He who stops being better stops being good.
In order to better comprehend the impact that the Puritan Age had on English history it is important to step back to the monarch who succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne of England and Ireland.
In 1603, at the death of Queen Elizabeth I her sole heir was the king of Scotland of the house of Stuart. James VI of Scotland thus became also King James I of England and Ireland and reigned till his death in 1625.
He made great efforts to develop a sense of unity in his vast and diverse kingdom and also strived to solve the everlasting religious issues that had brought so many conflicts in England since Henry VIII’s Reformation. He did succeed in sponsoring a translation in English of the Bible widely accepted as the official prayer book that carries his name and still is in use today, the authorized King James version.
Upon arriving in England he faced the Gunpowder plot orchestrated by Guy Fawkes, a dissident catholic, later captured and executed.
A GENERAL OUTLOOK
17th century England faced great social changes, the progress that these changes brought about provided better standards of living for a much wider number of people allowing the population to grow steadily, at the same time this caused increasing problems such as, for instance, reduced food supplies due to the inadequate British agricultural methods implemented at that time.
Therefore, growing unemployement in the coutry side and lack of food supplies forced many country people to move to towns to seek better living conditions. This in turn meant that many people turned to other fields of work in order to make a living thus developing into traders and artisans as well as in landed gentry.
A new social class was rising.
Furthermore England at this time was greatly affected by an underlying conflict for power between the aristocracy and this new rising middle class that soon took the shape of a bitter religious controversy as the different interpretations of specific standpoints also clearly show and they emphasize the different cultural and political perspectives that eventually led to the only Civil War that racked the country in Modern Age.
ARISTOCRACY VS MIDDLE CLASS
The British aristocracy, just as that of the other European countries, was made up of wealthy great landowners who had seen their wealth and, consenquently, their political power greatly reduced by the rise of prices in raw materials and crops. On the other hand tradesmen, artisans and landed gentry were all part of that middle class that was increasingly gaining wealth and power as many of these were also MPs.
The Religious Controversy
If the former was mainly Anglican, the majority of the latter was in fact part of the growing group called “dissenters”. Dissenters advocated a turn for puritanism within the protestant realm of ideas. They fervently believed, as Calvin had emphasised, in the individual’s ability to attain God’s grace through a holy life of devotion to work, therefore, according to Puritans, it was thanks to the individual person’s will power to make a good living by choosing a profession that would provide them with a high income which in turn would allow them to climb up the social ladder ensuring for themselves God’s salvation. This cultural state of mind as a consequence perceived poverty as the outcome of a life style that was in clear contrast with their beliefs and was almost considered sinful therefore it was to be avoided at all costs.
It is interesting to note that one of the practices that was counted as immoral, during this time and especially by the Puritan Dissenters, was entertainment in general, seen as a waste of precious time in the best case, but the theatre in particular was looked upon as close to evil. Moreover drama and theatrical performances often undermined the pulpit’s authority which, in the mean time, had acquired both religious and political force of persuasion. As a matter of fact a rivalry developed between the didactic aim that still lingered in the theatre as a direct heir of medieval miracle plays and the protestant sermons bestowed on the audience from a Sunday’s pulpit, the competition was so strong and so much feared that it eventually led to the closure of theatres altogether marred as “the very poison and corruption of men’s minds and manners”.
Other issues that enflamed the religious controversy were both of doctrinal nature and regarding exterior practices or general behaviour as well. The Anglicans, unlike Puritans, favoured outward show of their faith, they took pride in the beauty of their churches, they adorned as best they could altars and rituals, in addition they maintained clergy’s hierarchy through which bishops held fast to their political power. The Puritans on the contrary preferred a plain appearance and advocated a moderate and strict behaviour, lastly they considered of the utmost importance to be free to individually reading the holy Scriptures to learn directly on their own and without any scholarly filter the word of God.
CHARLES I (1625-1649, A STUART KING) AND CIVIL WAR
Charles I (1600-1649), the second of the Stuart kings – he was the son of James I who had succeeded Elizabeth I on the throne of England, thus uniting England and Scotland – reigned successfully from an economic point of view, in fact he balanced out the Crown’s budget and improved efficiency in government affairs. However, from a political point of view he indeed collected several failures. The first of a series of mistakes that he made was to stick adamantly to his belief in the divine right of kings, in the second place he nurtured great personal confidence in his own moral rectitude, thirdly his cold and distant personality prevented him from seeking a proper communication method that might have conveyed his intentions and ideas to his people. Finally he was under the delusion that he would eventually win the people over through good deeds and by setting the good example. Unfortunately for him though his arrogance alienated him form his people in general.
Moreover his firm and proud refusal to get Parliament’s support in many unseccussful foreign campaigns such as the ones against the Netherlands over trading routes or the French over his marriage settlement with the French king’s sister and his wife did not help him to gain the people’s favour. In 1628 the king’s behaviour caused Parliament to implement the PETITION OF RIGHTS through which it demanded that raising taxes without Parliament’s consent and imprisonment without trial should be declared unlawful.
The last straw that brought about the conflict regards his attempt to impose Anglicanism on Presbytarian Scotland resulting in a Scottish rebellion. In order to crush the rebels he was forced to ask for Parliament’s support after eleven years of ruling the country in total contempt of that institution. Confident that he wouldn’t get a denial when he was faced with the unexpected – Parliament did in fact refuse to support the king’s request – he ordered the arrest of its leaders bringing upon himself and his kingdom Civil War which broke out in 1642.
The Civil War and the Commonwealth
The two sides confronting one another in the war were the supporters of the monarchy, the “Royalists” or “Cavaliers” because of their long hair, and the supporters of Parliament or so called “Roundheads” who cut their hair short because they thought it was sinful to keep it long. The latter ones were led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and his follwers, like said, were London’s Puritan MPs, or the middle class in general.
At the beginning of the war Cromwell’s followers didn’t have a professionally trained army but only soldiers on foot and they were ill equipped. Yet, by 1645 they could count on an efficiently trained army and navy. The Royalists, instead, were better equipped at the break of the war but, eventually, this initial advantage was overrun by the Roundheads strenuous fight in battle so much to be called “Ironsides”, futhermore the king’s allies, the Catholic Irish and the Scots let him down and he was handed over to Parliament in 1647.
The army maintained control of power, it drastically reduced the number of MPs and the surviving few of the House of Commons were defined the “Rump Parliament”, these were the MPs that set Charles I on trial and had him executed in 1649.
England became a republic and the Commonwealth was established in 1653 with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Foreign Policy Under the Commonwealth
Cromwell’s army kept in check Irish unrest and made peace with Scotland. In 1651 he enforced, once again, the NAVIGATION ACTS that ordered that English ships alone could transport English imports damaging Dutch commercial interests which led to war (1652-54), the war was successful for Britain and the Netherlands could only accept its outcome. England was also successful against Spain in 1655 thus establishing its naval superiority on the sea and gaining a stable trade route with the Caribbeans.
Cromwell’s foreign policy strengthened his power abroad, yet within English borders he was unable to deal with increasing social conflicts due to an increased taxation to pay off the war debts, alongside these drawbacks there was also a strive for purity among his puritans supporters that brought him to enforce censorship, banned theatres and impaired any form of artistic development. To top it off he ruled with the steadfast assistance of the army. All these strict provisions gained him the title of “military dictator”.
Cromwell’s son took office after his father’s death, in 1658, proving to be utterly unfit to rule and the army had no choice but rely on Parliament again.
© L. R. Capuana
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