The Future of History

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

How to Start a Civil War

In my research for my book on Sir William Davenant (Shakespeare's Son) I've been having to get to grips with a subject which has long intrigued me.

The English Civil War.

More than anything, I've been eager to understand why it happened.

Naturally, there were large-scale issues - such as the feeling, among many fanatics, that the English Reformation in the 16th century simply hadn't gone far enough.  The Church of England, as it was established under Elizabeth I, was really a sort of State broadcasting service.  It was neither too Catholic nor too Calvinist.  The more zealous Protestants wanted something far more extreme.

But that doesn't explain how the country slid into military conflict.  To understand that, we might look at just one small example of contemporary politicking.

In January 1644, a ship sailing from Dunkirk to Spain ran aground on the south coast of England.  Local troops seized what they could, including various "Popish pictures and superstitious Imagery".  One of these was a large picture which, it was said, depicted the Pope offering a sceptre to King Charles I of England, who declined it, offering it instead to his queen, Henrietta Maria, a Catholic.  The picture, therefore, showed that "Pope and Queene share the Sceptre of England between them".  It was a comment on King Charles I, who was then at war with his Parliament: the King was under his wife's thumb, and both of them were in hock to the Bishop of Rome.

No one seems to have asked themselves why such an image was on its way to an obscure Spanish church.  But one pamphleteer did enter the fray, pointing out that the figure supposedly representing Charles I was wearing the costume of an ancient Roman captain; that the "Pope" was clearly an ordinary bishop; that the distinctive spire in the background belonged to the cathedral of Cologne, and that the subject of the painting was quite obviously an episode from the life of St Ursula, whose martyrdom was depicted in the background.

A few were convinced.  But others continued to insist that the captured painting showed nothing less than the Pope in league with King Charles, who was further to be damned for listening too much to his French wife.  In short, it didn't matter what evidence was brought forth: the hard-liners saw what they wanted to see, and that was that.

Such things happen in febrile times.  Events are interpreted, not on the basis of fact or evidence, but on the basis of preconceived prejudices.  Once people are prepared instantly to believe that a painting of St Ursula is really a painting of the English king being wooed by the Pope and handing power to his queen, then all hope of reasonable debate is lost.

It's no coincidence that these things happened at a time when the printed word was being distributed like never before.  There is a similarity with our own times - the internet is not unlike the pamphleteering activity of the 17th century.  Anyone who has an opinion can voice it.  Many are using the opportunity deliberately to misinform others and incite political agitation.

We're fast heading into similar territory as that in which a painting of a sacred subject can become something altogether different - an indictment of the supposed faults of an English king.  Now, as then, people are filtering their interpretations of events through their own prejudices.  Whenever something happens, the facts are immediately "spun".  The event, and the motives of those concerned, are instantaneously reinterpreted through a veritable Babel of claim and counterclaim.  The result is a rush to judgement, as people too easily swallow the interpretation which suits their prejudices.  Pointing out the facts of the matter becomes a waste of time.  Battle lines have been drawn, long before any evidence actually comes to light.

The earliest known accounts of the Flood indicate that the gods decided to punish mankind because we had become "noisy".

Well, we're becoming noisy again.  Things got noisy in the early 1640s, and that led to a bloody civil war, the execution of a king, and a government of fanatics, which was nothing short of a military dictatorship.

So, there you have it: the English Civil War was caused, as much as anything, by people's willingness to believe nonsense rather than look at the facts.

If history teaches us anything, it's that when people prefer to be noisy than to take a breath, examine the evidence and come to a sensible, informed and considered conclusion, then something like a civil war can't be far away.

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