Context

The Context of Herle’s Pamphlet

 

 

In understanding the English Civil War and the context in which Charles Herle wrote his pamphlet “A Fuller Answer to a Treatise Written by Dr. Ferne,” it is important to consider the greater historical context of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Political Background

The causes of the English Civil War can be traced to the foundations of government in England, the English Reformation, and the disunity of the British isles. The regal traditions of England began with the formation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and their culture. The absolute power of the king, ordained by God, was not widely accepted. It was not until the Norman Conquest of 1066 that the basis for an absolute monarchy began to be laid. Yet, after King John’s wild abuse of power, English elites forced him to sign the Magna Carta in 1215 to ensure the rights of subjects, and the subjection of the king to the law. This set a precedent for constitutionalism in England and, eventually, other parts of the world.[1]

The English Reformation also played a major role in leading up to the English Civil War. Henry VIII established the English Church, influenced by Martin Luther’s Protestantism.  Religious conflict escalated during the reign of Elizabeth I. She outlawed Catholic rituals and public sermons, making it illegal to be publicly Catholic. In response, Catholic rulers and the papacy tried their best to remove Elizabeth from power. They provided resources to English Catholic conspirators and supported attempts to assassinate her. By the time James I, a Catholic, came to power in 1603, England was strongly divided along religious lines.[2]

The ethnic disunity of the British Isles was arguably the most immediate cause for the English Civil War. At the onset of the seventeenth century, the Kingdom of England included Scotland and Ireland. Just 40 years later, both Scotland and Ireland were in open rebellion and headed towards independence. This shook the English people, as it showed the weakness of the military and threatened the unity of the ‘Three Kingdoms.'[3]

The Religious Background

Religious conflict was a major driving force behind the English Civil War.  The Bishops’ Wars from 1639 to 1645 set the stage for the English Civil War, and demonstrated how drastically religion could affect England and its territories.  There were two Bishops’ Wars, both were fought between England and Scotland.  The conflict started when King Charles I and Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud imposed a reformed Book of Common Prayer upon the people of Scotland.  Scotland refused to acknowledge the new prayer book because they saw it as an act of religious persecution that limited their religious freedoms.  Charles, in turn, I saw this an act of deviance against his royal authority, so he marched an army into Scotland.  The Scots defeated the English army, and many in the English public began to distrust King Charles I; after all, Scotland was a Protestant nation, it seemed wrong for a supposedly Protestant King to attack those of the same religion.  The Bishops’ Wars are often considered a prelude to the English Civil War, which is why they are so significant in understanding the context of Herle’s world.[4]

Another major religious dispute going on at the time of English Civil War was the constant conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  Both of these religious groups were fighting for power and control of the Church of England, and they were tearing the country apart.  The country was divided in belief, and more and more people were turning to King Charles I to resolve the conflict, for which he had no solution.  Charles I was supposedly an Anglican Protestant, but he was married to Roman Catholic Henrietta Maria of France.  The majority Protestant public had a history of conflict with the Roman Catholic Church, so this marriage created a lot of distrust and malice between the king and his subjects.[5]  

The most significant religious cause for the English Civil War was the issue of divine right.  Divine right is the doctrine that kings and queens have a god-given right to rule, and that rebellion against them is a sin.  To defy a monarch was to defy the will of God.  Parliament challenged the divine right of Charles I.  They wanted to create a constitutional monarchy for Charles I to limit his political power.  Charles was outraged at Parliament’s desire to limit his power, and he refused to give up his absolutist powers to be put under a constitutional monarchy.  The division between the King and Parliament, and the continuous conflict between Protestants and Catholics was tearing the country apart, contributing to the Civil War.[6]

Intellectual Background

The rich intellectual history preceding the English Civil War laid the groundwork for the future revolution. Emerging ideas such as humanism, the ancient constitution, and the scientific method were significant in creating a more individualistic and secular culture, and ultimately changing the status quo of England.  

As stated in “The English Revolution: 1640-1660,” one of the main elements of a revolution is the presence of ideologies that “justify resistance” [7]. The humanistic movement was one major force that shaped ideas of the individual, and it was the influential thinkers of this time who really drove these movements. For instance, Thomas Hobbes, one of the most prominent thinkers of the seventeenth century, was heavily influenced by the writings of the humanist Niccoló Machiavelli, often thought to be the father of modern political thought. Hobbes was an absolutist who supported the idea that the King should have absolute power, and that “mixarchy” would doom the country. Hobbes greatly contributed to the debate over the origin of authority and who should follow it [8].

Advances in the sciences also influenced intellectual developments. The scientific method, pioneered by Sir Francis Bacon, focused on asking questions and discovering answers through observation. The scientific method fostered the idea of independent thinking and discovery. People began to question divine right, and thus their dependence on government. These ideas fueled revolutionary dialogue and action, one of the fundamental aspects of Herle’s world [9].

The Social and Technological Background

Numerous social groups (some of whom overlapped) played important roles in the English Civil War. These include Puritans, members of Parliament, the King and his royalist supporters, and ordinary men and women. At the outset of the war, Parliament gained the support of the Puritans, a prominent religious minority during the 1640’s who strongly disliked Catholics. The Catholics and Royalists supported King Charles, believing him to be divinely ordained. 

Women’s roles in the Civil War in some cases gave them access to more political power than they had possessed in the past. Some women, especially among the Royalists, acted as spies, while others took an active role in the wartime economy.  Still other women became deeply involved in the dissemination of political news and ideas as writers and sellers of popular printed works [10].

Scholars recognize that printing played an enormous role in paving the way for civil war. The printing press’ history was also connected with the state of public health during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Second Pandemic, in particular, sparked a growing demand for printed materials that provided information on mortality rates. Here we see the beginnings of a lasting relationship between technological advances and the state of the economy [11].  The impact of war contributed to the increasing focus on England’s public health. Troop movements across England led to greater spread of contagion. Wartime also led to decreased availability of food, leading to undernutrition and decreased ability to resist disease [12]. Printing also influenced the self-definition of citizens, as absolutist rule often fostered a government of censorship and regulated speech. Printing materials, even if they were just public health reports, was one method of asserting increased individual freedom [13].

The power and status of Parliament in the seventeenth century was also a factor in the trend of greater individual freedoms. The majority of Parliament consisted of middle-class men: land-owning merchants. This merchant class gained power during the 1600’s and used that power to define a stronger middle class in England. This new middle class flourished under progressive economic theory such as private ownership and capitalism [13]. All of these economic and social developments were strongly linked to the development of the printing press and the evolution of modes of communication.

Overall, a range of factors influenced the creation of Herle’s pamphlet. As historians, it is important to evaluate the interaction of social, religious, intellectual, political, technological and economic forces during the seventeenth century. These forces shaped Herle’s creation of his document and its reception. It is impossible to fully understand the pamphlet without first understanding the context of the time in which he lived.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] Johann P. Sommerville, “English and European Political Ideas in the Early Seventeenth Century: Revisionism and the Case of Absolutism,” Journal of British Studies 35, no. 2 (1996): 168-194, http://www.jstor.org/stable/175798.

[2] Paul Christianson, “The Causes of the English Revolution: A Reappraisal,” Journal of British Studies 15, no. 2 (1976): 40-75, http://www.jstor.org/stable/175132.

[3] Mark Stoyle, “English ‘Nationalism’, Celtic Particularism, and the English Civil War,” The Historical Journal 43, no. 4 (2000): 1113-1128, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3020883.

[4] Morrill John, “The Religious Context of the English Civil War,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 34 (1984): 155-178, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3679130.

[5] Davis Collin, Religion and the Struggle for Freedom in the English Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

[6] Burgess Glenn, “The Divine Right of Kings Reconsidered,” The English Historical Review, Vol. 107, No. 425 (Oct., 1992): 837-861, http://www.jstor.org/stable/574219.

[7] Roberts, Clayton, Roberts, David, and Bisson, Douglas R. “The English Revolution: 1640-1660” in A History of England, Vol. 1: Prehistory to 1714, 6th edition, 208-225. Boston: Pearson, 2014.

[8] Martin Dzelzainis, “Ideas in Conflict: Political and Religious Thought during the English Revolution,” in The Cambridge Companion to Writing of the English Revolution, ed. N.H. Keeble (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 32-49.

[9] Christopher Hill, Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution – Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997; Oxford Scholarship Online, 2011), doi: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198206682.001.0001.

[10] Hughes A. Gender and the English Revolution, (London: Routledge, 2012).

[11] Stephen Greenberg, “Plague, the Printing Press, and Public Health in Seventeenth-Century London,” Huntington Library Quarterly 67, no. 4 (2004): 508-27.

[12] Quentin Outram, “The Demographic Impact of Early Modern Warfare,” Social Science History 26, no. 2 (2002): 245-72, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40267778.

[13] Bruce Imslie, “Early English Mercantilists and the Support of Liberal Institutions,” History Of Political Economy 47, no. 3 (September 2015): 419-448, Historical Abstracts, EBSCOhost accessed October 4, 2016.

 

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