This semester I am teaching an online World History course, 1500 to the present. That I am OER certified (Open Educational Resources) meant that I chose to employ a collection of primary documents and selected essays rather than an expensive textbook for reading materials. Each week, the class moves through the readings and assignments. My laptop’s built-in camera killed the “live” lecture, so I switched to

writing short lectures (less than a thousand words) based on the primary materials assigned for that week. Below is the “written” lecture on the English Civil War and then its Glorious Revolution. Enjoy!

That “The Great Charter of the Liberties of England” (also known as the “Magna Carta”) was rhetorically retold in a legalistic manner to the king of England, Charles I, says something about how parliamentarians perceived their past and their present. By authorizing the “Petition of Rights,” members of parliament defended what they conceived as their cherished English liberties. These politicians drew a straight line from 1628 to the signing of the Magna Carta way back in 1215. That’s over four-hundred years if you do the math. What the “Petition of Rights” give us is an insight into what a small group of politicized men felt about what liberty was in the early seventeenth century. Demanded by this Parliament was adherence to due process within the bounds of recognized laws. Kings could not make landholders landless. A landholder or lord could not be imprisoned or executed willy-nilly, there were legal proceedings. A king could not take what was not his, not anyone’s money, property, or life – for those are foundational to one’s liberty and hence freedoms. The “Petition of Rights” merely relays to an audience of one – the king – previous legal guaranteed rights. The petition is also a line in the sand as it informs Charles I that there are limits to his power.

Charles I execution Houghton

From the Houghton Library via WikiMedia, an image of the beheading of Charles I

But of course, those limitations were too much for Charles I to bear. His claim that he ruled by divine nature set England headlong into a Civil War. Puritans rose up with an army, assisted by Levellers, and defeated the armies of the king. Charles I would be executed (1649). England committed regicide long before the French in their revolution nearly a century-and-a-half later. One who escaped the conflict was Thomas Hobbes. He was not a supporter of either side, merely a scholastic man with great intellect and a penchant for publishing: that made him a marked man. What he wrote in “De Civ,” however, right at the beginning of the Civil War, reiterated to some detail what the “Petition of Rights” had fourteen years earlier attempted to have the king understand. What’s remarkable about Hobbes’ arguments are the sheer simplicity of them, a kind of cold and calculating configuring of words.

For example, in the first section of his work in De Civ, he laid down an immediate truth. “…how easy a matter it is, even for the weakest man to kill the strongest.” From here Hobbes presented the next axiom, a sort of philosophical geometry if the weak can kill the strongest with ease, then no man is more than any other, and if no man is more, then men are ‘by nature equal.” OK, so Hobbes used murder to drive home an important point, anyone can kill anyone. In such a condition, murder doth make us equal, it is not only reasonable to “protect his life and members,” in other words, not to be murdered, but it is also right not lose one’s life. So how does one prevent themselves from being murdered? Hobbes answered, give something up – here’s how he put it: “the right of all men to all things ought not to be retained; but that some certain rights ought to be transferred or relinquished.” Which is why we need laws, to enforce equality. If you remove law, then everyone’s liberty is “absolute”. Law must be a “fetter”, a ball and chain upon all men so that all men can have “freedom.”

I suppose the proof was the king’s head, Charles I, in the end, was just like everyone else, remove the head and voila, you are dead. This equality of murder released a torrent of equality rhetoric. If it was now proved that kings can die without heads then why not women? The 1649 Women’s Petition founded a belief that women, the so-called weaker sex, can also kill any man, too. In fact, as the petition clearly stated that if “we, our husbands, children, friends and servants may not be liable to be thus abused, violated and butchered at men’s wills and pleasures,” well the ladies can play that game.

And indeed, in Mary Cary’s pamphlet The New Jerusalem Glory, it was to be women, more so than men, that shall be “furnished with a gift of the spirit” because so few men are. She held the Bible up high declaring that women should be able to “prophesie.”

All may have been well and England settled into some sort of equilibrium had it not been for – as John Evelyn put it, King James II’s “popish” tendencies. The king brought in Italian operas, fired “Lords and others” throughout the country who would not pledge to overturn laws against Catholicism. When a male heir to the king was born, English “Lords and others” grew concerned that the Church of England and its Protestantism would be usurped by Royal lineage. On November 5, 1688, when a Dutch “Prince” named William sailed into Torbay with 700 ships and some 20,000 men of arms, not even the English Navy lifted a canon to stop them. By December, the overthrow was complete, and a Dutch Prince became King of England. James II had fled.

A “Bill of Rights” was drafted by a new parliament demonstrating their “entire confidence” in the new Dutchman, now king, William III, as long as he met with some minor details: creating laws outside of parliament is “illegal;” getting rid of laws not agreed with is illegal; a king cannot create offices without consent, religious or secular; money for the king comes from parliament and parliament’s approval is necessary if changes are needed; that petitions to the king are legal, and that no retributions are allowed; elections of parliamentarians “ought to be free;” that speech is free within the Parliament; these rights and others bound a monarch of the English crown to that of Parliament.