The Stuarts and the Republic of Britain

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 01:17 pm

James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland and King James I of England and Ireland.

Two immovable objects collide – the monarch and parliament

James Stuart, the new King James I of England in 1603, had been King James VI of Scotland since 1567.  And he had a pretty good pedigree: as well as being the great-grandson of James IV and Margaret Tudor, he was the direct descendent of Robert the Bruce.  A Stuart had sat on the Scottish throne since 1371 and you can’t help wondering what went through James’s mind as he approached the centre of power of his country’s auld enemy, knowing that the top job was his.

Historians often do not regard James I (or VI) too favourably.  He has been called ‘The wisest fool in Christendom’, a man who never said a foolish thing nor ever did a wise one.  He has also been described as ‘slobbering’ and ‘spluttering’ and, generally, seems to have been somewhat unpleasant in his personal habits.  He certainly had a knack for upsetting people at the time.  The English resented the influx of Scots at Court; the Scots left behind felt abandoned (James only returned to Scotland once after becoming king of England); and everyone came to resent the influence of his favourites, the most notable of which was George Villiers, who James created Earl and, ultimately, Duke of Buckingham.  Of course, James 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, Elizabeth.  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, assault and a sadistic tutor. If anyone needed friends, it was James.

But James was also intelligent, well-read and ambitious.  He had a vision, too: more than just a unified crown, he wanted to create a unified nation, Great Britain.  He even came up with a banner, a forerunner of today’s Union flag. Possibly fearing loss of identity and independence, the idea of a union of nations was rejected by English and Scots alike.

James had developed 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, often ending in tears; believing that you receive your power through God too might make a chap a little conceited, and even a tad 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.  The work of 50-plus scholars and published in 1611, The King James Bible is still regarded as a masterpiece 500 years later and its turn of phrase enriches our language every day.

Gunpowder Plotters

Though raised a Protestant, James could be sympathetic to Catholics; his wife, Anne of Denmark, was one.  But Catholics were still persecuted, and widely regarded with suspicion by the Protestant majority.  Disappointed not to receive the tolerance they had expected under the new king, a bunch of English Catholic extremists, led by a charismatic nobleman called Robert Catesby, hatched a revolutionary plot.  Their idea was to blow up Parliament with James and everyone else in it on 5 November 1605, and replace the King with his daughter, the 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 by being hanged, drawn and quartered.  Bonfires have been lit throughout the land on 5 November ever since to mark the event.  Be in no doubt, 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 and the consequences profound.  As it was, it set the cause of reasonable Catholics in Britain back years.

James was even-handed, though; radical Protestants – ‘Puritans’ – were persecuted too.  A group of fundamentalist Protestants felt sufficiently victimised 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: not all were religious refugees; some were escaping economic hardship.

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 so-called ‘Plantation of Ulster’ in 1609 was possibly not one of His Majesty’s Government’s better ideas and, of course, the consequences of it remain with us to this day.

Given his beliefs, James did not have much time for Parliament; he seems to have viewed its purpose as being primarily to approve his extravagant spending.  However, his son Charles, who succeeded his father in 1625, had a spectacular falling-out with it.

Charles Stuart, King Charles I

Charles was a cultured man, and an avid art collector, but not particularly bright.  One of his first mistakes, in the circumstances, was to marry a very forthright French Catholic, Henrietta Maria.  His continued reliance on his father’s favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, was deeply unpopular – though Buckingham was murdered by a disaffected army officer in Portsmouth in 1628.  Charles’s poor 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.  So 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 paid by coastal towns and intended to help fund their defence, the King applied it nationwide – to widespread howls of 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 what became known as ‘the Bishops’ War’ on Scotland, which went badly for him and ended up with the Scots occupying Newcastle upon Tyne.  The conflict also marked the opening shots in what would become a much wider civil war.  Desperate for money, the King summoned the English Parliament.  Parliament revised its earlier Petition of Right into a 200-clause ‘Grand Remonstrance’, which was so radical that, even now, it has not been fully acted upon.  In January 1642, Charles entered Parliament and vainly attempted to arrest those that he saw as the ringleaders.  Armed bands sympathetic to Parliament sought the Queen, who was 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, on 22 August, he raised his standard and summoned his subjects to defend their king.  Civil War had returned to Britain.

A troop of Royalist Cavalry

The war that is generally known as the English Civil War was more accurately British, because although much 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 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 Parliament armies under Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell (one time MP for Huntingdon, like ex-Prime Minister John Major).  From 1643, Parliamentary forces also benefitted significantly from Scottish troops, fighting in return for the promise that Scottish Presbyterianism would be adopted in England – a promise that wasn’t kept.  The Battle of Naseby in 1645 was a decisive victory for the Parliamentary cause.  The Scots, beguiled by Charles’s promises, changed sides and were in turn defeated by Cromwell 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.”

The Flag of the Lord Protector, English Civil War

The office of king was abolished and England, along with Wales, was declared a republic. No one had consulted Scotland about the execution of their king. Five days afterwards, the Scots declared his son Charles II, King of Scotland, Ireland and England.  Parliament dispatched Oliver Cromwell to Ireland and Scotland, to snuff out further Royalist unrest, which he did with considerable severity. He is despised in Ireland, even today.  The Scots crowned Charles’s son Charles II in 1651; this further 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”, as he called it, 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, who had been banished from England almost 400 years earlier by Edward I, to return.  Contrary to rumour, he did not personally ban Christmas; Parliament had been clamping down on what were seen as Catholic excesses and rituals in the celebration of Christmas and other holy days since the 1640s.  Ultimately, an ordinance of 1645 confirmed the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun; so, until the Restoration in 1660, celebrating Christmas was officially illegal and Cromwell probably 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.  His son, Richard, briefly succeeded him; but did not carry sufficient personal authority. The prospect of anarchy loomed. Up stepped General George Monck, Cromwell’s Governor in Scotland.  Monck marched south at the head of an army, crossing the border at Coldstream – thus accidentally forming the Coldstream Guards.  In London, he recognised that the only way forward was a form of popular monarchy – and the best candidate seemed to be the exiled Charles II.


Scroll to Top