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

By Mark Wegierski
web posted April 15, 2013

All these religious, dynastic, political, social, economic, and ethnic tensions flared intensely into armed conflict in the English Civil War. The term "English" is a bit misleading: although the primary focus of operations was England proper (as well as Wales and Cornwall), Scotland was also critical, and Cromwell, of course, extended major fighting to Ireland in the aftermath of the Civil War itself. The personalities of the two main protagonists were very different. Charles I was "a mild and placid King", genuinely concerned about the shedding of brotherly blood, with a somewhat quixotic aspect, and a strong streak of pessimism. (Even in his time, the Stuarts were often considered an ill-starred or unlucky dynasty.) This made him a rather poor politician and military leader, given to preferring gestures of principle to substantive political advantage. There were, for example, his pathetic and futile gestures to curry favor with his executioner. In fact, he went to his execution with the belief that the revulsion it would cause would result in the almost-instantaneous restoration of the monarchy in the person of his son, Charles II. Cromwell, by contrast, was generally able to see to the essence of the matter, utterly convinced of his rightness, never wavering and ruthless in political struggle. He understood the need for a well-drilled, professional force to win the war, and formed the New Model Army as his personal instrument. There has been some debate about the character of the New Model Army: were they really "true believers", fanatically-enthused Puritans, or rather well-drilled and disciplined professional mercenaries, assured of more regular pay than any other force in the war? The heroic but impetuous Cavaliers were no match for the iron drill and discipline of the New Model Army.

Cromwell is probably the foremost architect of the new English state and cultural identity (which appropriated the term "British"). After he had won the war in England, with the support of London, the merchants, the haute-aristocracy, etc., he pushed all these social sectors aside and ruled as Lord Protector (from 1653) through the New Model Army and the very small, ultra-Puritan sector of society. In 1649, he crossed over to Ireland, to begin probably the most vicious anti-Irish war ever waged. After the virtually complete confiscation of Irish Catholic landed property, he proposed confining Irish Catholics to a small, barren reservation in the west part of Ireland which would, furthermore, be completely cut off from the sea, by a ten-mile-wide coastal zone to be settled by Protestants. Such arrangements bear comparison to those carried out by the totalitarian regimes of the Twentieth Century. In 1650-1651, all of Scotland was crushed and brought under Cromwellian rule. It is not difficult to see in Cromwell's regime a prefiguring of the modern totalitarianism of the twentieth century, while Charles I's stance can be seen as the doomed, "authoritarian" resistance of a premodern type of regime.

Cromwell's regime then scored brilliant military victories against the Dutch (commercial rivals) and the Spanish. The punctilious Puritan social regime (cutting down the maypoles, banning Christmas, banning the theatre, the supervision of public behavior in minute detail, etc.) was then carried out, against an increasingly recalcitrant but helpless population.

The Cromwellian period was short but extremely critical for the history of the British Isles. For the first time in centuries, the entire territory of the British Isles was united de facto in the hands of a single man. This unification was effected, however, not by a traditional monarch, but by a revolutionary warlord whose supporters numbered a miniscule fraction of the British Isles' population, organized in a revolutionary vanguard. In England itself, if not in Scotland and Ireland, Cromwell was able to carry out long-lasting, profound, and possibly decisive social and political transformations. The effect of the execution of King Charles I (in 1649) on the collective identity of the English at the time, cannot be underestimated. It undermined, in an ultimate sense, whatever shards of belief had remained in the King's supreme place and unassailability in English society. Even when restored, the monarchy had been fatally weakened, in spiritual and also practical terms. (Virtually none of the Crown lands lost were returned to Charles II.) Much of England, swelling with patriotic pride at Cromwell's great victories over the Dutch and Spanish, moved in defining itself away from an implicitly Royalist to an implicitly Parliamentarian position. England would thus generally become in the future the base and touchstone on which the new English society (called British) would be built, and then extend itself into the entire British Isles, first crushing and then co-opting the Scots, and continually occupying and exploiting Ireland. Earlier illustrious figures in the history of the British Isles, notably Shakespeare, were dragooned into this new English myth, despite the obviously royalist, aristocratic, and anti-mercantile predilections evident in his famous plays and other works. In Richard II, the removal of the ineffectual, sometimes cruel, but legitimate sovereign, who is replaced by the energetic Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV), leads to ongoing disaster for the kingdom. To Shakespeare, the execution of a monarch by a revolutionary cabal claiming to represent the people, carried out in the name of their "rights", would have been seen as an unspeakable, if not almost inconceivable, crime.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

 

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