Saturday, December 6, 2014

Revolutions Podcast: The English Revolution

After completing his massive History of Rome podcast, Mike Duncan focused on raising his newborn baby for a while before starting his next venture: another history-based podcast called Revolutions. In it, each season of the podcast would focus on a different revolution in history--revolution being loosely defined as a time when a new regime violently overthrew a previous one, whether the new regime managed to maintain itself permanently or not.

His first season was about the First English Revolution, which I was almost completely unfamiliar with before listening. As it turns out, though, the events of the English Revolution were instrumental in changing the world into the one we live in today.

The story is a fascinating one, and I recommend listening to the podcast to get the whole story complete with Mike's commentary and dry wit. In short, though, the story covers first the political landscape on 1650s England, King Charles I's war against his own people, the countless back and forths as the King and Parliament argue about religions, search for allies, and heroes rise and fall, and King Charles I's eventual execution, which led to everyone kind of looking at each other and wondering "what now?"

"What now?" turned out to be a truly fascinating (if ultimately ineffective) decade of trying to figure out a system of government that can function without a monarch. Even though the experiment failed, ending with England placing Charles I's son, Charles II, back on the throne, the ideas they had during that time were far ahead of their time.

The biggest ideas that, though they wouldn't be implemented at the time, would in fact come to pass a century later were ones like religious freedom, legal equality, and universal suffrage. (Well, universal suffrage for white males, even if they don't own land, anyway.) These would come up and influence the American Revolution, but that's another story.

This era also gave us the Puritans who, tired of being told to take off their hats or whatever, jumped on ships and set sail for the New World. In fact, the various religions of the British Isles all came into play here: the Scottish constantly fought for whichever side claimed to be down with Presbyterianism, for instance, and the Catholics of Ireland were systematically slaughtered by Oliver Cromwell.

Cromwell himself is probably the most fascinating character from his point in history, and if one of the reasons why revolutionary periods are so fascinating. He was an obscure nobody, basically, for most of his life, and it wasn't until the revolution came that he had the chance to rise from obscurity to being basically the ruler of England during the interim period between the death of Charles I and the crowning of Charles II.

He's also a man with a wildly different reputation depending on who you ask. I first heard of him through the Irish punk band Flogging Molly, and the Irish universally revile the man for good reason. A devout Puritan, Cromwell associated the Catholics with the persecution of Protestants, and the largest sect of royalist resistance were known to be a sect of Irish Catholics. So, Cromwell came in and slaughtered many of them in a campaign depressingly similar to genocide.

Interestingly, though, the extent of Cromwell's actual involvement in the decision to eliminate unarmed Catholics is debated, and it conflicts with his later policy of religious tolerance as Lord Protector of England.

That said, Cromwell was not simply a villain. He believed in the revolution and sought to create a government that could function effectively without a monarchy. He even turned down the crown several times, giving up absolute power for the dream of a republic. He created a system of government very similar to the one we use in the United States today. In a confusing mix of republicanism and military dictatorship, he created and dissolved the government multiple times as each time Parliament attempted to wrest power from the other branches of government and undermine his system.

Had Cromwell lived longer, the history of England and, by extension, all of its colonies including the United States may well have gone very differently. Alas(?), the Commonwealth of England lasted only about a decade, surviving not long at all beyond Oliver Cromwell's death.

Anyway, history is fascinating, isn't it?

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