Introduction: a century of change
As the Greek philosopher, Heracleitus, said, nothing is so constant as change. While history has always seen changes taking place, few times and places saw more dramatic changes in such a wide variety of areas ranging from fashions and diet to the Scientific Revolution as England saw in the 1600’s. But nowhere were there more sweeping changes than in the realm of government. In 1600, the absolute monarch believing in the concept of Divine Right of Kings was becoming the most fashionable form of rule. By 1700, a new more democratic government with checks and balances between the executive (king) and legislative (Parliament) branches had emerged in England, setting the stage for modern democracies.
Background to the Revolution
There were three main factors that came to the surface in the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) to set the stage for the English Revolution. For one thing, going back to the Magna Charta (1215) which itself drew upon even more ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions, England had a long tradition that no one, not even the king, is above the law. Secondly, Elizabeth reigned in a period of intense religious strife, both within England itself as well as triggering an expensive war with Spain. Finally, the 1500’s and 1600’s were a period of rampant inflation, which made monarchs everywhere increasingly desperate for money.
The convergence of these factors during Elizabeth’s reign generated problems in two critical areas: money and religion. As far as money went, the Queen knew how to get money from Parliament while outwardly showing respect to that body’s rights and privileges. However, such treatment gave Parliament a growing sense of its own power and importance, which it was unlikely to give up peacefully. Elizabeth also partly paid for her rising expenses from the struggle with Spain by selling up to one-fourth of the royal estates. This left her successors with even less of an independent financial base, which in turn made them more dependent on Parliament for funds, thus leading to fights over money.
In religion, Elizabeth skillfully maintained peace in England while much of Europe was embroiled in religious wars. She did this by grafting moderate Protestant theology onto Catholic style ritual and organization. She also blunted the ferocity of the religiously radical Puritans (Calvinists) by incorporating many of them into the hierarchy of the Church of England. However, this put many Puritans into positions of authority where they could demand more sweeping reforms beyond the Queen’s lukewarm Protestantism. In addition, many of these Puritans were also members of the gentry (lower nobles) and middle classes who controlled the House of Commons in Parliament and voted on taxes. Thus the issues of religion and money became even more tangled.
Religious wars, which threatened everyone’s peace and security, and inflation, which made maintaining armies too expensive for rebellious nobles, also combined to help with the rise of absolutism in Europe. This rising tide of absolutism would influence the Stuart kings of England to try to establish absolutism in their own realm in spite of popular opinion. A less skillful and diplomatic ruler than Elizabeth would have trouble dealing with these new forces rising up in England. Such an undiplomatic ruler succeeded Elizabeth in the person of James I (1603-1625).
While Elizabeth had so skillfully kept the issues of money and religion in check, James’ absolutist beliefs and abrasive personality brought them to the surface. As far as religion went, James fought the largely Puritan Parliament to keep the Church of England’s Catholic style ritual, decorations, and hierarchy of clergy, over which he as king had control. In money matters, king and Parliament clashed over James’ growing requests for money to support his lavish lifestyle. He also angered the middle class by raising customs duties, one of his main sources of revenue, to keep pace with inflation. While James and Parliament never completely broke with one another over these issues, their constant squabbling did set the stage for the revolution that was to follow.
Pattern of events (1625-88)
While the individual events of the English Revolution could be somewhat involved and complicated, they did fit into a basic pattern. Parliament and the ruler of England would clash over the issues of religion and taxes as the government became less decisive and/or reasonable. This would trigger a reaction by Parliament that would bring in a new ruler, and then the process would start all over again. This cycle would repeat itself three times over the next sixty years, with each successive stage feeding back into the aforementioned cycle as well as into the next stage.
The first stage would see England plunged into civil war (1642-49) that would result in the beheading of Charles I and the rise of the Puritans and Parliament to power. In the second stage, continued fighting over religion and money, this time between Parliament and its army, would bring in military dictatorship under Oliver Cromwell in the 1650’s. After Cromwell’s death (1658) would come the third stage with the restoration of the monarchy (1661-88). However, the old conflicts over money and religion would resurface in the reign of James II and lead to his overthrow by Parliament with the help of William III and Mary of Holland in 1688.
This time, Britain would resolve its cycle of conflicts in what is known as the Glorious Revolution (1688) This established a constitutional monarchy where the law is above the king, not the other way around as often happened in absolute monarchies. The Glorious Revolution would have three important results. First of all, it would lead to the political triumph of the rich middle class and nobles in Parliament which had the sole right to grant taxes for one year at a time, thus forcing the king to call Parliament each year if he wanted taxes. Also, in order to keep the king from packing Parliament with his own men for an extended period of time, Parliamentary elections were to be held every two years. While the Glorious Revolution resulted in a political victory for a narrow upper class oligarchy, it opened the way for further reforms over the next 200 years to make England a more truly democratic society.
Second, the Glorious Revolution gave all Englishmen a Bill of Rights guaranteeing such civil liberties as speech, assembly, religion (except for Catholics and Unitarians at this time), and due process of law. Both the political and civil liberties gained by the English would help lead to the French Revolution which in turn would spread the ideas of democracy across Europe and the globe.
Third was the establishment of the Bank of England (1694), which was modeled after the Bank of Amsterdam. This national bank would both provide the government with the funds it needed while repaying its loans with interest. This helped foster a more prosperous economy and encourage more investment in the bank, which in turn helped provide the government with more funds, and so on. This feedback of growing profits would eventually provide Britain with the money to start the other revolution that would spread worldwide: the industrial revolution. had plunged into civil war.