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Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War


This series explores the literature that arose from the conflicts, ideologies, and rapidly changing cultures of 17th-century England. Fostered in the reigns of both James I and Charles I, it is the purpose of this series to discover the progression of literature and culture from the early Stuart period to the Restoration era which harboured struggles of power, ideology, and paradigms of the monarchy. Examining the English Civil War as an ideological war so much as it was a physical war, this article series explores the literary and political progression of contemporary ways of thinking about the social structure of England in a time of unparalleled change. As the century progressed, attitudes to the monarchy, the government, and the rights of the people polarised, with literature such as poetry, pamphlets, and manifestoes becoming significant players in the social and political debates of the period. 17th-century writers were keen to address major political questions such as: Should the powers of the king be curtailed? Can power be absolute? Are the civil liberties of the people greater than the authority of the king and government?

This series responds to these key questions, discovering how writers and political groups used literature to propagate their understandings of these key ideological interrogations and to persuade and influence political mindsets and decisions. Considering literature as a vehicle of politics, this 101 series uncovers the ways in which prominent writers of the period used literature to address the hostilities and instabilities that characterised the period, as prevailing attitudes towards the monarchy, the nation, sex, and religion came under pressure.

This series will be divided into eight articles:

Renaissance and Revolution 101: Religious Contexts of the English Civil War

When considering the causes of the English Civil War, many scholars have been keen to answer the question: what was the fundamental cause? This question is multifaceted and highly contested. Was it tensions of power? Financial struggles and economic policies? Religious difference and intolerance? Whilst there is no definitive resolution to these questions, many scholars are keen to promote the view that it was in fact religion that shaped and manipulated the tensions that catalysed the conflict. Edward Vallance (2002), goes so far as to state: “there seems to be a growing consensus that religion was the prime factor in causing conflict and that, in comparison, political thought and constitutional grievance were of only secondary importance” (p. 395). Whilst this article does not seek to argue for the significance of one factor over another, it will articulate the importance of religious factors to the outbreak of the English Civil War and the ensuing arguments.

Perhaps the most significant factor religion had to play was its part in rallying the masses to disparate causes of the war. Following John Morrill’s evocation of the “force of a religion” as a driving factor that “drove minorities to fight and forced majorities to make reluctant choices” (qtd. in Vallance, 2002, p. 397), we can trace religion as a fundamental dividing factor and catalyst of the war.

Figure 1: Charles I on Horseback (Van Dyck, 1633).

Many scholars have attested to the same significance of religion to the divisions, tensions, and ultimate conflict of the 17th century. Glenn Burgess reveals how contemporary writers viewed the growing polarisation of politics. Drawing on John Bramhall as an example, Burgess (1998) traces religion as a fundamental contributor to royalist divides between the Royalists and Parliamentarians: “John Bramhall explained that unsound Presbyterian ecclesiology was at the heart of Parliamentarian politics” (p. 174). However, it is significant to note that politics and religion were not so easily demarcated within contemporary contexts as they may be today. Johann Somerville’s remark that “popish innovations in the Church” were also seen “as key agents of royal tyranny”, perhaps explains much of the debate around the cause of the civil war, as politics and religions were intertwined, and highlights the troubled relationship between politics and power dynamics, and religious beliefs.

This article will consider the major religious tensions preceding the English Civil War, and the events, beliefs, and tensions that catalysed the war.


The so-called “Popish Plot” has been identified as one of the most significant contributing factors to the distrust and tensions surrounding monarchical power and politics in the 17th century. Caroline Hibbard (2017) recounts that “Catholic Activities and fears of “popish plotting” were a leading cause of the distrust between Charles I and his opponents” (p. 1). Further, Hibbard’s (2017) evaluation of the tone of pamphlets prior to the outbreak of the war illuminates the “hysterically anti-Catholic” (p. 1) nature of the population, and her consideration that the debates of the House of Commons between 1640 and 1642 “returned almost obsessively to the notion of a Catholic conspiracy against English liberties and religion” (p. 2), enlightens the nation’s infatuation with the Popish Plot, that quite literally consumed the nation and fed into underlying political tensions and disagreements. Fears of a Catholic attack against Protestant England had been simmering since the reign of Elizabeth I. Whilst Elizabeth had been successful in promoting a relatively peaceful state during her reign, religious tensions that had been brewing for a century came to the surface as concerns over the stability of James I and Charles I’s rule began to increase. Significantly, Elizabeth I’s reluctance to address Puritan concerns led to a growing emergence of religious dissent, augmented as Puritan majorities in Parliament became frustrated with religious reforms and perceived political instability during the reign of Charles I and his father.

Figure 2: Anti-Catholic Pamphlet (Unknown, 1643).

The popular fear of Catholicism was augmented by the wedding of Charles I and Henrietta Maria. Whilst Charles I was not a Catholic, the decision of the monarchy to wed the king to a Catholic queen. The anxiety surrounding her Catholicism was augmented by her apparent control over her husband. Henrietta Maria was perceived to have “personal and ‘familial’ influence over Charles” (White, 2006, p. 4). White (2006) understands the 17th-century household as a “public institution”, in which a “father’s authority within the family was recognised as the linchpin of all social order” (p. 4). As such, the nation witnessing a wife having serious control over her husband, allegedly manipulating the king and presiding over political decisions, subsequently reflected badly on the authority and stability of the monarchy, the essential household of the nation. White (2006) confirms this point, arguing that “if any household, most especially the royal household, was thought to be in disorder then that could have wider political ramifications” (p. 4). Whether Henrietta Maria did significantly influence Charles’s political decisions is still a contested matter, though White (2006) contends that “Henrietta possessed a considerable degree of influence at court” (p. 30), which did little to calm perceptions of the stability of the monarchical household.

The concerns over Henrietta Maria’s control and influence over her husband were both augmented by and augmented the growing Catholic concerns bubbling at the surface of 17th-century political and social discourse. Concerns of a “Catholic takeover“ were certainly the result of an anti-papal hysteria, though Henrietta’s actions to advocate for greater Catholic concessions did little to calm the minds of a nation on edge. White (2006) recognises that acting on instructions from her godfather, Pope Urban VIII, who had “hoped she would be the guardian angel of English Catholics” (p. 31), Henrietta’s “primary concern was gaining greater concessions for Catholics, and pleading with the king to alleviate the plight of Catholic recusants” (p. 31). By allowing Henrietta to assert considerable influence within Court, the King unwittingly contributed to growing religious tension. “Many English were already fearful and suspicious of the apparent Catholic influence among the king’s circle” (p. 36), and witnessing a Catholic Queen with perceived significant control over the king, many in the nation began to solemnly believe that “an unholy alliance was being forged which would eradicate mainstream Protestantism and Parliament” (p. 36). The national perception that Protestant England was in grave danger of a popish plot increased public sensitivity to such matters and heightened religious tensions that had been brewing since the reign of Elizabeth I.

Figure 3: Henrietta Maria (Van Dyck, n.d.).

William Laud

Perhaps the greatest augmenting factor of concerns of a “Catholic takeover“ of Protestant England were the Laudian reforms during the reign of Charles I. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, was not a Catholic but opposed many of the traditional structures and practices of the Church of England. Seeking a uniformity of worship and a stricter hierarchy of power, Laud and his followers favoured ceremonial ritual and the veneration of Saints. Excess in religion was perceived as a fundamentally Catholic trait, and as such, the King’s alignment with the Archbishop of Laud exacerbated already growing religious tensions and beliefs that Charles I was a potential threat to the religious harmony and stability of England. Kevin Sharpe goes so far as to suggest that:

historians almost unanimously describe Laud as the evil counsellor whose influence on Charles cost the king his crown (Qtd. in Wilkinson, 2011 , p. 18).

Key Laudian Reforms 1) Communion Table moved to the East of the Church, sectioned off from the congregation 2) Hymns and sacred music encouraged during service 3) Installation of stained-glass windows 4) Book of Sports 1633: Permitted and encouraged participation in traditional pastimes and sports on Sundays

Figure 4: William Laud (Van Dyck, c. 1636).

To understand the adverse reaction to the Laudian reforms under the reign of Charles I, it is first appropriate to analyse the growing influence of Puritanism in England, for it was from the growing Puritan majority within Parliament that religious concerns and fears took on grave political meaning.

The Puritan influence within Parliament and the nation, in general, has been demarcated as a significant contributory factor on the road to the Civil War. Christopher Hill considers Puritanism as “the body of opinion without which the Civil War would never have been fought” (Qtd. in Spurr, 1998, p. 1), whilst John Spurr (1998) emphasises the Puritans as the key to “explanations of how England blundered into civil war and revolution in the 1640s” (p. 1).

The key religious demarcation of the Puritan sect was as Spurr (1998) describes:

a distinctly puritan or ‘experiential’ appreciation of predestination [...] whose identity stemmed in large part from their opposition to the lukewarm religion and profane society around them (p. 3).

Figure 5: 1803 reprinting of the 1633 edition of the Book of Sports (1803).

The essential Puritan belief stemmed from a conviction that they were individually saved by God, and as a consequence, “they must lead a life of visible piety [...] and must work to make their nation a model Christian society” (p. 5). The Puritan goal was a godly duty, a conviction that they must lead “repress vice and ungodliness” (p. 5) and cleanse the nation of its sins.

It is significant to consider the Puritan influence within Parliament, with significant figures such as John Pym, John Hampden, and Oliver Cromwell sitting in the House of Commons, playing instrumental roles in challenging monarchical authority and opposing religious reforms. Within Parliament, the Puritans were keen to advocate for the promotion of religious freedom and the rights of Parliament and sought to restrict royal power, which they perceived as becoming ungodly and tyrannous. From the beginning of Charles I’s reign, the Puritans demonstrated significant influence. In 1628, the Petition of Right was passed, a document that sought to restrict absolute monarchical authority, protecting English subjects from arbitrary taxation, forced soldier billeting, and unlawful imprisonment.

The Laudian reforms, from a Puritan perspective, featured remnants of Catholicism and were strongly opposed by the religious group that feared the Laudian reforms symbolised the King’s scheme to reintroduce “the old religion“ into the country. Their conviction was that it was their godly duty to promote and uphold moral improvement and banish sin and vice from the English nation. Puritan and Laudian religious beliefs strongly clashed: whilst Arminianism promoted the “beauty of holiness”, favouring services involving formal ceremony, hierarchy, and ritual, as well as the conviction that individuals had free will to follow the path to salvation, Puritanism sought to purify Church services, favouring simplicity and deploring distractions from Godly worship, and upheld the doctrine of predestination.

Figure 6: John Pym (Bower, n.d.).

As such, the imposition of the Laudian reforms were perceived by the Puritans as a threat to religious stability and the propagation of godly virtue and proper worship. The Puritan concern of Catholic influence and ungodly monarchical power were exacerbated when punishments for the refusal of Laudian implementation were introduced, as Laud began to use the Court of High Commission to impose, through the threat of fine or imprisonment, his own reforms. Puritans took to Parliament to express “grievances about the Arminian subversion of the church, and about […] the Romish tyranny and Spanish monarchy” towards which Charles seemed inclined” (p. 85). Charles I’s alignment with William Laud did little to ease Puritan anxiety of Catholic influence in England, and specifically over the monarchy, and “by 1629, MPs were explicitly linking ‘innovation and change in government” with Catholic and Arminian subversion of religion” (p. 85). It is significant to note that “many who opposed Laud did not necessarily identify with the Puritans” (Harris, 2015, p. 627). Rather, financial, political, and religious grievances that encouraged people to question the absolute authority of the king, led to “people who clearly were not Puritans by any stretch of the imagination coming to identify with Puritan critiques of the Caroline regime” (p. 627). It is by this notion, then, that the Puritans gained in influence, both in Parliament and in the nation at large, as those “alienated for other reasons” sided with Puritan adversity to the absolute authority of the monarchy and their advocation for greater rights for Parliament.

Intensifying Divisions

A significant catalyst in physical and religious tension of the late 1630s, that ultimately fuelled the lead-up to the English Civil War, was the introduction of The Book of Common Prayer to Scotland in 1637. It had a long history of dissent, even prior to Laud’s own imposition of his modified prayer book. In 1604, under the reign of James I, The Book of Common Prayer was published. Intended as a promotion of religious uniformity within the Church of England, for Puritans, the prayer book was a symbol of Catholic advocacy. The Puritans objected to several aspects of the 1604 prayer book. They abhorred the ceremonies it prescribed, such as the use of vestments and making the sign of the cross during baptism. These practices were seen as excessive and idolatrous by Puritans, who believed in the sanctity of simplicity within worship. Further, the Puritans reacted adversely to the upholding of hierarchal structures that the prayer book upheld. Whilst the Puritans advocated for a more democratic structuring, in which individual congregations had the freedom to allocate their own ministers, the book instead emphasised centralised ecclesiastical authority. Doing little to quash growing anti-popery campaigns, The Book of Common Prayer of 1604 was also viewed by Puritans as containing Popish language that invoked Saints. Favouring prayers that centrally favoured God, Puritans rejected the veneration of saints, viewing it as a Popish endeavour.

Figure 7: Printing of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (printed by Baskerville, 1760).

However, the introduction of The Book of Common Prayers of 1637 in Scotland proved to be a defining catalyst on the road to the English Civil War. In an attempt to “smother Puritan opposition in the South”, Laud desired to “gain further adherence to the English Prayer Book in Scotland, thereby assuring greater conformity in his own England” (Echlin, 1968, p. 109). The book, however, received a disastrous response. With the revision of The Book of Common Prayer in 1637, led by William Laud, the Puritans were outraged. Under Laud, The Book of Common Prayer became, from the Puritan perspective, even more popish and straying from God’s desired religion. The Puritans objected to several aspects of The Book of Common Prayer of 1637. One major concern was the reintroduction of ceremonial practices and gestures that they deemed excessive and reminiscent of Catholicism. These included the use of elaborate vestments, making the sign of the cross during baptism, and bowing or kneeling at certain points during worship. Puritans viewed these practices as idolatrous and contrary to their belief in a simpler, more Scripture-focused form of worship.

In Scotland, the Presbyterian reaction mirrored that of the English Puritans. As Echlin (1968) notes, the terms of The Book of Common Prayer were “certainly not likely to be acceptable to [...] the Puritans, English, and Scottish alike” (p. 112). The Book was immediately renounced by the Scottish people and sparked a rebellion in Scotland that directly contributed to the outbreak of war in 1642. According to Fissel, “Charles I’s obsession with redefining orthodoxy and imposing uniformity within the churches of his kingdoms led to grave political miscalculation” (p. 2). In St Giles Cathedral, as the new Prayer Book was introduced, a riot broke out. Contemporary accounts recall a member of the congregation, Jenny Geddes, throwing her stool in outrage upon hearing the terms of the new book. This act led to a riot that broke out of the Cathedral and onto the streets of Edinburgh. As a result of Charles’s endeavour to enforce English Anglican/Laudian observances onto the Scottish Church, resisting the Scottish to abolish the episcopal structure of the Church, an ensuing war broke out, the First Bishops War, in 1639. The riot in St Giles Cathedral rapidly escalated into national resistance in Scotland. The First Bishops War ended peacefully, as a result of the Pacification of Berwick, a treatise that allowed the Scottish people free will over their Church governance. Despite Charles’s best efforts for religious stability and peace, in 1640 the Second Bishops’ War broke out. This War would be the catalyst in a subsequent series of events that led directly to the outbreak of the English Civil War.

Figure 8: Riot in St Giles Cathedral (Hulton Archive, c. 1600).

With insufficient funds and increasing public dissatisfaction, the King was forced to recall Parliament in order to raise funds and superficially appease growing dissent. As Russell (1984) notes, “Charles faced the combination of a victorious invading army of Scots in front of him, and an empty and public disaffection behind him” (p. 375), leaving him with little choice but to recall Parliament. It is significant to note that Charles had reigned by Personal Rule from March 1629 to April 1640, after disagreements with Parliament in the 1620s led to the King dissolving parliament and ruling by autocratic decree. It was as a truly last resort, then that Charles recalled Parliament, for the MPs’ grievances, which had not been politically considered for eleven years, would undoubtedly be voiced upon the recall of the House of Commons.

It was not only the fact that Charles could not fight without a Parliament, however, but rather that “he could not negotiate without a Parliament either, since the invading Scots were insisting that they would not consider any peace treaty unless it were confirmed by an English Parliament” (p. 375). Notably, the Short Parliament only lasted three weeks before it was dissolved by the King. Reeling from the Personal Rule, the MPs of the Short Parliament refused to discuss financial allowance or supply before their grievances were first voiced and actioned. Leading Puritans such as John Pym were key figures of the Short Parliament, eager to voice grievances of the previous decade augmented by religious tensions and dissatisfactions. Charles’s decision to dissolve the Short Parliament significantly weakened his political position and led to intensifying concerns over the King’s right to absolute power.

Figure 9: The Severall Formes How King Charles his Armey quartered in the fields being past New Castle, on the march toward Scotland Anno Domini (Holler, 1639).

Unsurprisingly, the King was forced to recall Parliament in order to gain the financial support for the Bishops’ War he desperately needed. However, the outraged and disillusioned MPs were sure to prevent a subsequent dissolution and made legislative amendments that changed the relationship between the Crown and Parliament forever. They made frequent sessions of Parliament a statutory right and passed an act which forbade the dissolution of Parliament without the consent of its members. Tensions between the King and Parliament increased rapidly and only two years later, the Civil War broke out.

From a riot in St Giles Cathedral over the King and Laud’s attempted imposition of the Book of Common Prayers in Scotland, decades of religious and political grievances and disillusionments fed into the outbreak of the English Civil War. Puritan dissatisfaction with the perceived Catholicisation of the English Church hardened their opposition to the absolute authority of the King, resulting in tensions between the Crown and Parliament that ultimately led to the outbreak of the Civil War. Considering these events, it is thereby unsurprising that scholars are keen to propel the discourse that religion was a significant, if not primary, factor in the outbreak of the Civil War. Continuing Catholic resentment, the inability of the Crown to adequately respond to adverse reactions to Laudian reforms and ecclesiastical amendments, and growing Puritan resentment and disillusionment played a defining feature in the stage of the years preceding the English Civil War and highlights the interconnection of religion and politics within the period. Religious tensions within the 17th Century created grievances that the Crown simply could not appease, leading to the outbreak of a Civil War that rocked the nation and changed the course of English constitutional history forever.

Bibliographical References

Burgess, G. (1998). Was the English Civil War a War of Religion? The Evidence of Political Propaganda. Huntington Library Quarterly, 61(2), pp. 173-201.

Echlin, E. P. (1968). Was Laud’s Liturgy Wholly Laud’s? Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, 37(2), 105–115.

Harris, T. (2015). Revisiting the Causes of the English Civil War. Huntington Library Quarterly, 78(4), pp. 615-635.

Hibbard, C. (2017). Charles I and the Popish Plot. UNC Press Books.

Russell, C. (1984). Why did Charles I call the long parliament? History, 69(227), 375–383.

Spurr, J. (1998). English Puritanism. Bloomsbury Publishing.

White, M. (2006). Henrietta Maria and the English Civil Wars. Ashgate Publishing.

Wilkinson, R. (2011). Is there a Case for Archbishop Laud? History Review, pp. 18-23.

Vallance, E. (2002). Preaching to the Converted: Religious Justifications for the English Civil War. Huntington Library Quarterly, 65(3/4), 395–419.

Visual Sources

Cover Image. Wagendeldt, O. (1649-51). The Communion [Painting]. Retrieved from:,-1649-51-.html

Figure 1: Van Dyck, A. (1633). Charles I on Horseback [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Unknown. (1643). Anti-Catholic Pamphlet. Retrieved from:

Figure 3: Van Dyck, A. (n.d.). Henrietta Maria [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 4: Van Dyck, A. (c. 1636). William Laud [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 5: Unknown. (1803). 1803 reprinting of the 1633 edition of the Book of Sports [Manuscript]. Retrieved from:

Figure 6: Bower, E. (n.d.). John Pym [Painting]. Retrieved from:

Figure 7: Baskerville, J. (1760). Printing of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer [Manuscript]. Retrieved from:

Figure 8: Hulton Archive. (c. 1600). Riot in St Giles Cathedral [Illustration]. Retrieved from:

Figure 9: Holler, W. (1639). The Severall Formes How King Charles his Armey quartered in the fields being past New Castle, on the march toward Scotland Anno Domini [Manuscript]. Retrieved from:


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Ella Fincken

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