Following the Reformation’s successful division of spiritual authority, the English Civil Wars opened space for civil society to sharply disrupt absolutism.

Editor’s Note

Anthony Comegna, PhD

Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Nearing the end of his lectures, Guizot turns to the English Civil Wars (what he calls the “Revolution,” 1642–1651). As in our last number, Guizot once again adopts a very sympathetic interpretation of people and events, though he takes pains to balance his narrative with criticism. As a practitioner of history, Guizot was a child of Enlightenment rationalism–his history was the product of steady, consistent, and highly capable archival research and mountains of evidence. As a theorist, however, Guizot believed that ideas had a life of their own distinguishable from the individuals who espoused them. We have seen this tendency alive in many previous chapters and it often causes him to make rather bold, controversial claims (like arguing that feudalism was a necessary step in historical development). In our last selection, Guizot excused the Protestant reformers for lacking certain essential liberal insights not yet developed until after the division of spiritual authority permitted such investigations into moral life. Therefore, while they advocated the constraints of some central authorities, the reformers erected their own institutions to replace defunct Catholic ones. During the sixteenth century, European thinkers established the facts of “the right of free examination, and centralization of power; one prevailing in religious society, the other in civil society.” In the same historical epoch, liberty of thought and the total centralization of political authority predominated alongside each other. It was only a matter of time, in Guizot’s mind, before these logically inconsistent positions clashed and produced a new and more correct, organic synthesis of institutions and ideas.

The clash occurred first in England a little over a century after King Henry VIII first separated England from Rome. In Guizot’s view, the English Reformation was a revolutionary assertion of royal political power into the spiritual realm. The Tudors and Stuarts diligently built upon this radical reformulation to construct a modernizing Protestant empire. These new Early Modern English kings and queens were countered, however, by a host of potential friends and enemies with interests of their own and massively growing powers. First there were the new ranks of Anglican clergy; then came the endless array of wealthy landowners, merchants, industrialists, and financiers; and the vast sea of people occupying positions below the echelons of ruling elites. Each of these groups manifested their own ideas and interests into new institutional arrangements and even dissenting sub‐​cultures.

Ultimately, the very existence of absolutist monarchy was irreconcilable with these new interest blocs. During the “Revolution” or civil wars, those English who favored religious liberty even from the Anglican church combined strength with those who favored the ancient Anglo‐​Saxon traditions of political liberty to overthrow absolutism of all varieties. But the wars which overthrew absolutism were examples of almost unrestrained chaos and violence in which the social bonds allowing individuals to peacefully organize themselves disintegrated into unrecognizable forms. Though Parliament did indeed restore the Stuarts to the throne in the end, they did so only after the idea of absolute monarchy had itself become stale and outdated. The new England possessed a limited, (unwritten) constitutional monarchy, an increasingly representative parliament, a powerful and wealthy new class of corporate‐​capitalists, a dynamic and liberalizing political and popular culture, and a rapidly expanding world empire to fuel the great balancing machine of state. And though Britain’s modernity was in large part a result of regicide, the English quickly became known for a distinct distaste for “anarchy” and chaos–the perfect foils for historians to pit against Guizot’s next and final subject: revolutionary France.

By Francois Pierre Guillaume Guizot

The History of Civilization in Europe (Excerpts)

New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1896.


We have seen, that during the course of the sixteenth century, all the elements, all the facts, of ancient European society had merged in two essential facts, the right of free examination, and centralization of power; one prevailing in religious society, the other in civil society. The emancipation of the human mind and absolute monarchy triumphed at the same moment over Europe in general.

It could hardly be conceived that a struggle between these two facts—the characters of which appear so contradictory—would not, at some time, break out; for while one was the defeat of absolute power in the spiritual order, the other was the triumph of absolute power in the temporal order; one forced on the decline of the ancient ecclesiastical monarchy, the other was the consummation of the ruin of the ancient feudal and municipal liberty. Their simultaneous appearance was owing, as I have already observed, to the circumstance that the revolutions of the religious society followed more rapidly than those of the civil; one had arrived at the point in which the freedom of individual thought was secured, while the other still lingered on the spot where the concentration of all the powers in one general power took place. The coincidence of these two facts, so far from being the consequence of their similitude, did not even prevent their contradiction. They were both advances in the march of civilization, but they were advances connected with different situations; advances of a different moral date, if I may be allowed the expression, although coincident in time. From their position it seemed inevitable that they must clash and combat before a reconciliation could be effected between them.

The first shock between them took place in England. The struggle of the right of free inquiry, the fruit of the Reformation, against the entire suppression of political liberty, the object aimed at by pure monarchy—the attempt to abolish absolute power in the temporal order, as had already been done in the spiritual order—this is the true sense of the English revolution; this is the part it took in the work of civilization.

But how, it may be asked, came it to pass, that this struggle took place in England sooner than anywhere else? How happened it that the revolutions of a political character coincided here with those of a moral character sooner than they did on the Continent?

In England, the royal power had undergone the same vicissitudes as it had on the Continent. Under the Tudors it had reached a degree of concentration and vigor which it had never attained to before. I do not mean to say that the practical despotism of the Tudors was more violent and vexatious than that of their predecessors; there were quite as many, perhaps more, tyrannical proceedings, vexations, and acts of injustice, under the Plantagenets, as under the Tudors. Perhaps, too, at this very period the government of pure monarchy was more severe and arbitrary on the Continent than in England. The new fact under the Tudors was, that absolute power became systematic; royalty laid claim to a primitive, independent sovereignty; it maintained a tone which it had never held before. The theoretic claims of Henry VIII, Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I, are very different from those of Edward I and III, although, in point of fact, the power of the two latter monarchs was nowise less arbitrary or extensive. I repeat, then, it was the principle, the rational system of monarchy, which changed in England, in the sixteenth century, rather than its practical power; royalty now declared itself absolute and superior to all laws, even to those which it declared itself willing to respect.

There is another point to be considered; the religious revolution had not been accomplished in England in the same way as on the Continent; it was here the work of the monarchs themselves. It must not be supposed that the seeds had not been sown, or that even attempts had not been made at a popular reform, which would probably have soon broken out. But Henry VIII took the lead; power became revolutionary; and hence it happened, at least in its origin, that, as a redress of ecclesiastical abuses, as an emancipation of the human mind, the reform in England was much less complete than upon the Continent. It was made, as might naturally be expected, in accordance with the interests of its authors. The king and the episcopacy, which was here continued, divided between themselves the riches and the power, of which they despoiled their predecessors, the popes. The effect of this was soon felt. The Reformation, people cried out, had been closed, while the greater part of the abuses which had induced them to desire it, were still continued.

The Reformation reappeared under a more popular form; it made the same demands of the bishops that had already been made of the Holy See; it accused them of being so many popes. As often as the general fate of the religious revolution was compromised; whenever a struggle against the ancient Church took place, the various portions of the Reformation party rallied together, and made common cause against the common enemy: but this danger over, the struggle again broke out among themselves; the popular reform again attacked the aristocratic and royal reform, denounced its abuses, complained of its tyranny, called upon it to make good its promises, and not itself usurp the power which it had just dethroned.

At about the same time a movement for liberty took place in civil society; a desire before unknown, or at least but weakly expressed, was now felt for political freedom. In the course of the sixteenth century, the commercial prosperity of England had increased with amazing rapidity, while during the same time, much territorial wealth, much baronial property had changed hands. The numerous divisions of landed property, which took place during the sixteenth century, in consequence of the ruin of the feudal nobility, and from various other causes which I cannot now stop to enumerate, form a fact which has not been sufficiently noticed. A variety of documents prove how greatly the number of landed properties increased; the estates going generally into the hands of the gentry, composed of the lesser nobility, and persons who had acquired property by trade. The high nobility, the House of Lords, did not, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, nearly equal, in riches, the House of Commons. There had taken place, then, at the same time in England, a great increase in wealth among the industrial classes, and a great change in landed property. While these two facts were being accomplished, there happened a third, a new march of mind.

The reign of Queen Elizabeth must be regarded as a period of great literary and philosophical activity in England, a period remarkable for bold and pregnant thought; the Puritans followed, without hesitation, all the consequences of a narrow, but powerful creed; other intellects, with less morality, but more freedom and boldness, alike regardless of principle or system, seized with avidity upon every idea, which seemed to promise some gratification to their curiosity, some food for their mental ardor. And it may be regarded as a maxim, that wherever the progress of intelligence is a true pleasure, a desire for liberty is soon felt, nor is it long in passing from the public mind to the state.

A feeling of the same kind, a sort of creeping desire for political liberty, almost manifested itself in some of the countries on the Continent in which the Reformation had made some way; but these countries, being without the means of success, made no progress; they knew not how to make their desire felt; they could find no support for it either in institutions, or in the habits and usages of the people; hence this desire remained vague, uncertain, and sought in vain for the means of satisfying its cravings. In England the case was widely different: the spirit of political liberty which showed itself here in the sixteenth century, as a sort of appendix to the Reformation, found both a firm support and the means of speaking and acting in the ancient institutions of the country, and indeed in the whole framework of English society.

There is hardly anyone who does not know the origin of the free institutions of England. How, in 1215, a coalition of the great barons wrested Magna Charta from John; but it is not quite so generally known, that this charter was renewed and confirmed, from time to time, by almost every king. It was confirmed upwards of thirty times between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries, besides which new statutes were passed to confirm and extend its enactments. Thus it lived, as it were, without gap or interval. In the mean time the House of Commons had been formed, and taken its place among the sovereign institutions of the country. Under the Plantagenets it had taken deep root and become firmly established; not that at this time it played any great part or had even much influence in the government; it scarcely indeed interfered in this except when called upon to do so by the king, and then only with hesitation and regret; afraid rather of bringing itself into trouble and danger, than jealous of augmenting its power and authority. But the case was different when it was called upon to defend private rights, the house or property of the citizens, or in short the rights and privileges of individuals; this duty the House of Commons performed with wonderful energy and perseverance, putting forward and establishing all those principles which have become the basis of the English constitution. Under the Tudors the House of Commons, or rather the Parliament altogether, put on a new character. It no longer defended individual liberty so well as under the Plantagenets. Arbitrary detentions, and violations of private rights, which became much more frequent, were often passed in silence. But, as a counterbalance for this, the Parliament interfered to a much greater extent than formerly in the general affairs of government. Henry VIII, in order to change the religion of the country, and to regulate the succession, required some public support, some public instrument, and he had recourse to Parliament, and especially to the House of Commons, for this purpose. This, which under the Plantagenets had only been a means of resistance, a guarantee of private rights, became now, under the Tudors, an instrument of government, of general policy; so that at the end of the sixteenth century, notwithstanding it had been the tool, and submitted to the will of nearly all sorts of tyrannies, its importance had greatly increased; the foundation of its power was laid, the foundation of that power upon which truly rests representative government.

In taking a view, then, of the free institutions of England at the end of the sixteenth century, we find them to consist: first, of maxims—of principles of liberty, which had been constantly acknowledged in written documents, and of which the legislation and country had never lost sight; secondly, of precedents, of examples of liberty; these, it is true, were mixed with a great number of precedents and examples of an opposite nature; still they were quite sufficient to maintain, to give a legal character to the claims of the friends of liberty, and to support them in their struggle against arbitrary and tyrannical government; thirdly, particular and local institutions, pregnant with the seeds of liberty, the jury, the right of holding public meetings, of bearing arms, to which must be added the independence of municipal administration and jurisdiction; fourthly and finally, the parliament and its authority became more necessary now than ever to the monarchs, as these having dilapidated the greater part of their independent revenues, crown domains, feudal rights, etc., could not support even the expenses of their households, without having recourse to a vote of parliament.

The political state of England then was very different from that of the Continent; notwithstanding the tyranny of the Tudors, notwithstanding the systematic triumph of absolute monarchy, there still remained here a firm support for the new spirit of liberty, a sure means by which it could act.

At this epoch, two national wants were felt in England: on one hand, a want of religious liberty and of a continuation of the reformation already begun; on the other, a want of political liberty, which seemed arrested by the absolute monarchy now establishing its power. These two parties formed an alliance; the party which wished to carry forward religious reform, invoked political liberty to the aid of its faith and conscience against the bishops and the crown. The friends of political liberty, in like manner, sought the aid of the friends of popular religious reform. The two parties joined their forces to struggle against absolute power, both spiritual and political, now concentrated in the hands of the king. Such is the origin and signification of the English revolution.

It appears, then, to have been essentially devoted to the defence or achievement of liberty. For the religious party it was a means, for the political party it was an end; but the object of both was still liberty, and they were determined to pursue it in common…

Three principal parties appeared upon the stage at this important crisis; three revolutions seem to have been contained within it, and to have successively appeared upon the scene. In each party, in each revolution, two parties moved together in alliance, a political party and a religious party; the former took the lead, the second followed, but one could not go without the other, so that a double character seems to be imprinted upon it in all its changes.

The first party which appeared in the field, and under whose banners at the beginning marched all the others, was the high, pure‐​monarchy party, advocating legal reform. When the revolution began, when the Long Parliament assembled in 1640, it was generally said, and sincerely believed by many, that a legal, a constitutional reform would suffice; that the ancient laws and practices of the country were sufficient to correct every abuse, to establish a system of government which would fully meet the wishes of the public.

This party highly blamed and earnestly desired to put a stop to illegal imposts, to arbitrary imprisonments—to all acts, indeed, contrary to the known law and usages of the country. But under these ideas, there lay hid, as it were, a belief in the divine right of the king, and in his absolute power. A secret instinct seemed to warn it that there was something false and dangerous in this notion; and on this account it appeared always desirous to avoid the subject. Forced, however, at last to speak out, it acknowledged the divine right of kings, and admitted that they possessed a power superior to all human origin, to all human control; and as such they defended it in time of need. Still, however, they believed that this sovereignty, though absolute in principle, was bound to exercise its authority according to certain rules and forms; that it could not go beyond certain limits; and that these rules, these forms, and these limits were sufficiently established and guaranteed in Magna Charta, in the confirmatory statutes, in the ancient laws and usages of the country. Such was the political creed of this party. In religious matters, it believed that the episcopacy had greatly encroached; that the bishops possessed far too much political power; that their jurisdiction was far too extensive, that it required to be restrained, and its proceedings jealously watched. Still it held firmly to episcopacy…

Behind this party advanced a second, which I shall call the political‐​revolutionary party; it differed from the foregoing, inasmuch as it did not believe the ancient guarantees, the ancient legal barriers sufficient to secure the rights and liberties of the people. It saw that a great change, a genuine revolution was wanting, not only in the forms, but in the spirit and essence of the government; that it was necessary to deprive the king and his council of the unlimited power which they possessed, and to place the preponderance in the House of Commons; so that the government should, in fact, be in the hands of this assembly and its leaders. This party made no such open and systematic profession of its principles and intentions as I have done; but this was the real character of its opinions, and of its political tendencies. Instead of acknowledging the absolute sovereignty of the king, it contended for the sovereignty of the House of Commons as the representatives of the people. Under this principle was hid that of the sovereignty of the people; a notion which the party was as far from considering in its full extent, as it was from desiring the consequences to which it might ultimately lead, but which they nevertheless admitted when it presented itself to them in the form of the sovereignty of the House of Commons.

The religious party most closely allied to this political‐​revolutionary one was that of the Presbyterians. This sect wished to bring about much the same revolution in the Church as their allies were endeavoring to effect in the state. They desired to erect a system of church government emanating from the people, and composed of a series of assemblies dovetailed, as it were, into each other…

The third party, going much beyond these two, declared that a change was required not only in the form, but also in the foundation of the government; that its constitution was radically vicious and bad. This party paid no respect to the past life of England; it renounced her institutions, it swept away all national remembrances, it threw down the whole fabric of English government, that it might build up another founded on pure theory, or at least one that existed only in its own fancy. It aimed not merely at a revolution in the government, but at a complete revolution of the whole social system. The party of which I have just spoken, the political‐​revolutionary party, proposed to make a great change in the relations in which the parliament stood with the crown; it wished to extend the power of the two houses, particularly of the commons, by giving to it the nomination of the great officers of state, and the supreme direction of affairs in general; but its notions of reform scarcely went beyond this. It had no idea, for example, of changing the electoral system, the judicial system, the administrative and municipal systems of the country. The republican party contemplated all these changes, dwelt upon their necessity, wished, in a word, to reform not only the public administration, but the relations of society, and the distribution of private rights.

Like the two preceding, this party was composed of a religious sect, and a political sect. Its political portion were the genuine republicans, the theorists, Ludlow, Harrington, Milton, and others. To these may be added the republicans of circumstance, of interest, such as the principal officers of the army, Ireton, Cromwell, Lambert, and others, who were more or less sincere at the beginning of their career, but were soon controlled and guided by personal motives and the force of circumstances. Under the banners of this party marched the religious republicans, all those religious sects which would acknowledge no power as legitimate but that of Jesus Christ, and who, awaiting his second coming, desired only the government of his elect. Finally, in the train of this party followed a mixed assemblage of subordinate free‐​thinkers, fanatics, and levellers, some hoping for license, some for an equal distribution of property, and others for universal suffrage.

In 1653, after twelve years of struggle, all these parties had successively appeared and failed; they appear at least to have thought so, and the public was sure of it. The legal reform party quickly disappeared; it saw the old constitution and laws insulted, trampled under foot, and innovations forcing their way on every side. The political‐​revolutionary party saw the destruction of parliamentary forms in the new use which it was proposed to make of them—it had seen the House of Commons reduced, by the successive expulsions of royalists and Presbyterians, to a few members, despised, detested by the public, and incapable of governing. The republican party appeared to have succeeded better; it seemed to be left master of the field and of power; the House of Commons consisted of but fifty or sixty members, all republicans. They might fancy themselves, and call themselves, the rulers of the country; but the country rejected their government; they were nowhere obeyed; they had no power either over the army or the nation. No social bond, no social security was now left; justice was no longer administered, or if it was, it was controlled by passion, chance, or party. Not only was there no security in the relations of private life, but the highways were covered with robbers and companies of brigands. Anarchy in every part of the civil, as well as of the moral world, prevailed; and neither the House of Commons, nor the republican Council of State, had the power to restrain it…

The Protector, the absolute master of England, was obliged all his life to have recourse to force to preserve his power; no party could govern so well as he, but no party liked to see the government in his hands; he was repeatedly attacked by them all at once.

Upon Cromwell’s death, there was no party in a situation to seize upon the government except the republicans; they did seize upon it, but with no better success than before…

The restoration of the Stuarts was an event generally pleasing to the nation. It brought back a government which still dwelt in its memory, which was founded upon its ancient traditions, while, at the same time, it had some of the advantages of a new government, in that it had not recently been tried, in that its faults and its power had not lately been felt. The ancient monarchy was the only system of government which had not been decried, within the last twenty years, for its abuses and want of capacity in the administration of the affairs of the kingdom. From these two causes the restoration was extremely popular; it was unopposed by any but the dregs of the most violent factions, while the public rallied round it with great sincerity. All parties in the country seemed now to believe that this offered the only chance left of a stable and legal government, and this was what, above all things, the nation now desired. This also was what the restoration seemed especially to promise; it took much pains to present itself under the aspect of legal government…

But the fundamental principles upon which this administration was based—the absolute sovereignty of the king, and a government beyond the preponderating control of parliament—were now become old and powerless. Notwithstanding the temporary reaction which took place at the first burst of the restoration, twenty years of parliamentary rule against royalty had destroyed them for ever. A new party soon showed itself among the royalists; libertines, profligates, wretches, who, imbued with the free opinions of the times, and seeing that power was with the commons,—caring themselves but little about legal order, or the absolute power of the king,—were only anxious for success, and to discover the means of influence and power in whatever quarter they were likely to be found. These formed a party, and [allied] with the national, discontented party…

Without inquietude respecting principles, laws, or rights, or care for justice or truth; they sought the means of success upon every occasion, whatever these means might be; if success depended on the influence of the commons, the commons were everything; if it was necessary to cajole the commons, the commons were cajoled without scruple, even though they had to apologize to them the next day. At one moment they attempted corruption, at another they flattered the national wishes; no regard was shown for the general interests of the country, for its dignity or its honor; in a word, it was a government profoundly selfish and immoral, totally unacquainted with all theory, principle, or public object; but, withal, in the practical management of affairs, showing considerable intelligence and liberality…

James II succeeded his brother; and another question now became mixed up with that of despotism: the question of religion. James II wished to achieve, at the same time, a triumph for popery and for absolute power: now again, as at the commencement of the revolution, there was a religious struggle and a political struggle, and both were directed against the government. It has often been asked, what course affairs would have taken if William III had not existed, and come over to put an end to the quarrel between James and the people. My firm belief is that the same event would have taken place. All England, except a very small party, was at this time arrayed against James; and it seems very certain, that, under some form or other, the revolution of 1688 must have been accomplished. But at this crisis, causes even superior to the internal state of England conduced to this event. It was European as well as English. It is at this point that the English revolution links itself, by facts, and independently of the influence of its example, to the general course of European civilization…

It now only remains for us to study the same great event, the struggle of free inquiry and pure monarchy, upon the continent, or at least the causes and preparation of this event. This will be the object of the next and final lecture.