* English Civil War

War and Social Upheaval: The English Civil War (1642-51)

Figure 1.--Perhaps the most well known historical painting depictin a scene from the English Civil War is "When did you last see your father?" It was pained by W. F. Yeames. The painting depicts a Royalist family who have been captured by the Parlimentarians. The boy is being formally questioned about the whereabouts of his father by a panel of the Parliamentarians.

The Tudors did a great deal to strengthen the authority of the monarchy, but were deft politicans and managed Parliament carefully. The Stuarts had a different mindset. They were commited to not only divine-right monarchy, but royal absolutism as well. Rather than attempting to mamage Patliament, the Stuarts were affronted by Parliament's perogatives. The conflict between the Stuart monarchy and Parliament culminated in the English Civil War. The English stepped back from establish a republic which they might have done if the War had occurred in the 18th century. The Civil War was, however, a major step in the development of English democracy. It also had a profound impact on American democracy. During this period of turmoil in Britain, the colonists were left largely to their own devices. This meant at an early stage of colonial development, the new colonial legisltures had to exercise considerable authority independent of royal control.

The Tudors

The Tudors are perhaps the most sucessful of the various English royal dynasties. Henry VII ended the War of the Roses. His son Henry VIII duing and intetwined with his many marriages brought the Reformation to England and also founded the Royal Navy. It was his children Edward VI and Elizabeth I who made England Protestant. Elizabeth is considered by many to be the greatest of all England's monarchs. It was during her reign that the Spanish Armada was defeated, but many long term trends like the rise of the middle class and a spirit of toleration grew as well as an accomodation of royal authority with Parliament and law. The Tudors did a great deal to strengthen the authority of the monarchy, but were deft politicans and managed Parliament carefully. Mary failed to return England to Catholcism in part because she over stepped those bounds. This was a lesson the Stuarts would fail to learn.

The Stuarts

The Stuarts had a different mindset. They were commited to not only divine-right monarchy, but royal absolutism as well. Rather than attempting to mamage Patliament, the Stuarts were affronted by Parliament's perogatives. The conflict between the Stuart monarchy and Parliament culminated in the English Civil War. James soon after rising to the throne (1603) began alienating hIis subjects on both religious and political issues. He dismissed Parliament and then reconvened Parliament when the need for money as a result of his foreign policy became acute. There was no standing English army. Thus any decission to go to war necessitated obtaining funds to raisr and equip as well as pay for an army. The process of calling and dismissing Parliament went on several times. Each time Parlisment refused to grant James additional taxes and instead debated the increased number of abuses they preceived as emanating from the crown causing James to again dismiss them. His last Parlaimenr submitted the Great Protestantion reasserting Parlaiment's right to debate state affairs and advise the king. James was outraged and again dismissed Parliament. James reconvened Parliament for the last time in 1624 to declare War on Spain. Spain had invaded the Palatinate as part of the 30 years war and the province was rules by his wife's brother. James death (1625) left the conflict betwwen the monarchy and Parliamentb unsettled. Although relations had been strained there had been no break between them.

Charles I (1625-49)

Many in England were not displeased with the passing of James I and received Charles with some enthusiasm (1625). Had Charles been willing to compromise, a constitutional crisis could have been avoided. Charles was, however, as firmly committed to devine-right monarchy and royal absolutism as his father. Despite the fact that Parliament had made their views clear with the Great Protestantion, Charles was determined to expand royal, authority. Thus conflict was inevitable. Charles reigned for two decades he tried ruling without Parliament. Inevitably the need for funds forced him to recall Parliament. His attempt to supress Parliment and arrest leading Parlimentarians sparked the Civil War.

Scottish Reformation

While the Reformation in England was initaited by the monarchy, in Scotland in occurred in spite of the opposition of the monarchy, although supported by the English.The Reformation was preceeded by a rising sence of popular disatisgaction with the Catholic clergy. Both Lollardy and Wycliffe in England had influenced some. Merchants and the minor nobility were the first to embrace the Reformation, not only for religius reasons, but as a vehicle for independence from both England and France. Protestant teaching reached Scotland only a few years after Martin Lurther launched the Reformation. As early as 1522 the Royal Government was attempting to stop the circulation of Luthern books. Early Reformation leaders like Patrick Hamilton were adherents of Luther, but John Knox led the Scottish Reformation to a Calvinist confession. John Knox lived for a time in Geneva and was influenced by John Calvin. He became the driving force of the Reformation in Scotland. Know was the first spokesman for Presbyterianism. Knox persuaded the Scottish Parliament to adopt a confession and book of discipline modeled on those develooped by Calvin in Geneva (1560). Parliament created the Scottish Presbyterian Church governed by local kirks. Mary Queen of Scotts attempted to attempted to reinstate the Catholic Church, but was friven to exile in England. Her infant son James, the future James I of England, was kept in Scotland and eventually tutored by Presbyterian scholars. The Catholic Church was reduced to minor importance, except for a few districts in the north.

The Bishops' Wars (1639-40)

It was the Scotts who in large measure precipitated the English Civil War. Scotland had become strongly Protestant, but the Scottish Presbyterian Church did not confrom to Anglican practice. Charles I was determined to enforce the Anglican reforms tghroughout his realm and this included the Scottish church. Not only were the Scots opposed to this, they wanted to destroy the power of the Anglican bishops over the church in Scotland. The Assembly of the Scottish Church at Glasgow rejected Charles' reforms (1638). The Scootish rejection of the reforms enraged Charles. He hastily gathered a military force and marched north to Scotland. Parliament never approved funds for a sanding English army and Charles did not have the funds to ammass a major army on his own. The Scotts did not relent. Having little confidence in the force that he had so hastily assembled, Charles prudently withdrew from Scoitland without fighting a major battle. As a result of Charles' failure to establish royal authority, unrest festered in Scotland. Charles continued to be concerned about Scottish defiance and upon learning that the Scotts were treating with the French, he decided upon another military expedition. This time Charles acted more carefully, calling Parliament into session to obtain the needed funds to assemble a credible military force (1640). When Parliament convened, however, the King's request was not formost on the agenda. It was not lost on parlimentarians that an army formed to supress the Scotts could just as easily be gurned on Parliament. Parliament began discussing grievances against the King's government. Most were opposed to a military operation against Scotland. Charles was furious and after only a brief period dismissed Parliament. The Parliament has this bee named the "Short Parliament". Charles decided to proceed with his military operation ahainst the Scotts without Parliament's support and needed financing. The result was that the Scots defeated Charles' inadequate force. The Scots moved south and took Northumberland and Durham.

The Long Parliament (November 1640)

The Scottish defeat of Charles' army put the King in a critical position. There was no other alternative but to call Parliament into session again to get the funds needed to finance an army to confront the Scotts. Charles reluctantly called Parliament (November 1640. This Parliament has becomne known as the "Long Parliament". None of the greviences raised by the Short Partliament had been addressed by the King. Parliament was no more motivated to put a substantial army atv the King's command.

The Civil Wars (1642-51)

Seeing that the new Parliament would not support him against the Scotts, Carles moved in effect to stage a coup d'etat against Parliament. Charles moved to arrest five parliamentarian leaders (January 4th, 1642). Charles strode supported by soldiers into Parliament, but found the leaders had been spirited away. London was a center of support for Parliament. Charles thus left London.

Marshalling forces

The King and Parliament began ammassing armies. Their goals differed. Parliament had no desire to dethrone the King and establish a republic. Most saw monarchy as the natural order of society. They simoly wanted a limited monarchy. They wanted Charles to accept the limitations on his power that had evolved over centuries in England. Charles for his part wanted to destroy Parliament as an effective institution and rule as in France as an absolute monarch. The country as a whole was largely apathetic. The armies involved were realtively small, only 13,000 men on each side in 1642. The areas of support varied for the two sides. Royalist support was strongest in the North, West and Wales. Parliament was stronger in the more prosperous South and East, including London. Parliament as a result of this regional division held most of the principal ports. Merchants domibated the ports which were depedant on commerce. Merchants for the most part tended to see threir interested better served by Parliament. Parliament had access to greater resoyrces, dominating the more populace and richest areasa of England. They also had the authority to levy and collect taxes. Charles had to depend on his personal resources and donations from his partisans.

Family divisions

The Civil War was not a simple matter of artistocrats fighting the gentry and middle class. Many families were split by the War. Some Englishen men quickly decided who to support. Many agonized over the decession. Many famiklies had divided loyaltiues with sons fighting fathers and brothers fighting brothers. A goof example of a family caught up in the War was the Cliffords.

First War (1642-46)

Charles launched the War, raising his standard at Nottingham (August 1642). The Parlimentary forces were commanded by Robert Devereux (3rd Earl of Essex). The War began with many experienced military commanders supporting the King.
1642: Charles marched on London, the center of Parliament's support, in an effort to achieve a quick victory. The first engagement between Charles and the Parlimentarian army under Essex was at Edgehill (October 23, 1642). The battle was inconclusive. Charles continued his march, but was stopped at Turnham Green which stopped his approach to London. Charles then withdrew to Oxford. Here he established his headquarters and continued to operate from Oxford for the entire war.
1643: Numerous battles were fought all over England in 1643 with the King's forces significantly improving their position. The royalist forces gained am important victory Adwalton Moor (June 30), giving them control of Yorkshire in the north. The Royalists also achieved important victories at Lansdown and Roundway Down (July). These victories in the southWest enabled the Royalist commander Prince Rupert to take Bristol, one of the few important seaports in Royal hands. Parliament scored an important victory at Winceby (October 11), giving them Lincoln. One of the largest battles was fought at Newbury (September), but proved inconclusive. Both sides seeing that their forces were inadequate to achieve victory, sought ways of improving their position. Parliament formulated the "Solemn League & Covenant", which offered the Scots religious reforms in exchange for their support. Charles negotiated a cease-fire against the Catholics in Ireland, enabling him to concentrate his forces in England.
1644: The war continued in 1644, but there were fewer Royalist victories. Parliament supported by the Scotts gained an important victory at Marston Moor (July 2) which gave them York. The King won at Lostwithiel in the southwest. A second major battle was fought at Newbury, but was also inconclusive.
1645: Parliamentary commanfers gained increasing experuience as the War progressed, reducing the initial Royalist advantage with experienced field commanders. Fairfax formed the New Model Army which achieved important victories at Naseby (June 14) and at Langport (July 10). These crushing defeats essentially destroyed Charles' effective military force.
1646: Charles disband his remaining miitary force. Oxford had to surrender to Parliament. Charles fled north, putting himself in the hands of his old nemesis--the Scotts. Thuis ended the First War. The Scotts were happy to ransome Charles to Parliament. Charles was held at Holmby House. Parliament drew up proposals to describe the conditions under which Charles might govern in the future.

Dissent in the Army

Assuming that the war was over, Parliament began to disband the army. Discontent developed within the army over matters like pay arrears of pay and living conditions. The issues involved were much like those raised by the Continental Army aftervthe American Civil War until. Continental Army commanders wanted to seize power from Congress until disuaded by General Washington. In England, Commanders resisted disbanding until these issues were resolved. The army kidnapped Charles seeing control over the King as a way of improving their bargaining position. Charles managed to escape to the Isle of Wight. The army was increasingly inclined to take matters into their own hands. The army marched to London (August 1647). Commanders debate the next step at Putney.

Second War (1648)

Charles no longer under the control of either Parliament or the army sought to take advantage of the developing conflict between Parliament and the army. Charles negotiated an agreement with the Scots, granting church reform (December 28 1647). Charles engineeered Royalist rebellions in areas of support. The Scotts invaded again, this time in support of Charles (July 1648). The rebellions and the Scottish army were rapidly defeated by the poweful army that Parliament had built.

The Rump Parliament

Charles continued definanced caused many in Parliament to question whether he should be allowed to resume the crown. He still had his supporters within Parliament and debate continued. Those members desiring that Charles be regain his crown attempted to negotiate with him. The army was opposed to any ttempt to return Charles to the throne and disturbed by efforts by some in Paliament to accomplish this. The army marched on parliament and carried out "Pride's Purge". Army commande Sir Thomas Pride arrested 45 MP's were arrested and kept 146 other MPs out of parliament. The army permitted only 75 MPs to enter. These were called the Rump Parliament and were fully underr the army's control.

Heads Roll

The Army required the Rump Parliament to establish a high court of justice to try the King for treason. There was little doubt about his guilt. Royalists would argue that a divine right king cannot commit treason. The King was found guilty (January 1649) and was beheaded (January 30). Some of his key followers such as Baron Capel were also executed.


Oliver Cromwell commanded the army and quellied revolts in Ireland.


Charles son climingbthat hecwas the rightful king was crowned Charles II. He formed an army and marched south. Cromwell defeated the Scottish forces at Dunbar (September 3, 1650). Charles II succeeded in marching on into England. The final battle of the Civil Wars was fought at Worcester (Septemver, 3 1651). The Royalist forced under Charles II were defeated and Charles forced to flee abroad.

The Commonwealth

England was left without a king. Cromwell established the Commonwealth and he ruled as Lord Protector of England.


The Civil War was a major step in the development of English democracy. It also had a profound impact on American democracy. During this period of turmoil in Britain, the colonists were left largely to their own devices. This meant at an early stage of colonial development, the new colonial legisltures had to exercise considerable authority independent of royal control.


Well, H.G. The Outline of History: The Whole Story of Man (Doubleday & Company: New York, 1971), 1103p.


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Created: January 26, 2004
Last updated: 4:18 PM 4/24/2019