Monday, 17 October 2011

The crisis of the seventeenth century

The middle years of the seventeenth century saw a scale of disruption, social as well as political, that has caused some historians to write about a ‘seventeenth-century crisis’. It was a period of poor climate, bad harvests and food shortages but can these alone account for the widespread disorder?

From around 1640 major upheavals occurred in Scotland, Ireland, England, Catalonia and Portugal; in 1647 in Naples and Sicily; in 1648 and 1660 in Denmark; from 1648 to the early 1650s in France; from 1648 in Poland and Muscovy; from 1652 in Sweden.

In many respects it was a crisis of political legitimacy. Authority could not be taken for granted and tax revolts were common, though they were often attacks on tax officials in the name of the king. They were ‘conservative’ revolts aimed at establishing an imaginary golden past. These revolts became more serious when the monarchy was weak and incompetent as in Spain and Great Britain, or when the king was a child, as was the case with France after the death of Louis XIII in 1643. In the case of Catalonia and Scotland, they were also revolts of the periphery against the centralizing policies of the government.

The revolts were triggered when in the 1630s and 1640s rulers adopted desperate and unprecedented fiscal policies because of military requirements. These revolts were more serious than the more common economic uprisings.

Catalonia: Spain was facing severe financial problems. Philip IV’s chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares (1587-1645) (left) had ambitious plans for Spain’s economic recovery, but he made the mistake of renewing with war with the Netherlands in 1621 at a time when the Spanish crown was facing severe financial problems. The Atlantic trade was in trouble because of the depredations of the English and Dutch.
Catalonia was a self-governing province, ruled by a viceroy, that had been part of the Crown of Aragon since the Middle Ages. It was difficult to govern and in the reign of Philip II order had broken down almost completely. Catalan commerce depended increasingly on France, Spain’s long-standing enemy.

During the winter of 1639-40 Olivares sent troops into Catalonia to protect the principality against French incursions. But the billeting of the soldiers on the civilian population aroused profound resentment. In May 1640 insurgents began to attack royal officials. On 7 June the viceroy was murdered, and this led to five days of anarchy in Barcelona, forcing the reluctant king to dismiss Olivares. The revolt acquired overtimes of class warfare, becoming a struggle of the poor against the rich. In January 1641 the Catalan Cortés secured a complete transfer of the principality to French sovereignty.

The Catalan revolt was ended by the weakness of France during the Fronde and by the extreme hardships suffered by the people during the plague epidemics of 1650-4. In 1652 the province returned to Habsburg rule and its traditional autonomy was confirmed.

Joao IV of Portugal
Portugal: Portugal had been conquered by Philip II in 1581. It remained autonomous until the 1630s when Philip IV and Olivares tried to make it a Spanish province. In a coup on 1 December 1640 the duke of Braganza was proclaimed Joåo IV and a war of independence (the Portuguese Restoration War) was launched. Portugal formed an alliance first with France then with England and finally gained its independence in 1668. Unlike the Catalan revolt this was a straightforward war of independence and was not accompanied by the social tensions found in Catalonia.

Naples and Sicily
: Naples had been part of the Crown of Aragon since 1443, Sicily since 1409. The cities of Naples and Palermo suffered particular hardships because of the tax policies of the Spanish monarchy. The aristocratic viceroy was unable to contain popular revolt and the result was a series of attacks on tax officials. On 7 July 1647 the viceroy’s palace was sacked. A fisherman named Masaniello, became the leader of the revolt. He was assassinated on 16 July, but the revolt intensified, being joined by impoverished silk workers. In October, following the failure of the Spanish fleet to regain control, a republic was declared in Naples and it was not until April 1648 that Spain recovered its hold on this essential part of its supply network for the European war.

The fall of Olivares: From the beginning of the Catalan rising, Olivares’ position became vulnerable. He had always been hated by the Spanish nobility, and his survival depended on the support of the king. In 1642 the nobles took advantage of his and the king’s absence in Catalonia to conspire. When Philip returned in the winter he was faced with an organised demand for his dismissal, and he felt he had no choice but to give his consent. Olivares died in exile. He was less fortunate than Richelieu who died in his bed, but luckier than Charles I’s minister, Strafford, who was executed in May 1641.

France: the Fronde
See here for a useful discussion.

Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu
Cardinal Jules Mazarin
During the 1630s, faced with the demands of war, Cardinal Richelieu  carried out an administrative revolution in France. In order to achieve greater control over the collection of taxes, centrally appointed intendants were sent to the provinces where they began to over-ride the powers of the traditional elites. This marked a new, centralizing ruthlessness on the part of the crown.

Richelieu died in 1642 and Louis XIII died in May 1643. As the new king, Louis XIV was only five, the country faced a prolonged regency under the king’s mother, Anne of Austria and the Italian-born Cardinal Mazarin. A regency was always a precarious period in French history, providing an excuse for various groups to assert their independence of the crown. In the 1640s the situation was exacerbated because Mazarin’s decision to continue the war against Spain, at a time when negotiations were bringing the war in Germany to an end, created severe financial problems. The resulting series of revolts, known as the Fronde (1648-53), exposed all the weaknesses of the French monarchy.

The revolt started in Paris. In January 1648 the citizens rioted against new taxes on the citizenry, which breached ancient privileges. The main law-making body in France was the Parlement of Paris, composed of lawyers, members of the noblesse de robe. The Parlement challenged the fiscal edicts and demanded far-reaching reforms. In particular they wanted the abolition of the intendants. The regency responded by granting some concessions, but also by arresting some prominent parlementaires. The result was a series of riots in Paris on 26 Aug, known as the Day of the Barricades. In September Anne of Austria, the young king and Mazarin left Paris and soon accepted all the demands of the Parlement, But this was a dishonest tactical concession and led to open civil war between Paris and the regency.

Early in 1649 both sides were shocked by the news of the execution of Charles I, and a compromise was reached whereby the regency made significant concessions. This was a moment when the Parlement could have seized the political initiative and laid the foundations for a more representative and administratively efficient government. However, the moment was missed.

The Fronde spread to the provinces and became a means for ambitious nobles, such as the king’s uncle Gaston d’Orléans and his cousin, Louis, Prince of Condé, to reassert the traditional powers they believed they had lost to interlopers like Richelieu and Mazarin. During this period of confusion, the Spaniards intervened, thus prolonging the war. On 13 September 1651 Louis XIV came of age and the revolt assumed a more obviously treasonable character. This was the most destructive phase of the Fronde. In July 1652 Condé captured Paris, but he alienated many of the citizens and in October Louis was able to return. Mazarin returned in 1653. Louis never forgot that he had been forced to flee from the city.

In Bordeaux, a town with close links to England, the Fronde took a more radical turn. The Ormée (named after the elm grove where it held its first meeting) was a popular movement that took over the city and ran it through an elected assembly. In its last months it was influenced by agents from Cromwellian England, led by the Leveller officer, Edward Sexby and became more republican in its ideology.  However, the Ormée was put down by a newly confident government in July 1653.

The British Isles: the War of the Three Kingdoms
During the 1630s, Charles I managed to govern without having to summon Parliament to ask for money. He was able to do this because he kept England out of the Thirty Years’ War and because he invented ingenious ways of raising extra-parliamentary taxation. But a considerable degree of resentment was building up in England. Many were suspicious of Charles’ centralizing and religious policies and disliked his chief ministers, Thomas Wentworth (later earl of Strafford) and William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury. 

 Charles had inherited his father’s role as the monarch of a multiple kingdom (England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland). His attempt to impose religious uniformity in all three kingdoms led to disaster. In 1637 he tried to bring Scottish religious practice in line with England’s by imposing the English prayer book on the Scots in July 1637.

Riot in St Giles' Cathedral, 23 July 1637
This led to a riot in St Giles’ cathedral. In February the Scots bonded themselves together in an oath, the National Covenant, pledging themselves to ‘maintain the true worship of God’ and the ‘true religion, liberties and laws of the kingdom’. Charles reacted as King of England and interpreted this as a direct challenge to his rule. He decided to use military force to bring the Scots into line. But in order to pay for the ‘Bishops’ War’ he was forced to summon Parliament to ask for money – something he had not done since 1629.
    In the eleven years of personal rule, resentment had been building up against Charles’ religious and taxation policies, Once Parliament was summoned its grievances came into the open. Tensions were greatly exacerbated when news of a serious revolt in Ulster reached England in November 1641. In December, Parliament agreed by a narrow majority to present the king with the Grand Remonstrance, a list of their grievances against him.
When Charles tried to assert his constitutional prerogative by putting himself at the head of the militia, this led to another parliamentary revolt. The English Civil War came about because both the king and his parliamentary opponents sent out commissioners to recruit for the militia. In August 1642 the king raised his standard at Nottingham and the war officially began.

The English Civil War (1642-46; 1648) was the most serious manifestation of the mid-century crisis. It resulted in the formation of the New Model Army, a formidable military machine in which men were promoted on merit rather than birth. This army became a test-bed for radicalism, seen most notably in the Putney Debates of 1647. The war took an even more radical spiral when Parliament, purged of its moderate members, voted to try the king.
The execution of Charles I, 30 January 1649

The trial and execution of Charles I and the proclamation of a republic, was seen as a genuinely shocking event, though the other European governments eventually acknowledged the new regime. During the period of the Commonwealth (1649-53) and the Protectorate (1653-1659) radical religious sects like the Quakers grew and spread. It was a time of unprecedented religious pluralism.

Yet the republican experiment failed because it proved impossible to find a political solution that satisfied the claims of Parliament and the Army. If Cromwell had lived, he might have provided some stability by founding his own dynasty, but on his death in 1658 the recall of the monarchy seemed the only reasonable alternative. In May 1660 the Stuarts returned.

Research on the disturbances of the mid-seventeenth century has shown that there was no ‘general crisis’. Instead, there were specific grievances that weak and incompetent governments were unable to satisfy. Yet the Ormée, and, more importantly, the radical movements in England, posed for a while severe threats to the established order. These threats were decisive in producing a political reaction in favour of strong monarchy. From 1660 in much of Europe the state came to exercise an unchallenged monopoly of power.