Monarch of England
Monarch of England
England had already experienced a century of absolute monarchy under the Tudors. Although Henry VII had taken the English throne by right of conquest, he and his descendants believed in the divine right of kings as much as any hereditary monarch. This belief continued when the Stuart dynasty succeeded the Tudors on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603.
James VI of Scotland ruled England as James I until his death in 1625. An unpopular monarch, James achieved one major accomplishment: he commissioned a new translation of the Bible, to be as scholarly and accurate as possible. The King James Bible, published in 1611, is one of the most influential works in the history of English literature. It inspired generations of English and American writers and statesmen, such as Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, and countless idioms of everyday speech come from its pages. Scholars and historians agree that although more technically accurate English translations of the Bible have been made since, none can rival the beauty, power, and poetry of the King James version.
In 1625, Charles I inherited the throne of England. He was not much more popular than his father James had been, for several reasons. First, Charles’s personality was shy, stiff, and rather pompous. Second, the people looked askance on Charles’s marriage to French Catholic princess Henrietta Maria; they were concerned that the heirs to the throne might be raised as Catholics. Third, congregations throughout the nation had become divided between high-church and low-church Anglican. High-church Anglicans, of whom Charles was one, favored a ceremonial style of worship that was very similar to the Catholic mass. Low-church Anglicans preferred more Spartan rites and practices that made them more spiritually akin to Presbyterians and Calvinists.
Until this time, Parliament’s major purpose had been to grant the monarch any funds necessary to carry out affairs of state such as wars. The request had always been treated as a matter of form. James I had been at odds with Parliament throughout his reign, preferring to rule as an autocrat. Many members of Parliament, resenting the king’s lack of respect for their official position, began insisting on a greater say in national policy. They were united in their determination not to allow Charles to rule with the heavy hand his father had shown—especially because many members of the House of Commons were low-church Anglicans or Calvinists and did not look on the king’s religious beliefs with favor. Parliament refused to allow the king to raise funds without its permission. Charles agreed to this demand, but as soon as the funds were granted, he disbanded Parliament. The legislative assembly would not meet between 1629 and 1640.
Working with William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury, Charles tried to impose high Anglican rules and rites throughout Scotland, including a new prayer-book. Scotland, which had been staunchly Presbyterian since the days of the Reformation, showed that is was willing to go to war to defend its religious liberty. Fighting began in 1640 when the Scots marched into England. This in turn forced Charles to convene Parliament to request funds for the war. The representatives immediately realized they were in a position of strength; they passed a series of laws designed to weaken absolutism. The year 1641 saw the imprisonment and execution of Archbishop Laud and an uprising in Ireland. In 1642, Charles I led an armed attack on Parliament, initiating a civil war that lasted until 1649. Oliver Cromwell, a member of the House of Commons, led the Parliamentary forces; thanks largely to Cromwell’s considerable military ability, Parliament’s troops defeated the monarch’s. Later, Cromwell’s soldiers conquered both Scotland and Ireland.
Parliament voted to abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords, and Anglicanism as the state religion. In 1649, Charles I was put to death; his teenage sons Charles and James fled the country, eventually finding their way to Holland and safety.
English kings had lost their lives on the battlefield in the past, with the crown going to the victor in battle, but no English monarch before Charles I had ever been condemned to death by due process of law. This marked a major defeat for the European tradition of absolute monarchy and ushered in the modern era of republican government.
Cromwell argued in Parliament for a platform of certain reforms, but his colleagues refused to pass them. By 1653, Cromwell ran out of patience and disbanded the legislature. In 1654, he became the first commoner and the only military dictator ever to rule England, under the title Lord Protector.
Cromwell was a devout Puritan—a sect that practiced an extreme form of Calvinism. Like other British monarchs before him, Cromwell imposed his own religious faith on his kingdom. He closed all theaters and saloons, since Calvinists believed that pastimes such as drinking, gambling, and attending plays were sinful. Cromwell did not go out of his way to persecute Anglicans or Lutherans, but Catholics were forced to practice their faith in secrecy during his reign.
Cromwell ruled England until his death in 1658; this period is called the Interregnum, meaning “between reigns.” His son Richard succeeded him, but proved ineffective. It was not long before loyalists restored Charles I’s eldest son to the throne he should have inherited on his father’s death. With the blessing of Parliament, Charles II was crowed in 1660. His reign is known as the Restoration.
Charles II was an easygoing, tolerant monarch. However, he soon found that Parliament was by no means willing to give up any of the power it had won so recently. As often as not, Parliament opposed the king’s attempts to assert his authority. It was clear that in England, the days of absolute monarchy were over.
Since Charles II had no legitimate children, his heir was his brother James, a devout Catholic. A sizable faction in Parliament, dreading the possibility of another Catholic ruler, proposed a bill called the Exclusion Bill. It would bar James or any other Catholic from inheriting the throne. In the argument over the Exclusion Bill, the first British political parties were formed. The Whigs supported the bill and the Tories opposed it. The bill passed the House of Commons but not the House of Lords, and James II succeeded to the throne on his brother’s death.
James’s harsh anti-Anglican policies made the Whigs and Tories unite against him; when his wife gave birth to an heir to the throne, who would ensure Catholic rule for another generation, they agreed that the monarch must be deposed and replaced. The best candidate appeared to be Mary, James’s grown daughter by an earlier marriage. Deputies from Parliament invited Mary and her husband, William of Orange, to rule jointly. They arrived in England in 1688, James fled to France without a shot being fired, and the Glorious Revolution was won.
The most important result of the Glorious Revolution was the passage of the English Bill of Rights. It had two main goals: to unite the people and their monarch once and for all under the same state religion, and to balance the government by giving Parliament certain important rights over the monarch. The Bill of Rights stated that no Catholic could rule England and no British monarch could marry a Catholic. Parliament felt that this step was necessary to avoid any more of the civil wars that had torn the island apart since the days of Queen Mary.
Parliament reinforced its own authority by declaring that it must meet every year. This ensured that the legislative assembly could step in and assume power if the monarch proved irresponsible or incapable. Parliament also assumed other major legislative functions: from this time on, the authority to suspend laws, maintain a standing army, and impose new taxes rested with Parliament, not with the monarch.
In 1707, England and Scotland were officially incorporated as one nation, known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
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