Background briefing to the topic of the causes of the English Civil War

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Background briefing to the topic of the causes of the English Civil War

‘The search for the origins of the English Civil War’, John Morrill has recently written, ‘is the early modern historian’s Holy Grail.’ They remain tantalisingly out of reach and it would be a brave historian who today claimed that he or she had found them.

This was not the case before the mid 1970s. ‘Why did Civil War break out in 1642’? was a historical question which was relatively straightforward to answer. Most historians believed that the answer was to be found in long-term developments underway since the mid 16th century. Such causes meant opposition to the monarchy was inevitable. Two kinds of explanation were put forward. These were labelled ‘Whig’ and ‘Marxist’ explanations.

The ‘Whig’ interpretation originated in Victorian Britain and drew on Darwin’s theories of evolution. Whig historians of the late 19th century and the early to mid 20th century assumed that historical development was characterised by the inevitability of progress towards superior forms of government, such as the ideas of parliamentary democracy and religious toleration. Historians like T B Macauley, S R Gardiner, J E Neale and the American Wallace Notestein saw the civil war as a key episode in the progress from a medieval authoritarian monarchy relying on religious persecution, to a constitutional parliamentary monarchy believing in religious toleration. The two major forces which brought about war were

  1. The rise of parliament, which increasingly found itself in conflict with the monarchy

  2. The rise of Puritanism, a revolutionary belief, held by many MPs which challenged the power and authority of the established Anglican Church.

The ‘Marxist’ interpretation rested on different long term developments. Historians like R H Tawney, Christopher Hill, (and more recently Nora Carlin and Brian Manning) saw the key to explaining the outbreak of the civil war in social and economic developments, not political and religious ones. In the 16th century, the increasing wealth and size of the landed gentry meant that they would, one day, demand constitutional changes from the crown that would give them the power and influence they thought their economic wealth and status deserved. In this analysis, a rising progressive social class took on a conservative and reactionary ancient regime and won.

However, by the mid 1970s, there was a marked revisionist reaction against both the Whig and Marxist explanations.

The Revisionist interpretation represented a backlash against the idea of any long term causes of the civil war. It rejected teleological history (assuming that because events took place, they were bound to do so) and the use of hindsight in the search for causes. It was misleading, the revisionists argued, to see the civil war as inevitable (the idea of a high road to the civil war). Revisionists looked for the origins of the war in short term, often contingent and unexpected events found in the period after the outbreak of Charles’ war with Scotland in 1637. They placed great emphasis on the actions of particular individuals, such as Charles I. For the revisionists, it was Charles I and his ministers, not the MPs or the Puritans who were the revolutionaries, trying to bring about innovations in both the Church and State. Therefore, the revisionists reversed the orthodox analysis. A conservative political nation was reluctantly pushed into opposing a king attempting to impose revolutionary changes. The civil war was thus, a surprising and unintended catastrophe. Revisionists have presented us with a largely accidental civil war. Chance, missed opportunities, and unforeseen events multiplied the interconnectedness of these contingencies. Key revisionists include, Lawrence Stone, Kevin Sharpe, Conrad Russell, Barry Coward, Nicholas Tyacke, Mark Kishlansky, John Morrill, Gerald Aylmer, Clive Holmes, Derek Hirst, Anthony Fletcher, Perez Zagorin, Ivan Roots and Robert Ashton.

The Post Revisionist interpretation. In recent years, revisionism itself has come under major criticism from historians labelled post revisionist. Historians such as Anne Hughes, Richard Cust, Johann Sommerville, John Adamson, Michael Braddick, Ronald Hutton, Conrad Russell, Austin Woorych and David Smith accept the focus on short term causes, but also argue that even contingencies can have long term antecedents. The focus has been shifted back to include longer term causes. There were, they claim, two great structural problems affecting the mid 17th century Stuart state, whose origins stretch back to the Tudors, if not earlier.

The first, Conrad Russell has argued, was the ‘problem of multiple kingdoms’. The Stuarts were the first dynasty to unite all three kingdoms (and Wales) under a single crown. They faced a uniquely difficult task in keeping these very different sets of subjects in order. Divisions in one kingdom could create problems in the others. Concessions granted in one kingdom tended to promote copycat demands by the others.

The second great structural weakness, which compounded the first, was the uneven impact of the Reformation on each of the realms. Not only did Charles I inherit a mostly Catholic Ireland, and a predominantly Protestant Scotland, but a post reformation Church of England which containing often divergent and then, mutually hostile traditions.

These two weaknesses, the creation of a multiple monarchy and the ever widening fault lines within the Church of England required high skills of any king. Entrusted to an incompetent or over ambitious monarch, these structural flaws constituted a catastrophe waiting to happen. This, then, is the post revisionist consensus. Yet even with this broad consensus, there are still disagreements about the relative significance of factors in relation to one another. Arguments remain about whether the civil war should be best seen as a mainly political or religious conflict. It is for you to decide. The question: ‘Discuss the view that the Irish rebellion was the most important event leading to the English Civil War’ will require you to address these debates directly.

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