The Struggle Against the First King Charles Inspired the Republican Tradition

Sycophantic journalists and politicians make it seem as if deference to the British monarchy is the natural order of things. But the country over which Charles III now reigns rose up against his 17th-century namesake to challenge hereditary privilege.

King Charles I awaits his execution in an illustration in an 1864 issue of Once a Week magazine.

Charles I was short — just 5 feet 3 inches in height. But the court-appointed portrait painters made good nature’s deficiencies by rendering him literally larger than life. In his great equine paintings, Anthony van Dyke, for instance, painted the horses smaller than they were to make it seem as if the King sat taller in the saddle.

The BBC and much of the mainstream media in Britain has been engaged in a twenty-first-century version of the same process with the latest Charles to ascend the throne. His perpetual, entirely unconstitutional decades-long meddling in the political process, eccentric (even by royal standards) beliefs, persistent gaffes, and the disastrous conduct of his marriage to Princess Diana are all conveniently forgotten.

But worse than forgetting the recent facts of Charles III’s elongated tenure as Prince of Wales is the historical forgetting. How can it be, for instance, that in the hours-long obsessive TV coverage of his address to both Houses of Parliament, not one commentator thought it necessary to recall that Charles III was sitting at exactly the same place in Westminster Hall where his namesake sat when he was on trial for his life in 1649?

Nemesis of Royalty

Just around the corner, in the grand corridor that runs between Westminster Hall and the central lobby, are the statues of those men who faced Charles I as enemies. He was the proponent of the divine right of kings; they were the advocates of parliamentary government.

John Selden, for example, was the intellectual architect of the first parliamentary clash with Charles I, just three years into his reign, in the Parliaments of 1628–29. John Hampden was the hero of resistance to unparliamentary taxation when Charles attempted to fund his monarchy-without-a-parliament by levying ship money — the navy tax traditionally collected only in port towns — across the whole of the country.

Outside the Palace of Westminster is the imposing statue of Oliver Cromwell, the nemesis of Charles I. It was erected in 1899, having been paid for by private subscription when state funds were withheld. This statue survived a 2004 attempt by some MPs to have it removed.

The attempt to minimize or eradicate the history of republicanism in England in the seventeenth century is one of the most important and longest-running projects of the British establishment. Unlike in the United States and France, where the revolutions of 1776 and 1789 have become a celebrated part of the national story, the English Revolution is systematically marginalized in the British education system and in public life.

Nevertheless, that revolution continues to fascinate. As it should, for it marks the origin of modern democratic thought in the first of the great revolutionary upheavals. It paved the way for the American and French revolutions, and for the Europe-wide revolutions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which effectively established systems of parliamentary democracy — however flawed — as an alternative to all forms of royal absolutism.

The Development of Republicanism

The republicanism of the seventeenth century was born of bitter experience. Very few who opposed the King when the Long Parliament first met in 1640 thought in these terms from the start. Most MPs were advocates of the traditional tripartite system of government by King, Lords, and Commons. The King ruled by reaching agreement with the greater landlords of the House of Lords, who sat by hereditary right, and the gentry landlords of the House of Commons, elected by other property owners on a highly restricted franchise.

By the time of Charles’s reign, beginning in 1625, this system was under strain as a result of economic, social, religious, and political change. Charles saw the Commons as an impediment to the increasingly absolutist regime he thought necessary for effective government. Most of those in the Commons were coming to see the Crown as engaged in illegitimately altering the balance of the constitution so that their influence was reduced to a bare minimum. Indeed, when Charles dismissed the Commons in 1629 and ruled without calling another Parliament for eleven years while simultaneously jailing his opponents, it looked to be much worse than that.

So when a war to try and impose the King’s version of religious worship on the Scots resulted in military disaster, and Charles was forced to call another Parliament, MPs already had grievances aplenty. When Charles dismissed that assembly, the so-called Short Parliament, but was nevertheless forced to call another, the Long Parliament, many MPs arrived in Westminster determined to bring the monarch to account.

But anger and a commitment to curbing royal power was one thing, out-and-out republicanism another. Ideas moved more slowly than events. Henry Marten, the Berkshire MP, was perhaps the only convinced republican in the Long Parliament when it first met. Marten was walking in Westminster early in the Long Parliament with fellow MP Edward Hyde, soon to become Charles I’s key advisor.

Hyde asked Marten what he thought of the King. Marten replied, “I do not think that one man is wise enough to govern us all.” Hyde recalled that this was “the first word he had ever heard any man speak to that purpose.” Hyde believed that such thoughts, if communicated in public, would be “abhorred by the whole nation.”

Hyde was exaggerating, but not by that much. It took a decade of war and revolution to convince a sizeable proportion of the political nation that Charles was a “man of blood” who had acted treasonably towards his own people.

Civil War

In that decade, Charles attempted to arrest the leading MPs that opposed him, an attempt that was only defeated by mass popular mobilization. He ordered the shooting of those who protested in the streets. When that failed, and the crowds forced the King and Court to flee London, Charles declared war on his own Parliament.

The ensuing conflict cost the country proportionately more dead than the First and Second World Wars combined. When he was defeated in 1645, Charles maneuvered so duplicitously to regain his previous powers that even those still desperate for a settlement with the Crown became either disillusioned or discredited. Charles’s decision to attempt a second civil war in 1648 all but sealed his fate.

Over that decade, anti-monarchical ideas and republican notions gained ground. Early in the 1640s, the secret underground presses run by future members of the Leveller movement were already suggesting that the House of Lords should be dissolved if it frustrated the will of the Commons.

In the midst of the war, Oliver Cromwell, assisted by future Leveller leader John Lilburne, built a politically motivated military force based in his home territory in East Anglia: these were the Ironsides that would form the core of the New Model Army. Cromwell told his troopers that “if the King were in the body of the enemy he would as soon discharge his pistol upon him as upon any private man,” and if they did not think likewise, they ought not to enlist under him. Henry Marten said much the same thing, observing to fellow MPs that if the King put his finger in the way to be cut, what fault was it of theirs?

By the end of the first civil war, the victorious New Model Army had become highly politicized. When more conservative MPs moved to disband the army because it posed an obstacle to settlement with the King, the regiments revolted and elected their own rank-and-file representatives, the so-called agitators. This was perhaps the most democratic moment in British history before the repeal of the property qualification for voting in elections hundreds of years later.


The agitators made common cause with the Levellers. When they met with army leaders at Putney, on the outskirts of London, in 1647, the future constitution of the country was up for discussion. The Agreement of the People drafted by the Levellers was the first ever attempt at a written constitution in Britain.

It argued for an expanded franchise, annual parliaments, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion. It has no place for the monarch. In fact, it didn’t even mention the King at all. He was simply assumed to be an enemy that must be excluded.

In the debates at Putney, many agreed with agitator and Leveller sympathizer Edward Sexby when he said, “We have labored to please a King, and I think, except that we go about to cut all our throats, we shall not please him.” Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, defending the Agreement of the People from calls by Cromwell for moderation, issued a stark democratic call to arms:

The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he. . . . Every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.

It was these twin drivers — fear of royalist vengeance if the King was readmitted to power, and democratic sentiment welling up from those who had sacrificed so much in the war — that resulted in the defeat of those MPs who wished to settle with the King. From this followed the King’s subsequent trial and execution, and the establishment of a republic in England.

It might not have been the democratic republic that the Levellers wished to see, but nor was it — as Colonel Thomas Harrison, one of those who signed the King’s death warrant, remarked — “a thing done in a corner.” Charles received a public trial. Monarchy and House of Lords were abolished by an act of Parliament which declared their lordships to be “useless and dangerous.” Only the elected Commons, albeit purged of its more conservative members, remained.

A Free Commonwealth

John Milton, the greatest poet of his and perhaps any age, became the new republic’s foreign secretary, defending the regime before all Europe in a series of brilliant republican tracts. Right until the eve of the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he wrote proudly about what had been done:

The Parliament of England assisted by a great number of the people who appeared and stuck to them faithfullest in defence of religion and their civil liberties, judging kingship by long experience a government burdensome, expensive, useless and dangerous, unnecessary . . . justly and magnanimously abolished it; turning regal-bondage into a free Commonwealth.

The new republic employed Edward Sexby, the Leveller trooper from Putney, to aid a sympathetic republican revolt in Bordeaux. He had the Agreement of the People translated into French, and the uprising became the first to use the red flag as its symbol. Henry Marten was receiving reports of the progress of the Bordeaux republic.

In America, Thomas Jefferson’s family was distantly related to John Lilburne, and generation after generation of the family contained a male child whose middle name was Lilburne. During the American Revolution, families in the backwoods of New England named their sons Oliver in memory of Cromwell.

When Jefferson and John Adams visited England, they made their way to Edgehill, the site of the first battle of the civil war, and Worcester, the site of the final battle. At Worcester they asked, “Do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for? Tell your neighbors and your children this is holy ground.”

This was just one example of historical amnesia. The first monument to Gerrard Winstanley, the founder of the egalitarian Digger movement in England in 1649, was erected not in his own country but in Moscow after the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Removing the Saddle

Thus, in a fractured manner — sometimes open, sometimes hidden — the current of English republicanism made its way in the world, the source of the great torrent of republicanism that reshaped America and Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In its place of birth, the restoration of the monarchy meant that its existence has always been contested, the impact of the revolution denied, the achievements of its radicals belittled.

But for all that, the republicanism of the English Revolution had — and has — truth on its side. The hereditary principle is corrosive nonsense that perpetuates ideas of innate superiority that should long since have passed into history. It is a badge of subservience if supported by ordinary people, and a badge of the oppressor when worn by the rich and powerful.

The answer to the forelock-tugging media, the courtier-historians, and the cringing politicians is as simple and as devastating today as when it was first uttered by the Levellers in the 1640s. These words have travelled the globe, repeated in the manifesto that accompanied the French translation of the Agreement of the People and in Thomas Jefferson’s diary: “No man is born with a saddle on his back, and no man booted and spurred to ride him.”