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Reasons for Choosing Side in the English Civil War

Info: 5319 words (21 pages) Essay
Published: 8th Feb 2020 in History

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Historians have disagreed about the reasons that determined side taking in the English Civil War. What is your view about the reason that determined side taking in the English Civil War?”

The English civil war has extreme influence on how society functions in today’s world. It is therefore a necessary period historian have studied for centuries. Interested in the causes and reasons for individual having chosen a certain side, historians have carried out studies and found evidence supporting a variety of interpretation. This makes it very complex to understand which of the many factors had the most influence into why individuals chose a side. In this essay will be discussed the different views on side taking in general and looking specifically at Hughes, Wood and Hopper.

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 Choosing sides during the Civil war was a difficult decision every civilian had to face. According to the Whig interpretation, people chose sides based on their religious and constitutional principles. This debate will discuss why individuals fought for parliament or supported the king. G.M. Trevelyan described the English Civil War as ‘a war of two parties’, fought between Royalist and the established Church of England on the one side, and Parliamentarian promoters of religious and parliamentary liberties on the other. Religion was therefore one of the factors the population took in consideration when making allegiances to a side. People feared Presbyterian, catholic or radical puritan sects which made them support the king for protection or because they believed only one religion was acceptable. Historians such as Gentles and Blackwood have shown evidence that religion was a fundamental factor that people took in account as many individuals chose their side in relation to their religious conviction.

Contrariwise another interpretation for side taking is often put forward by Marxists and they argue that people choose sides because of the economic background and social class individuals had at that time. Christopher Hill wrote: ‘The Civil War was a class war, in which the despotism of Charles I was defended by the reactionary forces of the established Church and conservative landlords’, whereas Parliament’ could appeal to the enthusiastic support of the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside’. This view is enormously criticised by historians such as Wood that would argue that this debate has several facets and that it cannot only be explained by a class division. Although this interpretation is no longer accepted in such a stern form, it was developed in a more qualified way by historians such as Manning and Underdown.

Self-interest was also a major influence on the population when taking sides. For example, some Nobles changed sides from the king’s side to the parliamentarians when they believed that Parliament was in a stronger position. This is supported by Andrew Hopper who believes many changed sides during the English Civil War. Others tried to make up for past actions, by developing new allegiances. For example, Sir John Gell who was sheriff of the county when the ship money tax was put in place, was so violent in the prosecution of the tax that was afraid of the parliament’s reaction. He therefore took their side to avoid any punishment. Furthermore, Mercenaries were more focused on the financial aspects as they wanted better pay or working conditions. Some had no particular liking for either side but joined up with the first army that happened to be there, in order to be paid and steal goods. Captain Carlo Fantom, one of the hundreds of foreign mercenaries who flocked to England during the Civil War, admitted that ‘I care not for your Cause, I… fight for your halfe-crowne and your handsome women’[1]. This support the idea that mercenaries did not find importance in which side they were fighting for as long as their personal needs were fulfilled. However, this might be seen peripheral to the main debate as many were not English civilians.

Another aspect of choosing sides is neutralism. Historians such as Fletcher, Howell and Morill have labelled Worcestershire for example as neutral. Fletcher used the Clubmen, a localist group, as example of the lack of concern for national political sentiment and therefore the motivation of many individuals staying neutral. Margaret Bertram[2] contrasts this statement arguing that the reason for people staying neutral was because there were many different groups that balanced each other, rather than a single, yet neutral force. As the country began to polarize, people found it increasingly difficult to stay neutral. The process of polarization placed great strains on relationships between families, friends and regions. An example if this polarization process is in Buckinghamshire, Ralph Verney, M.P. supported Parliament but his brother and father supported the King.

Verney’s father, Edmond, can be seen as an example of individuals being loyal to a certain side. Loyalty was also an important factor in why people choose a side. For example, the lower sorts were usually loyal to their local MP or JP because these are the people who looked out for them and their county. Loyalty to the Crown and the King was experienced by many noblemen, who although did not agree with the kings actions, held too much respect for the Monarchy. Historians such as Weil[3] discuss what loyalty actual meant in the 17th century and she argues that loyalty held much more weight at that time then what we perceive today. Individuals could also be influenced by patronage of family members, employers or people surrounding them. Some were forced to support the side of the group that occupied their area, the army could be very forceful, especially on lower social classes.

Wood’s work challenges the established interpretation of the political allegiances of the miners of Northwest Derbyshire. He focuses in the first part of his article on the main debate of side taking during civil war. He argues that Historians today look at something beyond Post revisionism and that they have brought long term factors back into the debate. It is argued that ‘post revisionists’ and Marxist historians have deployed “overly schematic and deterministic models of allegiance which frequently fails to reflect the complexity of popular responses”[4]. He uses Manning, Hughes and Underdown as examples as they all study side taking in each region or locality in general terms to the cultural, social and economic and ecological typology of that area. Wood argues that there are differences between Hughes’, Manning’s and Underdown’s interpretations but all three are based around « sikingly similar conceptualization of plebeian politics in which economic determinism and ecological determinism sit uncomfortably aside one another »[5]. He therefore criticises the models proposed by Hughes, Underdown and Manning when looking at political alliances during the English civil war.

Jill Dias is a historian that like Wood, specifically looked at Derbyshire and she views the lead miners as a politicised, pro puritan and an exclusively parliamentarian force. Both Hughes and Manning have used the work of Jill Dias to understand political allegiance in this area of England however neither of both historians have looked at any other work found from Derbyshire such as fletcher’s or Clark’s findings. Manning used her work to as proof of the strength of Parliamentarian among the independent « middling sort » (the miners) and Hughes used Dias’ work as a strong confirmation of the more general applicability of her own findings for the county of Warwickshire.

Wood hereby demonstrates that Dias’ work misleads historians has her work has been misplaced. Dias misrepresents the complexities of the political allegiances in the mining area. A strength of Woods argument is that challenges other historians’ views without disrespecting their work. This helps individuals such as me as a history student to better understand the debate and put it into context.

Due to new technological innovation in Derbyshire the population expanded in the North West of the county. Miners claimed the right to labour in their small workings under a series of individual manorial laws which supported free mining. However, some issues made this difficult which led to several conflicts. The manorial lords wanted to suppress these rights to replace the miners with waged labourers, the crown opposed this and restricted some mining areas and the church demanded one tenth of the mines’ productions. This led to demonstrations, petitions, litigations, strikes and riots and the mining community became increasingly an independent culture. This resistance turned into polical motivation however wood argues that it does not suggest they all supported parliament like Hughes draw from Dias’ work. He argues the miners’ attempt to stop the tithes did not show their commitment to parliament but more their self-interest motivations. «Simply because the free miners were independent men whose interest had brought them into conflict with the authorities does not mean they can be counted automatically amongst the parliament’s supporters”[6] wood argues. This is a complicated division as the miners were not united in their response to the war and Wood states that historians need to keep in mind that the model, they produced is far too general as it has failed to explain the complexities of side taking during the English Civil War.

Religion also ties into the debate, as Hughes and Manning also found in Dias’ work that this group of workers was tremendously affected by puritanism. She argued that the miner’s boldness against the tithes was « reinforced by the spread of religious radicalism which was particularly active among the mining communities »[7]. She makes a connection between the miner’s demonstrations against the tithes and their adherence to puritanism. However, Wood shows with examples that this is not true and that there is no evidence of the importance of religion for the miners in 1634.

Furthermore, Dias’ argument contrasts with Clark’s research. He describes the puritan presence as ‘ephemeral’ and uses the gentry’s organised petition to parliament to support this as “even in 1642 the demand for reform was moderate and the influence of Presbyterians of 1650 was slight”[8]. Dias however has a contrasting argument to this as she uses this petition as evidence of the strength of puritanism in the county. Wood rationally concluded that the truth likely “lies somewhere in between these two positions”[9] In Wood’s conclusion he states that the religious principle of those in the High peak may have been central when they decided whether they went to war. While his work includes other factors important in side taking, he cautiously concluded that the issue is too complex to pick a specific factor for the outcome of the war which weakens his argument.

Wood continues by criticising Dias’s work regarding social and political conflicts in north west Derbyshire before the civil war. She hugely overestimated the number of individuals employed by the mining industry and the number of waged labourers in the industry. More importantly she suppressed and changed evidence demonstrating that many miners were supporting the king in 1642 to fit her argument. When the fighting started both the Parliament and the King tried to gain support from the miners. In August 1642 Charles offered the exempt any Derbyshire miner who joined his side from duties. 28 miners answered Charles’ declaration promising the formation of a lifeguard for the king if he abolished the lead tithes. This contradicts Marxist and post revisionist historians as independent artisanal small producers are part of the social group that supposedly should support the Parliament. Wood is dubious of the statistics put forward by royalist recruiters such as Thomas Bushell, arguing that the production records of mining activity showed an increase in 1642 which makes him doubt that this many miner were marching off to war that year. A strength of Woods work is that he does not ignore data to fit his argument as he acknowledges the support the king had among the minors. He explains that some miners joined the parliamentarian side after long disputes concerning the lead tithes. Wood clearly puts forward the complexity of the debate and puts forward that this cannot be a “simple class interpretation” nor a one answer question.

 Wood article has several strengths regarding the method he used. Indeed, all the evidence he used was explained and analysed in detail. He uses examples to illustrate his arguments and is willing to question statistics without ignoring their presence. Finally, historians can tremendously criticise Wood’s work because of the area he studied. Although his argument and judgement are accurate when looking at the part of Derbyshire he studied, using miners, this does not mean he can generalise his findings to other parts of England, social classes or groups in society.

 Andrew Hopper opens a new perspective to the debate looking at individuals changing sides. He wrote a book “turncoats and treachery” in which he explained the motivations individuals had for changing sides during the English Civil War and he summarized this in an article published in the History today magazine. This means that contrary to more academic work such as Wood’s, this article only summarizes his main point which can limit the understanding of his viewpoint on the debate.

“Turncoats” was the term used for the people that changed sides. This was seen very negatively as the consequences of those actions were to some extend death. Hopper uses the example of Major Lewis Audley in his introduction to show the extent to which changing sides influenced the reputation of an individual. Major Lewis Audley was summoned for abusing 2 MPs but stated being provoked: “That he was no gentleman, had no Arms; and that he was a turncoat”. This reflects how the civil war had politicized the vocabulary of insults.

Hopper then goes on explaining the violence that was displayed against individuals that dared betraying their side. Those harsh punishments became routine. Some were only brought to trial while other were tortured to death. This lack of trust created conflicts all over England, between and within the parties. Stories and rumours passed in towns and derisive nicknames were used for side changers to emphasize their treachery.

The peerage was particularly susceptible to side changing. 6 peers defected from Westminster to Oxford, but the king was dubious that their commitment was genuine which led to five out of six of the nobles returning to the Parliament’s side. To prevent defections the King and Parliament started to exclude individuals from their party. However, Charles did this more than the Parliament which was strengthening the power of Parliament. However, the king gained a lot of support when Parliament had a decline in military fortunes but the number of those who abandoned Westminster were never comparable to those leaving the kings side. This suggests that individuals have tendencies to change sides out of self-interest instead of actual political or religious beliefs.

Hopper explains in more detail the flow of event looking at the defection of military issues. These individuals were highly valued during the war but both sides were also suspicious of them after so many defections. Hopper argues that their defections often resulted from a sense of “slighted honour or frustrated ambition rather than mercenary opportunism or hopes of personal advancement”[10]. Here hopper supports the view that changing sides was also due to personal beliefs and not only to selfish decision making. However, he does not ignore the latter reason. He further on explains that many common soldiers changed sides because of better opportunities the could be offered. “food shelter and survival”[11] were their prime concerns hopper argues. The question is, does this suggest that individuals changed sides because of mercenary opportunities or was it because they had no choice. This is supported in the article as hopper states those defections were unlikely to be heartfelt political conversions. When illustrating side changing Hopper focuses a lot on military professionals which can be a weakness as he only studies one group of the society. Wood has a similar weakness in his work has he studied a part of Derbyshire and only focused on the miners. Therefore, their findings cannot be generalized to other groups in society.

Hopper acknowledges the complexity of this phenomenon arguing that demonstrating inner motivations remained problematic in the absence of explicit evidence. Hopper’s only evidence for his argument are the examples he gives throughout his book. If this was as important as Hopper seems to argue, more factual evidence such as statistics or in depth studied of an area of England should have been put forward.

Hopper concludes his article by making illustrations and parallels from other periods in history. He argues that side changing still plays a “decisive role in current world conflicts as political strategies continually attempt to divide enemy forces in North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan”[12]. Some historians would strongly disagree with comparing this to modern references as the study of the past should stay in the past. However, others would argue that it is necessary to study the past to understand the present and future. Therefore, it is difficult to label this as a strength or a weakness. As a history student however, this has helped me to put this into perspective and understand the importance of the debate better.

Another important weakness of this article is that he does not seem to have an overall opinion about the debate. This limits his argument as he does not give a clear view about the impact changing sides had on the war. Furthermore, his conclusion is rather simplistic if even existent. This differs to Wood’s work as he has a very clear and definite judgement throughout his essay. It is important to point out that hopper’s article is not specifically answering the question given as his arguments focuses on side changing instead of taking a side. Nevertheless, this article helps understand there are different factors then just one reason for people choosing a side. Indeed, this shows the complexity of the debate and that it is much broader then we think it is. Therefore, this show the importance of taking in account the anxiety and fear surrounding side changing which affected the flow of event before and during the war.

Hughes is a historian that provides an interpretation which takes account of the insights of a Revisionist approach. This chapter focuses on explaining if the tensions accompanying the emergence of capitalism led to the outbreak of the war. There are different views on whether capitalism even emerged at that time or if this transformation from a feudal society to capitalism was yet to come. Alan Macfarlane had claimed that England was moving towards capitalism way before 1640 whereas JCD Clark described England as an “ancient regime” dominated by aristocracy and the church until 1830. They thus both would disagree that the tensions between social classes led to the Civil War.

Hughes also argues it isn’t clear to what extend Charles affect the economic development. He had very erratic and inconsistent foreign policies which might have affected the bourgeois revolution. Charles tried to regulate these inconsistencies by changing policies and offering monopolies to allies. However, Hughes argues that the Parliament did not want to change these policies, they only wanted to influence the decision making. Commentators therefore argue that the civil war was not the result of tensions because Parliament only wanted a voice in the government not challenging the whole system. Marxist Historian, Christopher Hill stressed the Navigation act that could create tensions between the two sides. This act meant that when members died before their heir came of age, their estates were not falling under royal supervision. However, Hughes points out that it is complicated to know if it this Act led to the Civil war.

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Marxists argue that a new class structure developed made the population more interested in economic enterprises. Christopher Hill supports this idea of a new political system arguing that the shift of power during the English Civil War allowed for a freer development of Capitalism. Tawney, a left-wing politician presented a much simpler argument than Hill’s. He believes that the emergence of a broader group and Religion were major factors in the outbreak of the war. In his article he explains that the closures of monasteries created an imbalance. He used statistics using manors to find there was a rise in the gentry’s wealth and a decline of the royal’s wealth. Some royals stayed in the old fashioned and traditional ways which was not compatible in the new political system. The gentry however, was allowing itself to be open to new commercial methods which made them more involved in politics and it resulted in them achieving more political power. The civil war’s oppositions and conflicts were helpful in this process. This view was however extremely criticized as using “the counting of manors” as evidence was very weak because manors varied so much in their values and nature. Commentators denied that the gentry has risen in both their wealth and number and historians such as Trevor Roper even suggested that he gentry declined in wealth during that period. This shows that it is difficult to make a judgment about the general developments amongst the gentry thus even more problematic to tie these developments to Civil War allegiances.

 Stone[13] broadened and modified Tawney’s argument but still argued that the peers suffered from a financial crisis. Hughes however comments on this stating that this interpretation lacks validity as both peers and the gentry were supporting the King and Parliament. Hill suggested another view regarding this argument and he explained that the division was not between the peers and the gentry but between “mere rentiers” with traditional and feudal economic attitudes and “those actively engaged in productive activities.”[14] Hill argues that traditional economic interests usually supported the King whereas economically progressive individuals supported the Parliament. Hughes mentions in depth studies carried out both in Yorkshire and Lancashire that looked at the gentry’s allegiances during the Civil War. She concludes that this research produced useful information but also “discredited most attempts to draw general conclusions”. This shows that historians such as Hughes are skeptical of the revolutionary changes and theories linking political division with economic and social status.

Hughes continues by discussing the crisis of the Aristocracy. Several historians such as Pocock, Hexter and Harrington support only part of Stone’s thesis. They believe that the peerage has suffered a decline of their independent military power. Harrington argued that armed tenants and retainers were no longer serious military forces and the war was therefore a contest for control of the militia. Hughes however concludes that the crisis of the Aristocracy is still very useful when trying to understand the outbreak of the civil war.

Attempts to cope or profit from inflation and population growth brought tensions within landed elites. There were political and social readjustments within the landed classes whereby county-based leaderships would replace the noble dominance. The holding of state offices was the key to power on a local and national level. Stone had also calculated the “perks” of supporting the king and 105,000 per annum were distributed to the peerage. The nobility’s status changed, and powerful political positions were given when acting as “godly leaders” or by opposing puritanism. Hughes uses the example of Lord Brooke’s leadership in Warwickshire to point out how the view of power changed. Indeed, his power was not based on his status as a landlord but on a campaign,  which portrayed the war as anti popish and gathered support for the parliament by defending “their laws, liberties and true religion.”[15] 

Hughes concludes by arguing that “social tensions and religious or political divisions reinforced each other in a sort of vicious circle”. Political crisis and religious divisions created tensions regarding social order. She states that all the issues England faced during the civil war were interconnected and that long-term ideological divisions and tensions arising from social change were crucial in causing the Civil war. This is similar to Wood’s view as he also acknowledges the importance of several factors causing the civil war. However, she does strengthen the importance of divisions and tensions arising from social changes leading the civil war. This differs to Wood’s arguments as he believes social class cannot be a valid explanation for the outbreak of the war on its own. This completely contrasts to Hopper’s approach on the debate as he does not look specifically a cause of individuals choosing a side but looked at the causes for individuals changing sides.

To conclude, all the 3 historians have interesting and different view on the debate which has helped understand the debate in further depth. Hopper has an interesting argument which may be simplified in his article but still holds value as a history student. However similar to Hughes, he does not discuss any other interpretations when looking at side taking. Hughes, discusses the possibility of social changes leading the civil war. She has a more sociological and historical approach which is an interesting viewpoint as it broadens the spectrum of explanations. It takes Marxism and evaluates its arguments without completely disagreeing with it. Finally, Wood has a very different perspective when looking at side taking. However, it with who I as a history student would agree the most with. Although his study is very concentrated and does not explain side taking in the whole of England, he accurately puts forward the importance of the complexity of this debate. Historians tend to try finding evidence that supports their view only, but this does not mean that their argument is the only valuable point made when looking at side taking. An efficient way of studying this is to make ideographic studies focusing on single individuals as for each household the decision might be based on different factors depending on their religion, loyalty, values, and many other factors.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/civil_war_revolution/choosingsides_01.shtml 27/09/18, dr mike stoyle, mercenaries and conscipts

[2]https://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.co.uk/&httpsredir=1&article=1083&context=constructing 30/09/18 Margaret Bertram, Neutralism in Worcestershire.

[3]Weil ‘ thinking about allegiances in the civil war’


[5]Wood (p27)

[6]Wood (p39)

[7]Jill Dias, ‘political and administration in Nottinghamshie and derbyshire’ (p27)

[8]Clark ‘Anglicanism recusancy and dissent’ (p124)

[9]Wood (p31)

[10]Hopper (p47)

[11]Hopper (48)


[13]Laurence Stone  « crisis of the Aristocracy »

[14]Chritopher Hill (p123)

[15]Hughes (p153)


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