The Great Rebellion



THE revolution that enthroned Parliament and killed a king—144 years before Louis XVI atoned for his ancestry—had its roots in economic conflict and religious rivalry.

Feudalism was an organization and dependency of agriculture; monarchy, in Western Europe, was an organization and culmination of feudalism; it was tied by its roots to an economy of landlords and land. In England two economic developments cut these feudal roots. One was the growth of the “gentry,” the untitled owners of minor estates, who, on the land, ranked between the titled nobility and the yeomanry, or peasant proprietors. They fretted under a king, a court, and a code of laws still thinking or fashioned in feudal terms; they bought or captured seats in the House of Commons; they longed for a government submissive to a Parliament submissive to themselves. The other development was the expanding wealth of the bourgeoisie—bankers, merchants, manufacturers, lawyers, physicians—and its demand for political representation commensurate with its economic power. These revolutionary factors had no common interest; they collaborated only in the attempt to check the pedigreed landlords, the snobbish court, and a king who considered a hereditary aristocracy the necessary source of economic and political order and stability.

Year by year the English economy was changing its base and fulcrum from static land to movable money. Before 1540 a brass factory required an investment of $300 (in United States currency of 1958); in 1620, $125,000. By 1650 capitalistic undertakings involving large outlays of funds had developed alum factories in Yorkshire, paper manufactures at Dartford, cannon foundries at Brendeley, and deep-level mines that were called upon for more and more coal, copper, tin, iron, and lead. In 1550 only a few English mines produced more than 300 tons a year; in 1640 several gave 20,000 tons each. Artisans using metal depended on mining and metallurgical industries concentrated under capitalistic control. Textile organizations furnished material to shops employing 500 to 1,000 workers, and to weavers and sewers scattered among thousands of houses in towns and villages. Agriculture itself was sharing in the capitalistic conversion of production: capitalists bought and enclosed large tracts of land to provide meat for the towns and wool for factories at home and abroad. England’s foreign commerce grew tenfold between 1610 and 1640.

Not in England’s memory had the gap been so wide between rich and poor. “The laborer’s service sank to the worst scale of remuneration during the first half of the seventeenth century, for the price of food increased while wages remained stationary.”1 Taking 100 as a base, the real wages of English carpenters stood at 300 about 1380, at 370 in 1480, at 200 under Elizabeth, at 120 under Charles I—the lowest in four hundred years.2 Unemployment was so great in 1634 that Charles compelled the demolition of a newly erected mechanical sawmill because it threw so many sawyers out of work.3 War with France raised taxes, war in France disrupted the export trade, bad harvests (1629–30) inflated prices to the verge of starvation;4 the swelling economy burst in depressions (1629–32, 1638). All these factors collaborated with religious strife to drive many English families to America, and to plunge England into a civil war that changed the face and destiny of the nation.

The class war became also a conflict of regions and moral codes. The north was overwhelmingly agricultural and largely Catholic, however clandestinely; London and the south were increasingly industrial and Protestant. The new business class, while cherishing its monopolies and protective tariffs, demanded a free economy, in which wages and prices would be determined by the supply of labor and goods; in which there would be no feudal or governmental control of production, distribution, profit, or property; and in which no stigma would be attached to commercial occupations, the charging of interest, or the manipulation of wealth. The barons and their peasants clung to the feudal concept of mutual obligation and group responsibility, of state regulation of wages and prices, of limits by custom and law to conditions of employment and profit. The barons protested that the new mercantile economy, producing for a national or international market, was disrupting class relations and social stability. They (and the gentry and the government) felt their own solvency threatened by the effects of inflation on the value of the traditional dues, rents, or taxes upon which they depended. They looked with angry disdain upon the lawyers who shared so prominently in administration, and the merchants who ruled the cities. They dreaded the power of mercantile London, which, with a population of some 300,000 out of England’s 5,000,000, was able to finance an army and a revolution.

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