Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Rights & Wrongs of the English Civil War

My Godfather gave me a book entitled "The Tyrannicide Brief", which recounts the life of John Cooke, the prosecutor of Charles I, and who himself was executed for regicide. Geoffrey Robertson, the author and a barrister himself, is an able advocate for Cooke, Cromwell, the Parliamentary cause and republicanism. Cooke himself, though in the wrong politically, was an admirable advocate for legal reform, and a man of deep faith and principle.

Still, the facts of the matter remain far too adverse to justify the trial and execution of Charles I. The reign of Charles I can be criticized in many areas- the operations and judgments of the Star Chamber could be cruel; he was willing to pressure the courts; he censored the press and suppressed political dissidents. Charles I favoured the High Church party in the Church of England, which resulted in the exclusion of congregationalist and presbyterian elements that had hitherto remained within Anglicanism. The Puritans, thus excluded from Anglicanism, became subject to discriminatory laws.

Nevertheless, Charles I was the sovereign. If sovereignty has any moral content, it is that the laws of the sovereign ought to be obeyed unless they command something intrinsically wrong. While one can argue that rebellion and revolution is justified where sovereignty becomes enormously unjust, Charles I's failures of policy and justice were rather mild for his time, and certainly far below the standard under which rebellion is justifiable in any age. War creates enormous suffering, and that injustice that can justify it must be extremely grave (which was not the case) and outweigh the likely suffering caused by war (again not the case). In resisting the power of the King when he came to arrest certain of their number, Parliament attempted to usurp at least part of the sovereignty of the King- the ability to control territory and administer the laws. Both sides thereafter prepared for war, a war caused by Parliament.

When it came to execute Charles, then, it is entirely clear that those who presumed to judge him were in fact guilty of precipitating the war, of wrongly usurping sovereignty and, it needs to be said, of abusing English law and the Constitution (even as wrongly comprehended by the Parliamentarians) to determine a new crime to try the King, and erect a new court in which to do so. Whatever the failings and wrongs of Charles I, it must be acknowledged that Parliament both wrongfully brought about the Civil War and murdered he to whom they owed obedience.


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