Who's Who

The English Context of the British Civil Wars

John Adamson argues that the importance of the Celtic fringe in the events of the 1640s has been exaggerated.

Few reinterpretations of the mid-seventeenth-century Stuart crisis have been more thoroughgoing than that offered by the New British History. The sequence of conflicts from the Covenanter revolt in 1637 through to the Anglo-Scottish wars of 1650-51, so the argument runs, can only be properly understood as a single process: a series of 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms', each interlocking and intertwined. From this premise various implications follow. To centre a historical narrative around the experience of any one nation is to distort the picture as a whole. In a truly 'archipelagic' perspective, on the other hand, all three Stuart kingdoms (though not, it seems, the Principality of Wales) must be accorded roughly equal importance. In the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, symmetry is of the essence: each nation is considered equally relevant to the conflict and deserving of equal regard. By the same token, to upset this balance by giving greater emphasis to England over the other two is to invite the accusation of 'anglocentrism', the New British History's ultimate term of rebuke.

There is much in the older historiography to justify this censure. From C.H. Firth through to Lawrence Stone and Christopher Hill, English historians have seldom shown more than desultory interest in events across the Irish Sea or north of the Tweed. It is not merely the Little Englanders, however, who have felt the chastisements of the New British revisionists. The charge of anglocentrism has also been levelled against some of the historians most attuned to, and readiest to acknowledge, the interconnections between the politics of the various realms. Against Conrad Russell's Fall of the British Monarchies (OUP, 1991), for example, it is objected that the space devoted to English politics exceeds that given to either Scotland or Ireland by a factor of more than three to one - thereby warranting the charge that his British History is no more than 'enriched English history'. If we are all in some measure 'British historians' now, it is evident that some are more 'holistically' so than others.

Such criticisms pose an obvious question: is it possible to produce the rigorously even-handed, truly 'archipelagic' account of the three kingdoms, which the more zealous advocates of the New British History demand, and which such criticisms presuppose to be feasible? Is it, for that matter, even desirable? Dr Ohlmeyer, one of the subtle and measured exponents of the mid-century crisis, contends that the phrase the 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms... acknowledges the centrality of the various civil wars fought within the Stuart kingdoms as well as the interactions between them'. But therein lies the problem: if there are at least three separate 'civil wars', however interconnected, is 'centrality' a quality that they all enjoy in equal measure? Or might one of those civil wars (and its various interconnections) be perhaps more 'central' than the others?

On closer examination, there are some highly questionable assumptions underlying this 'archipelagic' approach to the history of the British Isles in general, and its critique of 'enriched English history' in particular. Some may be dealt with relatively straightforwardly. The first, and possibly the simplest, is the implied presumption that each of the Stuart realms shares some form of historiographical entitlement to 'equality of coverage' - the logical corollary of the criticism that an account which gives greater emphasis to one of the three kingdoms, even where it examines interconnections with events in the other two, is not true British history. This presumption may be politically correct, but it is far from clear that it is also correct historically. There is, in fact, no a priori reason why a history of the British archipelago should give equal weight to each of its constituent kingdoms, any more than a history of Ireland should allocate equal space to each of its four provinces, or a history of England to each of its constituent countries. This is not a semantic point; for it is in the nature of political entities that they are frequently unequal, and interact unequally.

A larger, and arguably insuperable, obstacle in the way of an authentically archipelagic history is the absence of any authentically archipelagic political institutions. Even the monarch’s claim to be 'King of Great Britain' (as distinct from being King of England and King of Scotland) had no statutory foundation until the eighteenth century. Let it be conceded at once that there are, of course, a number of partial exceptions. There were bilateral bodies that brought together representatives from two or more of the Stuart realms -the Committee of Both kingdoms, the Anglo-Scottish executive set up to run the parliamentarian war-effort in 1644, or the ‘imperial’ Parliaments of the 1650s being obvious examples. In general, however, political authority in the three kingdoms inhered in and was mediated through, national (and, within the nation, local) institutions.

Each kingdom had its own parliament, its own executive bodies, its own ecclesiastical hierarchies and its own laws. For large tracts of the century, it is this self-contained quality of political life within each of the three Stuart monarchies that is their most striking feature. Their political experience was of parallel, though intermittently interconnected, histories. The long spans of time when there was little (or little conspicuous) interaction between the kingdoms are as important to the understanding of the political processes within the archipelago as are the more colourful moments of belligerence and aggression. As John Morrill has observed, the distinctive aspect of relations between the three realms is 'less...the degree of interactions between the component nations and kingdoms than...the unnatural degree of isolation of each from the others'.

In many respects, however, it may be argued that this isolation was entirely natural: the logical and practical result of each kingdom's possession of their own autochthonous institutions and political cultures. Even when the 'interactions' between the kingdoms were at their most intense, during the 1640s - when each launched invasions or military incursions against the other two - the focus of each state's political life continued to be pre-eminently its national institutions. These largely autonomous organs of government (many of them, like the Confederate Council at Kilkenny, only recently created) remained the cardinal points of reference between the various kingdoms, and, more importantly, tended to be the principal forum for political conflict within each realm.

These configurations of power, then, and the national institutions through which political authority was mediated, have obvious implications for the way in which contemporaries experienced the mid-seventeenth century crisis - and, equally, if historians are to be in some sense 'true' to that experience, for how they go about writing its history. In each of the three Stuart kingdoms, the immediate background to virtually all the cross-border interventions from the late 1630s through to the 1650s was a struggle within each state, a bellum civile, for the control of its political institutions. That contest centred, in particular, on a fight for control of each kingdom's executive, representative, and ecclesiastical bodies - a point that is not diminished by the fact that one or other party to the conflict sought support from outside the realm. It is the particularity of these individual, nation-centred contests that the more extreme enthusiasts for the New British History are in danger of obscuring.

Acknowledging that the concept of civil war within each of the Stuart realms remains fundamental to any analysis of the mid-century crisis is, however, merely a starting-point whence other consequences flow. If politics within the three kingdoms must be understood principally, though not exclusively, through each nation's institutions, then it follows that all writing on the British Isles during the mid-century crisis must in some measure be nation-centred.

There will inevitably be Irish-centred history, Scottish-centred history, and, for that matter, a new English-centred history: no longer smugly self-contained, but suitably aware of the interconnections between each of the three realms, and complementary to those other national historiographies.

This reminder of the importance of civil war to the wider conflict within the British archipelago takes us back to our original question: were the three kingdoms in some sense 'equal parties' to the various interactions between them? Or, to pose the question more pointedly, did the outcome of the civil war within England have an impact on the rest of the archipelago that was roughly commensurate with that exerted by the contemporaneous contests for power within Ireland or Scotland?

The short, evasive, and politically correct answer to these questions is, of course, that it is all a matter of context. If one is explaining, for example, why most of the Covenanter army in England retreated to Scotland in 1645, then it is Ireland (which supplied the Catholic, pro-royalist troops whose landing on the western coast of Scotland precipitated the withdrawal) that should bulk largest in the explanation.

If, on the other hand, we are to move to a more 'holistic' account of the wars throughout the archipelago then certain inequalities between the respective kingdoms are inescapable. In the first instance, the three kingdoms were sharply divergent, not only in terms of their religious traditions and political culture, but also in their respective demographic, military, and economic strengths. To take an obvious example: for contemporaries in each of the Stuart kingdoms, there was an unavoidable fact that England was by far the most affluent, populous, and economically powerful of the three. When the Earl of Northumberland referred, ungraciously, to the Scots as that 'beggarly nation', his remark reflected a common English xenophobia; but his words also registered a widespread and, empirically, not unjustified English perception of the differentials of wealth within the Various parts of the British Isles. England was the richer and, potentially at least, the more powerful kingdom. Inevitably, England tended to loom larger in the Scottish and Irish political consciousness, at least in the apprehensions of their respective political elites, than ever Scotland and Ireland did in the perceptions of the English. As Clarendon observed, even at the beginning of the Bishops' Wars of 1639-40, Scotland made hardly 'any impression on the minds of men' -meaning, of course, English men. To Scotland and Ireland, England was perennially the 'awkward neighbour': larger, stronger, and potentially threatening. With the important exception of the English campaign against the Covenanters in 1640, military conflicts between England and the two Celtic kingdoms tended to end in an English victory. To this extent, then, anglocentrism is not just a chauvinist quirk of twentieth century English historiography; it was, arguably, an unavoidable reality of the seventeenth century British Isles. And this has obvious implications for how we gauge the relative importance of the 'English civil war’ in the larger context of the mid-century crisis in the archipelago as a whole.

If there is any single theme that emerges consistently from that mid-century crisis in the Stuart kingdoms, it is the tendency of the 'other' two nations to apprehend the unwelcome gravitational pull of the wealthiest and most populous kingdom and to seek to escape from its orbit. Recent studies of the first phase of the Covenanter revolt, between 1637 and 1641, have rightly emphasised what can be characterised (if slightly anachronistically) as the 'nationalist' element in that insurrection. This was the fear articulated by Robert Baillie, then the minister of Kilwinning and a future commissioner of the Kirk to London, that 'our poor country [would be] made an English province'. Likewise, the Irish 'rebellion' of 1641, as analysed by Conrad Russell, is an equally reactive phenomenon. It was triggered by the apprehension on the part of the Gaelic Irish and the Catholic 'Old English' in Ireland that Charles I was in thrall to an English Parliament that had come to be dominated by militant Protestants, intent upon eradicating Roman Catholicism and expropriating Irish land. Resistance, in each case, was against the extension of an English imperium within the British Isles.

Conversely, perhaps the most striking feature of the entire mid-century crisis is the almost total (if temporary) collapse of English authority within the archipelago during the years 1642-47. Not since the fifteenth century had English power within the region been so completely neutralised. It is no coincidence that the apogee of Scottish and Irish 'independence' corresponds exactly with the years of civil war within England when there was a struggle to redefine, and win control of, the institutions of the English state. For these few years, Irish Confederates, Scottish Covenanters, and a host of smaller interests saw in that English crisis more than merely the possibility of reconstructing their own political institutions. They discerned the opportunity to renegotiate the juridical relations between the several kingdoms, and on terms that permanently reduced England's status within the triple monarchy, from one of dominance to one of parity with the other two. For the Confederates, the years 1642-46 were the golden age of what Dr Ohlmeyer has described as 'Ireland's first independent government of modern times'. The Confederate government raised taxes, administered justice and conducted an independent foreign policy, angling first for an alliance with Spain, and from 1645 with France. Likewise, these years corresponded to the high-point of Covenanter independence in Scotland. Under the 1641 Treaty of London (which came close to realising Charles I's fear that he would be reduced to the status of 'a Venetian doge' north of the Tweed), the Scots obtained the right to nominate their great officers of state. The 'English' system of episcopacy was rejected and Presbyterianism, the model of church government established by the early Scottish reformers, reinstated in its stead. No longer tied to England, Scotland, too, acquired an independent foreign policy, once again turning towards Denmark, its principal ally before the Anschluss with England in 1603. With what amounted to a new 'constitution', and an absentee king, during the years 1643-46 Scotland became more like a separate aristocratic republic than an integral part of the Stuart crown.

Yet the maintenance of these gains, as both Confederates and Covenanters well knew, depended, above all, on the outcome of the civil war within England: hence, the repeated Scottish and Irish attempts to influence its outcome. The Irish Confederates backed the English royalists in 1643 in the hope of establishing a large degree of autonomy within a union of the three Stuart crowns. The three states would henceforth be bound together only in so far as they shared a common sovereign. Ireland would retain its allegiance to the Stuart crown, but would also enjoy - or so the leading Confederates hoped - its own autonomous political and Catholic religious institutions, insulated against English interference. The Scots, by the same token, embraced the Solemn League and Covenant with England in 1643 in the belief that it would guarantee parity of status for their two nations - if not for the third kingdom in the trinity, Ireland. Motivating both these interventions was the presumption that the future relations between the three kingdoms - and, in particular, whether or not Scotland and Ireland would continue to 'enjoy their hard-won autonomy under the Stuart crown -depended on one overridingly important contingency: which side won the English civil war.

Conversely, it was the English parliamentarians' victory in that civil war that exposed the fragility of these bold Scottish and Irish assertions of 'independence'. To take the case of Ireland: once the civil war in England had been won by Parliament, an attempt to reassert some form of English hegemony over Ireland was only a matter of time. And, given the relative disparity in wealth and resources between the two kingdoms, few doubted who would emerge as the winner from the impending conflict.

The autonomy that Scotland had achieved during the years of the 'English anarchy' rested on similarly shallow foundations. On paper, of course, the Scots had won major concessions from the English under the Solemn League and Covenant But, from the outset, there was something forced and formulaic about the English expressions of 'brotherly affection' between the two nations. Few of the Scots' hopes were realised. Instead of the clericalist Presbyterian church that the Covenanters had demanded be created in England, the final ecclesiastical settlement was, as the Scots divine Robert Baillie complained, 'a lame, Erastian Presbytery' in which powers of jurisdiction were firmly in lay hands. Scotland's own colonialist ambitions towards Ireland were similarly disappointed. The idea of a joint Anglo-Scottish campaign to re-conquer Ireland was dropped from the Newcastle Propositions of 1646. Similarly, in March 1647, the Independent-dominated executive at Westminster, the Derby House Committee, informed the Scottish Committee of Estates that the English Parliament would 'carry on the war in Ireland with their own forces': the reconquest of Ireland was to be an exclusively English affair. Viewed from Edinburgh it appeared a familiar scenario: with the royalist threat in England all but extinguished, and a measure of domestic peace restored, the 'awkward neighbour' was throwing his weight about once more.

Thus, Anglo-Scottish amity, no less than the 'independent government' of Ireland, was at best a precarious creation. Like the presumption that all three kingdoms can be regarded 'equally', both phenomena took their rise, and even looked temporarily plausible, as a result of the power vacuum that existed in England after the collapse of Charles I's 'imperial' government in 1641. Once there had been a resolution of the power struggle in England, however, and that vacuum came to be filled by a parliamentarian regime in which 'Independents' were the dominant force for most of the period after the autumn of 1646, then the old Scottish and Irish apprehensions reasserted themselves. Perhaps more than has been realised, the formation of 'Independency' as a coherent political force in England between 1644 and 1646 was itself, in large measure, a reaction to Scottish interventions in English' affairs. But from Edinburgh and Aberdeen, Belfast and Dublin, it seemed by 1647 that those intentions had brought few tangible benefits to the Celtic fringe: the southern kingdom was once again aspiring -in the words of 1066 And AU Thatto be 'top nation' within the British Isles.

However 'holistically' or 'archipelagically' one looks at the interactions between the kingdoms in the second half of the 1640s and the early 1650s, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the decisive and disproportionately influential event, for all three kingdoms, was the outcome of that first phase of English civil war, from 1642 to 1646. The emergence, by late 1646, of a victorious parliamentarian regime intent upon a wholesale English reconquest of Ireland, thereby also raising Scottish fears of 'encirclement', sent a seismic shock through the 'other' two kingdoms. And when, in the late 1640s, the status of Ireland and Scotland was perceived to be threatened by the supposed ambitions of the regime at Westminster, there was a reaction in the 'peripheral' kingdoms of the archipelago as violent as anything witnessed in the late 1630s. Any history of the British archipelago that fails to register the disproportionate impact of those English events itself risks being out of proportion.

In the years 1647-49, the renewed 'English threat' acted as the catalyst for a reconfiguration of political alignments in both Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, moderate Protestants and former allies of the English parliamentarians like Lord Inchiquin, the Lord President of Munster (the southernmost of the four Irish provinces), saw himself as being threatened by the new regime in Whitehall as much as any Catholic landowner. By early in 1648, Inchiquin had made common cause with his old adversaries, the Ormondists and the Catholic Confederates.

An. almost exactly parallel process can be traced in Edinburgh. From early in 1647, there was a gradual convergence of former royalists and moderate Covenanters, which culminated in the Engagement signed between them and the King in December 1647. More remarkable still, negotiations were set in train to follow up the projected invasion of England by Scottish Presbyterians under the Duke of Hamilton (which materialised in July 1648) with an invasion of Irish Catholics under the Marquess of Ormond. Two years earlier, the Scots had denounced the collusion of Protestants like Ormond with the Papist Confederates as an act of treachery; by 1648, however, the Scottish Committee of Estates readily excused the volte face as an understandable reaction to 'the malice of the Independent party in England'.

But if there were certain parallels between this 'Celtic reaction' to the threat of English dominance in the late 1640s, and the earlier period of 'reaction', in 1637-41, the more interesting point lies in the divergence of outcomes between the two. The 'Celtic reaction' to Charles I's imperial designs in the late 1630s had ended in the military defeat of England, and precipitated the collapse of the Caroline regime. The 'Celtic reaction' of the late 1640s ended in the conquest and military occupation of Scotland and Ireland; the survival (and radicalisation) of the Westminster regime; and, not least, in the execution of the king who, in subscribing to the Engagement, had placed himself in the vanguard of the 'British' opposition to Westminster's imperial designs. The result of this phase of the 'crisis of the three kingdoms' was an extension of English rule within the archipelago to a degree arguably greater by 1653 than at any time in the preceding 500 years. There was thus a fundamental asymmetry in the relationship between the three Stuart realms. In comparing the three kingdoms, and assessing their impact one upon the other during the course of the 1640s, we are not, it seems, simply comparing like with like.

The new awareness of the British context has rightly stripped the 'English Civil War' of its insular uniqueness -at least as formulated by Hill and Stone. But in any holistic account of the British Isles during the mid-seventeenth century, it is hard to escape the conclusion which Hamilton and Argyll, Inchiquin and Ormond, reached long ago, that, of all the conflicts during the 1640s, it was the outcome of the civil war in England that was to have the most far-reaching consequences for the archipelago as a whole. If reaching that conclusion seems culpably anglocentric, then so too perhaps were the seventeenth-century British Isles.

John Adamson is a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

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