A New blog article by Christopher Thompson
S.R.Gardiner’s History of the Great Civil War is one of the great achievements of late-nineteenth century historiography. It provided more than just a narrative account of the events of the 1640s in the British Isles but also a graphic illustration of what the late Christopher Hill called the “assumptions … of a liberal-minded middle-class Victorian Englishman.”
Much of the framework provided by these assumptions lasted well beyond the rise of Marxist influence in the period after 1930 and into the latter part of the twentieth century. Gardiner was certainly responsible for the concept that, on the Long Parliament’s side in the early stages of the English Civil War, it was possible to identify ‘peace’ and ‘war’ parties amongst partisans in the two Houses of Parliament and in the City of London. This idea was subsequently developed by J.H.Hexter in his work, The Reign of King Pym, published in 1941 although he elaborated on Gardiner’s scheme by postulating the existence of a ‘middle group’ led by Pym in the House of Commons operating between the ‘peace’ and ‘war’ parties.
Gardiner traced the origins of the ‘peace party’ to the period after the first, indecisive battle of the Civil War at Edgehill in October, 1642 and the subsequent advance of the King’s forces towards London. He thought that in the City of London and in Parliament, especially in the House of Lords, such a party was quickly formed.
Its most respectable member in the upper chamber was “the kindly Earl of Northumberland, always anxious for a quiet life and always distrustful of enthusiasts.” He was supported by the former courtier, Henry Rich, Earl of Holland, and by the 4th Earl of Pembroke, who steered a course between appeasing the King when he seemed strongest and opposing him when Parliament seemed most likely to be victorious.
When the House of Lords proposed opening negotiations for peace with King Charles at the end of October, a peace party formed in the House of Commons and in the City of London numbering in its ranks lawyers like Maynard and Whitelocke and figures like D’Ewes and Edmund Waller. Gardiner considered that they “all shared in the common weakness of desiring compromise, without rising to the height from which an honourable compromise alone was possible.
They longed for peace, but there was no intellectual basis of peace in their minds.” As subsequent discussions in the House of Commons in November on whether to negotiate over proposals for peace showed, the peace party could by then count on the support of Denzil Holles, one of the five Members Charles had attempted to arrest in January, 1642. Gardiner thought that, between Holles and Pym, the difference was one of perception rather than principle. “Both [the peace and war] parties preferred peace to war, but neither party was ready to make those concessions which alone could make peace possible. … Now members who were agreed on ecclesiastical subjects differed politically.
Pym would have no peace which did not bring with it Charles’s complete submission to the directing power of Parliament and to a Puritan church. Holles and his friends would have made concessions to Charles’s claim to rule the State, but they expected him to abandon his own ideal of church government.
As there was not the slightest chance that he would ever do anything of the kind, they did but beat the air.” Holles, in particular, “was ready to ask the King to accept, in church matters, the conclusions to which Parliament should come, upon the advice of the assembly of divines, and to allow the punishment of such persons as had been impeached before the outbreak of the troubles.” Gardiner concluded that, if “these were the demands of the Peace-party, they had no more reasonable hope of winning Charles’s assent than the proposals of their opponents.”
It was in the House of Lords where the peace party was predominant that detailed proposals were drawn up and sent down to the House of Commons on 20th December, 1642.
Gardiner noted that the King was, under this scheme, to commit himself to passing such bills – presumably on church matters – as Parliament should approve after consultation with the assembly of divines; to allow Lord Digby and all others impeached before 1st January, 1642 to stand their trials in Parliament; to exclude the Earls of Bristol and Hertford and four others from office and the royal Court; to secure and vindicate the privileges of Parliament; to assent to Bills for the payment of the Parliament’s debts; to agree that all acts of the Privy Council should be signed by those who advised them and to a new Militia Bill as well as reinstating the Earl of Northumberland as Lord High Admiral. “They asked for ministerial responsibility and for a Puritan settlement of the Church – for all those concessions, in short, to which both Charles and his partisans were most bitterly hostile.”
The peace party “had the good wishes of the vast majority of the nation, yet, for all that, it was from the first predestined to failure. There was not the smallest reason to suppose either that the terms which the Houses now offered would ever be accepted by the King, or that they would themselves be ready to accept any terms which the King was likely to propose.” Pym and the war party knew that: they appreciated that Charles could not be trusted and that a Puritan England could only be created by the sword. As the negotiations at Oxford in the early months of 1643 proved, they were right.
There are a number of points that arise from Gardiner’s claims. First of all, there is the matter of the relationship between supporters of the ‘peace party’ in the House of Lords and those who shared their views in the House of Commons (as well as in the City of London). How they may have co-operated is left entirely unexplored. Some co-ordination is implied by Gardiner himself. Secondly, there is the issue of the extent to which Holles and his allies were prepared to make concessions to the King on the degree to which he might rule in the State if not in the church. The propositions presented to Charles in Oxford on 1st February, 1643 envisaged that there should be an Act of Parliament to settle the militia on land and sea as well as command of the country’s forts and ports “in such a manner as shall be agreed on by both Houses.”
Senior judicial positions were to be held by men nominated in the propositions as long as they behaved well. Future foreign policy was to be predicated upon an alliance with the United Provinces and other Protestant princes. Popish recusants were to be repressed by law while those who had had a hand in promoting the Irish rebellion of October, 1641 were to be excepted from any general pardon. Those amongst supporters of the Long Parliament who had lost their offices were to be compensated and restored to their posts. Certain named individuals who had counselled or supported the King in this burgeoning conflict were to be either barred from office or the Court or punished. All this was in addition to the abolition of Episcopal government in the Church of England and its remodelling as Parliament after advice from an assembly of divines should determine.
There was precious little sign of Holles or the peace party allowing latitude to the King in the government of the State as Gardiner had claimed: on the contrary, his supporters in the State and in the Church were to be proscribed and punished while the levers of power and ministerial responsibility were to be exercised by men responsible to Parliament. Gardiner was certainly right in thinking that such proposals were unacceptable at that time to Charles and his supporters but how could Gardiner be sure that the peace party had the support of the vast majority of the nation or, indeed, that it was predestined to failure. He could not have done so unless he was reading the events of 1642-1643 backwards and looking to the emergence of a constitutional monarchy as preordained.
There is another, perhaps more fundamental issue to be addressed in future analyses. Is the ‘peace party’/’war party’ framework for Parliamentary politics or its later derivative, the ‘peace party’/’middle group’/’war party’ structure plausible any longer? If not, what can justifiably be put in its place? These are questions John Adamson and David Scott may in all likelihood answer in the near future.