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Absolutism in England

Absolutism in France during the seventeenth century grew out of a need for strength and order from the government, and survived into the eighteenth century. In England, just across the English Channel, absolutism lacked the same intensity and longevity.

Some historians argue that the English monarchs of the seventeenth century were not absolutists at all because they never fully controlled one of their major competitors, Parliament, and their attempts to establish absolute monarchies resulted in epic battles with Parliament. Nevertheless, several monarchs certainly wanted to be absolutists; furthermore, the example of English absolutism gave way eventually to a model known as constitutionalism.

The English monarchs, probably more than any other absolutists, used the doctrine of the divine right of kings to justify their attempts at absolutist rule. According to the doctrine of the divine right of kings, God’s will placed the monarch on the throne. Therefore, questioning the legitimacy or the authority of the king equated to questioning God. The desires of the people were irrelevant, and they had no right to rise up against a poor ruler.

King James

Queen Elizabeth chose as her successor James Stuart, her cousin, who had long been King James VI of Scotland and would become King James I of England (1566-1625). Unlike his cousin, James probably wasn’t the best person for the job at the time.

The English weren’t too fond of the Scots, and James did nothing to help matters. Once when his advisors asked him to wave to a crowd, King James threatened to drop his pants instead, so they could, well .... To make matters worse, the new king subscribed to the doctrine of the divine right of kings. He even wrote an essay and lectured Parliament about the subject. James wrote, “The state of monarchy is the supremest thing on earth” and kings “sit upon God’s throne.” He went on to argue, “as to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, so is it sedition . to dispute what a king may do.”

Would You Believe?

The King James Bible, first published in 1611, was commissioned by James I to settle a number of disputes and to make sure the Bible supported the Church of England. The majority of James's translation is identical to Tyndale's translation.

James spent vast amounts of money on his court and on his favorites. He needed more money, but the Parliament, particularly the House of Commons, stood in his way. The members of Parliament didn’t mind paying more taxes, but they demanded a say in how the revenue was to be spent. The king and the Parliament butted heads over and over again. James may have wanted to rule absolutely, but the Parliament had other ideas.

Religion also plagued the reign of James I.

Though England had been Protestant for some time, many Protestants believed the Anglican Church still had too much lingering Catholicism. Many of the Protestants in England were Calvinists; the most radical were known as Puritans. The Puritans wanted to get rid of several things in the Anglican Church, including bishops. James and his son, Charles, were Protestant, but their refusal to get rid of bishops made them seem loyal to Catholicism. Many people believed the nation was sliding down the slippery slope toward Catholicism again; this would create huge problems later in the century.

Charles I and the English Civil War

James’s son, Charles I (1600-1649), followed as King of England. James wasn’t the kindest man who ever sat on the throne, but Charles was worse. His contemporaries considered him rude and untrustworthy. Charles had a difficult time getting along with most everyone, especially the Parliament. Complicating Charles’s early years as king was a Parliament that had become very defensive during the years of James I. In the first years of Charles’s rule, he wanted to go to war with Spain to help his brother- in-law, Frederick V of the Palatinate, regain his lands in the Thirty Years’ War.

Parliament didn’t like the idea of raising taxes for Charles’s vendetta, so in 1628 they made Charles agree to ask for their permission to levy taxes each year. Seeing a chance to further his absolutist intentions, Charles decided to rule without calling Parliament at all the next year, or the next, or the next. Charles didn’t call Parliament into session, or summon the representatives to meet together, again until 1640. In the meantime, Charles did things like fine people for not attending his coronation and collect ship money, a tax levied against coastal counties during wartime to help defend the English coast; Charles, though, required it of all counties and during peacetime.

Religion once again aggravated an already tense situation. Puritans had been lobbying for changes in the Anglican Church. Charles, married to a French Catholic, had the Archbishop of Canterbury make Anglican services more and more Catholic. Those Puritans who opposed these measures were tried before the notorious court called the Star Chamber and then tortured. The archbishop tried to enforce his new ideas in Scotland, but the Scots not only rebelled but also invaded the northern part of England. Charles, financially out of options and desperate to fight a war against the Scots, called Parliament in 1640 in hopes of finding the necessary funds. What Charles got, though, was not exactly what he had in mind.

Parliament saw Charles as an absolutist on the rise and believed he needed to be held in check. Parliament removed the Archbishop of Canterbury, shut down the Star Chamber, repealed a number of taxes, and passed a provision called the Triennial Act that guaranteed a session of Parliament at least every three years. Fed up with the insubordination, Charles and an armed force loyal to him stormed Parliament in 1642 to arrest the leaders of the movement against him. When that plan failed, Charles regrouped and built an army.

Charles and his army, called the Cavaliers, found support for the crown in the northern and western parts of the kingdom. The Parliamentary forces, called the Roundheads, found support in the southeast. People of England picked sides and civil war erupted in 1642. The Parliamentary army consisted almost entirely of Puritans, but they were divided over religious concerns. The Puritans finally put their quarrels aside and reorganized under a member of the House of Commons named Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658).

Would You Believe?

The execution of the king, known as regicide, was taken far more seriously than the execution of common criminals. After the beheading, Charles was not declared a traitor and Cromwell allowed Charles's head to be reattached for the sake of Charles's family.

Cromwell led his New Model Army to a decisive victory over the Royalists in 1645 and the king surrendered the following year.

The war was not over, though. The Puritans continued fighting with other sects and finally ran all the Presbyterians out of Parliament, leaving what became known as the “Rump Parliament.” This Rump Parliament tried Charles I and sentenced him to death by beheading. After the execution of the king in 1649, the Rump Parliament abolished the monarchy altogether, disbanded the House of Lords, and established a Puritan commonwealth under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell and the Protectorate

Although Cromwell never desired to be a king, he turned out to be far more absolutist in nature than either of the two absolutist kings before him. He proved to be a good military leader, but he was harsh, strict, pious, and often brutal. He had no tolerance for opposition to his ideas. While the government under Cromwell was called a commonwealth, or a republican form of government, the resulting government was a military dictatorship called “The Protectorate.” Power should have been in the hands of Parliament, but Cromwell controlled the army so he held the power.

In 1653, the Instrument of Government, a codified constitution prepared by the army, called for regular sessions of Parliament and gave Parliament alone the power to tax. Cromwell tore up the document and placed England under martial law, or rule by the military. Cromwell censored the press and used spies to intercept mail. Though many in England initially welcomed Cromwell because he restored order, England grew tired of the self-proclaimed Lord Protector. Cromwell even disbanded Parliament in 1653 when it tried to take away his army.

As for religion, Cromwell despised Catholicism, so much that he saw it as seditious, but he proved to be surprisingly tolerant toward Jews whom he allowed to return to England for the first time in hundreds of years. He treated Catholics mercilessly as evidenced by his inhumane massacre of Irish Catholics in Ireland in 1649 shortly after coming to power. To this day the Irish refer to the resentment of the English as “the curse of Cromwell.”

Economically, Cromwell and Parliament, before he disbanded it, adopted a mercantilist philosophy similar to that of Colbert. The Navigation Act of 1651, which had as its goal the undermining of the rival Dutch fleet of trading ships, required that all English goods be carried only by English ships. When that strategy didn’t ruin the Dutch, Cromwell resorted to a naval war against them. When Cromwell died in 1658, of malaria, oddly, rather than on the battlefield, the fear of chaos spread through England. However, not many mourned Cromwell’s death. Most of England was ready to have a king again and to give up the dream of having an entire nation of pious Puritans.

After Cromwell died, his son Richard Cromwell (1626-1712) ruled as Lord Protector for roughly eight months. Richard’s two older brothers had died before their father so Richard inherited the title and position, which he abdicated without a fight when the Rump Parliament insisted he do so. Richard’s opposition often referred to him as Tumbledown Dick.

As a Matter of Fact

Three years after Cromwell died, his body was exhumed for a bizarre practice known as posthumous execution. On the twelfth anniversary of the execution of Charles I, Cromwell's dead body was hung from the gallows, then beheaded. Cromwell's head was then displayed for some 20 years before it fell off the pole on which it was displayed. After remaining in private ownership for centuries, scientists in the 1930s determined that the head purported to be Cromwell's was, in fact, Cromwell's. When the owner died, the head was given to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where it was buried in 1960.

The Restoration

In the Restoration of 1660, a newly elected and very much Anglican Parliament invited the exiled son of King Charles I to return as king. Parliament, both houses, returned to its former state. The Anglican Church was reaffirmed, as were the courts and the agents of local government. Luckily for Parliament, Charles II (1630-1685) proved to be relatively easy to get along with. Charles had no intentions of hunting heretics or engaging in theological debates.

Define Your Terms

The period of time between 1649 and 1660 is known as the Interregnum, or time between kings.

Likewise, he intended to get along with Parliament rather than fight with them. To encourage cooperation between the king and Parliament, Charles created a council of five members who were to act as his advisors; this council is the predecessor of the modern cabinet in government.

Define Your Terms

Charles's council was known as the Cabal. Its name came from the initials of its members: Clifford, Arlington, Buckingham, Ashley-Cooper, and Lauderdale).

The Anglican Parliament passed a number of laws, including the Test Act of 1763, that required Englishmen to receive the Eucharist of the Anglican Church in order to vote or hold office. While these laws seldom were enforced, they showed the Parliament’s sincerity about returning England to the Anglican Church and keeping diversity out of England.

This determination to be Anglican led to major upheaval near the end of Charles’s reign.

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