From the end of the Wars of the Roses in 1485 to the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, Britain experienced severe political upheavals. Among other events, Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church to found the Church of England. Witness how the era’s architecture—including Hampton Court Palace, Hardwick Hall, and Sulgrave Manor—reflected the political turmoil.
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The Effects of War on Britain’s Landscape
Kings rarely gave up their powers without a fight. Not only can we trace the history of these fights, but we can also visit many of the places in which they happened. In England, the place to start is Runnymede, where, in 1215, King John signed Magna Carta. It is a broad open meadow in the valley of the River Thames, not far from Heathrow, and delightfully rural, in view of its proximity to millions of people.
The meadow was donated to the nation in 1929 by Cara Rogers Broughton, a wealthy American’s daughter who had married a British engineer and knew about the area’s history. The architect Edwin Lutyens built a pair of memorials and two lodges in their honor, where you can park to begin your visit.
Further along the path, and through a gateway, you’ll come to a small limestone rotunda at the edge of the valley, with eight columns. This is the Magna Carta Memorial, placed there by the American Bar Association (ABA) in 1957, when it held its annual conference nearby.
Leaving the meadow and climbing a wooded hillside path, you come to a grove where a great carved marker stone carries this message: “This acre of English ground was given to the United States of America by the people of Britain in Memory of John F. Kennedy.” The dates of Kennedy’s life are given, and then a passage from his inaugural address, declaring the intention to “pay any price, bear any burden . . . in order to assure the survival and success of liberty.”
English Civil War
Now let’s move forward in time from King John at Runnymede to the early 17th century—a time when a combination of religious and political disagreements created a crisis in Britain. The religious differences divided the Church of England between those, on the one hand, who emphasized its closeness to Catholicism in all but church governance, and those on the other who insisted it was a thoroughly Protestant church that rejected all vestiges of the Catholic past. This latter party was named Puritans because they wanted to purify the church.
In the decades after 1603, when James I came to the throne, he and his son Charles I called parliaments irregularly, usually because they needed to raise money for military expeditions. A series of bitter standoffs finally led Charles I to attempt government without parliamentary help through most of the 1630s. It worked until a Scottish invasion of northern England forced his hand. Rather than admit the principle of Parliament’s right to a permanent place in the constitution, Charles raised an army and declared war against Parliament. It raised an army of its own and fought back.
So much time has passed since the English Civil War that most of its battlefields are now indistinct, often indicated just by stone markers. Marston Moor was, in terms of numbers, the biggest battle ever fought in England. It was also the place where Prince Rupert, the king’s dashing, hot-blooded young nephew, lost his reputation for invincibility as a cavalry commander. By contrast, the Parliamentary cavalry leader, Oliver Cromwell, distinguished himself as first-rate battlefield commander. Unfortunately, there is not a lot to see at Marston Moor except for a modest stone monument, raised in 1939 by the Cromwell Association.
At Naseby in 1645, Parliament’s well-trained New Model Army, 22,000 strong, led by General Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell, routed a smaller Royalist army, killed or captured most of the king’s veteran officers, and ended his ability to field a viable force. A few months later the war ended in victory for Parliament. The Naseby battlefield, like Marston Moor, now comprises several working farms. A stone marker, a battlefield trail, a series of elevated platforms, and several historical plaques explain the main events of the battle to visitors, but their presence is, at least for now, low key.
The End of Britain’s Civil War
When the Civil War ended, King Charles I and Parliament negotiated uneasily about the future balance of power. Charles I, however, took the view that he had been appointed by God, and that Parliament had no rights, except through his grace. He was imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, a beautiful medieval castle that is now open to visitors. The bed he slept in is on display, and the politics of the 14 months he spent there lucidly explained.
The New Model Army, outnumbered two-to-one but with Cromwell now in sole command, showed itself to be a superb fighting organization, well-disciplined, well-trained, and driven by a high sense of purpose. Many of its Puritan soldiers were politicized by the war, and began to speak out on behalf of radical changes to England’s government.
Cromwell had now lost all patience with the king and was determined to get rid of him once and for all. He and his supporters purged Parliament of moderates who still wanted a reformed monarchy. The remaining members of Parliament put the king on trial for treason and the trial was held in Westminster Hall. This magnificent medieval building is one of the few parts of Parliament to have survived down to the present.
The Execution of King Charles I
Parliament found King Charles I guilty and sentenced him to death. The body, with the head crudely stitched back on, was buried at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, adjacent to the bodies of King Henry VIII and his most beloved wife, Jane Seymour.
This chapel is one of the highlights of Windsor. Besides being the burial site of several monarchs and the wedding site of others, such as Edward VII, it is a fine example of late Gothic architecture, from just before the Reformation.
The Banqueting House, site of Charles’s execution, is also worth a visit. Built by order of Charles’s father, King James I, it is the handiwork of Inigo Jones, one of the great luminaries of 17th century English architecture.
After Cromwell’s death, it was clear that no one else enjoyed the confidence of both the army and Parliament, as he had done. His son Richard ruled as lord protector for less than a year. Then, for the sake of political stability, Parliament decided to invite the old king’s son to return from exile in France. He did so, being crowned King Charles II in 1660.
The Rise of the Quakers
The turbulence of the 17th century threw up many radical political groups. It also generated new religious groups, of which the most enduring is the Quakers.
Quaker meeting houses were designed to make a sharp contrast with churches. Often square, unadorned, without altars or iconography, they were the embodiment of the society’s commitment to fraternity and equality. One of the best and oldest examples is Briggflatts in Cumbria, on the eastern edge of the Lake District, still in use but also open to visitors. Its plain wooden benches form a square; members often sit in silence for the hour of their meeting, or utter simple prayers without any liturgy, preaching, or hierarchy.