By Paul Lay
Head of Zeus, 352pp, £30/$49.95
On the face of it, the situation of English Catholics before the Civil War (perhaps five per cent of the population) looked promising. King Charles I had a devout Catholic queen, the French-born Henrietta Maria, who had a private chapel at St James’s Palace with, as specified in the pre-nuptial agreement, “sufficient commodious entrances not only for the use of Madam and the better sort but also for the meanest of families”. Charles himself was drawn to the aesthetics of Catholicism, and his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was intent on restoring “decorum” to Anglican worship.
However, as in Elizabeth I’s day, the situation was complicated by the conflation of Rome and the threat from Spain. Whereas France’s Catholicism tended to the Gallic, Spain’s was distinctly ultramontane (and Henry VIII’s argument, at least at first, had been with the pope, not Catholicism as such).
Nor did Laudian decorum – candles, altar rails and such – amount to sympathy with or even toleration for Catholicism. Indeed, the security of the Anglican Church, whose supreme governor was the king, required that Catholics be excluded by law from public life. Above all, the Elizabethan Prayer Book’s ritual may have been Catholic “in language of peerless economy and beauty”, but its theology was inherently Calvinist.
This presented a problem, for Charles wished to rule as an absolute monarch in the manner of the French King Louis XIII. National acceptance of Laudian high churchmanship was essential to his project, but was resisted by the Puritans who believed that the Protestant Reformation still had a long way to go. It all came to a head in 1642, with the start of nine years of war between Royalists (Cavaliers), ranging from those who supported Charles’s image of a king to those who didn’t but feared what might ensue otherwise, and Parliamentarians (Roundheads), ranging from constitutional monarchists to out-and-out republicans. All believed fervently that God was on their side.
When the defeated Charles was executed in 1649, Parliament hastily passed an act effectively declaring a republic, but with no idea how the country would be run.
In 1651, the late king’s eldest son persuaded the Scots to lend him an army and marched south. He was defeated at Worcester and, after hiding in an oak tree, fled to France.
The question remained: how was kingless England to be governed both temporally and spiritually? Attempts at a constitution were plagued by seemingly irreconcilable differences in Parliament, an institution anyway overshadowed by the army (an unintended consequence of the Civil War). England had never had a standing army, but after the Parliamentarians had been repeatedly trounced early in the war, notables such as the East Anglian squire Oliver Cromwell had raised a formidable professional force, the New Model Army, which could both fear God and keep its powder dry.
After Worcester, however, the New Model did not disband. It was needed to keep the peace. Besides, the troops wanted to make sure the new Commonwealth was to their liking: “On becoming soldiers we have not ceased to be citizens,” they declared. In December 1653, after various accidental experiments in anarchy, Cromwell was made head of state with the title “Lord Protector”.
Paul Lay, editor of History Today, describes the Protectorate with verve and wryness. The “hagiarchy” saw God’s providential hand in everything, especially the victory over the Royalists, since Cromwell was but an amateur general.
Then a second madness overcame them. Persuaded that “the struggle to establish a Commonwealth that reflected God’s glory on earth was a global one,” they embarked on a war with Spain in the Caribbean. This “Western Design” was in reality a colonial grab whose prize was gold, silver and slaves. The Design went horribly wrong. The only conclusion Cromwell could draw was that it was God’s judgment on England’s unworthiness. His response was, inter alia, to divide the country into districts and place each under the supervision of a major-general. It hardly needs the benefit of hindsight to see that this wasn’t likely to work.
The Protectorate didn’t last long.
In September 1658, Cromwell died, succeeded by his eldest son Richard, whose nickname “Tumbledown Dick” tells all. He was soon pensioned off, and in early 1660 the pragmatic parliamentarian General George Monck, concluding that stability could only be assured with the return of the king, marched his army of occupation south from Scotland and restored the monarchy with scarcely a shot.
Unfortunately, Charles II would show no interest in constitutional monarchy either, but that’s another story. Nor did he improve the situation of his Catholic subjects, though he too married a Catholic princess. The recusancy laws were actually strengthened; Emancipation would take another 170 years.
Providence Lost is a brilliant aid to understanding both modern Britain and, indirectly, the United States; the lessons of the Protectorate were not lost on the founding fathers.
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