The BBC slanders the English Revolution: a reply by Alan Woods – part two

24 July 2019 — In Defence of Marxism

Alan Woods

Image: public domain

This is the second part of Alan Woods’ reply to the BBC’s documentary, ‘Charles I, Downfall of a King’. The programme presents a slanderous and misleading account of the English Revolution, which resulted in the death of the corrupt and arrogant King Charles, crippled the feudal system, and laid the basis for modern democracy. Click here for part one.

The role of religion

Religion in the 17th century played a far bigger role than it does today in Britain. Royalists, parliamentarians and revolutionaries all sought to find justification for their actions in the Bible. Once it was translated into English, the Bible provided many passages that could serve to justify the revolutionary aspirations of the poor and oppressed. It became a powerful motivating force for revolution.

There is absolutely no doubt that religion played a vital role, inspiring men and women to fight and sacrifice their lives for a transcendental cause. But it overlooks the fact that, at bottom, these religious movements, sects and parties, also expressed definite class interests and political and social aspirations. These factors are so inextricably linked that it is often impossible to say where one begins and the other ends. But the idea that religion was the main driving force of the revolution completely misunderstands the whole revolutionary process in the 17th century.

It is quite impossible to make sense of the myriad of religious sects that emerged at that time unless we understand this. In reality, these different religious movements were the equivalent of political parties today. In the final analysis, they expressed the interests of a particular class, or sub-division of a class. In the English Revolution, the class struggle found a distorted expression in the clash of antagonistic religious tendencies.

In contrast with Europe, the Reformation in England assumed a more gradual and incomplete character. Henry VIII broke with Rome, not for doctrinal reasons but for his own personal and dynastic interests. Although this rupture had profound consequences, as far as the inner structures and functioning of the Anglican Church was concerned, the difference was more apparent than real. The main difference was the fact that the Head of the Church was no longer the Pope of Rome but the King of England.

Henry himself was a conservative in religious matters, favouring the old elaborate church services and rituals. The same was true of his daughter Elizabeth who was deeply distrustful of the extreme Lutherans and Puritans who she saw correctly as a threat to the established order, not just of the Church but of the monarchy itself. Her successor, James I of England, the founder of the Stuart dynasty, had been a Catholic but embraced Protestantism in order to get his hands on the English Crown and the English Treasury.

By that time the majority not only of the wealthier traders, but also many of the country gentlemen had become Puritans of one sort or another. In the first Parliament of King James, the House of Commons for the first time refused to conduct business on a Sunday. His second Parliament decided to receive the communion at St. Margaret’s Church instead of Westminster Abbey “for fear of copes and wafer-cakes.”

Unlike his son Charles, James was a pragmatist, a man with no fixed principles other than his desire to hang on to power and spend as much public money as possible in his personal enjoyment. In his determined pursuit of pleasure, he spent large amounts of money, depleted the Treasury and left his unfortunate son with huge debts. This determined the character and destiny of the monarchy under Charles I.

The programme grossly misrepresents the religious conflict as one exclusively between Puritans and Catholics. In fact, the initial conflict was between the King, who was an Episcopalian, and the Presbyterians in Parliament. Charles was what was called a High Anglican, that is to say, he favoured a form of worship with ceremonies, rituals and lavish ornamentation. This was seen by many as merely Popery in disguise.

There is no doubt that Charles I supported the hierarchy of bishops and priests because he saw it correctly as a fundamental pillar of the monarchy. He told his son, the future Charles II that the Church was “the chiefest support of regal authority” (Christopher Hill, op. cit., p. 80). The Digger Gerard Winstanley wrote of “Kings, Bishops and other State Officers.” The Church was, in effect, part of the state and the bishops and priests civil servants. The whole thing was expressed very neatly by Sir John Eliott when he said: “Religion is that which keeps the subject in obedience.” (Ibid, p.77)

Charles’ henchman, Archbishop Laud, carried out what was, in effect, a religious counterrevolution in the Church of England, introducing many innovations that certainly bore a remarkable resemblance to Catholic rituals. All this was imposed on a Protestant people by force. Dissidents were sentenced to the cruellest punishments. All this stoked the fires of resentment that burst onto the surface in 1642. But the name of Laud is not even mentioned by our “experts” for whom only two men existed: Charles and Pym!

Religion, class and politics

Former US President Bill Clinton, who was certainly not a Marxist, once famously said: “It’s the economy, stupid!” By accident, he said something intelligent. In the last analysis, economics is decisive in politics. That is true today and it was true in the 17th century. The central problem is easily stated: the King and the court clique had political power. But the lower house represented the nation in that it represented the bourgeoisie and thereby national wealth. The House of Commons was three times richer than the House of Lords. It was the battle over the possession of this wealth that was the original cause of the split between King and Parliament.

Let us give an approximate description of the different parties and tendencies. On the extreme right wing are the Catholics, who were probably a small minority in society, although they had important points of support, particularly in the upper strata of the aristocracy. Next, we have the Episcopalians, or high church Anglicans, the tendency identified with the King, the court clique and most of the aristocracy that dominated the House of Lords.

Catalogue of Sects Image public domain

In the 17th Century, the class struggle found a distorted expression in the struggle between different religious sects and tendencies. The BBC documentary studiously ignores this fact / Image: public domain

In the camp of the opposition are firstly the Presbyterians, representing the wealthy merchants and capitalists who were the majority of the House of Commons and also controlled the City of London. To the left of the Presbyterians stood the Independents, among whose ranks we find Oliver Cromwell, a small farmer from East Anglia. They represent mainly the middle-class, small farmers like Cromwell and the lower strata of the bourgeoisie.

These were the forces that first began what turned into the English Revolution. The conflict started at the top, as a battle between the King and Parliament for control of wealth and power. But the struggle between King and Parliament prepared the ground for the masses to enter into action. What the masses wanted was freedom from oppression and exploitation, and the right to worship as they saw fit. They sprang into action. Puritan preachers delivered fiery sermons that fuelled their agitated state of mind, inspiring them to action.

The bourgeoisie appealed for liberty, the rights of Parliament and religious freedom, adding, as if an afterthought, the rights of property. But when the common people heard the words liberty and religion their ears pricked up. Here at last was a hope to break out of what they saw as the dark night of Popery and fight for the establishment of the kingdom of God on Earth. The nation was now split into two hostile camps. We see the emergence of definite political parties and tendencies. In broad outline, these were the three parties pointed out above, although they were subdivided into smaller fragments, each reflecting different religious views and political tendencies.

Rebellion in Ireland

The peasantry of Ireland had been subjected for many years to cruel oppression by the English. Their lands were confiscated, their people robbed and massacred, their Catholicism suppressed. The country was a powder-keg that was overdue for an explosion. Charles had sent his favourite, Thomas Wentworth, to rule Ireland with a rod of iron. He plundered the Irish people so ferociously that he earned the nickname, Black Tom Tyrant. Charles rewarded him for his services by making him Earl of Strafford. But the recall of Strafford from Ireland, and his subsequent trial and execution, opened the door to a rebellion that was long overdue.

The chaotic situation in London provided the occasion for a national rebellion in Ireland. The oppressed Irish peasantry rose up and in their fury turned against the protestant Scottish and English settlers. A terrible massacre ensued.

News of the massacres caused a wave of panic in England, where the Protestant majority was only too aware of the nightmarish atrocities that had been inflicted in Germany during the wars of religion (the Thirty Years War). It stoked the fires of anti-Catholic feeling. But Charles thought that he saw in these events a chance to regain the upper hand. He again appealed for money from Parliament, allegedly to raise an army to suppress the Irish Rebellion. Surely, this time Parliament would see reason and hand over the cash. But again, Charles was mistaken.

There was a suspicion in the minds of many people that Charles himself was behind the Irish uprising. People were afraid of a Catholic uprising in England that would lead to the same kind of massacres that had occurred in Ireland. In particular, it was widely believed that the Queen, her priests and her Catholic friends were involved in the rebellion.

Lisa Hilton rushes to assure us that Charles had no connection with the Irish rebels, who nevertheless claimed that he and his wife had supported them. Whether or not these accusations are true, there is no doubt whatsoever that Charles intended to use the Irish situation against Parliament. In the final analysis, the state itself consists of armed bodies of men in defence of property. In 17th century England, there was no standing army. Instead, there were local Militias organised in every important town and county. Whoever controlled the Militias therefore effectively was in control of the state. This now became the central issue in the struggle between the King and Parliament.

In his speech to Parliament, Charles used the Irish catastrophe to blame his opponents in the Commons for failing to come to the assistance of the English settlers. The phrasing of this speech, and particularly his insistence that the Milita should serve the King, provoked a head-on collision.

The struggle between King and Parliament was therefore reduced to the most important question: who controls the armed forces?

Parliament naturally had no wish to grant the King powers to raise an army that could be used against itself. So instead of granting the money requested by Charles, Parliament replied by presenting him with new and even-more-audacious demands in the form of the Grand Remonstrance, a document drafted by John Pym and his circle that set forth, in great detail, all the crimes committed by the King in the previous period. In its totality, it represented effectively a demand for the abolition of monarchical powers.

Matters had now come to a head.

Charles’s coup d’état

The events in Parliament were being closely observed by the masses. When Pym and his party issued the Grand Remonstrance to the public in the form of a printed pamphlet, it had an explosive effect. Here we had the Transitional Programme of the English Revolution! The revolutionary slogan: “No bishops! No Popish Lords!” was now echoing in every market place, on every street corner.

In November, the Remonstrance barely passed the Commons by 11 votes. It was not even submitted for approval to the House of Lords before being placed before the King. This was a declaration of war. Charles could never accept a document that would reduce him to a mere cipher in the hands of Parliament. The time for manoeuvring and dissimulation was over. Finally, the gloves were off.

Charles was forced to take precipitate action. In effect, he launched a coup d’état that was intended to behead the parliamentary opposition by picking off its leaders. On Tuesday, 4 January 1642 the King walked into the chamber of the House Commons at the head of an armed guard, intending to arrest the five members that he believed were at the head of the rebellion against him. He sat in the Speaker’s chair and looked around the chamber but could see none of the five. Then he said the famous words, “I see the birds have flown”.

Attempted Arrest of the Five members by Charles West Cope Image public domain

Charles I launched a coup d’état and attempted to arrest his main opponents in parliament. This provoked the masses and afterwards, the isolated Charles fled London for Hampton Court / Image: public domain

He then turned to the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, demanding to know whether any of those persons were in the House, whether he saw any of them and where they were. Falling on his knees, Lenthall replied: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me, whose servant I am here”.

This famous scene is well known, but what is not so well known is what happened afterwards. When Charles passed through the streets of London in his royal coach, he was everywhere besieged by angry crowds, shouting a new slogan: “Privilege!” They were reminding him that members of parliament were supposed to be protected from arbitrary arrest by the rules of parliamentary privilege. In effect, they were telling him to his face that he could no longer decide anything. But far more than that, they were reminding him that they, the people of England, existed. They had been silenced by years of monarchical tyranny. Now they demanded to be heard.

Charles heard their message loud and clear, and immediately fled with his wife from a capital where they were completely isolated. The flight of the King to Hampton Court was the real beginning of the Civil War. It led to the formation of two irreconcilable camps, two rival centres of power: one based in London, the other finally in Oxford. This is the phenomenon Lenin described as Dual Power. From this point on, the outcome could only be settled by force.

In March 1642, John Pym and his allies pushed through the Militia Ordinance (it was called an Ordinance and not an Act because it never received the Royal Assent), which placed the command of each county’s armed forces in the hands of Parliament. The King issued his own commissions of array, calling on his followers to organise their own armed forces in the counties. It was the beginning of the Civil War.

The eruption of the masses radically changed the course of events and set its stamp decisively on the revolution. But this fact is a closed book for our “experts”, whose snobbish contempt for ordinary working men and women is only equalled by the tunnel vision that prevents them from seeing a great social and political revolution as anything more than a petty squabble between two men.

Role of the masses

Trotsky wrote: “The immediate causes of the events of a revolution are changes in the state of mind of the conflicting classes. Changes in the collective consciousness have naturally a semi-concealed character. Only when they have attained a certain degree of intensity do the new moods and ideas break to the surface”. This can be seen very clearly in the English Revolution.

The conflict at the top immediately opened the floodgates through which poured the dispossessed masses. This was an absolutely decisive development. In the words of John Rees: “ordinary people, well, well beyond the political nation, were suddenly drawn into the centre of events.” Outside the debating chambers of Westminster, the entire nation was in a state of ferment that found its expression in a myriad of religious movements and sects.

The role of the masses provides the real motor force that drove the English Revolution forward. They were represented by different religious sects and tendencies: the Levellers, the Diggers or True Levellers, Anabaptists, Fifth Monarchy Men, Quakers and others. Yet this is completely ignored by the series, other than a comment by John Rees who correctly points out that the role of the masses in the English Revolution was just as important and inspirational as in the French or Russian revolutions.

Popular discontent now began to assume an organised form. Petitions to Parliament were drawn up, demanding redress against a host of grievances; and when a sufficient number of subscriptions was reached, the petitions were presented to the Commons, and immediately published. So many grievances were presented, both by the members and by petitions from outside Parliament that the House had to set up over 40 committees to consider them.

How do the “experts” view the role of the masses? Around Christmas time 1641, there was a virtual insurrection in London directed against the King and his supporters in Parliament. A leading role in this insurrection was played by the London apprentices. But their role is dismissed in sneering terms by our “experts”. As the shock troops of the insurrection, the London apprentices are singled out for a double dose of counterrevolutionary vitriol.

One of the “experts” informs us (in case we did not already know) that apprentices are young men. These young men, we are further informed, were suffering from a strange complaint which he describes as “toxic masculinity.” We do not know what toxic masculinity consists of, and no explanation is provided. Is it perhaps the male equivalent of “toxic femininity”? But since the person who makes this intriguing observation is a University Professor, we must always assume that he knows what he’s talking about. We ordinary mortals are left entirely in the dark.

A little more light is shed on the question by the remark subsequently made by Ms Hilton, who assures us that these apprentice weavers, potters and joiners moved into action, “fuelled by testosterone, ale and religious fervour.” From this remark we must conclude that, apart from the Bible and copious quantities of alcohol, the chief driving force of revolution was the well-known male hormone.

But just a moment! Since apprentices had been young men for hundreds of years, they presumably always possessed that self-same male hormone that, as we are assured, “fuelled” the insurrection of December 1641. Why did it not fuel a similar insurrection the previous Christmas, or the one before that? The apprentices also are known to have drunk beer (as did the entire population in those days, since it was a lot safer than the water). Yet the consumption of ale does not seem to have caused any revolutionary outbreak worthy of note before 1641. How strange!

Even stranger is the fact that many women played a very active role in the English revolution, although testosterone is not usually a dominant hormone in the female physiognomy. Irritatingly, all these awkward facts do not somehow fit into this interesting post-modernist theory. Nor does the fact that most of the Puritans (those “sinister forces” who were supposed to be behind the revolution) tended to abstain from strong drink altogether. But as the journalists say: “why let the facts spoil a good story?”

Undeterred by these inconvenient facts, Ms Hilton persists in her unattractive portrayal of the London apprentices. The scene is set for 24 December 1641, that is to say, Christmas Eve. Here, according to this most perceptive analysis of historical events, the calendar played a most fateful role in determining the outcome of the revolution in England, and therefore, the whole history of Europe and the world.

Unfortunately for Charles, she says, the apprentices now had a twelve-day holiday, during which they were free both to read the Bible and to imbibe vast quantities of beer. It is hard to say which of the two played the most important role, but the sad fact is that on Christmas Day, they staged an insurrection against the King, which Lisa, naturally, characterises as a “riot.”

Let us quote her precise words: “fuelled by Christmas ale, the London apprentices are on the rampage.” This is yet another example of a gossip historian resorting to trivial arguments to conceal a complete and absolute lack of understanding. To attribute a major insurrection, which dramatically altered the balance of forces in the English Revolution, to factors such as this is childish in the extreme.

This outrageous libel on courageous young men fighting for freedom against monarchist tyranny overlooks the very clear political content of the uprising (for that is what it was). Their fury had been provoked by the King’s decision to hand control of the Tower of London to a brutal reactionary, Sir Thomas Lunsford. This was seen by the masses as a direct threat, and the apprentices stormed the Tower, demanding his removal. This heroic action is described in the programme as “a populist siege.”

This idiotic description of an important historic event requires no comment. It perfectly sums up both the complete emptiness of the series and also exposes the sly subtext, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the English Revolution, and everything to do with a senseless and superficial comparison with politics in modern Britain.

The London apprentices come in for particular venom, in the programme, when later on Charles attempted to block the decisions of Parliament by using a group of unelected bishops sitting in the House of Lords to veto the decisions of the lower house. The cry went up on the streets of London: “No bishops! No popish lords!” The apprentices led the attack, assaulting bishops on the streets and driving them away from parliament. This direct action arouses a horrified reaction on the part of Ms Hilton, who simply cannot understand why the outraged youths should attack “any old man dressed in a cassock.”

But the direct action of the apprentices proved to be highly effective. The bishops, evidently reluctant to enter the pearly gates at an early date, prudently stayed away from parliament. Their plight is treated most sympathetically by Lisa Hilton, who ignored the evident fact that these poor bishops were acting as the tools of reaction and violating the most elementary principles of democracy. By taking matters into their own hands, the apprentices and working people of London were merely taking a big broom and sweeping away the feudal rubbish that was effectively suffocating them.

Even Ms Hilton is forced to admit that this direct action achieved what all the interminable parliamentary debates had failed to achieve. As a matter of fact, it would not be a bad thing if the people of Britain today would take up the same big broom to sweep away the House of Lords and the monarchy altogether. After all, these reactionary institutions are the survivors of a democratic revolution that still remains unfinished today.

The London apprentices later played a key role in saving London, when they fought bravely in the front ranks of the trained bands that inflicted a humiliating defeat on Charles’ mercenary army at the decisive battle of Turnham Green. Far from belittling the role of these courageous young working-class kids who gave their lives fighting for democracy, they should be regarded as the real heroes of the period.


“The British bourgeoisie has erased the very memory of the seventeenth century revolution by dissolving its past in ‘gradualness’. The advanced British workers will have to re-discover the English Revolution and find within its ecclesiastical shell the mighty struggle of social forces”.

(Trotsky, Where is Britain Going? ‘Two Traditions, the Seventeenth Century Revolution and Chartism”)

At the end of the programme, Ms Hilton reiterates her central hypothesis: “the fact that in just fifty days the power struggle between two very different men could rip a country apart irrecoverably shows how extraordinarily effectively Pym could whip up the masses into a frenzy of populism (sic!), Even when it was not necessarily in their own interests(!)”

The word “populism”, as everyone knows, is the trendy buzzword used by political commentators nowadays to describe phenomena of which they do not possess the slightest understanding. The fact that this stupid and meaningless word has been dragged in by the hair and inflicted upon the revolutionary politics of 17th-century England tells us all we need to about the raison d’être of this wretched series.

With the honourable exception of John Rees, the self-styled ‘experts’ in this series cannot conceal their spiteful attitude towards long-dead revolutionaries. This extreme vindictiveness can hardly be explained by the events that happened so long ago. Behind it lies an unspoken fear that revolution can recur in our own times. Oh yes! When they curse John Pym, it is Jeremy Corbyn they are thinking about. When they hurl insults at the London apprentices, “the mob” and the “meaner sort of persons”, they are thinking of the mass protests on the streets of London and the striking pickets, just as the gilets jaunes in France remind them of the Jacobins and Sans-culottes of 1793.

Levellers declaration and standard Image public domain

The English Revolution is unfinished. When the workers of Britain move to sweep away the bourgeois and feudal dregs, they will strive for workers’ democracy and a future socialist society / Image: public domain

There is nothing new about this. It is no accident that the English historians, from Clarendon on, referred to the English Revolution, that most heroic page in our history, as “the Great Rebellion,” while reserving the title of “the Glorious Revolution” to the miserable coup d’état carried out by the Dutch adventurer William of Orange in 1688. In comparison, the latter was a squalid little event that had nothing glorious about it. But it placed power firmly in the hands of the bourgeoisie, which arrived at an unprincipled deal with the Monarchy to share power with the landowning aristocracy.

All this tells us absolutely nothing about the English Revolution, but quite a lot about the psychology and prejudices of middle-class historians who have an ingrained hatred of all revolutions. In introducing her series Lisa Hilton asks us: “Which side would you be on?” And at the end of it, the panel of ‘experts’ is invited to answer this intriguing question. They need not have bothered, since the class prejudices of the ‘experts’ are quite obvious from first to last.

It would be too tiresome to answer all the lies, distortions and inaccuracies that characterise every episode of this abominably bad series. But it is worthwhile spending a moment on the conclusions they reached. To anyone who possessed the courage and patience to watch the series, the answers were quite predictable.

Leanda de Lisle is, of course, an enthusiastic royalist. Although one has to entertain a reasonable doubt concerning her fighting qualities on the battlefield, the extreme venom of her verbal tirades against the English revolutionaries would have probably qualified her as a royalist propagandist “of the lower sort.”

Others, it is true, came down on the side of parliament, although they seemed to be rather embarrassed by their own boldness. Mostly they qualified their support by saying they would have been “moderate” parliamentarians, which signifies those cowardly and treacherous bourgeois who never wanted to go to war against the King and were constantly trying to do a deal with him. In order to do this, they did everything in their power to hold the Revolution back and sabotage it.

With “friends” like this, the Revolution really did not need any enemies. It was only when Oliver Cromwell, leaning on the support of the revolutionary masses, swept the “moderates” aside and used the New Model Army to inflict a crushing defeat on the King, that the English Revolution advanced with giant strides.

Perhaps the most interesting (or at least, entertaining) reply, was that given by Earl Spencer when he was asked where he would have stood in this great conflict, he answered: “I don’t know if I’d have been able to draw my sword against my King. I might well have been, at heart, a Parliamentarian but when it came to warfare, a reluctant Royalist.”

The strange reply of the reluctant royalist elicited an ironical “Bravo” from the Daily Telegraph. That arch-reactionary Tory rag wrote that: “it was good to see that the diplomatic art of keeping one foot planted in each camp is still alive and well among the nobility.” The somewhat less-than-noble Telegraph would certainly not have hesitated for 10 seconds before declaring its absolute and undying support for the camp of reaction – whether today or 400 years ago.

What all this shows quite clearly is that, four centuries later, the ruling class and its intellectual apologists are still fighting the Civil War. The question “which side would you have been on?” is still very relevant, for the simple reason that 21st century Britain is just as unequal and unjust as it was then. The gap between extreme poverty and obscene wealth is as great as ever. The class struggle still exists and the political stability of the past decades has been replaced by extreme political instability and social turbulence.

The rulers of Britain are following this process with growing alarm. They look to the future with dread. The fear of revolution still deprives them of their sleep. The ghosts of 1642 have never been completely exorcised. That is why they find a thousand excuses to prettify the memory of the treacherous scoundrel, Charles Stuart. That is why they cling so stubbornly to the old regime that was swept away by Cromwell’s New Model Army. That is also why they still curse the memory of those courageous revolutionaries who took on the old order and cast it into the dustbin of history.

The working class of Britain should be reminded of their revolutionary past. They should honour the memory of those brave men and women who fought for the new and better society. The English revolution achieved a great deal, but ultimately it was betrayed by the bourgeoisie who put their financial interests above the cause of genuine democracy. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, they reached a compromise with the monarchy, which they saw as a bulwark against the risk of revolution. We have been living with the consequences ever since.

The English Revolution is therefore an unfinished revolution. When the workers of Britain move to change society – as move they must – they will inscribe on their banner the democratic demands necessary in order to lay the banner for a new and higher form of democracy – a workers’ democracy, which is the basis of a future socialist society.

Postscript: Alan Woods is currently working on a book about the English Revolution to cast light on the momentous events of this period. It will bring out clearly the role of the masses in the revolution – an aspect that has been routinely ignored or minimised by bourgeois historians. He hopes to publish the new book sometime next year.

Part 1

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