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Episode 3, The Bishop’s Wars We left off last time with the growing resistance in England to the personal rule of King Charles, especially in matters of taxation and religion. This week, we are going to find out what happens when Charles and Archbishop Laud try to extend their dream of religious unity up to Scotland, and it is not going to be pretty. As I mentioned in the first episode, Scottish Presbyterianism was laced with a healthy distrust of the state, so even the most benign reforms were going to be met with some resistance.
But the kind of wholesale revisions that Charles and Laud had in mind? Well, let’s just say that the Scots went from zero to open rebellion in just about six months. The trigger for that open rebellion was the decision to introduce the Anglican Book of Common Prayer into the Scottish churches. The Book of Common Prayer was, well, it still is, the central collection of services and prayers for the Church of England. In theory, every parish is supposed to be using it and using it in the same way, although in reality, fights over how to use the Book of Common Prayer played a huge role in the running battles between Archbishop Laud and, well, practically everyone else.
The Scots, of course, had their own version, called the Book of Common Order, and they were pretty attached to it. But as we discussed last week, Charles and Laud were convinced that the people of Britain should adhere to one uniform religion, and that one uniform religion was going to be based on the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. On Sunday, July 23, 1637, by order of the King, the Dean of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh began to read from the Book of Common Prayer. As soon as he started to speak, the place went crazy.
The ladies of the congregation took the lead, pelting the assembled nobles in the front row with anything that wasn’t nailed down. Someone threw a chair at the Dean’s head. Bible studded against the wall. There was pushing, shoving, shouting. The crowd gathered in the streets, then joined in the fun, beating on the doors of the church, chucking rocks at the windows, hurling insults at no one in particular. The Bishop of Edinburgh made a break for it, and he was stoned as he ran off. The terrified Dean locked himself in the steeple. It is possible that King Charles underestimated how fiercely the Scots planned to defend their native religion.
The riot at St. Giles was by no means an isolated incident. All across Scotland, parishioners were up in arms about the new services. Through the rest of the summer, petitions flooded in demanding the King leave the Scottish Church alone, to please not destroy the only true religion in all of Christendom. The King’s own allies in Scotland begged him to reconsider what he was doing, but Charles refused to listen, and all he did to mollify the Scots was send back messages telling everyone to get on board. But the Scots were really not going to get on board with this.
Riots periodically hit Edinburgh, to the point where Charles ordered his ruling council out of the city, taking with them one of the key economic pillars of the capital, which led to yet another riot. By the winter, the Scots began to organize a formal nationwide resistance. In February 1638, the King’s Lord High Treasurer for Scotland, the Earl of Traquair, told the King that if he wanted to persist in this policy that it was going to take 40,000 soldiers to do it. This was probably supposed to mean, so, you know, give it up sir, but Charles heard, okay, well let’s raise an army of 40,000 soldiers. Never mind that this was basically impossible, which was Traquair’s point.
Just as the King was being told that it would require military occupation to impose the Book of Common Prayer, the Scots were busy organizing to prevent just such a military occupation. On February the 28th, 1638, the first batch of angry Scottish lords signed a document called the National Covenant, which was a pledge to uphold true religion in Scotland at all cost. The men who signed the Covenant went out of their way to swear loyalty to the King, but it was pretty clear that the pledge promised a national rebellion if Charles persisted in his religious innovations.
Throughout the spring of 1638, the Covenant then circulated to Scotland, and everyone – lords, gentry, laborers – signed it. Most because they believed in the cause, but a few because men who refused were targets of harassment, so best to just make your mark. Charles, as I mentioned, responded to all of this not by rethinking his strategy, but by following Traquair’s advice and raising an army. But building an army takes time, especially if you’re living in 17th century England and you don’t have a standing army yet. So in May, Charles sent the Marquess of Hamilton up to Scotland to open negotiations with the Covenanters, which is what we now call these rebellious Scots.
Not in the hopes of actually negotiating a settlement, mind you, just in the hopes that Hamilton would be able to buy the King some time. Hamilton was a Scottish lord who had been raised in England alongside Charles. He was absolutely loyal to the King, but as soon as he arrived, he got the sense that 40,000 soldiers might not be enough – 100,000 might not be enough.
So hopping back and forth between Edinburgh and London, Hamilton convinced the King to call a church assembly, to try to work through the issues peacefully. Calling an assembly served Charles’ goal of keeping the Scots occupied until he was ready to deal with them, but Hamilton was hoping that maybe he could control the assembly and defuse the situation before it got out of hand. In late November 1638, the Glasgow Assembly – so called because it met in Glasgow – opened for business, but it immediately slipped out of Hamilton’s control. First of all, the leading Covenanters, through a mixture of coercion and genuine popularity, cleared practically every seat in the assembly for themselves.
Then they barred the Scottish Bishops – the one major group who actually supported Charles – from entering the hall. So Hamilton walked into the room and found himself facing a mob of overheated Scotsmen whipped into a frenzy by a mixture of national pride and religious zeal, with nary an ally in sight. Ignoring Hamilton’s attempts to guide the proceedings, the Covenanters went far beyond simply repudiating Charles’ recent innovations, and started stripping out every reform made to their church since King James had emerged from his minority back in the 1580s, and that included tossing out the entire episcopal hierarchy.
Hamilton had no choice but to admit that he had totally lost control, and after a week he marched in and announced that the Glasgow Assembly was hereby dissolved, which is when he found out just how totally he had lost control. The assembly ignored the order, and sat for another three weeks in express violation of a royal command to disperse, which was basically treason. When they finally adjourned in late December, everyone knew that come the spring, it was going to be war. Meanwhile, down in England, Charles was busy preparing for that war, but he was having a bit of trouble turning his royal decrees into a functional army.
He had already settled for well short of the 40,000 require had suggested, and the plan now called for an army of 20,000 to march north and meet the Covenanters head on, while another 5,000 flanked them by sea. But Charles was discovering that just because a plan is written on paper, that doesn’t mean it’s going to just magically appear in reality. As it turned out, the English were pretty ambivalent about what Charles was doing in Scotland, and they weren’t super eager to risk their lives for something they basically didn’t care about. And that is to say nothing of the English Puritans, who were not merely ambivalent, they actively sympathized with the Scots.
So while the Scottish spent the winter raising a passionate army absolutely ready to risk their lives, Charles spent the winter raising a sullen collection of vagabonds who were ready to desert the first chance they got. Despite all of these problems, however, Charles was still convinced in the spring of 1639 that victory would be his.
And he wasn’t totally crazy. The Scots had managed to put together an army of about 12,000 men, which meant that, despite their zeal, they were still outnumbered. Something their general, a career soldier named Alexander Leslie, who had risen to the rank of Field Marshal in the legendary army of King Gustav of Sweden, could plainly see. It was clear that invading England was out of the question, and that fighting period was probably a bad idea. Best to just use the saber rattling as a negotiating tactic rather than actually pulling the sabers out and fighting, but King Charles had other ideas.
The First Bishops’ War, as it is now called because it was sort of about whether the abolition of episcopacy pushed through by the Glasgow Assembly was going to stick, got started in May 1639 when the Marquess of Hamilton attempted to land that English flanking force of 5,000 men. But as it turned out, A. Hamilton’s men were untrained and unequipped, and B. well-trained and well-equipped covenanters were sitting there at the Firth of Forth ready to meet them. Famously, Hamilton’s own mother came out with a pistol and promised to shoot her son dead if he tried to land. So Hamilton did not try to land, which threw the whole English strategy into disarray.
Charles decided that maybe now wasn’t actually the best time for a fight, so he and the Scots got together at Berwick-upon-Tweed in June 1639 to talk truce. The resulting pacification of Berwick was no one’s idea of a treaty. The Scottish commissioners made the unmeetable demand that the acts of the Glasgow Assembly be ratified, while Charles was once again negotiating not to negotiate, but to play for time. He agreed in principle that church assemblies ought to be the conduit for church reform, but said nothing about ratifying the specific decisions of the Glasgow Assembly.
Instead, the king called for another church assembly to meet in August, and then a Scottish parliament to meet in September. If he could control those bodies and get them to repeal the work of the Glasgow Assembly, so much the better. But if not, well, this was about stringing the Scots along until he was strong enough to crush them in battle anyway, so whatever. The pacification of Berwick was signed June 18, and everyone got to work making sure that they were better prepared when the war inevitably started up again the next year.
Ironically, the first bloodshed of the Bishop’s Wars, and thus the first bloodshed of the whole series of revolts and civil wars that engulfed the British Isles over the next twenty years, took place the day after the pacification of Berwick was signed. Up in Aberdeen, a force of Scottish Royalists, yes, they did exist, pushed the local Covenanters out of town for a little while, but on June 19, the Covenanters came back and, in a bloody skirmish, seized the nearby Bridge of Dee, paving the way for the retaking of Aberdeen.
The skirmish at the Bridge of Dee is also notable because the Covenanter force was led by the Marquess of Montrose, a popular and eminently crafty Scottish Lord who was about to become the King’s best friend in Scotland. Eventually, we’ll see him string together a series of victories in the Scottish theatre of the First Civil War that very nearly tipped the whole balance of the fight in the King’s favour. But for now, he remained, like almost every patriotic Scotsman, a staunch Covenanter. Charles returned to London in July and set to work trying to raise, equip, and finance a better army.
Of these three, his biggest problem now, by far, was financing. The King had been barely scraping by for the last decade or so, and he was only able to keep his head above water because he studiously avoided getting sucked into a war, but now he had gotten sucked into a war. Charles had managed to get through the skirmishes of 1639 by pushing his credit to the breaking point and securing loans from sympathetic nobles. Unfortunately, most of those willing to give also happened to be Catholics, which did nothing to ease anyone’s fears that Charles was intent on undoing the Reformation in Britain.
But with his first run at the Scots having gone nowhere, the money was all dried up, so if he wanted to keep the conflict going, he was going to have to call another parliament. There was no other way to get the money he needed. Back up in Scotland, events played out predictably enough over the summer and fall of 1639. The new church assembly met in August and simply ratified everything the Glasgow Assembly had ever done. The Scottish Parliament met shortly thereafter, and they started pushing through constitutional reforms to go with the religious reforms.
They somehow managed to keep themselves in session through September and October, but were finally broken up by the King in November. Whatever thin hope remained that the war would not start again in the spring died when the Scottish Parliament disbanded. And so, after 11 years, Charles had to call an English Parliament. One of the primary advocates for calling a parliament was Sir Thomas Wentworth. It might seem odd that Wentworth would be begging the King to call a parliament, but it appears that he saw one thing very clearly and believed one other thing very much.
The thing he saw clearly was that there was no way to fund an aggressive war against the Scots without parliamentary subsidies, it just couldn’t be done. The thing he believed very much was that parliament could be controlled. Wentworth, who is about to become the Earl of Strafford just to confuse everyone, had mastered the art of controlling the Irish parliaments, and he didn’t see why an English parliament couldn’t be just as easily manipulated.
But he underestimated the anger that had grown up during the 11 years of personal rule, and then he overestimated Charles’ willingness to even pretend like that anger was legitimate. But the King decided that he wanted a war with the Scots more than he didn’t want to call another parliament, so call another parliament he did. On April 13, 1640, the first English parliament in 11 years met in Westminster. The attending MPs were filled with a mixture of excitement and suspicion.
They were eager for the opportunity to get back in the game, but wary of the intentions of the King. But Charles needed money, and they had some issues they wanted addressed, so there was no reason they couldn’t come to some sort of agreement, right? From day one, literally, from the first day of parliament, the two sides were at loggerheads. The opening session began with a speech delivered by the King’s messenger, Lord Finch, which was a provocative enough act on its own, given that he had been the speaker of the last parliament. Remember, the guy who had been held down in his chair?
Well he bluntly informed the members that they had been called to vote the King money to prosecute a war against rebels in Scotland. Once they had voted that money, the King would hear their complaints. That is how this was going to run. But anyone with half a brain knew that as soon as they voted the money, Charles would be free to ignore those complaints. So the emerging parliamentary leadership responded that no, first we deal with our complaints, and then we vote the money. They backed this up by launching into a series of speeches, headlined by John Pym, who as I said was one of the few veteran parliamentarians returning from the sessions of the 1620s.
He ticked off a laundry list of grievances, illegal taxation, unjust imprisonment, creeping potpourri, and demanded action, because the members simply could not be expected to return home and say that after 11 years they had dealt with exactly none of the things their constituents had sent them to deal with. While the House of Commons was getting revved up, rumors trickled down from Scotland that shots had been fired and that the war in the North was starting back up. Charles seized on the news to press parliament to give him the money he needed and will deal with your petty business after the rebels had been subdued. But Pym and his colleagues remained unpersuaded by the king’s arm-waving and held their ground.
And not only were they unpersuaded, but harder-line elements in both the Commons and the House of Lords were actually engaged in some pretty treasonous correspondence with the Covenanters. They wanted the Scots to win, and so they were happy to deny Charles the means to fight them. But those hardliners were not a majority, and finally the Commons told the king that they would drop a few of their bigger complaints if the king would agree to drop his illegal taxes, most especially the hated ship money. The king, after much cajoling, agreed to the terms. Now it is likely that had Charles opened with this offer, I’ll drop ship money in exchange for subsidies, everything would have worked out.
But his initial high-handedness had rubbed a lot of the members the wrong way. And so when the king told them how much money he required, an unprecedented 12 subsidies, they balked, even with the ship money deal in place. So instead of just voting Charles the money, as had been privately arranged, the Commons instead started debating whether or not to give him the money on May the 4th, and they wound up talking all day and adjourning for the night without coming to a decision. Charles, outraged at Parliament’s dilly-dallying, apparently snapped at this point, called his Privy Council together on May the 5th, and told them that he planned to dissolve Parliament.
The only pushback to this decision came from the Earl of Northumberland, who was about to have to lead the army the king was apparently giving up on funding properly, and the Earl of Strafford, who just a minute ago was Thomas Wentworth, but now he’s the Earl of Strafford because those are the confusing naming conventions of British history. He thought the king was being shortsighted. I should mention at this point, too, that Strafford also said something at this meeting that was pretty innocuous, but that really came back to haunt him, and we will get into that next week.
Charles, though, had made up his mind. On May the 5th, 1640, Parliament was dissolved after a session lasting just three weeks, and that’s why we call this Parliament the Short Parliament. Having given up on parliamentary subsidies, Charles went right back to the illegal taxes he had so recently promised to abandon. Ship money was pursued with a new zeal, and thus resisted with an equally new zeal. Then the king compounded his PR problems by trying to arrange loans from the hated Spanish, while simultaneously ordering Strafford to organize an army in Ireland, composed mostly of Catholic levies.
So here we have the king, trying to take Catholic money, to pay Catholic troops, to go fight good honest Protestants. More and more people were coming to believe that the greatest threat to England was not the Scottish rebels, but the king himself. In August, the English army mustered in York, but, like last time, it was hardly a functional army. The soldiers weren’t being paid, there was no equipment, something like a third of the men didn’t even have weapons. There were desertions and mutinies. It was a mess.
And yet, happy in his bubble, Charles set off on August the 20th, somehow convinced that he was about to win this thing. That same day, the Scottish General Alexander Leslie, far more confident now that his army had swelled to 20,000 men, crossed the river Tweed and entered England, starting the Second Bishop’s War. Leslie maintained strict discipline after the crossing, because he knew that in the end this was going to come down to a political settlement, so he strictly forbade any sacking or looting that might sour potential English allies.
The English army that attempted to stop the Scots, as I said, was pretty hopeless. They had spent their limited time, energy, and resources fortifying Barrick, which they assumed the Scots were headed to first. But, get this, Leslie simply bypassed Barrick and headed straight for the relatively undefended New Castle upon Tyne, which no one had bothered to fortify because who needs to worry about the critical New Castle coal supply?
But it’s not like Leslie making for New Castle is that big of a deal. The only spot he can cross the River Tyne is at a bridge that is in fact pretty well defended. I mean, sure, there’s a ford just a few miles up from New Castle at Newburn, but it’s not like he’s going to, oh crap, he’s crossing at Newburn. There were only a couple thousand English troops available to try to stave off the crossing, but the ford at Newburn was something of a natural barrier, so the first push of Scottish cavalry was repulsed. As soon as Leslie got his guns set up, though, it was all over.
He and his officers had mastered artillery while serving in the Continental Wars and knew what was what when it came to shelling the enemy. Meanwhile, the raw English troops had probably never seen a cannon fired, let alone fired at them, so they did what comes natural when a cannon is fired at you, and they ran off as fast as they could. There were a few moments of valor for the English. For example, a certain Colonel Monk, who will play a huge role at the end of our series, kept his men together long enough to withdraw the English artillery pieces. But other than that, it was pretty much a rout. The Battle of Newburn was the first Scottish military victory on English soil since 1388.
Leslie occupied Newcastle and its coal supply two days later. Just as Charles was being dealt this blow from without, he was being undermined from within by dissension in his own ranks. Specifically, dissension among the Puritan lords, Bedford, Warwick, Say and Seal, the guys we met last week. They were still ticked off at the short parliament being cancelled, and had dug up a precedent from the Middle Ages that said if the king refused to call a parliament, that twelve peers of the realm could get together and call one on their own authority.
So they drew up a statement pointing this out to Charles, signed by, yup, twelve peers of the realm. Their ultimatum was simple. Call another parliament, or we will call one under our own authority, which will precipitate a constitutional crisis and destroy any hope you have of winning this war. It looked like Charles was boxed in, until he pulled out an arcane medieval precedent of his own. Instead of calling a parliament, he could call a great council, that long dead precursor to parliament. Because Charles really, really, really didn’t want to call another parliament.
But of course, when that great council gathered in York in September 1640, they advised the king to, you guessed it, call a parliament. Well, first make a truce with the Scots, and then call a parliament. Charles could put off the inevitable no longer. In October, unable to do a damn thing about the Scottish army occupying Northern England, the king and covenanters agreed to the Treaty of Ripon.
It stipulated that the king would pay for the Scottish occupation, calculated at 850 pounds per day, the Scots in return would not plunder the countryside. To meet this demand, and as a precondition to every other demand the Scots might make, Charles had to immediately call a parliament. Next week, that parliament will indeed be summoned, and hold its first session on November the 3rd, 1640. It would not be officially dissolved until March of 1660, which is why we call this parliament the long parliament.
- Charles I of England
- John Pym
- Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven
- Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford
- The Holy Bible by King James Version: https://amzn.to/3VQqbcU
- The National Covenant in Scotland, 1638-1689 (Studies in Early Modern Cultural, Political and Social History, 37) by Chris R. Langley: https://amzn.to/3gVOnf9
The Scots revolted after Charles tried to impose the Book of Common Prayer, forcing the King to recall Parliament.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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