The Religious Background to the Civil War

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Part 1 of a series on religion in the Civil Wars by Simon Frame

All good parliamentarians amongst you know that in our guise as the enemies of the malignants we like to tell them that we'll have none of their popery, bishops, altar rails, idolatry etc. etc.

But why were religion and politics so inextricably linked and why did the various religious groups align themselves in the way they did during the English Civil War?

This is the first in a series of papers that attempts to provide a brief description of some of the C17th religious groups and their involvement in politics. It doesn't purport to be all-encompassing, avoids dealing with theology wherever possible (it's such hard going) and may not even be correct. If you know better, write in!

When dealing with these subjective issues, it is necessary to bear in mind that:

  1. Contemporary 'history' is ultimately written by the winning side, or at least that which controls the press.
  2. Most surviving descriptions of their activities, and the labels applied to minority religious/political groups were given by their opponents, and usually distorted.
  3. Most groups overlap others to a certain extent, and contain a broad range of opinions amongst their adherents, blurring the boundaries.
  4. Many groups existed long before, and long after, they came to national prominence.
  5. As this is a guide for parliamentarians, the general tone of the articles will inevitably follow a 'this is why Parliament fell out with such-and-such' theme.

The role of religion in the mid C17th needs some background to put it into perspective......


or 'God is daily glorified and served in our country with great increase of the Catholic Faith' (William Allen, Catholic theologian, 1577)

In western Europe, essentially, apart from various outbreaks of opposition (see later) the Roman Catholic church was composed of those who acknowledged the supreme authority and infallibility of the bishop of Rome, the Pope. (Catholic comes from the Greek 'katholikos', meaning universal.) The Catholic church regarded itself as the only inheritor in unbroken direct descent of the powers conferred upon the 12 apostles by Jesus, with the Pope as the successor to St. Peter. Cardinals were the next in rank to the pope, i.e. the famous Mazarin, Richelieu etc. and they elected the Pope’s successor. The basis of teaching in Catholicism is the bible and scriptures, along with written and unwritten traditions, and the 'infallible' decisions of the Pope.


So what caused the Reformation and the ensuing calamities?

The Roman Catholic church and its successor in C17th England, the Anglican church, is an episcopalian church i.e. a church based on an organisational hierarchy of bishops, priests and deacons. The bishops had the exclusive right to confirm church members, ordain priests and consecrate other bishops in the diocese, and only the ordained priests could administer the sacraments. From an early date the bishops had as much power as the nobility e.g. William the Norman's brother, Odo. In some cases they even had as much power as the monarchy e.g. in the County Palatine of Durham. This was seen to inevitably lead to involvement in temporal affairs, corruption and the abuse of power. All of this, combined with a belief that the system had no biblical basis and that all power derived from the monarchy and not from a divine source, led the C16th/C17th 'Puritans' to repudiated the arrangement.

In addition, the fact that the Pope could excommunicate dissenters and 'depose' monarchs who came into conflict with him aroused nationalist tendencies amongst princes and monarchs and they were joined in their objections by ordinary people in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. On the continent, many rulers changed religious affiliation more than once to suit the prevailing political situation. All of this pushed some towards Protestantism for earthly reasons if not for spiritual ones.

The more plebeian reformers were more concerned with reducing the basis of the church to that found written in the bible only. The veneration of saints, (even though many Protestant churches kept those canonised before the reformation) the Virgin Mary and saintly relics, and the use of traditions and ceremony were held by some to obscure the worship of God. The use of images such as crucifixes, stained glass, religious icons and statues were seen as good works by those who provided or funded them but held by opponents to be forms of idolatry forbidden by the bible. Some Protestant sects wanted to abolish the mediation of the priest for a number of reasons; they thought that the clergy were too controlled by the monarchy and interpreted the bible accordingly, or felt they should be allowed to appoint their own ministers. Others wanted lay ministers only.

Transubstantiation, the transformation by consecration of the communion bread and wine into the body of Christ during the Eucharist, was also denied by some Protestants, who said that either this was a symbolic act only, or that the New Testament wasn't clear about its meaning.

The translation of the bible from Latin into the vernacular allowed the debate about these issues to be expanded from the realm of educated theologians and laity, but many people still took their guidance from the theological works of Calvin and Luther. Some pressed to allow changes to be made and there were attempts to accommodate the opposing views, but at the Council of Trent in 1545 a rigidity of dogma and an austerity of morals was imposed to counter the Protestants, and the two sides became even more polarised than they already were; reconciliation was to give way to reformation and retrenchment. A Counter-Reformation was launched by the Catholic church to correct some of the criticisms levelled at it, but it mainly tried to suppress its opponents. The Reformation would not really succeed in England until long after Henry VIII's attempts at divorce, of which more later...


or 'Christ and Belial can hardly agree' (Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I, 1573)

Although opposition to church corruption and some doctrines had occurred before the reformation, in the form of 'Waldensians' in France and Italy, 'Hussites' in Bohemia and 'Lollards' in England, the term 'Protestant' is derived from the second Diet of Speyer (or Spires) in 1529. This was a meeting of the constituent states of the Holy Roman Empire and the majority of Catholic states withdrew the tolerance granted to the followers of Martin Luther’s doctrines. Six Lutheran princes and others signed a 'protest' at this, giving rise to the popular name.

Technically, any church which separated from the Roman Communion during the reformation is a Protestant church. Protestantism gave rise to four main traditions; Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist and Anglican, of which the last three are relevant to C17th England. Their common feature was that they rejected the authority of the Pope and placed more emphasis on the authority of the Bible and individual faith. These groups hardly agreed on much though; at the same Diet, the Lutherans had agreed with the Catholics that Anabaptists should be executed.


Martin Luther was a monk, priest and theologian, born in Eisleben in 1483, dying in the same place in 1546, who was inspired by the phrase 'The just shall live by faith' in St Pauls text in Romans 1:17. He achieved international fame when his Ninety-Five Theses, written in Latin, was published on 31 October 1517 (not, as widely believed, by having it nailed to a church door). This work, which was translated into German and spread rapidly, attacked 'indulgences' which was the system of paying fines in lieu of undertaking penance (penance was something which troubled him personally) for sin, in order to raise money for the building of Saint Peter's in Rome. Luther’s work was condemned by the church in 1520 and he was excommunicated in 1521 but subsequently translated both the Old and New Testaments into German. His most popular other work was the 1529 Small Catechism which used questions and answers to explain the new theology. Luther’s popularity with the nobility was assured by his (supposed) advocacy of the independence of temporal rulers from ecclesiastical control. After his death Luther’s work was carried on and the whole Lutheran theology is held in the Book of Concord (1577). The Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus was a Lutheran, and his intervention in the 30 Years War (and France's support for the Protestant nations) helped the Lutherans to survive, despite an Imperial ban. Lutheranism was taken to the Americas by Scandanavians in 1625 and Swedes in 1638.

Lutherans believed that the Ten Commandments and the Gospel were particularly important as they brought God's demands into everyone's lives. Baptism made all people priests. Although Lutheranism is a particular form of Protestantism, his works, along with those of John Calvin and others, formed the basis of the Protestant religion.


John Calvin (1509 -1594) was a French theologian and church reformer, who was forced to flee Paris and become an itinerant when an associate, Nicholas Cop, announced his support for Luther (France was Catholic). In 1536 he published Institutes Of The Christian Religion which made his name as a Protestant writer. In 1536-1559 he helped to reform the church in Geneva which became a Protestant stronghold and published many other works and commentaries on the Bible. Calvin thought that the Bible was clear on theology and that its content should be heard by everyone through preaching. The ideas of Luther and Calvin spread rapidly throughout Europe, gaining immense popularity. Calvin was particularly keen on the idea of the theocratic state, where the full privileges of the church were reserved for the elect, (as will be seen in other articles in this series) and everyone was subject to supervision of private and public morality by a council selected from the community. Extreme Calvinism was a direct challenge to Monarchy, but was also too austere for many Protestants.


Some of my notes from 1990 with an unrememberable provenance

The Golden Age Of Europe: Edited by Hugh Trevor Roper, Guild 1987

Catholics, Anglicans And Puritans: Hugh Trevor Roper, Fontana 1989

Religion & Politics In The 17th Century: Christopher Hill

Religion And The Decline Of Magic: Keith Thomas, 1971

The Stuart Age: Barry Coward, Longman 1989

The Pen and the Sword: Edited by Christopher Hibbert, Newstand, 1974

The History of the Great Civil War: SR Gardiner, Windrush 1987

The Stuarts: JP Kenyon, Fontana 1970

Danger To Elizabeth: Alison Plowden, BCA 1974