It would take a rare sovereign to make King James I look good by comparison, yet somehow King Charles I managed to accomplish this miracle. His utter contempt and disregard for Parliament surely must be considered right up there with Pres. George W. Bush’s utter contempt and disregard for the Democratic members of Congress in terms of tragic political miscalculations. By dissolving Parliament, Charles I was forced to pay for his government through taxation means that many considered illegal.
The centerpiece of Charles’ badly mismanaged system of ruling probably lies in his insistence upon using the legal system to enforce his religious policies. Charles I succeeded only in fomenting dissent by abusing the power of the Star Chamber to crack down on his enemies. This eventually led to what may be Charles’ greatest mistake: attempting to arrest leaders of the Commons for plotting treason. Parliament was openly resistant to his abuse of power and the citizenry became more and more hostile.
Charles’ overstepping and abuse of power set the stage for a growing division among the people. While the reign of Charles I had been successful in the eyes of many because it oversaw a peace and, of course, there still existed the natural inclination among some to support the monarch no matter what (again, shades of the Bush Presidency, no?), there was also a growing dissatisfaction combined with strong feelings that religious reform was being systematically denied and destroyed. The stage had been set for strong feelings on both sides and Charles’ ineffectiveness in dealing with the problems that were growing seemed to be all that was really need for the two opposing sides to meet in battle.
The greatest political mistake of Charles I was probably not any particular policy or decision, but rather an intellectual incapacity for understanding the intricacies of rule. He was a believer in absolute rule and seemed disinclined to accept that compromise was even necessary. (Okay, now the comparison with George W. Bush is just getting downright eerie.)
The Stuart era had ushered in the gentrification of England and this social change played a great part in setting up tensions that led to the English civil war. The English gentry participated in commercial affairs that had a direct effect upon the governance of the country. Their influence in local affairs came to be mirrored in their influence among the House of Commons. Gradually the gentry and the Commons came to their growth of influence from the perspective of ambition. And an ambitious Commons was seen as an enormous threat by the monarchy.
Economic interest tends to create a sense of shared purpose far more than political interest and the growing wealth of the merchant class brought them together and made them a significant force that had to be reckoned with. They rightly viewed their economic contributions to the growth of the country’s prosperity as something to be validated by recognition.
At the same time much of this merchant class came to view the Puritan movement with some sense of sympathy. Just as the gentry felt that their voice was being stifled so they did view the Puritan movement to reform the church and push it even further away from its Catholic foundations as equitable.
The simmering tensions between the people who were supplying the wealth that the later rulers were squandering and the religious freedom that the later rulers were eradicating can be viewed as small parts of a larger whole. The larger whole in this case was a growing discontent with the over-extensions of power adopted by the post-Elizabethan monarchs. Since the gentry made up such a large part of the House of Commons, any attempt to take the power away from Parliament was viewed with suspicion.
The acquisition of more power by the gentry whose claims to power has been established during the Tudor can be viewed as a prime cause behind the events that led to the civil war.