The Cost of the English Civil War

D.H. Pennington examines an economic burden that the “poor oppressed people of England” believed no government could relieve them of.

“You called upon us to assist you, with plate, taxes, free-quarter, and our persons. And you promised us in the name of the Almighty to make us a free people.” Winstanley addressed his Appeal to the House of Commons in 1649, when the “burden of bad government,” under which “you of the gentry and we of the commonalty” had suffered alike, had by joint endeavours been overthrown.

But the “free people” had reason for bitterness. We have heard a lot lately both about the economic affairs of the gentry who made the war and about the democratic ideas that arose from the grievances of the men who fought it. Much less is known about the effects of the years of conflict on the prosperity and day-to-day problems of families below the lowest “gentry” level.

Yet in some ways the sources of information about ordinary people are better in the war period than in any earlier one. The reason for this is obvious: the demands of war greatly increased the contacts that the common man had with the machinery of the state. Before 1640 government meant for him local government, with the occasional possibility of a law-suit in the King’s courts or enlistment in the King’s forces.

Ultimately, of course, the running of the state was paid for, as always, by the men who tilled the soil and wove the cloth; but the money for it was collected, through customs, crown lands, “feudal” revenues, and so on, in ways not painfully apparent to the majority. The chief direct tax, the lay subsidy, was based on an outdated and completely unrealistic assessment of land or goods which allowed many of the richest to escape and fell largely on an ever-shrinking minority of substantial yeomen, merchants, and lesser gentry. Hence perhaps the Leveller view of it as an “old and just tax.” In the assessment of Ship-Money an effort had been made to go beyond the traditional limits, and the result was not encouraging.

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