Why I prefer Roundheads to Royalists

America had its revolutionary war in the 18th century – at the same time as the French Revolution. But a hundred years before, England had a war that pitched defenders of parliamentary democracy – Roundheads – against defenders of absolute monarchy – the Royalists.

The issues were not entirely dissimilar to what would be played out in the new United States in the future. If you want – the English Civil War between Roundheads and Royalists was a dress rehearsal for George Washington versus King George III.

Roundheads against Royalists – whose side to pick?

BBC Four is broadcasting a new series titled Charles I: Downfall of a King telling the gripping of how a divinely anointed king of England in the 17th century was toppled and eventually executed by beheading in front of a London crowd.

His overthrow was the result of a civil war that divided England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland into two camps: Roundheads who opposed the king and Royalists who fought for him.

Which rather begs the question – which side would any of us have been on?

Royalists or Roundheads then?

Watching the programme last night, I found my inner Roundhead stirring. Here was a pint-sized monarch painted to look like a victorious giant with a decidedly mean streak when it came to his own subjects.

In one letter read out on the programme, he cheerfully orders troops to go and shoot at those who dared to question his divine right to rule.

And let’s be clear, since Magna Carta was signed over four hundred years earlier, kings and queens had been forced to take on board the views of the aristocracy, clergy and wealthier citizens as opposed to ruling like an all-powerful pharaoh.

That was something French kings did – exercising absolute power and accountable to nobody.

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How power mad monarchs provoked Roundheads to fight Royalists

But Charles and his father James I had sought to enforce the notion of ruling by “divine right” – that is they were not monarchs because of human decisions but because God had chosen them to rule. England’s parliament was justifiably angered by such a notion.

But so too were religious dissenters who opposed Charles trying to enforce one version of Christianity on the whole kingdom.

Scotland rose in revolt when Charles tried to impose his authorised prayer book and Anglican bishops. There was a strong suspicion among puritanical Protestants that Charles was seeking to create the kind of Catholic influenced monarchy you could see across Europe with its accompanying Inquisition and blind obedience to the pope.

Patriotic Roundheads and treacherous Royalists

This suspicion was fuelled by the fact that Charles was married to a French woman, Henrietta Maria. And she was undoubtedly of the view that her husband should clamp down on both political and religious opposition.

England had experienced a Reformation a hundred years before to throw out the pope, monks and friars – and there was no appetite to turn the clock back. Charles was swimming against the tide of progress and reform. Once defeated at the end of the civil war, he resorted to petty scheming and plotting, even with foreign powers, to get his untrammelled power back.

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Cromwell and his Roundheads vanquish the Royalists

Once Charles was deposed and then beheaded, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector of the Commonwealth – an early experiment in republican rule. He’s been reviled and demonised by royalists ever since. In fact, Cromwell’s reputation is far worse now than it was under the Victorians a hundred years ago – who regarded him as a champion of parliamentary democracy and the rule of law.

But Cromwell was everything that Charles wasn’t. A solid Englishman from the shires who inspired others by his leadership and rejected royal pomp and extravagance. When he was painted, the Lord Protector ordered that the painter depict him “warts and all”. Unlike Charles who was made to look gigantic and his wife Henrietta Maria whose teeth were apparently like “bullwarks” but appears to us as a rare beauty.

I’d be interested to know whether you see yourself as a Roundhead or a Cavalier…

Politicians lynched by the London mob

Politicians and journalists are more unpopular today than ever. But in the past in London they stood a very real risk of being lynched.

One of the many politicians to be lynched was Walter Stapleton, Lord Treasurer of England, who came to a sticky end around 1326.

Victim of the London mob

Not only was he in charge of the country’s finances, Walter was a leading adviser to King Edward II and – typical of the Middle Ages – also the Bishop of Exeter. Men of the cloth often held top political positions. It wasn’t seen as unusual or ungodly. However, the conduct of King Edward II was seen as less than godly – with accusations of sodomy and vice swirling around him.

Edward’s own queen launched a rebellion to overthrow her husband the king in alliance with her lover. Londoners came out in the queen’s support. The king fled towards Wales while his Lord High Treasurer, the unfortunate Walter, tried to lock the gates of the city to stop Queen Isabella getting in.

Stapleton is one of many medieval lynched politicians

However, he’d misjudged the mood of London very badly.

The hapless politician galloped as fast as he could towards St Paul’s cathedral to plead for sanctuary but was intercepted by the mob. They pulled Walter from his horse, stripped his clothes (worth a pretty penny I’m sure) and dragged him naked to the stone cross that once stood in Cheapside.

There, they proclaimed him a traitor and cut off his head – putting it on a pole and processing around with it. The same fate befell his servants whose headless bodies were tossed on a heap of rubbish by the river.

Over fifty years later, a similar gory end came to Simon Sudbury, the Lord Chancellor of England. Like Walter, Simon held some ecclesiastical positions as well as being a politician. He was both Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury – so a top nob in medieval society. But the London mob soon cut him down to size – literally.

Poll tax leads to politicians being lynched

Regrettably, Sudbury supported the introduction of a poll tax. The peasants hated it. They marched on the capital and surrounded the Tower of London where Simon was holed up with the Lord Treasurer Sir Robert Hales.

Eventually, the two men were handed over to the mob and beheaded. Apparently, it took something like eight blows to take Simon’s head off. His skull can still be seen in the church of St Gregory in the town of Sudbury, Suffolk today.

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Londoners have frequently rioted and attacked top politicians with no regard to their rank or position. During the 1780 anti-Catholic “Gordon Riots”, the house of Lord Mansfield was thoroughly plundered. In 1815, Lord Eldon – the Lord Chancellor – confronted a mob that was breaking the windows of his home with a shotgun in his hand!

Eldon was hated by the city populace as he’d managed to oppose just about every progressive measure you could imagine including the abolition of slavery and attempts to secure affordable bread for the poor (the Corn Laws).

But the pelting of Eldon’s house with stones wasn’t a one off incident. Lord Wellington – hero of Waterloo – was assailed in his carriage by Londoners – as was King George III and King George IV.

So if politicians think they’ve got it tough today – pick up a history book. They’re getting off lightly in our times – with just a few hostile tweets. In the past they were lynched – their lives cruelly cut short.

Royal Weddings – tragic and comic events

Today saw the wedding of Prince Harry and Meaghan Markle and the run up wasn’t without incident and scandal. But that was nothing compared to the bizarre events that have hit royal weddings in the past.

Royal wedding ends with a dead king

Take for example, King Harthacnut. He was a Viking who ruled England between 1040 and 1042. He succeeded his equally warlike brother Harold the First, often referred to as “Harefoot”.

Harthacnut was rather upset about the way his brother had executed a rebel called Alfred Atheling and so had Harold Harefoot’s body dug up, beheaded in public and then chucked in a marsh.

Harthacnut was in his early twenties and fighting to control his kingdom in England and in Denmark from rebellious nobles and rival kings. To relax from all this, he attended the wedding of a friend Tovi the Proud in Lambeth. Unfortunately, Harthacnut drank way too much and the king of England, aged only 23 or 24, had a stroke and died.

George IV turns up drunk to his royal wedding

Fast forward eight centuries… George IV, who ruled England between 1820 and 1830, was certainly no paragon of virtue before and after becoming king. A hopeless gambler and womaniser with a gargantuan appetite. But eventually, his parents demanded that the 32-year old prince get hitched…to his first cousin Caroline. This was not as unacceptable as it is today.

George had never met Caroline and wasn’t too keen on the match. So he did what any gentleman in this predicament would do – he got completely drunk. He was so legless in fact that his friends had to prop him up throughout the ceremony.

Throughout the wedding service, George eyed up his mistress Lady Jersey and hardly paid any attention to Caroline. Then when they got to Brighton for their honeymoon, he passed out in front of the bedroom fireplace. However, when he regained consciousness in the morning, George did the decent thing and a baby was born nine months later.

How Anne of Cleves kept her head!

Divorced, beheaded, died. And repeat. That’s how we were taught to remember how the six wives of Henry VIII died. Anne of Cleves was the fourth wife that Henry VIII hated from the moment he clapped eyes on her.

But….figure it out…she was divorced. So – how did she survive?

Henry divorced Catherine of Aragon and ended the power of the Pope in England in order to do so. Then he fell out with Anne Boleyn, his highly intelligent second wife incapable of giving him a son. Wife three was Jane Seymour who had a son but then died shortly after childbirth.

And along came Anne of Cleves.

Dowdy Anne of Cleves. It’s always said that Henry saw a portrait of her by the artist Holbein and decided to marry her – convinced she was stunningly gorgeous. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite so pretty in real life. In fact, Henry described his new Germanic wife-to-be a “Flanders mare”.

They later divorced.

But Anne is more fascinating than people give her credit. She complied with the request for a divorce and bent over backwards to give the king an easy exit out of the marriage. In contrast – Thomas Cromwell, the leading adviser at court who had recommended this union, lost his head.

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And Henry seems to have been rather nice to Anne afterwards. He showered her with castles and a state pension, gave her access to his children and referred to her as his “sister”. When you consider that the next wife – Catherine Howard – would be executed, Anne must have played the situation very well.

And there is the possibility that Anne of Cleves was not as ugly as depicted by Henry’s propaganda. In fact, the real problem might have been his inability to consummate any marriage by this stage in his life.

I explain further in this episode on Henry VIII from Private Lives of the Monarchs on UKTV – Yesterday TV.

Why Henry VIII had no friends

At the end of his life, the bloated and vindictive Henry VIII found himself without any friends. But you can hardly be surprised when he’d executed so many of them!

Even showering admiration and homage on this volatile monarch was no guarantee that your head would remain attached to your shoulders. Let’s look at friends that Henry VIII had judicially murdered:

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey was an adviser inherited by the young Henry VIII from his father. He was a top diplomat and by that, I mean his ability to scheme and spin had no equal. Henry had in Wolsey a Chancellor respected all over Europe and elevated to cardinal by Pope Leo X.

The high point for Wolsey was organising the opulent meeting between the King of France and Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. But in the years that followed, he struggled with the king’s strong desire to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled by the pope.

She had not borne him a son. And the Tudor dynasty had come to power as a result of a very bloody war between factions of the English aristocracy called the War of the Roses. Henry needed to cement the legitimacy of the dynasty and have a male heir. Catherine was clearly not able to do that.

But Wolsey wasn’t able to get the annulment – despite his diplomatic brilliance. He died aged 57 already under arrest and more than likely facing an appointment with the ax and block. With his death, Henry lost a very loyal ally and a great mind. But divorcing Catherine came first.

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas More

After Wolsey failed to convince the pope, Henry declared himself head of the Church of England. He effectively nationalised the Catholic church and ended over a thousand years of papal authority in his realm. But not everybody was happy with this development.

Thomas More was a highly effective lawyer and humanist thinker. But also an ardent opponent of the Protestant Reformation and the teachings of Martin Luther. He had worked with Wolsey to try and halt the spread of Protestantism into England. Succeeding Wolsey as Chancellor, he pursued his pro-Catholic agenda.

But here was a King effectively embracing this new variant of Christianity to further his desire to divorce Catherine. Thomas More found it impossible to accept the end of papal authority, let alone agreeing to the idea of Henry leading the church in his stead.

When refusing to acknowledge Henry as supreme leader of the church became a crime, More found himself cast as a traitor. He tried to remain on friendly terms with the king but the final nail in his proverbial coffin was not turning up to the wedding between Henry and his second wife, Anne Boleyn.

More was tried for treason and beheaded on 6 July 1535.

DISCOVER: How Anne of Cleves kept her head

HENRY VIII FRIENDS: Thomas Cromwell

Thomas Cromwell was an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant Reformation – diametrically opposed to the position of Thomas More. He organised the dissolution of the monasteries across England taking the enormous wealth of the Catholic church into the state coffers.

But he tripped up by organising the fourth marriage of Henry to Anne of Cleves – a German princess that the king didn’t like at all. However, the knives were already out for Thomas when he went to the executioner’s block.

After Thomas, Henry never really had an adviser of the same calibre as Cromwell, More or Wolsey. Not just advisers but friends and confidantes. They had served the monarch wisely and loyally. But this was a mercurial and authoritarian character who doesn’t seem to have been much good at keeping either friends of wives.

Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs explaining what a wretched figure Henry VIII cut at the end.