Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Two Revolutionary Crises

This is a paper delivered yesterday afternoon at the Early Modern Studies Conference at the University of Reading by Chris Thompson.  It has a new explanation of the origins of the English Civil War\Revolution. The paper is copyrighted Permission is needed to reproduce.

Exactly a century ago, A.P.Newton’s seminal book, The Colonising Activities of the English Puritans, was published. It traced the lineage of the Providence island Company with its unsuccessful attempts to found profitable Puritan settlements in the Bay of Honduras in the 1630s back to Elizabethan colonising and privateering efforts and forward to the expeditions of the Cromwellian Protectorate to the Caribbean in the 1650s. His investigation of the ties between the company’s adventurers and their activities in opposition to Charles I’s regime in the period of Personal Rule cast new scholarly light on this subject and had a profound influence on later historians.

Inevitably, however, the contours of historical analysis have changed. The events of the 1620s and 1640s are no longer viewed as causally linked. Accidents and contingency, the interplay of multiple kingdoms and rival conspiracy theories, the problems of political and religious myopia as well as those of personality now predominate. It has, indeed, never been more dangerous to enter the historical equivalent of a billiard hall.

Even so, it is impossible (for me, at least) to pass by such premises with their deep green baize tables, dim lights and interesting characters without being tempted in. I am conscious of the risk in doing so but life is too short not to do so at all. The argument that I shall put to you is basically that there were two profound crises in early Stuart England, a proto-revolutionary one in the late-1620s and a revolutionary one in the 1640s. I shall argue that these crises were umbilically linked and that there is unmistakable evidence not just of deep hostility to the Caroline regime after 1629 on the part of the king’s leading opponents but also of a growing willingness to resist him by force of arms from the mid-1630s. It was, therefore, in England, not in Ireland or Scotland, that the most serious of the early crises occurred and where discussions on alternative forms of government in Church and State first began.

The Crisis of 1629

The origins of the crisis of the 1620s can be traced to England’s engagement and failure in simultaneous wars against France and Spain; to the fiscal and military measures used to fight those wars; to the alleged infringement of the subject’s rights by the Crown in implementing those policies and the support for authoritarian rule from Arminian clerics in the Church whose doctrines and practices were anathema to Calvinists. Its symptoms were evident in resistance in varying degrees to levies of men, money and munitions; in the pressures placed on the machinery of local and national government to work in the face of this opposition; in arguments inside and outside Parliaments about the respective rights of the king and his subjects and in the development of ideas about conspiracies to subvert established forms of government in Church and State on the one hand and threats to undermine the sovereignty of the Crown on the other. There were little noticed revolts in the House of Lords in 1626 and 1628 against royal attempts to manipulate its membership, to intimidate opponents and to frustrate its dealings with the grievances of the House of Commons. Across the country, physical violence was common – in attacks, for example, on unpaid soldiers billeted on unwilling host communities, in protests from indigent sailors, and, most notably, in the murder of the royal favourite’s astrologer and of the Duke of Buckingham himself. These were quite apart from the remarkable tax strikes by merchants, especially in the Levant and East India companies, over duties involving an assault on the Customs House in London led by a former Lord Mayor and the brother of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Crown was effectively bankrupt by March, 1629 as Charles I’s critics well knew. If either of the groups then manoeuvring in the lower House had succeeded in their aims, the king would have been shorn of royal supremacy in religion and his capacity to choose his own servants severely limited. Within a few months, he characterised them as republicans aiming to reduce his power to nothing
It is easy enough to find alarmist comments by contemporaries on the political situation in England after the dissolution of Parliament in March 1629. Domestic and foreign observers agreed on the divided state of the country. The king’s view was that the crisis was the result of the malice of a small group of M.P.s led by Sir John Eliot, a contention set out in a series of proclamations. The private correspondence of his advisers and servants, men like Viscount Dorchester, Heath and Roe, was on similar lines although Councillors were divided on whether Parliament could or should be summoned again. Regal and conciliar authority had to be restored, particularly by punishing the former M.P.s now imprisoned for sedition and, if Charles had his way, for treason. Attempts to do so in the courts nonetheless kept issues about Parliamentary privilege, the grounds for their imprisonment and terms for bail uncomfortably alive.

Critics of the regime shared such gloom. The unprecedented threat of violence on the floor of the House of Commons shocked Sir Thomas Barrington to the point where he told his mother that he blessed God there had been no more serious consequences. Dramatic accounts of the concluding events reached the godly further afield destroying hopes for defeating the twin menaces of Arminianism and Popery and for the further reformation of the Church. The Venetian Ambassador, Contarini, was in no doubt about the hostility to the king and his councillors and the prospect for future conflict in the spring of 1629, a view shared by a later report from a Spanish agent. Peace abroad, a resumption of trade and restoration of order offered the only hope.

There is some historiographical justification for regarding this as a proto-revolutionary situation. G.M.Trevelyan described the members leaving St Stephen’s Chapel at Westminster in March 1629 as “freemen still and almost rebels” while Russell considered the aim of the demonstration planned for the 2nd as “the potentially revolutionary one of appealing over the King’s head to the country at large.” John Reeve and Austin Woolrych have both written about the wide-ranging, potentially revolutionary implications of the resolutions passed on that day for the idea of treason against the commonwealth. Hexter argued that relations between the royal Court and the more amorphous remainder of the body politic, the ‘Country’, broke down after 1618 and had reached ‘crisis level’ by the end of the next decade. They had ceased to speak the same language and the Commons had by then constructed a view of the Court as its palpable enemy. Puritan clergy and gentry were full of rage at the impotence of English policy abroad and the inroads made by Popery at home. He was thus the advocate of a theory of successive crises, one in the 1620s and a second one in the early-1640s leading to Civil War and Revolution. Stone agreed. It was the experiences of the late-1620s that led the future leaders of the Long Parliament, according to Trevor-Roper, to organise themselves in country houses, Puritan societies and trading companies for the revenge they were determined after 1640 to take. The concept of a link between the two crises of the late-1620s and the early-1640s thus has a respectable ancestry even if its genealogy has not hitherto been precisely traces.

The reaction of the leading critics of Caroline rule is difficult to detect given the absence of correspondence and diaries. But the strategy of Pym and Rich, the two men in the Commons most closely associated with the ‘great contrivers’ of the 1640s, had been predicated on inoculating the Church of England against Arminianism and crypto-Popery in return for settling the legality of collecting Tonnage and Poundage (and, perhaps, impositions). The breakdown of Parliament made that aim unrealisable. The anxiety of the great merchants in the East India and Levant companies over a continuing refusal to trade was sufficiently alarming for the 2nd Earl of Warwick, Viscount Say and Sele and the 2nd Lord Brooke, three of the principal figures in Newton’s embryonic connection, to appear at the Quarter Court of the East India company held on 2nd March to open a serious attack on the dominant London merchants. This suggests but does not prove that the idea of withholding revenues from the Crown to exact concessions was already present in their minds.

The Peers and their connections

The core of this group had been drawn together in the politics of the mid to late-1620s. They were committed to the Protestant cause in the Thirty Years’ War, to struggles against Arminianism and for the preservation of the House of Lords’ privileges and the rights of the subject. They were also connected to the Cambridge Puritan, John Preston. Warwick and Say and Sele, Pym and Rich are too well known to need much discussion here. The 4th Earl of Lincoln is probably best known as Say’s son-in-law and Preston’s pupil. The two men together with Francis, Lord Russell of Thornhaugh, the future 4th Earl of Bedford, supervised the settlement of the debts of Lincoln’s father. Lincoln was probably the author of the appeal to English freeholders in January 1627 to resist the Forced Loan as illegal and a threat to Parliament’s survival and to call them to follow his fellow peers in their resistance to the levy. His household and local allies were deeply involved in this campaign and many of them later became involved in the colonisation of Massachusetts.

Lincoln’s relationship with one of Preston’s other allies, the 2nd Earl of Warwick, is less well known. Warwick was not a Lincolnshire landowner himself but his step-mother, originally Frances Wray, was. There is evidence to connect their households and Lincoln’s in the late-1620s. Both men shared a taste for theological disputations before and at the York House conferences of February 1626 and were patrons of two of the first three ministers sent to New England in 1629. Both Earls proved to be supporters of Sir John Eliot after his incarceration in the Tower and drank the health of this arch-enemy of Charles I’s regime at every meal on a trip to the West country in 1631. Lincoln is, indeed, the most likely figure to have sought Warwick’s consent as President of the Council for New England to the granting of the New England and Massachusetts Bay Company charters in 1628 and 1629 respectively.

New England

The links between these men were already in place by the summer of 1628. The revival of plans to settle and trade in New England first developed by John White of Dorchester and his local allies was also under way in alliance with London merchants such as Matthew Cradock and John Venn, both of them friends of Eliot: in the next few months, a Lincolnshire contingent appeared, perhaps as a result of so many Forced Loan resisters having been sent to Dorset in 1627, many of them from the 4th Earl’s network of allies. The story of the transformation of the New England venture into the Massachusetts Bay Company in March 1629 with a new charter that allowed its place of government to be transferred there is one of the most familiar episodes in early colonial history. Warwick must have known about this.

The enterprise was more fundamentally transformed in the summer and autumn of that year. The idea of establishing a godly commonwealth there was canvassed with increasing enthusiasm in lay and clerical circles associated with the Earls of Warwick and Lincoln. A key meeting was held in Sempringham, probably in the Priory, which was Lincoln’s home, late in July and early in August 1629. Out of it came a series of observations from John Winthrop on the imminent doom awaiting England for its sinfulness: Antichrist had risen, the Church and universities had been corrupted, inflation was rampant and poverty multiplying: the only hope was to go to New England to found a new commonwealth and a new church. The remnant of the godly could follow the path of righteousness, multiply there and create a bulwark against Popery. It was a searing indictment of England under Charles I’s rule, a more comprehensive indictment than anything uttered by Alexander Gil in his cups or John Scott of Canterbury in his diary. It is possible to watch this argument being spread much further afield to sympathisers like Eliot and John Hampden before the Great Migration of 1630.

It is often said that the New England colonies in general and Massachusetts in particular owed nothing to aristocratic patronage. This is doubtful. Warwick – with whom John Winthrop the elder had long been connected – was of practical help in managing the rival claims of the Gorges family to the territory, in providing access to fortifications in Essex and in securing patents for new land. Winthrop himself was taken up by men in Lincoln’s circle in the autumn of 1629 and early winter of 1630|: when he sailed on the Arbella late in March 1630 he was accompanied by Lincoln’s brother, one of the Earl’s sisters and her husband, Lincoln’s putative former household steward and other allies of the peer. As the Barrington family’s correspondence shows, Warwick’s gentry allies and their clerical dependents were interested in the settlement and, like Warwick, prepared to help persecuted clergymen and others move there.

Saye and Sele’s interest in New England (with its distinctive form of congregational church government and a franchise dependent from the outset on church membership) was even more important. He, like Lincoln’s brother, was one of the recipients in March 1632 of the ‘Old Patent’ of Connecticut and, later that year, together with the 2nd Lord Brooke, bought the patent of Pascataqua. Its governor provided crucial evidence on behalf of Massachusetts before the Privy Council at the turn of the year against charges brought by Gorges and Mason alleging that the charter had been illegitimately obtained and that the colony was a nest of political and religious rebels. The colony’s most “noble and best friends” advised it to have a Council of allies in England to protect its interests. But a second hearing before the Council late in 1633 resulted in a demand for the return of the Massachusetts Bay Company’s charter. The colony’s enemy, Thomas Morton, gleefully reported how Cradock and Venn, its merchant allies, had been denounced by Archbishop Laud and, despite their great friends, had left the Council Chamber with lowered shoulders.

The reaction in Massachusetts was to procrastinate and to prepare to resist any expedition sent from England with force. In England, the colony’s supporters had already responded by dispatching a large quantity of arms. Simultaneously, propositions were sent “from some persons of great qualitye & estate (& of speciall note for pietye)” indicating their intentions to join with them if satisfied by Massachusetts’ rulers. Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke have traditionally been thought to be the authors of these proposals. This willingness to support forcible resistance to the Caroline regime, admittedly at a very great distance from England, is highly significant. It shows that, long before 1640 or 1642, such men had been alienated from the king’s rule to the extent that the use of violence against it was acceptable. More interestingly still, in the same summer, John Winthrop received a letter from Warwick offering his support and expressing his willingness to further the colony’s prosperity.

Fortunately, there is other material to illustrate the close relationship between these peers and the Bay colony’s rulers. The settlement of Connecticut was planned as a joint venture in 1634 and 1635 with the two noblemen and their radical allies, including Sir Arthur Hesilrige and Henry Lawrence, aiming to move there. The fort, moreover, to be erected at the mouth of the Connecticut River was explicitly intended as part of the coastal defences protecting their friends in Massachusetts from a sea-borne attack from England. In fact, Saye and Sele and Lord Brooke had distinct constitutional proposals in 1636 for a commonwealth covering both Connecticut and Massachusetts: they envisaged a ruling assembly divided into a house composed by gentlemen all of whose heirs would inherit places and a second composed of the elected representatives of the freemen for whom a property qualification was required: each house would have a negative voice and all officers would be responsible to the assembly. There was nothing in these proposals acknowledging royal authority at all: this would have been a minuscule Venetian republic without even a Doge. But, whatever the peers’ admitted personal qualities, severing the link between church membership and the rights of freemen in Massachusetts proved too much for the godly rulers of that colony to accept. They preferred their own arrangements and relations with the Saybrook adventurers deteriorated partly, at least, because migrants from the towns of Massachusetts seized the adventurers’ lands. Even so, when the members of the prospective ‘Junto’ were in treasonable contact with the Scottish Covenanters in 1639, it was to the refuge of Saybrook that they planned to flee if their plans to overthrow Charles I failed.


This colonial evidence casts important light on the evolution of the views of those identified by A.P.Newton as the core of the critics and opponents of Charles I’s regime in the 1630s. It can be supplemented by additional material from Bermuda and Providence Island, both potential refuges for the godly at that time. There was indeed, as Newton thought, a middle term, a connecting link between the major crises of the late-1620s and the early-1640s. Some of the fissile human material ejected by the first, proto-revolutionary detonation found its way to Massachusetts, which was the sanctuary for the defeated and explains, in part, some of its fossil-like features after 1640s. Revolutionary situations do not necessarily lead to revolution because accidents and errors intervene  but, in the case of Charles I’s realms, the delay merely increased the power of the ultimate explosion. Those who sought to exploit it remembered its origins very clearly and were determined not to lose their opportunity to re-cast the Church and State a second time.