The English Civil Wars – Part One

When Charles I ascended to the English throne in 1625, no-one foresaw that his reign would end with his execution for treason. However, on the thirtieth of January 1649, he was beheaded. The monarchy was abolished, and the kingdom became the Commonwealth. With this drastic change, it may be said the conclusion of the English Civil Wars saw a revolution take place. 

King Charles I, by a follower of Anthony van Dyck.

Charles was an intelligent man, well-informed on matters of state. He had a strong sense of order, leading some to regard him as inflexible and arrogant. The early reign of Charles saw numerous clashes with his parliaments. These included disputes over finances, and the conduct of the Thirty Years’ War. Some conflicts preceded Charles’ reign as king, as he had increasingly dealt with Parliament before his father’s death. Charles believed strongly in the royal prerogative, which led to Parliament fearing he would take away their rights. 

One dispute with Parliament led to Charles deciding to rule without it in 1629. He dissolved Parliament, leading to a period known as Personal Rule. During this time, Charles could not rely on subsidies granted to him by Parliament, and so sought to maintain his finances through various, and legally dubious, schemes. For example, he ordered that all counties must pay ship money, not only the coastal ones. Despite this, Personal Rule was relatively stable. 

The issue began when Charles attempted to impose a new prayer book on the Scotland. In protest, uprisings erupted in Scotland. Charles’ heavy-handed response escalated them into the Bishops’ Wars. The finances of Personal Rule were sufficient during peacetime, but Charles could not afford a war. He struggled to mobilise troops, highlighting the weaknesses of his rule. People avoided the tax, and many disapproved of war with Scotland. Charles, as a result, was forced to recall Parliament. The first Parliament sat for only three weeks, and was dissolved without achieving anything. However, Charles desperately required funds and called another Parliament. This one was not prepared to go away easily.

A riot caused by the imposition of the new Book of Common Prayer in Scotland.

It was known as the “Long Parliament”. It sat from November 1640 to April 1648 (and would later return in 1659!). This Parliament was not willing to subject to Charles’ whims, and instead was keen to address its grievances after an 11-year absence. It dismantled Charles’ financial systems and impeached many of his key advisors, claiming that they had misled the king. Charles was forced to assent to the Act of Attainder, which led to the execution of his chief minister, the Earl of Strafford.

Charles paid the Scots to return north of the border, which stabilised his political position. However, Parliament pushed forward another Act, known as the Triennial Act, which required that they be called every three years. Personal Rule would not be accepted again. Divisions were clear. 

In 1641, the Irish revolted in protest of the plantation schemes and the loss of Irish landholding rights. Charles was commander-in-chief, and so would be in control of an English army to suppress the rebellion. Parliament, however, was reluctant to grant him a large army, as they feared he would use it on them. Violent protests occurred in London, and Charles lost control of the capital.  

In 1642, the conflict came to a point of no return. On the 22nd of August, Charles raised his standard in Nottingham, marking the start of the First Civil War. Both sides had clear bases of support, though Parliament held a crucial advantage in London. There, it controlled financial bases and the Navy. Charles was forced to use Oxford as his base. The Battle of Edgehill, the first major clash, proved inconclusive. The early part of the war favoured the Royalists, but a turning point came in 1643, when their siege on Gloucester failed. 

Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Naseby

Charles negotiated a ceasefire in Ireland in order to shore up his number of troops, whilst Parliament entered into an agreement with the Scots. In 1644, the Parliamentarians won the Battle of Marston Moor, granting them control over York and the north. In 1645, a decisive moment came: the New Model Army was established, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, with Oliver Cromwell as Lieutenant-General of Horse. With this, the Parliamentarians had a disciplined, well-equipped army. The Battle of Naseby was an incredible demonstration of the strength of this new organisation. On the 10th of July, the Battle of Langport saw the last Royalist field army destroyed. 

In May 1646, Charles surrendered to the Scots in Newark, believing that they offered him the most favourable terms. He was then taken to Newcastle, where they attempted to make him sign the National Covenant. In 1647, he was handed over to the English Parliament. The First Civil War had concluded, with Parliament the victor. 1 in 4 men had taken up arms across the three kingdoms. In England, there was 190,000 dead (3.7% of the population). Scotland had 60,000 dead (6% of the population, and Ireland had a devastating loss of 618,000 (41% of the population). Proportionally, more Englishmen died in the Civil Wars than did during the World Wars.  

However, one thing was still certain: the king was central to negotiations. There were no calls for his death. Attention turned away from armed conflict to diplomacy.  

Bibliography

  • Braddick, M. J. 2008. God’s Fury, England’s Fire : A New History of the English Civil Wars /. Allen Lane. 
  • Hill, Christopher. 1991. The World Turned Upside down : Radical Ideas during the English Revolution /. Penguin Books. 
  • Morrill, J. S. 1993. The Nature of the English Revolution : Essays /. Longman. 
  • Russell, Conrad. 1973. The Origins of the English Civil War; Problems in Focus Series (London, England). Macmillan. 
  • Roots, Ivan Alan, Colin Jones, M. D. D. Newitt, and Stephen Roberts. 1986. Politics and People in Revolutionary England : Essays in Honour of Ivan Roots /. Blackwell. 
  • Schama, Simon, and Alois Riegl. 2002. A History of Britain Schama, Simon. BBC. 

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