Compare the aims of those who rebelled against the king in the British Isles and in France in the first half of the seventeenth century.


George Orwell has left us a view[1] of the ‘aims’ of his three sections of society:  the High, who wish things to remain as they are;  the Middle, who wish to change places with the High;  and the Low, who wish to scrap the whole system and start again.  This is not historically argued, but reminds us of a common aim of rebel leaders: the achievement of personal power.  In quiet times these ambitions remain unexpressed and unfulfilled;  but conditions may, as they did in seventeenth century Europe, lead to such dissatisfaction with a government that people can be organised into armed bands for full-scale rebellion.  Here we consider events in England, France, Ireland, and Scotland;  and reflect on what people – high, middle, and low – hoped to achieve by armed resistance to their king.  The time frame 1600-1649  provides, as we shall see, a fertile source of such events, ending at key stages in the English Civil War and in the French ‘Fronde’.



The opening years of our period see James becoming king of all three British kingdoms.  His native country, Scotland, had ended a distinctive Reformation process with an exalted view of its destiny.  Calderwood[2], for example, wrote in 1628:


…Scotland…was one of the last that kept the light when…Rome began to darken the earth, so when the sun came about again … it shined fairest on us, …


It now found that its king had become the ruler of its rich neighbour to the South. 


The personality of the monarch was all-important in these times of personal rule, and James’s peace‑loving and practical bent succeeded in making his reign relatively quiet.  He quickly made peace with Spain, and at home skilfully balanced the pressures from the Puritan and Arminian wings of the established Church, appointing primates from both. His  religious policy, however, led him to support a huge extension of the Protestant plantations in Ireland, whose bitter fruit was to be harvested by his successor, with the Irish Rebellion of 1641.


Charles’s reign began in 1625, at the age of twenty-five;  unlike his father, he proved spectacularly unsuccessful in managing the opposing church factions, and renewed the war with Spain.  These two facts, more than any other, were the key events leading to conflict;  religion directly – Charles insisted on promulgating his own Arminian leanings – and war indirectly, since he needed funds to fight .  Religious disagreements with the largely Puritan parliament led him to rule without it;  and the attempt to raise funds without parliamentary approval provoked serious resentment and resistance.  Eventually, in 1640, Charles did recall Parliament and tried to get funds voted.  He made many far-reaching concessions, including, crucially, the yielding of his right to dissolve Parliament at will.  This Parliament, however, included many who wanted Charles deprived of all power, and in 1642 the conflict became an armed struggle.  The Scots too had earlier taken up arms against the king, in 1638 and 1640, resisting the attempt to impose bishops on their Calvinist church.



On the other side of the channel, or ‘sleeve’ as the French have it, lay the extraordinary entity of ‘France’, utterly different from the France we know today.  Although French had been the language of officialdom since 1539, less than a quarter of the twenty million inhabitants could speak it[3];  and the complex web of local and royal officers comprising the administration is well summed up by Collins, who suggests we think of France as a ‘polyglot empire’[4] rather than a nation-state (which England, by contrast, certainly was).


Nonetheless, all France acknowledged the king’s authority, his right to make law, and his right to tax; though it was the collection of these royal dues that provoked bitter grievances which crossed all social boundaries. These grievances were reflected in an atmosphere of continual petty violence[5], which sometimes came to a head in large-scale rebellions such as the 1639 Normandy protest against the salt tax;  four thousand troops were needed for its suppression, which was followed by wholesale executions.


It was of course a splendid thing to be the King of France, but he had to be aware of the powerful German and Spanish powers on his borders, and from time to time he had to commit large bodies of troops to further whatever policy found favour.  These soldiers were a double burden to the unfortunate French people, particularly in the border regions:  not only must the soldiers be paid - a constantly increasing burden – but also they were billeted on the peasantry.  Further, because of the difficulty of extracting taxes the soldiers’ pay was always deficient, leading to looting and general misbehaviour to the extent that often the threat of billeting or passage was sufficient to induce people to pay their taxes.


The French institution of the parlement needs to be noticed, being hardly comparable to the English similar-sounding parliament.   There were several parlements, one for each of the pays d’état provinces, and one, which achieved a certain paramountcy, in Paris.  A parlement was in the first instance a court of law, instituted by the king as each new province joined, to which all serious cases were referred;  it did not make law, but had the important right of authenticating each royal edict;  without this ‘registration’ the edict was not law, and it is easy to see a source of conflict here between the parlement rights and the movement towards centralisation of authority that characterises our period under Louis XIII and Richelieu.



Returning again to the British Isles, we consider in more detail what drove the rebels.  The Irish aim is the simplest: they wanted the English out of their country, and to be left to rule themselves and practise their Catholic religion.  This aim has fuelled bitter conflict in Ireland since Norman times, and is still an issue today.


The position of the rebel Scots is also straightforward, and rests on the perceived importance of the religion achieved by the Scottish reformation.  Virulently anti-Catholic (see Calderwood above), any hint of imposing priestly ceremonies, with priests consecrated by bishops, was enough to provoke violence.  Accepting the authority of the king in principle, they nonetheless bound themselves in Glasgow in 1638 to resist forcibly his stubborn insistence on imposing bishops and Laudian rubrics.


The case in England is more complicated, and particularly interesting in the rebels’ enduring effect on the British Constitution.  We have seen above something of what the rebels wanted to achieve, and that the king’s need for money led to a powerful Parliament.  It is hard to resist the view that Pym was a true revolutionary, and a master of the political art of collecting a ‘party’ together.  He got the ‘Grand Remonstrance’ – a calculated insult to the king – passed by the Commons,  but by a slim majority.  The stormy debate revealed deep differences between moderate reformists and parliamentary supremacists[6].  Hyde (later Lord Clarendon) had supported reform, but saw Pym’s policy as disruptive.  It was Hyde who made an honest complaint about what is today normal political practice;  he found distasteful their “thorough considering and forming their counsels” before debate.  To a cynical modern this seems as laughable as Donald Swann’s complaint[7] about foreign sportsmen:  “they practise beforehand, which quite spoils the fun”.  But ‘King Pym’ had learned his parliamentary trade in the sessions of the 1620s, and developed his hatred of Charles during the eleven-year gap.[8]


Pym and Cromwell’s radical party in Parliament were solid, prosperous gentry with no egalitarian sympathies, and it was they who out-manoeuvred Charles and took control of London.  When, however, by 1647,  it was clear that Charles had been defeated, new voices began to be heard.  Soldiers chose representatives who debated with the grandees[9]; and we then hear the voice of Orwell’s ‘Low’, demanding a fresh start.  These ‘Levellers’ were a substantial body, who left their mark on history, but were utterly defeated.



During the above stirring events in England, France too was approaching one of the more important of its many rebellions, known to history as the Frondes.  It seems clear that there was no appetite for radical change, rather for institutional reform and resolution of grievances.  All over the vast area of France was a longing for peace, and hopes were raised, with the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, that the intolerable and ever‑increasing burden of royal taxation would at last be eased.  The royal appetite for funds (displayed since 1643 by the ‘foreign’ regency of Anne and Mazarin) led to increasing pressure on the Paris parlement, which finally triggered a widespread popular revolt in Paris.


The Paris parlement was demanding reform of the chaotic and corrupt policies of the finance minister d’Emery.  They were withholding registration of the Treaty of Westphalia, and eventually refused all new taxes;  the pressure applied by the Regent included withholding of some customary privileges (see for example Briggs, p.126, on the effect of not renewing the paulette) , but this had the effect of adding to the forcibly-expressed aims of the parlementaires.  These aims were largely achieved, after the successful armed defence of Paris against the royal army.


The Paris courts had, then, successfully defied the Regency.  The spread of this news acted as a trigger on the rest of the country, and many nobles joined in the defiance.  The Rueil agreement in March 1649 satisfied the Paris parlement, ending the so-called Fronde parlementaire, but had little effect on the newly-enhanced spirit of defiance felt by grandees in the remoter parts of the ‘polyglot empire’.  They saw the possibility of recovering much of their authority and status, which had been massively eroded by royal officers;  certainly the hated intendants had been recalled, but this may perhaps have spurred the greater nobles to see what further could be achieved.  Armed fighting continued, bringing the customary misery, between the grandees themselves and against the royal forces, until 1653 saw the end of the so-called Fronde des Princes.


In reviewing, then, the aims of the French rebels, in all the many risings of our period, we see in the ‘Low’ a passion for relief from intolerable abuses, and in the ‘Middle’, and indeed some of the ‘High’, a push for institutional reform and/or personal power.  The only exception comes in the Ormée of 1651 in Bordeaux.  Here a genuinely revolutionary[10]  council ran the city for two years, and there is the intriguing possibility that they were influenced by the news from England[11].  The leaders were of course duly hanged.



We have now seen a sketch of events and ambitions in the two countries, and can discern some few similarities;  of the many differences, the most immediately striking is the sheer scale of the geographical arenas in which events were played out.  England was the most important (in terms of wealth and population), and may perhaps serve as the standard of comparison with France.


England, then, was a small, tight‑knit nation‑state in which each person saw himself primarily as an Englishman;  county and regional loyalties were important, but in no way superseded the sense of ‘Englishness’.  The rule of the ‘king in parliament’ was accepted everywhere, and the king’s judges administered high justice throughout the kingdom.  Hardship, indeed some starvation, existed, but in general the Stuart kings inherited a peaceful and prosperous nation, any part of which could be reached without difficulty from London.  There persisted, however, the long‑standing problem of how to put the royal administration on a sound, accountable, financial footing.  The taxation system itself was clearly established, though far from evenly applied, throughout the country.


France could hardly be more different.  We have seen that it was far from being a nation-state, and its sheer size meant that communication from Paris to the extremities took weeks, rather than days as in England.  The  sense of local autonomy was strong, and there was a bewildering array of tribunals at which justice could be sought.


The only strong similarity one can see in the aspirations of rebels in the two areas is the fact that a monarch was being fought in both.  Certainly, many sought reform in each area;  but the natures of the looked‑for reforms, and the strong revolutionary component in the English case, lead us to the view that the differences far outweigh the similarities.  Another outstanding difference is in the religious objectives.  In France these were non-existent;  the Wars of Religion had left an uneasy though temporarily stable agreement between Protestant and Catholic.  In all three kingdoms of the British Isles, however, religious questions were dominant;  exclusively in Ireland, very strongly in Scotland, and strongly in England.


Finally, in summing up the aims of the British and French rebels, we could perhaps say historically that the French were simply lagging behind the British.  The birth-pangs of the three British nations were over (though their governance was disputed), while the ‘lurching to be born’ of France was only nearing its term, to reach fruition in the later reign of that Louis XIV who was an infant at the end of our period.  Historically also, England was taking vital steps in the ‘long march of Everyman’.


But these aims were unconscious, far from the wishes of the rebels.  The Irish were looking for independence;  the Scots were looking for the establishment of the Calvinist religion;  some English were looking, a bit like the French, for the return of the ‘ancient constitution’;  other English were looking for revolution.
And the French?  They were looking mostly for relief of the misery in which they had lived for so many years.




Briggs, R.(1998) [1977] Early Modern France 1560-1715, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Collins, J.(1995) [1994] The State in Early Modern France, Cambridge,Cambridge University Press.

Cowper, H(1994) ‘Unit 3: The Civil War in the British Isles and the Frondes in France’ in A220 Block 1: Traditional Society and the Civil Wars, 1620s-1640s, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Hexter, J.(1941) The Reign of King Pym, Cambridge USA, Harvard University Press.

Jones, C.( 1994) The Cambridge Illustrated History of  France, Cambridge,Cambridge University Press.

Kekewich, M.(1994) Princes and Peoples: France and the British Isles, 1620-1714: An Anthology of Primary Sources, Manchester, Manchester University Press.

Kekewich, M.(1994) ‘Unit 2: Apprentices in absolutism’ in A220 Block 1: Traditional Society and the Civil Wars, 1620s-1640s, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Laurence, A.(1994) ‘Unit 4: The causes of instability in England, Scotland, Ireland and France’ in A220 Block 1: Traditional Society and the Civil Wars, 1620s-1640s, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Laurence, A.(2003) ‘Unit 1: Society and government on the eve of the civil wars’ in A220 Block 1: Traditional Society and the Civil Wars, 1620s-1640s, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

Orwell, G.(1954) [1949] Nineteen Eighty Four, London, Penguin.

Wedgwood, C.(1958) The King’s War, London, Collins.

[1] Orwell, p.150, the ‘Goldstein’ thesis.

[2] Anthology, p.17.

[3] Jones, p.133.

[4] Collins, p.5.

[5] Briggs, p.110.

[6] Wedgwood, p.25.

[7] Flanders and Swann, At the Drop of  Another Hat, gramophone record, 1964.

[8] Hexter, pp.4-5.

[9] See e.g. Petty’s contribution to the ‘Putney Debates’, Anthology p.43.

[10] Anthology p.114.

[11] Anthology p.43.