The English Civil War
out on August 27, 1642 and continued until approximately 1650 is often
simply referred to in Britain as the "civil war", sometimes leading to
confusion with the American Civil War. It was not, however, the only civil
war ever fought in England. There were two other periods of major civil
war after the Norman Conquest: "the Anarchy," which occurred during the
12th century reign of King Stephen, and the Wars of the Roses, which lasted
for much of the 15th century.
This article deals only with the English Civil War of the 17th century,
also known as "the Great Rebellion".
Prelude to the English Civil War
Charles I's marriage to a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria,
shortly after his accession to the throne in 1625, was extremely unacceptable
to the Puritans who were influential within Parliament, which became even
more uncompromising than it had been to his father, James I of England
(James VI of Scotland). Charles inherited his father's belief in the "Divine
Right of Kings", and resented any interference in his chosen way of doing
things. Other important issues, such as Charles' abuse of The Court of
Star Chamber and the structure of the Anglican Church were also major sources
of political controversy. The leaders of the parliamentary party cast around
for ways to limit the powers of the king. The Parliament of 1625 granted
him the right to collect customs duties only for a year and not, as was
usual, for his entire reign. The Parliament of 1626 also impeached the
king's favourite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Furious, Charles
then dissolved it.
Because the king was unable to raise money without Parliament, a new
one was assembled in 1628. The new Parliament drew up the Petition of Right
in 1628, and Charles accepted it as a concession to get his subsidy. Amongst
other things the Petition referred to the Magna Carta and said that a citizen
should have: (a) freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, (b) freedom
from non-parliamentary taxation, (c) freedom from the enforced billeting
of troops, and (d) freedom from martial law.
Charles then attempted to rule without a Parliament, resorting to expedients
such as "ship money" (a tax levied originally on seaports but then extended
by Charles to the entire country) to raise revenue. Ship money, as a levy
for the Royal Navy was for the defence of the realm and therefore within
the scope of the royal prerogative. Reprisals against Sir John Eliot, one
of the prime movers behind the Petition of Right, and the prosecution of
William Prynne and John Hampden (who were fined after losing their case
7-5 for refusing to pay ship money, taking a stand against the legality
of the tax) aroused widespread indignation. Charles's chief advisers, Archbishop
William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, later to become 1st Earl of Strafford,
were widely disliked.
Prior to the Civil War, Charles also attempted to wage an expensive
series of wars against the Scots, the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640. These
resulted from an attempt to enforce Anglican-style reforms on the Scottish
church. The Scots however rejected these reforms and sought to remove the
control that the bishops had over the church. Charles was insufficiently
funded for such an expedition, and was forced to seek money from Parliament
in 1640. Parliament took this appeal for money as an opportunity to discuss
grievances against the Crown; moreover, they were opposed to the military
option. Charles took exception to this lese majesté and dismissed
the Parliament; the name "the Short Parliament" was derived from this summary
dismissal. Without Parliament's support, Charles attacked Scotland again
and was comprehensively defeated; the Scots, seizing the moment, took Northumberland
In desperate straits, Charles was obliged to summon Parliament again
in November of 1640; this was the "Long Parliament". None of the issues
raised in the Short Parliament had been addressed, and again Parliament
took the opportunity to raise them, refusing to be dismissed. On January
4, 1642, Charles attempted to arrest 5 members of the Parliament (John
Hampden, John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, and William Strode)
on a charge of treason; this attempt failed, however, as they had been
tipped off and gone into hiding prior to the arrival of the king's troops.
When the troops marched into Parliament the officer in charge demanded
of the the Speaker where the five were. The Speaker replied that he 'had
neither eyes to see nor ears to hear save as this house [the Commons] directs
me.' In other words, the Speaker was a servant of Parliament, rather than
of the King.
The First English Civil War
The English Parliament, having controverted the king's authority, raised
an army led by Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. The purpose of this
army was twofold: it was to defeat both an invasion from Scotland and also
the attempts by the king and his supporters to restore the monarchy. Charles
I, in the meantime, had left London and also raised an army using the archaic
system of a Commission of Array. He raised the royal standard at Nottingham
In 1642 the military governor of Kingston upon Hull, Sir John Hotham
declared the city for the Parliamentarian cause amd refused Charles I entry
into the city and its large arsenal. Charles took great personal affront
to this act, declared Hotham a traitor. Charles I besiged the City unsuccessfully.
This seige precipitate open conflict between the Parliamentarian and Royalist
At the outset of the conflict, though the Navy and most English cities
favoured Parliament, the King found considerable support in rural Communities,
however much of the country was neutral. It is thought that between them
both sides had only in the region of 15,000 men. However, the war quickly
spread and eventually involved every level of society throughout the British
Isles. Many areas attempted to remain neutral but found it impossible to
withstand both the King and Parliament. On one side the king and his supporters
fought for traditional government in Church and state. On the other, supporters
of Parliament sought radical changes in religion and economic policy, and
major reforms in the distribution of power at the national level. In addition,
Parliament was not the united front portrayed in much of later history.
At one point in the nine years of war there were more members of Parliament
and Lords in the King's parliament than there were at Westminster.
In terms of the balance of power, parliament definitely had more resources
at their disposal, mainly due to their possession all major Cities including
the large arsenals at Hull and London. For his part, Charles hoped that
quick victories would negate Parliament's advantage in material, which
precipitated the first battle, the first seige of Hull in July 1642 which
provided a decisive victory for Parliament.
A latter battle at Edgehill was inconclusive, but regarded by the Royalists
as a victory. One of the king's outstanding leaders was his nephew, Prince
Rupert of the Rhine, a dashing cavalry commander. Playing a minor part
in the battle on the other side was a cavalry troop raised by a country
gentleman named Oliver Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell was to later devise the
New Model Army system still evident in military organisation today. The
characterised a unified command structure and professionalism which was
firmly swing military advantage towards Parliament. nature unfied c The
second action of the war was the Battle of Turnham Green which saw Charles
bested and forced to withdraw to Oxford. This was to be his base for the
remainder of the war.
In 1643 the Royalist forces won at Adwalton Moor and gained control
of most of Yorkshire. Subsequent victories in the west of England at Lansdowne
and at Roundway Down also went to the Royalists. Prince Rupert then was
able to take Bristol. In the same year, Oliver Cromwell formed his troop
of "Ironsides", a disciplined unit which demonstrated his military ability.
With their assistance, he was victorious at the Battle of Gainsborough
After an inconclusive battle at Newbury in September, on October 11,
1643, the Parliamentarian army won the Battle of Winceby giving them control
of Lincoln. Political manoeuvring on both sides now led Charles to negotiate
a ceasefire in Ireland, freeing up English troops to fight on the Royalist
side, while Parliament offered concessions to the Scots in return for aid
Parliament won at Marston Moor, gaining York with the help of the Scots.
Cromwell's conduct in this battle was decisive, and marked him out as a
potential political as well as a military leader. The defeat at the Battle
of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, however, was a serious reverse for Parliament
in the south-west of England.
In 1645 Fairfax founded the New Model Army, under the command of Cromwell.
In two decisive engagements, the Battle of Naseby on June 14 and at Langport
on July 10, Charles's armies were effectively destroyed. Left with little
recourse, Charles fled north, seeking refuge with the Scots in 1646 after
disbanding his forces. This was the end of the First English Civil War.
Charles was ransomed by Parliament and held captive at Holmby House
whilst Parliament drew up plans. In the meantime, Parliament began to demobilize
and disband the army. The army was unhappy about issues such as arrears
of pay and living conditions and resisted the disbandment. Eventually the
army kidnapped Charles in an attempt to negotiate using their hostage as
a bargaining piece. He spent three months at Hampton Court Palace, before
escaping to the Isle of Wight, where he was recaptured and imprisoned in
Carisbrooke Castle. Increasingly concerned, the army marched to London
in August 1647 and debated proposals of their own at Putney.
The Second English Civil War
Charles took advantage of this deflection of attention away from him to
negotiate a new agreement with the Scots, again promising church reform
on December 28, 1647. Although Charles himself was still a prisoner, this
agreement led inexorably to the "Second Civil War".
A series of royalist rebellions and a Scottish invasion in July 1648
took place. All were defeated by the now powerful standing army. This betrayal
by Charles caused Parliament to debate whether Charles should be returned
to power at all. Those who still supported Charles's place on the throne
tried once more to negotiate with him. Unpaid parliamentarian troops in
Wales changed sides; the revolt was firmly put down by Cromwell.
Furious that Parliament were still countenancing Charles as a ruler,
the army marched on parliament and conducted "Pride's Purge" (named after
the commanding officer of the operation, Sir Thomas Pride). 45 Members
of Parliament (MPs) were arrested; 146 were kept out of parliament. Only
75 were allowed in, and then only at the army's bidding. This rump parliament
was ordered to set up a high court of justice in order to try Charles I
for treason in the name of the people of England.
In 1648, by a 68 to 67 vote, the Parliament found Charles I of England
guilty of treason, and he was executed in 1649. The majority of those who
signed his death warrant were themselves executed upon the later Restoration
of the Monarchy.
Oliver Cromwell then led the army in quelling Royalist forces in Ireland
and Scotland ([-1650) to finally restore an uneasy peace. Resistance
continued in Scotland under the valiant James Graham, Marquis of Montrose,
whose forces were finally defeated at Invercharron on April 27, 1650, and
Montrose was ignominiously executed.
Not all resistance had yet died out. Charles II was crowned in Scotland,
claiming that the throne was rightfully his. He marched with the Scots
on England. Cromwell beat the Scottish Royalists at Dunbar on September
3, 1650, but was unable to prevent Charles from marching deep into England.
Cromwell finally engaged the new king at Worcester on September 3, 1651,
and beat him. Charles II fled abroad, ending the civil wars. The Commonwealth
was then established, with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England.
The victory made him very unpopular in Scotland and Ireland which, as
nominally independent nations, were effectively conquered by English forces.
In particular, Cromwell's suppression of the Royalists in Ireland during
1649 still has a strong resonance for many Irish people. The massacre of
nearly 3,500 people in Drogheda after its capture -- comprising around
2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town carrying arms, including
civilians, prisoners, and Catholic priests -- is one of the historical
memories that has driven Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant strife during
the last three centuries.
Theories relating to the English Civil War
These events have often been explained as a popular uprising of either
a religious kind (the "Puritan Revolution") or as an expression of class
conflict predicted by Marxist theory, "bourgeois revolution," the latter
notably by historian Christopher Hill.
Some historians claim to have discovered the origins of proletarian
democracy and the "general will" in the debates about government conducted
in Putney Church in 1647 among a coalition of Presbyterian dissidents and
There are two large historical societies, The Sealed Knot and The English
Civil War Society, that regularly re-enact events and battles of the Civil
War in full period costume.