English Civil War

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Prelude to the English Civil War

Charles I's marriage to a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, 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. Other important issues, such as Charles' abuse of The Court of Star Chamber and a the structure of the Anglican Church were also major sources of disagreement. 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 favorite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Furious, Charles then dissolved it.

Unable to raise money without Parliament, a new one was assembled in 1628. The new Parliament drew up the Petition of Right, 1628, and Charles accepted it as a concession to get his subsidy. Amongst other things the Petition said that a citizen should have freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, freedom from non-parliamentary taxation, freedom from the enforced billeting of troops, and freedom from the imposition of martial law.

Charles continued to levy customs duties, an act that the parliamentarians declared illegal under the Petition of Right. Parliament in 1629 vigorously protested the prosecution of his opponents in the Star Chamber. The religious issue again arose. The Commons resisted the king's order to adjourn by forcing the speaker to remain in his chair while Eliot presented resolutions against popery and unauthorized taxation.

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. Reprisals against Eliot and the prosecution of William Prynne and John Hampden (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 I attempted to wage an expensive series of wars against the Scots, the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640. This was an attempt to enforce Anglican 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 sought 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 and Durham.

In desparate 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. On January 4th 1642, Charles attempted to arrest 5 members of the Parliament (Hampden, Pym, Haselrigge, Holles and 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.

The First English Civil War

English Parliament then controverted the authority of Charles I and raised an army under Oliver Cromwell, which was led by Robert Devereux, the 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, in the meantime, had fled London and also raised an army.

In 1642, at the outset of the conflict, the majority of the country was neutral and it is thought that between them both sides had only in the region of 15,000 men. However, it quickly spread and eventually involved every level of society throughout the British Isles. 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 terms of the balance of power, parliament definitely had more resources at their disposal. For his part, Charles hoped that quick victories would negate Parliament's advantage in material. The first major battle at Edgehill was inconclusive; the second at Turnham Green saw him bested and he was 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 Lansdown and at Roundway Down also went ot the Royalists. Prince Rupert then was able to take Bristol.

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 manouevring on both sides 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 and assistance.

Parliament won at Marston Moor, gaining York with the help of the Scots. 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. In two decisive engagements, the Battle of Naseby on June 14th and at Langport on July 10th, Charles' 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 mean time, Parliament began to demobilise 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. However, Charles escaped to the Isle of Wight. 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 28th 1647. This agreement lead inexorably to the Second English 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' place on the throne tried once more to negotiate with him.

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 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 guilty of treason, and he was executed in 1649.

Oliver Cromwell then lead the army in quelling revolts in Ireland and Scotland (1649-50) to finally restore an uneasy peace. Charles II was then crowned in Scotland, claiming that the throne was rightfully his. He marched with the Scots on England. Cromwell beat the Scottish forces at Dunbar on September 3rd 1650, but was unable to prevent Charles II marching deep into England.

Cromwell's campaign in Ireland[1] still has strong resonance among the Irish. In particular, his massacre of all men carrying arms in Drogheda after its capture, including the killing of all prisoners as well as Catholic priests and many civilians, is one of the historical memories that has driven Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant strife throughout the centuries.

Cromwell finally engaged the new king at Worcester on September 3rd 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.

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.

Adherents of the theory that history is moving by stages toward an egalitarian utopia 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 political radicals known as the Levellers.

In the sect called the Diggers, founded by an anti-Christian mystic, Gerard Winstanley, whose demands for an end to wage labour and private property, many historians have seen a blueprint for Communism. The events of 1642-49 amount to the English precursor to both French and Russian revolutions. Some historians argue that this is a proof that political revolution is a necessary part of the transition to 'bourgeois democracy' and modern society.


In Britain, The Sealed Knot, regularly re-enact events and battles of the Civil War in full period costume. Their web site is at http://www.sealedknot.org