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On the 325th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution: The historical significance of the English Civil War (Part Four)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 8, 2013

Economic/Class Divisions: Although there was support for both sides among all social classes, it is traditionally considered that the English aristocracy centered in the House of Lords favored the Royalist cause, while the middle-classes centered in the House of Commons favored Parliamentarianism. (302 members of the House of Commons and 40 Lords supported Parliament, 236 Commoners and 80 Lords followed the King.) Royalist support in the House of Commons is larger than might be expected, while the image given by these numbers, with respect to the House of Lords, is largely illusory. In fact, much of the high aristocracy allied itself with Parliament. Lord Fairfax, a dashing cavalry commander who would have seemed a natural supporter of the King, was in fact a leading Parliamentary leader. Many of the great aristocratic families were on the side of Parliament, or had certainly become Whigs by 1688. The monarchy could count on the support of only a handful of high aristocrats, such as the redoubtable James Graham, Earl of Montrose. Many of the King's foremost agents and supporters were in fact men of common origins, for example, Archbishop Laud, the zealous champion of Anglicanism, so hated by the Puritans he was executed in 1645. An aristocrat and chief royal adviser executed by Parliament already in 1641 was Lord Strafford: his execution was not only one of the major causes of the conflict coming to a boil, but also showed the real strength of Parliament, the virtual helplessness of the King, and the extraordinary intensity of degree to which the incipient conflict was to be prosecuted.  

There are conflicting opinions where the support of the grouping called "squires" lay. On the one hand, in Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, one of the squires portrayed (Squire Western) is a caricature of an English Jacobite, a common social type of the period. On the other, Cromwell himself was a squire, and the Whig supremacy which emerged after 1688 is often characterized as "the squirearchy". Perhaps the richer and more prominent squires supported Parliament, while the more indigent ones tended to support the King.

It must be remembered further that the House of Commons represented a very small section of society at the time, and it was often considered that there existed an alliance of the monarchy and the common people against the haute-aristocracy and the increasingly important (and rapacious) merchant-classes (what would have been later called the haute-bourgeoisie). The poorest and most rural sections of the kingdom were generally the most likely to support the monarchy. It should be noted also that the entire aristocracy in England in fact numbered less than 1% of the population.

Country/Urban Divisions: It is generally incontrovertible that London, as well as all the large trading-cities, supported Parliament. It is not difficult to interpret the entire war as a struggle between the English metropolitan node, the capital city, against most of the rest of the countryside and hinterland. (The distinction between a decadent London and the healthy countryside is one of the central dualities in Fielding's Tom Jones.) Clearly, this corresponds to one of the classic interpretations of the English Civil War, as a conflict between the interests of the remnants of feudalism, and emergent capitalism. However, the caveats must be added that, first of all, the monarchic and aristocratic interests were not necessarily coterminous, and, secondly, that many peasants must have perceived the emergent capitalism as a greater threat than the feudal remnants. It should also be added that the notion of a classic "feudalism" ever existing in England has also been challenged, and that the peasantry of England represented "the free peasantry" typical of Western Europe, as opposed to the "serfs" of Eastern Europe, who were being subjected to the so-called "new serfdom" after 1500 or so.

"Ethnic" Divisions: There is an apparently large degree of congruity between basically "Celtic" areas of the British Isles on the Royalist side, and the most "Saxon" or "Anglo-Saxon" parts of England supporting Parliament. One of the strongest centers of Parliamentary support was the Eastern Association area in East Anglia, which was probably the most "Saxon" part of England (lying closest to the area of Denmark and the North Sea coast from which the original invasions had come) -- and which had also later been part of the Danish Viking area of the Danelaw. The support for Parliament in that area might also have been because of the economic wealth of East Anglia derived from the wool trade. Searching for an explanation for the huge divergences between Highland and Lowland Scots, some historians have hypothesized that the Lowlands had been settled by Anglo-Saxon refugees from the Danish invasions, or at a later point as part of the policy of the Norman Kings. Scots-Gaelic was in fact virtually extinct already at this point, the common language of Scotland being Anglo-Scottish memorialized in its later form by the famous Scottish poet Robert Burns in the Eighteenth Century. For example, "Auld Lang Syne" is a typically Anglo-Scottish, not Scots-Gaelic phrase.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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