The English Civil War

In the 17th century, Parliament had become an important aspect in the political life of England. When King Charles I (r. 1625-1649) threatened the power of this institution with his more absolutist policy, it lead to a civil war which had a completely unprecedented conclusion.

Catholicism was greatly feared and hated in England after the Reformation of Henry VIII and especially after Mary Tudor. Charles I had taken a Catholic wife, and the people were worried that he would raise his children Catholic. In addition, Archbishop Laud of Canterbury was less protestant in his religious policy, somewhat favoring the pomp and ceremony of the old Catholic Church. He also emphasized the aspect of communion in the worship service, and not the sermon, which was a very Catholic practice. The religious policy of Laud prompted a revolt by the Scottish which Charles had insufficient funds to suppress. He had been refused money by parliament for previous military undertakings, so he sought other means to raise  funds. He dug up old and forgotten laws and edicts in search for revenue, but his endeavors did not prove fruitful enough. Finally, he summoned Parliament again (called Long Parliament, lasting from 1640 to 1660). At this meeting he was forced to give Parliament a far greater degree of autonomy, and to remove Archbishop Laud. Parliament was happy that it had extracted more privileges, but it realized that Charles could just be biding his time until was back on his feet financially, and would retract his promises later.

War broke out between the royalist Cavaliers and the Parliamentarian Roundheads in 1642. The Roundheads had a new organization of military, called the New Model Army, which was based in London rather than locally. The Royalists were defeated in 1645 and Charles was captured in 1646. A second civil war broke out in 1648, and in January of 1649, something unprecedented occurred: Charles was executed. This was quite revolutionary. That the legitimate ruler could be executed was shocking to the world, and shaped the development of Western Civilization in the centuries to come.

Elizabethan Religious Policy

Queen Elizabeth I (b. 1533, d.1603) was politically religious. She was the daughter of Henry VIII and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. She became Queen of England after the the death of her half-sister, Mary I, in 1558. Elizabeth’s religious leanings were based on what was best for the present political situation. She was a pseudo-protestant under Henry VIII, a more rigorous protestant under Edward VI, and a Catholic under Mary I. She was flexible in terms of her religious conviction, which was probably why she survived the vastly different policies of her predecessors. When she herself came to the throne in 1558, she had a sort of mixed policy. She was quite attracted to the pomp and ceremony surrounding the traditional Catholic Mass, and thought it would please the remaining Catholics of the country (which were still in the majority). She would also continue the break from the Papacy in order to keep the protestants happy. However, she did continue to persecute the Catholics, searching homes for Catholic books, destroying altars and sacred images, and imposing a fine on anyone who attended the Catholic church service. It is interesting to note that an estimate from 1581 said that 50,000 people preferred to pay the fine than to go to the Anglican service. Elizabeth was not religious for entirely religious reasons. She vacillated between protestantism and Catholicism before coming to the throne, and her policy during her reign was a mixed bag. Although she probably had more protestant leanings, her religious conviction was very political

The French Wars of Religion

The French wars of religion came about from a series of events that began after France declared peace with Spain in 1559. Spain (under Charles V and Philip II) and France (under Francis I and Henry II) had been fighting over territories in Italy since 1521. Finally, a peace treaty was signed in 1559, and Henry II held a tournament to celebrate at which disaster struck. A splinter found itself in Henry’s eye during a joust, and he died shortly after. His 15-year-old son Francis II became king but died in the following year. Francis’ brother, Charles IX, was next in line. However, since as he was only ten, his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, ruled for him as regent. The sudden death of Henry II and the newfound influence of Catherine de’ Medici had great impact on the events to come.

Francis I and Henry II had tried to suppress the rapid growth of the Huguenots (French Protestants), as did Francis II and his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots. Later on, during the reign of Charles IX, Catherine de’ Medici tried to convince the king to try to adopt a policy of religious toleration towards the Huguenots. She released anyone who had been imprisoned for a religious offense, and the heresy persecutions were stopped. All the new religious freedoms granted to the Huguenots upset more strict Catholics, like those of the house of Guise. In 1562 the situation escalated into an armed conflict with the Massacre of Vassy. One day the Duke of Guise was attending mass but was disturbed by the  loud singing of the nearby Huguenots. He sent some men to ask them to be quiet for a few minutes to allow him to worship in peace, but they refused. The situation mounted, and the Duke was struck by a stone that had been thrown by one of the Huguenots. A massacre of the Huguenots ensued, killing 23 and wounding another 100.

After 1o years of war, an event occurred that came to be known as the most notorious episode of the French wars of religion. This event was the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine de’ Medici had become convinced that the Huguenots were planning on capturing her and the king, so she approved of a plot to assassinate the Huguenot leader, Admiral Colingy. The assassination was botched, and king Charles IX, who was not privy to the plot, vowed to find the killer. He did not discover the whole truth, but he became suspicious of his mother and decided no longer to ask her advice. Eventually the pressure got to Charles, and he had a mental breakdown. He decreed one night that every Huguenot should be killed, and on August 24, 1572, the militia were told to kill every Huguenot in sight. The gates of the city were shut, and carnage followed. Catherine and Charles had tried to stop the massacre, but to no avail. Death toll estimates are not precise, ranging from 8,000 to 30,000, but in any case this was a truly horrific episode.

The war carried on through the death of Charles and the ascension of his brother, Henry III, and was interrupted sporadically by truces that failed. Henry turned against the Catholics by killing the Duke of Guise, and was assassinated by a Dominican Friar in 1589. Henry III left the throne to Henry of Navarre, a protestant. In 1593 Henry IV converted to Catholicism because he new that he would not be accepted as king by the prevailing Catholic majority. Finally, Henry IV issued the edict of Nantes that granted the freedom of conscience and nearly absolute freedom of worship. After over 36 years of bloodshed, the French wars of religion were finally over.

The Dutch Revolt

Philip II (1527-1598), son of Charles V, was the ruler of Spain, Sicily, and the Netherlands during the Revolt of the Dutch. Philip believed religious unity would strengthen his kingdoms. Philip wanted to root out Protestantism where it occurred in his territories in the Netherlands. He engaged in aggressive prosecutions for heresy, reaching a total of 1300 during a five-year period in Flanders alone. Catholics were upset with this treatment as well as the Protestants. Philip’s daughter, Margaret, Duchess of Parma and appointed regent of the Netherland by her father, wrote to him saying that everybody was upset with this inquisition. Philip ended it in 1566, and after that the protestants began to get fearless. They began holding large religious meetings and showing up to them armed. Some radical Calvinist iconoclasts began attacking Catholic churches and destroying sacred images. Philip responded by sending in an army of 10,000 led by the Duke of Alba. The Duke imposed a ridiculous 10% sales tax, which outraged the population, Catholic and Protestant alike. Eventually, revolt broke out. William the Silent (1533-1584) was a Catholic in the Netherlands who came to lead this revolt against the king. Finally, the revolution ended in 1648 with seven of the Northern Provinces being granted their independence, and the Dutch republic was formed.

This chapter in history was important because it involved what some historians call the “demonstration effect”. The prosperity of the Dutch republic inspired other countries to follow in its footsteps, with its effective system of government that entailed religious toleration, secure economics and property rights, and intellectual freedom. The success of Dutch Republic demonstrated to other countries an effective way of doing things.


Charles V and the Spanish Revolt

Charles V was born in 1500 and became king of Spain after the death of Ferdinand II of Aragon, and was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. He was not from Spain, but from the “low countries” which correspond to the modern Netherlands. He could not speak Spanish when he arrived in Spain, which would have caused many problems had not the Cortes (provincial assemblies) forced Charles to learn Spanish as a condition for becoming king. The Spanish people were reluctant to have Charles as their king because he was a foreigner. Some saw his mother, Joanna of Castile, as the legitimate ruler. Charles brought with him from the low countries several of his own officials, who were contemptuous of the Spanish. The Spanish people were also taxed heavily to support various wars, and eventually rebellion broke out, called the Rebellion of the Cumuneros, while Charles was being crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1520. The rebellion was finally suppressed when the nobility perceived that the conflict may progress into a class-war against all aristocracy, and joined in. When Charles returned, the rebellion had been mostly halted, and Charles then had the ability to govern his territories in Spain with more absolute power.

Thomas More’s Utopia: Risk of Persecution?

Thomas More’s Utopia was a satire on the idea of a perfect society. Thomas More did not risk facing persecution bay the Church for this book because it was quite obviously not meant to be taken as a serious political commentary. The very word Utopia was coined from Greek by Thomas More and means “no place”. The name of the main character who vouched for Utopia’s political organization means “talking nonsense” in Greek. There can be little doubt from reading Utopia that it was intended to be a satire. More presents solutions to social problems that clearly go against human nature. The religion of Utopia is quite at odds with the teachings of the Catholic Church, to which More ardently adhered (to the point of his own execution). It was written in Latin, and therefore was intended for the educated, and not the common audience. If Thomas More was trying to preach social and political reform to the people and spark a movement, then he would have written in the vernacular. For these reasons Utopia can be taken as satire, and therefore Thomas More was not in danger of getting in trouble with the Church.

Thomas More’s Utopian Satire

The genre of utopian satires came into being in the early 16th century with the publication of Thomas More’s Utopia in 1516. Thomas More was Lord High Chancellor to England and a Catholic who opposed Henry VIII during the English Reformation about 15 years later. He was executed under Henry in 1535 for refusing to take the oath of supremacy acknowledging Henry VIII as head of the church of England. His book started out as what might become a reasonable social and political commentary, but it was quickly shown to be an obvious satire.

Utopia was written with Thomas More himself as the narrator, and in it he met and conversed with a world traveler named Raphael Hythloday (which means, as evidence to this book’s satirical nature, “talking nonsense” in Greek). The traveler was portrayed as a reformer who had seen what does not work in political systems. He had traveled the world, witnessing the governments of its various countries, and had concluded that there was much need for reform. In the beginning of the book he seemed quite sensible. He disagreed with standing armies as tools for rulers to grab more territories and power, citing France as an example. He believed that thieves should not receive capital punishment along with murderers, as the thieves would then easily become murderers; as was the case in England. However, he slowly became more radical with his ideas. He wanted the government to abolish gambling, taverns, and sporting events. He wanted the government to intervene with the property of the nobles, preventing them from using their land for shepherding. Finally he wanted to abolish all private property and the use of money, saying:

I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few…

The traveler was basically saying that he thought what we would today call socialism would be the best way to govern a nation. Thomas More responded to this by saying that men need incentives in order to work hard:

[I]t seems to me that men cannot live conveniently where all things are common: how can there be any plenty, where every man will excuse himself from labor? For as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men’s industry may make him slothful: if people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own; what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates fall to the ground?

Instead of retorting and giving the reason why the Utopians do not need incentives, the traveler simply said that the system works in Utopia. Thomas More was at this point presenting satire. He had departed from his portrayal of a reasonable reformer, and was now describing through Raphael a system which he believed could not exist.

In book two the traveler went on to describe the social and political organization of Utopia. The basic social unit was the family, which was comprised of no less than 40 members. There were 54 cities in Utopia, and each city could have no more than 6000 families. Presiding over 30 families was a magistrate, and presiding over ten of these was another magistrate. 200 of these latter magistrates chose a prince from four candidates chosen by the people who will rule over Utopia until his death. Every year the government would send 20 members of each family in the country to the city, and 20 more from the city go to the country to fill their place. This was so that everyone would have an equal knowledge of agriculture and the trades of a city. In other words, almost everyone was completely equal and there was no specialization of labor. Gold and silver were despised in Utopia, and nobody was concerned for his personal wealth, yet everyone was extremely diligent in their work. If a surplus of crops was harvested, which was often the case, it would be sent away to other countries for free out of good will. Everyone wore plain wool clothing for there were no fashions. Utopia was an egalitarian society in which nobody had the desire to distinguish himself above anybody else.

Thomas More knew that society could not exist in this way. He knew that people do not work hard with no desire for reward. He knew that a society in which every aspect of life was controlled by a government authority could not be successful. He also had a deep understanding of the mindset of social reformers. For example, in Utopia gold and silver were despised to the extent that they were used for the fetters of slaves and for chamber pots. Much later, in the 20th century, Vladimir Lenin wanted to make urinals out of gold in order to emphasize its apparent worthlessness. More presented the traveler as a reasonable reformer early on in the book, perhaps to attract a reader’s attention, but gradually made him more and more radical until the reforms he was preaching would be obviously perceived as satire.