There have been many theories on the causes of the English Civil War. Most certainly, this is a result of the many tensions and problems that led up and contributed to the war. This, in a sense, made it more of a “soup” of problems than something revolving around a single problem. As a result of this “soup” there developed many views and ideas of the cause, depending on what ingredient of the “soup” you’re looking at. Because of this, explaining the war has become a war in itself.
But one of the things that I have never heard mentioned is something that has always rather stunned and startled me about this conflict. When looking at the English Civil War, I keep seeing the spectre of poor communication between King Charles I and Parliament. From the beginning of King Charles I’s first calling of Parliament to his trial, the lack of communication has always been something that stood out. As far as I know, there has been no ‘conversation’, no ‘debate’, no ‘discussion’, no ‘informing’, nor any other attempt at a face-to-face deliberation between the two. But the thing is that it seems, at least to me, that this is where the problem lay. In fact, the WHOLE problem seems to lay in this poor communication. In fact, the more I look at it the more it seems that poor communication seems to be the thing that brought the myriad “soup” of tensions to a crisis which, subsequently, caused the violence to happen.
TENSION AND THE “SPARK” OR “CATALYST”
Typically, though, in a crisis like this, historians try to look at the “fancy” causes of events: politics, economy, religion, etc. As a result, they focus only on those issues giving the illusion that this is what EVERYTHING revolves around. My experience, though, is that many problems and situations are often caused by more mundane and “trivial” things, such as communication or even a chance event or a wrong move taken by a person. One of the reasons why I think it is probably more based in “trivial” things is the fact that there are too many explanations and issues with this war. The English Civil War, being a tragic event for the country, was an event that needed “fancy” causes and explanations. It had to be Political. It had to be Religious. It had to have a “fancy” cause to justify it. Even down to today, I can see this in the British explanation of the war.
But we must remember that in any society there are tensions going on all the time, generally fluctuating up and down over time. They are ALWAYS there: political, religious, social, etc. Sometimes, these can be so extreme and severe that they cause great hate and discontent.
Contrary to popular belief, seldom do many of these tensions, by themselves, just “happen” to create a crisis resulting in violence. Its, frankly, amazing that many tensions don’t create violence, but they don’t. It often takes something else, a “spark” or “catalyst” to bring the tensions to crisis and violence.
Oftentimes, this “spark” or “catalyst” is very “trivial” and mundane. In fact, it can seem so minor and inconsequential that no one may even suspect it. They often have to be at the ‘right moment’ to initiate it too . . . even a day earlier or later and nothing might not of happened. That’s how “touchy” the “spark” or “catalyst” can be. As a result, this “spark” or “catalyst” is often overlooked by historians who are looking for the “fancy” explanations.
And so we see this pattern:
many tensions>>>>>”spark” or “catalyst”>>>>>crisis
If we look at the tensions in a society we can often see that these tensions can be quite serious, often severe. But, if one looks closely it’s not uncommon to find that these tensions have been there for decades, or generations, and never caused a crisis.
Typically, they are legitimate tensions over legitimate things. That is to say, they are not ‘made up’ or frivolous, though they may seem that way from someone from a distance. Even though they are important it often seldom explains why the crisis happened. But, because the tensions may appear severe and precede a crisis, its easy to associate tension as the cause of the crisis. As a result, in many accounts of the “causes” of conflicts I often only see a dissertation generally of a single type of tension. Because of this, many accounts of the “causes” seldom describe the cause of the crisis, I’ve found, focusing more on the tensions that led up to it.
I get this same feeling with the English Civil War, that there has been too much emphasis on the tensions that preceded that war. Yeah, there were problems with finance. Yeah, there were problems with Religion. Yeah, there were problems with Politics. If anyone looks, one can see that many of these tensions are not new to England and, in a way, just a repeat of things that have existed and, in some cases, they’ve been there for decades . . . what else is new? Many even continue down to today.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION
But, because of all the tensions, of which there were too many, it made me look for a mundane and “trivial” thing which often seem to bring about crisis when there are many tensions.
A simple lack of communication is such a thing . . . it still happens today. Its something generally overlooked, not being “fancy”, dramatic, and all. As to whether lack of communication is really the “spark” that caused the English Civil War I cannot say for sure. I’m only describing a thought I had about it. I do think, though, that it has had far greater impact than we think.
In the conditions of the many tensions happening a lack of communication would very easily, and quickly, create a bottleneck for the whole government. As a result, the lack of communication would have aggravated and irritated the already existing tensions. In addition, being the ONLY avenue for resolution, it would be a critical element in any resolution . . . or lack of resolution. As a result, even though it may seem trivial and mundane this simple organizational and social element may have played an incredibly large part in the crisis and may be the very thing responsible for the whole crisis.
There are three elements to the lack of communication in the English Civil War:
King Charles I.
The means of communication.
In my opinion, there were problems on all three levels. In other words, there were failures in all three levels. No one level is to blame. This makes it more than just a minor communication problem but a very broad and extensive problem, involving not only people but a system. We’re then looking at a ‘generalized communication problem’. Because of this, the effects of lack of communication is more severe and serious. Not only that, the lack of communication was located at a very critical and serious place . . . the government. And, at a time when the country was undergoing great tension. So we see this equation:
generalized lack of communication + bad location (government) + country in tension (desperate for resolution)
This is not a good combination . . . as the English Civil War showed.
King Charles I.
I have always felt that there were certain qualities and character traits that King Charles I had that created problems with communication. His shy, timid, polite way, together with his stuttering, no doubt created to a problem with communication, though this does not appear to be that excessive or severe as he communicated with many people in his lifetime with little problem.
Overall, I don’t think that he was difficult to communicate with nor do I think he was a person who wouldn’t be understanding. On the contrary, I tend to think he was very understanding.
He probably was of a certain character that needed someone to tell him what was going on, and instruct him directly. In other words, he sort of needed a ‘helping hand’. He needed to be ‘convinced’ and ‘talked to’. This is something I don’t think Parliament ever did.
Some other qualities that King Charles I had that may have helped with lack of communication include:
He tended to look at things in a simplistic way.
It seems that he seemed to think that people thought the way he did.
He tended to not have an overall view of things.
He was not worldly and seemed to have minimal knowledge of how the real world worked.
He did not comprehend the consequences of his decisions (such as his early expeditions with the Duke of Buckingham).
It appears that his early poor experience with Parliament made him reluctant to communicate with them.
His insecure nature may have made him surround himself with great formality in a formal situation, which may have made things like a ‘free and open discussion’ difficult. It appears that this was not a problem with more personal and private associations, though, which seems to show that King Charles I had a strong sense of social/formal and personal/private.
He seemed to rely on the government working on its own.
In the end, all these things created, in a sense, a wall around King Charles I. It made it so that he lived as if protected him from all that is happening about him. As a result, he often did not know what was going on around him or be able to communicate with people that well.
The means of communication.
There appears to of been little means of communication between King Charles I and Parliament. Really, about all they had are these types of means of communications:
They sent each other formal proclamations and written documents. These, typically, did not have any discussion quality at all with them, but are more like legal or political testimonies. There may have been something like a “points to consider”, such as was in the Great Remonstrance, which is about as close to something resembling a discussion they seem to of had. In some ways, the Great Remonstrance was a “cry for discussion” which never materialized.
They, namely Parliament, had representatives speak with the King, but only in a general formal sense, surrounded with protocol and formality.
The king only went to Parliament for formal statements and never had any discussions.
Considering the seriousness of much of the tensions at the time, these are VERY inadequate means of communication. This lack of communication always stunned me as, often, the King and Parliament were only within a half mile of each other!
In general, there were too many protocols and ritual surrounding the King and Parliament. Any direct association became nothing but a “Your Majesty” and a “by your leave”. In some ways, protocol and ritual was one of the most damaging things to communication. This created a situation where all association was constrained and so formal that nothing resembling a free informative discussion could possibly take place at all. As a result, no issues were resolved . . . they couldn’t be. This same constrained and formal situation is seen with many international associations even today, often hampering and hindering resolutions and solutions.
The ways and attitudes of Parliament, as well as the character of some of its members, had great impact on its communication.
Parliamentary procedure is very much rooted in procedure and process. Things must be done a certain way. In fact, Parliament is as rooted in protocol and ritual as the King is. As a result, it has a similar constraining effect and often created odd customs and behavour. In one case, they actually held the Speaker of the House down in his chair so that they could read a proclamation as, if he got up, the session was closed! In so doing, they “ensured” it was stated in Parliament. That sounds almost comical to me, but it shows how much protocol and ritual was a part of things back then. It reveals, I think, that there were no “open discussions” that took place in Parliament, but “formal discussions”, based in protocol and ritual. I tend to feel that, because of this, there were no “real open” discussions in Parliament as we tend to think that there was, being that it was a body of people whose intention was to talk about things. This would mean that, even in Parliament, free discussion and communication may of been hampered.
Some of its members were also very reactionary and extreme. Many were quick to jump to conclusions and condemn, almost too easily. I can see why Parliament needed all the formality . . . to put the reactionary and extreme elements in control! Quite a few were there to do nothing but voice out grievance and anger, and with little desire for resolution. As a result, Parliament had a tendency to be very reactionary and extreme. This makes for a group of people hard to communicate with.
If King Charles I was simple in his overall outlook, so was much of Parliament too. In reality, many of the Members of Parliament had just as smaller outlook on things as did the King, and perceived them in a narrow way just the same. Many were only concerned about the affairs of the area that they lived and represented and only were concerned about the issues that affected them. The fact that so many people tended to be simplistic, and not get ‘the whole picture’, showed that the government and country was getting far more complex than any of them realized.
Parliament was also starting to think that it was the ‘ruling body’ of England. They acted that way too, as if the King didn’t matter. In fact, this belief would come out during the war, when Parliament practically took control of the country. Often, they seemed to tell the King what to do, which was very offensive to King Charles I. It appears that there developed, over the years, two ‘ruling bodies’ in England at this time: The Court and Parliament. In fact, the Court and Parliament were becoming much like two different governments within the country, each with their own independent agendas, concerns, and procedures. The King assumed that the ‘ruling body’ was the Court, and Parliament was just a “committee”, so to speak. Parliament was beginning to feel that it was the ‘ruling body’ and that the King had no place in their agenda’s and procedures . . . they should decide all the laws and such. In many ways, the English Civil War was a result of the growing division and separation between Court and Parliament. One of the effects of this growing division and separation is a growing lack of communication and understanding between the two. In a way, there were two elements within the country trying to run it by themselves!
In addition, because Parliament was made up of people elected from all over the country they brought up issues that had nothing to do with the concerns the King was dealing with. As a result, the King often had no real knowledge of the subjects and topics of discussion that were going on in Parliament. He assumed that they were discussing the issues he asked for, mostly for money. Instead, Parliament was talking about other things, namely complaints. This shows the lack of communication and growing separation between Court and Parliament and how they were not understanding each other any more: the King expected approval for money and Parliament was issuing complaints . . . two totally different things! In many ways, it shows that the government system needed to be changed.
It’s interesting to note that, during this period of time, governments were starting to create committee’s, organizations, and departments to deal with the many issues the growing complexity of government required. The growing separation of King and Parliament was showing that the English government, at this time, was growing “out of date” and was in need of developing different departments to deal with the many issues going on in the country, for example, a ‘money approving department’ and a ‘complaint department’. Nowadays, experience has shown that governments need to have different departments to do different functions in a complex government system. These departments are often specialized and for a specific purpose – there’s generally no overlap. But, at that time, this did not exist. As a result, Parliament was trying to do several different functions at the same time- approving money and issue complaints – which created something like a gridlock, paralyzing the system.
Even if Parliament had a discussion with the King it would have been difficult. Because Parliament is made up of many people it would have made it difficult to have any sort of a discussion as a group. They would had to of had ‘representatives’ of Parliament to discuss the matter with the King. But this, as far as I know, was never done.
THE RESULT: THE LACK OF UNDERSTANDING AND THE CREATION OF A “RIFT” BETWEEN THE KING AND PARLIAMENT
With the poor communication there became a general lack of understanding between King Charles I and Parliament. Frankly, neither one understood the other. They did not understand why the other thought the way they did or the reasons for it. It also created a general lack of understanding of what was going on in the country. This caused a number of things:
There developed a general distrust toward one another.
There developed “theories” as to what the other thought or what their motives were.
They blamed fictional advisors and counselors to blame for the problems.
There developed fears of the other, not knowing what the other intended.
There developed a lot of bad feelings toward the other.
There developed an indecision of what to do about anything.
These created a “rift”, or great division, between King Charles I and Parliament that just grew and grew over time creating all sort of ill feelings toward each other. It got so bad that some people in Parliament thought the King was even going to attack Parliament! This, of course, has no founding in anything the King did or in any understanding of the King. Think of it . . . King Charles I attacking Parliament with the army! It shows the paranoia and lack of trust toward each other. It appears that Parliament, in general, created a lot of these paranoid ideas, probably due to the more radical attitudes taken by the members of Parliament. When the King went to arrest the 5 Members of Parliament in 1641, he came with soldiers. This put Parliament into panic. Because of the lack of understanding, and the “rift” it created, Parliament took this as a threat. When King Charles I left London later, they prepared for war . . . the English Civil War had started.
No communication between each other. No understanding of each other. No comprehension of the others behaviour. Only a “rift” of distrust and fear and paranoia of each other was created.
What an incredible lack of communication between people!
Even during King Charles I’s trial he was not permitted to speak or discuss the case. In fact, there was no discussion with him at all! Parliament just “issued” its proclamation and that was it!
Lack of communication to the end!
How could the war have been prevented at all under these conditions?
What this seems to suggest is that no one person, no one group, and no one tension “sparked” the English Civil War into hostilities. Instead, it was simple human communication between people that was the problem. In effect, the lack of communication between people (namely, the association revolving between the King and Parliament) caused a ‘bottleneck’ and constricting that was so severe that it prevented any resolution from taking place. The increasing tensions caused by the lack of resolution grew and grew until it finally broke into hostility and violence causing the English Civil War.