English Civil War: History, Causes, Outcome & Facts

The year was 1642 and the lives of Englishmen and Englishwomen were about to be upended by a tumultuous event that would span for more than a decade. The English Civil Wars were a set of bloody and tragic events that not only scarred and divided the British Isles, but also resulted in the death of an English monarch and a period of autocratic republicanism.

The English Civil Wars were a set of very traumatic events that resulted in people taking arm against their neighbors and their own family members.

The decade-long conflict pitted the English crown, first under Charles I and later under his son and successor, Charles II, against the English Parliament. Historians often like to refer to the English Civil War as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms because the bloodshed occurred within/and among the various British and Irish dominions.

The upheaval came to a conclusion in the early 1650s when Parliamentarian forces (i.e. “Roundheads”), who were led by Oliver Cromwell, secured victory over the Royalists (i.e. “Cavaliers”). The defeated Charles II fled England and went into exile in France. Prior to that defeat, King Charles I had been tried and executed in 1649.

Owing to the sheer scale of bloodshed and high casualty, the English Civil Wars rank up there as one of the most tragic set of events in English history.

But what set of events caused the British Isles that were relatively peaceful, prosperous and stable for more than half a century to devolve into utter and complete chaos? In the article below WHE delves into the origins, significant causes, and outcome of the English Civil Wars.

Did you know: Parliamentary forces were called “Roundheads” because of their short haircuts?

English Civil Wars? More like British Civil Wars

The civil wars weren’t only between the English monarch and Parliament, with violent conflicts occurring in Wales, Ireland and Scotland. There were also conflicts between those kingdoms. What this means is that the term “the British Civil Wars” sounds more appropriate to describe the upheaval that took place in that period. It is for this reason why the civil wars have also been called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

The “English Revolution”

There have been some historians and political philosophers that have termed the English Civil War as the “Great Rebellion” or the “Great Civil War”. On the other hand, some Marxists of the 20th century described the war as the “English Revolution”. Those Marxists saw it as a social revolution which toppled the feudal system only for it to be replaced with a bourgeois republican government. This in turn paved way for the growth of capitalism.

This point reinforces the argument that the English Civil War was in effect a class war that pitted the English monarchy, supported by the Church and conservative landowners, against traders and industrialists led by the English Parliament. Proponents of this theory argue that the war was a classic case of a bourgeois revolution.

Who supported who in the English Civil War?

In terms of geography, the Royalists received a tremendous amount of support from folks in the shires, villages, and other non-urban areas whose economic power was nothing compared to the people in the urban and developed areas. The English monarchy also had a lot of backing from the cathedral city of Oxford as well as places in northern and western England and Wales.

Parliament, on the other hand, garnered support from the boroughs and urban regions, most famously the city of London, which by then was the financial hub of England. Businesses and industrialists in industrial centers also donated handsomely to the cause of Parliament. Furthermore, the reason Parliament came to dominate the seas was due to the support it received from ship owners and senior navy officers in the ports. Geographically speaking, Parliament had the support of large places from eastern and southern England. In the latter area, King Charles I had incurred the wrath of many people who were not pleased with the king’s drainage project in the Fenlands. The project had upended the lives of several thousands of people. Some of the leading figures that opposed the drainage schemes included Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester, and Oliver Cromwell. The latter would go on to lead the armies of the English Parliament against Royalist forces.

The English Crown and its supporters began the Civil War short of money and ammunition. Image: The Battle of Marston Moor, 1644

Weapons and battle tactics used in the English Civil War

The pike and shot infantry tactical formation first emerged around the late 15th century, i.e. at the beginning of the Italian Wars (1494-1559). Image: A model of a section of a pike and shot formation from the Thirty Years’ War on display at the Army Museum in Stockholm

The English Civil War witnessed the use of a dominant battle tactic known as the pike and shot infantry. In this tactical formation, matchlock muskets-wielding infantry brigades would line up in three rows deep. The first row would kneel, the second would crouch, and the third would stand. Commanders would then place pike men among the musketeers. The pikes they wielded measured between 12 feet and 18 feet in length. The pike men were tasked to protect the musketeers from attacks by the opponent’s cavalry.

Finally, commanders often placed cavalry on each side of their infantry. The cavalry were tasked to advance on the enemies’ cavalry before making an attack on the infantry.

The Royalist soldiers under Charles I’ command secured some very good results at the onset of the Civil War. This was due to the remarkable speed and agility of the cavaliers. Much credit goes to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the nephew of Charles I. Rupert, a German-English army officer, distinguished himself brilliantly as a Royalist cavalry commander. His experiences garnered fighting alongside Dutch forces during the Eighty Years’ War proved to be very useful in the English Civil War.

Standing in opposite direction to Rupert and the Royalist forces was Oliver Cromwell, the famed military commander who injected a lot of discipline into the Parliamentary forces. Cromwell is credited with turning the New Model Army of the English Parliament into a well-oiled standing army that ultimately turned the tides in favor of the rebels.

Prince Rupert

Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682) was the nephew of King Charles I of England. A veteran of the Eighty Years’ War and the Thirty Years’ War, Prince Rupert was an astute cavalry commander who in effect led the war efforts of the Royalists during the English Civil War. He was a tireless and faithful servant of the English crown. Image: Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Duke of Cumberland. Portrait by Peter Lely

Parliament’s tax-raising powers that gave it a huge leverage

Throughout the Medieval period, Parliament did not have the power to dictate to the English king. However, that all changed beginning around the 14th century when Parliament started wielding a number of powers, most importantly a tax-raising power that allowed it to place some bit of constraint on the monarch.

As tensions mounted between Charles and Parliament, the British monarch, just four years into his reign, decided to rule the kingdoms by himself without any oversight from Parliament. Charles thus ushered in a period historians like to call the “Eleven-Year Tyranny”, a period from 1629 to 1640 that saw Charles rule by decree.

And although Parliament still served as a kind of advisory role to the monarch, the fact that it was primarily the monarch’s source of income made it a very important body in the governance of England. By severing ties with Parliament, Charles was in effect going to lose a vital source of income as Parliament alone had the ability and authority to effectively impose and collect taxes.

In other words, Parliament’s control over the nation’s coffers gave it a huge leverage during disagreements with the monarch. One wrong move by the king could result in Parliament withholding its financial support to the monarch.

“The Personal Rule” of Charles I

Charles I of England

Charles I’s personal rule from 1529 to 1540 was termed as the “Eleven-Year Tyranny” of King Charles I. Image: Charles I in Three Positions by van Dyck, 1635–36

Following his ascension to the throne in 1625, Charles I, the son and heir of James I of England (also known as James VI of Scotland), he continued in his father’s footsteps and presided over a relatively stable and peaceful British Isles. However, his relationship with the English Parliament began to fracture because of his strong belief in the divine right of kings. Even worse than his father, Charles I believed he did not have to account to any earthly authority because his right of dominion came from divine authority. Parliament, on the other hand, tried its hardest to restrict the absolute power of the crown over his subjects. As a result, Charles came to be seen as a tyrant in the eyes of Parliamentarians.

To make matters worse, Parliament also felt very uneasy about Charles’ religious views being too Catholic. Conservative Protestants did not take too kindly to Charles’ marriage (in 1625) to Henrietta Maria, a devout Catholic princess from France.

Charles’ dissolution of Parliament in 1627

Charles’ support of the French Huguenots, a Protestant group, against the French royal army helped dispel the rumors that he was very sympathetic toward Catholicism. However, the king shot himself in the foot with his very unpopular decision to place command of the English force in the hands of George Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham. Villiers’ campaign did not go according to plan, and Parliament piled up the pressure on Charles, who took the easy way out by dissolving Parliament in 1627. Parliamentarians began to fear that that king was trying to sideline them from the governance of the nation.

Charles’ reconvening of a new parliament in 1628 did very little to convince people that he was willing to work with Parliament. Many members of Parliament that opposed the king found themselves arrested with one of MP, John Eliot, losing his life while being held in prison. Members of Parliament were completely outraged and demanded the rights of Parliament.

Under heavy criticism from Parliament, King Charles I took the bold decision to rule without the consent of the English Parliament. He ushered in a period historians like to term as the “Eleven-Year Tyranny” of Charles I. Thus from 1629 to 1640, Charles refused reconvening a Parliament, preferring to rule with Royal Prerogative powers. Provided there was not going to be any war to deal with, Charles was very confident that he could govern the nation without Parliament. He therefore proceeded to make peace with France and Spain.

Note: Without Parliament’s approval, Charles could not raise the revenue that he desired. Therefore, the English Parliament, which was largely made up of property-owning class, wielded a tremendous amount of de facto power that made it impossible for English monarchs to simply ignore it.

Ship Money

Having dissolved Parliament, the King imposed a number of unsavory taxes and levies, most infamous among them “ship money”. The collection of ship money was originally restricted to coastal regions, and in most cases, it was collected only during times of war. However, in 1635, Charles decreed that ship money was to be extended beyond the coastal regions as he believed that the defense of the kingdom was the priority of all his subjects.

Sixpence of Charles I of England

With no Parliament to provide him the necessary funding for his war efforts, Charles I extended the reach of the ship money tax from coastal towns to a general form of tax. Image: Sixpence of Charles I of England

The imposition of ship money was met with serious outcry. The fact that some judges of the Court of Exchequer found the levy unlawful (during a case brought up against member of Parliament John Hampden) in 1637 further made opposition to this feudal levy even more pronounced. Coupled with his soft stance toward Catholicism, Charles became an even more distrusted monarch, especially by hardline Protestants and Puritans.

Charles’ worsening financial situation

In addition to the Ship Money, Charles secured some bit of money from granting individuals monopolies. He also took to selling Royal lands. His allies in Scotland and Scottish nobility gave him some bit of financial support during this period. His granting of monopolies caused prices to shoot up, which further caused the king to incur the displeasure of the people.

As the 1630s drew to a close, Charles found himself very constrained by the lack of funds. His London creditors had largely abandoned him. Also, he struggled to secure loans from abroad. Such was the king’s desperation that he stormed into the Exchequer in the tower of London and seized the money that was held in the mint.

Another unsavory action taken by Charles was the imposition of fines on certain individuals that failed to attend Charles’s coronation.

The King continued to make policies that were aimed at him securing the needed funds to effectively govern without Parliament. Unfortunately for Charles, many of those policies were unpalatable to large sections of the public, especially the gentry and landowners.

Turmoil in Ireland and Scotland

In 1633, Charles I appointed one of his most trusted advisors, Thomas Wentworth (1593-1641), 1st earl of Viscount Wentworth, as the lord deputy of Ireland. The London-born quickly set about to raise funds from the Irish Catholic gentry in exchange for some amount of religious freedoms. Wentworth’s efforts proved very successful for a while. An efficient administrator, Wentworth also tried to harmonize Irish laws with English laws in order to increase trade and commerce in the region.

In time, Charles was set on a collision course with powerful landowners who resisted the crown’s attempt to extend English settlement. In the end, Charles’ policies in Ireland not only alienated him from Protestants but also from Catholics in the country

Similarly in Scotland, the Crown’s policies also created a lot of discontent among landowners. In 1639, Wentworth, then 1st Earl of Strafford, was tasked by the king to replicate his earlier Irish successes in Scotland and help consolidate Charles’ grip and power in the nation. Unfortunately, those measures ended up failing in a big way.

Controversy surrounding the English Book of Common Prayer

Criticisms were thrown at the King due the policies instituted by one of his senior advisors, Archbishop William Laud. Appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633, Laud, along with the king, began incurring the discontent of many, especially Puritans, who accused him of bringing back practices from Catholicism.

In 1637, resent in Scotland toward the Crown reached dangerous levels after Charles released a modified version of the liturgical book used by the Church of England (i.e. the English Book of Common Prayer). Opposition to those religious policies of Charles were spearheaded by a group of Scottish churchmen called the National Covenant. Leaders of the Scottish church were concerned that the King was trying to impose English liturgical practice on the Church of Scotland.

Archbishop William Laud

William Laud, Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the most senior figures of Charles’ court

Charles faces off against the Covenanters in the Bishops’ War (1639-40)

In the two years after the release of the modified version of the Book of Common Prayer in Scotland, riots in Edinburgh had morphed into full-blown national resistance. Charles responded in a typical fashion by raising an army to crush the resistance in Scotland. However, the King was a bit thin on troops and resources to effectively go against the rebels in Scotland. In other words, the first Bishops’ War resulted in a stalemate. Charles therefore agreed to a temporary treaty, i.e. the Pacification of Berwick in 1639.

A few months later, further agitations would spring up, and the King would once again set out to raise an army to fight against the Scots, whom he believed were in bed with the French.

The Short Parliament – Charles’ reconvened Parliament that lasted for only three weeks

Charles’ reconvened parliament lasted for only three weeks – i.e. from April 13 to May 5, 1640. Owing to its short duration, the Parliament came to be known as the Short Parliament.

Lacking the money needed for his army to crush the rebellion in Scotland, Charles reconvened Parliament in April 1640. Unfortunately for the King, the members of Parliament (MPs) were far from interested in funding his war efforts against the Scots. MPs led by John Pym instead wanted the King to first attend to a list of grievances that they had brought against the King.

Rather than attend to those grievances, Charles completely rejected them and dissolved Parliament again. Without any support from Parliament, the King managed to raise his army and proceeded to war against the Scots in the second Bishops’ War. In August, 1640, the King’s forces were defeated at the Battle of Newburn. The Scots invaded England and captured a number of territories in the north of England, including Newcastle.

Charles I’s frantic attempt to keep the Scots from advancing further into England

With very few cards left to play, Charles reconvened parliament in November 1640. The King hoped to raise money for his army. He also wanted to use the money to pacify the Scots into leaving occupied English territories. Charles was doling out about £800 to keep the Scots from moving further into England.

Once again, parliamentarians did not budge; instead, they insisted that the King first addressed their grievances before any money could be provided. Charles conceded to their demands, including sanctioning the trial and execution of Strafford in May, 1641. One of the King’s most trusted advisors, Wentworth was despised by Catholics and Protestants in Ireland, Scotland and England.

The Earl of Strafford was one of Charles I’s most trusted advisors

John Pym and John Hampden, the leaders of the parliamentarians, were able to secure a peace treaty with the Scots that saw the invading Scots leave Newcastle in August 1641. The funds that Charles secured from Parliament was used to demobilize the Crown’s troops in the north.

Concessions Charles made to the Long Parliament

As part of his deal with the newly recalled parliament (i.e. the Long Parliament), Charles agreed to address the grievances raised by MPs, including the removal of many senior advisors of the King. It was also put into law that Parliament be able to meet at least once every three years. And MPs could do so without the monarch’s approval. Going forward, the king would require parliamentary consent before he could dissolve parliament.

The king was also forbidden from imposing taxes without the consent of Parliament. The king was further obliged to place his senior ministers under the control of Parliament. Many of the king’s revenue-collection schemes during his Personal Rule required Parliament’s consent.

Chaos engulfs Ireland

Contrary to what both parties – the Crown and the Parliament – expected the impeachment and execution of Strafford further stoked tensions in the British Isles. In Ireland for example, violence began spreading like wildfire in late autumn of 1641. The cause of this rebellion was the culmination of many of factors, prominent among them the resurgence of Catholics’ desire to the removal of Reformation policies. Catholics and Protestants took arms against each other, and by the year’s end, Charles and Parliament were staring at a full-scale uprising in Ireland. Further complicating the issue was the ease at which people in England accepted exaggerated reports of the deaths of tens of thousands of Protestants at the hands of their Catholic neighbors. Hardline Protestants in England called on Charles to quickly do something about the “massacre” of Protestants in Ireland.

In actuality, violence in Ireland was perpetrated by both Protestants and Catholics. However, the general sentiment in England was one of strong outrage against Catholics. Due to Charles’ alleged preference for Catholics, the English Parliament, primarily the Puritan members of the House of Commons, wanted to be one to steer the affairs of the army in quelling the uprising in Ireland. Charles, on the other hand, reasoned that should Parliament be in charge of crushing of the uprising, the Catholics in Ireland could be treated unfairly. Charles’ desire to be in charge of the military further fanned the rumors that he at least implicitly supported the Irish. The political crisis in England continued to fester and reached epic proportions by the end of 1642.

Speaker of the House William Lenthall declares his allegiance to Parliament

In 1642, the English public went completely ballistic when news broke out that Charles had ordered troops into Parliament to arrest five members of the honorable house. Image: The Long Parliament of England

May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this House is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here; and I humbly beg your majesty’s pardon that I cannot give any other answer than this to what your majesty is pleased to demand of me.

In January 1642, the English public were shocked when news broke out that Charles had ordered troops into Parliament to arrest five members of the House of Commons. The five members of Parliament were charged of treason. They were: John Hampden, Denzil Holles, John Pym, William Strode, and Arthur Haselrig.

When Charles asked the Speaker of Parliament of the whereabouts of those parliamentarians, the legislator responded by saying that he was a servant of Parliament. The Speaker’s proclamation in effect communicated Parliament’s unflinching desire to go toe-to-toe with the English Crown. Sensing hostility thrown towards him, Charles and his family left London and headed to the north.

Charles I rejects the Nineteen Propositions from Parliament

By the middle of 1642, the battle line had been drawn and England was heading into a civil war that would pit the Crown against Parliament. The public opinion was heavily polarized. Sections of the public that felt the King had been indifferent to their sufferings for many years cast their lot with Parliament. There were also some members of the public, especially landowners and earls, who supported the king.

No number of negotiations could resolve the political crisis as Parliament tried to wrestle some bit of power in the governance of Britain from Charles. In the Nineteen Propositions presented by Parliament to Charles, MPs and English Lords wanted oversight when it came to foreign policy and the command of the army. The English House of Commons also insisted that Charles’ ministers be accountable to Parliament. Charles and his advisors considered those propositions anything but outrageous, and so they were swiftly rejected by the Crown.

With this political impasse not likely to be resolved, Charles decided to bypass Parliament and raise his own army. In August 1642, the King raised the royal standard at Nottingham. Similarly, Parliament also raised an army of their own. For example, in June, an army of 10,000 volunteers was raised and placed under the leadership of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. Parliamentarian forces were tasked to “rescue” King Charles and his family from the deceitful advisors that had surrounded them.

The first bloody skirmish of the English Civil War began after then English monarch Charles I bypassed the English Parliament and raised an army to help him quell a rebellion that was festering in Ireland. Image: Portrait from the studio of Flemish Baroque artist Anthony van Dyck, 1636

The Wellington Declaration in 1642

Parliament had the support of Sir John Hotham, the military governor of Kingston upon Hull who refused to let Charles have access to a stockpile of weapons that were stored for use during the Scottish War of the previous years. The Royal Navy also declared for Parliament as many of the urban cities in eastern and southern England. The king, on the other hand, received support from rural and non-urban places. As Charles canvassed for support, he vowed to protect the Protestant religion and maintain law and order. In the Wellington Declaration, a manifesto Charles released just before the first major battle of the Civil War, he vowed to protect the liberty of Parliament.

The Battle of Edgehill (October 1642) – the first major battle of the English Civil War

The long-haired and wig-wearing King’s forces were known as Cavaliers, while the Parliamentarian forces were called Roundheads due to the short haircut that they donned.

As Charles tried to march on London, he was met by Robert Devereux’s forces; and thus the first major battle of the English Civil War ensued. Known as the Battle of Edgehill, on October 23, 1642, Royalist forces clashed with Parliamentarian forces at a place in between Warwick and Banbury. The two sides were almost evenly matched on that day, and the total death toll was in the region of 1,000, with about 1,900 injured.

The Battle of Edgehill ended up in a stalemate as neither side had the strength in numbers to secure any victory.

Did you know: Prior to the Battle of Edgehill, Parliamentarian forces led by Colonel John Brown had been defeated by Royalist cavalry under Prince Rupert at the Battle of Powick Bridge on September 23, 1642?

Charles I’s missed opportunity to take London and bring an end to the Great Rebellion

Charles had clear sight on London, but instead of marching on the capital, he opted to capture Banbury. Historians state that had Charles headed straight to London, he just might have been able to catch Parliamentarian forces and thus bring an end to entire rebellion. While Charles was busy taking Banbury, the commander of rebels, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, was able to quickly mount strong defenses in London to thwart any future marches by the Royalists. The King therefore had to set up his base in Oxford, a city 56 miles (90 km) northwest of London.

Parliamentarian forces secure victory in the First English Civil War 1642-1646)

Following the stalemate at Edgehill, both sides moved quickly to ramp up support for their respective armies. The King received support from all over the British Isles. His support came mainly from the countryside. The Parliamentarians, on the other hand, had the advantage of being based in London, allowing them to enjoy the support of very wealthy financiers.

Right up to the middle of 1644, there was no doubt that the Royalists had the upper hand in the early part of the War. This allowed Charles to secure many battle wins. However, Royalists struggled to find that crushing blow.

At the Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1644, King Charles had to endure his first major battle defeat in the Civil War. The Parliamentarians, who were boosted by troops from Scotland, managed to besiege Charles in York. The Royalist army, who were under the command of Marquis of Newcastle, could not respond to the ferocity of the Parliamentarians commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Therefore, Charles dispatched his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine to do everything in his power to bring an end to the siege. However, just before Rupert could make his way to York, he was halted in his tracks by the Parliamentary army at Marston. After a fierce battle, Parliamentary forces, aided by Scottish infantry, came out the victor. Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the Parliamentarian cavalry troop, was praised for distinguishing himself brilliantly in the battle. The Royalists had about twice the casualty suffered by the Parliamentary and Scottish forces.

The New Model Army of Parliament

Buoyed on by the victory at Marston, the Parliamentary army introduced a number of changes to make their army even more efficient and robust. By the summer of 1645, the Parliamentary army had established a command center so to speak. Also, funding for the activities of the army had been centralized. The army came to be called the New Model Army with Sir Thomas Fairfax serving as the captain general and Oliver Cromwell as the second-in-command.

Having streamlined the affairs of their armies, the Parliamentarians began to make huge gains against Royalists. At the Battle of Naseby in June 1645, the Parliamentary army defeated the King’s army. The two sides fought at a place near Naseby, which is south of Leicester. Royalists were under the command of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, while Fairfax commanded the Parliamentarian forces. Similar to the battle at Marston, Oliver Cromwell again proved himself a capable cavalry commander.

After Naseby, Royalists’ fortunes in the war took a nose dive, as they suffered defeat after defeat. Ultimately, King Charles surrendered to the Scots (i.e. the Scots Covenanters) at Newark in Nottinghamshire on May 5, 1646. By surrendering to the Scots, he hoped to court the Scots and perhaps turn them into his allies. However, none of that happened as the Scots handed him over to the English Parliamentarians and the king was pressured to demobilize his Royalist forces.

Second English Civil War

While Charles was being held captive by the rebels, a serious divide ensued between English Parliament and the Army (i.e. the New Model Army) over the unpaid wages. Led by Denzil Holles, the Presbyterian majority faction in Parliament wanted to bring Charles to the negotiating table. The other Parliamentarian faction, whose supporters were known as the Independents, wanted to strip Charles of most of his power in order to prevent him from causing more havoc. The moderate Parliamentarians tried to even tried to have the Army disbanded due to concerns over the enormous power the Parliamentary Army wielded.

Charles capitalized on this disagreement between Parliament and the Army and struck a secret deal with the English Presbyterians and the Scottish Engagers. It was agreed (in a deal called the “Engagement”) that the Scots would invade England and place Charles on the throne. In exchange, Charles would establish Presbyterianism in England. The Royalists uprisings began in the summer of 1648. Intense fighting took place in places like Essex, Kent and Cumberland.

Senior Parliamentarian officers like Colonel Thomas Horton, Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax adequately handled unpaid Parliamentarian troops that had rebelled in Wales. For example, on the 11th of July, rebel leaders threw down their weapons after Cromwell laid a two-month siege on Pembroke Castle in Wales. Similarly, Sir Thomas Fairfax quelled a Royalist uprising in Kent at the Battle of Maidstone on 1 June.

In England, Parliament had to contend with a number of popular uprisings instigated by Royalists. Those uprisings were adequately brought under control by Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax.

Cromwell, along with Major-General John Lambert, emerged victorious against an allied forces of Scots and Royalists at the Battle of Preston in August 1648. The Scots, under the leadership of  James Hamilton, 1st Duke of Hamilton, had made their way across the English border in an attempt to march on London. Cromwell’s victory over the pro-Royalist Scottish invasion of England received enormous praise from Parliament.

Parliament exacted the steepest form of punishment on Royalist commanders of the Second Civil War. For example, the Welsh commander Colonel John Poyer, Sir George Lisle, and Sir Charles Lucas were sentenced to death.

In November 1648, Charles, with some bit of help from his allies, was able to escape from his captors and sailed to the Isle of Wight, which is just off the south coast of England. Since the governor of the Isle of Wight was incredibly loyal to Parliament, Charles’ escape made no particular sense. The king’s escape would end up working against him as the Army became united to fight a common enemy, which was Charles.

Note: Hoping to rope his way back to power, King Charles tried to play one Parliamentarian faction of against the other. As a result, he rejected all the offers given to him by both the Parliamentary faction and senior officers of the Army.

The trial and execution of King Charles I of England

Having grown very frustrated by Charles’ refusal to negotiate in good faith with Parliament, the Army took matters into their hands and called for Charles to be put on trial for treason.

In December 1648, the Army led by Colonel Thomas Pride stormed Parliament and prevented some members of parliament from entering the House. Those moderate MPs, forty-five in total, were seen as supporters of the restoration of Charles to the throne. But for Sir Thomas Fairfax, many leading figures of the Army, especially commander Henry Ireton, were convinced that only the removal of Charles would bring to a conclusion the conflict. Fairfax, who wanted nothing to do with the Pride Purge, tended his resignation from the command of the Army. Fairfax departure paved the way for Cromwell to assume leadership of the Army.

Oliver Cromwell in the English Civil War

With all the opponents of the Army removed from the chamber of the House of Commons (i.e. the Rump Parliament), it was voted in the chamber that Parliament halts its negotiations with Charles.

Parliament, heavily influenced by the Army, put Charles on trial for treason. Initially, Cromwell was opposed to execution of Charles; however, he later had a change of mind and supported the execution of Charles. The king was tried using an ordinance passed by the House of Commons on January 1, 1649. The ordinance was rejected by the House of Lords which did not give consent to the trial and execution of Charles.

In mid-winter of 1649, the reign and life of embattled King Charles I was ended with a swift strike of an executioner’s axe. Charles is described to have met his demise with dignity and courage. Charles I of England. Portrait by van Dyck, c. 1635

In the end, the High Court of Justice found King Charles I guilty of treason and sentenced him to death. On a scaffold just in front of the Palace of Whitehall at Westminster, Middlesex, the king was executed on January 30, 1649. In effect the Army had successfully pulled off a military coup. However, not even the execution of Charles could bring down tensions in Britain. Political divisions continued to escalate.

Upon the execution of Charles, the English crown passed on to the deceased king’s eldest son, Charles, Prince of Wales. On February 17, 1649, the new king was crowned King Charles II at the Royal Square of St. Helier, Jersey near the coast of north-west France.

Third English Civil War

If the people of the British Isles thought that the execution of Charles would bring them peace then they were completely wrong. Cromwell, the commander of the Parliamentary Army, was elected as the first chairman of the new counsel of state that was first convened in February 1649. Cromwell had ended the monarchy and established England as a republic. Cromwell still had to contend with a significant number of Royalist sympathizers in Ireland and Scotland. The goal was to restore English Protestant control over those two countries.

Cromwell’s brutal assault on the Royalist town of Drogheda in Ireland

Massacre at Drogheda in 1649

Cromwell was brutal in his victory over the Royalists in Ireland as close to 4,000 people were massacred, including several hundreds of civilians and Catholic priests. Cromwell defended his actions by saying that the civilians and Catholics priests were armed. The English Parliament seized many properties owned by the Irish Catholics. Image: A 19th-century representation of the Massacre at Drogheda, 1649

About six months after the execution of Charles I, the Army led by Cromwell sailed to Dublin to fight against the alliance of Royalists and the Irish Confederates in Ireland. His brutal campaigns in the region in 1649 brought him so much infamy that endures to this day in Ireland.

Take the case of the September 1649 Siege of Drogheda, where Cromwell’s English army massacred close to 4,000 people, Cromwell was aiming to extinguish every remnant of Royalist resistance in the Irish town. About 2,500 Royalist forces were killed, while several hundreds of civilians and Catholic priests were also put to the sword.

The English army’s strong anti-Catholic views propelled them wreak untold suffering on the Irish during its conquest of Ireland that lasted for about four years.

By 1653, the Irish Royalist forces had laid down their weapons, surrendering to the rulership of the Cromwell and the English Parliament. The English seized an enormous amount of Catholic-owned properties, with many of those properties handed to Parliamentary soldiers and associates and cronies of the English Parliament.

Charles II’s alliance with the Scottish Covenanters

Owing to their strong opposition to the execution of Charles I, the Scottish Covenanters and young Prince Charles entered into an agreement which recognized him as not only king of Scotland but also king of England. As a result, young Charles II had to accept the accept the Presbyterian religion. Charles II also had to severe ties with James Graham, 1st Marquess of Montrose (1612-1650), a leading Royalist figure in Scotland. At the Battle Carbisdale in Ross-shire on April 27, 1650, Montrose and the troops he had raised in Norway were defeated by the Scottish Covenanters. Montrose was subsequently sentenced to death.

Oliver Cromwell’s invasion of Scotland

With the backing of the Royalists and the Scottish Covenanters, Charles II became a formidable opponent to the English republic. Charles II would engage with Cromwell in many fierce battles, including the Battle of Dunbar on September 3, 1650, which saw Cromwell’s forces (the New Model Army) defeat the Scottish Royalists and thereafter seize not just Edinburgh but also large parts of southern Scotland. The Scots also suffered another defeat at the Battle of Inverkeithing on July 20, 1651.

Charles II’s final defeat

Cromwell handed a final defeat to Charles II and his Scottish allies at Worcester on September 3, 1651. The defeated monarch then fled to France, leaving an England that had become a republic under the control of Parliament.

In the end, the English army forced the Scots into a surrender. As per the terms of the “Tender of Union”, Scotland joined England in the Commonwealth republic. The Scottish Parliament was dissolved and the Scots were given 30 seats in the English Parliament in Westminster. Thus the English, under the Act of Union which was passed on June 26, 1657, had successfully annexed Scotland.

How many people died as a result of the English Civil War?

In England alone, the number of deaths as a result of the war was in the region of quarter of a million. That figure includes around deaths from diseases. What makes the war bloody has to do with the fact that around 4% of the total population in England and Wales died as a result of the war. That figure dwarfs the figure from the First World War, which was around 2.2%.

In calculating the death toll in Scotland, historians often apply almost the same percentage from England. Since the population of Scotland was in the region of one million at the time, around 40,000 people died in Scotland alone due to the war. There are some historians that state the percentage was around 6%. This puts the number of deaths suffered by Scotland at around 60,000.

In Ireland, historians often site the figure mentioned by English demographer and economist Sir William Petty. According to Petty, around 600,000 people died as a result of the war. Considering the fact that Ireland’s pre-war population was around 1.5 million, Ireland undoubtedly suffered the most in terms of casualties and ratio of loss to population.

Outcome of the English Civil War

The first major outcome of the English Civil War was the birth of the Commonwealth of England, a republican government which ruled England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. The British monarchy was replaced with a republican system of governance. Initially, the Parliament and a Council of State steered the affairs of the Commonwealth. However, by 1653, Parliament (i.e. the Rump Parliament) had been sidelined and the Army Council took over. The Rump Parliament was described as the Army as ineffective and not attending to needs of the country adequately.

As Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, Cromwell governed England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland and the English overseas possessions. His reign lasted from 1653 to 1658.

Oliver Cromwell, the commander of the Army, was made Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland. Thus the Protectorate period in British history was born. The Protectorate and its Protectorate Parliament lasted until 1659 when it was dissolved by the Committee of Safety. Cromwell’s successor and son, Richard Cromwell, did not have the political prowess to effectively maintain control of Army and the Parliament.

A year after the dissolution of the Protectorate Parliament, the exiled King Charles II returned to England as part of the restoration of the monarchy. Under the leadership of George Monck, a military governor of Scotland, Charles was proclaimed the lawful monarch and heir of Charles I. Charles II’s coronation ceremony happened at Westminster Abbey on April 23, 1661.

As a result of the reconstitution of Parliament during the Restoration period, Britain would go on to become adopt a constitutional monarchy (also known as parliamentary monarchy).

Successor and oldest son of Charles I, Charles II was crowned at Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661

Other notable facts about the English Civil Wars

Here are a few more notable facts about the English Civil Wars of the 17th century.

  • Fairfax, a constitutional monarchist, was opposed to the trial and execution of Charles. As a result, he and many moderate members of the Army resigned their positions.
  • Some Marxist theorists describe the English Civil War as an English Revolution that saw a feudal system of governance make way for bourgeois republican government with capitalism as its underlining economic system.
  • The English Civil Wars claimed close to a quarter of a million people alone in England. It is thus one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of Britain.
  • A higher percentage of Britain’s population died in the English Civil War than in both World War I and World War II combined.
  • The War also had some bit of religious undertone, as it pitted conservative Catholics and Protestants against Puritans. The conservatives wholeheartedly backed the King while the Puritans cast their lot with Parliament. Emerging in the late 16th century, the Puritans were known for advocating for further reforms in an already reformed Church of England.
  • It has been noted that a significant number of soldiers that fought in the English Civil War had also fought in wars on the continent, including the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648).

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