The English Revolution erupted as the Great Rebellion and First Civil War of 1642. However, the underlying causes of unrest had been building for a number of years. The collapse into civil war was part of a wider pattern of political and religious upheaval across 17th Century Europe and beyond. We now know this as the General Crisis.
Charles I’s reign started with seven ‘fat years’ (1629 to 1635). These were followed by poor harvests, severe hardship and discontent. The years 1642 (Edgehill), 1649 (execution) and 1659 (end of the Interregnum) were particularly bad years. We now know that these were a consequence of the Little Ice Age. However, many in 1642 saw God’s wrath and biblical parallels with Pharaoh.
Crisis in Government – Personal Rule and Individual Freedoms
The old medieval system of communal farming was inefficient. However, the process of enclosure led to social tension and civil disorder in the years running up to the first Civil War. It was a contributory factor in the Great Rebellion of 1642. The disenfranchised rural poor had little legal recourse. Forced from their villages, they swelled the numbers of vagrants on the streets of London, Bristol, Birmingham and other towns across England.
Economic depression contributed to a crisis in government. Charles I’s attempt to rule without Parliament and his use of royal prerogative to raise taxes (such as ship money) is well known. However, it is worth noting that Parliament voted Charles I only one year of Customs and Excise revenue on his accession. This tax was granted to all previous English monarchs for life. It was essential for maintaining the national administration, including the navy.
At the heart of this crisis was a recognition of the need for change. The medieval world no longer provided adequate spiritual, moral or societal answers to maintain stability. However, there was no agreement on the direction of change. Many at Court saw the need for a strong centralised state along Spanish, Hapsburg and French lines. Others in Parliament sought to emulate the freedoms of the Dutch Republic. Some looked to religion for answers.
The Devil’s Whore, Bishops’ War and Catholic Rebellion
Religious tensions between Charles I and his Scottish subjects came to a head in 1639 with an abortive attempt to impose religious uniformity. Calvinist Scots congregations saw the King’s new prayer book as the ‘Devil’s Whore’. The King marched against Scotland with an English army only to be defeated by the Covenanters in the Bishops’ War.
Discontent amongst disenfranchised Catholics erupted in rebellion across Ireland in the summer of 1641. It was the beginning of what became the Irish Confederate Wars or Eleven Years’ War (1641-1653). Reports of atrocities stoked political and religious division to the point of crisis. Both King and Parliament claimed the sole right to raise an army to protect England. It was the issue of control over an army for Ireland that finally brought about an irrevocable split between King and Parliament.
Breakdown of Government and Raising of Armies
The final breakdown came when Charles, encouraged by his queen, attempted a coup against Parliament. He marched into the House of Commons to seize five MPs from the House of Commons on 4th January 1642. However, the “birds” had flown. From their hiding place in the City, they mobilised the London apprentices. These forced the King to leave London for York. The Queen left for Holland to purchase arms and munitions.
The King issued Commissions of Array to his lords lieutenant, granting medieval powers to raise forces in each county. Parliament created a Committee of Safety and commissioned the Earl of Essex to raise an army. Critically, Parliament kept control of the Navy and of the great arsenals at Hull and Portsmouth. Desperately short of support, the King raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham, on the 22nd of August 1642, in an appeal to loyalty.
Divided Kingdom – Parties, Factions and Extremists
King and Parliament both appealed to the people of England to defend their country and religion from attack. At the centre of the divide were supporters of what became the Tory and liberal Whig parties. These remain the bedrock of British politics today. However, each was forced to ally with political and religious extremist factions.
The King appealed to those who sought strong central patriarchal government, Catholics, and reactionaries. He also reached out to localist groups, including the Derbyshire free-miners, the Welsh and Cornish. Political levellers, recognised today as early socialists by the British Labour party, sided with Parliament. As did radical sectarians seeking Godly Rule.
News, Fake News and Eclipse
The period saw an explosion of printed media broadsheets and pamphlets. Many of these stoked the fires of division with exaggeration and fake news. The Thomason Tracts is a collection of over 22,000 separate pamphlets (1640-1661). It remains a key primary source of research held in the British Library. The Garamond type used in printing the God’s Vindictive Wrath manuscript would have been a familiar print type in 1642.
Finally, a lunar eclipse and blood moon occurred over England on the 8th of October 1642. It was seen as foretelling revolution and war. The only other eclipse with the same sky narrative in the last 500 years was that over the USA and Middle East on 17th October 2005.
I hope you found this article on The English Revolution and Great Rebellion of 1642 useful. You can read more about the General Crisis, 17th Century Europe and the backdrop of The Thirty Years War at Notes and Maps.
You can also read about 17th Century Military Theory and the clash between Dutch and Swedish military doctrines at Edgehill in 1642. There are more articles on the battles of Edgehill, Aylesbury and Brentford at Notes and Maps.
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The English Revolution and Great Rebellion of 1642.