Turmoil in Britain

Turmoil in Britain

Religious violence plagued sixteenth-century England. While Spain plundered the New World and built an empire, England struggled as Catholic and Protestant monarchs vied for supremacy and attacked their opponents as heretics. Queen Elizabeth cemented Protestantism as the official religion of the realm, but questions endured as to what kind of Protestantism would hold sway. Many Puritans looked to the New World as an opportunity to create a beacon of Calvinist Christianity, while others continued the struggle in England. By the 1640s, political conflicts between Parliament and the Crown merged with long-simmering religious tensions. The result was a bloody civil war. Colonists reacted in a variety of ways as England waged war on itself, but all were affected by these decades of turmoil.

The outbreak of civil war between the King and Parliament in 1642 opened an opportunity for the English state to consolidate its hold over the American colonies. The conflict erupted as Charles I (Figure 13) called a parliament in 1640 to assist him in suppressing a rebellion in Scotland. The Irish rebelled the following year, and by 1642 strained relations between Charles and Parliament produced a civil war in England. Parliament won, Charles I was executed, and England transformed into a republic and protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. These changes redefined England’s relationship with its American colonies.

Portrait of Charles I of England
Figure 13 — Portrait of Charles I in 1629 by Daniël Mijtens, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

In 1642, no permanent British North American colony was more than 35 years old. The crown and various proprietors controlled most of the colonies, but settlers from Barbados to Maine enjoyed a great deal of independence. This was especially true in Massachusetts Bay, where Puritan settlers governed themselves according to the colony’s 1629 charter. Trade in tobacco and naval stores tied the colonies to England economically, as did religion and political culture, but in general the English left the colonies to their own devices.

The English civil war forced settlers in America to reconsider their place within the empire. Older colonies like Virginia and proprietary colonies like Maryland sympathized with the crown. Newer colonies like Massachusetts Bay, populated by religious dissenters taking part in the Great Migration of the 1630s, tended to favor Parliament. Yet during the war the colonies remained neutral, fearing that support for either side could involve them in war. Even Massachusetts Bay, which nurtured ties to radical Protestants in Parliament, remained neutral.

Charles’s execution in 1649 altered that neutrality. Six colonies, including Virginia and Barbados, declared open allegiance to the dead monarch’s son, Charles II (Figure 14). Parliament responded with an Act in 1650 that leveled an economic embargo on the rebelling colonies, forcing them to accept Parliament’s authority. Parliament argued in the Act that America had been “planted at the Cost, and settled” by the English nation, and that it, as the embodiment of that commonwealth, possessed ultimate jurisdiction over the colonies. It followed up the embargo with the Navigation Act of 1651, which compelled merchants in every colony to ship goods directly to England in English ships. Parliament sought to bind the colonies more closely to England, and deny other European nations, especially the Dutch, from interfering with its American possessions.

Over the next few years colonists’ unease about Parliament’s actions reinforced their own sense of English identity, one that was predicated on notions of rights and liberties. When the colonists declared allegiance to Charles II after the Parliamentarian state collapsed in 1659 and England became a monarchy the following year, however, the new king dashed any hopes that he would reverse Parliament’s consolidation efforts. The revolution that had killed his father enabled Charles II to begin the next phase of empire building in English America.

Portrait of Charles II wearing the robes of the Sovereign of the Order of the Garter.
Figure 14 — Portrait of Charles II painted in 1675 by Peter Lely, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

Charles II ruled effectively, but his successor, James II, made several crucial mistakes. Eventually, Parliament again overthrew the authority of their king, this time turning to the Dutch Prince William of Holland and his English bride, Mary, the daughter of James II (Figure 15). This relatively peaceful coup was called the Glorious Revolution. English colonists in the era of the Glorious Revolution experienced religious and political conflict that reflected transformations in Europe. It was a time of great anxiety for the colonists. In the 1670s, King Charles II tightened English control over America, creating the royal colony of New Hampshire in 1678, and transforming Bermuda into a crown colony in 1684.

The King’s death in 1685 and subsequent rebellions in England and Scotland against the new Catholic monarch, James II, threw Bermuda into crisis. Irregular reports made it unclear who was winning or who would protect their island. Bermudians were not alone in their wish for greater protection. On the mainland, Native Americans led by Metacom (Figure 16) — or as the English called him, King Philip — devastated New England between 1675 and 1678 while Indian conflicts helped trigger Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676. Equally troubling, New France loomed, and many remained wary of Catholics in Maryland. In the colonists’ view, Catholics and Indians sought to destroy English America.

Portrait of Prince William II With Mary, Princess Royal and Princess of Orange. 1647
Figure 15 — Portrait of William and Mary by Gerard van Honthorst, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public sDomain
Portrait of King Philip, also known as Metacom
Figure 16 — Metacom (King Philip) by S. Drake, Wikimedia Commons is in the Public Domain

James II worked to place the colonies on firmer defensive footing by creating the Dominion of New England in 1686. Colonists had accepted him as king despite his religion but began to suspect him of possessing absolutist ambitions. The Dominion consolidated the New England colonies plus New York and New Jersey into one administrative unit to counter French Canada, but colonists decried the loss of their individual provinces. The Dominion’s governor, Sir Edmund Andros, did little to assuage fears of arbitrary power when he impressed colonists into military service for a campaign against Maine Indians in early 1687.

In England, James’s push for religious toleration brought him into conflict with Parliament and the Anglican establishment. Fearing that James meant to destroy Protestantism, a group of bishops and Parliamentarians asked William of Orange, the Protestant Dutch Stadtholder, and James’s son-in-law, to invade the country in 1688. When the king fled to France in December, Parliament invited William and Mary to take the throne, and colonists in America declared allegiance to the new monarchs. They did so in part to maintain order in their respective colonies. As one Virginia official explained, if there was “no King in England, there was no Government here.” A declaration of allegiance was therefore a means toward stability.

More importantly, colonists declared for William and Mary because they believed their ascension marked the rejection of absolutism and confirmed the centrality of Protestantism in English life. Settlers joined in the revolution by overthrowing the Dominion government, restoring the provinces to their previous status, and forcing out the Catholic-dominated Maryland government. They launched several assaults against French Canada as part of “King William’s War,” and rejoiced in Parliament’s 1689 passage of a Bill of Rights, which curtailed the power of the monarchy and cemented Protestantism in England. For English colonists, it was indeed a “glorious” revolution as it united them in a Protestant empire that stood counter to Catholic tyranny, absolutism, and French power. (3)