No, Elizabeth Stuart Would Not Have Stopped the English Civil War (Probably)

As you might have noticed, A Phuulish Fellow is a fairly eclectic blog. Even an organic one. I have my interests, and write about them as the fit takes me. And sometimes I stumble across an article I feel the need to comment on.

Today, I ran across a review of a new biography of Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England/VI of Scotland, and sister of Charles I:

https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/with-elizabeth-stuart-as-monarch-might-the-english-civil-war-have-been-avoided-

Now, I haven’t read the biography in question, nor intend to – amongst other things, I can detect the tell-tale whiff of hagiography, the trap of historical fanboyism (or in this case, fangirling). No, my focus is rather more on the implicit framing of the review. Namely, that Elizabeth Stuart was much smarter than her brother, had more acceptable religious leanings for the time, and would have made a much better job of ruling. Oh, and she would have been celebrated as a new Elizabeth I, always a plus*. All told, the reviewer makes it sound like all the trauma of the English Civil War and Interregnum could have been avoided, if only fate had given the throne to Elizabeth, rather than Charles.

Which is (probably) a fair amount of nonsense.

For a start, the reviewer is giving us a decidedly nineteenth century historiographical view of this period. There is the implied idolisation of Elizabeth I, the Great Gloriana, and the implied condemnation of Charles I and his comparative incompetence. As though the Civil War were simply a matter of Charles being both muppet and tyrant, with Parliament merely responding to his outrages. The great narrative of Whig History rolls on, even unto the twenty-first century.

Alas, the real roots of the English Civil War, as generations of historians have pointed out, are much murkier. Few would doubt that Charles I was a muppet, utterly out of his depth in a crisis… but he did not create the crisis, and insofar as he did, he had copious help. I personally consider Parliamentary Overreach to be a much bigger factor. Simply replacing Charles with his sister – even if said sister were smarter – would not necessarily have resulted in a better outcome. It might simply have resulted in a different flavour of bad.

Basically, an argument that Elizabeth Stuart would have avoided the catastrophe of Charles’ reign must deal with the following problems:

  • Elizabeth’s husband, Frederick V, would have pressured her into intervention in the Thirty Years War.
  • Wars were (and are) hideously expensive in financial terms.
  • The English taxation and revenue-gathering system of the era was a ramshackle mess, and a succession of monarchs (including the hallowed Elizabeth I) had only papered over the administrative cracks.
  • Parliament would not be inclined to hand over a mountain of cash, just to fund Frederick’s military adventures on the Continent.
  • Cue an immediate flash point between Crown and Parliament, with a strong Crown incentive to find desperate work-arounds to raise revenue… which puts us on a familiar road to Charles I.

In fact, Charles I at least had a massive incentive to stay out of War. With Parliament dicking him around on taxation from Day One, he had a vested interest in keeping expenditure low. Which meant sitting out the Thirty Years War, and the associated horrors. Only when Archbishop Laud screwed the proverbial pooch, via foisting his Prayer Book on Scotland, did the balancing act collapse. If Laud had had a smidgen more sense, there is no knowing how long Charles might have lasted.

Elizabeth and Frederick wouldn’t have run aground on the Prayer Book issue (of course not. They were much more hardline Protestants than Charles). But there would have been an agenda for an expensive War, one that Charles would have lacked. And I can’t see that ending well, no matter how much Elizabeth Stuart tried to ape her namesake.

(* Except that Elizabeth I was actually pretty unpopular by the time of her death in 1603. Between the monopolies, the plagues, and the famines of the 1590s, Elizabeth was one of those rulers who really did live too long. Another reason to be wary of nineteenth century Whiggery masquerading as a literary review…).

2 thoughts on “No, Elizabeth Stuart Would Not Have Stopped the English Civil War (Probably)

  1. You may well be right.
    However she is an interesting character in her own right. The author has clearly researched her deeply.
    This interview is worth a listen.

    Like

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