Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

When democracy meant getting your sword

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Battleton Holt, Edgehill; photo by Jonathan Billinger

Battleton Holt, Edgehill; photo by Jonathan Billinger

367 years ago today it all kicked off. The Battle of Edgehill on 23 October 1642 was the first major engagement of the English Civil War. As I sit in my study looking out on this bright but chilly day, with the puddles of yesterday’s rain still glistening on the tarmac, I can only begin to imagine what that day a few miles west of Stratford-upon-Avon was like.

Charles Stuart sr was a tyrant, an autocrat who ruled according to his own whim. While the House of Commons was not a great advert for power to the people, stuffed as it was with landowners and merchants elected on a very limited franchise, it was the nearest thing to democracy we had. This was a world before the revolutions of the US, France and Russia: no one had heard of a president running a country, and democracy was a dirty word.

Stuart controlled the county militias by ancient right, and was determined to use them to put down all dissent against his dictatorship. When in January, Stuart had attempted to arrest five MPs and one peer, the Long Parliament realised that it needed to be able to defend itself. For the first time in parliamentary history, both houses past a bill into law without royal assent, appointing loyal lieutenants to take command of the militia. Parliament delivered their list of Nineteen Propositions to Stuart, which included some thoroughly democratic principles like having ministers approved by Parliament, having all legislation debated in Parliament and having newly appointed peers approved by vote of both houses (which would be more democratic that today’s preferments). Of course, there was some old anti-Catholic stuff too, but that was as much to do with a progressive stance against European tyrant popes and princes as it was to do with doctrinal issues.

Stuart fled to York to raise his army, while the counties that accepted Parliament’s choice of lieutenant began mobilising the militias to stop him from seizing absolute power. Stuart laid siege to Hull, whose garrison prevented him from taking the ordnance stored there, so he gathered arms in Lincoln and Leicester before declaring war on Parliament in Nottingham on 22 August. Parliament sent Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, to raise an army to halt Stuart’s advance. On 23 September, Devereaux’s cavalry clashed with the Royalists under the German prince and Stuart’s nephew Rupert Pfalz near Worcester, at the Battle of Powick Bridge. The Royalists were escorting donated silverware donated by Oxford colleges to fund Stuart’s war on Parliament, when they bumped into the Parliamentarian advance cavalry. The Royalists gained the element of surprise, finding the Parliamentarian camp, and attacked before their opponents were dressed. Casualties were slight on both sides, but it was a Royalist victory.

12 October, Stuart’s army was ready, and he began a march on London. Devereaux moved across country to head off the advance. The battle was indecisive, with the young gentry that made up the Royalist cavalry eventually holding off the Parliamentarian infantry. About a thousand lay dead, with three thousand wounded, and casualties equal to each side. A bitterly cold night in the fields led to a stand off, until Robert Devereaux returned to London to meet up with reinforcements from the London militias. On 13 November, Devereaux repulsed Charles Stuart’s invasion of the capital at Turnham Green, near to where the District Line tube station is, and Stuart retreated to Oxford where he held his court from then on. Major conflict then ceased due to the oncoming winter.

367 years ago today, the English people began the first modern revolution against unaccountable power. Perhaps the deep hurt from that conflict has cowed our progress in the interval, but the boldness to confront abuse of authority is still there. And today I commemorate that boldness.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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