The BBC slanders the English Revolution: a reply by Alan Woods

I did not believe that it was possible for the low esteem in which I hold modern academics in general, and bourgeois historians in particular, to sink any lower than it already was. But that belief was misplaced. I have just had the misfortune to watch a three-part series put out by BBC Channel Four with the title: ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’. I now hold the intellectual qualities of our modern historians at a slightly lower level than those of Mr Bean. At least Mr Bean can be mildly amusing at times, but our self-appointed intellectuals lack even that redeeming virtue.

If these opening lines appear to reflect a certain level of disappointment on my part, I can quite understand. I must confess that, when I saw this series advertised, my interest was immediately aroused. To the best of my memory the BBC has never carried a serious documentary about that colossal turning point in our history, a moment that dealt a mortal blow to the old feudal autocracy and thus laid the basis for the democratic rights that we enjoy today.

In the past, we have had television series about Danes and Saxons, Normans and Plantagenets, Louis XIV and his court at Versailles, and of course the Tudors – the many wives of Henry VIII, and other subjects that are intended purely for our entertainment. It has to be said, moreover, that the BBC in general has a decent record in dealing with such historical subjects in a reasonably accurate manner. In my naivety, I was expecting something similar this time. But my hopes were quickly dashed – in fact, within the space of the first five minutes of the first programme.

The fault here was entirely my own. The first question I should have asked myself is as follows: why is it that our television producers feel able to put out historical programmes on practically any subject, but have remained stubbornly silent on one of the most important periods in British history? Why the reluctance to mention the Civil War, or, to use its correct description, the English Revolution? This strange silence can easily be explained and understood.

We have always been given to understand that the people of Britain, unlike the fiery Spaniards, the revolutionary French and other more combustible nations, are not revolutionary by nature. We are, after all, moderate, reasonable, pleasant people who are naturally inclined to achieve progress through small steps, reforms, and above all, by compromise. Revolution is something that has never happened in this green and pleasant land, and could never happen because we are genetically disinclined to put up with it.

A very comforting myth – but a myth, nonetheless. What our intellectual friends are not prepared to admit is that modern democracy was born out of a violent revolution that cut off the King’s head, and a bloody Civil War. There are no verified figures for how many lives were lost during those nine years. Historical records count over 84,000 people killed in conflict, with over 100,000 more killed by disease in England alone. No records were kept of Scottish soldiers killed in the wars, but estimates suggest another 60,000 people may have died in Scotland. And in Ireland, where plague, famine and another Civil War added to the death toll from the English Civil War, it is estimated over 600,000 people died – 40 percent of the pre-war population.

Our historians do not like to talk about this because it contradicts everything we have been led to believe for decades, and indeed centuries. Now at last, they finally decided to talk about it because the present crisis in Britain has upset all the old comforting illusions. We are living in the most turbulent period probably in the whole history of Britain – certainly for a very long time. And if we are to seek some point of reference in history for events that are unfolding before our eyes, it is impossible to ignore what occurred in this country in the stormy years of the 17th century.

The Times suspects (with good reason) that the production of this series had more to do with the present political turmoil in Britain than a genuine interest in what occurred in this country four centuries ago. In a scathing review on 10 January it asked:

“Why would BBC One suddenly be offering a three-part primetime history of Charles I’s constitutional crisis? The mind strains to wonder, but when the presenter Lisa Hilton introduced the series as ‘how the country could fall apart and become bitterly divided in just a few weeks’, you felt that she was just stopping short of adding: ‘Wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.’”

When they finally made up their mind to mention the English Revolution, they went to extraordinary lengths to present it in a disfigured, distorted, false and misleading way. Let me be frank. Nobody who watched this appallingly bad series could ever form the slightest idea of what occurred, or why it occurred.

The ‘experts’

Charles I Image fair use reviewThe programme creators went to extraordinary lengths to present the English Revolution in a distorted, false and misleading way / Image: fair use (review)

In order to add the necessary note of academic gravitas to the series, we were presented with a panel of ‘experts’, which, however, proved to be somewhat lacking in weight, and was in some cases, downright surprising. Leanda de Lisle, the author of The White King, makes no attempt to conceal her reactionary monarchist views. Naturally, her book has received rave reviews in the bourgeois press.

Another ‘expert’ who appeared on the programme to give us the benefit of their profound knowledge of English history was the right-wing Tory MP, John Redwood. As a notorious Brexiteer and Thatcherite, he was presumably picked in order to provide a balanced view of the English Revolution – that is to say, balanced towards the right.

Last but not least, we had Earl Charles Spencer, the brother of the late Lady Diana. Clearly, one’s knowledge of the English Revolution would not be complete without the views of a representative of the aristocracy (even a minor one). Furthermore, Earl Spencer has the advantage of being rather close to the present royal family, as the uncle of Prince William, although his relations with the Queen were rather strained in the past.

The one person who attempted to introduce a serious note to the entire series was John Rees, the author of The Leveller Revolution. He was the only one who rose above the level of gossip historians and gave due weight to the key role of the masses. No doubt for that reason, he was given very little time, and his arguments were immediately contradicted by all the other ‘experts’ who saw the ‘mob’ as a purely destructive force whose only aim was to murder poor unfortunate bishops, disturb the peace, offend the poor, unfortunate King and Queen and generally make nuisances of themselves.

Post-modernism and gossip historians

This series was an excellent example of the kind of superficial idiocy that flows from the modern fad (I cannot bring myself to describe it as a ‘philosophy’) known as post-modernism. According to this theory, it is impossible to find any rational cause that determines historical development. History is reduced to a mere series of accidents, chance events, which reflect only the personal caprice, ignorance, stupidity, or, for that matter, heroism and intelligence of individual actors.

Of course, it is impossible to deny the role of the individual in history. History is made by men and women, and their personal characters, psychology and capacity or incapacity, have a direct bearing on the course of events. To say that, is frankly rather childish, since it is to state the obvious. But to draw the conclusion that great historical events are determined exclusively by accidents and the peculiarities of individual actors is a statement that flies in the face of the whole of science and effectively renders any rational explanation of historical events impossible.

Let me put it this way. Everybody accepts that the whole of nature, the universe, the evolution of species, including our own, is determined by definite laws. It is the task of science precisely to discover these laws. By what right do we assume that everything takes place according to laws, with the exception of human history? That would mean that we have not advanced any further than the first book of Genesis, which informs us that men and women are the exclusive creation of God, and are the supreme rulers of the Earth, and all that is in it.

As a Marxist, I find this assumption frankly astonishing. It seems that we can understand everything under the sun – except our own social evolution! Such a view of history is actually not even particularly new. It was Henry Ford who uttered the immortal words: “history is just one damn thing after another”. That is precisely the position of our post-modernist historians. We might add that Henry Ford also said: “history is bunk.” Indeed, that penetrating observation can well be applied to this new TV series.

Demonology instead of history

The series immediately starts on the wrong foot. The presenter informs us that she is going to “explore Charles’s mind”. This would seem to be a somewhat daring assertion, considering that Charles Stuart has been dead and buried for approximately four centuries, and therefore, one assumes that his mind is somewhat out of reach. It is certainly impossible to put him on a psychiatrist’s couch at present. But such trivial problems do not deter our intrepid post-modernists in the slightest degree. What biology cannot provide can easily be substituted by the infinite force of the human imagination, of which we have here in plenty.

We are told that “nine years of Civil War and regicide were all decided by a period of 50 days”. This is a gross oversimplification of complex processes, which actually unfolded over a period of more than a decade. But let that rest. We can accept for the sake of argument that the winter of 1641-42 did represent a tipping point that led inexorably to Civil War. But what were the causes of the Civil War? To this question, no serious answers are ever given.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck Charles I Image public domainThe revolution is reduced to a personal conflict between Charles I, who believed he answered to God alone, and Pym, leader of the opposition in Parliament “who [stopped] at nothing to curb the King's power” / Image: public domain

The thesis put forward by the series is spelt out very clearly in the first episode: the whole thing is reduced to a personal conflict between two men: King Charles, who was very arrogant and believed he was answerable only to God, and John Pym, “who will stop at nothing to curb the King’s power.” So there you have it: the whole wretched business was caused by two unreasonable people who could not get on. “Two men dragged the whole country into crisis,” we are told – no ifs or buts!

The first problem, it appears, was precisely the mind of Charles. We are informed he was: “an arrogant, aloof King, who was out of contact with his people.” He was “domineering and overweening.” He was not prepared to listen or make compromises. Now, if he had not been so unreasonable, everything could have been different. The Civil War could have been avoided. Charles could have kept his throne and his head, the whole of British history would have taken a different course, and everyone would have lived happily ever after. Ah, how nice it would have been if our post-modern historians could only have made history, instead of merely writing about it!

The new post-modernist school of history tries to steer a “middle way”, avoiding all ideological explanations and extremes. It presents a more “nuanced” picture of the Civil War, bewildering in its complexity, serving us a confusing mass of detail – this little incident and that fascinating little bit of gossip, and above all, little bits of individual psychology (“exploring the mind of Charles” etc.). Thus, the whole thing is reduced to the personal quirks of Charles I, and the stubbornness of John Pym.

This leads us into a tangled forest from which there is no way out. It is what Engels used to call a “pauper’s broth of eclecticism.” It is incapable of explaining anything about the English Revolution – or anything else for that matter. The main ingredients in this insipid broth are – plots and conspiracies. These words are invariably associated in the series with the name of the wicked Pym. His Majesty is portrayed as a fundamentally decent man who was just a bit too arrogant for his own good, whereas that awful Pym is portrayed as a complete scoundrel: “His methods were repulsive” … and so on and so forth.

We leave aside the fact that, in warfare and diplomacy, deceit plays an important role. It is called tactics. But when it comes to deceitfulness, cunning and dishonesty, it is surely Charles Stuart, not Pym, who must be given pride of place. This so-called method is in fact a kind of demonology, that seeks to explain history in terms of the evil machinations of ambitious men. This reminds me of the lines that Byron devoted to the poet Coleridge:

explaining metaphysics to the nation,

I wish he would explain his explanation.”

Let us call this so-called method by its proper name: it is the conspiracy theory of history. It is an explanation that, like the philosophical meanderings of Coleridge, explains nothing at all.

Factual inaccuracies

Our modern (or rather, post-modern) academics take great pride in their rigorous methods of analysis, and their painstaking attitude towards the facts. Unfortunately, the facts in this series have been taken in a very cavalier fashion (excuse the pun). In a word, these ‘experts’ have simply not done their homework. The first episode, to look no further, begins with a blatant falsehood.

The date is 20 November 1641. We are informed that King Charles is returning from Edinburgh, “where he has suppressed a rebellion.” As a result of this alleged victory over the Scots, the King is returning to Westminster “full of confidence.” These are the precise words of the script. What are the facts? The exact opposite was the case. The rebellion in Scotland actually took place, not in 1641, but in 1639 when Charles, in an act of supreme folly, attempted to impose the English Book of Common Prayer on the Scots. This led to a national uprising. Far from suppressing the rebellion, it spread like wild fire, leading to what became known as the Bishops’ Wars, in which Charles suffered two shattering military defeats. 

At the time under consideration by the programme, the Scottish army had actually advanced into England and occupied Newcastle. Charles had been forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Ripon. The treasury was empty, and every expedient for supply had been exhausted. But the King had suffered a far more serious loss: the complete collapse of his authority both north and south of the border. He was now morally and financially bankrupt. 

In fact, Charles was forced to go cap in hand to ask parliament for money to pay the Scots for the expenses of the war and the wages of the occupying forces, as a prior condition for their evacuation of Newcastle. He assumed that parliament would vote to approve the necessary cash on patriotic grounds. That was a bad mistake. The wealthy merchants in parliament were actually more sympathetic to the Scottish Presbyterians than to Charles who had dissolved parliament 11 years earlier and ruled by illegal and arbitrary means.

During that eleven year period Charles ruled on his own (with the assistance of advisers, Archbishop Laud, the Earl of Strafford and the Queen). Summary justice meted out by the notorious Court of Star Chamber, which raised money for the King by imposing heavy fines on those who refused to pay his illegal taxes. Rich men were tempted with the offer to purchase titles. If that did not work, they were fined the very same sum of money.

The programme mentions in passing the case of William Prynne, the outspoken Puritan who was sentenced to have both ears cut off. But this was not at all unusual. For refusing to accept the religion of the King and his agent Archbishop Laud, men were imprisoned without trial, flogged, branded on the face, or like Prynne, had their ears sliced off and their tongue bored with a hot iron.

A rebellious young man called John Lilburne was punished for distributing illegal literature in the streets. By order of the Star Chamber he was whipped through the streets of London from the Fleet prison to Westminster until the blood flowed down his back. He was accompanied throughout by sympathetic crowds.

As he sat on the pavement covered in dust and blood, a gentleman approached him in the name of the Star Chamber, offering to spare him the pillory if he would humbly beg pardon – an offer he firmly refused. When he was made to stand in the pillory he continued to preach and shout his defiance until a gag was stuffed into his mouth. Even when dragged off to prison, he continued to harangue his captors.

In reprisal, the Star Chamber condemned him to be thrown into a dungeon, and loaded with irons. Lilburne, who later became one of the leaders of the Levellers, described the indescribably bad conditions in his filthy and dark dungeon as the worst possible torture he had to endure. But he steadfastly refused to repent or ask for forgiveness. By that time the damage had been done. The tide was now turning. The arrest and ill-treatment of John Lilburne in 1638 provoked a furious popular outcry against Laud and his bishops.

Charles’s repressive measures only served to fuel the fires of resentment and encourage the rise of a powerful mass protest movement known as the Puritans. Prynne became a great hero among them. This movement, beginning with religious ideas, soon acquired a political and subversive character. Given the close relationship between Church and state, this was absolutely inevitable.

“Sinister forces”

We are told that, when Charles returned “full of confidence” following his humiliating defeat at the hands of the Scots, he was met on his return by a conspiracy, cooked up by a “sinister faction”. But far from being full of confidence, as the series claims, Charles was in such a tight corner that he was compelled, much against his will, to call Parliament. Seizing their opportunity, the parliamentarians pressed their demands. A leading role in this was indeed played by Pym, but he was not the only one. Another leading parliamentarian, John Hampden, played an equally significant role, but is barely mentioned.

John Pym Image public domainJohn Pym and his party, “the fanatical minority known as Puritans” are turned into the villains of the piece. The presenters barely conceal their hatred for them and sympathy for Charles / Image: public domain

What was this sinister faction? At this point, we take leave of rationality altogether and enter the misty realm of children’s fairy stories. And in every fairy story there is a good man and the bad man. The bad man here is not King Charles, of course, as our objective historians all rush to point out. “Charles was not really a bad man,” just a bit unreasonable. Why could he not be reasonable, as we modern historians all are? If only everybody was like us, how much more pleasant history could have been!

Unfortunately, in this fairy story, the good man was defeated by the bad man, who, we are left in absolutely no doubt, was John Pym, the leader of the opposition in Parliament. While making a few gestures to create the impression of impartiality, most of those interviewed cannot conceal their hatred of Pym and his party, “the fanatical minority known as Puritans.” Right from the word go, we are insistently told that Pym was an intriguer, constantly engaged in plots and conspiracies against the poor unfortunate King. This is, in fact, the main, if not the only, explanation for the English Revolution that is put forward.

Parliament pressed home its advantage by demanding the trial of the King’s favourite, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. This was a direct challenge to the King’s power. But there is no mention of this in the programme. Fearing that Strafford might yet escape justice, the populace began to mobilise. Many mass demonstrations were held to demand the trial and punishment of the man who many people saw as the chief villain in a villainous government. About 6,000 men armed with swords and clubs marched from the City to Westminster and surrounded the Houses of Parliament.

The anger of the masses against Charles was reflected in a campaign of agitation on the streets of London aimed at preventing the release of Strafford. There was an ugly mood on the streets of London, which caused panic in the ranks of the parliamentarians. In the end, the King betrayed his friend and handed him over to the executioner’s axe. Here we see Charles as he really was: a cowardly, weak and treacherous man for whom the word loyalty had no meaning. To great popular rejoicing, Strafford was beheaded on Tower Hill on 12 May 1641.

Extravagant luxury

Lisa Hilton does not approve of the Puritans because they were against people having a good time. It is clear from the programme that she herself is very much in favour of having a good time, and what reasonable person can blame her for that? She appears to be most at home when lying on the floor of the extravagantly decorated Banqueting House in central London, admiring the Baroque ceiling and the adoration of absolute monarchy conveyed by the huge painting by Rubens.

In order, one assumes, to enter into the mind of Charles I, the BBC kindly paid for the carriage and horses to carry her on a round tour of our capital city. Giving full rein to her fertile imagination, Lisa informs us that the experience has convinced her that there was something to be said for the lifestyle of absolute monarchs, after all. She could even happily imagine herself transported back into those happy times (as a member of the Royal family, of course, not as a London apprentice, or a skivvy in the kitchens of Hampton Court).

In this state of bliss, she even delivers a royal wave to an imaginary crowd, in imitation of our dear Queen. “Riding in a carriage like this, it is easy to imagine …” etc., etc. Whenever she appears in these scenes, her face radiates nostalgia for happy times past. By contrast, whenever she speaks of those nasty Puritans, she scowls and makes no attempt to conceal her distaste for their boring black and white dress and their bad habit of smashing up churches and destroying works of art, including that most splendid work of art: the monarchy itself. This is what is called historical objectivity in academic circles.

Lisa Hilton refers to “sinister forces” and the “fanatical minority” who, it seems, dragged the nation into Civil War because they hated Catholics and wanted to stop people having a good time. We are informed that: “the Puritans didn’t really go in for joy.” And what reasonable person does not like to be joyful? Charles, on the other hand, was a very joyful person who enjoyed parties, picnics and balls. He was, we are told, particularly fond of masques, an extravagant form of entertainment involving music, dancing and scantily dressed young ladies. Ms. Hilton positively gushes with enthusiasm in describing the royal couple: “Charles and his wife were a shimmering and radiantly colourful van Dyck in an England of black ink woodcuts.”

But how does one explain the dour asceticism of the Puritans? Was this the product of a genetic aberration, a psychological quirk, or simply bad taste? No matter how much time and effort we spend trying to find a psychological explanation, we will fail. As a matter of fact, asceticism plays a role in every revolution in history. Deprived of the material means for obtaining a comfortable existence, let alone a luxurious one, the masses naturally have an attitude of hatred towards the extravagant and ostentatious luxury of the ruling class.

Asceticism and revolution

The obscene wealth of a small minority of idle parasites is itself a powerful contributing factor for revolution. This is just as true today as it was in the 17th century. But in the 16th century, asceticism was also a typical feature of the early period of capitalism, which Marx calls the period of the primitive accumulation of capital. The obsession with thrift and saving was one of the chief characteristics of the bourgeois in that period.

Let us not forget that the spiritual ancestor of the bourgeois is the medieval miser, and the embryo of primitive accumulation is the miser’s hoard. The stinginess of the bourgeois, especially in the early period, flows from the demands of primitive accumulation. Every penny must be saved for the purpose of accumulation. Precious money must not be wasted on frivolities like expensive clothes, theatres, extravagant feasting and drinking.

The morality and religion of feudalism rested on entirely different foundations. Since feudalism is based on agriculture, and moreover on a labour-intensive form of agriculture, society was conservative and as unchanging as the seasons – the owners of land did not need to bother their heads about money. They had no need to reinvest the surplus that they extracted from the peasantry. Consequently, the very idea of frugality, thrift and saving would have struck them as peculiar. On the contrary, the only purpose of wealth was to flaunt it.

The feudal lord had no other idea of money than to spend it on feasting and drinking, on lavish clothes and other outward displays of splendour. He could be generous on occasions, at least to his friends, relations and clients. Above all, he could be generous to the Church. After a lifetime of sin, he would leave huge amounts of money to the monks to say prayers for his soul for the next hundred years, or to contribute to the building of a cathedral. Not for nothing did the art of cathedral building flourish in this period like no other.

The asceticism of the monks and nuns, their utter renunciation of all human enjoyment, was supposed to compensate for the extravagances of the ruling class, the members of which could rest easy in the sure knowledge that they had God (or at least the Church) on their side. Even the most sinful soul could be sent straight to Paradise, (or at least get time off for good behaviour in Purgatory) upon the payment of a sufficient sum of money to the appropriate ecclesiastic authority.

Puritan Image public domainThe rise of the powerful mass protest movement known as the Puritans (supressed heavily by Charles) began with religious ideas, but soon acquired a political and subversive character / Image public domain

The fundamental doctrinal difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is the difference between salvation through Works (which can work out as expensive) and salvation through Faith (which is highly economical). The devout Protestant could be sure of salvation by the mere act of believing that Jesus saves. On the other hand, by the late Middle Ages, the Catholic Church was becoming an increasingly expensive operation. To finance the numerous wars and lavish lifestyle of the Papacy, ever-increasing sums of money were required. This was extracted by a number of means – all of them unpopular. The tithes were a burdensome taxation imposed on all classes. Then there were all kinds of supplementary taxes and impositions. Finally, there were the notorious indulgences: bits of paper, the purchase of which was supposed to guarantee remission of sins. The revolt against this was one of the main forces that impelled the Reformation, which in turn opened the door to the first bourgeois revolutions, first in Holland, then in England.

To the mind of a Puritan, the very idea of a hierarchical church structure with priests and bishops was contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Gospels. The only authority they recognised was the Bible itself, which they regarded as the revealed word of God. This was a direct link between the individual man and woman with the Almighty, and nothing and nobody should be allowed to interpose themselves between the individual and the deity.

The Puritans were in favour of the abolition of sports on Sunday, not because they “did not do joy” but because they wanted men and women to attend prayer meetings. These religious gatherings were in fact hotbeds of subversion. The preachers, who were usually common workingmen or artisans, did not confine themselves to religious texts but launched into fierce denunciations of the injustices of the present order of things.

The royalists were extremely suspicious about this. The Duke of Newcastle said that there “should be more praying and less preaching.” (Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution, p. 83)

He later told Charles II that traditional sports “will amuse the people’s thoughts and keep them in harmless action, which will free your Majesty from faction and rebellion.” (Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution: 1603-1714, p.84)

The reason why the ruling class favoured sports on Sunday was not because they were in favour of ‘joy’, but because they wanted to steer the common people away from politics. There is nothing new in this. The Roman slave owners offered the masses bread and circuses. Their modern equivalent offers us football. Joyfulness simply doesn’t enter into it. The ostentatious display of riches was not confined to jewellery, expensive dresses and lavish parties and balls. It was also extended into the realm of religion. The innovations brought about by Charles’s henchman archbishop Laud made Anglican churches increasingly similar to Roman Catholic ones.

For the Puritans, who wanted to return to the simpler and purer forms of worship of the early Christians, the elaborate rituals and ornaments introduced by Archbishop Laud were complete anathema (Laud, a key figure in these events, is not even mentioned once in the series). They believed that men and women should have direct contact with God, with only the Bible between them. Luther spoke of “the priesthood of all believers”. That suggests that there should be no priesthood: if every man and woman was a priest, then nobody was a priest. This was a democratic and revolutionary idea, and a threat not only to the hierarchy of the Church but of the state itself.

Development of capitalism in England

This was an age when the bourgeoisie was struggling to emerge from the fetters of feudalism. In an economic sense, capitalism had already made gigantic strides forward in England from the 14th century onwards. By the early part of the 17th century, it was already firmly entrenched both in agriculture and in trade, and also to some extent in the nascent development of industry in the towns. It is no accident that in the struggle between King and Parliament, the revolutionary bourgeois found its main support in the towns, especially in London, but also in Bristol, Portsmouth, Hull, and all the other important commercial centres.

A lot of confusion has been caused by academics who tried to show that the English Revolution was not a bourgeois revolution, because the nobility was fighting on both sides. This shows a complete misunderstanding of the class nature of society at this time. The decay of feudalism, proceeding side-by-side with the rise of capitalism and bourgeois property relations in agriculture, produced a gradual fusion between sections of the old aristocracy and the rising bourgeois class.

CV Wedgwood writes:

“England had long since accepted the fusion of the feudal landowner with the industrialist and the merchant. The Squire’s younger sons were, in the order of things, apprenticed to traders and unless their abilities suited them for the law or for the Church. Only the ardently adventurous or irredeemably stupid were sent abroad with horse and arms to become soldiers in foreign service.” (CV Wedgwood, The King’s Peace and the King’s War, volume 1, p. 49)

RH Tawney makes the same point even more clearly:

“The landowner living on the profits and rights of commercial farming and the merchant or banker who was also a landowner represented not two classes but one. Patrician and parvenu both owed their ascent to causes of the same order. Judged by the source of their incomes, they were equally bourgeois.” (Quoted in Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 102)

But the economic power of the rising bourgeoisie was not accompanied by corresponding growth in political power, which remained firmly in the hands of the monarchy and the nobility. In the previous century, the Tudors balanced between the classes while concentrating power in the hands of the absolute monarch. By degrees, the nascent bourgeoisie conquered positions of influence, but still remained politically in a subordinate position.

Puritanism was strongest in the most economically developed areas: London, the Home Counties, the South-East and East Anglia. It also had a strong following in the seaports, especially Bristol. With its insistence upon sobriety and hard work, it fitted in perfectly with the capitalist mode of production. Puritans were fervently attached to their religion and prepared to fight for it, and if necessary, die for it.

The role of religion

Religion in the 17th century played a far bigger role than it does today in Britain. Royalists, parliamentarians and revolutionaries all sought to find justification for their actions in the Bible. Once it was translated into English, the Bible provided many passages that could serve to justify the revolutionary aspirations of the poor and oppressed. It became a powerful motivating force for revolution.

There is absolutely no doubt that religion played a vital role, inspiring men and women to fight and sacrifice their lives for a transcendental cause. But it overlooks the fact that, at bottom, these religious movements, sects and parties, also expressed definite class interests and political and social aspirations. These factors are so inextricably linked that it is often impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. But the idea that religion was the main driving force of the revolution completely misunderstands the whole revolutionary process in the 17th century.

It is quite impossible to make sense of the myriad of religious sects that emerged at that time unless we understand this. In reality, these different religious movements were the equivalent of political parties today. In the final analysis, they expressed the interests of a particular class, or sub-division of a class. In the English Revolution, the class struggle found a distorted expression in the clash of antagonistic religious tendencies.

In contrast with Europe, the Reformation in England assumed a more gradual and incomplete character. Henry VIII broke with Rome, not for doctrinal reasons but for his own personal and dynastic interests. Although this rupture had profound consequences, as far as the inner structures and functioning of the Anglican Church was concerned, the difference was more apparent than real. The main difference was the fact that the Head of the Church was no longer the Pope of Rome but the King of England.

Henry himself was a conservative in religious matters, favouring the old elaborate church services and rituals. The same was true of his daughter Elizabeth who was deeply distrustful of the extreme Lutherans and Puritans who she saw correctly as a threat to the established order, not just of the Church but of the monarchy itself. Her successor, James I of England, the founder of the Stuart dynasty, had been a Catholic but embraced Protestantism in order to get his hands on the English Crown and the English Treasury.

By that time the majority not only of the wealthier traders, but also many of the country gentlemen had become Puritans of one sort or another. In the first Parliament of King James, the House of Commons for the first time refused to conduct business on a Sunday. His second Parliament decided to receive the communion at St. Margaret's Church instead of Westminster Abbey "for fear of copes and wafer-cakes."

Unlike his son Charles, James was a pragmatist, a man with no fixed principles other than his desire to hang on to power and spend as much public money as possible in his personal enjoyment. In his determined pursuit of pleasure, he spent large amounts of money, depleted the Treasury and left his unfortunate son with huge debts. This determined the character and destiny of the monarchy under Charles I.

The programme grossly misrepresents the religious conflict as one exclusively between Puritans and Catholics. In fact, the initial conflict was between the King, who was an Episcopalian, and the Presbyterians in Parliament. Charles was what was called a High Anglican, that is to say, he favoured a form of worship with ceremonies, rituals and lavish ornamentation. This was seen by many as merely Popery in disguise.

There is no doubt that Charles I supported the hierarchy of bishops and priests because he saw it correctly as a fundamental pillar of the monarchy. He told his son, the future Charles II that the Church was “the chiefest support of regal authority” (Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 80). The Digger Gerard Winstanley wrote of “Kings, Bishops and other State Officers.” The Church was, in effect, part of the state and the bishops and priests civil servants. The whole thing was expressed very neatly by Sir John Eliott when he said: “Religion is that which keeps the subject in obedience.” (Ibid, p.77)

Charles’ henchman, Archbishop Laud, carried out what was, in effect, a religious counterrevolution in the Church of England, introducing many innovations that certainly bore a remarkable resemblance to Catholic rituals. All this was imposed on a Protestant people by force. Dissidents were sentenced to the cruellest punishments. All this stoked the fires of resentment that burst onto the surface in 1642. But the name of Laud is not even mentioned by our “experts” for whom only two men existed: Charles and Pym!

Religion, class and politics

Former US President Bill Clinton, who was certainly not a Marxist, once famously said: “It’s the economy, stupid!” By accident, he said something intelligent. In the last analysis, economics is decisive in politics. That is true today and it was true in the 17th century. The central problem is easily stated: the King and the court clique had political power. But the lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. The House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. It was the battle over the possession of this wealth that was the original cause of the split between King and Parliament.

Let us give an approximate description of the different parties and tendencies. On the extreme right wing are the Catholics, who were probably a small minority in society, although they had important points of support, particularly in the upper strata of the aristocracy. Next, we have the Episcopalians, or high church Anglicans, the tendency identified with the King, the court clique and most of the aristocracy that dominated the House of Lords.

Catalogue of Sects Image public domainIn the 17th Century, the class struggle found a distorted expression in the struggle between different religious sects and tendencies. The BBC documentary studiously ignores this fact / Image: public domain

In the camp of the opposition are firstly the Presbyterians, representing the wealthy merchants and capitalists who were the majority of the House of Commons and also controlled the City of London. To the left of the Presbyterians stood the Independents, among whose ranks we find Oliver Cromwell, a small farmer from East Anglia. They represent mainly the middle-class, small farmers like Cromwell and the lower strata of the bourgeoisie.

These were the forces that first began what turned into the English Revolution. The conflict started at the top, as a battle between the King and Parliament for control of wealth and power. But the struggle between King and Parliament prepared the ground for the masses to enter into action. What the masses wanted was freedom from oppression and exploitation, and the right to worship as they saw fit. They sprang into action. Puritan preachers delivered fiery sermons that fuelled their agitated state of mind, inspiring them to action.

The bourgeoisie appealed for liberty, the rights of Parliament and religious freedom, adding, as if an afterthought, the rights of property. But when the common people heard the words liberty and religion their ears pricked up. Here at last was a hope to break out of what they saw as the dark night of Popery and fight for the establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth. The nation was now split into two hostile camps. We see the emergence of definite political parties and tendencies. In broad outline, these were the three parties pointed out above, although they were subdivided into smaller fragments, each reflecting different religious views and political tendencies.

Rebellion in Ireland

The peasantry of Ireland had been subjected for many years to cruel oppression by the English. Their lands were confiscated, their people robbed and massacred, their Catholicism suppressed. The country was a powder-keg that was overdue for an explosion. Charles had sent his favourite, Thomas Wentworth, to rule Ireland with a rod of iron. He plundered the Irish people so ferociously that he earned the nickname, Black Tom Tyrant. Charles rewarded him for his services by making him Earl of Strafford. But the recall of Strafford from Ireland, and his subsequent trial and execution, opened the door to a rebellion that was long overdue.

The chaotic situation in London provided the occasion for a national rebellion in Ireland. The oppressed Irish peasantry rose up and in their fury turned against the protestant Scottish and English settlers. A terrible massacre ensued.

News of the massacres caused a wave of panic in England, where the Protestant majority was only too aware of the nightmarish atrocities that had been inflicted in Germany during the wars of religion (the Thirty Years War). It stoked the fires of anti-Catholic feeling. But Charles thought that he saw in these events a chance to regain the upper hand. He again appealed for money from Parliament, allegedly to raise an army to suppress the Irish Rebellion. Surely, this time Parliament would see reason and hand over the cash. But again, Charles was mistaken.

There was a suspicion in the minds of many people that Charles himself was behind the Irish uprising. People were afraid of a Catholic uprising in England that would lead to the same kind of massacres that had occurred in Ireland. In particular, it was widely believed that the Queen, her priests and her Catholic friends were involved in the rebellion.

Lisa Hilton rushes to assure us that Charles had no connection with the Irish rebels, who nevertheless claimed that he and his wife had supported them. Whether or not these accusations are true, there is no doubt whatsoever that Charles intended to use the Irish situation against Parliament.

In the final analysis, the state itself consists of armed bodies of men in defence of property. In 17th century England, there was no standing army. Instead, there were local Militias organised in every important town and county. Whoever controlled the Militias therefore effectively was in control of the state. This now became the central issue in the struggle between the King and Parliament.

In his speech to Parliament, Charles used the Irish catastrophe to blame his opponents in the Commons for failing to come to the assistance of the English settlers. The phrasing of this speech, and particularly his insistence that the Milita should serve the King, provoked a head-on collision.

The struggle between King and Parliament was therefore reduced to the most important question: who controls the armed forces?

Parliament naturally had no wish to grant the King powers to raise an army that could be used against itself. So instead of granting the money requested by Charles, Parliament replied by presenting him with new and even-more-audacious demands in the form of the Grand Remonstrance, a document drafted by John Pym and his circle that set forth, in great detail, all the crimes committed by the King in the previous period. In its totality, it represented effectively a demand for the abolition of monarchical powers.

Matters had now come to a head.

Charles’s coup d’état

The events in Parliament were being closely observed by the masses. When Pym and his party issued the Grand Remonstrance to the public in the form of a printed pamphlet, it had an explosive effect. Here we had the Transitional Programme of the English Revolution! The revolutionary slogan: “No bishops! No Popish Lords!” was now echoing in every market place, on every street corner.

In November, the Remonstrance barely passed the Commons by 11 votes. It was not even submitted for approval to the House of Lords before being placed before the King. This was a declaration of war. Charles could never accept a document that would reduce him to a mere cipher in the hands of Parliament. The time for manoeuvring and dissimulation was over. Finally, the gloves were off.

Charles was forced to take precipitate action. In effect, he launched a coup d’état that was intended to behead the parliamentary opposition by picking off its leaders. On Tuesday, 4 January 1642 the King walked into the chamber of the House Commons at the head of an armed guard, intending to arrest the five members that he believed were at the head of the rebellion against him. He sat in the Speaker's chair and looked around the chamber but could see none of the five. Then he said the famous words, "I see the birds have flown".

Attempted Arrest of the Five members by Charles West Cope Image public domainCharles I launched a coup d’état and attempted to arrest his main opponents in parliament. This provoked the masses and afterwards, the isolated Charles fled London for Hampton Court / Image: public domain

He then turned to the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, demanding to know whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were. Falling on his knees, Lenthall replied: "May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here".

This famous scene is well known, but what is not so well known is what happened afterwards. When Charles passed through the streets of London in his royal coach, he was everywhere besieged by angry crowds, shouting a new slogan: “Privilege!” They were reminding him that members of parliament were supposed to be protected from arbitrary arrest by the rules of parliamentary privilege. In effect, they were telling him to his face that he could no longer decide anything. But far more than that, they were reminding him that they, the people of England, existed. They had been silenced by years of monarchical tyranny. Now they demanded to be heard.

Charles heard their message loud and clear, and immediately fled with his wife from a capital where they were completely isolated. The flight of the King to Hampton Court was the real beginning of the Civil War. It led to the formation of two irreconcilable camps, two rival centres of power: one based in London, the other finally in Oxford. This is the phenomenon Lenin described as Dual Power. From this point on, the outcome could only be settled by force.

In March 1642, John Pym and his allies pushed through the Militia Ordinance (it was called an Ordinance and not an Act because it never received the Royal Assent), which placed the command of each county's armed forces in the hands of Parliament. The King issued his own commissions of array, calling on his followers to organise their own armed forces in the counties. It was the beginning of the Civil War.

The eruption of the masses radically changed the course of events and set its stamp decisively on the revolution. But this fact is a closed book for our “experts”, whose snobbish contempt for ordinary working men and women is only equalled by the tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing a great social and political revolution as anything more than a petty squabble between two men.

Role of the masses

Trotsky wrote: “The immediate causes of the events of a revolution are changes in the state of mind of the conflicting classes. Changes in the collective consciousness have naturally a semi-concealed character. Only when they have attained a certain degree of intensity do the new moods and ideas break to the surface”. This can be seen very clearly in the English Revolution.

The conflict at the top immediately opened the floodgates through which poured the dispossessed masses. This was an absolutely decisive development. In the words of John Rees: “ordinary people, well, well beyond the political nation, were suddenly drawn into the centre of events.” Outside the debating chambers of Westminster, the entire nation was in a state of ferment that found its expression in a myriad of religious movements and sects.

The role of the masses provides the real motor force that drove the English Revolution forward. They were represented by different religious sects and tendencies: the Levellers, the Diggers or True Levellers, Anabaptists, Fifth Monarchy Men, Quakers and others. Yet this is completely ignored by the series, other than a comment by John Rees who correctly points out that the role of the masses in the English Revolution was just as important and inspirational as in the French or Russian revolutions.

Popular discontent now began to assume an organised form. Petitions to Parliament were drawn up, demanding redress against a host of grievances; and when a sufficient number of subscriptions was reached, the petitions were presented to the Commons, and immediately published. So many grievances were presented, both by the members and by petitions from outside Parliament that the House had to set up over 40 committees to consider them.

How do the “experts” view the role of the masses? Around Christmas time 1641, there was a virtual insurrection in London directed against the King and his supporters in Parliament. A leading role in this insurrection was played by the London apprentices. But their role is dismissed in sneering terms by our “experts”. As the shock troops of the insurrection, the London apprentices are singled out for a double dose of counterrevolutionary vitriol.

One of the “experts” informs us (in case we did not already know) that apprentices are young men. These young men, we are further informed, were suffering from a strange complaint which he describes as “toxic masculinity.” We do not know what toxic masculinity consists of, and no explanation is provided. Is it perhaps the male equivalent of “toxic femininity”? But since the person who makes this intriguing observation is a University Professor, we must always assume that he knows what he’s talking about. We ordinary mortals are left entirely in the dark.

A little more light is shed on the question by the remark subsequently made by Ms Hilton, who assures us that these apprentice weavers, potters and joiners moved into action, “fuelled by testosterone, ale and religious fervour.” From this remark we must conclude that, apart from the Bible and copious quantities of alcohol, the chief driving force of revolution was the well-known male hormone.

But just a moment! Since apprentices had been young men for hundreds of years, they presumably always possessed that self-same male hormone that, as we are assured, “fuelled” the insurrection of December 1641. Why did it not fuel a similar insurrection the previous Christmas, or the one before that? The apprentices also are known to have drunk beer (as did the entire population in those days, since it was a lot safer than the water). Yet the consumption of ale does not seem to have caused any revolutionary outbreak worthy of note before 1641. How strange!

Even stranger is the fact that many women played a very active role in the English revolution, although testosterone is not usually a dominant hormone in the female physiognomy. Irritatingly, all these awkward facts do not somehow fit into this interesting post-modernist theory. Nor does the fact that most of the Puritans (those “sinister forces” who were supposed to be behind the revolution) tended to abstain from strong drink altogether. But as the journalists say: “why let the facts spoil a good story?”

Undeterred by these inconvenient facts, Ms Hilton persists in her unattractive portrayal of the London apprentices. The scene is set for 24 December 1641, that is to say, Christmas Eve. Here, according to this most perceptive analysis of historical events, the calendar played a most fateful role in determining the outcome of the revolution in England, and therefore, the whole history of Europe and the world.

Unfortunately for Charles, she says, the apprentices now had a twelve-day holiday, during which they were free both to read the Bible and to imbibe vast quantities of beer. It is hard to say which of the two played the most important role, but the sad fact is that on Christmas Day, they staged an insurrection against the King, which Lisa, naturally, characterises as a “riot.”

Let us quote her precise words: “fuelled by Christmas ale, the London apprentices are on the rampage.” This is yet another example of a gossip historian resorting to trivial arguments to conceal a complete and absolute lack of understanding. To attribute a major insurrection, which dramatically altered the balance of forces in the English Revolution, to factors such as this is childish in the extreme.

This outrageous libel on courageous young men fighting for freedom against monarchist tyranny overlooks the very clear political content of the uprising (for that is what it was). Their fury had been provoked by the King’s decision to hand control of the Tower of London to a brutal reactionary, Sir Thomas Lunsford. This was seen by the masses as a direct threat, and the apprentices stormed the Tower, demanding his removal. This heroic action is described in the programme as “a populist siege.”

This idiotic description of an important historic event requires no comment. It perfectly sums up both the complete emptiness of the series and also exposes the sly subtext, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the English Revolution, and everything to do with a senseless and superficial comparison with politics in modern Britain.

The London apprentices come in for particular venom, in the programme, when later on Charles attempted to block the decisions of Parliament by using a group of unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords to veto the decisions of the lower house. The cry went up on the streets of London: “No bishops! No popish lords!” The apprentices led the attack, assaulting bishops on the streets and driving them away from parliament. This direct action arouses a horrified reaction on the part of Ms Hilton, who simply cannot understand why the outraged youths should attack “any old man dressed in a cassock.”

But the direct action of the apprentices proved to be highly effective. The bishops, evidently reluctant to enter the pearly gates at an early date, prudently stayed away from parliament. Their plight is treated most sympathetically by Lisa Hilton, who ignored the evident fact that these poor bishops were acting as the tools of reaction and violating the most elementary principles of democracy. By taking matters into their own hands, the apprentices and working people of London were merely taking a big broom and sweeping away the feudal rubbish that was effectively suffocating them.

Even Ms Hilton is forced to admit that this direct action achieved what all the interminable parliamentary debates had failed to achieve. As a matter of fact, it would not be a bad thing if the people of Britain today would take up the same big broom to sweep away the House of Lords and the monarchy altogether. After all, these reactionary institutions are the survivors of a democratic revolution that still remains unfinished today.

The London apprentices later played a key role in saving London, when they fought bravely in the front ranks of the trained bands that inflicted a humiliating defeat on Charles’ mercenary army at the decisive battle of Turnham Green. Far from belittling the role of these courageous young working-class kids who gave their lives fighting for democracy, they should be regarded as the real heroes of the period.

Conclusions

The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the seventeenth century revolution by dissolving its past in ‘gradualness’. The advanced British workers will have to re-discover the English Revolution and find within its ecclesiastical shell the mighty struggle of social forces”.

(Trotsky, Where is Britain Going? ‘Two Traditions, the Seventeenth Century Revolution and Chartism”)

At the end of the programme, Ms Hilton reiterates her central hypothesis: “the fact that in just fifty days the power struggle between two very different men could rip a country apart irrecoverably shows how extraordinarily effectively Pym could whip up the masses into a frenzy of populism (sic!), Even when it was not necessarily in their own interests(!)”

The word “populism”, as everyone knows, is the trendy buzzword used by political commentators nowadays to describe phenomena of which they do not possess the slightest understanding. The fact that this stupid and meaningless word has been dragged in by the hair and inflicted upon the revolutionary politics of 17th-century England tells us all we need to about the raison d’être of this wretched series.

With the honourable exception of John Rees, the self-styled ‘experts’ in this series cannot conceal their spiteful attitude towards long-dead revolutionaries. This extreme vindictiveness can hardly be explained by the events that happened so long ago. Behind it lies an unspoken fear that revolution can recur in our own times. Oh yes! When they curse John Pym, it is Jeremy Corbyn they are thinking about. When they hurl insults at the London apprentices, “the mob” and the “meaner sort of persons”, they are thinking of the mass protests on the streets of London and the striking pickets, just as the gilets jaunes in France remind them of the Jacobins and Sans-culottes of 1793.

Levellers declaration and standard Image public domainThe English Revolution is unfinished. When the workers of Britain move to sweep away the bourgeois and feudal dregs, they will strive for workers’ democracy and a future socialist society / Image: public domain

There is nothing new about this. It is no accident that the English historians, from Clarendon on, referred to the English Revolution, that most heroic page in our history, as “the Great Rebellion,” while reserving the title of “the Glorious Revolution” to the miserable coup d’état carried out by the Dutch adventurer William of Orange in 1688. In comparison, the latter was a squalid little event that had nothing glorious about it. But it placed power firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which arrived at an unprincipled deal with the Monarchy to share power with the landowning aristocracy.

All this tells us absolutely nothing about the English Revolution, but quite a lot about the psychology and prejudices of middle-class historians who have an ingrained hatred of all revolutions. In introducing her series Lisa Hilton asks us: “Which side would you be on?” And at the end of it, the panel of ‘experts’ is invited to answer this intriguing question. They need not have bothered, since the class prejudices of the ‘experts’ are quite obvious from first to last.

It would be too tiresome to answer all the lies, distortions and inaccuracies that characterise every episode of this abominably bad series. But it is worthwhile spending a moment on the conclusions they reached. To anyone who possessed the courage and patience to watch the series, the answers were quite predictable.

Leanda de Lisle is, of course, an enthusiastic royalist. Although one has to entertain a reasonable doubt concerning her fighting qualities on the battlefield, the extreme venom of her verbal tirades against the English revolutionaries would have probably qualified her as a royalist propagandist “of the lower sort.”

Others, it is true, came down on the side of parliament, although they seemed to be rather embarrassed by their own boldness. Mostly they qualified their support by saying they would have been “moderate” parliamentarians, which signifies those cowardly and treacherous bourgeois who never wanted to go to war against the King and were constantly trying to do a deal with him. In order to do this, they did everything in their power to hold the Revolution back and sabotage it.

With “friends” like this, the Revolution really did not need any enemies. It was only when Oliver Cromwell, leaning on the support of the revolutionary masses, swept the “moderates” aside and used the New Model Army to inflict a crushing defeat on the King, that the English Revolution advanced with giant strides.

Perhaps the most interesting (or at least, entertaining) reply, was that given by Earl Spencer when he was asked where he would have stood in this great conflict, he answered: “I don’t know if I’d have been able to draw my sword against my King. I might well have been, at heart, a Parliamentarian but when it came to warfare, a reluctant Royalist.”

The strange reply of the reluctant royalist elicited an ironical “Bravo” from the Daily Telegraph. That arch-reactionary Tory rag wrote that: “it was good to see that the diplomatic art of keeping one foot planted in each camp is still alive and well among the nobility.” The somewhat less-than-noble Telegraph would certainly not have hesitated for 10 seconds before declaring its absolute and undying support for the camp of reaction – whether today or 400 years ago.

What all this shows quite clearly is that, four centuries later, the ruling class and its intellectual apologists are still fighting the Civil War. The question “which side would you have been on?” is still very relevant, for the simple reason that 21st century Britain is just as unequal and unjust as it was then. The gap between extreme poverty and obscene wealth is as great as ever. The class struggle still exists and the political stability of the past decades has been replaced by extreme political instability and social turbulence.

The rulers of Britain are following this process with growing alarm. They look to the future with dread. The fear of revolution still deprives them of their sleep. The ghosts of 1642 have never been completely exorcised. That is why they find a thousand excuses to prettify the memory of the treacherous scoundrel, Charles Stuart. That is why they cling so stubbornly to the old regime that was swept away by Cromwell’s New Model Army. That is also why they still curse the memory of those courageous revolutionaries who took on the old order and cast it into the dustbin of history.

The working class of Britain should be reminded of their revolutionary past. They should honour the memory of those brave men and women who fought for the new and better society. The English revolution achieved a great deal, but ultimately it was betrayed by the bourgeoisie who put their financial interests above the cause of genuine democracy. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, they reached a compromise with the monarchy, which they saw as a bulwark against the risk of revolution. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

The English Revolution is therefore an unfinished revolution. When the workers of Britain move to change society – as move they must – they will inscribe on their banner the democratic demands necessary in order to lay the banner for a new and higher form of democracy – a workers’ democracy, which is the basis of a future socialist society.

Postscript: Alan Woods is currently working on a book about the English Revolution to cast light on the momentous events of this period. It will bring out clearly the role of the masses in the revolution – an aspect that has been routinely ignored or minimised by bourgeois historians. He hopes to publish the new book sometime next year.