So, from 1603 the Kingdoms of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland all had the same monarch – James Stuart. Scotland retained its separate sovereignty. I must confess to not having much affection for the Stuart monarchs – they seem rather tiresome, and unlikeable, but of course they are an all-important part of the story.
History certainly does not regard James I (or VI) too favourably. ‘The wisest fool in Christendom’, he was by all accounts a scholar, but is also described as ‘slobbering’ and ‘spluttering’ and, generally, seems to have been somewhat unpleasant in his personal habits. Of course, like many monarchs of the time, it wasn’t his fault: he came from a broken home. His father, Lord Darnley, was a pompous ass, a murderer and was himself murdered not long after James was born. His mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, who he can’t have had any memory of, was executed on the orders of James’s English predecessor. As if that wasn’t enough emotional baggage for any child, he had suffered through four regents ruling Scotland on his behalf until he came of age, as well as imprisonment and assault along the way. And now, there he was, with the big prize at last.
James had some strong views, which included an intense dislike of tobacco and smoking and a deep-seated concern about the dangers of witchcraft. He was also a believer in the principle of the Divine Right of Kings – a doctrine that he passed on to his unfortunate son, Charles. Thinking you have the ear of a deity is usually a dangerous assumption, in my experience, often ending in tears; believing that you receive your power through God too might make a chap a little conceited, and even inflexible.
On the positive side, one of his first acts as James I was to conclude peace with Spain. He also ordered a new translation of the Bible into English – and the King James Bible is still regarded as a masterpiece 500 years later.
Though raised a Protestant, he was nonetheless sympathetic to Catholics; his wife, Anne of Denmark, was one. But the peace with Spain ruled out any chance of a Catholic monarch and Catholics were still persecuted. A bunch of Catholic extremists, led by a charismatic nobleman called Robert Catesby, hatched a plot to stage a revolution, blowing up Parliament with James and everyone else in it on 5th November 1605, and replacing the King with his daughter, Princess Elizabeth (who knew nothing about it). One Guido Fawkes was chosen to lay the gunpowder. They were betrayed (inevitably), some were killed in a fire-fight (heroically), the survivors tortured horribly (of course), and then executed in the most unpleasant manner imaginable. Bonfires have been lit throughout the land on 5th November ever since to mark the event and it set the cause of reasonable Catholics in Britain back years. Be in no doubt, though, the Gunpowder Plot was a planned act of terrorism on a par with many launched by nationalist and religious extremists in modern times; had it succeeded, the casualties would have been horrendous.
James was even-handed, though; radical Protestants – ‘Puritans’ – were persecuted too. A group of fundamentalist Protestants felt sufficiently victimized to start a new life in the New World, setting sail on the Mayflower on 16 September 1620 and landing at Cape Cod on 21 November. They became known as ‘the Pilgrim Fathers’. In fact, the first permanent British colony in North America had been founded in 1607 at Jamestown – named after the King. By the end of James’s reign, some 80,000 Britons had crossed the Atlantic to start new lives in America.
Some bright spark also hit on a cunning scheme to encourage Scottish Protestants to settle land in Ireland that had been confiscated from Catholics. The ‘Plantation of Ulster’ in 1609 was possibly not one of HMG’s better ideas.
James, given his beliefs, did not have much time for Parliament. His son Charles, who succeeded his father in 1625, spectacularly fell out with it. Not a good move, because monarchs relied on Parliament to raise taxes.
Charles was a cultured man, though not particularly bright, and had made the mistake – for those times – of marrying a very forthright French Catholic, Henrietta Maria. His relationship with a strongly Protestant and increasingly independent Parliament resulted in the 1628 Petition of Right, which told the King that he could not tax without the will of the Commons, or imprison without trial. Charles, of course, considered himself accountable to no one but God. He dismissed Parliament and tried to rule without it, raising money by any means he could. This included reviving an old levy called ‘ship tax’. Originally intended to help pay for the defence of coastal towns, the King applied it nationwide – to widespread protest.
The King also sought to impose a new ‘high church’ (ie quasi-Catholic) prayer-book on Presbyterian Scotland. It was too much, resulting in riots in Edinburgh and the declaration of the ‘National Covenant’ in 1638, opposing the King’s interference. The ‘Covenanters’, as they became known, simply would not accept any King attempting to be head of their church. Charles declared a ‘bishops’ war’ on Scotland, which went badly and ended up with the Scots occupying Newcastle upon Tyne. Desperate for money, the King summoned Parliament. Parliament revised its earlier Petition of Right into a 200-clause ‘Grand Remonstrance’, which was so radical that it has even now not been fully acted upon. In January 1642, Charles entered Parliament and attempted to arrest those that he saw as the ringleaders. Armed bands sought the Queen, perceived to be a bad influence. It seems that Charles and Henrietta were genuinely fond of one another. They parted, she heading for the safety of France and the King to Nottingham where he raised his standard and summoned his subjects to defend their king. Civil War had returned to Britain.
The war that is generally known as the English Civil War was more accurately British, because although most of the initial fighting took place in England, the whole of Britain was involved. It was a tragic war, as if there is any other kind, setting friends, sons, fathers and brothers against each other. Yet it was one of the prime shapers of modern Britain, and it was a revolution. The final outcome meant that the monarchy could never again challenge the will of Parliament – well, not without provoking a constitutional crisis, anyway.
Factional support was more or less regional, with the Parliamentarians, or ‘Roundheads’ (because some of them sported shorter hair) stronger in the wealthier and typically more radical south-east and London. The rest of the country apart from Scotland generally sided with the King. There were religious divisions too: puritanical Protestants supported Parliament; Catholics fought for the Royalists. It wasn’t always that simple, of course, but it will do for our purposes.
The details of the Civil War need not concern us here. It was an intense power struggle. Initially, the Royalists (or ‘Cavaliers’) did quite well; but they were ultimately defeated by better organised, better supplied and better disciplined armies under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell (one time MP for Huntingdon, like ex-Prime Minister John Major). The Battle of Naseby in 1645 was a decisive victory for the Parliamentary cause. The Scots, beguiled by Charles’ promises, changed sides and were defeated at Preston in 1648. Charles was handed over to Parliament by the Scots, and brought to trial by a specially convened commission who found him guilty of treason and required that “his head be severed from his body.” Charles, wearing an extra shirt (“were I to shake through cold, my enemies would attribute it to fear”), was beheaded at Whitehall on a cold January day in 1649. The King, believing in the Divine Right of Kings, never accepted the validity of the process that took his life with just one blow. As the executioner held up the head and announced, “Behold, the head of a traitor!” one eyewitness remarked that “there was such a groan by the thousands then present, as I never heard before and desire I may never hear again.”
Parliament dispatched Oliver Cromwell to Ireland and Scotland, to snuff out further Royalist unrest, which he did with considerable severity. Cromwell is despised in Ireland, even today. The Scots crowned Charles’s son Charles II in 1651; this attempted counter-revolution was decisively beaten – again by Cromwell – at Worcester. Charles fled into exile.
There was no model for future government, but there were deep religious and political differences amongst members of parliament and the army. Cromwell dominated affairs, grew impatient, disbanded parliament, tried to persuade 140 “God-fearing men” representing “the various forms of Godliness in this nation” to devise a constitution and, when that failed, was persuaded to take on the mantle of monarch – but not king – in the form of ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’. His over-arching objective in this period seems to have been to achieve stability after the war, “healing and settling”, which included religious tolerance for all but those Cromwell considered most extreme. Like Charles I, Cromwell might have seen himself as being on a divine mission. He encouraged Jews, banished almost 400 years earlier by Edward I, to return. Contrary to rumour, he did not ban Christmas; parliament had been clamping down on what were seen as Catholic excesses in the celebration of Christmas and other holy days since the 1640s and Cromwell undoubtedly supported that. Abroad, Cromwell made peace with the Dutch, allied the Commonwealth with France against Spain, and captured Jamaica. However, Cromwell’s rule was largely possible only with the support of the army – which has given the British a deep-seated suspicion of militarism.
No one really knew what to do after Cromwell’s death in 1658. A group of MPs and army officers, led by General George Monck, felt the only solution was to invite Charles II to return from exile which, in 1660, he did.
The Restoration is characterised by hedonism and big hair. The personality of the ‘merrie monarch’, debonair, extrovert, extravagant and promiscuous, is stamped all over his reign, contrasting with the apparent greyness and uncertainty of the previous two decades. Charles supported the new Royal Society, whose illustrious members included Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren and Robert Boyle. But it wasn’t all fun and games. War with the Dutch, who burned 13 ships in Chatham harbour and towed away the Navy’s flagship, Royal Charles, provided a catalyst for major naval reforms, responsibly managed by Samuel Pepys (probably better known for his diary). The Great Plague of 1665 was devastating – an estimated 100,000 died in London, though the horror was by no means contained there. This was followed in London by the Great Fire the following year, which largely destroyed the medieval city and changed the capital for ever. Religion still dominated affairs. Charles was inclined to be tolerant of Catholics – and actually converted on his death-bed. In 1673, Parliament passed the Test Act, banning Catholics from public office. Anti-Catholic hysteria, never far beneath the surface, was whipped to frenzy by the false claims of an unsavoury con-artist with the ridiculous name of Titus Oates. The ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678 warned of a fictional conspiracy to replace Charles with his Roman Catholic brother, James, the Duke of York, and of arson attacks on London. At around this time, political factions began to emerge – forerunners of modern political parties: ‘Tories’ – broadly royalist in sympathies – and ‘Whigs’ – generally protestant or anti-Catholic parliamentarians – were mutually abusive terms and extensions of the lines drawn in the Civil War. Oates’ false accusations resulted in the arrest and deaths of many innocent Catholics – he was later imprisoned by James II, but released and given a pension by WilliamandMary.
Charles is also well known for his innumerable mistresses, including the infamous Nell Gwynne; though they probably didn’t do much for Britain, they sure helped keep a smile on the King’s face. The King’s last words are reputed to have been, “Let not poor Nelly starve.”