It’s 4th July, so our American cousins will be raising the bunting, painting everything red white and blue, kicking back with a beer, and getting teary while singing The Star Spangled Banner to mark the 238th anniversary of the day the 13 Colonies declared their independence from the British crown. Fourth of July 1776 is not only an important day for America, it marks a turning point in world history.
But while most Americans will see the date as the proud declaration of the birth of their nation, did it actually represent the beginning of the end of the English Civil War?
According to the history books, The English Civil War – otherwise variously known as “The Wars of the Three Kingdoms”, “The British Civil Wars”, and “The English Revolution” – officially ended on 3 September 1651. It had been nine years, one week and five days of bloodshed in a conflict that claimed the head of a king and saw England become a republic for the first and only time in its history.
The problem is that it wasn’t an English Civil War – it involved Scotland, Wales, the whole of Ireland, and there was even conflict between Royalist and Parliamentarian supporters in England’s colonies in America (The Battle of the Severn, fought near Annapolis in Maryland on 25 March 1655, has been called the “last battle of the English Civil War”). These “Wars of the Three Kingdoms” fundamentally affected the social and political landscape of Britain, and far beyond its shores.
The power balance between crown and Parliament had been irrevocably changed and even after the relative peace and prosperity of the Restoration, any attempt to establish the autocratic rule of an all-powerful monarch no longer sat easily with the people. So when Charles’ sons, Charles and James, continued their father’s ways they were storing up problems that would eventually erupt in the “Glorious Revolution”, when the old divisions of ‘Roundhead’ and ‘Cavalier’ were as fresh as they were in 1642.
Meanwhile, there was trouble brewing in the colonies. Puritans had been key players in the build up to and execution of the wars, slowly filling the House of Commons with their supporters and agitating against King Charles and Archbishop Charles Laud, whose religious policies were seen as too Roman Catholic for these staunchly Protestant people. Throughout the 11 years of Charles’ “Personal Rule”, the period between 1629 and 1640 when he governed without a Parliament, more than 20,000 Puritans from East Anglia – the hotbed of Puritanism during the 17th Century which formed the Eastern Association, of which the Earl of Manchester was its commander – migrated to the colonies in America, searching for freedom from what they saw as the persecution of their religious beliefs. Based around Connecticut and Massachusetts, hundreds of these Puritans would later stream back to Britain to fight alongside their cousins. Once there, they gained a taste for the new firebrand politics that had been stirred up by the chaos of the wars.
Any moderates who had begun the war against King Charles hoping it would quickly bring him to his senses and curtail his advisers’ excesses were tragically mistaken and over the course of the whole rebellion the political landscape became more radical, giving rise to groups such as The Levellers and the Diggers, and agitators such as “Freeborn” John Lilburne. While many would now claim these political movements as proto-Socialists, the reality is far more complicated and nuanced than that. But what they did all have in common was a unifying clarion call of “liberty”. This marked a fundamental change in the purpose of the war; with the King’s execution and abolition of the monarchy, it was clear it had become more than just a rebellion – it was now a revolution.
Later returning to the colonies to witness the fall of the Commonwealth of England from afar, the squandering of their hard-won ‘freedoms’ must have been difficult to take for these veterans and probably only accentuated the differences they felt existed between Restoration England and its colonies. Independently-minded both in life and religion, is it any wonder that over the ensuing century these colonists chafed at the control from distant London?
The politician and author, Daniel Hannan, was explicit about the historical links between the English Civil War and the American War of Independence, event taking things as far as including the American Civil War: “The English civil war, the American Revolution and the American civil war were three engagements in a single continuing struggle. One side, victorious in all three episodes, was made up of radicals, Puritans and entrepreneurs, the other of High Church Anglicans, conservatives and landowners. It was the triumph of the Protestant and revolutionary party.”
The language of rebellion in both cases was remarkably similar – at the famous Putney Debates, where the army argued with the politicians about the shape of this new England they had created, Colonel Thomas Rainborough uttered his great appeal to democracy: “For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.” Compare this to the beginning of the American Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal … Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, freedom from unjust imprisonment – all of these cries had sounded throughout English history, never more so than during the English Civil War, and were then echoed in the colonies’ Declaration. Was it those echoes that finally shook loose British control of their independently-minded colonies?
The English Civil War was about more than just battles, more than just religion, more than just politics – it was a country’s painful transitioning into a modern world where the balance of power between monarch and their elected Parliament was changed forever. As British citizens, albeit with less representation than those back home, the men and women who took part in the American War of Independence were continuing more than a century of civil conflict, struggling against the control of a government they demanded a greater say in.
Whether you see these conflicts as separate or connected, you can at least agree that the fathers of the American Revolution were strongly inspired by the example set by their forebears. While on a visit to England in 1786, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited the battlefield at Worcester together. This was where the first engagement of the first English Civil War (The Battle of Powick Bridge in 1642) and the last battle of the third civil war (The Battle of Worcester in 1651) had taken place and after that final battle, Cromwell’s chaplain Hugh Peters – himself a Puritan who had emigrated to New England – described it as: “where England’s sorrows began, and where they were happily ended”. In his diary, Adams wrote that he was “deeply moved” by the visit but disappointed at the locals’ lack of knowledge about the area’s history and gave them an impromptu lecture: “The people in the neighborhood appeared so ignorant and careless at Worcester that I was provoked and asked ‘And do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for? Tell your neighbors and your children that this is holy ground, much holier than that on which your churches stand. All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill, once a year.”
So today, we raise a glass to the American revolutionaries – enjoy another Independence Day but perhaps spare a thought for those first revolutionaries, whose rebellion did not last but whose ideas helped give birth to your fine nation.