Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A month of Civil War! part one

Happy New Year everyone! 

While we all recover from the festivities, I'd like to inaugurate a short series of small blogs that I plan to produce throughout the month, discussing the English Civil War (and the wider conflicts of the early half of the seventeenth century). 

It was on 1 January 1649 that Parliament decided to put King Charles I on trial, and by the end of the month they had killed him, so what finer way to commemorate this - and, indeed, to start a new year - than with a look at just what all the fuss was about? What finer way, indeed.

Where to begin?
I realise that, for the majority of my blogs so far, I have made suppositions about prior knowledge, largely because most of what I have covered has in some way featured in the national curriculum for British schools. However, I feel that this curriculum has done a fairly poor job of explaining many aspects of the English Civil War that I feel like I didn't, in fact, study it at all. So let's take a broad look at the whole thing.

The causes of the English Civil War - indeed, of any war - are myriad and difficult to unpick from the tapestry of history, and still cause some debate among historians to this day. Taking a view of the Civil War as a religious conflict, one of the causes can be said to stem from the previous century. The Reformation movement of the 1500s caused a radical shift in the life of continental Europe, and spawned a series of religious wars that were fought in many theatres for about 150 years following Martin Luther getting his hammer out. Possibly the most far-reaching result of his actions, however, was the idea that religious freedom is a right that everyone should have. Of course, that wasn't really his intention, but the idea grew. If Luther could disagree with the Pope and preach his vision of Christianity, why not anyone else? Huldrych Zwingli certainly thought this way. John Calvin, too. The religious reforms of the 1530s and 1540s spread throughout Europe, causing a major crisis in the Holy Roman Empire. Religious persecution was rife, and millions were killed as the sixteenth century wore on. 

The Holy Roman Empire was a collection of principalities, duchies and other nation-states in central Europe, ruled by an Emperor who was elected from among the seven leading princes of the lands comprising the Empire - the Electors. The Emperor had no real jurisdictional rights over those lands - so he could not determine the 'state religion' as such - so he needed his own resources if he were to govern effectively. For most of the sixteenth century religious crisis, the Emperor was Charles I of Spain (who ruled the Empire as Charles V). A fervent Catholic and member of the powerful Habsburg family, his grandfather was the immensely powerful Maximilian I, who had also reigned as Holy Roman Emperor. Charles eventually abdicated in 1556 in favour of his brother Ferdinand I, with his son Philip II ruling his ancestral lands of Spain and the Spanish Netherlands. Philip was of course the ruthless counter-reformation monarch who made it his mission to purge as much of Europe as he could of Protestants. While Ferdinand I was of a similar mindset, his son Maximilian II allowed the Protestant nobles throughout the Empire religious liberty. This official sanction of the religious diversity within the Empire led to considerable strife as the turn of the seventeenth century loomed.

The Thirty Years War
The Thirty Years War looms large over the causes of the English Civil War, and yet its events barely concerned England after 1628. 

In a (large) nutshell, Maximilian II's son Rudolf II died without an heir, having granted religious freedom to the people of Bohemia. His heir, Matthias, was elected Emperor and attempted a conciliatory policy among the Catholics and Protestants of the Empire. However, he was forced to revise this later in his reign, and to accept the much more hard-line Ferdinand II as his successor. As Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II almost immediately set in progress a counter-reformation throughout the Empire that sidelined many Protestant nobles in Bohemia, and in 1618 led them to revolt, starting the war. The Holy Roman Emperor was, traditionally, also crowned as King of Bohemia, but the Bohemians offered the crown to any Protestant ruler who would take it - and the Elector Palatine, Frederick V, accepted. Frederick V had married Elizabeth, the daughter of James I of England (and through whom George I had his claim to the English throne in 1714), but his lands in the Palatine (roughly the Rhineland) were insufficient for him as a resource to govern in Bohemia. Ferdinand allied himself with the Duke of Bavaria, and their joint army defeated the Bohemians, outlawing Protestantism. Simultaneously, Philip III of Spain (Ferdinand's son-in-law) launched an attack on the Palatinate. Frederick fled to Amsterdam, and gave up his electoral title to the Duke of Bavaria. By 1622, there were no Protestant powers left in the Empire to oppose Ferdinand. The Dutch then re-launched their war with Spain following a period of peace, and when Christian IV of Denmark entered the conflict seeking to annexe several important areas in Holstein, a Protestant Union was formed between Denmark, the Dutch, and England. This was crushed in 1629, and Christian removed Denmark from the war. However, Ferdinand's power in the Empire began to be feared by Catholic nobles. 

Then, in a surprise move, Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden swept through Pomerania and, in a series of conquests, captured a great swathe of the Empire down to Bavaria. As a Lutheran king, this was a massive threat to Ferdinand's rule, but Gustavus was killed at the Battle of Lutzen in 1632. Three years later, with the official expulsion of the Calvinists from the Empire under the Peace of Prague, France entered the war in an effort to prevent Austro-Spanish Habsburg domination within the Empire. Ferdinand II died in 1637, with his son Ferdinand III succeeding him as Emperor. With France in the conflict under the direction of Louis XIII and the shrewd Cardinal Richelieu (of Three Musketeers fame), Ferdinand sought to bring the conflict to a close by granting important concessions to the electors, including the right to determine their own foreign policy. Oh dear. Such a massive concession led to the weakening of the Emperor's power. With the Spanish harassing the French, Richelieu aided the Portuguese in rebelling against Philip IV of Spain, which effectively took Spain out of the war. However, Richelieu died in 1642, and Louis XIII the following year, leaving the infant Louis XIV to the throne. Luckily, Richelieu's successor Cardinal Mazarin was just as devious, and began to draw the war to a close under the military leadership of the Prince of Conde. In 1643, Denmark tried to re-enter the war on Ferdinand's side this time, but the Swedish army, which had been pushed back into northern Germany, cut them off. Conde defeated the Bavarians in 1645, and in 1647 France and Bavaria concluded peace. The following year, the French and Swedish army defeated Ferdinand's Imperial forces at the Battle of Zusmarshausen, and the French defeated the Spanish at Lens. The war came to an end with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Under the terms of this peace, Ferdinand held absolute authority only over the Habsburg hereditary lands in Austria and Bohemia, with Protestants in Silesia and Hungary retaining their religious freedom. France emerged in Europe as a major political power. Most importantly, the Imperial princes could not demand confessional conformity from their subjects. Frederick V's son, Charles I Louis, was given the Lower Palatine and an eighth electoral vote was created for him. 

But why is any of this important to the English Civil War? 
Mostly, it provides a sort of preemptive echo of things to come, as regards attitudes to both religion and state. To begin with, for most of the course of the war MPs in England - Protestants, all - implored the king to join the Protestant coalition against the Emperor, as a sort of ideological crusade. The Dutch were primarily responsible for a series of newsbooks that would make it across the waters to England with news of Imperial atrocities committed against Protestants. While James I and Charles I both weren't forthcoming with military aid, even though Frederick V was James' son-in-law and Charles' brother-in-law, they did send money to provision troops abroad. Many noblemen and mercenaries from the British Isles also fought on the continent on one side or another. 

The threat of a Catholic conspiracy was very real at this time, also. Since the pope declared it a religious duty to kill Elizabeth I in 1570, English Protestants felt very vulnerable to a Catholic threat. The Armada in 1588 from Spain served to heighten this, and the 1605 Gunpowder Plot caused widespread panic and anti-Catholic feeling. So when Charles I appeared to favour Catholicism, dissent began to form...

Next, a closer look at the state of religious affairs across the British Isles!