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British History: The English Civil War

Updated on December 2, 2013

Englishman vs Englishman

This painting shows the Parliamentarians triumphing over the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, a battle that proved to be a major turning point in the war.
This painting shows the Parliamentarians triumphing over the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, a battle that proved to be a major turning point in the war. | Source

The King That Lost His Head

The reign of Charles I was characterised by religious conflict. Combining charm with stubborness, his absolutist tendencies, put him on a collision course with Parliament.
The reign of Charles I was characterised by religious conflict. Combining charm with stubborness, his absolutist tendencies, put him on a collision course with Parliament. | Source

Background

Since the 13th century, the English monarch had needed Parliament’s approval to raise taxes; its increasing influence however, had greatly infuriated the Stuart kings. In reality though, the true causes of the Civil War can be traced back to when the pope refused Tudor king Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Henry rejected the pope’s authority and declared himself head of the Church of England in 1534. The Reformation that followed was consolidated during Elizabeth I’s reign by legislation making Protestantism England’s national religion. Since she was childless, she was succeeded in 1603 by her Stuart cousin, James VI of Scotland.

James’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings (that the king was god’s representative on Earth with unlimited authority) antagonised Parliament. He quarrelled with them over taxes and religious laws. Relations between James’ son Charles I and Parliament disintegrated further, exacerbated by his anti-Puritan policies. By 1629 he had dismissed Parliament three times, governing alone during the ‘Eleven Years Tyranny’ (1629-1640). He enforced royal authority through the Courts instead and raised money by selling titles.

England's Revolution

Declaration Of War

On the 22nd August 1642, Charles I raised his battle standard at Nottingham, signalling the start of the civil war that split England down the middle, pitting brother against brother and father against son. By the time it was over, around 10 per cent of Britain’s population were dead.

This war was not just the product of a quarrel between Parliament and the king. Religion also played a key role, as for many Parliamentarians, Catholicism and tyranny were inseparable. In 1640 Charles had recalled Parliament in order to raise money to quell a revolt in Calvinist Scotland against his clumsy attempts to impose ‘popish’ reforms, such as the Anglican prayer-book, upon them. However, instead of granting him cash, they countered with their own catalogue of recriminations, fuelled by 11 years of grievances. He was forced to dismantle the institutions of absolute rule and lost his right to dissolve Parliament. Rumours of his complicity in an Irish rebellion against Protestant English rule increased the tension. When news reached Charles that Parliament intended to impeach (charge with improper conduct) his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria, he took drastic action. In January 1642, he entered the House of Commons with an armed force, intending to arrest five leading radical MP’s for high treason. Forewarned, they took refuge in the City of London, which considered Charles’ actions an outrage. Fearing for his safety, Charles went north to raise an army, while his queen went abroad to raise funds to pay for it.

The New Model Army

The New Model Army, formed in 1645 by Parliament, was England's first professional army. The foot regiments consisted of pikemen and musketeers, and were provided with the distinctive red tunics shown here.
The New Model Army, formed in 1645 by Parliament, was England's first professional army. The foot regiments consisted of pikemen and musketeers, and were provided with the distinctive red tunics shown here. | Source

Naseby: The Birth of British Democracy

The Years Of Conflict

While the king commanded the loyalty of Wales, the west, and the north, Parliament controlled London, the east, and the south. The initial battles were inconclusive- a draw at Edgehill was followed by victories for the Royalists or Cavaliers, at Landsdown and Adwalton Moor in 1643, and for the Parliamentarians or Roundheads, at Turnham Green and Newbury. Numerical superiority and Scottish involvement led to Roundhead victories at Marston Moor in 1644 and at Naseby and Langport in 1645. After the fall of Oxford in 1646, Charles’ surrender to the Scots at Newark marked the end of the first civil war.

Parliament’s supporters now split into those wanted to share power with the king, and a more radical group, supported by the army generals, that wanted a republic. Despite his confinement, Charles continued to bargain with various parties, finally making a deal with the Scots to adopt Presbyterianism (their system of church government) in England in return for their support. The royalists rose again in July 1648 and the Scots invaded England. The New Model Army easily suppressed these uprisings before crushing the Scots at Preston. They then marched on Parliament and dismissed most of its members. The 58 who remained- known as the Rump Parliament- were ordered to set up a High Court to try the king for treason. Charles I was found guilty and beheaded on the 30th January 1649. This was truly revolutionary- monarchs had been deposed or killed before, but never legally executed. Parliament now abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords, declaring England a republic or ‘Commonwealth.’

The King's Death Warrant

On 29th January 1649, Charles I was found guilty of being a traitor. His death warrant shown here, is endorsed by many signatures, including that of Oliver Cromwell.
On 29th January 1649, Charles I was found guilty of being a traitor. His death warrant shown here, is endorsed by many signatures, including that of Oliver Cromwell. | Source

Oliver Cromwell

A devout military leader and shrewd politician, Oliver Cromwell became king in all but name.
A devout military leader and shrewd politician, Oliver Cromwell became king in all but name. | Source

The Lord Protector

Before the civil war, Oliver Cromwell was a landowner and Puritan Member of Parliament. By the war’s end, he was Parliament’s most powerful military leader. He spent the next two years campaigning in Scotland and Ireland, crushing local uprisings and bringing them firmly under English control. His defeat of a Scottish army loyal to Charles I’s son (later Charles II) at Worcester in 1651 finally brought an end to the civil war. In 1653, Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament, unhappy at its failure to pass any reforms. After being appointed Lord Protector for life- a role that effectively made him a military dictator- he divided England and Wales into 10 districts ruled by army generals. His rule, based on strict Puritan principles, included the banning of most public entertainments, including Christmas. In September 1658, Cromwell died and was succeeded by his son Richard. With no powerbase, he was helpless against the army generals and resigned after less than a year.

Aftermath

After the resignation of Richard Cromwell, the vacant throne was offered to Charles II on condition that he supported religious toleration and pardoned those who had fought against his father. Puritan rules were swiftly dropped- theatres and music halls reopened, and public festivals, such as Christmas were restored. Nell Gwyn, a former orange-seller turned actress, became the most famous woman of the period, proving to be the king’s most popular mistress.

One of the more interesting characters to emerge from the civil war was Thomas Hobbes, who quickly became one of England’s most influential political thinkers. He lived through the bloodshed and his experiences form the basis of the views expressed in his book Leviathan, published in 1651, in which he advocates a strong government at the expense of personal freedom, arguing that mankind’s natural state is one of unending conflict.

In 1685 Charles II was succeeded by the openly Catholic James II, who quickly alienated his subjects by placing religion above politics. His advisers secretly invited the Dutch Protestant prince, William of Orange to take over the throne in 1688, in what became known as the Glorious Revolution.

© 2013 James Kenny

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    • EGamboa profile image

      Eileen Gamboa 3 years ago from West Palm Beach

      Would it have killed me to crack a history book open when I was in college?!?! You make it sound so much more interesting. Thanks James, for putting a little life in my hitherto least favorite subject!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem El, that's the problem with history in school/college, it's just about remembering dates, when, in reality it's all about telling stories.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Superb hub and very informative. Isn't it always the same, though, time after time, that religion and power are the root of discontent and dispute? No one really won in the end, certainly not the common people! Thanks for the great history lesson - as the previous comment says, more interesting than school! Ann

    • MG Singh profile image

      MG Singh 3 years ago from Singapore

      Excellent hub. You have covered the topic nicely

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Nice piece this, JK.

      Mind, what about the Levellers? John Lilburne, Richard Overton, William Walwyn and Thomas Prince were the leaders of the New Model Army Agitators. Their falling out with Cromwell led to imprisonment in the Tower. What were the aims of the Levellers? Well for one thing they did not see why the higher echelons should live like lords whilst the common man in the army was left to 'slum it' out in the open in all weathers. There were several other issues, amongst which was a refusal to fight under Cromwell in Ireland until agreement on the Levellers' issues were resolved. A rebellion, 'The Banbury Mutiny' of 400 troopers led by Capt William Thompson broke out. They were defeated in one skirmish and in another Thompson lost his life. The Levellers' leaders, Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and Prince were released but Thompson's brother, corp. Perkins and John Church were executed on 17th May, 1749. The Levellers' rebellion collapsed with their execution.

      After Charles II's death it was learnt that he had gone down the same road as his father and plotted with England's enemies, France and Spain to land forces in Ireland and with the Irish to send an invasion force to England under the command of James, the Duke of York, the future king who had to leave before the arrival of William III with his army. In the end it turned out to be William of Oranje-Nassau who came with a foreign army to deal with James. They met by the River Boyne not far from Dublin. James with his Franco-Irish army fell for a feint and he finished up back at the French court (where he'd gone with his mother Henrietta Maria, brother Charles and the rest of their family at the time their father was embroiled in the Civil War).

      One thing led to another and James' son Charles came over, assembled an army and got as far as Derby, where he developed the 'cold feet' syndrome and withdrew to Scotland. The rest, as you know, is history, otherwise known as the Duke of Cumberland and Culloden.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you MG!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well that's always the case Ann, whenever revolution occurs, there are never any winners. All those who gain power are destined to someday lose it. That's the overwhelming lesson of our history.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Wow thank you for the additional information. To be fair, my article is merely a summary of the Civil War. I might go back and cover the topic in more detail. The battle's of Camp Hill and King's Norton intrigue me, as they took place within a few miles of my house. Thank for popping by.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Most of the castles in Yorkshire being Royalist, Ollie had a right old time with his cannon, reducing them to uninhabitable ruins (a chain of them between Scarborough and Middleham, only Skipton and Castle Bolton survived because they weren't Royal-owned).

      Between Oliver Cromwell and Henry VIII, they left us with some spectacular ruins, quite a lot between the Humber and the Tweed!

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 3 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Thanks for the great information on the English Civil War, a period of history I don't know too much about.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      No problem Cynthia, glad you liked it.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 3 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      As a second generation American, I know little to nothing about English history, so I found this piece educational. Thank you for your detailed research and effort in bringing this historical event to light. --Blessings!

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much Marie, and thank you for the email too, much appreciated.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 3 years ago

      It is always good to review history. They say it prevents mistakes in the future, something much needed today. Thanks for the highlights on this era and war.

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Thank you very much teaches, appreciate you stopping by.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      If history only was effective as a 'teaching aid', we'd have a lot less dictators and other right-wing lunatics making war on one another or less well-equipped neighbours. They never seem to study history, do they?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Well no, because if they did then they would understand that they are making many of the same mistakes their predecessors made. History, as they say, often repeats itself.

    • profile image

      Hublogger 3 years ago

      Oliver Cromwell was in some peoples eyes a vile religious dictator who established the miserable English Republic. In other peoples eyes he was a heroic leader for democracy and Christianity. What do you think?

    • JKenny profile image
      Author

      James Kenny 3 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Personally I think the former, because essentially he was a military dictator, who despised anything that wasn't Puritan. He shares all the classic traits of a dictator; ruthless and merciless in achieving his goals.

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