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On 30 January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded, having been found guilty of being “a tyrant, traitor and murderer, and public enemy to the Commonwealth”.
The execution sent shivers through the royal palaces of Europe.
Charles, the Stuart monarch of what since 1603 had been the united kingdoms of England and Scotland, was tried by a specially-convened English court.
After the execution, the new regime in England abolished monarchy and the House of Lords. It declared England to be a Commonwealth, or parliamentary republic, and went on by military conquest to incorporate Scotland and Ireland in a new unitary state.
The revolutionary forces that had defeated Charles’s army in the civil wars of the 1640s had divided aims: radicals pushed for deeper-going social and political reform, while conservatives sought a new compromise with the monarchy, nobility and church hierarchy.
Oliver Cromwell, who had led the New Model Army that fought for parliament, was made head of state, and in 1653 was declared Protector, or virtual dictator.
Cromwell’s death in 1659 triggered a political crisis. After his eldest son Richard had ruled as Protector for a few months, the English parliament invited the executed king’s eldest son, who was crowned king of Scotland in 1649 and been in exile on the continent since then, to return to London as King Charles II.
The restoration of the monarchy after the republican decade did not put out the flame of anti-royalism. The divine right of kings to rule with unlimited authority was buried with Charles I. Charles II often sought compromise on matters of state and religion – and presided over a court in which one courtier, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, could get away with writing:
Monsters which knaves “sacred” proclaim,
And then like slaves fall down before ’em.
What can there be in kings divine?
The most are wolves, goats, sheep or swine.
Then farewell sacred majesty,
Let’s put all brutish tyrants down;
When men are born and still live free,
Here every head doth wear a crown.
I hate all monarchs and the thrones they sit on,
From the Hector of France to the cully [good mate] of Britain.
There is no need to take Rochester, an aristocratic playboy and libertine opponent of the Puritanism of Cromwell’s time, too seriously. But republicanism was characteristic of the times. It was understood as a serious option in England, a century before the French revolution. In 1650, John Milton, for many the greatest English poet after Shakespeare, had published The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, a much-read and popular justification of regicide.
And absolute monarchy was finished for good. In 1685, Charles II’s brother, a devout Catholic, succeeded him as James II. He sought to rule more as Charles I had done – and the ruling elites in 1688 found a way to replace him with William of Orange, a Dutchman. He had hereditary legitimacy through his Stuart wife, but was a Protestant, amenable to a constitutional settlement based on compromise between king and parliament.
The execution of Charles I in 1649 was the culmination of a social and political earthquake which is usually called the “civil war”, or more recently the “war of the three kingdoms” (England, Scotland and Ireland), but which Marxist historians have insisted should also be characterised as “the English revolution”.
The English parliament had in 1628 already challenged Charles’s “divine right” to rule as he saw fit, raise taxes arbitrarily and punish opponents through arbitrary courts. From 1629 he tried to govern unilaterally. In 1638, his attempt to impose the Anglican prayer book on the Presbyterian Scots led to the signing of a National Covenant in Edinburgh and a military mobilisation north of the border. This forced the king to recall the English parliament after and 11-year gap. It refused assent for war, impeached Charles’s key advisors and resolved not to be dissolved without its own consent.
The question of who held the ultimate power in the state came to a head in October 1641, when an anti-English rebellion flared in Ireland. King and parliament agreed that the Irish had to be drowned in blood, but parliament refused to trust a royal nominee to do the job. England lost control of Ireland – and regained it only at the end of the civil war (1649-53), by Cromwell’s reign of terror that began in Drogheda.
But in 1641, all this was still in front. Parliament had to settle its quarrel with Charles. It adopted the anti-royalist Grand Remonstrance, a long list of grievances against the king’s ministers; Charles entered the House of Commons, intending to arrest his leading opponents, but failed; he left London and the civil war began.
This far, it was an intra-elite conflict. But outside parliament, in the New Model Army formed to fight the royalists, and in the country at large, people saw the fight for the Commonwealth as something far broader and deeper.
It was about ownership and use of land, which was turned upside down under the republic. Crown lands and royalists’ estates were confiscated or sold to new owners. Parliament resisted the monarchy’s encroachment on forests.
Poor people fought for their right to use those forests communally, and against landlords’ enclosures of land, building on the struggles of protesters and rioters in the Rockingham forest (1607), the Gillingham forests (1626-28), the Leicester forests (1627), and the Forest of Dean (1632).
The revolution was also about challenging the power of the church, then an instrument to enforce state authority.
In April 1640, when parliament had defied Charles I and was dissolved, the Convocation (an assembly of Church of England clergy) continued to meet, which was constitutionally unprecedented. They voted to fund the king, which parliament had refused to do. Once civil war broke out, the republic struck back, mobilising priests to propagandise its cause, limiting the church’s role in parliament, and weakening the power of the Bishops and church courts.
The changes in the church – which, in an age before newspapers, broadcasting and urban working-class communities, dominated the public sphere – ran still deeper. The Protestant Reformation had brought with it the idea that people could communicate directly with god, without taking the word of priests or other intermediaries.
This revolutionised the way people thought about the world – not only in continental Europe and Scotland, where the reformation overlapped with tumultuous social struggles, but also in England, where it took the form of a top-down act of state, that in the 1530s enabled Henry VIII to free himself of Papal authority over his marriage(s) and to pillage the monasteries’ wealth.
The challenge to the church’s authority in turn opened the way for great leaps forward of science and technological innovation.
Christopher Hill, the Marxist historian of the English revolution, concluded that it was “a great revolution”, but also “a very incomplete revolution”. A great revolution because:
Absolute monarchy on the French model was never again possible. The instruments of despotism, Star Chamber and High Commission, were abolished forever. […] Even James II in his wildest moments never forgot what happened on 30 January 1649 [i.e. Charles I’s execution]; nor did his ministers or his subjects. Parliamentary control of taxation was established, as far as legislation could establish it. Ecclestiastical courts lost their teeth. The Clarendon Code after 1660 could not destroy the nonconformist sects. Bishops never again controlled governments. The country had managed to get on [under the republic] without Kings, Lords and Bishops; but it could never henceforth be ruled without the willing cooperation of those whom the House of Commons represented.
But the revolution was incomplete. A proposal to confiscate royalists’ estates wholesale and hand them to peasants was not adopted.
Nor was the Army used, as Hugh Peter [a parliamentarian preacher] wished, “to teach the peasants to understand liberty”. A society of the career open to the talents was not established. There was no lasting extension or redistribution of the franchise, no substantial legal reform. The transfers of property did not benefit the smaller men, and movements to defend their economic position all came to nothing. Tithes and a state Church survived; religious toleration ended (temporarily) in 1660. Dissenters were driven out of political life for a century and a half.
One of the revolution’s lasting legacies is the ideas of those dissenters, and the political radicals, whose visions of the Commonwealth went far further than parliament’s.
The Levellers, who were strongly represented in the New Model Army, proposed a wider franchise; abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords; election of sheriffs and Justices of the Peace; law reform; the throwing-open of enclosed land; abolition of tithes and of the link between church and state; abolition of conscription, excise, and of the privileges of peers, corporations and trading companies.
In October 1647, at the Putney Debates on the future of the Commonwealth, Colonel Thomas Rainborough, speaking on the Levellers’ behalf, said:
The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he, and therefore … every man that is to live under a government out first by his own consent to put himself under that government.
Christopher Hill commented that, for the Levellers, “free” Englishmen were those who could freely dispose of their labour: in an age of small household industrial and agricultural units, the Levellers thought that the head of the household represented servants, just as he did women and children.
[R]hetorical flourishes apart, most of the Leveller leaders wanted the vote to be given only to “freeborn Englishmen”. Unless they had fought for parliament, servants and those in receipt of alms – that is, wage labourers and paupers – were excluded from the franchise, because these two groups were not economically independent.
An essentially communist view of the Commonwealth, far more radical than the Levellers’, was advanced by Gerrard Winstanley, a spokesman for the Diggers, who in 1649 began communal cultivation of the land at St George’s Hill near London (now in Weybridge, Surrey).
The Levellers believed that the “Norman yoke”, imposed after William the Conquerors’ invasion of England in 1066, needed to be thrown off; England needed to return to the laws of the free Anglo-Saxons. Winstanley disputed this, arguing that laws had to be based on moral principle, rather than dubious historical precedent:
The best laws that England hath are yokes and manacles, tying one sort of people to another. […] All laws that are not grounded upon equity and reason, not giving a universal freedom to all but respecting persons, ought […] to be cut off with the king’s head.
But Cromwell and the leaders of the republic had not completed the revolution.
While this kingly power reigned in one man called Charles, all sorts of people complained of oppression. … Thereupon you that were the gentry, when you were assembled in parliament, you called upon the poor common people to come and help you … That top bough is lopped off the tree of tyranny, and the kingly power in that one particular is cast out. But alas, oppression is a great tree still, and keeps off the sun of freedom from the poor commons still.
In 1652, Winstanley warned that what had been won by executing the king could be lost in political process. To “you Army of England’s Commonwealth” he declared:
The enemy could not beat you in the field, but they may be too hard for you by policy in counsel if you do not stick close to see common freedom established. For if so be that kingly authority be set up in your laws again, King Charles hath conquered you and your posterity by policy, and won the field of you, though you seemingly have cut off his head.
And here we are, more than three-and-a-half centuries later.
The British empire has come and gone into terminal decline. The United Kingdom, which held together under the assaults of anti-imperial movements in its old colonies and the labour movement at home, is being battered by that wrecking-ball, the extremist, xenophobic Tory right.
And this coming weekend, Charles III will be crowned. For all the monarchy’s claims that it will be a modern ceremony, he will still be presented with the Sovereign’s Orb, representing Christian power over mankind, and the Sceptre, which has the 530-carat Cullinan diamond, a memento of the British empire’s bloodthirsty adventures in southern Africa, stuck on top.
Most of these baubles were made on Charles II’s orders, for his coronation in 1661, after the monarchy had been restored.
That followed what the Royal Family web site describes as the Crown Jewels’ “disastrous fate following the execution of Charles I”, when Cromwell ordered that the Royal regalia “be totally broken” as being symbolic of the “detestable rule of kings”.
Charles III at his coronation will sit above the Stone of Scone, a symbol of medieval English monarchs’ unsuccessful attempts to conquer Scotland. In 1296, Edward I’s army stole the stone from the northern kingdom, where it had been used at crowning ceremonies for centuries. It was only returned in 1996, in a desperate attempt by John Major’s corrupt government to deflect the mounting demand for Scottish home rule – and then only on the ludicrous condition that it be returned to Westminster Abbey for future coronations, at taxpayers’ expense, as a sign of Scottish allegiance to an English-dominated UK.
One way for socialists and republicans, north and south of the border, to mark the coronation would be to think about how to revitalise the history of the Diggers, the Levellers and the other radical factions that fought to make the Commonwealth more democratic, even communist.
Many of their ideas were renewed and developed in the working-class movements of the late 18th century and during the Chartist movement of the mid 19th century. Christopher Hill and other radical historians in the 20th century made a huge contribution to our movement by reinterpreting the history of the 17th-century revolutionaries.
In June 2020, Black Lives Matters protesters in Bristol offered us a brilliant example of how to bring the history of the British empire to life, by dumping that statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the harbour. As the historian David Olusoga wrote at the time: “this was not an attack on history. This is history.”
Let’s also bring alive the history of those who resisted British imperial domination, in slave revolts and national liberation struggles – and of the working people and radical thinkers in Britain itself, who dreamed of a better world without kings, nobles, Bishops and hierarchies of all kinds. SP, 4 May 2023.
□ I recommend these books, which I read or consulted: Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: radical ideas during the English revolution, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714, and Puritanism and Revolution; Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: liberties and commons for all; Brian Manning, The English People and the English revolution; and Geoffrey Robertson, The Tyrannicide Brief: the story of the man who sent Charles I to the scaffold. / Thanks to Terry Brotherstone for comments on a draft of this post, although all the opinions, and any mistakes, are my own. SP.
□ About the main picture. This is a detail from a print, “The execution of Charles I” by an unknown German artist, now in the National Gallery in London. Images portraying the execution were suppressed in England but were widely available in continental Europe: this one is a close copy of the Theatrum Tragicum, produced in Amsterdam a few weeks after Charles was beheaded.
□ People & Nature is now on mastodon, as well as twitter, whatsapp and telegram. Please follow!
 Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down: radical ideas during the English revolution (Penguin, 2019), pages 322-323
 Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 (VNR Ltd, 1988), pages 161-162
 Hill, The Century of Revolution, pages 110-111
 These quotations are from Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, pages 95-96
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