The British historian Simon Schama once said that the American Declaration of Independence was "like a chapter from a British history book." He compared the American Revolution to the English Civil War of a century before, even going so far as to say that the American Revolution was really "round two" of the British civil wars. There is truth in this statement, and the events of the English Civil War are eerily familiar to students of the American Revolution. They both were political wars, they both were wars over ideas, and they both began as wars over taxes; which soon transformed into conflicts about much broader issues.
Battle of Naseby, 1645
(during English Civil War)
The topic is a complicated one, but its essence can be reduced to a single phrase: a war between a King and a Parliament. The Parliament of that time did not represent the people to the extent it does today; as even suffrage in the House of Commons was restricted to knights and burgesses, and the House of Lords was restricted to even higher nobility (to say nothing of both houses' restrictions on suffrage based on gender and race). But nonetheless, there was a noteworthy portion of British society which was represented in this era's Parliament; and their assertion of the rights of self-government would have massive repercussions for future generations of British citizens, who would grant these rights of suffrage to ever larger portions of British society, and carry these rights to distant lands far removed from the British Isles.
The topic has not been covered much in the world of cinema, but I am aware of at least one movie about the English Civil War, which is the 1970 movie "Cromwell" - not an entirely accurate movie, but nonetheless educational if taken with a grain of salt. King Charles I is played by Alec Guinness, who is best known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars; and Oliver Cromwell himself is played by Richard Harris, who is best known for playing Dumbledore in the first two Harry Potter movies. The cast is undoubtedly an important part of this movie's success, but the story is also a remarkably important one; with the American Revolution of my country's history owing much to the outcome of the English Civil War. And beyond the topic's vital importance, the story also has good old-fashioned human interest in it, and the human drama of politics and war has seldom been so well-depicted.
The real Charles I (left), and Alec Guinness playing him in this movie (right)
The real Oliver Cromwell (left), and Richard Harris playing him in this movie (right)
As the title suggests, the movie focuses mostly on Oliver Cromwell, and does not intend to be a broader history of the English Civil War; but one nonetheless learns a lot about the war by watching this movie. They show how King Charles I was unpopular already due to his Catholic wife, and how he was suspected of being soft on Catholicism (a serious charge in a militantly Protestant England). But that was just the beginning of his image problems: He refused to call Parliament into session, which meant that Parliament could not meet at all. (In those days, Parliament could not meet unless the king called it into session; and kings who wanted to bypass Parliament could do so by refusing to call them. Thus, the classes that Parliament represented grew ever more impatient with royalist power.)
Riot in Scotland over Charles' Prayer Book, 1637
But bypassing Parliament was becoming harder and harder for King Charles to do, because he was involved in a war with the Scots and Irish; and couldn't pay for it unless Parliament agreed to tax the people for him. Thus, he reluctantly called Parliament into session, and asked for their help in financing his wars; but instead got an earful of demands. Parliament wanted him to execute his adviser the Earl of Strafford, which he agreed to do; but they also wanted him to agree to reforms that would limit his power. Charles was facing a constitutional monarchy, and he liked the unlimited monarchy better; so he did not agree to the reforms, and Parliament refused to finance the wars. The stage was set for a civil war instead.
Session of the Long Parliament
The event that really sparked the English Civil War was Charles' attempt to arrest five members of Parliament, which pushed them to armed resistance. (Americans might see parallels to the attempts to arrest Samuel Adams and John Hancock, which led to the spilled blood at Lexington and Concord.) I will not go into all the details of either the English Civil War, the movie's depiction of it, or how it affected Cromwell's career; but suffice it to say that the movie shows both the drama of the battles, and the way Oliver Cromwell built a reputation for military victory, which would help him in gaining political power. After King Charles was cornered, he was given a show trial where he defied Parliament's authority in the belief that they would not dare to execute their king. But Parliament soon after signed his death warrant, which included the signature of Cromwell himself; and not long after that, the king was actually executed.
Trial of Charles I, 1649
With the king's death, there now arose a new question: Who was to lead the country now? Parliament had its own ideas about this, but Cromwell would have none of them, and he soon dissolved the Parliament. This is exactly what Charles had tried to do, but failed at doing. After fighting a monarch called Charles the First, Cromwell became the de facto monarch called Oliver the First - only he was never called that at all, but instead called himself the "Lord Protector." Just as Napoleon concealed monarchical power with the title "First Citizen," so Cromwell concealed his power with a made-up title called "Lord Protector," and one dictator was soon replaced by another.
I now turn to a paraphrase of Simon Schama, the British historian: Cromwell considered himself as doing the will of God, which was both his madness and his saving grace. On the con side, he was unquestionably a religious fanatic; but on the pro side, he considered himself as doing the will of God, and did not consider himself as actually being God (as many other dictators have). Thus, his reign was not as bad as many others were, as he was doing what he believed was right - or at least, mostly so. He did some things outside of England (notably in Ireland) that have made him less-than-popular in those places, even today. In some ways, Cromwell was no different than any other dictator.
Charles II, son of the executed Charles I
After Cromwell's death, the English monarchy was restored with Charles II, the son of the king whose death warrant Cromwell had signed. Parliament agreed to the restoration to avoid another civil war, but managed to bargain for some important limitations on royal power in return. This created the constitutional monarchy form of government, with the king sharing power with Parliament, and the Parliament having much more power than before. It was in thirteen American colonies much influenced by this British system that the American Revolution broke out, which borrowed heavily in its ideology from the English Civil War, and a Parliamentary side that believed kings' powers should be limited. British history had come full circle, and principles that had been fought for in seventeenth-century England were adopted and fought for overseas in eighteenth-century America.
We may not think much about the English Civil War today, and people overseas in America instead remember a civil war from another century, fought for and against slavery. But Americans are nonetheless the heirs of the English Civil War, as are many others around the globe.
Footnote to this blog post:
After the American War of Independence was over, there was actually another rebellion from 1786 to 1787. It was against the government of Massachusetts this time, and it is today known as "Shays' Rebellion." It convinced many Americans that the United States needed a new constitution in 1787, and was actually one of the most immediate reasons for its Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia that year.
In the now-famous Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton argued that this kind of anarchy risked a tyranny like that of Oliver Cromwell. He said that "The tempestuous situation from which Massachusetts has scarcely emerged, evinces that dangers of this kind are not merely speculative. Who can determine what might have been the issue of her late convulsions, if the malcontents had been headed by a Caesar or by a Cromwell? Who can predict what effect a despotism, established in Massachusetts, would have upon the liberties of New Hampshire or Rhode Island, of Connecticut or New York?" (Source: Federalist No. 21)
History of Britain miniseries
Story of England miniseries
American Revolution miniseries
French Revolution miniseries