Leader of the political opposition to King Charles in the Long Parliament and architect of Parliament’s victory in the First Civil War Portrait of John PymJohn Pym was born at Brymore House, Cannington in Somerset, where his family had been established since the thirteenth century. His father, Alexander Pym, died a few months after John […]
The English Civil War in The 17th Century
A Very Uncivil War
Have you heard the expression "civil war"? Historians use this term to describe a war which splits a nation into opposing sides.
The English Civil War during the 17th century probably ranks as one of England's most important civil wars. This article examines its background and events.
I. Background Events Leading to War
Historians today still disagree about how long the English Civil War really lasted. Organized fighting broke out for the first time in 1642.
Some people consider the war ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649. Others argue the war actually continued until 1653, when Parliament appointed Oliver Cromwell to head the government as Lord Protector.
Two Central Figures in The English Civil War
Two people played especially important roles during the civil war. Charles Stuart became King Charles I in 1625 at the age of 25. He inherited his position from his father.
A member of Parliament named Oliver Cromwell rose to power during this English Civil War. Just one year older than King Charles I, he lived in Huntingdon in Eastern England as a country gentleman. (He came from a well-known family, however. He was related through his father to a royal advisor named Thomas Cromwell who had served King Henry VIII nearly 100 years earlier.)
The Royal Family
King Charles I had a very interesting background. Born in Fife, Scotland, he belonged to the Stuart family. His ancestors ruled Scotland, a nation located just north of England. When Charles reached the age of 3, his father, King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England from his cousin, the last Tudor. Charles' father became King James I of England.
The Stuart family moved to England soon afterwards. Charles, a frail child who had difficulty walking, spent most of his childhood away from his family, living in England in the household of Sir Robert Carey and his wife. English Kings during this period often asked loyal members of the nobility to help raise their children.
A New Ruling Family
When the Stuart monarchs took power, their rule helped unify England and Scotland. However, the Stuarts had not yet won popularity with many of their English subjects. King James I governed between 1603 and 1625. As the King of England, he served as the official Governor of the Church of England.
Charles' father often quarreled with Parliament. King James I survived several plots against him in England, including an attempt by a man named Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament in 1605!
Religion as a Political Issue
Religion in fact played a very important role in society in England during this period. Today people in the UK choose whether to attend religious services, or not. England in the modern era maintains religious tolerance. That was not the case at all throughout Europe during much of the 1500s and 1600s.
Religious practices became controversial during the 1600s. The English frequently did not respect one another's beliefs in that period. This situation likely contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War.
In 1618, warfare arose in several European nations between Catholics and Protestants. This complex "Thirty Years' War" lasted until 1648. It continued throughout the reign of Charles I.
A number of English left the Church of England, a Protestant denomination, to join newly created Protestant sects. Many became Puritans. They frequently sympathized with Protestant factions fighting in the Thirty Years' War.
An Unpopular Marriage
In 1625, King James I died. Charles inherited his father's kingdoms. The same year, he married. The young man wed a French princess named Henrietta Maria. The couple enjoyed a very happy relationship. They eventually raised seven children. (Two of their sons would become English monarchs: King Charles II and King James II.)
However, despite his happy family life, King Charles I's marriage displeased some members of Parliament. His advisors had selected a Catholic princess as his bride. England during the days of the Tudors had witnessed a lot of religious discord. Many Protestants and Catholics in the nation still feared and distrusted one another as a result. Charles I's marriage did not cause the English Civil War, but it likely did contribute to resentment against the King on the part of some Puritans.
Religious Strife in Tudor England
Why did religion become such an important issue during the English Civil War of the 17th Century? A complicated history underpins this subject.
Queen Elizabeth I became the last member of the Tudor family to rule England. Her grandfather, Henry Tudor from Wales, ended a long and bitter period of civil war. This conflict, called "the War of the Roses", concluded when he became King of England in 1485. Henry Tudor (as King Henry VII), his son King Henry VIII, and his three grandchildren (King Edward VI, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth I) ruled in succession over England and Wales during the Tudor Period (1485-1603).
The Tudor rulers did not always share the same religious views. For example, Henry Tudor, like the vast majority of his subjects, adhered to the Catholic Church. His son, King Henry VIII, raised as a Catholic, became a Protestant later in life. He eventually seized a lot of property from Catholic monasteries. At one point, King Henry VIII required everyone in England to recognize him as the Head of the Church of England (instead of the Pope in Rome) or risk treason charges. The next Tudor ruler, King Edward VI, persecuted some Catholic clergymen. Queen Mary, who followed her brother to the throne, persecuted some Protestant clergymen. Finally, Queen Elizabeth, a tolerant Protestant, became the ruler of England for many years. By the time she passed away, large numbers of the English population had become Protestant. However, older people likely remembered the earlier periods of terrible violence between Catholics and Protestants.
The Path Towards The English Civil War
As the Governor of the Protestant Church of England, King Charles I disagreed with Puritan religious views. He favored returning to church ceremonies which more closely resembled Catholic services. His position placed him in conflict with several outspoken members of Parliament. Some English Puritans also deeply distrusted the King's marriage to a Catholic.
The King aroused the concern of Puritans in 1628. He made changes to the Church of England's religious services. He also selected a conservative cleric named William Laud to serve as the Archbishop of Canterbury, a very influential post.
Conflicting Views About Parliament's Role
Just like his father, King James I, Charles quarreled with Parliament frequently. The King and Parliament disagreed strongly over whether Charles I should have the right to pass new taxes without Parliament's support.
Finally, in March, 1629, after members of Parliament passed a resolution opposing several Catholic religious practices, the King angrily dispersed the legislative body. He ordered 9 members of Parliament imprisoned in the Tower of London.
The Eleven Year "Tyranny"
King Charles I then governed England for a period of 11 years without calling a single Parliament. Histories sometimes refer to this period as a time of "tyranny".
To support his government, the King found creative ways to extract money from the public. For example, the Crown fined some wealthy landowners for failing to attend the royal coronation years earlier. His officials also levied fees called "ship money" from vessels. His efforts to raise funds made him widely unpopular.
In the late 1630s, King Charles I ordered the Church of Scotland to begin using a the Church of England's prayer book. This decision displeased large numbers of Scots, and irate churchgoers drove away bishops appointed under King James I. Rebellion spread through Scotland during 1639.
Without obtaining funds from Parliament, King Charles I summoned an army and ordered his troops to re-capture a key border town. He soon discovered the Scottish army appeared much larger than his force. Instead of fighting, the King tried to negotiate for the return of several fortresses. He returned to England after signing a truce, deeply humiliated by this "Bishop's War". One of the King's military commanders, Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, urged him to summon a new Parliament to raise funds to support a military campaign against Scottish rebels.
The Short Parliament
Reluctantly, the King convened Parliament for the first time in many years in the spring of 1640. Instead of voting for new taxes, the Members asked the King to discontinue several unpopular levies and fees.
King Charles I dismissed Parliament after just three weeks. However, the Crown needed money for military campaigns.
The Long Parliament
Meanwhile, rebellious Scots took control of Newcastle. This action forced King Charles I to summon another Parliament during the fall. Dubbed "the Long Parliament" it provided an opportunity for concerned members of Parliament to complain to the King.
By this point, many Members deeply disliked several royal advisors, especially the Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud. Parliament voted to arrest both men.
Funding For The Crown
Charles I reluctantly accepted Parliament's new recommendations in February, 1641 in order to obtain funding approval. Parliament ordered the Earl executed in May, 1641.
To prevent the King from ruling without calling a Parliament again, members passed a Triennial Act requiring him to convene Parliament every three years. They also forbade the King from collecting ship money. These actions undoubtedly displeased the King.
An Important Year
The Long Parliament continued during much of 1641. Late in the summer, a rebellion broke out in Ireland (a separate kingdom claimed by England). Parliament and the King came into conflict again over the control of the army sent to suppress the Irish revolt.
Parliament drew up a list of grievances called "the Grand Remonstrance" in November. It outlined several proposed reforms.
The King Responds
King Charles I apparently decided Parliament had overstepped its authority. Early in 1642, the King tried to repeat a strategy he had used successfully years earlier. He ordered the arrest of several Members of Parliament. However, these individuals fled before the King's officers could locate them.
Fearing a revolt, the King himself departed from London in January, 1642. He sent his wife and eldest daughter to safety overseas, where the Queen sought to obtain money for her husband. (She returned to England in 1643.) Meanwhile, the King worked to form an army.
II. The English Civil War
Across England, people during the spring of 1642 began choosing sides. They aligned themselves with either the King or Parliament. Many Protestants (but not all of them) chose to support Parliament. People frequently found themselves in conflict with their neighbors. Participants in the English Civil War sometimes switched sides.
When the English Civil War began, the King enjoyed the strongest backing from northern and western areas and the Midlands. Parliament drew most support from London and the eastern and southern regions of England.
A Scottish Civil War occurred in Scotland during this same time period. Historians sometimes refer to the opponents of the King in Scotland as "Covenanters".
Warfare During The 1700s
Soldiers in England in the early 1600s typically did not belong to full time armies. Men would leave their shops and farms for several weeks or months at a time and join neighbors to form regiments of foot soldiers (called "infantry") or riders (called "cavalry" if they fought on horseback and "dragoons" if they dismounted to fight). Purchasing suitable horses and weapons involved considerable expense. Educated gentlemen during this period received training in horseback riding and, usually, fighting.
Armies required support from local people wherever they traveled. Convoys of wagons and carts carrying supplies trailed behind the marching soldiers. Called "supply trains" or "baggage trains", they sometimes carried valuable goods seized by the troops. When armies marched through a community, the commanders usually compelled the population to provide food and other supplies. Warfare imposed great hardship.
Soldiers in armies during this period possessed primitive guns called "muskets." These long, heavy weapons loaded directly through the muzzle. Muskets required a long time to load and re-load. Sometimes the barrels exploded instead of firing correctly. Other common weapons included swords, knives and heavy wooden staffs.
Since the cavalry posed a serious threat to anyone fighting on foot, most armies included units of foot soldiers carrying long pikes. A pike somewhat resembled the poles used by modern athletes. Members of the infantry used their pikes to protect musketeers against cavalry soldiers wielding swords. If they could afford it, soldiers wore metal armored chest plates and helmets as added protection during battles.
The Forces of King Charles I
King Charles I traveled to York. He then headed south to Nottingham in the Midlands and began actively recruiting a royal army during August, 1642. He received important support from some leading English and Scottish landowners. Soldiers who fought for the Crown became known as "Cavaliers".
The King selected his cousin Prince Rupert, the Duke of Cumberland, as one of his military commanders of the cavalry. Just 23 years old in 1642, the young man already possessed extensive combat experience fighting in Europe. He eventually became one of the King's chief military advisers. An experienced military officer named Lord Astley of Reading commanded the royal infantry during the first few years of the conflict.
Parliament also assembled an army during this period. People called the soldiers fighting for Parliament "Roundheads" because most of them wore unusually short haircuts, a popular Puritan hairstyle for men.
Sir Thomas Fairfax became the leader of an army opposing King Charles I. Parliament selected his father, Lord Fairfax, to command its forces in the northern part of the country. Sir Thomas Fairfax initially led the cavalry forces under his father's command. Both men had previously fought for the King before the outbreak of the civil war. Other officers fighting for Parliament included Philip Skippon, Oliver Cromwell, Sir William Waller and Sir William Brereton.
A Popular Commander Gains Political Power
Oliver Cromwell commanded a cavalry unit for Parliament during the English Civil War. As the war progressed, his fame spread. He would eventually become the most prominent military leader.
Although he lacked formal battlefield experience before the outbreak of the fighting, he enjoyed considerable success. He became popular with his troops. Oliver Cromwell eventually persuaded Parliament to fund and train a "New Model Army" which eventually formed the basis for a permanent professional English military.
The Course of Civil War
Too many military campaigns occurred during the English Civil War to possibly describe all of them here. The fighting fell into three broad phases:
Phase One (1642-1646)
Fighting broke out simultaneously in many parts of England during the spring and summer of 1642. The King tried to recapture London.
Parliament sent a force to intercept his army. The first pitched battle of the civil war occurred without a clear winner at Edgehill in Warwickshire on October 23, 1642. Parliament stopped the King's army at Turnham Green outside London on November 13, 1642. King Charles I then headed to Oxford, which became his temporary headquarters.
In 1643, the King's supporters regained control of much of northern England. At the Battle of Adwalton Moor Cavaliers captured most of Yorkshire. Royal commanders also scored important victories over Parliament in the west at the Battle of Stratton in May and Battle of Roundway Down in early July. The King unsuccessfully tried to regain the city of Gloucester. Parliament's retreating forces successfully avoided capture at the First Battle of Newbury on September 20, 1643, a fight causing heavy losses on both sides.
In January, 1644, Scottish Covenanters invaded northern England. They attempted to help Parliament recapture York that spring. Prince Rupert led a royal army to help defend the city. However, he engaged the large enemy force and sustained a serious defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in July, 1644. York and most of northern England fell under Parliament's control. A Second Battle of Newbury in October did not produce a clear winner.
Early in 1645, Oliver Cromwell persuaded Parliament to fund the New Model Army. On June 14th, this well-equipped force soundly defeated the royal army at the Battle of Naseby. It recaptured Bristol in September. (The King's supporters never really recovered from heavy losses at the Battle of Naseby.) In November, Scottish Covenanters attacked Newark.
Then in February, 1646, Parliament enjoyed another victory in Devon at the Battle of Torrington. Parliament regained control of most of western England. The Prince of Wales fled from England to Europe. Parliament's army defeated the royal forces at Stow-on-the-Wold. King Charles I surrendered to Covenanters at Newark on May 5th.
Phase Two (1648-1649)
Early in 1647, the Covenanters returned the King to Parliament's control. He remained under arrest. An escape attempt made by him in November failed.
In May, 1648, a royalist rebellion broke out to restore the King to power. The New Model Army defeated the uprising at the Battle of Preston on August 17th.
When negotiations failed to change the King's opinion about his power to rule without Parliament's consent, a "Rump" Parliament placed him on trial in January, 1649. Specially appointed commissioners convicted him of treason. On January 30th, an executioner beheaded Charles I.
Phase Three (1649-1651)
Later in 1649, Oliver Cromwell suppressed a revolt in Ireland. He defeated Scottish Covenanters at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. His victory over the Prince of Wales in 1651 at the Battle of Worcester ended the English Civil War.
Results of The War
Most historians agree when Charles I became King of England, English monarchs governed with limited input from Parliament.
The English Civil War of the Seventeenth Century greatly increased the importance of Parliament in government.
Robert Devereux was the eldest son of the second Earl of Essex, who was executed for treason by Queen Elizabeth in 1601. On the succession of King James I to the throne of England in 1604, Devereux was restored to his father’s estate. In 1606, the King arranged a marriage between Essex and Frances Howard, […]
Archbishop of Canterbury whose attempts to bring uniformity of worship and the “beauty of holiness” into the Anglican liturgy precipitated the slide into Civil War. Born at Reading in Berkshire, William Laud was the tenth son of a prosperous clothier. He attended the grammar school at Reading, then studied divinity at St John’s College, Oxford. […]
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