By Lynne Ann Hartnett, Villanova University
When Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, disorder reigned in England until a Parliament consisting of men who had sat in the body before Charles I’s execution agreed to restore the monarchy. The restoration was achieved in 1660 and the executed king’s son, Charles II, now came to the throne. But though a Stuart monarch was back in power, England and its people had changed dramatically.
All Shall Not Hail the King
Merchants, artisans, and lower orders of society had entered politics for the first time, and they found opportunities to express their thoughts and visions, no matter how seemingly radical. The civil wars of recent years had fostered a faith in the possibility of fundamental and systematic change, encompassing religion, the state, and society at large. Such radical imaginings are the fuel of revolutions that reorder the world.
Still, Charles II ruled England without significant incident or challenges until his death in 1685. After the upheaval of the previous two decades, this came as a tremendous relief to much of England. But though the monarchy had been restored, traditional conceptions about the source and extent of the power of kings was not. The proverbial genie had been let out of the bottle.
Even Thomas Hobbes, a royalist, offered a stipulation. Hobbes had written in the Leviathan in 1651 that a sovereign ruler like a monarch provided the greatest assurance of stability and order for a country.
Now, however, Hobbes described the source of a king’s authority resting not in divine right but in a social contract made between sovereign and subjects. This opened the possibility that a monarch’s power was not absolute. After all, no contract is ironclad, especially if one party breaks the terms.
Different Claims to the Throne
While Charles II was alive, the greatest tension between the king and Parliament concerned what would happen after the king’s death. Charles had no recognized heirs. Consequently, and the next in line for the throne was Charles’s brother, James II.
Yet this seemed untenable. James II had converted to Catholicism. English monarchs, since the time of Henry VIII’s split from Rome in the 1530s, led the Protestant Anglican Church. So, how could a Catholic head the Church of England? Despite the confusion, and controversy, Charles II blocked all attempts to bar his brother James from the succession.
Now, Charles was only three years older than his brother and he showed no signs of ill health. But, in 1685, Charles unexpectedly passed away at the age of 54. James, in an effort to secure the crown and maintain peace, now promised that he would protect the preeminence of the Church of England.
However, the Duke of Monmouth, the late king’s son born out of wedlock, launched an unsuccessful attempt to seize the crown, and tensions spiked. James II and his allies responded ferociously. The duke was executed in the tower of London and many others involved in the coup attempt met the same fate.
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The Catholics of the Monarchy
Seeking to cement his authority and modernize the state, James initiated a plan to quadruple the size of the army. To garrison all of these additional troops, he requisitioned houses, taverns and inns. This earned him few fans.
It also violated an agreement that his own father had made with Parliament back in 1628. James added more fuel to the fire when he decided to advance the cause of his Catholic co-religionists.
Despite the 1673 Test Act that barred Catholics from many of England’s most prominent posts, James placed Catholics in important positions in the military and government, and in hallowed academic positions at Oxford and Cambridge. This coincided with Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in France in 1685, ending certain religious and political liberties that French Protestants had enjoyed under the edict.
Further Problems with Parliament
If there was any lingering doubt about James, these doubts were answered in 1687 when he dissolved Parliament once again, fusing religious tensions with royal overreach. James now appointed still more of his own men—many of them Catholics—to replace nearly three-quarters of England’s town and county officials.
The historian Steven Pincus says that James was determined “to extend royal authority into the localities, in the lives of English men and women, as had never been achieved before”.
Conscious of the danger that could come from public opposition, James preemptively restricted public assemblies and demonstrations, and he used spies to monitor people’s correspondence. All of these moves flew in the face of English tradition, and they defied the people’s conception of certain fundamental freedoms they believed they were entitled to.
Common Questions about England’s Return to Monarchy after the Civil War
The people of England had changed significantly when the monarchy was restored. Now, artisans, merchants, and others that belonged to the lower parts of society were engaged in politics. Their involvement led them to believe that fundamental change was a real possibility and so they were eager to speak their minds, no matter how radical their ideas.
Thomas Hobbes didn’t believe that the monarch’s power came from some sort of divine right to rule. Instead, he believed that it was the consequence of a social contract between sovereign and subjects. This notion meant that a monarch’s power wasn’t absolute and the contract could be deemed null if one party broke the terms.
James II had converted to Catholicism which presented a lot of problems given the current state of affairs. For many years, since Henry VIII’s split from Rome in the 16th century, English monarchs had led the Protestant Anglican Church but for this institution to be led by a Catholic didn’t seem appropriate.