What can we learn from the English Civil War?
The English Civil War in the seventeenth century usually attracts less attention than other seismic events in European history such as the French Revolution. But recent clashes between parliament and the executive have, for many, evoked the spirit if not the substance of the clashes between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Indeed, the ideas of parliamentary and popular sovereignty owe much of their substance to the debates between the crown and parliament, and later parliament and the army, that occurred at the time.
More profoundly, the very idea of sovereignty as such is deeply steeped in the history of the English Civil War. Famously, it was Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, written during the war, that made some of the first, and to this day perhaps the most compelling, arguments for the importance and indivisibly of sovereignty. The clashes of the Civil War also produced another classic in John Milton’s Areopagitica – considered by many to be the definitive defence of freedom of the press.
Aside from the clashes between crown and parliament, the Civil War proved a fertile ground for the development of arguments for freedom of religion, with worries about Papism and the increasingly vocal dissenting protestants being important elements of the clash. On top of this, clashes between English, Scottish and Irish identities suggest further parallels for today.
Can the clashes between parliament and crown help inform contemporary discussions about executive overreach and parliamentary sovereignty? How do we understand possible clashes between that sovereignty and popular sovereignty? What are we to make of the philosophy and politics that emerged in the period? What, ultimately, can the Civil War help us understand today?