How the English Civil War's fight for equity and common good changed the world

Perhaps no question is more important than this one: what is the common good? What can we agree on that benefits us all? IDEAS looks to the English Civil Wars from the 17th century when great questions of the common good were rediscovered, argued, and fought over changing England — and the world — forever.

Meritocracy was important as a cornerstone to build a healthy society

Commander-in-Chief Oliver Cromwell led armies of the Parliament of England against King Charles I during the English Civil War. In this artwork by Abraham Cooper he is portrayed on his horse at the battle of Marston Moor, July 2, 1644, leading a charge after being wounded in his right arm. (Edward Gooch Collection/Getty Images)

The roots of our modern society connect to a 17th Century Civil War in England. 

It was a time where the great questions of the common good were rediscovered, argued, and fought over, changing England — and the world — forever.

Big ideas, debate and a yearning for a more equitable society prompted the questioning of power during the 17th century: how much power should a monarch have? Or what should be the role of the people's representatives in parliament? Working through these ideas involved deeper questions and understanding: what does it mean to be a good citizen? What is mine, and what do I owe to my neighbour? How can we work together? 

The earliest philosophers, in particular Plato and Aristotle, wrestled with these questions and we're still wrestling with them today.  Two thousand years after them, ordinary English people started to discuss these same questions in the heat of a civil war. 

The earliest writing in Western society on the question of the state of nature and the ideal functioning society comes from the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. (Picture Post/Getty Images)

The good society as a meritocracy — a Greek and Christian concept — was important to 17th century English people. 

"I think the Greeks had a very powerful idea about human fulfilment and the way in which human fulfilment could be put at the root of any design for a good society," says Rachel Foxley, a history professor at the University of Reading in the U.K.

"But the Greeks and the Romans differed on exactly what that kind of fulfillment consisted in. Did it consist in a kind of philosophical perfection that could be achieved within yourself, or did it consist in living in society, living particularly in a political community?"

Foxley adds that Aristotle's idea that mankind is a political animal was powerful and that political life can be seen as a high form of fulfillment in itself.

"It's not just a way of making ourselves comfortable. It's not just a way of ensuring against the ills of human life and the troubles of conflict. It's something which in itself offers a kind of fulfillment that we can't achieve if we try to live without that political society," Foxley says.

A meritocratic system

The civil war broke out in England because parliament, a weak consultative body of the elite, began to reimagine itself as something more representative of the people. For the first time, the religious and political power of the monarch was in question.

It was a messy war and a deadly one.

"The parliament in general wasn't really meant to oppose the monarch. It was really meant to discuss and refine and think through the suggestions the monarch made. And the difficulty here was, as always, where you've got checks and balances in a system of governance. And the same is true of the Westminster system. Everywhere in the world, those checks and balances can become glitches and obstacles if any push towards consensus disappears into conflict," says Diane Purkiss, an English professor at Keble College in Oxford, U.K.

In February 1645, parliament decided to create a more formal army, amalgamating a rag-tag of forces, including the more-or-less private armies of William Waller, the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Manchester into a single professional fighting force, properly trained and properly paid. The Captain-General of this New Model Army would be Sir Thomas Fairfax, and as Lieutenant General of the Horse- Oliver Cromwell, who would have a much bigger role to play later. 

"There's an attempt to shift away from the traditional idea of officers are the aristocracy, the kind of members of the natural elite towards much more meritocratic system, so that actually you promote people because they're good soldiers rather than having officers who simply, you know, have the titles," says Rachel Hammersley, a professor of History at Newcastle University.

"There's a sense in which that's going to be more effective because the people in power are people who actually are there because of their abilities rather than simply because of their birth."

A portrait of King Charles I (1625 - 1649) in state robes, painted by Anthony van Dyck. Charles I was King of England, Scotland, and Ireland from 1625 until his execution in 1649. (Wikimedia)

Hammersley says that eventually people were asked to make a decision. Are you fighting for the King or are you fighting for parliament? If you chose to fight for parliament then it can be assumed it is for the best interest of the larger community.

"One of the really exciting things about the Civil War period is precisely it does that opens people's minds to thinking about politics, to thinking about the Constitution, to thinking about how the country is run and people actually have views on that and have opinions on it. And it's very difficult then just to put that all away again afterwards."

Idealizing a good society

Parliament existed only when the King called parliament. The King could prorogue parliament and the King could dissolve parliament. 

"The war broke out because the King was not trusted and he was mainly not trusted on issues of religion. He was the guardian of English Protestantism, but was not regarded as a safe pair of hands on English Protestantism. And he was the guardian of English legal rights. And he was also seen as unreliable on the protection of the subject's legal rights." says Michael Braddick, a history professor at University of Sheffield in the U.K.

"The war was for something deeper than just the shortcomings of this particular king. And at that point, there's much more fundamental philosophical principles come into play about what would be a just settlement."

It was because of this conflict around the King that brought forth the notion of political principles, ideals of the good society and the arrangement of political institutions, says Braddick.

Colonel John Lilburne was an English pamphleteer who fought in the Parliamentary Army during the Civil War. A Puritan, he belonged to a group called the Levellers who believed in liberty of conscience and an extended franchise to all people in England. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images )

By 1646 the first civil war was over. While the war raged on, the debate about a new England wasn't confined to campfire discussions within the army. In London and other cities, a relatively free press exploded. By some counts there are as many as 20 'newsbooks' being published in London in the early 1640's.

The printing press was in use for a long time but the Civil War changed the way in which the press was used. It popularized print and spread it further, explains Foxley.

"If you're a news hungry Londoner, if you go out on any day of the week, you're likely to be able to pick up a newspaper that came out that day. So it's a real revolution in political discourse."

Foxley says in the 20's during continental wars, news publications hadn't dealt with domestic politics. 

"Now, for the first time, you can go out and any day of the week you can buy these newspapers that actually tell you what's going on in politics, what's going on in the war. And as the civil war goes on, they become more partisan, they become more differentiated as modern newspapers are."

Guests in this episode:

Diane Purkiss is an English professor at Keble College in Oxford, U.K.

Rachel Foxley is a history professor at the University of Reading in the U.K.

Rachel Hammersley is a history professor at Newcastle University in the U.K.

Michael Braddick is a history professor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K.

*This episode was produced by Philip Coulter. Original theme music was composed by Virginia Kilbertus.

This episode is part of our series on the idea of the Common Good — the eternal search for humankind: what does it mean to live together in society, and how might we best share the world we live in? Find more Common Good episodes here.

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