With so many cliches of the English Civil War – dashing Cavaliers and dour Roundheads, Cromwell vs. King Charles – embedded in our national consciousness, it’s very easy to look back at the social, military, and religious upheaval of the period and assume that this was somehow all inevitable.
In fact, as Simon Court has pointed out in a fascinating new article, this was far from the case. After our piece last week looking at the life of Charles’ doomed Archbishop, the intractable William Laud, and the way his religious intransigence helped hasten the war, it’s important to understand that the war was the product of decisions made by the people involved – often with disastrous consequences. He singles out the King for particular attention: “The English are admired for the stability of their political constitution and their healthy scepticism towards any radical ideas which threaten it. Yet when King Charles I raised his Royal Standard at Nottingham and declared war on Parliament in 1642 he plunged his country into a chaos which saw families divided in mortal combat, a frenzied explosion of religious zealotry, the trial and execution of a king, the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords, and the imposition of a military dictatorship. Such violent upheaval of the nation-state, its institutions and society was a fully-blown revolution on English soil. But what is striking is that this revolution was not inevitable: for although it was rooted in deep conflicts in political ideology and religion, the extraordinary course of events could have taken a different direction at several crucial points if key people in the drama, especially the King, had made other decisions.”