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To what extent was Charles I personnaly responsabile for the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642?

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Georges Villiers incontestably, had all the qualities required to win the affections of the king (Duchein 2001: p.24) and just one year later he was knighted and appointed Gentleman of the Bedchamber. The following year he was the first commoner to hold the office of Master of the Horse and by 1616 he was created viscount and Earl of Buckingham. Buckingham was not content to be a mere favourite, his ambition was to become minister of state: to control policy as well as favour (Kishlansky 1996: pp.96-97). Buckingham’s power at the Royal court being founded solely on favour put him in a vulnerable position and when King James’ health began to decline he put aside the early indifferences he had had with Charles and they became close friends and indeed half-brothers as James regarded Buckingham as his ‘bastard brat’ (Cogswell 1989: p.64).

In 1623, the same year he was given the Dukedom of Buckingham, Charles and Buckingham travelled to Madrid to try and secure the marriage arrangements with the Spanish Infanta. Buckingham was reassuring to a shy, anxious young man who lacked gumption and he was happy to help him overcome this deficiency (Cogswell 1989: p.64). In 1625 on the death of his father, Charles was crowned king. The strong influence Buckingham had on Charles during the first years of his reign made him very unpopular with parliament. Buckingham had enjoyed virtual carte blanche in the direction of foreign policy and he had made a large share of the running in the government of Church and state (Reeve 1989: p.37). This ultimately led to him facing a parliamentary impeachment in 1626 and this crisis in his political career eventually led to his assassination in 1628. Charles was left with complete responsibility of the conduct of national affairs, in removing Buckingham it brought those who doubted the king a step closer to recognizing him as the cause of their grievances (Reeve 1989: p.37).

On the failure to negotiate a marriage alliance with Spain, Charles married Henrietta Maria, Henry IV of France’s daughter and a Roman Catholic. Buckingham’s close relationship with Charles during their first years of marriage had caused indifferences between the couple, but when Charles’ confidante was killed, Henrietta Maria became a close advisor to the king. The influence of Henrietta Maria made Catholicism fashionable and led to a number of prominent conversions. The greatest advocate of religious union was Charles himself and held frequent discussions with a papal agent (Lockyer 2005: p.313). Parliament was suspicious of this and concern grew among the members that the Catholic minority would feel emboldened to reassert power as the French court continually supported the effort to destabilize Protestant England.

One of the last events that ultimately led to the downfall of the monarchy and consequently the outbreak of the civil war was the Irish Rebellion, a violent insurrection of Catholic landlords and peasants against English Protestant settlers. Unfortunately for Henrietta Maria, the rebels called themselves ‘the Queen’s Army’ and claimed to have received royal authorisation. The queen and her supporters came under even greater scrutiny, leading to rumours that some parliamentary members were planning to impeach her. In a last attempt to stifle slander Charles first issued a proclamation denouncing the Irish rebels. Convinced that those behind the proposed impeachment were to be found in the House of Commons, on the 3rd January 1642 the five members concerned were formally accused of subverting fundamental laws (White 2006: pp.52-53), when he went to arrest them the following day they were nowhere to be found.

Some historians have debated that the collapse of the monarchy in the 1640’s was due to the foolhardiness and consequent arrogance of Charles I (Lee 2004: p.200), others have attempted to trace the origins of the Civil War back to the Elizabethan reign and the war with Spain (Lee 2004: p.199). It is questioned if the arrival of King James I to the English throne was the starting point of the decline in constitutional rule that would lead to Civil War (Lee, 2004: p.199) James I was not a particularly competent parliamentary manager and to say that James was a much better king than Charles is not to say he was a good king or enjoyed good relations with his parliaments (Russell 1990: p.55). Whether Charles I could have averted or postponed the civil war, whether the change could have been effected peacefully is doubtful (Gregg 1981:p.448). Charles had always feared parliaments and politics, his arrogance and the influence of his unpopular close acquaintances did without a doubt contribute to the crisis of the 1640’s. But the faults in English administration were more fundamental than can be blamed on any one man (Russell 1990: p.55).


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