Religion and the Civil War

During the twentieth century it became fashionable to interpret the Civil War as largely a 'War of Religion' and compare events in England with the confessional strife of sixteenth century France and the United Provinces' struggle for liberty from Catholic Spain. The Civil Wars were broken down to a matter of Puritan Parliament and Arminian and moderate Anglican Royalists. More detailed study has shattered the simplicity of this approach - there were Puritans serving in Charles I's armies and Arminians and even Catholics in those of the Parliament.

There was, however, an undeniable religious element to the Civil War. Religious issues were those that were the most divisive, causing deep rifts among the political élite. In the Long Parliament the political, constitutional, financial, and legal grievances of the Commons were quickly addressed and legislation was either enacted or measures were taken to remove the ability of the monarchy to govern arbitrarily. All of this was achieved very quickly between 1641 and 1642. Discussion of religious issues, however, had to be postponed in 1642 by the House of Commons because they needed to preserve a united front against the king. Religious issues would not let them do this because MP's were so divided in their opinions about how the Church of England should be structured and reformed.

During the war years, the collapse of government censorship allowed an outburst of both radical political and religious ideas that were disseminated by the printing press and the pulpit. Under Charles I, Archbishop Laud had tried to maintain strict control over the spread of religious ideas through use of the church courts and the prerogative courts of Star Chamber and High Commission that he used as a tool to keep a close watch over English clergymen and congregations. This system collapsed during a period of upheaval and a parliament that had a large proportion of men with radical religious ideas, particularly those in senior positions of power.

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