Drawing Swords in the King’s Service

The English and the Bishops” Wars

As far we can possibly tell, Alexander Powell, of Holt, Cheshire, was not a natural rebel or traitor. His background and personal history, though, to the extent that we can reconstruct them, did make him likely to oppose the war against the Covenanters. In 1638 he had been accused of attending church to hear preaching by a minister who had been suspended for his advanced Protestant views. These meetings, labelled conventicles by the ecclesiastical authorities, had been winked at by the churchwardens, reflecting perhaps the extent to which ‘Puritan’ sympathies were entrenched among village worthies in that part of the country. Puritan preaching had certainly enjoyed some success in fostering hotter forms of Protestantism in the county. It was quite possible for ‘Puritans’ such as Powell to be active in their local communities, pursuing charitable work or fostering an alliance between magistrate and minister aimed at the eradication of sin. But in 1638 Powell turned a beggar away from his house, saying, ‘No sirrah, you shall have no alms here for shortly you will be pressed to war, and then you will fight against us’. Soldiers were about to be pressed in the north-west to fight against the Covenanters, and when the press was used it was exactly such men who were vulnerable: it was not unlikely that this man may have been on the verge of being pressed for service against the Covenanters. Powell seems then to have been asserting the importance of a religious affiliation with the Covenanters over obligations to his ungodly but vulnerable neighbours.1 The pressure of events was making plain potential contradictions in the world view of Charles’s subjects.

We do not know how many people there were like Powell, but we do know that military mobilization by prerogative power in order to enforce Laudian ceremonialism would have plenty of opponents. A Buckinghamshire gentleman came to the attention of the authorities for saying that ‘he cared not [for Laud], for he has been the occasion of this strife between the Scots and us, and I care not if he heard me’. Libels in Ware (Herts.) proposed delivering Laud to the Scots rather than being eaten up with superstition and idolatry, and claimed that the conflict with the Covenanters arose from their resistance to idolatry and the Mass. Others were willing to blame the King, who, according to a man in Pembrokeshire, wanted ‘a good headpiece’, unlike his wise and learned father. A vicar in Northamptonshire who preached obedience was interrupted by a parishioner who said the King should yield to the Covenanters, and another argued that God’s will might be that England’s pride should have a fall. In Newcastle a man was reported to have argued that the Covenanters ‘did nothing but in defence of their own right and maintenance of the Gospel, and did but defend themselves against those that would have brought in popery and idolatry among them’. He declared himself unwilling to fight, ‘for unless his conscience moved him to it, he would not fight for any prince in Christendom’. Perhaps even more significantly, he was provoked by someone saying ‘beshrew the Scots that stand out against the King, for they are likely to put us to a great deal of charge, and it is likely we shall all go and fight against them’: hardly the most positive statement of support for the King’s position.2 Lurking behind all this must have been some sense that this was the wrong war – Charles had been at pains to stay out of the European wars but was now raising troops against his own, Protestant, subjects. Since many others were keen to have a parliament to discuss secular and religious grievances, it was not only opponents of Laudianism and militia reform that were qualified in their support for the King.

The demands of the wars had an impact on an informed and engaged political society in which a degree of consensus and co-operation was essential to successful government. There was no such consensus behind the policy of armed intervention against Scottish Calvinists: opinion was instead divided. Laudianism and militia reform clearly had supporters in England or they would have made no headway. Neither were opponents of these policies necessarily advocates of the Covenanters” religious views, or political tactics; nor were they necessarily equally offended by all these policies. Still less were they in favour of the dissolution of royal government. Reluctance to support the war effort might proceed from a positive sympathy for the Covenanters” cause, an unwillingness to support the use of the prerogative or armed Catholics against the cause, or a sense that this crisis might be useful as leverage in securing redress of English grievances. There was a difference, in other words, between being pro-Covenanter and being not anti-Covenanter, and different arguments might support either of these positions. For Charles the issue was plain – this was a rebellion. For others the issue was more complicated and this undoubtedly added to the normal problems of mobilizing for war in early Stuart England. English opinion was far more ambivalent and divided than opinion in Scotland, but a King seeking to raise an army by prerogative power would clearly have hoped for less ambivalence and more commitment.

These complex responses help to explain why building the necessary consensus around military mobilization proved so very difficult. Among those in trouble in Exeter were the mayor and two aldermen.3 At the King’s rendezvous in York in late April 1639 two peers refused the military oath. They were Viscount Say and Sele, member of the Providence Island Company and supporter of Hampden’s case, and Lord Brooke, another member of the company and a man of godly piety.4 Others clearly thought it inadvisable to proceed without the support of a parliament: extraordinarily this was the first time since 1323 that England had gone to war without the summoning of a parliament.5 Winning this one would be uphill work.

Divisions in England came into the open, and came to matter, because Charles had to rely exclusively on English forces to crush the rebellion of his Scottish subjects. This had not been his original intention. In Scotland his hopes rested on George Gordon, Marquess of Huntly, who had offered protection to the Aberdeen Doctors, an eminent minority who had supported the royal position against the Covenanters. During Hamilton’s mission Charles had encouraged Huntly’s efforts to resist the promotion of the Covenant in the north-east and he now hoped that Hamilton could join Huntly, who was raising forces in Aberdeenshire.6 In Ireland Charles hoped for help from Randall MacDonnell, the Catholic Earl of Antrim. Antrim also had claims to land in Scotland and he hoped to pursue those claims through opposition to the Covenanters. As early as January 1638 he had offered to raise troops for the King in Ulster and he now hoped to make good on that offer.7 With forces moving south from Aberdeenshire and across the North Channel into the western highlands, Charles hoped to bring an English force to the Borders, forcing the Covenanters to fight on three fronts.

This strategy, however, quickly collapsed. In Ireland, Charles was in the hands of Sir Thomas Wentworth, the Lord Deputy. Schooled in the harsh world of Yorkshire politics, Wentworth had made his way by appealing to the royal court for patronage and protection and, when it suited, to the country as a champion of local interests. He was prominent in the parliaments of the 1620s as a critic of the court, but rose to be president of the Council of the North, vanquishing local rivals in the process. He was then made Lord Deputy in Ireland, the kind of promotion which can also be seen as an exile. In Ireland he acquired a reputation for authoritarian government, partly because he was indeed authoritarian and partly because he attacked all vested interests equally boldly. His service there was valued by the King, however, who gave him the title of Lord Lieutenant in January 1640 and elevated him to the peerage shortly after as the first Earl of Strafford. In England, in more normal circumstances, he would have been less authoritarian than in Ireland, but in the Scottish crisis he counselled Charles to take a strong line.8 Nonetheless, he opposed Antrim’s mobilization, and doubted the usefulness of his troops. In north-east Scotland, Huntly was outfaced by a better-mobilized Covenanter force, which took a number of castles, leading Huntly to disband his forces rather than risk defeat, and Hamilton was diverted from his rendezvous with Huntly to the Firth of Forth. There he found landing unsafe, not least because his own mother appeared in public with a pistol and threatened to shoot him if he came ashore. Charles had also sought help from the Dutch and the Spanish. The Dutch were completely uninterested and the Spanish claimed that they could not commit troops because suitable bread ovens would not be available in England. That the Privy Council explored the range of available bread ovens perhaps reflects a certain desperation, or an inability to take a hint.9

Despite his initial intentions, therefore, Charles had to rely entirely on his English forces. The achievement was not negligible: two large armies were mobilized to fight the Covenanters in just over a year, 15,000 in May 1639 and nearly 25,000 in August 1640.10 But the Earl of Northumberland, commander of the English forces, had counselled against going to war in July 1638, on the grounds that ‘The People through all England are generally so discontented, by reason of the multitude of projects daily imposed upon them, as I think there is reason to fear that a great part of them will be readier to join with the Scots, than to draw their swords in the King’s service’.11 Things were little better once war broke out. On their way to fight in the second of the Bishops” Wars, in 1640, some English troops did in fact behave as if they were on the other side, carrying out iconoclastic acts to purify parish churches and refusing to obey papistical officers. English opinion was divided, and complex, not uniformly hostile to the war, and we should not ignore the achievement; but division was not what Charles had expected, and it was not welcome. It precipitated the end of his Personal Rule in England and prompted a crisis which ultimately led to the dissolution of his authority in England, Scotland and Ireland.

On 9 February 1639 the Privy Council had conceded that members of the Trained Bands (that part of the able-bodied population summoned to muster which had been equipped and trained to modern standards) need not serve. They could instead send substitutes, an important concession to anticipated resistance.12 Many others were pressed from the general population – the common practice in the case of foreign service since the Trained Bands were too precious to be sent abroad. Impressment, by contrast, was often the occasion for ridding villages of undesirables. Officeholders in place for perhaps one year would have to live with their neighbours for much longer than that. It is easy to see why, when asked to pick some men to serve abroad, they might not choose the most popular and hard-working lads in the village or their neighbours? most promising sons. The home counties were responsible for equipping conscripts from local rates, and paying their expenses to the point of embarkation.13 The mobilization against the Covenanters might have been regarded as a defensive action, allowing the use of the Trained Bands rather than conscripts, and in allowing the use of substitutes the Privy Council had significantly weakened the potential of the war effort.

Pressing men for military service was never easy, but in early 1639 it intersected with domestic discontents. George Plowright, constable of Burton Latimer, Northamptonshire, was the kind of village worthy who provided the backbone of English local government. His family had been freeholders in the village for over a century and he had served not only as constable but also as an overseer of the poor, sidesman and churchwarden.14 However, conflicts over royal policies during the 1630s intersected with local rivalries to make his life very difficult. When he went to Northampton in 1638/9 to pay ship money receipts to the sheriff his horse was requisitioned for the royal posts, even though he was himself on royal service. He blamed Thomas Bacon, with whom he had clashed previously over religion and the forced loan, and with whom he had been in dispute over ship money since 1635. In retaliation Plowright brought a case against Bacon in Star Chamber. In March 1639 Plowright was pressed for service against the Covenanters: something highly unusual given his status and office. He again blamed Bacon, who had been accused of using impressment maliciously in the past and who had been served with a writ to appear in Star Chamber five days before Plowright was pressed. Conveniently, it would mean that Plowright would be in York when the case came before the court.

Forced to intervene, the Privy Council was in an uncomfortable position. It could hardly leave Sir Rowland St John, the Deputy Lieutenant ultimately responsible for the impressment, twisting in the wind. On the other hand, from the point of view of the Privy Council, Plowright was clearly on the side of the angels in Northamptonshire. He had the support of Robert Sibthorpe, a scourge of the local Puritans and an almost embarrassingly keen supporter of Charles and Laud in ecclesiastical matters, who during the Forced Loan controversy had preached that consent was not necessary for the King to raise money from his subjects. Sibthorpe interceded with St John on Plowright’s behalf, enabling Plowright to send a deputy to join the army, and his intervention clearly reflected political solidarity. Sibthorpe had brought a case against Bacon over ship money, and noted Plowright’s service in collecting the duty despite the hostility of local ‘Puritans’, expressing regret that his reward might now be to risk perishing at the hand of the Scottish Puritans. Before the Privy Council, though, St John maintained that Bacon had had no role in the pressing of Plowright, and that Plowright had been guilty of malpractices. The Privy Council had little choice but to uphold the authority of the Deputy Lieutenant, and Plowright was imprisoned and landed with the costs of both parties.15

Here and elsewhere, the local met the national. Rivalries and hostilities among the local gentry and middling sort might become invested with a larger political and religious significance. This does not reflect a fatal weakness of the whole mobilization since large numbers of men were raised, but it does demonstrate the potential of the Covenanters” cause to polarize English opinion. Latent conflicts were coming into the open, or were allowed freer expression.

By design, and because of the substitution clause, the infantry contained large numbers of pressed men. Even husbandmen (small farmers) and agricultural labourers seem to have been spared, so that labourers in non-agricultural trades predominated – men without the status or patrons to protect them from service.16 They were often untrained and poorly armed or even unarmed. Although Charles raised significant sums in loans and contributions from prominent individuals, there was not enough money to make up the lack, since coat and conduct money barely covered the costs of getting soldiers to camp. It was also of dubious legality, raised by the lieutenancy, whose powers in that respect had been left poorly defined by the repeal of legislation in 1605. It had previously been used to get soldiers destined for foreign service to port, and was reimbursed (in theory at least) from parliamentary grants. Neither of these things was relevant to the current case, since this was not a force being raised for foreign service, and no parliament was planned. People were quite capable of making a connection between this and ship money. Many of the nobility were reluctant to serve in arms and the officer corps was inexperienced. England’s arms industry had not had regular business under Elizabeth or the early Stuarts, and it had atrophied during the Caroline peace. As a result ordnance was difficult to find.17 These latter problems reflect the relative lack of active warfare over the previous generation rather than a political weakness: no arms industry could thrive in the absence of a lively market.18

Contemporaries, not least the Covenanter leadership, were not convinced that the English forces were inferior to the Covenanters”, but there is little doubt that the Covenanters enjoyed more support in Scotland than Charles did in England. They were able to draw on the military experience of large numbers of men who had served in the continental wars, and that experience also informed the methods of mobilization, which was further inspired by the preaching of a committed clergy. There were fewer pressed men, and behind the whole effort lay greater enthusiasm for the cause.19

Despite the apparent problems of the English mobilization and the relative success of the Covenanters, the English defeat was by no means assured.20 It is clear though that the English camp at Birks, just south of the border, was an unhappy place – poorly provisioned, of uncertain morale and the rump of a once much more impressive strategy. Reservations were expressed there about whether to proceed, given the weakness of the army. In the event, the English threw in the towel without much of a fight. The Earl of Holland, second in command in the English army, advanced to Kelso, where he was probably fooled by Alexander Leslie into thinking that the Scottish forces were more numerous than they actually were. Holland withdrew, and when the Covenanters advanced to Duns Law on 5 June, the king agreed to negotiate.21

In seeking negotiation Charles was following the advice of the nobility in his camp and the decision probably rested as much on political as military calculation. The weakness of Scottish opposition to the Covenanters, the divided and often lukewarm English response and the threat of calling an English parliament persuaded him to do a deal.22 A Pacification was agreed at Berwick but it seems to have fudged the key issues. In return for the summoning of a General Assembly and parliament the Covenanters agreed to disband, free royalist prisoners and hand back royal castles. However, on the powers of the General Assembly (and hence, by implication, the future of episcopacy) the two sides seem to have had a quite different impression of what had been said. The King issued a declaration denying the legality of the measures taken by the General Assembly in Glasgow the previous year, but promised to deliver on the promises made by Hamilton. For the future, he said, ecclesiastical matters would be in the hands of a lawfully constituted General Assembly and all secular matters in the hands of the Scottish parliament. The Covenanters interpreted this as a victory for the independence of the kirk, and it could be presumed that the end of the bishops was not far off. Charles later disavowed this interpretation without offering another, but notes made by one of the English delegates suggest that the difference may have lain in what was meant by the phrase ‘lawfully constituted’: for Charles this clearly implied the persistence of episcopal representation in the assembly. That such a crucial detail could be fudged probably reflects how much both sides wanted to end the armed conflict.23

In the aftermath of the Pacification it was clear that Charles was not altogether trusted and that his royal word was regarded by some as worth less than the parchment on which it was not written. An indication of the underlying attitude, to which he might well require obedience when he had the opportunity to command it, was the public burning of a Covenanter paper giving their interpretation of these events, which had circulated widely in England. For the Covenanters this reinforced the sense that the real security for their reformation lay in a sympathetic settlement in England.24

Management of the King’s interest at the resulting General Assembly was handed back to Traquair, Hamilton clearly calculating that there was little pleasure or advantage to be had from this role.25 Traquair presided over an assembly that confirmed most of the decisions reached by the ‘illegal’ assembly in Glasgow the previous year and went further on episcopacy. He also agreed that a parliament would be called in the expectation that these measures would be ratified. He failed to manage the legislative programme of that parliament, with the result that by November it was clear that Parliament had claimed more than the King would actually grant. The King intervened, dissolving Parliament on 14 November 1639, but the acquiescence of the parliamentarians was publicly stated alongside the view that it was an illegal dissolution.26

From here it was a relatively short and predictable step to renewed hostilities. In early February, Edinburgh Castle was garrisoned with English troops and, although Edinburgh’s governors did not interfere, this did spur the Covenanters to renewed military preparations. One ill-advised initiative in this respect was a letter to Louis XIII asking him to intercede with Charles on behalf of his Scottish subjects.27

Charles had resolved to call an English parliament for this second war and clearly expected to find support. His sole purpose was to raise money to fight the Covenanters and he certainly had no intention of justifying the war, or of having to redress other grievances before receiving supply. He was also clear that if Parliament failed, he would be willing to proceed by other means, and in order to have some room for manoeuvre he had taken out loans. Many of his subjects, it would soon become clear, saw things differently. To Charles, King of three kingdoms, the Covenanters were rebels, and there could be no question of the need to crush rebellion, but to his English subjects this was a proposed invasion, or at least a war with another kingdom. In that respect there was some concern that an army was being raised prior to Parliament.28

Certainly, after an eleven-year intermission, the summoning of a new parliament was the occasion of much excitement. The Earl of Bridgewater had some difficulty in securing a place at a window from which his wife could watch the opening procession. When a place was found on King’s Street she was advised to take up her place by six o’clock at the latest, since the streets would be full by five and after six it would be impossible to get into the house from the street.29 Sixty-two elections were contested (by comparison with twenty to forty during the 1620s), and since most of these were in two-member constituencies, this meant that around one quarter of the members of the new Commons had arrived as a result of contests. In some cases this reflected a campaign by the godly, to get their own men in.30


The House of Commons in the Short Parliament

Charles and his subjects clearly had different expectations of this parliament, and Charles’s willingness to go to war without a parliament if necessary was almost self-fulfilling since to bring his subjects along would need patience. The royal view was clear, however. Lord Keeper Finch opened the parliament by asking for immediate supply to support the war while holding out the promise of another session later in the year in order to pursue the redress of grievances. Charles then handed him the letter written by the Covenanters to the French king and Finch read it out, claiming that it was treasonous.31 The letter was subscribed ‘au roy’, a form of address which was only used by Frenchmen when addressing their own king. Charles claimed that this was treasonous – that the Covenanters were recognizing Louis to be their sovereign.32 The defence offered by Loudon, one of the signatories, that he did not have enough French to understand the niceties of the letter, may not have been completely dishonest,33 but what is most striking about this is the lack of excitement caused by the revelation of apparently treasonous activity.

On the following day, in the House of Commons, Secretary Winde-bank opened business with a restatement of the need for immediate supply, and offered to read the letter again, in both French and English, for those who had not been able to hear clearly at the crowded opening the previous day. This he did, but the first speakers offered little comfort to the crown. Harbottle Grimston stood up, acknowledging the importance of the King’s business in fairly brisk terms before concentrating the burden of his remarks on other issues altogether: ‘I am very much mistaken if there be not a case here at home of as great a danger’. This was a case that the King, confronted by armed rebels, would find hard to accept, but it was made at length by Grimston and others. Grimston was also innocent of understatement, to say the least:

the Commonwealth has been miserably torn and massacred and all property and liberty shaken, the Church distracted, the gospel and professors of it persecuted and the whole nation is overrun with multitudes and swarms of projecting cankerworms and caterpillars, the worst of all the Egyptian plagues.34

Sir Benjamin Rudyerd and Sir Francis Seymour spoke next, building on Grimston’s concerns about the lapse of liberties granted by Magna Carta and the Petition of Right, but concentrating in particular on the circumstances of the dissolution of the previous parliament in 1629.35

This desire to secure redress of grievances before granting supply was widely but not universally shared, and it might arise from a variety of political concerns – it was by no means the same thing as supporting the Covenant, although it seems reasonably clear that the Covenanters had friends in the English parliament.36 Many seem to have been hoping that the parliament would succeed – producing both supply and redress – but there were those who were not at all anxious that it should.37 As the debates on grievances unfolded over the next few weeks, some speakers hinted at opposition to the war, but that was not on the surface of the debates.

These are important distinctions, but behind these various positions there was also a clear political message: Parliament, and not just the Commons, showed very little interest in shelving grievances in the interests of supplying the impending war. John Pym, a veteran of the parliaments of the 1620s, emerged as an influential speaker early on. He was an unusual parliamentarian in that he lacked a large landed estate. A convinced godly Protestant, he enjoyed the patronage of the Earl of Bedford and had held office in the Exchequer. This latter experience seems to have made him more responsible and realistic about the financial needs of government than many of those whose opinions he courted. On 17 April he spoke for two hours on a threefold threat: to the liberties of Parliament, to religion and to the law (‘affairs of state or matters of property’). In most of these respects he was speaking to the mood of the House, but he went further in arguing that these were symptoms of a single malaise: ‘the intermission of parliaments have been a true cause of all these evils in the Commonwealth, which by law should be once every year’. The liberty of Parliament, he was arguing, was the safeguard of religion and law.38 When he sat down a string of county petitions were presented in what seems like a co-ordinated move, perhaps reminiscent of Covenanter tactics.39

Over the following weeks unsuccessful shuffling could not overcome this essential impasse – that Parliament wanted redress before supply, a procedure which Charles said ‘put the cart before the horse’. Some members of both Houses supported the King’s position, but Ralph Hopton seems to have spoken for the majority in the Commons when he drew the analogy with a servant who held his master up to remove a thorn from his foot. Such a delay was not the same as disobedience; Parliament, as a dutiful servant, had an obligation to remove the thorns from the King’s foot.40 Deals were proposed to give up unpopular revenue sources in return for parliamentary supply, and the crown tried to enlist the help of the Lords in persuading the Commons to grant supply and put the grievances on hold. This suggestion, however, made the Commons bristle, acutely conscious of any threat to the constitutional principle that supply could only be initiated in the Commons. Rather than acknowledge the immediate and unquestioned necessity of supplying the King’s needs, MPs continued to call for redress of their grievances. And these grievances ranged widely – the long intermission of parliaments and the administrative measures Charles had taken in that time had created a backlog of moaning, and it seems that many MPs were keen to give it full rein. If the problems of mobilizing for war earlier in the year had disappointed the monarch, the attitude of his parliament was still more frustrating and after only three weeks he dissolved it.

Five or six days prior to the dissolution rumours had gone round London that in the event of a dissolution, Lambeth Palace (the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury) would be burned down, with William Laud inside it. This proved to be not far from the truth. On 8 May 1640, after the dissolution, the words ‘bishop’s devils’ were scrawled on the walls of the Royal Exchange. Placards soon followed there and elsewhere, urging an assembly at St George’s Fields of ‘all gentlemen ’prentices that desire to kill the bishops, who would fane kill us, our wives and children’. Apprentices were also invited to join in the hunting of ‘William the fox’. The assembly was planned for the following Monday morning, 11 May. Although threats and rumours circulated about a number of royal ministers identified as public enemies it was clear that the real target of this hostility was Laud (who was also rumoured to have become a Roman Catholic) and bishops more generally. The Southwark militia were mustered at St George’s Fields all day but people simply waited. About midnight, after the departure of the militia, a crowd gathered. One report had it that 1,200 ‘prentices and others’ (probably an over-estimate) had knocked at the gate and ‘said that they must needs speak with his Grace, of whom they would ask (as they termed it) but one civil question; and it was who was the cause of breaking up the parliament?’ Laud had been forewarned and was not in Lambeth Palace when the crowd got there. They stayed for two and a half hours, until they were convinced that he was not inside, but left saying ‘they would be shortly there again, and would not leave until they had spoken with him either by hook or by crook, sooner or later’.41 In fact, he did not return to his palace until 27 May.42 Their anger was instead expressed in damage to the garden and orchard. On the following Thursday crowds gathered again, and broke into the White Lion prison to release men awaiting trial for their part in these events.43

Despite hostile contemporary comment, these were not the actions of a mindless mob. It was an organized, targeted protest which had a clear (if not necessarily sophisticated) political agenda.44 In the following days, anxious authorities responded edgily to reports of a gathering of thousands of armed men on Blackheath. In fact it was local people being summoned to work on the roads by the beat of a drum. But this was symptomatic of an atmosphere in which rumours circulated freely, threatening more drastic action. Armed watches were set in the city and the suburbs, and guards placed outside St James’s Palace and Whitehall. The militia was augmented by men drawn from the surrounding counties and a Provost Marshal with a company of horse and foot was appointed to keep order on the South Bank. St James’s was home to actual Catholics, possibly agents of international Catholicism. It was the residence of the French Queen Mother, Marie de Medici, who had arrived in mid-October 1638. Another Catholic chapel had been opened there, served by a Jesuit confessor, and she was a strong presence at the court. The rioters reportedly said that the guard there was for the ‘defence of the French’. The Queen Mother ignored advice to move out, fearing that if she left she would never come back.45


The attack on Lambeth Palace, May 1640

It may have been the threat to his family, or memories of anti-Buckingham disturbances in the late 1620s, that prompted Charles to particularly stern measures. A royal proclamation declared these events to be rebellious and called for the apprehension of three ringleaders. Two of the rioters were brought to trial in Southwark on 21 May at a special session of Oyer and Terminer (a court empanelled by a specific writ to investigate particular crimes). A man called Archer, who had beaten a drum to summon the crowd, was put on the rack to discover whether he had been put up to it. This was the last use of judicial torture in English history, and the warrant for it is in Charles’s hand throughout. The eventual victim was Thomas Bensted, probably a mariner but described in some sources as a tailor from Lambeth or a cobbler. Bensted had been the only casualty of the initial riot, when he sustained relatively minor injuries. Having been injured, however, he said, ‘come follow me, seeing I am hurt I will be your captain’. It was enough to get him a death sentence. He was kept in Newgate prison prior to his execution in the early hours of the morning in Southwark. He met his end on gallows constructed overnight under guard of the militia. His head was displayed on London Bridge and the rest of his body, cut into quarters, at four of the city gates.46

Parliaments coincided with meetings of the clergy of the diocese of Canterbury in Convocation to discuss ecclesiastical matters and to provide clerical taxation. Convocation’s important decisions were ratified in Parliament: those who believed that the Royal Supremacy in the church resided in Parliament (by no means all of them Calvinists) were very hostile to the view that a Convocation could issue canons on its own authority. Customarily, Convocation dissolved with Parliament, but on this occasion it continued to sit and, moreover, produced controversial new canons. This was highly unusual, and was clearly Charles’s personal decision – the Council minute expressing support was intended as a statement about whose idea this was. Charles claimed that the new canons would reassure opinion about the future of the faith, a prominent concern in the just-dissolved parliament, but it is more likely that he hoped by these means to flush out those of his subjects who were supporting the Covenanters. The canons therefore represented a characteristically forthright statement of royal intent – they defended the Laudian policies from the charge of innovation. The chief controversy arose from the disastrous ‘etc oath’, however. Clergy were required to swear never to alter the government of the church by ‘archbishops, bishops, deacons, and archdeacons etc’. This kind of open-ended commitment was unacceptable to many people in a culture in which swearing was taken extremely seriously. The clause was probably the result of sloppy rather than deceitful drafting, but it provoked fears that something terrible might be intended.47

Charles had lost patience with his parliament and dissolved it: his needs unsupplied, the grievances of the country unaddressed. The response revealed a powerful strain of anti-popery, associated with hostility to Laud and an attachment to parliaments. A failed parliament did not provide the best basis for renewed war in defence of Laudian ceremonial: indeed, it was worse than no parliament at all.48

Unsurprisingly Charles’s military preparations for the 1640 campaign were once again problematic. The intention, as in 1639, had not been to depend on English resources alone. Once again, however, the strategy disintegrated and Charles depended entirely on a response in England that was measured, to put the best gloss on it. When Wentworth had returned from Ireland the previous September he had urged Charles to form a committee for Scottish affairs. It was at a meeting of that body in the aftermath of the dissolution that he suggested to Charles: ‘you have an army in Ireland that you may employ here to reduce this kingdom?. From the context there is no doubt that he meant that the 8,000 men in Ireland could be used in Scotland, but the accusation that he meant to use an Irish army to enforce the royal will in England was later to be a crucial charge against him.49 In the event the Irish army did not materialize, and neither did the foreign mercenaries or money which Wentworth, now the Earl of Strafford, had advised Charles to seek.50

Political will was failing, both in the Privy Council and out in the provinces, and in this tense political situation rumour and news assumed a crucial importance. The Lord General and commander of Charles’s army, the Earl of Northumberland, was dismayed by the attempt to pursue the war without parliamentary supply, not least because of the public knowledge of this financial weakness: ‘What will the world judge of us abroad, to see us enter into such an action as this, not knowing how to maintain it for one month’. The Earl of Northumberland confessed that ‘It grieves my soul to be involved in these counsels’,51 but if the newsletter writer John Castle is to be believed he was soon to be in an even more uncomfortable position. In May, Castle wrote to Bridgewater that at a Privy Council meeting the King had complained of ‘the liberty the people took to discourse of his action intended for the North, as if he had not means to make a war, but was calling back his troops’. He bade his councillors to ‘publish the contrary’.52

This was one battle that the King was certain to lose: there was a lively and unstoppable appetite for news and rumour. The speeches by Pym and Rous on 17 April had been delivered from scripts, which may have reflected an intention to circulate them outside the walls of the chamber. It was a practice that was frowned upon, but became increasingly common. Certainly these two speeches circulated widely and Pym’s speech of 17 April was circulated in manuscript by Edward Rossingham, the newsletter writer, as an account of the grievances of Parliament.53

In fact, the buzz of rumour and news made life difficult for a newsletter writer. Castle was always eager to name and weigh his sources when reporting to Bridgewater: ‘This relation, because it comes from Mr Kellaway, one that waits very near him [Charles], I have thought fit to advertise your lordship of it, as a matter that is likely to be true’; ‘I was told by an inward confident of his [Secretary Coke]’; ‘This morning, meeting with a friend of mine who dined yesterday with my Lord Keeper, I was confidently assured by him, that he had heard the news there’. Similarly, he distinguished between the varieties of news, rumour and gossip that he heard: ‘On Tuesday last there went a rumour very current both here and at court’; ‘here hath been a rumour somewhat constantly maintained for these 5 or 6 days’; ‘there come every day such contradictory reports from out of the north, that I know not how to advertise any thing that may deserve to be believed’. This left even a prominent nobleman oversupplied with information, in want of certainty while away from the centre of events: ‘I confess the various reports of the news of this time be such that no great credit be to be given to the rumours spread abroad, yet I shall be willing (at this distance) to hear of the several occurrences as they be divulged, or talked of; some use I may make thereof though I do not purpose to make them all to be part of my creed’.54

As the summer progressed there were further disorders in London, which seem to have been fuelled by religious fears arising from Charles’s use of Convocation.55 The capital was intimately connected to the provinces by networks of trade, kinship and power; news and rumour travelled alongside these things. In Shelley, Essex, a villager regaled his neighbour with an account of the attack on Lambeth Palace and claimed that the soldiers of the militia, far from suppressing the rioters, would instead ‘fall upon’ those that were on the side of the bishops. He also predicted imminent risings against Laud’s favourites and supporters of the Bishops on the grounds that ‘there was not laws now’.56

Further out, on the evening of 25 July at about 5 p.m., William Hawley overtook Thomas Webb, a clothier from Devizes, on the road just outside Wantage. Friendly greetings and discussion of wool prices were interlaced with more painful topics. Webb had asked if there had been soldiers on the move in the area, this being the period of the buildup to the second Bishops” War, and this may have prompted Hawley into some unguarded political comment. Hauled before a local magistrate the next day, he had to answer to charges that he had said the apprentices had risen against Laud and that it would be a pitiful time, that Laud was the cause of the raising of the armies and that the King was ‘ruled’ by him. He had also attributed the riots to rumours that Laud had turned papist and indeed that it was well known that he was in fact a papist. Much of this was denied, of course, but so seriously was this taken that a report of the examination ended up on the desk of the Secretary of State, Francis Windebank.57

Mobilization in England in 1640 was even more reluctant than in the previous year. In many parts of the country the collection of ship money, which had slowed down in advance of the parliament, now seems to have collapsed entirely. This was selective inaction – it seems clear that other aspects of local government continued to operate.58 Financial difficulties led to disastrous expedients – the seizure of Spanish bullion in the Tower, the threat to issue brass money and the seizure of pepper belonging to London merchants for sale at about 30 per cent below its market value. These manoeuvres cost the crown friends abroad and in the City, although the brass money plan was so obviously bad for the economy that it may have been a threat to the City, intended to encourage the provision of a loan which would prevent the need for this drastic measure.59

Given the crown’s dependence on officeholders, the lack of consensus made mobilization very difficult, and morale was low. John Castle’s letters from court are filled with bad news – the reluctance of the City to lend money, and the attempts to bully it, the supply of ‘stinking’ victuals, the impossibility of setting an expedition out to sea, all combine with a sense of foreboding. The difficulties of raising troops were at least as bad as in the previous year because the Trained Bands were if anything more reluctant to serve and the substitution clause was more widely invoked.60Shortly after the end of the parliament it was rumoured that ‘the people’ in Norfolk ‘like the sea will surely rise upon the first wind that blows upon them’. The same ‘ill news’ came from the west, where the clothiers had been laying off workers because they could not sell the cloth. ‘The ball of wildfire that is kindled here above will fly and burn (it is feared) a great way off, where there will not be so good means to quench it as here under the King’s window where his person strikes more terror than the Trained Band with their arms’. Sir Jacob Astley was assembling a force of some 6,000 at Blackheath from among the Trained Bands of Kent, Surrey, Essex and Middlesex. Ostensibly for service against the Covenanters, it was said that this force was secretly intended to be available ‘as the occasion may arise to suppress any insurrection?.61

This climate proved unfavourable to raising troops. In late June there were reports of men refusing to serve in Norfolk and the Lord Chamberlain went to Wiltshire in person to quell disturbances there. Troops imprisoned for refusing to pay coat and conduct money had been freed from gaol by some of their colleagues and it was said that the men raised there would not march unless the King came in person. Similar stirs were reported in Huntingdon, Warwickshire and Cambridge.62 Men raised in Essex were reported to have slain some of their officers and beaten a deputy lieutenant, those in Norfolk to be refusing to embark and those in Cambridge to have beaten their officers at Newmarket.63 The Earl of Northumberland was sure that the army would be under-strength given what he knew of the restiveness in London, Kent, Surrey, Essex, Hertfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire while in Lincolnshire the deputy lieutenants threatened to resign their positions in the face of the rebelliousness of the pressed men.64

Some of this was motivated by resentments over pay and conditions,65 but it seems that much of this restiveness was related to religious feelings. Francis Windebank, son of the Secretary of State and a man of fairly Romish sensibilities, was responsible for raising men in Devon. On first meeting his men he was told that ‘if they found we were papists they would soon despatch us’. In order to counteract this threat, on the first day’s march ‘I desired them all to kneel down and sing psalms, and made one of my officers to read prayers, which pleased them not a little’. He had also plied them with drink and tobacco, with the result that ‘they all now swear they will never leave me so long as they live, and, indeed, I have not had one man run from me yet in this nine days” march’. Other captains of similar bands were in fear of their men, who were very threatening. Behind all this lay ‘the Puritan rascals of this country [who have] strongly possessed the soldiers that all the commanders of our regiment were papists’. Credulous popular anti-popery may well have lain behind many of the discipline problems, fuelled by rumours about the papistical purposes and leadership of the army. This anti-popery was centrally concerned with ritual forms: ‘I was forced for two or three days to sing psalms all the day I marched, for all their religion lies in a psalm’. Soldiers in Warminster (Wilts.) insisted that their commanders take communion with them before setting out.66 In Daventry (Northants.) troopers said that they would not fight against the gospel and would not be commanded by papists.67

We know for certain that two officers were murdered on the grounds that they were papists: William Mohun suffered a terrible beating and eventual death in Farringdon at the hands of soldiers raised in Dorset; and Compton Evers was killed three weeks later by men raised in Devon. An illustration of the spread of rumour, but also of its potential unreliability, is Castle’s report on the death of Mohun, to whom he gave the rank of captain rather than lieutenant. He said that Mohun had been hanged; in fact he was forced out of the window of his lodgings, from where he fell to the ground. He was severely beaten, dragged by his hair through the town and left in a ditch for dead. Regaining consciousness he made it to a nearby house, where medical care was interrupted by the arrival of soldiers. Cornered, he pulled a knife, which was dashed from his hands with a cudgel. His brains were then knocked out, the job completed this time, and the corpse was placed in the pillory.68

Some of the soldiers heading north engaged in informed acts of iconoclasm. On 15 August soldiers calling themselves ‘London Prentices’ arrived in Marsworth, Buckinghamshire, on their way to Aylesbury and indulged in some unofficial reformation. They demanded the key to the church from the parish clerk and ‘broke down the rails at the upper end of the Chancel where formerly the Communion Table stood, and beat down all the painted glass in the windows’. They then went to the minister’s house, in search of the service book and surplice, telling him ‘that if he did not deliver them to them, they would pull down his house over his head’. Told that the minister did not have them they went back to the church, and ‘finding them there, first tore the two Service books all to pieces, scattering some of the leaves about the streets, and carrying the rest away upon the points of their swords’. Afterwards ‘one of them took the Surplice and put it on him, as the Minister useth to do, and so marched away to Aylesbury triumphing in contempt and derision?.69


English soldiers purging churches on their way north in 1640

Their targets were clearly not indiscriminate, and they were not unique to these men: reports of similar attacks on altar rails, communion tables, stained glass and vestments recur in other parts of the country. These items were often ritually degraded, not simply destroyed. Some of these acts aped official ritual practice – like poor Mohun, objects taken from churches were displayed in pillories, for example. Others were tried in ‘court’ or burned. Church services were disrupted too, but at critical moments – such as immediately after the sermon. This may suggest a tenderness about disrupting the preaching of the Word among those intent on attacking idolatry. These acts were informed by a popular anti-popery, in which the dangers of corruption were attached to specific aspects of the physical environment, and particular moments in religious ritual: they were not apolitical or irreligious, since they shared the vocabulary of state and church. The dates of these acts seem also to have had some ritual significance – incidents were reported on 5 November, Plough Monday and Candalmas, all of them important dates in the ritual calendar. The humour of the participants (their ‘triumphing in contempt and derision’) again suggests a political intent rather than an inchoate violence. Rough music parodied the sacred music of Laudian ritual and the mock courts and trials of offenders were clearly occasions of raucous humour. Iconoclasts relished their temporary power.70 Elsewhere soldiers did ‘justice’ on secular issues – in helping to break down enclosures, breaking open prisons to release debtors and deserters or smashing windows and tools in a House of Correction in Wakefield (an institution in which the able-bodied but unemployed poor were incarcerated and set to work).71 These were overturning times, when poor men could do justice on their oppressors – enclosers, creditors and Poor Law officers – and purify churches.

To say that soldiers were doing this is in some degree misleading for, of course, prior to their muster these were not soldiers at all, but simply men of low status. Evidence is difficult to come by, but there is enough to suggest that these attacks by soldiers sometimes enjoyed the support of the local godly, and might be related to previous disputes and local preferences. In Radwinter, Essex, for example, Richard Drake had been in conflict with a section of his congregation since his arrival in 1638. He favoured relatively high ceremonial, and that had led to a running battle with the local godly. He had raised the chancel, railed the altar and refused to church women (that is, ritually receive them back into the congregation after childbirth) unless they came up to the rails. Similarly, he would not administer communion at Easter and Christmas to those who did not come up to the rails. One hundred of his parishioners had been excluded from communion at Easter 1640, and this had led to a direct confrontation with the godly. The godly had their moment later in the summer, however, when fifty men who had assembled at Saffron Walden passed through the village on their way to war. On a fast day in early July they pulled down the altar rails and some images erected by Drake. The images were tied to a tree and scourged, before being taken back to Saffron Walden, where they were used as fuel to roast the soldiers” meat. En route they were taunted: ‘if ye be Gods deliver yourselves’.72 Clearly, in this case as presumably in many others, it makes little sense to separate the violence of the soldiers from a broader culture of anti-popery, and from a local history of conflict over ceremonial forms.

Certainly Essex was alive with this popular anti-popery. On 26 May, Colchester had erupted in panic when two young girls reported having seen two men, both strangers, acting suspiciously the previous night. According to one of the girls, who had been playing in the street, one of the men had been pushing rags through the window of a house into which he was peering. The mayor, informed of this, put the town in a state of defence, on suspicion that the men were trying to fire it. Seventeenth-century towns were built largely of flammable materials and full of open fires: fire was a constant threat and, in an age before insurance, a total disaster. Reports of attempts to fire a town touched on real sensitivities. The following morning, the danger became widely associated with another great fear of Stuart England – plotting Catholics. It was rumoured that a large number of papists had gathered at Berechurch (the house of a prominent recusant, Lady Audley), planning to bring the Queen Mother, William Laud and the Bishop of Ely there. The details were disputed – which bishop and whether it was to Berechurch or Monkwick. The following afternoon a drum was beaten through the town summoning apprentices to go to Berechurch and Monkwick ‘to see what company was there’.73 In a locality where men would try to beat a drum to the house of local recusants on information as flimsy as this, it is easy to understand why following the drum to the Scottish borders was regarded with a critical eye.

To the extent that Charles’s problems arose from an attempt to connect and harmonize practices in his three churches we can presume that this opposition to Laudianism, popery and the influence of French papists was also, potentially, connected. This all impinged on the royal family: in late September the Queen Mother’s carriage was pelted with carrots by women while passing through Kingston, Surrey. Abuse was also thrown, and one ‘rude fellow’ struck one of her guards.74 Among the soldiers heading north, it seems, were armed men likely to sympathize with their enemy rather than their king. Not only were these soldiers not hurrying to fight the Covenanters, they were taking the opportunity to make their own protests against royal ecclesiastical policy.

The point is not that Charles was facing two armies, of course, since a large English force was successfully mustered near the border. At the Green Dragon, in Bishopsgate Street in London, two clothiers from Dedham, in the same godly corner of Essex, fell into conversation with two officers about to go to fight the Covenanters. When they revealed their hostility to the enterprise the officers called them Puritans, to which they responded, in the style of Francis Rous, by asking what a Puritan was. This so enraged one of the officers that he threw his meal at the clothier and hit him on the head with the flat of his sword. Other soldiers had to be restrained from attacking Lord Loudon on no other grounds than that he was Scottish. This is evidence of division in an integrated and informed political society, rather than fickleness among ‘soldiers’.75 Charles’s English army was not opposed to him, but the evidence suggests that the English mobilization was hesitant and compromised, and that this reflected a wider polarization of English opinion.

As military preparations in England faltered, the Covenanters, untroubled by such divisions, seemed to be in the superior position. At the English court the preference seemed to be to postpone war for a year, or to limit it to a defensive war. But the Covenanters forced the issue, perhaps in the knowledge that this was their moment.76 The Scottish parliament reassembled, ignoring Charles’s desire for a further prorogation, and carried through further dramatic constitutional changes. In England two years later, when Parliament seemed to be moving in a similar direction, it generated a strong royalist party; but not in Scotland in 1640, although there was some division. The Earl of Argyll had emerged as a dominant figure, and there was some suspicion about his motives and plans, but the Covenanters faced little organized opposition. A General Assembly called in Aberdeen, territory friendly to the King’s cause, was actually free of external pressure to moderate its policies – even there the Covenanters” military and political position was unchallenged.77

Nonetheless, the Covenanters invaded England with some reluctance. They had been unsure of their reception and had maintained correspondence with the English peers. The question of whether to invade was also divisive in Scotland, and seems to have precipitated the first sign of serious division in Covenanter ranks. The Earl of Montrose had organized the Cumbernauld band, which claimed that the purposes of the Covenant were being subverted by a minority, and promised to pursue the original aims by another means. This was perhaps the first sign of his move towards support of the King, and was certainly evidence of a growing suspicion of Argyll. In the end, the Covenanters probably invaded because of the difficulty of maintaining an army off the land north of the border.78

As in the first war, we cannot be certain how disabling English foot-dragging was, because at Newburn, the only significant engagement of the war, the crucial problem for the English was not the quality of their men or arms, but that they chose the wrong ground. The Covenanting army may not have been easy to sustain for a long period, so the outcome of a single battle exaggerates the relative importance of the problems on the English side.79 Against this, however, it is a poor army, or one with very limited political capital behind it, that collapses in the face of relatively small casualties. Exact figures are lacking, but it is unlikely that either side lost more than several hundred men: significant for a day, but hardly the destruction of an army said to have numbered 25,000 overall. In the end, the dismal military performance reflected a lack of political will, a product of divisions felt at all levels of English society from the peerage to the beggar turned away by Alexander Powell.

On the same day that the two armies clashed at Newburn, twelve peers petitioned the King to call a parliament and from that point there is clear evidence of co-ordination between the Covenanters and those anxious to secure the meeting of another English parliament – Nathaniel Fiennes, son of Saye and Sele, was certainly in correspondence designed to secure a treaty and a parliament. Charles bowed to this pressure, summoning a Great Council at York on 24 September. He opened proceedings by announcing his intention to call another parliament, although he took some persuasion that defeat at Newburn necessitated recognition of the Covenanters” political victory.80

These twelve peers were the most confident of a wider circle of aristocrats opposed to the policies of the Personal Rule: the Earls of Essex, Hertford, Bedford, Warwick, Exeter and Rutland and Lords Saye and Sele, Brooke, Mandeville, Howard of Escrick, Mulgrave and Boling-broke. The Earl of Manchester, a future parliamentarian general, also urged the calling of a parliament. The Earl of Northumberland, another prominent parliamentarian during the civil war, had been in charge of the war effort against the Covenanters. The political role of the aristocracy is a neglected theme in civil war studies, but it has been plausibly suggested that a group of radical peers had ridden this crisis intent on engineering exactly this outcome – an opportunity actually to reduce the King to the position of a Doge of Venice.81 It is certainly clear that Charles’s policies divided the ruling class, and debates resonated outside it. There were imitators of the twelve peers” petition in York and Hereford, although those petitions were not delivered for fear that they would prove fractious, and in London, where the inhibitions were fewer.82

Once a parliament had been called the City of London advanced £200,000. Delegates from the Great Council, those most sympathetic to settlement with the Covenanters, were sent to negotiate the Treaty of Ripon. Under its terms the Covenanters were to stay in the six northern counties of England and to be paid £850 per day. A full settlement was to await, and be ratified in, an English parliament. In effect, what had been agreed was a ceasefire, pending a treaty in London, and the terms of the ceasefire clearly suited the Covenanters and their English friends – the costs of the army were placed on the English taxpayer, which gave a guarantee that the next parliament could not be a short one. Ripon not only ended the attempt to crush the Covenant, therefore, but also cemented the connection between the fate of reformation in Scotland and the redress of grievances in England. For those in England who were primarily interested in religious grievances, Ripon also established the connection between the position of the English parliament and the future of reformed religion. Influential men, like Pym, took full advantage of this association between the defence of Parliament’s constitutional position and the promotion of reformation.83

During this crisis the Earl of Lindsey had been presented with a severed toe by a woman from Boston, Lincolnshire. The toe had previously belonged to her husband but he had cut it off so that he would not have to fight. It is difficult to be sure that this was an ideological statement.84There was nothing particularly new about English military failure or lack of political support: even during the Armada year there were signs of reluctance to support the war effort.85 But the Bishops” Wars proved particularly damaging to Charles’s English regime. Prerogative rule, particularly the use of prerogative powers to secure military resources, had caused significant resentments during the 1630s. Using those same powers to cow the godly Scots was little more popular, and by the late summer of 1640 it had failed.

It was John Knox, father of the Scottish Reformation, who had asked Heinrich Bullinger in 1554 ‘Whether obedience is to be rendered to a magistrate who enforces idolatry and condemns true religion’. Bullinger had flannelled in response and not surprisingly, for this was the most loaded political question in Reformation Europe.86 It was close to being posed by some of Charles’s Scottish subjects in 1640. Generally recognized obligations to obey both God and the King were coming into conflict in the Prayer Book crisis, as obedience to the King’s commands seemed to offend against godliness.

Alexander Henderson, leading light in the Covenanting movement, dealt with these questions in his tract ‘Instructions for Defensive Arms’, which is a little puzzling to modern readers in its silences and hesitations. The key question was not whether to honour the King, or to render unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, but ‘whether honour should be given to evil and wicked superiors in an evil thing?’ In the normal course of events evil and wicked superiors should be honoured, since they might have been sent as a punishment, but not, Henderson argued, when they commanded evil things. In that case, he said, they could be resisted, even by private citizens, although it would be better if this was done by inferior magistrates. A chief magistrate commanding evil things had stepped out of the line of divine hierarchy so that his inferior was acting in direct response to God.87

All this is blunt, and bracing. But Henderson was less clear on the more fundamental question: who was to judge when the chief magistrate was out of line? This was really the nub, and a king who accepted the argument about an errant chief magistrate was unlikely to accept that a self-appointed group like the Covenanters should be judges of when it had happened. At least the Covenanters had produced authoritative texts against which the judgement could be made – the Negative Confession of 1581 and subsequent declarations. England, as events over the next two years showed, lacked such texts. Although it seems to avoid the most pressing question – who should be the judge – this tract was persuasive enough to be reprinted in 1642 for the guidance of English readers facing a similar dilemma. The dangers inherent in opening up these lines of argument, and the reasons for imposing limits on the right to resist, were exemplified, however, by the words of Roger Moore, in Middleton (Westmorland) in 1640: he was accused of saying that if the king commanded him to turn papist, or do anything against his conscience, then he would rise up against him and kill him.88 An unlimited licence to follow conscience rather than to obey the powers that be might quickly lead to chaos if individuals could claim the right to kill a king.

In the Short Parliament, of course, these questions had not been asked, and the debates were in the main revisiting the grievances of the 1620s.89 But as we have seen, on the streets of London and among the troops going north there were signs that a new and more radical kind of politics was emerging: not just anti-Laudian but in favour of pushing the Reformation further, perhaps openly anti-episcopal. At some point in the summer of 1640 an underground press kicked into life in London, publishing Covenanter texts almost simultaneously with the presses in Edinburgh.90This could even have been construed as treasonous after the royal proclamation of August 1640 that all those who ‘shall not with all their might oppose and fight against’ the Covenanters would be deemed rebels and traitors. But there was worse. The same press published two tracts arguing that the Church of England was anti-Christian – so corrupt that true believers should withdraw. Instead Christians should separate themselves completely from the established church, forming independent congregations, gathered voluntarily. These arguments had a hinterland in discussions within radical Protestant circles during the 1630s, but now they were breaking cover and they were to be of profound significance to the politics of the 1640s. Even more disturbingly, Samuel How’s pamphlet, The Sufficiencie of the Spirits Teaching, argued that human learning about the scriptures might not be merely wrong but positively dangerous. This cut the ground from under the entire ministry, not just bishops, justifying lay preaching and even suggesting that the minds of the poor and unlearned, whose thinking was unadulterated by human learning, were more receptive to the teaching of the Spirit. These too were radical claims, again with an established heritage in Reformation thought, that were to be of profound significance to the politics of the following decade.

Perhaps the most inflammatory of the pamphlets produced from this press was Englands Complaint to Jesus Christ Against the Bishops canons. This argued that there was a popish plot which had infected government right up to the King himself, who was personally implicated because he had fallen for the Devil’s snares. To allow such a faction to flourish threatened the people’s laws and liberties, and the good of their souls. This, it was claimed, breached a covenant between the King and the people in existence since the Norman conquest. An argument in this form hinted, to put it no more strongly, at a positive right to resist. These were by no means standard, or normal, responses to the Covenanter crisis, and in arguing for congregational separatism, they were in fact going far further than the Covenanters. It may have been that this press started up having been brought back from Amsterdam, a centre of clandestine and radical publication in Reformation Europe.91

London crowds mobilized in response to libels, pasquils and papers may also have been consuming the output of underground presses.92 Nehemiah Wallington, a London wood turner and avid reader of the press, was often among the crowds in London in these years. He was an unusually pious man, who paid painstaking attention to his own spiritual well-being and the health of the community in which he lived. He has left hundreds of pages of notes on his own affairs, and on public issues, all seeking to come closer to an understanding of God’s purposes in the world. Among his notes on the canons of 1640 is a paper outlining orthodox resistance theory and relating it directly to the situation of the Covenanters.

It was in the form of an answer to the concern that for subjects to bear arms against their king ‘upon any pretence whatsoever’ was to resist ‘the powers ordained of God’. It was acknowledged that private individuals could not resist. However, if the King maintained a faction which oppressed the whole kingdom and the ‘people in their law and liberties and most of all in the true religion’, ruling not by law, but seeking to ‘make all his subjects slaves by bringing their souls, bodies, estates under a miserable bondage’; and if the breach could not be healed, and there was no alternative, then it was acceptable for the whole people ‘to stand up as one man to defend themselves and their country’. He noted that ‘this point trencheth upon the Scots at this time’, who were standing to the defence of their laws, liberties and religion:

when a whole Nation thus universal and unanimously stands up in such a quarrel it cannot but be ascribed to the overruling and righteous hand that thereby thou might both defend the people’s rights and preserve the State of the Kingdom to the King himself and his posterity, which otherwise by oppression and Tyranny would be brought to confusion…

The royal office was a sacred one, but numerous biblical sources justified the view that kings were bound by the law, covenants and conditions agreed between them and their people. Those that ‘persuade Kings, that they are no way bound, but have liberty to rule as they list, by an independent prerogative these are they that are traitors both to God and to the King, and to the Realm and to the peace and prosperity thereof’.93

Whether informed directly from the presses or not, the politics of crowds in London and of some of the troops conscripted for service against the Covenanters indicate that English politics were entering some of the more dangerous waters in post-Reformation Europe. Tensions between religious and political duties such as those being experienced in Scotland and England were not unusual in Reformation Europe, and had tremendous radical potential. The classical heritage was rich in resources for those who would oppose tyranny, champion virtue or promote freedom. These may have been some of the books that encouraged Felton to think that ‘it was lawful to kill an enemy to the republic’, or that those who were not free to exercise their own judgement free of interference were in bondage or slavery: an argument that became prominent in 1642. England was not full of revolutionaries in 1640, but its cultural heritage – biblical and classical – furnished materials with which to think radically about political crises when they erupted. And it was true of the popular culture too. Scottish troops on the march through Flodden in 1640 were encouraged by an ancient prophecy of Merlin, circulating in both Latin and ‘Scottish verse’, which could be read as predicting success in their venture. Such prophecies were widely thought to be potential solvents of political order, lending a kind of supernatural authority to resistance, upheaval and changes of regime.94

It is tempting to dwell on this radicalism because of its implications for the future, and there was very obviously much more at stake in this public contestation than a failure to deal adequately with a ‘Scottish invasion’. But English opinion was on the whole expressed in conventional terms, and seems to have been more divided and irresolute than it was revolutionary. John Castle, for example, drew a ready but not particularly helpful analogy between natural events and the political crisis. Strafford’s crossing from Ireland in 1640 had been rough, and there were fears that the ship might be lost. The ride, and the fear it induced, brought on his gout and he finished his journey to London on a litter. His condition had ruled out the possibility of serving as Lord High Steward of Parliament. A month later, following the failure of the Short Parliament, Castle reached for the obvious analogy: ‘God I trust will guide the rudder of this ship, and give you a healthful body to support the concussions and tossings of these stormy times’. Reporting assaults on their officers by troops in Essex, later in the summer, he concluded equally piously, ‘God amend all, and defend this great ship from breaking upon these rocks’. In June he wrote:

there is at this time reigning here at Westminster a disease… wherein they that labour of it, complain of a stifling at heart and distemper in the head; and there is cause to fear that almost generally through the kingdom, the common people are sick of those parts; they labour of a suffocation of their hearts in the duty and obedience they owe to his Majesty’s service and commands, and they are stricken in the head that they rave and utter they know not what against his Majesty’s government and proceedings in the present action in hand.95

Looking for signs or portents in the natural world was commonplace. For example, English troops in the Borders had been intimidated by an eclipse on 22 May 1639, two days after a skirmish at Wark that marked the first action of the first Bishops” War. Troops summoned suddenly to Newcastle were overtaken by the eclipse, and feared for the worst. John Aston started his journey late in the afternoon, just at the time of eclipse. ‘[I]t was not superstition stayed me, though rumours being then uncertain, and our departure sudden, there wanted not those who construed this eclipse as an ominous presage of the bad success of the king’s affairs’.96 This habit of thought helped to make sense of an insecure natural and political world, but it was not a very effective guide to action.

The Covenanting movement drew on deep wells of support in Scotland and appealed to English opinion through declarations that circulated in manuscript and were printed by presses in Edinburgh and London. Mobilization in England was supported from the pulpits and demanded action from village officers. Political engagement, in other words, was invited at relatively low levels of society in both countries. In Scotland control was exerted by an oligarchic group, whose authority resided in the Presbyterian church and in the Tables. ‘Oligarchic centralism’ allowed for a degree of co-ordination and ideological control that underpinned a dramatic political success and also set limits to the radicalism of the movement: the whole campaign, in fact, was framed by a document which reflected, and respected, informed Protestant opinion about the limits of legitimate resistance.97 In England, over the next two years, similar tensions were not controlled, and armed conflict was not restrained: as proponents of reformation pushed for more fundamental changes, and accompanying shifts in constitutional arrangements, others pulled back, wary of what this radicalism meant for political order. Greater hesitancy and a lack of clarity about the aims of the opposition to the crown paradoxically led to a much more bloody conflict and, eventually, much greater radicalism on both the royalist and parliamentary sides.

Armed petitioning was a well-established form of politics. Leslie’s army, processing in the form of a funeral march for the Bible, had been led by ministers and the greybeards of Scottish society: the soldiers came last. But the soldiers were there, and if the King would not listen to the leaders of the community, then they would have to defend their corner by force of arms. The difficulty was that force, or the threat of it, might be a cure that was worse than the disease – indeed, one that was fatal to the patient. ‘God grant this viperous brood so freely received into the body of the Kingdom, do not eat through the belly of their fosterers; for I assure you where they shall govern we shall find them proud lords’, wrote one correspondent from Newcastle a little more than a week after its occupation by Leslie’s army. A week of Scottish occupation had been an education for the author: ‘For my part, I assure you had I known what I now find, I should have preferred by much to have suffered as a martyr for my religion, than to run the hazard of being a traitor to mine own country’. Manuscript copies seem to have circulated widely.98 The costs of the Treaty of Ripon, and the realities of occupation, created a political opportunity for those anxious for change in England. But the Covenanters” occupation also, potentially, changed the balance of priorities for many English people between the maintenance of normal civil government and the defence of the true religion or redress of secular grievances. England’s tragedy in the coming years was to be that so many continued to feel that they had to make this choice. When they did, the ideals and experience of active citizenship, and of informed Protestant faith, were available to guide them.

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