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The English Civil War and Interregnum

Page history last edited by Ayşegül Yeşilbursa 15 years, 3 months ago
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, and was succeeded by her nephew, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, James I (James IV of Scotland) who reigned from 1603-1625. His reign showed a continuance in the support of literature that Elizabeth I had shown, so dramatists and poets such as Shakespeare and Spenser were able to continue their works. However, the religious and political tensions that would intensify during the reign of his son, Charles I (1625-1649) and eventually lead to the Civil Wars began to appear, because, unlike Elizabeth, James I and Charles I emphasised their roles as absolute monarch and asserted their divine rights as king.
James I     Charles I
Religiously, the Puritans were calling for more reforms in doctrine, worship and church government. They also denounced any form of rural (Sunday sports, rural plays and celebrations) and court culture (stage plays) as pagan blasphemous in the case of the former, and excessive and immoral in the case of the latter.
Politically, there were contentions as to the position of sovereign power in the state. While both James I and Charles I asserted the absolute prerogatives of the monarch, opponents during Charles’ reign developed a countertheory that gave supremacy to the people’s representatives – Parliament. The rivalry between the two opposing sides intensified and led to the civil wars of 1642-1645 and 1648-1649, which ended with the trial and execution of the anointed king, Charles I, a completely unprecedented event. The monarchy was thus abolished and a commonwealth formed, and the need to defend the regicide and new form of government was expressed in a number of works. John Milton, for example, in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates (1649) described a radical contract theory of government asserting that sovereignty always lies with the people. Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, in Leviathan (1651) developed a theory of absolutism in which the people give their power and rights to the monarch, who acts for all of them.
The event known as the English Civil War actually consists of three separate wars: The wars between 1642-1645 and 1648-1649 which was fought between king and parliament and culminated in the execution of the king; and the war of 1649-1651 during the Commonwealth, which was fought between the Parliamentarians (also known as the Roundheads because of the shape of the helmets they wore) and Royalists (supporters of the monarchy, also known as the Cavaliers).
The Interregnum is the name given to the period of parliamentary and military rule under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell (succeeded by his son, Richard Cromwell) and his New Model Army, an army of fully-professional soldiers liable for service in any part of the country.
 Oliver Cromwell
The Parliamentarians were Puritans, who, as mentionedearlier,called for purity of worship and doctrine and advocated an austere lifestyle, restricting the excesses of the previous regime. They suppressed holidays with pagan origins, such as Christmas and Easter; and importantly for literature, they closed down all the theatres, which they believed encouraged immorality, so no drama was written during this period.
The English Interregnum was short-lived and began to lose momentum with the accession of Richard Cromwell following the death of his father. The period ended with the restoration of the English monarchy, and Charles II was brought back from exile and reinstated as king.
While there are many writers in this period, three examples representing different trains of thought will be given here: Thomas Hobbes, John Bunyan and John Milton.
1. THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679)
Fundamental questions about the nature and legitimacy of state power were raised by the English Civil War and its aftermath. Thomas Hobbes attempted to answer these questions with his ambitious masterwork of political theory, “Leviathan” (1651), a grim, powerful political treatise.
In Leviathan, society was pictured as a monster made up of innumerable small units (human beings), which, unless restrained by force, would constantly fight with each other (the natural condition of humanity). Without forceful top-down control (a strong central government), society was “a war of all against all”. According to Hobbes, civil war makes “the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short”.
The work was the earliest and most influential example of social contract theory, later added to and conserved by John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.
2. JOHN BUNYAN (1628-1688)
Being the son of a poor tinker and having received a very inadequate education, John Bunyan is one of the most remarkable literary figures in this period. Given his humble upbringing, nobody could have expected him to become a writer known the throughout the world.
In his middle ages, he became aware of his previous “un-Biblical” life and entered the Baptist church (a Christian sect emerging in the 16th and 17th centuries). He then became a preacher, and was imprisoned for 12 years for preaching without a licence. It was during this time that he conceived of his allegorical novel, “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, which became widely translated.
The Pilgrim’s Progress” (1678) is an allegorical work telling of the journey of a Christian pilgrim to heaven. The basic metaphor – life as a journey-is familiar, and the objects that the pilgrim encounters on his way are commonplace: a quagmire, the highway, bypaths, pleasant meadows, an inn etc.
Christian leaves his home and the City of Destruction to go on a journey to the Celestial City. His journey is made more difficult because of a burden on his back (the original sin of Adam). He encounters many difficulties: he has to pass through difficult places and fight a number of creatures; his friend Faithful is martyred in the town Vanity Fair and takes the shortcut to the Celestial City, but he eventually reaches his destination with Hope.
In the second part of the book, his wife, Christiana, undergoes the same journey to salvation. Bunyan notes that family and children cannot accompany you on the journey. Everyone must save themselves.
 Christian flees from his home in the City of Destruction
While The Pilgrim’s Progress is no longer a household book, it survives in our language today in several phrases including:
“the slough of despond” – a deep bog that Christian sinks into under the weight of his sins and guilt. It is now used to refer to a state of depression;
and “Vanity Fair” – a city selling all kinds of worldly goods that are a temptation to the Christian pilgrim, but are considered futile because they are of no help to him on the way to the Celestial City.
3. JOHN MILTON (1608-1674)
John Milton was a Puritan who actively rebelled against the king. He became blind, having read too much by candlelight when he was a child, and dictated most of his works, including his masterpiece, “Paradise Lost”. He had three unhappy marriages. He lost his first two wives in childbirth; then had an unsuccessful marriage to the 16 year daughter of a Royalist family. He was a strong advocate of marriage for companionship and also of divorce, which was still not looked favourably upon despite the more lenient Protestant attitudes to the matter.
Paradise Lost” (1667)
When he was young, John Milton announced himself to be the future author of a great English epic, a poem devoted to the glory of the nation focusing on the deeds of King Arthur of some other ancient hero. Thirty years later, he published a poem about the Fall of Satan and humankind, set in Heaven, Hell and the Garden of Eden. He denigrated traditional heroism and made no mention of England. The gap between his youthful promise and the eventual fulfilment lay in a career marked by private tragedy and public controversy.
Paradise Lost is an ambitious poem originally written in 10 books which were later split into 12 in keeping with the classical epic tradition. Milton combined the classical epic form with Biblical content, and used blank verse because he thought rhyme was an unnecessary component of poetry, and “the invention of a barbarous age” that constituted a hindrance to the poet’s expression. He was fluent in both English and Latin, and in spite of the latter being a common medium of expression in literature, he chose the former so that he might reach a wider audience. However, he imposed a Latinate structure on the language which makes it sound very different from normal English. Look at the Invocation from Book 1. Whereas English structure would deem that Milton begin with the imperative “Sing”, the Latinate structure means that this imperative appears towards the end of the phrase, line 6 (see also imperatives in bold)
Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa's brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above th' Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
And chiefly thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for thou know'st; thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread,
Dove-like sat'st brooding on the vast Abyss,
And mad'st it pregnant: what in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That, to the height of this great argument,
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the ways of God to men
The “Heavenly Muse” from whom he seeks inspiration is none other than the Holy Spirit (The Holy Trinity: Father-Son-Holy Ghost (Spirit)), and he admits that his poem is ambitious, saying that it will “soar Above th’ Aonian Mount” [Mount Helicon, where the classical muses lived] while it pursues Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme”. He states his ambitious intention at the end of the invocation as being “to justify the ways of God to men”. He wanted to show humankind was a more superior creature for having sinned and having to earn its place in Heaven by encountering and overcoming difficulties in the mortal world.
He also reflects his Puritan ideals that pure belief is more important than ostentatious places of worship in the lines “O Spirit, that dost prefer Before all temples th’ upright heart and pure”
Fleischmann, R. (1999). “A Survey of English Literature in its Historical Context”. Available http://www.uni-bielefeld.de/lili/personen/fleischmann/surveyelit.pdf
Greenblatt, S. et al (eds). (2006). “The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th edition”, Volume 1. W.W. Norton and Company: New York, NY
Sutherland, J. “Classics of British Literature”. The Teaching Company.
Wikipedia pages on the English Civil War, the English Interregnum, Thomas Hobbes, John Bunyan, John Milton


Comments (2)

Anonymous said

at 1:10 am on Jan 13, 2009

This civil war and interregnum issue has bored us after other colorful topics.In fact,its gives us important information about the history of the England,but it is a fact that because of the affects of the reputed student psychology we have bored a bit.

Anonymous said

at 6:08 am on Jan 13, 2009

The English Civil War and Interregnum issue has a lot of historical knowledges about that period.I like Ottoman History very much,but I dont like English Civil War although this has many resembles with our Ottoman History.

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