The English Civil War

The English Civil War was a series of conflicts between England, Scotland and Ireland. They occurred between 1639 and 1651 and led to the eventual establishment of the Commonwealth, the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell and the execution of Charles I.

Historians have long debated the causes of the English Civil War. While some historians argued that the struggle was the inevitable outcome of centuries of conflict between a democratic parliament and an autocratic monarchy, other scholars claimed that it was a war between an aspirant bourgeoisie and a sclerotic, overbearing ruling class.

Recently, historians have played down the long-term causes of the conflict and instead contended that it was precipitated by short-term disputes and linked to crises of governance in Scotland and Ireland.


On the one hand, Charles I alarmed English Puritans by appearing to threaten the country's Protestantism. He married a French Roman Catholic princess and attempted to enforce High Anglicanism, a sacramental version of the Church of England, on the English polity. Furthermore, when Charles tried to impose the English Common Prayer Book upon Scotland in 1638, he triggered an armed rebellion, which he was forced to end with a humiliating retreat.

On the other hand, Charles became increasingly high-handed in his dealings with English citizenry. Although he had accepted Parliament's Petition of Right in 1628 in order to acquire further tax subsidies, over the next decade (known as the Eleven Year Tyranny) he ignored the petition's demands for an end to arbitrary arrests and imprisonments, non-parliamentary taxation, the enforced billeting of troops and martial law.


By 1640 the rebellion in Scotland forced Charles to recall Parliament and ask for revenue. The meeting's members took the opportunity to discuss their grievances and question the king's military answer to the problem of Scottish intransigence. As a result, Charles summarily dismissed the Parliament (which became known as the "Short Parliament"). However, the King's difficulties continued. The Scottish had defeated Charles's forces under Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford and were now occupying parts of northern England. In November 1640 he had to call Parliament again. This time the members of the so-called "Long Parliament" attempted to act upon their list of complaints. Laws were passed which demanded that Parliament be called every three years, which forbid the king from imposing his own taxes and which gave Parliament control over the king's ministers.

In response, a now desperate Charles attempted to employ an army of Irish Roman Catholics, which the Earl of Strafford had raised while administrating the country over the past eight years, to defeat the rebellious Scots. The spectre of a Catholic army fighting Protestant Scots on English soil terrified Parliament and in May 1641 Parliament had the Earl of Strafford executed for treason. Meanwhile, Irish Catholics feared that the death of Strafford heralded a resurgence of Protestant power and rebelled. In England rumours started that Charles supported the Irish and eventually planned to use them on the recaltricant Parliament.

Finally, on 4 January 1642 the ill feeling between Charles and Parliament came to a head as the king endeavoured to arrest five of the meeting's members. Despite the members' escape, the attempted repression precipitated armed conflict as supporters of the "Long Parliament" under the Earl of Essex faced the military forces of Charles I. Over the next six years the armies came into sustained and bloody conflict. Although the king had the traditional support of many of England's rural communities, Parliament had the backing of the country's major urban centres and the important arsenals of London and Hull. After a series of inconclusive engagements, Parliament started to gain the upper hand, in part owing to the "Ironsides", a disciplined cavalry unit led by Oliver Cromwell. In 1644 Cromwell helped Parliament win a decisive victory at Marston Moor. The following year he became second in command of the parliamentary forces, now called the New Model Army, and effectively crushed Charles army at the battles of Naseby and Langport. Although the king attempted to recover he was forced to surrender in May 1646.

King Charles I as a prisoner during English Civil War

King Charles I as a prisoner during English Civil War


As Parliament vacillated over what to do with the captured king, the disgruntled army kidnapped the monarch and attempted to settle issues of pay and living conditions using their hostage as a bargaining piece. However, after three months as a prisoner in Hampton Court Palace, Charles escaped. This precipitated another round of royalist rebellions throughout 1648. Although Cromwell effectively crushed the king's resistance at the battle of Preston, Parliament still countenanced Charles's return to power. As a result, the army marched on London and purged Parliament of its less radical members (called "Pride's Purge"). This Rump Parliament proceeded to try Charles and found him guilt of high treason. He was executed on 30 January 30 1649.

Although the king's death did not put an end to the kingdom's internecine conflicts and there were rebellions in England, Scotland and Ireland during the next decade, it did precipitate a period of republican rule from 1649 to 1653 and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector from 1653 to 1659. However, on Cromwell's death, his son, Richard, failed to assert conclusive control and in 1660, the dead king's son returned and the following year was crowned King Charles II.