The Power of Scotland, King Charles I and the start of the English Civil War

In the latest in the English Civil War series of articles, Myra King looks at how a change imposed by King Charles I and the strength of Scotland put Charles in a position so weak that it would lead to war.
In this series on the English Civil War, we have previously considered the Divine Right of Kings, and Henry VIII and bloody religious change, and how the Gunpowder Plot may have been a Protestant-led conspiracy.

On July 23, 1637 Jenny Geddes threw a chair at a church minister’s head and started the English Civil War.

Edinburgh Minister Dean Hannay condemned himself by attempting to read the new English Prayer Book. This not only angered the congregation but instigated flying furniture. Jenny Geddes screamed, “Villain, dost thou say mass at my lug?” She then continued to curse him with colic and threw the three legged stool she was sitting on. This act started a riot and more chairs were soon thrown. Riots spread so quickly throughout Edinburgh that ministers were forced to arm themselves before service. In one church, the minister actually pointed a gun to his congregation while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. It was the only thing that kept his head from connecting with a chair.

Flying furniture, riots and guns may seem a complete over-reaction to a simple prayer book but it was, in fact, quite small compared to what that prayer book stood for. Throughout England, the spread of Protestantism meant only one thing – bloodshed! Torture, murder, mass genocide and other horrific crimes filled the land simply because the monarch decided on a different strand of Christianity. But England had always been conquered and plagued by whatever faction was strongest. Romans, Vikings, Saxons, Angles and Normans had all arrived and changed whatever they felt like – this almost always being religion and how the country was run. The monarchs were simply children of their culture.

This was not the case in Scotland however. The Picts, natives of the area we now know as Scotland, were not the people to tangle with. After England fell to the Romans, the Legions marched into Pict territory, expecting to conquer it. They came, they saw, but they most certainly did not conquer. Rather, they got slaughtered. That was the Roman introduction to Scotland. And it did not go much smoother for anybody else. The Scottish were a formidable enemy. When King James I inherited the English throne, he took the tumultuous Stuart Dynasty down to London and for the first time in centuries kept Scotland and England in a peaceful, productive truce. But the decades of peace did not soften the Bonnie Scots. When King Charles I began his campaign to bring religious change to Scotland after he ascended the throne in 1625, he expected that change would be as easy as it had been in England in prior years. He was to be in for a surprise.


The Scottish knew the history of English religious genocide and they refused to go the same way. And so, when the prayer book entered their churches, the Scottish rose up as one to stop the start of a genocide. Charles I, although King of the Scots, could not control them from London and so declared war on his own people. Unfortunately he could not raise the funds or an adequate army within England. Charles, like his father, believed that he could run his kingdoms without Parliament and so didn’t call Parliamentary sessions. This meant that he could not get funding or command the armies that he needed. The men he could rally were poorly trained, under fed and improperly attired. The Scottish army was the complete opposite. There were a few minor battles between the English and the Scottish, but neither side really wanted to fight, and finally Charles agreed to a general assembly to discuss disputed topics. Without Charles’s permission, however, Scotland abolished his religion and declared itself free from royal control. Charles was furious and immediately brought back Parliament in order to raise funds for a real army and a real war.

This government, known as the ‘Short Parliament’, refused to do Charles’s bidding until he sorted out their grievances. He refused and dismissed the Parliament after only a few weeks. While Charlie was battling his government, the Scottish army crossed the River Tweed into England. The English army retreated, leaving the whole of Northumberland and County Durham, regions in the far north of England, to the Scots.

Have you noticed the strangest part of all of this? Charles was king of England, and so had to pay for the English army. But Charles was also King of Scotland, and so had to pay for the Scottish army too. This man was such an incompetent leader that he was literally paying to go to war with himself. This only gets worse with his decision to leave the two English counties in Scottish hands in order to pay the Scottish off for attacking the two counties. Up to his eyeballs in debt, Charlie reconvened Parliament in order to raise the funds he could not obtain. This government, known as the ‘Long Parliament’, attacked Charles’s advisers and actually executed his chief supporters. This showed the king that the English Parliament was most certainly not his friend. Luckily for him though, he had another government that he could turn to. And so he went up to Scotland in 1641 to give titles to the two Scottish leaders who invaded England. Interestingly, he gave them titles for fighting against him. This action won him favor with the Scottish but he was in no way their beloved king; in fact they made sure that Charlie boy accepted every one of their decisions without complaint. He was their king in name only.

This did not agree with a man who believed in ‘The Divine Rights of Kings’ and he took his frustrations out on the English. One hundred years before, Charles would have been able to do as he pleased. But too much abuse of power from his predecessors, coupled with the knowledge that the Scottish controlled their King’s strings, had made the English strong.

And just like Jenny Geddes, they were about to throw a chair.

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