Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

English Civil War

The English Civil War (sometimes known as the British Civil War) was a civil war fought between King Charles I, his supporters, and the Long Parliament, led by Oliver Cromwell. It began in the Summer of 1642 and continued until early 1649, when Charles I was tried and executed by members of Parliament.

It is often simply referred to in Britain as the "civil war", sometimes leading to confusion with the American Civil War. It was not, however, the only civil war ever fought in England or Britain. (See List of English civil wars). It is sometimes referred to as the "English Revolution" and (especially in Royalist circles) as "the Great Rebellion".

Prelude to the English Civil War

Looking back on the events leading the to civil war, one would not imagine that it could have ever taken place. It was less than forty years since the death of Queen Elizabeth. After her, England in the era of Charles I was a fairly peaceful place, and had been so in living memory. Charles had real hope of fulfilling his father's, James I of England (James VI of Scotland), dream of uniting the entirety of the British Isles in a single United Kingdom. Charles also shared his father's feelings in regard to the power of the crown, which James had described as "little Gods on Earth", or "Divine Right of Kings". Although pious and with little personal ambition, Charles demanded outright loyalty in return for "just rule". Any questioning of his orders was insulting, at best. It was this later trait and a series of events that tested it, seemingly minor on their own, that led to a serious break between Charles and the Parliament, eventually leading to war.

Prior to the English Civil War, Parliament was not a permanent branch of English government, but temporary advisory committees summoned by the English monarch whenever additional tax revenue was required, and subject to dissolution at the monarch's will. Because responsibility for collecting taxes was in the hands of the English gentry, the English monarchs needed their help in order to guarantee that revenue came in without difficulty. If the gentry were to refuse to collect the King's taxes, the King would be powerless to compel them. Parliaments allowed representatives of the gentry to meet, converse and send policy proposals to the King (in the form of Bills). These representatives did not, however, have any means to force their will upon the King.

Mounting Concern

One of the first events to cause concern about Charles I was his marriage to a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, shortly after his accession to the throne in 1625. These royal marriages were commonplace at the time, but his choice of a Catholic cast him in the role of potential Papist among the small but powerful Puritan minority in Parliament, who made up around one third of the members.

A potentially more troublesome issue was Charles' insistence in joining the wars raging in Europe, which he saw as something of a holy crusade. This alone might not have been a problem, except that Charles had placed his own "favourite", George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, in command. Parliament was rather suspicious of Buckingham, who they had to deal with under James as well, and eventually they decided to support the war effort only on the provisio that Buckingham could be be recalled if he did not perform. The Parliament of 1625 then granted him the right to collect customs duties only for a year and not, as was usual, for his entire reign. After a disastrous raid on France, Parliament dismissed Buckingham in 1626, and Charles, furious at what he considered insolence, dismissed the Parliament.

Petition of Right

Having dissolved Parliament, and being unable to raise money without Parliament, the king assembled a new one in 1628. Among the members elected was Oliver Cromwell. The new Parliament drew up the Petition of Right in 1628, and Charles accepted it as a concession to get his subsidy. Amongst other things the Petition referred to the Magna Carta and said that a citizen should have: (a) freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, (b) freedom from non-parliamentary taxation, (c) freedom from the enforced billeting of troops, and (d) freedom from martial law.

However, Charles was determined to rule without summoning another Parliament, and this required him to devise new means of raising extraordinary revenue. Among the most controversial of these was the revival and extension of ship money. This tax had been levied in the medieval era on seaports, but Charles extended it to inland counties as well. As a levy for the Royal Navy, ship money was, according to Charles and his supporters, needed for the defence of the realm therefore within the legitimate scope of the royal prerogative.

The tax had not been approved by Parliament, however, and a number of prominent men refused to pay it on these grounds. Reprisals against Sir John Eliot, one of the prime movers behind the Petition of Right, and the prosecution of William Prynne and John Hampden (who were fined after losing their case 7-5 for refusing to pay ship money, taking a stand against the legality of the tax) aroused widespread indignation. Charles' use of the Court of Star Chamber in this issue also served to anger many, as the court had always been seen as the citizenry's last appeal against the monarch's power, and was now apparently being used against them.

The Eleven Years' Tyranny

Charles I managed to avoid a Parliament for a decade, a time known as the "Eleven Years' Tyranny". This policy broke down when he provoked a series of disastrous and expensive wars against the Scots: the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640.

Charles believed in a pomp-and-ceremony version of the Church of England, a feeling held by his main political advisor, Archbishop William Laud. Laud had become the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and started a series of reforms in the Church to make it more ceremonial, starting with the replacement of the wooden communion tables with stone altars. Puritans accused Laud of trying to reintroduce Catholicism, and when they complained Laud had them arrested. In 1637 John Bastwick, Henry Burton and William Prynne had their ears cut off for writing pamphlets attacking Laud's views - a rare penalty for gentlemen to suffer, and one that aroused anger.

To make matters worse, Laud and Charles both agreed that a necessary first step to true unification of Scotland and England was to introduce a common prayer book. The Scots reacted explosively when it was introduced in the spring of 1638, and sought to purge bishops from the Scots church altogether. It took a year, but Charles raised an army in 1639 and sent it north to end the rebellion. After a disastrous skirmish he decided to seek a truce, the Pacification of Berwick, and was humiliated by being forced to agree not only to not to interfere with religion in Scotland, but to pay the Scottish war expenses as well.

Recall of Parliament

Charles needed to suppress the rebellion in his northern realm -- he was, however, insufficiently funded and was forced to seek money from a recalled Parliament in 1640, whose numbers included Robert Blake. Parliament took this appeal for money as an opportunity to discuss grievances against the Crown; moreover, they were opposed to the military option. Charles took exception to this lese majesté and dismissed the Parliament; the name "the Short Parliament" was derived from this summary dismissal. Without Parliament's support, Charles attacked Scotland again and was comprehensively defeated; the Scots, seizing the moment, took Northumberland and Durham.

Meanwhile another of Charles's chief advisers, Thomas Wentworth, had risen to the role Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1632 and brought peace to the island by forming an alliance of Roman Catholics against the Protestants. In 1639 he had been recalled to England and in 1640 granted the title Earl of Strafford, as Charles attempted to have him work his magic again in Scotland. This time he was not so lucky, and the English forces fled the field in their second encounter with the Scots in 1640.

The Long Parliament

In desperate straits, Charles was obliged to summon Parliament again in November of 1640; this was the "Long Parliament". None of the issues raised in the Short Parliament had been addressed, and again Parliament took the opportunity to raise them, refusing to be dismissed. Under the leadership of John Pym and John Hampden, a law was passed which stated that Parliament should be reformed every three years, and refused the king's right to dissolve Parliament. Other laws were passed making it illegal for the king to impose his own taxes, and later passed a law that gave members control over the king's ministers.

With Ireland apparently peaceful after Strafford's able administration of eight years, Charles thought he saw a way out -- Strafford had raised an Irish Catholic army and was prepared to use it against Scotland. Of course the very thought of a Catholic army campaigning against the Scots from protestant England was considered outrageous by the parliamentary party. In early 1641 Strafford was arrested and sent to the Tower of London on the charge of treason. John Pym made the claim that Wentworth's statements of being ready to campaign against "the kingdom" were in fact directed at England itself. The case could not be proven, so the House of Commons, led by John Pym and Henry Vane, resorted to a Bill of Attainder. Unlike treason, attainder required only the burden of proof, but it also required the king's signature. Charles, still incensed over the Common's handling of Buckingham, refused. Strafford himself, hoping to head off the war he saw looming, wrote to the king and asked him to reconsider. Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was executed on 12th May, 1641.

Instead of saving the country from war, Wentworth's sacrifice in fact doomed it to one. Within months the Irish Catholics, fearing a resurgence of Protestant power, struck first and the entire country soon decended into chaos. Rumors started that the Irish were being supported by the king, and Puritan members of the Commons were soon agitating that this was the sort of thing Charles had in store for all of them.

On January 4, 1642, Charles attempted to arrest 5 members of the Parliament (John Hampden, John Pym, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, and William Strode) on a charge of treason; this attempt failed, however, as they had been tipped off and gone into hiding prior to the arrival of the king's troops. When the troops marched into Parliament the officer in charge demanded of the Speaker where the five were. The Speaker replied that he 'had neither eyes to see nor ears to hear save as this house [the Commons] directs me.' In other words, the Speaker was a servant of Parliament, rather than of the King. Parliamentary supporters took to arms to protect the five men as they escaped across London.

The First English Civil War

The English Parliament, having controverted the king's authority, raised an army led by Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex. The purpose of this army was twofold: it was to defeat both an invasion from Scotland and also the attempts by the king and his supporters to restore the monarchy's power. Charles I, in the meantime, had left London and also raised an army using the archaic system of a Commission of Array. He raised the royal standard at Nottingham in August.

In 1642 the military governor of Kingston upon Hull, Sir John Hotham declared the city for the Parliamentarian cause and refused the King entry into the city and its large arsenal. Charles took great personal affront to this act, and declared Hotham a traitor. Charles I besieged the city unsuccessfully. This siege precipitated open conflict between the Parliamentarian and Royalist causes.

At the outset of the conflict, although the Royal Navy and most English cities favoured Parliament, the King found considerable support in rural communities; however much of the country was neutral. It is thought that between them both sides had only in the region of 15,000 men. However, the war quickly spread and eventually involved every level of society throughout the British Isles. Many areas attempted to remain neutral but found it impossible to withstand both the King and Parliament. On one side the king and his supporters fought for traditional government in Church and state. On the other, supporters of Parliament sought radical changes in religion and economic policy, and major reforms in the distribution of power at the national level. In addition, Parliament was not the united front portrayed in much of later history. At one point in the nine years of war there were more members of Parliament and Lords in the King's parliament than there were at Westminster.

Parliament did, however, have more resources at its disposal, due to its possession of all major cities including the large arsenals at Hull and London. For his part, Charles hoped that quick victories would negate Parliament's advantage in material, which precipitated the first battle, the first siege of Hull in July 1642 which provided a decisive victory for Parliament.

A later battle at Edgehill was inconclusive, but regarded by the Royalists as a victory. One of the king's outstanding leaders was his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Palatinate, a dashing cavalry commander. Playing a minor part in the battle on the other side was a cavalry troop raised by a country gentleman, evangelical puritan, and former Member of Parliament named Oliver Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell was later to devise the New Model Army system still evident in military organisation today. This was characterised by a unified command structure and professionalism, which would firmly swing military advantage towards Parliament. The second action of the war was the stand-off at Turnham Green which saw Charles forced to withdraw to Oxford. This was to be his base for the remainder of the war.

In 1643 the Royalist forces won at Adwalton Moor and gained control of most of Yorkshire. Subsequent victories in the west of England at Lansdowne and at Roundway Down also went to the Royalists. Prince Rupert then was able to take Bristol. In the same year, Oliver Cromwell formed his troop of "Ironsides", a disciplined unit which demonstrated his military ability. With their assistance, he was victorious at the Battle of Gainsborough in July.

After an inconclusive battle at Newbury in September, on October 11, 1643, the Parliamentarian army won the Battle of Winceby giving them control of Lincoln. Political manoeuvring on both sides now led Charles to negotiate a ceasefire in Ireland, freeing up English troops to fight on the Royalist side, while Parliament offered concessions to the Scots in return for aid and assistance.

Parliament won at Marston Moor in 1644, gaining York with the help of the Scots. Cromwell's conduct in this battle was decisive, and marked him out as a potential political as well as a military leader. The defeat at the Battle of Lostwithiel in Cornwall, however, was a serious reverse for Parliament in the south-west of England.

In 1645 Parliament reorganized its main forces into the New Model Army, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, with Cromwell as his second-in-command and Lieutenant-General of Horse. In two decisive engagements, the Battle of Naseby on June 14 and at Langport on July 10, Charles's armies were effectively destroyed.

Capture of Charles

Left with little recourse, Charles fled north, seeking refuge with the Scots in 1646 after disbanding his forces. This was the end of the First English Civil War.

Charles was ransomed by Parliament and held captive at Holdenby House whilst Parliament drew up plans. In the meantime, Parliament began to demobilize and disband the army. The army was unhappy about issues such as arrears of pay and living conditions and resisted the disbandment. Eventually the army kidnapped Charles in an attempt to negotiate using their hostage as a bargaining piece. He spent three months at Hampton Court Palace, before escaping to the Isle of Wight, where he was recaptured and imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle. Increasingly concerned, the army marched to London in August 1647 and debated proposals of their own at Putney.

The Second English Civil War

Charles took advantage of this deflection of attention away from him to negotiate a new agreement with the Scots, again promising church reform on December 28, 1647. Although Charles himself was still a prisoner, this agreement led inexorably to the "Second Civil War".

A series of royalist rebellions and a Scottish invasion in July 1648 took place. All were defeated by the now powerful standing army. This betrayal by Charles caused Parliament to debate whether Charles should be returned to power at all. Those who still supported Charles's place on the throne tried once more to negotiate with him. Unpaid parliamentarian troops in Wales changed sides; the revolt was firmly put down by Cromwell.

Furious that Parliament were still countenancing Charles as a ruler, the army marched on parliament and conducted "Pride's Purge" (named after the commanding officer of the operation, Thomas Pride). 45 Members of Parliament (MPs) were arrested; 146 were kept out of parliament. Only 75 were allowed in, and then only at the army's bidding. This Rump Parliament was ordered to set up a high court of justice in order to try Charles I for treason in the name of the people of England.

Trial of Charles for Treason

Although Cromwell had some difficulty in finding judges to take part, in 1648, by a 68 to 67 vote, the Parliament found Charles I guilty of treason, being a "tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy". He was executed at the Palace of Whitehall in 1649. The majority of those who signed his death warrant were themselves executed or imprisoned upon the later Restoration of the Monarchy.

Ireland and Scotland

Thanks to former Member of Parliament Admiral Robert Blake blockading Prince Rupert of the Rhine's fleet in Kinsale, Oliver Cromwell was able to land at Dublin on August 15, 1649 with the army to quell Royalist forces in Ireland, and later in Scotland (1649-1650) to finally restore an uneasy peace. Resistance continued in Scotland under the valiant James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, whose forces were finally defeated at Carbisdale on April 27, 1650, and Montrose was ignominiously executed.

Not all resistance had yet died out. Charles II was crowned in Scotland, claiming that the throne was rightfully his. Cromwell beat the Scottish Royalists at Dunbar on September 3, 1650, but was unable to prevent Charles from marching deep into England. Cromwell finally engaged the new king at Worcester on September 3, 1651, and beat him. Charles II fled abroad, ending the civil wars. The Commonwealth of England was then established, with Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector of England.

The victory made him very unpopular in Scotland and Ireland which, as nominally independent nations, were effectively conquered by English forces. In particular, Cromwell's suppression of the Royalists in Ireland during 1649 still has a strong resonance for many Irish people. The massacre of nearly 3,500 people in Drogheda after its capture -- comprising around 2,700 Royalist soldiers and all the men in the town carrying arms, including civilians, prisoners, and Catholic priests -- is one of the historical memories that has driven Irish-English and Catholic-Protestant strife during the last three centuries.


It's estimated that around 10% of the British population may have died during the civil wars. As was usual in war, more deaths were caused by disease than by combat.

The wars left Britain as the only country in Europe without a monarch. In the wake of victory many of the ideals, and many of the idealists, were set aside. England, and later all of Britain, was ruled by the republican government of the Commonwealth of England during 1649 - 1653 and 1659 - 1660. Between the two periods, and due to infighting amongst various factions in parliament, Oliver Cromwell ruled over The Protectorate as Lord Protector, effectively a military dictator, until his death.

Upon his death, Oliver Cromwell's son attempted to assume similar positions and duties as his father. This led both persistent sides of the conflict, Royalist and Parliamentarian, to reject what seemed to be the replacing of one monarchy with another. Thereafter, the eldest son of Charles I, Charles II of England was invited to the throne, an event known as the Restoration.

While the monarchy was subsequently restored, the civil wars effectively set Britain on course to become a parliamentary democracy and help it avoid the later European republican movements that followed the Jacobin revolution in 18th century France and the later success of Napoleon. Specifically, future monarchs became wary of pushing Parliament too hard, and Parliament effectively chose the line of succession in 1688 with the Glorious Revolution and the 1701 Act of Settlement. After the Restoration Parliament's factions became political parties (later becoming the Tories and Whigs) with competing views and the ability to influence decisions of the monarch.

Theories relating to the English Civil War

Throughout the greater part of the 20th century, two schools of thought dominated theoretical explanations of the Civil War: the Marxists and the 'Whigs'. Both of them explained the English seventeenth century in terms of long-term trends.

Whigs explained the Civil War as the result of a centuries-long struggle between Parliament, especially the House of Commons, and the monarchy. Parliament fought to defend the traditional rights of Englishmen, while the monarchy attempted on every occasion to expand its right to dictate law arbitrarily. The most important Whig historian, S.R. Gardiner, popularized the idea that the civil war could be described as the 'Puritan Revolution' which challenged the repressive nature of the Stuart church and paved the way for the religious toleration of the restoration. Puritanism, in this view, was the natural ally of a people seeking to preserve their traditional rights against the arbitrary power of the monarchy.

The Marxist school of thought, which became popular in the 1940s, interpreted the Civil War as a bourgeois revolution. In the words of Christopher Hill, "the Civil War was a class war." On the side of reaction was the landed aristocracy and its ally, the established church. On the other side were (again, according to Hill) "the trading and industrial classes in town and countryside, to the yeomen and progressive gentry, and to wider masses of the population whenever they were able by free discussion to understand what the struggle was really about." The Civil War was the point in English history at which the wealthy middle classes, already a powerful force in society, liquidated the outmoded medieval system of English government. Like the Whigs, the Marxists found a place for the role of religion in their account. Puritanism was a moral system that ideally suited the bourgeois class, and so the Marxists idenitified puritans as inherently bourgeois.

Beginning in the 1970s, a new generation of historians began mounting challenges to the Marxist and Whig theories. This began with the publication in 1973 of the anthology "The Origins of the English Civil War" (edited by Conrad Russell). These historians disliked the way that Marxists and Whigs explained the Civil War in terms of long-term trends in English society. The new historians called for, and began producing, studies which focussed on the minute particulars of the years immediately preceding the war, thus returning in some ways to the sort of contingency based historiography of Clarendon's famous contemporary history of the civil war. As a result, they have demonstrated that the pattern of allegiances in the war did not fit the theories of Whig and Marxist historians. Puritans, for example, did not necessarily ally themselves with Parliamentarians, and many of them were not bourgeois; many bourgeois fought on the side of the King; many landed aristocrats supported Parliament.

The new generation of historians (who are commonly called 'Revisionists') have discredited large sections of the Whig and Marxist interpretations of the war. They have not, however, supplied a single coherent explanation of their own. Revisionism is a set of scholarly principles rather than a school of thought.


There are two large historical societies, The Sealed Knot and The English Civil War Society, that regularly re-enact events and battles of the Civil War in full period costume.

See also