To Kill the King: a review of The Blazing World: A New History of Revolutionary England by Jonathan Healey (Paul Krause, 11/12/23, Voegelin View)

How did Puritanism become such a potent force in seventeenth century England? As Healey notes, the changing economic dynamics of England were part of it. The rise of the yeoman middleclass naturally disposed this new social class of Englishmen and Englishwomen to embrace a new religion and theology that accepted their difference from the lower class peasants and the upperclass aristocracy while affirming their newfound wealth as a sign of God’s grace. The theological cosmos of Puritanism equally allowed Puritans to make sense of a changing world that was rapidly distinct from the medieval cosmos of scholastic Catholicism, the same medieval cosmos still preached by the Church of England even though it now had a Protestant monarch.
Furthermore, the social changes wrought by the explosive population growth of the previous century led to the rise of schools, many of whom were now staffed and serving the “middling sort” that many Puritans were themselves members of. “There were more schools now than ever before, and more children of the gentry and yeomanry attended Oxford and Cambridge or the Inns of Court…As they experienced the world of education, culture, print, and the bright lights of London, members of the middling sort were able to dream, quite literally, about future prosperity for themselves and their children.” Among these new schoolmasters was the Puritan Thomas Beard and his student-pupil Oliver Cromwell.

Additionally, political changes helped lead to the rise of Puritan power. The growth of England’s economy and its population boom meant that a new political system needed to be created to accommodate these changes since the existing political order was insufficient to meet such rapid changes. “Because the English state had no standing army, no professional police force, and precious few bureaucrats, it depended for its functioning on households willing to serve office. The gentry would supply the magistrates and grand jurymen, the middling sort the constables, petty jurymen, overseers of the poor, churchwardens and various urban offices.” As England’s population grew and the demands for a larger social-political order arose with it, lo and behold it was Puritans—the generally educated and well-to-do in the towns now needing legal offices to be filled, churches to be administered, and law officers to keep the peace—who stepped up and served to fill these new demands.

Thus, by the death of James I, though the king held moderate Calvinist sympathies despite embracing anti-Puritan policies, the Puritans were now well-represented in England’s semi-democratic political structure and system that had been built by the needs of a world transforming away from the static and rigid medieval economy. As the new Stuart kings pushed an ever more aggressive anti-Puritan program, which had the effect of destabilizing the relatively new socio-political and economic order that many Puritans found themselves serving and benefitting from, the stage was set to kill the king and overthrow the Stuarts. The social, political, economic, and religious changes that were all occurring in seventeenth century England were now racing toward an ideological battle.
How did Charles I become an enemy of the Puritans? His father, James, left the Crown nearly bankrupt, saddled with debt, with even more debts accruing. Additionally, as Charles began his reign, theological disputes within the Church of England were expanding and couldn’t be contained. Arminianism and ceremonialism began to make headway at the highest levels of the English clergy even if a majority of the parish clergy remained Calvinistic. This widening gap between episcopal leaders embracing what seemed to be Catholic views (emphasis on free will in salvation and the rituals of the Liturgy) and the small church Calvinist clergy (many of whom were Puritans or sympathetic to Puritanism) caused some leading Puritans to believe the king was a secret Catholic in promoting episcopal leaders who held beliefs similar to Catholicism. Further, the Thiry Years’ War in Europe was turning Protestant hearts against the pacifist policies of the king; while King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden would eventually rescue the Protestant cause in Germany, many English Calvinists had been putting pressure on the king (James and Charles) to intervene on behalf of beleaguered Protestants on the continent.

Although England had avoided formal entry into the Thirty Years’ War, English and Scottish volunteers were permitted to serve in the Protestant armies. Eventually, England got into war with France and Spain on side issues, which included the French use of loaned English ships to oppress their own Protestant subjects and the English hope to successfully raid Spanish treasure ships and use the plundered gold and silver to pay off its rising debts. Needless to say, the conflicts with France and Spain did not go well. Mounting debts which required new taxes, religious disputes which saw Charles advocate on behalf of Arminian and ceremonialist clergy, and his eventual dissolution of Parliament as its newly elected members were opposed to his many policies led to the burning flame that eventually consumed England.

No representation without taxation.