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Christmas Dissolved

English Puritanism and The Puritan Revolution

Christmas in general was dealt a severe setback in 17th Century England. "Puritans" was the name given in the 16th century to an extreme group of Protestants within the Church of England who thought the English Reformation had not gone far enough in reforming the doctrines and structure of the church; they wanted to purify their national church by eliminating every shred of Catholic influence. In addition, they wanted the Church of England purified of any liturgy, ceremony, or practices which were not found in Scripture. Thus, the name of "Puritans." The Bible was their sole authority, and they believed it applied to every area and level of life.

Associated exclusively with no single theology or definition of the church – although many were Calvinists – the English Puritans were known at first for their extremely critical attitude regarding the religious compromises made during the reign of Elizabeth I. Many of them were graduates of Cambridge University, and they became Anglican priests to make changes in their local churches. They encouraged direct personal religious experience, sincere moral conduct, and simple worship services. Worship was the area in which Puritans tried to change things most; their efforts in that direction were sustained by intense theological convictions and definite expectations about how seriously Christianity should be taken as the focus of human existence. They first got the name Puritans due to their attempt to "purify" the Church of England – and especially to remove any traces of the Roman Catholic Church. In addition, Puritans disapproved of Christmas and Easter on the grounds that these holidays were invented by man and not prescribed by the Bible, and as such could not be Holy. It should be noted, in fairness, that the observation of Christmas in those times was not the same as today, and often featured excesses which today would also be condemned, including gluttony, drunkenness, home invasions, aggressive begging (with an express or implied threat of harm), rioting, and immoral behavior. [1] The criticisms leveled by the Rev. Increase Mather and the Rev. Cotton Matter (below) were true. The Puritans particularly had trouble with the "date" of Christ’s birth, noting that the early Church fathers had simply co-opted the mid-winter celebrations of several pagan societies, which was, as we have seen, true.

After James I [2] became king of England in 1603, Puritan leaders asked him to grant several reforms. At the Hampton Court Conference (1604), however, he rejected most of their proposals, which included abolition of bishops. He did approve a new version of the Bible, known today as the "King James Version." Due to governmental persecution, many separated from the Church of England, and left the country. [3] James had had managed to restore royal power in Scotland without provoking a major rebellion and without using undue force. His virtues, however, contributed to his undoing. His success in Scotland made him overconfident and arrogant. His love of political theory and scholarly disputations led him to define the royal prerogative at time when they should have been left vague enough to be stretched in case of need. He never lost an opportunity to lecture Parliament about his powers in terms that seemed extreme even for his day. He was equally careless with the religious susceptibilities of his subjects and was always ready to lecture them on theology and church organization. This combination of learning and lack of tact led one continental statesman to refer to him as "the wisest fool in Christendom." [4]

Charles_1.JPG (82788 bytes)Charles I, King of England, Scotland & Ireland, 1600-1649

The split between Anglican and Puritan was widened by James, who took a strong stand in support of the prelates because his experience with the presbyterian form of church government in Scotland led him to believe that "Presbytery agreeth as well with a monarch as god and the devil. Then Jack and Tom, and Will and Dick shall meet at their pleasure, censure me and my council and all our proceedings." He swore to make the Puritans conform or "harry them out of the land." The seeds for revolution were being sewn. [5]

On the death of James I in 1625, his son Charles I (1600-1649) ascended the throne. Charles had not been raised to rule. His childhood had been spent in the shadow of his brother, Prince Henry, who had died in 1612, and Charles had little practical experience of government. However, Charles, was more attractive than his father. He was a devout Anglican and, after the first few years of his marriage, a devoted husband. No king was ever more anxious to protect his poorer subjects. He upheld the craftsman against the manufacturer, the wage-earner against the employer, and the peasant against the gentry who wanted to enclose the land. Unfortunately, these virtues were overshadowed by his autocratic, uncompromising character and by policies that antagonized the most powerful classes in the kingdom. The Stuarts, it seems, lacked the political finesse of the Tutors, especially in dealing effectively with Parliament.

Charles dissolved Parliament in 1625, 1626 and finally in 1629, after which he ruled alone until 1640. The government and the church hierarchy, especially under the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, [6] became increasingly repressive as Laud tried to force complete conformity with the Anglican doctrine and ceremony, causing many Puritans to emigrate. Those who remained formed a powerful element within the Parliamentarian Party. Neither King Charles nor Archbishop Laud were tender in their dealings with the Puritans, those who opposed them had their ears cut off and their noses slit. Laud controlled the hated Star Chamber, and used it for his own purposes.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury

In 1637, Charles ordered the Scots to accept a new prayer book based on Laud's High-Church ideas. The Scottish people were far more strongly Presbyterian than the English, and when the bishop of Edinburgh tried to use the new service, an angry woman threw a stool at him. This action touched off a riot and led to a National Covenant to resist religious innovations. The Covenanters abolished episcopacy and seized Edinburgh Castle. Charles invaded Scotland, precipitating the First Bishops’ War, but his military weakness required Charles signed the Treaty of Berwick in 1639.

In the mean time, Charles called upon Sir Thomas Wentworth, first Earl of Strafford and Lord Deputy of Ireland, who called up the 8,000 man strong Irish army. Charles, however, lacked the money to fund an army for a new war against the Scots.

This drove Charles to convene the Short Parliament, April 13, 1640 in an attempt to raise the necessary money, but was rebuffed. Charles dissolved the Short Parliament on May 5, 1640. Although still lacking money, Charles challenged the Scots again. In 1640, the Scottish Covenanters again invaded and took Northumberland and Durham, supported by Parliament and the Puritans. Charles was unable to prevail and concluded the Second Bishops’ War with the Treaty of Ripon, [7] and agreed that the Scottish army would remain on English soil and receive payments until a peace was concluded.

Charles then called the Long Parliament on November 3, 1640 in the hope of getting money to pay off the Scots, but once in session, the House of Commons showed little disposition to vote taxes until its grievances had been heard (listed as the "Grand Remonstrance" [8]). The deputies abolished the courts of the Star Chamber and of the High Commission, which had exercised the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the crown, and passed acts requiring that Parliament be held every three years and that the king's chief minister be executed. Parliament also passed a militia bill, the purpose of which was to raise an army.

Charles fearfully acquiesced – and continued to raise his own army – but later was goaded by his wife into entering the Commons with a band of followers on January 4, 1642, to arrest John Pym [9] and four other members who had been instrumental in Parliament’s "Grand Remonstrance" in 1641. "The birds," Charles discovered, "had flown," but with this action the English Civil War (1642-1646, 1648, 1649-1651) began. The King fled London on January 10th. [10]

Oliver_Cromwell.JPG (131921 bytes)Oliver Cromwell, The Lord Protector of England, 1599-1658

At first, the opposing forces were about evenly divided; the first battle took place on October 23rd, 1642 at Edgehill in Warwickshire – it was a draw. [11] In 1643 the war widened. Charles negotiated a cease-fire with the Catholic rebels in Ireland that allowed him to bring Irish troops to England. But the intervention of Scotland on the side of Parliament in 1643 (on the creation of the Solemn League and Covenant) and the formation of a well-trained English army (the "Roundheads" [12]) turned the tide against the king, who was defeated at Newbury on September 20, 1643. [13] Subsequent defeats of the royalist army in the battles of Marston Moor (July 2, 1644), [14] Newbury (October 27, 1644), [15] Naseby (June 14, 1645) [16] and Oxford (June 24, 1646) left Charles no recourse but to surrender (to the Scots in May 1646, who turned him over to the Puritans in February 1647 on payment of an appropriate ransom; he subsequently escaped on November 11, 1647 from Hampton Court to the Isle of Wight, and made a separate peace with the Stuart Scots). Royalist uprisings in Kent and Wales in April 1648 were put down quickly.

The victors then quarreled. The Presbyterian wing of the Puritan movement, supported by the Scots, sought to set up a constitutional monarchy with Charles at its head and their creed as the established church of England. In this, they were opposed by the army, which was more radical than parliament. Many soldiers wanted a republic and still more were Independents, a left-wing branch of Puritanism. The Independents favored religious toleration for all except the Catholics and Anglicans and opposed Presbyterianism as the established church. Added to these political and religious grievances, Parliament refused to pay the troops.

Charles saw his chance. He tried to play the army against Parliament, and the Scots against the English, until all but the staunchest royalists had lost faith in him. Finally, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), in disgust, [17] put an end to the farce by defeating the invading Scottish Royalist army in August, 1648 at Preston, purging Parliament of ninety-six Presbyterian members and other suspected royalists (and leaving only about 60 members), [18] and seizing, trying, and executing Charles I on January 30, 1649. The monarchy was terminated, [19] the House of Lords was dissolved, the Anglican Church was abolished, and the Commonwealth was declared. England was now ruled by a Council of State. In that same year, Cromwell commands armies sent first to crush Ireland in August, and then to crush Scotland, July, 1650.

Charles II, supported by royalists in both Scotland and Ireland, renewed the war in 1650. Cromwell defeated the Scottish Royalists at Dunbar on September 3, 1650. A year later, Charles II led another Scottish army into England, but was defeated at Worcester on September 3, 1651. [20]

The Puritan government – initially governed by the Long Parliament from 1640 to 1648, followed by the Rump Parliament from 1648 to 1653, and later led by Cromwell [21] as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1658 – ushered in a very restrictive era called the "Puritan Revolution" (or "the Cromwellian Persecution" [22]). Disgusted with the in-fighting he saw, Cromwell dissolved the Rump Parliament and replaced it with the Nominated ("Barebone’s") Parliament in 1653.

Editor's Notes:

For those who would like additional information, here are some notes from Neal's History of the Puritans. See also William Hone, Every-Day Book (Vols. 1 and 2): King Charles's Martyrdom and William Hone, The Year Book, Laud and Prynne.


1. Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), pages 1-11. Return

2. Born 1566, Reign 1603-1625, Died 1625. Return

3. The Pilgrims left England for the Netherlands in 1606 and then emigrated to America in 1620 on the Mayflower. They were members of the sect called the Separatists (seeking complete independence from the Established Church of England). The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Company established their American outpost in 1628. These Puritans were not Separatists. Return

4. He was, however, the first to use the phrase "Great Britain" in 1604 when referring to the union between England and Scotland. Return

5. This was just one cause of the English Civil War; other important constitutional and economic conditions were also involved, notably the issue of "Divine Right of Kings." Return

6. Born, 1573. Archbishop of Canterbury, 1633-1645. Imprisoned in 1641. Impeached and executed in 1645 when Charles I was deposed. Return

7. The unfortunate Wentworth had been appointed commander in chief. After the defeat, he was accused of subversion. Ultimately a bill of attainder was passed by the House of Commons and sent to Charles; he signed it and Wentworth was beheaded, May 12, 1641. Wentworth was probably used by the King, and was in good company. See the biography of Edward Hyde 1st earl of Clarendon, 1609–74, English statesman and historian. See Infoplease.com, Return

8. The Grand Remonstrance (a manifesto which consisted of more than 200 clauses) listed the reforms already enacted by the Long Parliament, while calling for further action by the king on outstanding grievances. It urged the replacement of the king's "evil counselors" (said to be plotting to advance Roman Catholicism) by ministers to be approved by parliament. The power of the bishops, too, should be curbed and the church reformed by a synod of Protestant churchmen. After passing the House of Commons by a mere 11 votes on Nov. 22, 1641 (the vote was 159 to 148), the Remonstrance was printed only to be rejected by Charles, who denied the need for any reform of the church or of his ministers. Many were appalled that the remonstrance was to be used as propaganda "to tell stories to the people." For the first time members of Commons began to coalesce into opposing factions of royalists and parliamentarians. Charles rejected the remonstrance, and brought impeachment proceedings in the House of Lords against the principal authors of the Grand Remonstrance in the House of Commons (John Pym, William Strode, Denzil Holles, John Hampden, and Sir Arthur Haslerigge). The House of Lords told Charles he had no legal precedent to remove these men from office because they had done nothing wrong. On Jan. 4, 1642, he rode to Westminster intending to impeach five members of the Commons and one of the Lords on charges of treason. But, because the king's plan was no secret, the members had already fled.. After this rebuff the King left London on January 10, 1642, not to return, except as a criminal to execution. Neal, 1, p. 407. The Queen went to Holland in February to raise funds for her husband by pawning the crown jewels. In June a series of proposals for a treaty, the Nineteen Propositions (1642), were presented to the king. Charles rejected them outright. On Aug. 22, 1642, the king raised his standard bearing the device "Give Caesar His Due." The War was on. Return

9. The English Puritan statesman John Pym, b. c.1583, d. Dec. 8, 1643, was a moderate leader of the parliamentary opposition to King Charles I. Pym sat in every Parliament from 1621 until his death; during the 11-year period (1629-40) in which Charles ruled without Parliament, Pym was active in colonial enterprises. In the Long Parliament, Pym began the proceedings against the earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud and was one of the authors of the Grand Remonstrance (1641). He was among the five members of Parliament that Charles tried personally to arrest in 1642. Pym and the others fled to London where they were hidden by Puritan loyalists. The King demanded the return of Pym and the others but the citizens refused. After the outbreak of the English Civil War, Pym devised new methods of taxation to raise money for the parliamentarians and Sir Henry Vane the Younger (1613-1662), arranged the 1643 alliance that brought the Scots into the English Civil War. Vane was a strong leader in the Puritan’s Long Parliament, but was very critical of Cromwell, and died by execution. Return

10. Neal, volume 1, p. 406. Return

11. At this time, Oliver Cromwell was the captain of a cavalry troop. Return

12. The Roundheads were so-called because many of them were Puritans who wore their hair close-cropped, in contrast with the shoulder-length wigs of the royalist Cavaliers. See picture of Charles I, above, for an idea of what the Cavaliers looked like. Return

13. By the spring of 1643 Cromwell was a colonel of horse and by the autumn he was Lieutenant General of Horse in the army of the Eastern Association: Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambs, Hunts, Herts (and later Lincs). Return

14. The Bloodiest Battle of the English Civil War. The Roundheads joined with the Scots Army and the Eastern Association Army (Lord Manchester, commanding, and Cromwell as second in command) for a combined army of 20,000, with 7,000 horse; the united Royalists under Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the Marquees of Newcastle had an army of 11,000, with 7,000 horse. The result: 4,150 Royalists killed and 1,500 taken prisoner. Near the end of the battle, Cromwell lead a critical cavalry charge that swept through the Cavaliers, around back, and then charged again into their flanks. Prince Rupert was a nephew of Charles I, and was his commander in chief from 1644 until 1645. It was Rupert who referred to Cromwell as "Ironsides", which became the nickname of Cromwell’s regiment. Return

15. By this time, Cromwell believed that the army needed reorganizing (many commanders were members of Parliament, and best suited to the halls of government, not the fields of war). Edward Montagu, 2nd earl of Manchester (Lord Manchester), the commander, disagreed. Strong charges were exchanged. Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), 3rd Baron of Cameron. solved the problem by taking over from Manchester and forming the New Model Army. Return

16. The Puritans had the New Model Army, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Cromwell was the second in command. Again he led a cavalry charge which was instrumental in the victory. Return

17. And pausing only to crush a royalist rising in South Wales. Return

18. Dec. 6, 1648; known as Pride’s Purge after Colonel Thomas Pride (b. ????, d. 1658), an English soldier in the Puritan Revolution. The Parliament, after this, was known as the "Rump Parliament." Return

19. Charles I was arrested for treason, tried in a few days beginning January 20, 1649, and executed before a large but silent crowd on a snowy January 30, 1649 and became the only English king to lose the monarchy – others lost their thrones, and some their heads. The vote in Parliament was 26 to 20, with 24 members refusing to vote. Oliver Cromwell was one of three signatories of the Death Warrant of Charles I. Charles has been described as often stupid and obstinate, who brought about his own downfall as much by his weakness of character as by his religious and political beliefs. Return

20. During this battle, Charles II was seriously injured and hid in an oak tree while trying to escape. Hence: "Royal Oak." Return

21. Born 1599, died 1658. In 1640, Cromwell was a member of Parliament from Cambridge and from the beginning he was a firebrand, taking up extreme positions - he was an outspoken critic of the Bishops and one of the first to call for the established church to be pulled up "roots and branches". In July 1642, he obtained permission from the House of Commons to allow his constituency of Cambridge to form and arm companies for its defense, in August he himself rode to Cambridge to prevent the colleges from sending their plate to be melted down for the benefit of the King, and as soon as the war began he enlisted a troop of cavalry in his birthplace of Huntingdon. Although untrained as a soldier, he seemed to have a natural aptitude and rose quickly from Captain to Lt. General, successfully participating in battles against both the Royalist Irish and Royalist Scottish armies and crushing a rebellion in South Wales. After the execution of Charles I in 1649 – and Cromwell was one of three who signed the Death Warrant -- Cromwell led an army against Charles II and the Royalists first in Ireland and then in Scotland; particularly in Ireland, he persecuted the campaign so relentlessly that his name is still regarded there with odium [see following footnote]. By 1650, he is the Lord General of all Parliamentary forces, and defended against a Scotland invasion led by Charles II. He was appointed Lord Protector in 1653, but lacked a talent to govern (although his reign featured religious tolerance – of Jews and non-Anglican Protestants). He served as Lord Protector until his death September 3, 1658. After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Cromwell’s body was exhumed and posthumously "executed", January 30, 1661 – exactly 12 years after the execution of Charles I. His head was cut off and displayed outside Westminster Hall until it was rescued by a well-wisher nearly twenty years later. Cromwell was succeeded by his son, Richard, who was overthrown within the year. Richard’s detractors called him "Tumbledown Dick" – for reasons unknown. He later lived quietly in retirement first in Paris, then (under an alias) in London, and finally in Hampshire. Return

22. On a personal note, my family tradition holds that some distantly-related members of the Irish Shields family – William and James, great-uncles to my first Shields ancestor – were deported from the British Isles due to the Cromwellian Persecution of 1649-50; one of their brothers had been killed in the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 (Cromwell was leading a regiment of Parliamentarians during that battle). My earliest direct Shields ancestor, William of Armagh (1728), was orphaned during the ship voyage to the New World in 1737, and lived with the descendants of James when he arrived in America. At that time, they operated the Shields Tavern in Williamsburg, which is still in operation (although not continuously since the 1700s and prior to the 1740s by Mr. Shield’s father-in-law, John Marot). Sources: Lois Willis, The William Shields Family At The End of the Oregon Trail (1970) and Letha Booth, ed., The Williamsburg Cookbook (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975). Interestingly, members of the Scottish Shields family supported Cromwell, and had to flee to Northern Ireland to escape persecution following the Restoration in 1660. Source: John Edgar Shields, A History of the Shields Family (Harrisburg, PA: Triangle Press, 1968). Return

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Collections of Christmas Carols & Poetry
Compiled and Edited by
Douglas D. Anderson

Victorian Visions
A Christmas Poetry Collection

Divinely Inspired
A Christmas Poetry Collection

The Bridegroom Cometh
Poetry For The Advent

Other books by Doug Anderson

Once A Lovely Shining Star

A Christmas Poetry Collection

So Gracious Is The Time

A Christmas Poetry Collection

How Still The Night

The Christmas Poems of Father Andrew, S.D.C.

 Father and Daughter

Christmas Poems by Frances and William Havergal

Now, Now The Mirth Comes

Christmas Poetry by Robert Herrick

What Sudden Blaze Of Song

The Christmas Poems of Rev. John Keble

 A Holy Heavenly Chime

The Christmastide Poems of Christina Georgina Rossetti

All My Heart This Night Rejoices

The Christmas Poems of Catherine Winkworth

A Victorian Carol Book

Favorites from the 19th Century —
Still favorites today!

Other Books by Doug Anderson

A Psalter – A Book of the Psalms Arranged by Luther's Categories

Betbüchlein: A Personal Prayer Book, a recreation of Luther's 1529 prayer book

Daily Prayer

Luther's Passional

Luther's Writings on Prayer: A Selection

Devotions for the Advent – 2009
A new edition for 2010 is being prepared.

The Lenten Sermons of Martin Luther, Second Edition

Descriptions of all these volumes can be seen at
Books by Doug Anderson

Christmas is a wonderful, cheerful holiday.  Whether we spend it by a real tree or some Balsam Hill artificial Christmas trees, at the end of the day what matters is that we enjoy our time together with our loved ones. 

The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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