The English Civil Wars (1642-51)

Date: 22 August 1642 – 3 September 1651

Locations: England, Scotland and Ireland

Belligerents: Royalists and Parliamentarians

Casualties: 127,000 non-combatant deaths (including 40,000 civilians), 50,700 Royalists dead and 83,467 captured; 34,130 Parliamentarians dead and 32,823 captured.Outcome: Parliamentarian victory, King Charles I beheaded, Oliver Cromwell new ruler of England.

The Battle of Naseby, 14 June 1645

Firstly, why the English Civil Wars, and not just the English Civil War? Has there been more than one before? The answer to that is yes, and no. During the reign of King Stephen of England (r. 1135-54), almost his entire reign was dominated by a conflict known as the Anarchy, which lasted from 1138-53. This was a form of civil war, although it was fought between England and Normandy, and not just two rival English factions.

Indeed, the Wars of the Roses were also English civil wars, which lasted in one form or another from 1455-87. And for a century after the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, they were known as ‘The Civil Wars’.

But when we mention the English Civil Wars, why do we think of the Roundheads and the Cavaliers? Why don’t we think of the Anarchy under King Stephen in the twelfth century, or the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth? Simply put, this was the most recent civil war in England. If a civil war was to erupt today and last for weeks, months or years, then I think we would refer to the seventeenth century conflict as the ‘Old Civil War’ or ‘the Parliamentarian Civil Wars’. In addition, the English Civil Wars were a series of wars, not battles. The were three major civil wars – and we will jump right into it now, with the origins of the conflict!


King James I of England (r. 1603-25)

To really discover why and when the conflict arose when it did, we have to go right back to the Tudor period, and the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Due to her having no direct heir (as she was childless), she chose her cousin James VI of Scotland to succeed her, and he became James VI of Scotland and James I of England. As a result, he united the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland under one ruler for the first time in their history (Ireland was an English protectorate at the time).

As Queen Elizabeth had been a Protestant, naturally she wanted a Protestant successor. However, the Catholic minority initially welcomed James I as a ruler, but soon began to turn against him: perhaps the most famous example is the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605, when a select few Catholics attempted to blow up the king in Parliament.

However, despite the Catholic attempt against his life, James remained relatively tolerant of Catholics in his kingdom, particularly because they were a powerful political force (in Ireland especially). However, James also commissioned a translation of the Bible into English, which went against Catholic tenets, as they believed the Bible and clerical dealings should only be done in Latin. This Bible is still in print today: the eponymous King James Bible.

Fast-forwarding to the end of James I’s reign, his son Charles I succeeded him in 1625. Charles was married to a Catholic princess called Henrietta Maria of France. This only further fuelled suspicions (this time on the Protestant side) that Catholic traditions would be brought back into England. The Protestants who were most concerned about this were a radical group, known as Puritans – who we will shortly come back to. However, Charles did not help himself much, either. He believed in the divine right of kings, meaning that he viewed himself as God’s representative on Earth, paralleling the role of the Catholic Pope. In 1629, he dismissed Parliament altogether, and would not call it for another eleven years.

War in Europe arrives on the shores of the British Isles

It is little surprise that it was Charles I who was on the throne while the Thirty Years War raged across Europe, with Protestants and Catholics slaughtering each other all over the continent. The effects were certainly felt in England, too: by the late 1630s, Charles I had made efforts to establish a more Anglicised form of religious practice in Scotland – something which went against what the Scottish Presbyterians believed in.

A Scottish army defeated Charles’ forces and invaded northern England, forcing Charles to recall Parliament in 1640: the first time in eleven years that Parliament had been called. The main reason why Charles called this Parliament is because he needed the funds to pay his own troops and settle the conflict.

However, the Royalist vs Parliamentary split had already become evident by now: Parliament acted quickly and aimed to restrict Charles’ powers, even going so far as to organising the trial and execution of one of his chief ministers, Lord Strafford.

While there was mass political upheaval in England, in Ireland the Catholic majority also rebelled, killing hundreds of Protestants in October 1641. When news of this massacre reached England, tensions arose even further as neither Charles nor Parliament could agree on how to deal with it. In January 1642, Charles tried and failed to arrest five members of Parliament who opposed him. Now fearing for his own safety, Charles fled London for northern England, where he called on his supporters to prepare themselves for war.

The First English Civil War (1642-46)

King Charles I (r. 1625-49)

On 1 June 1642, Parliament sent a list of proposals to Charles I (who was in York at the time), known as the Nineteen Propositions. In these demands, Parliament sought a larger share of power in the governance of the kingdom, but (naturally) Charles rejected them.

War officially broke out on 22 August 1642, when Charles I raised the royal standard at Nottingham. The Royalist supporters (who were also known as Cavaliers) controlled much of northern and western England, while the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) controlled large parts of the south and east of the country.

The first pitched battle of the Civil War was at Edgehill, Warwickshire, on Sunday 23 October 1642. The result of this battle was inconclusive, as both Royalists and Parliamentarians celebrated it as a victory – both sides had relatively evenly matched armies, and lost very similar numbers of men.

However, by 1643, Charles I’s forces seemed to be gaining the upper hand, having won a battle at Adwalton Moor in Yorkshire (30 June 1643), and also that they had concluded an alliance with Irish Catholics to put an end to the Irish Rebellion. Unfortunately for the Royalists, the Parliamentarians had also been busy securing alliances, and they had Scotland on their side at the turn of 1644. This alliance was most famous for its part in the Battle of Marston Moor, on 2 July 1644.

Marston Moor, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, was one of the key Parliamentarian victories of the First Civil War. The Parliamentarian army outnumbered the Royalist army by 28,000 to 18,000, and only lost 300 men compared to the 4000 dead and 1500 captured on the Royalist side. Due to the location of this battle (near York, where Charles had been residing), it effectively ended Royalist support in the north, as the Parliamentarians now controlled almost all of the territory in northern England.

Seeing the success of the victory at Marston Moor, the following year Parliament created the New Model Army, a 22,000 strong force of permanent, professionally trained soldiers. This army was trained and commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax, and a man called Oliver Cromwell, who will join our story later.

Two more key Parliamentarian victories followed: the Battle of Naseby (Saturday 14 June 1645) in Northamptonshire, where the main Royalist army was destroyed; and the Battle of Langport (10 July 1645), where the last Royalist field army was also destroyed. Charles was handed over to Parliament by the Scots and imprisoned in May 1646, after seeking shelter with Scottish Presbyterians in Nottinghamshire. This marked the end of the First English Civil War.

The Second English Civil War (1648-49)

The Battle of Preston, 17-19 August 1648

Due to Charles’ arrest and imprisonment, this meant that there was a partial power vacuum in which any of the Royalists, New Model Army or Presbyterians could potentially take over. As a result, Charles passed in between these factions, while each one attempted to negotiate a better deal than the others.

However, while on the Isle of Wight in 1647-48, Charles negotiated a deal with the Scots. The deal was known as ‘the Engagement’, and its objectives were simple: Charles would make church reforms that suited the Scots if they would invade England on his behalf and restore him onto the throne.

During the spring and summer of 1648, a series of armed uprisings across England erupted, and even a Scottish invasion took place, albeit unsuccessfully.

The conclusive battle of the Second Civil War was the Battle of Preston (17-19 August 1648). A combined Royalist and Scottish force were soundly defeated by Cromwell’s Parliamentarians: the Royalist force numbered 11,000, while Cromwell’s troops numbered just under 9000. Despite this, 2000 of the Royalist forces were killed, and a further 9000 captured; Cromwell’s forces only lost under 100 men.

Yet still Charles undertook secret pacts and encouraged his supporters to break their parole, which only caused Parliament to debate whether to return Charles to the throne at all. The New Model Army, furious with Parliament that they continued to countenance Charles as a ruler, marched on Parliament and conducted what was known as “Pride’s Purge” (named after the leader, Thomas Pride) on 6 December 1648.

The Trial of Charles I

The troops arrested 45 members of Parliament, and kept 146 out of the chamber. The Rump Parliament received orders to set up and organise a trial for the treason of Charles I. Even Thomas Fairfax, one of the most constitutional monarchists and supporters of Charles, declined to have anything to do with the trial and resigned as head of the army, thus clearing the path for Oliver Cromwell to take power.

Following the trial, the 59 Commissioners (judges) found Charles I guilty of high treason as a “tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy.” He was beheaded on 30 January 1649 on a scaffold erected in front of the Banqueting House at the Palace of Whitehall, London. Following his beheading on , his son Charles was proclaimed King Charles II in the Royal Square in St Helier, Jersey on 17 February.

The Third English Civil War (1649-51)

Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland (1649-58)

Although the king was dead, the war was not yet over. A new Republican regime was established in England, headed by Oliver Cromwell. He was backed by the support of the mighty New Model Army. One of Cromwell’s first moves was to see to the Irish problem, and it resulted in one of the worst massacres in Irish history.

From 3-11 September 1649, 3500 Irish citizens lost their lives at the Siege of Drogheda (also known as the Drogheda Massacre). Of these 3500, approximately 2700 were Royalist soldiers, while the others were Catholic civilians – although Cromwell would later claim that all of them were armed. This massacre is one of the main factors that has caused divisions between Anglo-Irish relations and Protestant-Catholic relations. The result of the massacre was that Cromwell’s forces took the town, and executed the Royalist garrison that was there.

The Royal Oak, where Charles II evaded capture and certain death at the Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651.

Scotland were up next on Cromwell’s bloody list. Charles II had wasted no time in gaining support north of the before he had been crowned, and this prompted Cromwell to invade Scotland in 1650. Charles’ forces were defeated at the Battle of Dunbar on 3 September. He then launched an invasion into England, but he again suffered another defeat at the Battle of Worcester exactly a year later on 3 September 1651. Following the Royalist defeat at Worcester, Charles II narrowly escaped with his life, having famously hidden in an oak tree (the Royal Oak, which many British pubs are now named after), and Parliament was left in de facto control of England. This decisive Parliamentarian victory meant that the Third (and final) English Civil War came to a close.

Impact of the English Civil Wars

King Charles II (r. 1660-85)

Over the course of the conflict, an estimated 200,000 people lost their lives. This figure includes both soldiers and civilians, and death by numbers killed in battle and those who were killed by the spread of disease from the travelling armies. This loss of life is proportionate to (population-wise) that of the First World War.

Following the conclusion of the English Civil Wars, Oliver Cromwell was instated as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. It was during this period that Puritanism was rife in the kingdom, and events such as dancing, gambling and even Christmas were made illegal (this law has never been reinstated, meaning that technically, in England, Christmas is still illegal).

Cromwell tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to gain widespread Republican support, but this proved difficult with a large distrust of the New Model Army and new religious sects dividing the country. In my opinion, the English Civil Wars certainly were a religious war of the seventeenth century, much like the Thirty Years’ War.

Oliver Cromwell died on 3 September 1658, aged 59, from malarial fever. He refused the only known treatment (Quinine – which is found in tonic water) because it had been discovered by Catholic Jesuit missionaries.

He was succeeded by his son, Richard, but he abdicated just eight months later amid continued support for the monarchy after years of repression under the Cromwellian regime. Parliament reassembled with the continued disintegration of the Republic, and negotiations begun to restore Charles II to the throne. He arrived in London on 29 May 1660 (his 30th birthday), and to celebrate his return, a public holiday was announced. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey almost a year later, on 23 April 1661. This ushered in the period known as the Restoration of the Monarchy.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!

For more of my other work, please check out my author profile at The Collector here.

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