1630s, had himself opposed the establishment of the office during the 1620s.86 The Grand Jury’s position was shrewdly chosen: they did not complain that it was illegal, although it was possible to make that case, but rather that it was unnecessary. Even if this was at root tight-fistedness, it was politically informed. Local reputations were at stake, though, in such a public forum and the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Bridgewater, felt his honour had been slighted. At the sessions his interest had been defended by Timothy Tourneur, JP and close associate of the earl, who had told the Grand Jury that they were ‘too busy’ in making this presentment. This was a common insult for minor officials, suggesting that they should be less meddlesome. Such rebukes exercised a considerable influence over how officeholders behaved towards their neighbours.87

But the Grand Jury had an eminent defender: John Corbett, another JP. He leaped to their defence, saying that they were simply doing their job, and calling for a reading of the Petition of Right. When the statute book was produced, despite Tourneur’s objection, Corbett pointed to the relevant section. Tourneur said that he need not ‘digitate’, to which Corbett replied, ‘Nor you be so touchy’. This evidently counted as a serious defeat in a battle of wits and news of this public embarrassment spread rapidly. It seems to have encouraged resistance in the rest of Shropshire later in the year, and Bridgewater heard of the exchange by ‘flying report’ before his subordinates had had a chance to write to him: ‘I heard a great noise of the business about the town before I was able to give any answer to such questions (upon such an occasion) might have been demanded of me’. The Privy Council could not afford to ignore this public expression of dissent, and Corbett ended up in prison in London during a plague outbreak. He also had to enter a bond of £2,000 to answer for his conduct before Star Chamber, a central law court with a particular responsibility for overseeing the conduct of officeholders.88

This was more than a kerfuffle, since Corbett at least was willing to risk death in prison rather than apologize. Shropshire was not alone in hearing these arguments. Essex also produced a petition at quarter sessions and in many counties there is evidence of reluctant or partial payment of the fee.89 In Leicestershire opposition to the militia programme was led by Sir William Faunt and Sir Arthur Haselrig, both JPs, who were hostile to the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Huntingdon. Faunt refused his contribution to the muster master’s fee, publicly declared that Huntingdon was oppressing the county and questioned whether the money was actually being spent on the militia. He may have had some grounds in the latter case – Huntingdon was more eminent than rich and it seems he was not above using public or family money to help him over short-term problems. Here too a division in the county’s governing elite ended up in Star Chamber. The authority of the Lieutenant was upheld by a swingeing fine, which at this distance in time seems to be barely warranted by the evidence produced.90

In the absence of Parliament, problems relating to military and financial questions continued to resonate deeply in English society. Local officeholders had an eye on what would make them popular or unpopular, and what would be difficult to achieve, or lead to accusations of ‘busy-ness’. This made local government responsive to influential local opinion since it depended on a degree of consensus-building and informal negotiation. It also delivered significant practical power to local officeholders, who were expected to be representatives as well as leaders of their local community and who, for practical reasons, had to respond to wider local opinion. Policies which were potentially unpopular, or not in the immediate interests of local elites, might not be vigorously enforced: on receipt of administrative instructions local officeholders took decisions about what to push and what to leave alone; and institutions such as the Grand Jury and quarter sessions offered a platform for the expression of these local preferences. Sanctions existed to discipline officeholders, and were effective on individuals who might be quite anxious to retain their position, but the crown could not dismiss all its volunteers. A powerful man like the Earl of Bridgewater could bully and cajole, but there were evidently limits there too. Policies that were widely unpopular, such as expensive militia reform, created a level of foot-dragging and evasion that was difficult to deal with.

Problems with reform of the militia reveal these features of political life, and they were not the only controversial aspects of Caroline government in England. During the 1630s Charles’s government responded imaginatively to its financial problems. Frustrated at the experience of the 1620s, when parliaments had been productive of political argument rather than cash, Charles raised money by other means during the 1630s. Prerogative rights were exploited for their revenue potential – for example, in a concerted campaign to raise fines for encroachments on the ancient bounds of the royal forests, or in the granting of monopolies in return for payments or loans. In 1629 the Council began to impose fines on men worth more than £40 per annum (not a large sum) who had failed to acknowledge their ancient duty of presenting themselves for knighting at the coronation – a wheeze known as distraint of knighthood. Of course, showing imagination about fiscal solutions is not an easy route to popularity and there were significant signs of dissatisfaction. In some localities the resurrection of forest jurisdictions caused considerable local conflict and in Leicestershire the fines for distraint of knighthood raised very large sums from a large number of people. By 1635 £174,000 had been raised from 10,000 landowners. Similarly, fines imposed for enclosures of common land that led to depopulation, while laudable for their concern for the victims of economic change, were widely seen as a revenue device. Once again, in Leicestershire, they raised considerable sums of money and again the hostility seems to have attached above all to the Earl of Huntingdon.91 These were useful sums, but not a long-term solution: as the Venetian ambassador noted, fines were ‘false mines for obtaining money, because they are good for once only, and states are not maintained by such devices’.92 And this money came at a high price.

The most unpopular of these non-parliamentary revenues was ship money.93 This transformed a duty on port towns to supply ships for royal service into a payment to build them, and the payment was soon imposed on the whole country, not just in the ports. Like the militia reforms, then, this was an attempt to commute an established duty of service into a cash payment. Although it did not cause a tax rebellion it did cause widespread disquiet and there was a very public dispute about whether or not ship money was legal. In 1637 Charles wrote to the judges asking whether the monarch had the power to command the provision of ships in times of danger, to enforce payment and act as the sole judge of the danger. Five days later all twelve judges replied affirmatively. Their ruling was entered in the courts and publicized at assizes. The danger, of course, is that this procedure gives publicity to the doubts rather than the certainties, and we know that it led to informed debate among the Kentish gentry.94 Elsewhere, refusals continued.95

In Buckinghamshire the doubts were pressed further by John Hampden, who went to court. This was almost certainly promoted as a test case, with the co-operation of William Fiennes, Viscount Saye and Sele. A man of firm and godly religious conviction, Say and Sele became prominent in the parliamentary cause in the 1640s. During the 1630s he was an important member of the Providence Island Company, founded to fund settlement in the New World. This colonization scheme attracted the support of others who became prominent parliamentarians, including John Pym and the Lord Brooke. Say and Sele was a supporter of the international Calvinist cause and no friend to the policies of the Personal Rule. He had intended to bring his own case against ship money, but instead seems to have co-operated with his nephew, Sir Peter Temple, who issued a writ against John Hampden. The King, probably fortified by the judges” ruling, allowed the case to be heard in the Court of Exchequer, even though to lose would be to lose the whole revenue.96

The Earl of Clarendon later recalled that Hampden ‘grew the argument of all tongues, every man enquiring who and what he was that durst at his own charge support the liberty and property of the kingdom, and rescue his kingdom from being made prey to the court’. The hearings were well attended, even by some relatively humble observers, and provincial newsletters reported the arguments widely. As should be expected, with expensive lawyers involved, the issues were not straightforward. Charles’s case rested on the fact that ship money was not a tax – something regulated by common law and statute – but an aspect of his prerogative power. Ship money could be justified as an emergency measure and therefore as one relating to areas not covered by the common law. Oliver St John, representing Hampden, did not challenge the King’s prerogative powers in general terms, arguing instead on a more narrow point: the writ had been issued six months prior to the collection. If there had been an emergency the writ should have mentioned it, and six months clearly permitted the summoning of a parliament to deal with the emergency. Holborne, Hampden’s other lawyer, argued more broadly about the prerogative, and the subsequent hearings ranged over both broad principles and narrow technicalities. Each judge found slightly differently on each issue, so that the count in favour of the King, normally rendered as 7–5, was actually reckoned differently by different observers. Crucial judgements by Bramston and Davenport made it appear closer, but their view was based on a technicality. The writ had demanded a service, which Hampden could not in practice provide (the provision of a portion of a ship). He was being prosecuted for a debt, however. The crown could not have this both ways: if he owed a debt, then this was an unparliamentary tax, and therefore illegal; if it was a service to be performed in emergency conditions he could not be sued for a debt. On the broad principles the King’s victory was clearer.97

This public debate about the legality of the levy had resonances at the lowest levels of the administration because constables were being required by sheriffs to assess their neighbours. Debate about whether they had such a power, or about whether it was enforceable, was clearly relevant to local politics and administration. Reluctance to pay was almost universally expressed in technical or bureaucratic complaints – disputes about the details of ratings or the conduct of distraint and so on. For those unwilling to presume much about the political consciousness of ordinary people, this form of expression is often accepted at face value: that there was no larger political or legal principle involved. However, given the level of administrative participation and the elaborated consciousness of legal matters which is evident across the country, it seems difficult to believe that in every case reluctance was only the product of administrative detail. Local officeholders seem to have been increasingly reluctant to take up office, something attributed to the unpopularity of ship money which was surely not simply a matter of rating difficulties. As a result of this reluctance, and unlike the parliamentary taxes of the early seventeenth century, ship money also began to suffer from problems of collection. Clarendon went so far as to claim that the judgement had ‘proved of more advantage and credit to the gentleman condemned, Mr Hampden, than to the King’s service’. Hindsight no doubt exaggerated his view, but it is true that after the crown’s legal victory in 1637 the difficulties of collection in many counties continued to mount.98

English people were encouraged by practice and precept to be active for the public good. Self-government was crucial to the order of local communities and also to the public image of those individuals responsible for it – officeholders cultivated the image of virtue necessary to carry out their duties to the public good. In general this self-government was supportive of, and dependent on, the King’s command, but the two might not always sit well together. Responses to the King’s command were not simply passive and unthinkingly obedient, even when they were in fact obedient. Where there was reluctance, or resistance, it might not be the result of principled objection, but whether for reasons of narrow advantage – personal or local – or because of a wider vision of the public good, the King’s command was appraised and interpreted as well as acted upon. Government depended on the voluntary efforts of substantial local inhabitants, and during the 1630s the imposition of ship money and militia reform made their lives difficult. Those difficulties were not eased by the legal question marks which hung over the extent of their powers. Other grievances affected those in more elevated circles – for example, monopolies and distraint of knighthood – while the forest policy had a deep impact in some regions.

Behind all these policies lay legal questions which were potentially of very general significance and some people certainly invested them with that general significance. The absence of parliaments removed one important means of voicing grievances and the use of the Court of Star Chamber (the authority of which rested on the royal prerogative) to enforce them seemed to be increasingly politicized.99 This was not the stuff of revolution, or even of civil war, but it gave grounds to be reluctant to supply money, men and arms to fight the Covenanters; and to want the King to call a parliament instead.

In 1629 a sub-committee of the House of Commons had complained that persons maintaining ‘papistical, Arminian, and superstitious opinions and practices… are countenanced, favoured and preferred’. An associated protestation of the Commons was one of the measures passed while the Speaker was held down. It announced that anyone promoting Arminianism or popery should be ‘reputed a capital enemy to this Kingdom and Commonwealth’.100 The continued and apparently triumphant rise of Laudianism during the Personal Rule was not likely to have spread the blessings of ecclesiastical peace, therefore.101

Closer restrictions on preaching, which affected the freedom to preach predestinarian views, were clearly inflammatory but had less immediate impact on the experience of worshippers than the campaign to promote decency and order in public service and the beauty of holiness: moving the ‘communion table’ ‘altar-wise’, and placing it at the east end of the church, there to be railed off in a raised chancel; bowing to the altar; reintroducing decorative features such as paintings and statues; and reincorporating a number of ceremonies and rituals into worship. Thus, for example, worshippers were expected to register reverence and obeisance to God as a uniform body, so that ‘the whole congregation shall appear in the presence of God as one man, decently kneeling, rising, standing, bowing, praising, praying together… like men of one mind and religion in the house of God’. This was contrasted with a stolid immobility, likened to posts and stones; for its opponents it smelt of popish ritual, a form of mechanical worship which did not encourage a questing, demanding personal piety. A corollary of this was a campaign to enhance the dignity and authority of the clergy. Vestments worn by the clergy were regarded by opponents as ‘rags of popery’ but had previously been defended as adiaphora – ‘things indifferent’ which were not necessary but which were demanded by the civil authority. They were now defended as signs of the special and elevated status of the clergy, an argument that smacked of popery to many hot Protestants. Ceremonial changes, and changes to the decoration and architecture of the church, were intended to set a clearer boundary between the sacred and the profane, and to concentrate the mind of the worshipper on the presence of the former.102

Once he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 Laud used his powers of visitation – to send questions to the lower clergy and churchwardens demanding reports about conformity and standards of practice – to promote the new ceremonialism. These initiatives were not universally disliked, nor were they only grudgingly enforced in every parish. Anti-Puritanism was an established strand of opinion, just as anti-popery, and these reforms might give comfort to ordinary worshippers. They drew on ceremonial traditions which can be identified much earlier in English Protestantism than the rise of anti-predestinarian divines, and owed something at least to Charles (who was not an Arminian): it was not simply an expression of the theological preferences of William Laud. Nonetheless, it was the use of the metropolitan visitation in the mid-1630s – enquiry into parochial practice in response to the archbishop, not the diocesan bishop – that caused friction in many places.103

Clearly, to many Protestants this campaign smacked of idolatry and superstition, rather than edification.104 And although this was the more immediate experience of Laudianism, shifts in theological taste were manifest in what preaching was available – both who was licensed and who was not. Thus, to opponents of these policies, the church was simultaneously promoting idolatry and suppressing the preaching of the Word: substituting popery for the edifying exposition of scripture. As in Scotland, the boundary between what edified and what was idolatrous could be marked out polemically in terms of popery. On the wrong side of the line stood the whorish allurements of Babylon, ensnaring the unwary believer into an anti-Christian captivity. Any parish church might become an arena for the battle against popery; far more than was the case with the secular complaints, these policies lent themselves to simple sloganeering.

Laudianism was made to look worse by the presence of actual Catholics at the royal court. Charles’s wife, Henrietta Maria, was allowed to practise her religion freely by the marriage treaty: her faith was a matter of state. It was also very devout, and public. Inigo Jones designed a beautiful chapel for her at Somerset House, decorated in a style very offensive to many Calvinist sensibilities. The dedication service attracted hundreds of observers and at its consecration in 1635 papal mass was sung amidst festivities lasting three days. A dozen Capuchins – the vanguard of Catholic reform in France – were sent to minister to her. She also protected other Catholics at the court and from 1636 George Con, a papal representative, was permanently resident at Henrietta Maria’s court. Ironically, Laud was resentful of the influence of both Henrietta Maria and Con, but the association of Laudianism with Arminianism, and of both with a court friendly to Catholicism, produced a heady mix of provocations to the godly. At the same time, a shift in foreign policy towards neutrality in the Thirty Years War, which was effectively a shift to a pro-Spanish policy, fuelled the suspicion that the King was being influenced by a Catholic conspiracy: the Spanish monarchy was routinely assumed to be a secular arm of papal ambitions. ‘Court Catholicism became associated with papal meddling, Spanish intrigue, and repressive domestic policies, and the king with all of these’. Rumours of the King’s imminent conversion were taken seriously inn Rome.105

Even with a full-blown episcopacy it was very difficult simply to impose the Laudian programme, however. Lay influence was entrenched in the institutions of the church. For example, the crown and its bishops did not have secure control over parochial appointments. The right to present men to parochial appointments, ‘livings’, was often attached to a piece of land, and that land was often in the hands of laymen. Although whoever was presented had to be licensed by a bishop, the bishop and the crown did not control the patronage of the church. Nor could the ecclesiastical authorities easily prevent the development of parallel forms of religious practice. Attendance at parish church was enforced, but it was not straightforward to prevent other, supplementary, gatherings. Moreover, a shortage of preaching in the early years of the Reformation had encouraged private benefactors, especially corporations, to establish lectureships – paid preaching posts not attached to a parish. In the mid-1620s the Feoffes for Impropriations had been established to purchase alienated church revenues and use them to fund preaching: a laudable project, but one which threatened Laudian discipline over the teaching of the church. It was closed down, but the provision of preaching outside the parish church was difficult to abolish; not least, of course, because it was often blameless and helpful to the cause of reformation as the ecclesiastical hierarchy understood it.106

Ecclesiastical authorities were dependent on local people to volunteer information about local practice and for the imposition of sanctions. The church courts, responsible for enforcing observance of the rites of the established church, also depended on participation. Business could be brought before them by individuals – instance business, akin to civil actions in the secular courts – or by churchwardens – office business, akin to the criminal law. Churchwardens, like constables, took account of local opinion in the discharge of their office. In either case, it was difficult for ecclesiastical authorities simply to implement or enforce policies. The inquisitorial power that they did possess lay in the visitation – the power to demand answers to specific questions. But there was no easy way to check the accuracy of the replies and so once again the ecclesiastical authorities were to a significant degree in the hands of their inferiors. Finally, some ecclesiastical policies demanded action from secular officeholders: for example, in fining recusants (those not attending church). Local officeholders often appear to have responded to local preferences in interpreting their obligations, favouring the maintenance of good local relations over the national imperative of religious unity.107 In other words lay influence in the church intersected with local self-government in ways that limited the practical power of the head of the church.

All this did not mean that local practice was automatically at odds with official policy, but it did mean that the propagation of the faith, and even the nature of the faith that was propagated, was coloured by local lay preferences. Administrative patterns allowed for distinctive local responses to official policy on how to submit with one’s fingers crossed, as it were. Thus, even if at a certain time on a certain day everyone in England could be made to bow to the altar, this uniformity of practice might still have concealed a great variety of belief: what bowing meant, if anything, could not be, as it were, divined. Lay influence within the church made the promotion of reformation dependent on a degree of voluntarism, and that voluntarism produced plurality.

As with secular matters, consent in the localities was usually informed. Protestant worship, like local administration, served as an education. Parishioners were expected in church each Sunday, on pain of a fine imposed by the government, not the ecclesiastical authorities. Those who came heard a powerful message about Christian submission, but also about Reformation history. Worshippers attending their local parish church were frequently encouraged to place their local experiences in the context of a larger, international and apocalyptic history of the Christian community. In March 1629 the minister at St Helen’s, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, delivered a powerful sermon on the need for Protestant solidarity across the whole of Europe: ‘Say not thou art a member of the Church of England, thou art a member of the Church of France, or of Germany, or of Bohemia: for all the Churches of the world that profess the same faith and religion, are but one body’. He went on to lament the lack of ‘fellow-feeling with their miseries’. Although these sufferings were commonly heard and talked about, and news circulated in the corantos, as much as any other news, it was treated ‘as if a matter that concerns not us at all’. This indifference risked provoking God ‘by our profane stupidity’.108

Of course, the need for the harangue suggests that many of his audience did not acknowledge these truths, but as war raged in Germany, a war perceived by many as crucial to the future of the church, it seemed to some observers that they were witnessing the battles of the last days. Many Scots had gone to serve in these wars, and some Englishmen too: according to one estimate 3,000 volunteers each year from 1562 to 1642, not counting those in the service of the English crown. Collections for distressed Protestants, and to support wounded veterans of the wars, were relatively common in English parish churches.109

Local worship was also about the celebration and formation of local community, of course. It was a ritual moment of common prayer in which hierarchy was reconciled with community. The moral and spiritual boundaries of community were physically represented in the decoration of the church and the disposition of its internal spaces. Pews were increasingly likely to be personally allocated, the best seats going to the local quality, their social inferiors ranged behind them. This was in fact one common problem in railing off the altar, that it might disturb the seating arrangements which were so carefully calibrated to reflect the local social order. Through the ritual year communal life was marked out and reproduced – even the physical boundaries of the community were marked by Rogation-tide processions, when the minister ‘beat the bounds’ with his parishioners. The life cycle was marked out by communal events – baptism, marriage and death. In a ritual much despised by the godly but promoted by the Laudians, women were formally received back intothecongregation after childbirth, a ceremony known as churching. Sinners did public penance and were readmitted to the bosom of the Christian community. Ritual forms might carry a considerable freight of local social and political significance; and that significance was in turn located within an apocalyptic scheme that embraced the whole Christian community.110Sin and popery in (as it might be) Ashby-de-la-Zouch had a potentially cosmic significance, and Protestant preachers were anxious to make that clear. Episcopal authority in England therefore provided the framework for a participatory, and active, Christian practice; and that practice was, by principle, socially and politically engaged.

Although lay influence diluted the power of the head of the church, it was not nullified. As we have seen, during the 1630s, as episcopal powers were brought to bear, there was a distinct change in tone in many localities and changes to the internal arrangements of many churches. Some people, among them both the humble and very influential, clearly felt concerned about the future of reformation. During the 1630s, some of the godly in England fled to the New World (along with those motivated by more secular concerns), hoping to establish a new Zion, and many others seem to have gone to Europe.111 But separation from a church in which the Word and the sacraments could be found was no easy step. Even after the church did begin to appear popish, there were powerful reasons for thinking that the cloud might pass, and that in the meantime enough of the Word, the true sacraments and of religious discipline was present to allow a good Christian to endure with a good conscience. The ideals of the common prayer gave a powerful incentive to stay, and to hope for better days.112

Central to this agonizing problem was the common Reformation view that reform should produce a purified church, not a sect or heresy. Arguments between those who stayed and those who left were to become quite heated once the tide of Laudianism had been turned back in England. For those who felt these difficulties, however, the way forward was not clear and for those who stayed it was not clear how far resistance should go. The Covenanters” publicists recognized the dangers of setting religious obligations against political duties and had thought carefully about the limits of legitimate resistance: for many reformers a world reformed in line with scripture was a hierarchical one, in which everyone knew their place and their calling. Active encouragement of civil and political unrest was clearly ungodly and religious diversity in England did not automatically create rebels.113

Those who stayed, and protested loudly, might fall foul of Laudian authoritarianism. Most famously Henry Burton, John Bastwick and William Prynne stood trial before Star Chamber in 1637 as a result of publishing offensive tracts. Their sentence was the pillory and to have their ears cropped. Prynne’s ears had already been cropped, but the remaining stumps came off nonetheless, and his cheeks were branded ‘SL’ for ‘seditious libeller’. Burton’s left ear was cut so close to the head, and so clumsily, that he lost a lot of blood. Throughout it all they bore their sufferings with Christian patience, turning their punishment into an example of the futility of physical punishment in the face of godliness. All three had been in trouble before without exciting nationwide sympathy, and their publications were acknowledged even by many of the godly to have gone far beyond the bounds of acceptable public criticism. They were given ample opportunity to speak at their trials, and to seek some relatively mild punishment, but there is a suspicion that they sought martyrdom. Certainly, in the pillory, they were transformed into suffering saints. Both during and after their brutal public mutilations they were given a warm welcome. Prynne was feasted in St Alban’s and Chester, for example, and the Privy Council came to think that it had lost a propaganda battle. The spectacle prompted Sir Thomas Wentworth to remark to Laud that ‘A Prince that loses the force and example of his punishments loses withal the greatest part of his dominion’.114 Of course, hardly any anti-Laudians ran the risk of similar treatment, but through their transformation into Puritan martyrs these three came to represent the more general suffering of the godly under Laud’s episcopal authoritarianism. Their views were not universally liked, their preferred mode of expression even less so, but these were men of status – a doctor, a lawyer and a divine. That status should have protected them from this fury; their sufferings became a symbol of something much bigger.


William Laud and Sir Thomas Wentworth (soon to become the Earl of Strafford): the two royal advisers held most responsible for the misgovernment of Charles’s kingdoms

Grumbling, foot-dragging and some sharp intakes of breath at the mutilation of the Puritan martyrs were a fair exchange for the problems of a decade earlier, perhaps. There was an informed, principled and critical public in England, but it was not ungovernable. It is true that there were many grievances in the 1630s, but they did not all irritate the same people to the same extent, and there were few Englishmen who would have argued that royal government was not in itself a good thing. Things had been much easier in the absence of war, and of parliaments. Clearly, however, some secular policies were producing tensions between the crown and some of its natural governors in the localities. Charles won his legal battles but there is little doubt that in some minds the imaginative use of the prerogative to raise money, associated as it was with a reluctance to call parliaments, represented a shift in the balance of the constitution. There is also little doubt that this question of legality hampered administration either because of principled objection or because it offered plausible cover for tight-fistedness. It was probably both, but in either case legal debate gave public airing to constitutional questions, and these were of relevance to lives of the middling sort, and open to discussion at relatively humble levels of English society.

Opposition to Laudianism made a connection between religious and civil liberties – it was partly driven by a fear of clerical authority. The Reformation in England rested on statute and threats to it arising from episcopal authority were easily connected in the minds of the godly with the threats posed by an extensive view of the royal prerogative. It was as much clerical ambition as popery that made Laudianism seem threatening, or at least the religious ‘innovation’ was identified by opponents with an expanding royal prerogative.115

It was not only Puritans who were anxious about Laudianism, therefore. Central aspects of Calvinism in England appealed beyond the ranks of those known as Puritans and it is not possible to draw a distinction between hotter Protestants and others simply on the grounds of their attitude towards Calvinism: the doctrine of predestination had held together people who were divided on questions of ceremony and church government. By the same token, it was not only Puritans who might sympathize with the plight of the Covenanters – Calvinists who were similarly offended by Laudian policy – and such sympathy as there was did not necessarily depend on an admiration of Scottish practice either. Most English people would probably not have willingly signed up to join the church of Alexander Henderson, but many of them might see in that church a potential ally against Laudianism.

For men schooled in English history and Renaissance values, as local magistrates were, there were abstract principles at stake here. Classical values of republican virtue, manifest in active citizenship, were widely known among the English gentry; so too was a deep attachment to the ‘ancient constitution’, unique liberties which formed the inheritance of Englishmen, and which they owed a profound duty to protect. Of course, their opposition might arise from narrow local interest or even self-interest and personal ambition, but the ethos and practice of Stuart government dignified their opinions as crucial to the health of government. Renaissance republicans were not necessarily more altruistic than twenty-first-century democrats, but the principles they asserted still mattered to the conduct of government. Informed local officeholders, when making judgements about particular policies, were equipped with the knowledge and understanding to arrive at an independent view about the direction of religious and political affairs. Their education might tell them that this independent view, their ‘discretion’, was a personal virtue essential to their public role.

English government depended on active involvement, sometimes informed explicitly by classical histories, which prompted action for the public good, but which might be critical of the crown. Felton had demonstrated the existence of these ideals of active Christian citizenship, capable of opposing the King’s favourite and military commander in the interests of the commonwealth. His actions also demonstrated the tensions caused by Caroline policies in the fraught conditions of Reformation Europe. These elements of Caroline political culture, and Caroline politics, were exaggerated by the personalities – Felton’s own, the melancholy loner, and Buckingham’s – and by war, financial problems and meetings of fractious parliaments. The 1630s were calmer – with no Buckingham, parliaments or war and a lower intensity of public debate – but the calm was not a dumb obedience. The issues that concerned Felton – religion, the King’s advisers, money and war – were concerns shared by many others, well beyond the ranks of those willing to applaud the assassination. During the 1630s English government continued to depend on active local officeholders; political issues and argument continued to circulate, and fuel discussion; and some tensions remained.

We cannot say that these questions were the talk of every alehouse, and it seems unlikely, but it is practically possible that they might have been. Political awareness was available to the villagers of Stuart England, and their participation was essential to the functioning of government. Practice and precept made them self-activating for the public good, defined in terms common with the magisterial class. Local misgivings about particular policies could be expressed through foot-dragging and legal challenge and, to some extent, through the normal channels of government leading up to the court. During the 1630s, however, they could not be expressed in Parliament and so local grievances accumulated. The problems of the 1620s had not gone away, although the absence of war, and of a talking shop, clearly helped to reduce the temperature. But the apocalypse continued to threaten and militia reform proceeded: fighting a war against fellow Protestants in the light of all this was unlikely to meet uncritical obedience.

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