When England had a republic

Submitted by AWL on 28 June, 2002 - 10:57

from Solidarity 3/9 - 25th June 2002
Experiences in revolutionary history
Had enough of Golden Jubilee sycophancy? Three hundred and fifty years or so ago they'd had enough of Royalty too. In 1649, the English Parliament cut off the King's head, abolished the House of Lords, and proclaimed a Republic.
In the first of two articles, Lucy Clement looks at the background to the revolution of the 1640s

The seventeenth century saw a spectacular change in the English political system. In 1603 the King summoned Parliament when he thought it necessary - in particular when he had need of money and needed Parliament to vote taxes. By 1714 Parliament ran the show: the King was a glorified civil servant, more or less employed by Parliament, which was in almost permanent session. A revolution had taken place - and political power had moved from the control of king and aristocracy to the control of the bourgeoisie and its representatives in the House of Commons.

The background to that revolution was a massive expansion of capitalised industry in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century. It's hard to underestimate just how dramatic this was. The cities, centres of manufacturing, grew. In 1500 the population of London was about 50,000: by 1650 it was 400,000. New industries sprang up: paper manufacture for the new printers, clock-making, watch-making, sugar-refining, fast-dyeing. The City of London registered new companies for these new trades: in 1629 the spectacle-makers established their guild, in 1637 the gun-makers did likewise.
Capitalism expanded abroad, too. London gained from the collapse of Antwerp as a trading city in the 1570s. In 1600 the East India Company was established by Ciy merchants. From 1630 overseas trade began to expand. New imports included tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco.

All these new industries required capital. Coal-mining, tin-mining, sugar-refining, paper-making - these were not small home-based businesses, but big enterprises (although at this stage, England's biggest industry, cloth manufacture, was still based on the "putting out" system). The capitalist system was extending itself, too, to the land. Formerly common ground was enclosed and wage-labourers employed to cultivate it. Enclosure forced many peasants off the land, to the towns and cities to work, or into vagrancy or crime. The credit system grew: in the late 16th century there were specialist moneylenders in most market towns; by the 17th century credit had expanded into country areas too.

For all this new enterprise, the merchants of the City of London supplied capital. Politically, they were hugely important. The royal court, which a little more than a century earlier had progressed around the country wherever the king or queen fancied doing a bit of hunting, settled itself in Westminster, a convenient mile or so from the power and money in the City.

These days, it takes a little imagination to get to grips with the idea that the Square Mile could be a hotbed of revolution. But that's pretty much what it was. The bourgeoisie was getting to resent the court: neither the King nor his government took their money-making seriously enough. In some cases they were positively hostile.

In 1621 there were 700 monopolies in England. These were granted by the king - not on the basis of promoting capitalist development, but as rewards for his favourites. It was not merely the capitalist class which objected. There was resentment, too, among artisans and small farmers who were particularly hit by high prices. But despite the official lack of support for developing capitalism, the bourgeoisie still got richer - and the king relatively poorer. He became more dependent on Parliament for the taxes which were his income.

Kings had faced rebellions over taxes before - in 1525 Henry VIII had been unable to raise the ironically-named "Amicable Grant" because the population wasn't feeling too amicable towards his increasingly hopeless attempts to conquer France. But whereas in that case Henry had backed down, Charles I decided to force the issue.

In 1625-6 Parliament was dissolved without voting supplies to the king. Charles tried to raise a forced loan, which proved hugely unpopular. In 1628 five knights were imprisoned for refusing to pay, and Parliament issued the Petition of Right. It asserted that the king had no right to raise taxes without reference to Parliament, and declared arbitrary imprisonment, billeting and martial law to be illegal.

In 1629 Charles dissolved Parliament once again and for the next 11 years governed personally. In 1635, though, his attempts to raise a tax known as Ship Money began his downfall. Ship Money had been an occasional tax on those ports which did not provide a ship to the navy. Charles now tried to extend it to inland towns and cities. As Christopher Hill puts it in his book A Century of Revolution, "almost the whole propertied class united in opposition". The rate of default quickly rose. In 1636 3.5% didn't pay. In 1637 the figure was 11%.

And by 1638, when war with Scotland broke out 67% of those required to pay Ship Money defaulted.

The bourgeoisie was no longer prepared to stand for such arbitrary taxation by the king. Parliament met in 1640, ready to rebel. The capitalist class had support from the economically-advanced south and east and from the industrial towns of the north.

The bourgeoisie, however, could not beat the royalists on its own. It needed an army - it needed to appeal to the "ordinary people". And those ordinary people provide some of the most fascinating history of the English Revolution.

It wasn't only the merchant class which had become exasperated with the government's policies. Waged workers and smallholders were unhappy too. For years wages had lagged behind rising prices.

Although comparisons are difficult, it is estimated that in the early seventeenth century, wages had half the purchasing power they'd had in the 15th century. It wasn't until 1750 that real wages properly recovered. Enclosure of common land had hit the lower classes hard.

And so there was what Hill describes as a "permanent background of political unrest". In 1622 unemployed people had rioted in Gloucester, seizing goods from the rich. Between 1640 and 1643 there would be anti-enclosure riots over large areas of England.

It would be wrong to describe these "ordinary people" - yeomen, journeymen, artisans, farm labourers, as a working class. There was waged labour in England - and it had been growing. The bourgeoisie's new economic projects and industrial expansion had created new, waged, jobs. In the new industries there were many journeymen - workers employed by the day. There was a big expansion of women's and children's work too.

The development of small capitalist enterprises and the increase in wage-labour served to break down old customs, as the profit motive began to play a bigger part in individual lives. Ideologies of self-reliance and self-betterment began to develop. But as yet these workers didn't have a clearly-defined class consciousness as a working class against the bourgeoisie. As we will see when we look at the radical opposition during the Revolution, the class lines were rather more fluid.

That said, in the period of the English Revolution, there is no doubt that the radicalised lower classes are the beginnings of what will become, over the next 150 years, the English working class.

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