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  1. Ideas
8 May 2023

The civil war that never ended

Our new Carolingian age is taking us back to the 17th century.

By Madoc Cairns

At midday on Saturday, Charles Windsor ceased to be a human being. As, hidden by a screen, anointing oil marked his breast, head and hands, he was invisibly and entirely transformed. Clad in the vestments of a cleric, crowned as a monarch, blessed as a living symbol of the Divine, he is the last of his kind. For 10,000 years priest-kings, the Rex Nemorensis, representing men to gods and gods to men, preserved in death and life the health of their people and the bounty of their land. And then, in three centuries, they all but disappeared. Where kingship endured modernity, it did so mutilated, humanised, profane. Only in the British Crown is the ancient inheritance preserved entire: a shard of Babylon or El-Ugarit on the banks of the Thames. When Charles emerged, anointed, from behind that screen, he was returning from somewhere in the deep past.

And yet it was the future once. The radical historian Christopher Hill, who died 20 years ago, once recalled that he discovered his great scholarly passion – the blood-soaked, turbulent 17th century – because he was told it was the best thing that ever happened to Britain. For the Whig historians he read growing up, the 1600s were almost luridly providential. First Oliver Cromwell defended parliament against royal absolutism; then, as the commonwealth aged to tyranny in turn, Charles II, the merry monarch, reconciled a free people to a chastened crown. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 completed a neat constitutional hat-trick: with the extirpation of the Catholic James II from the throne, an ideal political order was not so much built as revealed. Parliamentary government, reformed religion, and a monarchy absolute in principle while hamstrung in practice: the ensuing settlement, was, wrote Lord Acton, “the greatest thing done by the English nation”. The sense was, Hill recalled, that Britain was waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

The real 17th century, as Hill unearthed in The World Turned Upside Down, his 1973 masterpiece, was colourful, uncanny, radical in every sense of the world, deeply alien, yet, in one of the great ironies of fate Hill so relished, oddly contemporary. It was an age when ordinary people looked to a future where hierarchy, oppression and inequality were things of the past: an “upside down world”. And this was no historical curiosity. Watching Britain limp into the post-imperial age, it struck Hill that the most pressing questions of the present could only be answered with reference to that now-distant past.

In his Ford Lectures, given at the University of Oxford in 1962, Hill took the comforting narratives of his Whig forebears and, appropriately enough, turned them upside down. What if the 17th-century settlement contained not the seeds of Britain’s future greatness, he asked, but its present decline? To answer that question, Hill thought, required a hard look at the settlement’s critical moment: the Restoration of 1660, and the last Carolingian age.

Even the stoutly republican Hill granted that when Charles returned to Britain in the summer of 1660, popular support bordered on the hysterical. One observer noted that the admirers following in Charles’s train entering London on 29 May took seven hours to pass. In the wake of juntas, political chaos and the near collapse of the rule of law, Charles was cheered everywhere he went. He knew it wouldn’t last. Charles has been stereotyped as a feckless, indolent libertine – “on the ignoble nature of the restored exile,” Macaulay wrote, “adversity had exhausted all her discipline in vain.” Modern scholars paint a different picture. Admittedly short on principle, Charles was an astute politician, determined never to share in his father’s fate.

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He knew that political winds could change with deadly speed. His throne, claimed by right, was held only by chance. England had been kingless for 11 years; the country was not the same as it was. Old habits of deference had been lost. The exchequer was empty; the press rife with disinformation and dissent; town corporations stocked with republicans. Even the Church of England, wormed through with Presbyterians, was no natural friend to the Catholic-sympathetic Charles. Religious radicals flourished everywhere: Baptists, Quakers, the Fifth Monarchy Men, convinced of Christ’s imminent return. Apocalypse was in the air.

Worst of all was the New Model Army, his father’s nemesis, a standing army 60,000 strong, armed, dangerous and – from Charles’s perspective – utterly unreliable. He had been restored as king by a sceptical parliament partly due to his promise to end the age of standing armies. But once enthroned his “first priority”, according to the historian Lori Schoer, was to set one up himself. The commonwealth’s army was notoriously unruly, fissiparous, prone to fits of democratic sentiment. Charles wanted an army loyal to himself. He got it on 26 January 1661, the day he founded the English Army.

Called “guards”, not soldiers – to evade popular hatred of standing armies – the core regiments of Charles’s army still exist today. And like all members of the armed forces, they still swear their loyalty not to nation, or people, or parliament, but to the Crown alone. England’s militia, a cross between an armed reserve and an emergency police force, regulated by parliament and staffed by general levy, fell far short of the new standard of loyalty. A similar solution presented itself: a new all-volunteer force, commanded by “Persons of Quality” – and sworn only, as police to this day do, to the Crown.

As the old army dissolved, and parliamentarians rejoiced at the end of the “dominion of the sword”, a barrage of loosely defined new laws enjoined the Crown’s new forces to disarm all “fanaticks, sectaries or disturbers of the peace”. In spite of Charles’s own sympathy to religious tolerance, his government made their attitude plain. “It is impossible,” one minister said, “for a Dissenter not to be a rebel.” Censorship was re-imposed with a vengeance. Disarmament turned to harassment and arrest. The republican pamphleteer James Harrington was imprisoned without trial: by the time the family secured his release in 1662 he had lost his mind.

[See also: Local election results show the Tories are in trouble]

Studying the 17th century, Hill explained in The World Turned Upside Down, “it is hard to distinguish between religion and politics”. The Civil War was fought against the rule of the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, as well as that of Charles I. On the latter’s execution, republicans condemned him as a tyrant modelled on Satan; royalists praised him as a martyr modelled on Christ. A belief in the dead king’s sanctity was, John Milton thought, royalism’s “chief strength”: on his son’s return the feast of St Charles the Martyr was incorporated in the calendar of the Church.

The act combined religious sincerity and political intent. “In times of peace,” the martyred king had noted, “people are governed by the pulpit more than the sword.” Across Britain royalist clergy preached non-resistance to the state and submission to the Crown. The Church of England regained her land, properties and parliamentary seats. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity required all Anglican clerics to endorse the doctrines and liturgy promulgated by the Church hierarchy – royal martyrs included. Over 2,000 refused. This “Great Expulsion” marked the end, in one sense, of a pattern of religious life dating back 1,000 years. Oliver Cromwell and Charles I communed at the altar even as they confronted each other on the battlefield. Their theological descendants never would.

The forces of religious conformity marched on. Non-Anglicans were barred from public office in 1661; a few years later the Conventicles Act forbade more than five people to meet together for the purpose of worship outside the Church of England. Successive waves of persecution directed at “sectaries” – like Quakers and Baptists – scarred those still-young traditions deeply. It was no coincidence that at exactly this point, Hill notes, dissenters adopted pacifism and retreated from public life.

The power of the sword and the conformity of the Church had been secured. In reestablishing the House of Lords, Charles laid the third and final plank of the Carolingian settlement: the restoration of the aristocracy as the nation’s leading class. It was, however, not restored unchanged. The first 16 men Charles named to the peerage were equally divided between the old sides of the Civil War, a conscious gesture of national reconciliation. Traditionally parliamentarian merchant bankers and the “new men” – often upwardly mobile gentry who capitalised on the political chaos – could find a place among the “men of good quality” that Charles’ government so desired. But the further down Britain’s social pyramid you went reconciliation was in shorter and shorter supply. Royalist nobles were highly successful in reclaiming their estates; poorer royalist exiles were often left in penury.

Aristocratic power would only wane at the beginning of the last century; peers could still demand to be tried by a jury of other nobles until 1948. Sixty-nine per cent of the acreage of England and Wales is owned by 36,000 people. Around one third of Britain is owned by the aristocracy, but – with around 15 per cent of land in Britain unregistered – the true total remains unknown. Perry Anderson identified the Restoration as the point where a distinctively British capitalism – centred around agriculture and finance, two traditionally aristocratic fields – came into being.

In education, the interregnum had solidified an emerging consensus among the upper layers of Church and state that, as the historian Rosemary O’Day put it, “in the hands of the lower social orders, a little learning was a dangerous thing”. The prototype elementary school system established in the commonwealth was abolished; plans for vocational schools abandoned. The historian Lawrence Stone wrote that after the Restoration Britain settled into a pattern of “sponsored mobility”: education extended to talented individuals and denied to their class.

Charles II rose to power promising reconciliation, religious tolerance and a small state. He retained it by breaking those promises. Britain’s powerful state, political stability and unified ruling classes ensured prosperous centuries ahead. But the very same settlement made Britain a class-stratified, under-educated society, marked by extreme inequality and dominated by landed elites ill-suited to managing an industrial economy. In his Ford Lectures, Hill made a modest suggestion. Historians are not political analysts, he stressed, but it seems possible that the roots of Britain’s imperial golden age and of her post-imperial decline are one and the same.

[See also: Why the Tories will soon be Remainers]

As the first King Charles for more than 300 years begins his reign, the decline Hill glimpsed in the early 1960s has deepened. Since the 2008 financial crisis, multiple crises – constitutional, economic, social – have revealed the weakness of the settlement that Whigs thought the envy of the world. Insulated as monarchs are from life’s harsher realities, the new King might be tempted to see himself as beyond the merely political, raised by his sacred office to an older and higher task. It would be a serious error; in time, perhaps, a fatal one.

Almost unnoticed, the three pillars of the Carolingian settlement have crumbled. Decades of cuts have weakened the armed forces. The decline of British Christianity has nearly annihilated non-conformism; Anglicanism fares only marginally better. Throne-and-altar theology began as a tragedy, and, after many years of ecclesial retreat, looks likely to end in farce. Most Bishops are unlikely to defend Establishment as anything other than a historical accident; even Tories are unlikely to defend it at all. The peerage, once the foremost defenders of the natural order, linger on as an anachronism to the public and an embarrassment to the state, winnowed from parliament – even from the coronation ceremony itself. And while Britain has remained an unequal society, dissent is no longer so easily controlled. As Jeff Jarvis argues in The Gutenberg Parenthesis, the internet, so hard to censure, is as disruptive and destabilising in our century as the printing press was in the 17th.

One final, critical element of the settlement has dissipated too. The greatest ally Charles II had in restoring himself to power was the widespread belief that he was something more than human. Practically every republican pamphlet of the century was outsold by the Eikon Basilike, a samizdat meditation on sacred kingship. And faced with the confusion and decline of the late interregnum, Charles’s coronation, clothed as a priest and crowned as a king, marked for many the restoration not just of the monarchy, but of a whole natural order.

Over 300 years later, in another coronation, the pattern repeats, the office renewed: another priest-king anointed and acclaimed. But even amid his exaltation, Charles must feel shades of doubt. His subjects respect the monarchy; they no longer venerate it. The bonds between Earth and heaven that once knit the constitution together have been severed: Britain is a nation abandoned by her gods. To avert catastrophe and to prolong the strange, lonely existence of his kind, Charles may, like his namesake, have to make his country over anew.

But what probably worries Charles would gratify Hill. If the latter’s work had any single purpose it was to demonstrate that order is the work not of providence, but of power. The Restoration destroyed as much as it created; it exacted a high cost in broken bodies and wasted minds. And as the settlement it built decays, it may be time to follow Hill in remembering “those nameless radicals who foresaw and worked for – not our modern world – but something far nobler, something yet to be achieved”. If you’re looking for a better future, Hill suggested, maybe start with the forgotten past: republican pamphleteers writing in garret and in gaol; the diggers, living in common on the land; persecuted dissenters, praying in the dark. There are truths hangmen cannot strangle; that censors cannot hide. The end of their world, thought Hill, is the return of ours.

[See also: National Conservatism: the new Tory movement against globalism]

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