Oxford and the English Civil War, 1640 - 1660

In January 1649 the unthinkable happened: after a public trial the King of England was beheaded on a scaffold outside his palace of Whitehall. The world would never be quite the same again. Very shortly afterwards the monarchy, along with the House of Lords, were formally abolished. England was declared to be a 'Free State and Commonwealth' and for the next eleven years various governments attempted to forge a new concept of England based upon the ideals of puritan republicanism and impose these ideals on Scotland, Wales and Ireland in an attempt to create not just an English but a 'British' republic.

How had this extraordinary state of affairs come about? Why had the relationship between King and Parliament broken down to such an extent that by 1642 both sides were talking peace and reconciliation whilst actively preparing for war? This is where we will begin this course as we examine the breakdown of trust between Charles I and the 'political nation' in the 1630s, discussing in the process such vexed questions as the role of religion and the Crown's right to levy taxes. From there we will look at the conduct of the first Civil War before moving onto discuss the complex period in the late 1640s which saw the emergence of the Leveller and Digger movements, the confrontations between Parliament and the New Model Army, the rise of Oliver Cromwell, the growth of religious radicalism and which culminated in renewed fighting in 1648.

The final part of the course will examine the revolution of 1649, which witnessed the trial and execution of Charles I, the establishment of the republic and Cromwell's military successes in Scotland and Ireland. We will then consider the various expedients adopted to try to find a way to settle the country on a new republican foundation which resulted in Cromwell's installation as Lord Protector in 1653 - was he 'king in all but name?' Finally we will look at the fall of the republic after Cromwell's death and the restoration of Charles II and the 'old order' between 1658 and 1662.

Throughout the course events in Oxford will be our focus and point of reference. From Archbishop Laud's reforms as Chancellor of the University in the 1630s, through the long years when Oxford was the Royalist capital of England and a military HQ, to the purges of the University by the victorious Parliamentarians and the underground survival of Royalist and Anglican allegiance . In the 1650s the young Christopher Wren participated in 'experimental philosophy' in Wadham College's 'invisible college', and after the Restoration designed and built the Sheldonian Theatre in which the restored University could 'honour the King' and celebrate its high-days and holidays. Oxford witnessed 'a world turned upside down' between 1640 and 1660 and is one of the best places from which to understand the English Civil War.

Dr Andrew Lacey
May 2022

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