The English Civil Wars marked a watershed in English history. It is the only time that England became a republic, for a period of 11 years from 1649-1660.
The complex politics that gave rise to this situation had their roots back in Tudor times. When Elizabeth I died childless, James VI of Scotland, son of “Mary Queen of Scots” became James I of England. He had two sons, the older, Henry died while young leaving the younger son, a timorous, stammering young man to succeed him as King Charles I of England. The character of Charles I has been much debated and discussed but I think one can say that like a lot of insecure men, he had a strong stubborn streak and a heavy dependence on his advisors, at least 2 of whom died horribly; Buckingham by assassination and Stafford on the block. He further raised the ire of the protestant population of England by marrying a Catholic, Henrietta Maria, sister to the King of France.
Above all, Charles had a fundamental belief in the divine right of the king to rule, and when he found himself thwarted by his Parliament, he dissolved Parliament and ruled alone, imposing taxes on an increasingly unwilling and unhappy population. Forced to recall Parliament in the early 1640s, he found himself increasingly at loggerheads with the country’s elected representatives and fled London. In August 1642 he raised his royal standard at Nottingham and England found itself plunged into a long and bitter civil war.
The first part of the civil wars lasted from 1642 until 1646 and ended with the defeat and imprisonment of the King. For the first two years the fortunes of both sides wavered. The battle of Marston Moor in July 1644 funamentally altered the balance, with the King losing the North. His forces were finally crushed at the Battle of Naseby in June 1644 when faced with the revamped Parliamentarian forces ("The New Model Army") under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax.
At the King’s instigation a second civil war flared in 1648 and the King’s refusal to negotiate with his captors led eventually and tragically to his execution in January 1649.
In 1650 his exiled son, Charles II landed in Scotland and tried unsuccessfully to regain his throne by force. The Battle of Worcester in September 1651, which provides the background to BY THE SWORD, resulted in his defeat and after a six week adventure, Charles II managed to make good his escape to France but many of his supporters were captured, killed or transported to the West Indies where they were used as slave labour on the plantations.
The void left by the execution of the King was filled by the appointment of Oliver Cromwell, the victorious commander of the Parliament’s forces, as Lord Protector. The clichéd view of Cromwell’s reign is of a dark, cheerless time when puritans banned music, dancing and Christmas celebrations and the “Major-Generals” imposed a martial rule over England. This is not entirely just. Religious toleration, for example, enjoyed a much freer time under Cromwell then at any time in the previous reigns.
Cromwell died in 1658 and was succeeded by his son, Richard. “Tumbledown Dick” was not the man his father had been and in 1660 at the behest of the Army, Charles II returned to the throne of England and England’s brief experiment with republicanism was over.
The year 1654, when The King's Man is set, was marked by a number of plots against his life. Beginning with the unsettling brick bat, hurled by Miss Granville, “Gerard’s Plot” and “The Ship Inn Plot”, both of which form the background to THE KING’S MAN, took place exactly as described, but lacked the support of the King himself. Charles was not willing to lend his support easily to every half baked plan to restore him to the throne. The experience at Worcester was seared deeply into his soul.
Only one group of plotters actually held the King’s Commission and that was “The Sealed Knot” who rose to a brief prominence with a failed uprising the year after this story is set.Through the work of his Secretary of State, John Thurloe, Cromwell had the advantage of a most efficient spy network. In the words of Richard Cromwell, Thurloe had the “key to wicked men’s hearts”. He knew exactly how to exploit the weaknesses in the men who surrounded Charles II and Charles probably never knew quite who he could trust. To be honest I’m not sure if I am entirely fair to him in The King's Man or in By The Sword, but for the sake of the stories, the coercive methods he employes to get what he wants, seem consistent with the times.
The King’s supporters suffered terribly in the years following the end of the fighting. Those who did not flee to France, endured back breaking fines if not the complete sequestration of their estates. If they wished to return to France they had to swear oaths of loyalty against their beloved King. Like Jonathan Thornton in BY THE SWORD, Kit Lovell, the King’s man of the title is, as he says himself, typical of the “…the flotsam of war, one of the survivors. We’re what are left when our friends and our family have nobly sacrificed their fortunes and their lives for a lost cause.”