On Civil War and Ideology

When ordinary men and women got it into their heads that it was a fine thing, by the grace and power of God, to be “downright separatists,” the secular as well as the spiritual order was threatened. The “gathered Churches” of the separatists were democratic institutions. The congregation came together of its own will, chose its own minister by free election, supported him by contributions freely organized and given. Now that all authority was shaken and every speculation possible, the “gathered Churches” would soon be taken by some as the pattern for a reformed secular order, a society which came together by free consent of the governed, by agreement of the people.
— C. V. Wedgewood, THE KING’S WAR, 1641-1647 page 481
There are several reasons this passage fascinates me so much. It expresses, in a certain way, the moment in the English Civil War that is analogous to the Emancipation Proclamation in the US Civil War—the moment when, we might say, it went from potentially revolutionary to actually revolutionary.
Here, also, we see the role of ideology in human struggle: merchants, manufacturers, and commoners of England (the Scots were notoriously opposed to the “Sectaries” at this point, and the Irish still wanted their Church back, and I’m not at all sure about the Welsh) used their religious ideas in the same way that, five quarter centuries later, the Americans would use “pure reason,” which same ideology would be brought to its culmination a quarter century after that in France. In all cases, the ideology serves the needs of its social class in its efforts to break out of the oppressive grip of a social order that was strangling it.
Here, too, is where we see the sharp separation between the nobility, many of whom supported Parliament against the King, and the commoners: the former were fine up until this point, but reforming the secular order to give more power to the riff-raff was going too far! And, parallel to this, the bourgeoisie, about to step into power for the first time, accepted it, but were unwilling to go as far as those below them: this was the period when the Leveler Party was created.  This is also a period in which the House of Commons, through the “Committee of Both Kingdoms,” had almost complete power; the House of Lords was all but irrelevant. 
The needs of the capitalist class clashed sharply with the old forms of feudal property relations, and so, in an almost perfect parallel, the new class used its relationship to God (a personal relationship, up to each individual’s conscience, and not requiring a member of the nobility, uh, I mean the priesthood, to intervene) to begin the transformation of society into its own image.
What began as a war to limit the powers of the king, to save him from “evil counselors,” transformed into a revolutionary struggle in which Charles was separated from his kingship, and his head from his body. Praise be to God, or, rather, to the ability of the human mind to use the ideological tools at hand to move society forward.

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13 thoughts on “On Civil War and Ideology”

  1. Any idea why the civil war did not occur earlier, when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church?

  2. There wasn’t yet a strong enough contending class to challenge the monarchy—what would become the bourgeoisie were still in craft guilds and tiny workshops. Things could have gone in such a way that the nobility were able to mount a challenge, but as it happened they didn’t have the strength. At least, that’s my (highly imperfect) understanding.

  3. Interesting. When I traveled there I noticed some churches that still had vandalism evident from the anti-catholic violence.

    And, we can see that the Catholic-Anglican split is still vexing the British Isles to this day, notably between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland over the European Union split.

    Did Henry VIII mollify the Church officials by letting them stay in charge of the Church of England?

  4. > Any idea why the civil war did not occur earlier, when Henry VIII split from the Catholic Church?

    Because the civil War of Roses did occur a bit earlier – and the elder generation still in power have remembered very well what it really was. With or without Church, people (and leaders as well) did not want the second round.

  5. Ah, that is probably an important point. Wars often seem like good ideas to people who have never experienced one.

  6. Imagine if Mary had lived longer and brought in more Spanish muscle. Or if the Armada had not been sunk by England’s version of the Divine Wind.

    The War of the Roses would have been out of living memory for just about everybody in the 1530s. And in particular the really bloody parts would have been in the 1450s and 1460s, not in the Tudor lighting strike on Richard III in 1485. (You can also see the War of the Roses as a logical end to the Hundred Years War. For over a century, England was used to sending all its greedy sociopaths over the Channel to kill and rob other people. Suddenly that wasn’t a viable option.) England was at relative peace during Edward’s second reign. On the other hand, Henry VIII continued to kill potential Yorkist contenders like it was going out of style.

    There may have been global/ecological factors too. See, the 30 Years War, the Time of Troubles and the Deluge at roughly the same period as the English Civil War.

  7. Of course, the history of the English Revolution has never ceased to be relevant . . . but I imagine few of us thought it would be so directly relevant the week right after this post appeared.

  8. skzb

    It continues to be profoundly relevant more than three weeks later, and in my view it will become more so over the months and years to come. I fear that we have nobody of the stature of Gerrard Winstanley, though we desperately need not one but many.

    I am really pleased to know that there is a Paafi novel early next year; it’s something to look forward to, and there are very few of those on the horizon.

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