Cromwell: If this be so, why did we take up arms at first?
The English Civil War, also known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.note Cromwell and Puritans, Roundheads and Cavaliers. Families divided against themselves. The King beheaded. Witchfinders-General.
So what happened?
Well, calling it the English Civil War isn't exactly accurate for a start. At this point, Scotland was still an independent kingdom (remaining so until the Act of Union of 1707) as was Ireland (remaining so until the Act of Union of 1801) they just happened to share the same monarch as England. For this reason it has more recently been called the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, or even (albeit much more rarely) the Wars of the Five Kingdoms, factoring in Wales and Cornwall.note On the other other hand, Wales, Cornwall, and Ireland were definitely under the political control or at least domination of the English, and England was by far the wealthiest and most populous of the British lands, and thus biggest, most well-equipped armies (and consequently the heaviest fighting and most decisive battles) were in England. In short, the English Civil War was the largest part, like England was the largest part of Britain, but it was by no means the only part. As a result, more recently the wars have been dubbed the British Civil Wars.
Moreover, some commentators have noted that calling the conflict a "civil war" rather undersells the vast social and political changes it wrought across the kingdoms. Even though it did end up with a Stuart monarch sitting on the throne of all three kingdoms with few official changes to the structure of government, the way the British peoples viewed themselves, their relationship with their governments, and their relationship with each other were indelibly changed. Thus while the principle of parliamentary supremacy was not formally established until 1688—fully 37 years after the end of the fighting and 28 years after the Restoration—astute observers suspected from the very day in 1661 that Charles II was crowned at Westminster that the power of the monarchy had been fatally weakened, and that the (Protestant) British peoples had gained the confidence to assert civil, political, and social rights against the power of the Crown and the state. Moreover, the interrelated nature of the conflicts and causes of conflict increasingly led the (again, Protestant) inhabitants of the British Isles to the suspicion that the fates of their peoples were thoroughly entwined with each other—or perhaps more to the point, that everyone's fate was thoroughly entangled with the fate of England. As a result, some have argued the events are more accurately described as the English or British Revolution.
Furthermore, a lot of it was about religion, British variants on the controversies and struggles that embroiled Europe in the Thirty Years' War, which means that it has also been considered an appendage of the continental Wars of Religion. However, unlike the continental wars, this conflict was primarily a struggle within Protestantism rather than being between Catholics and Protestants. While there were a few overtly Catholic factions (particularly in Ireland), they never stood a chance for cultural and historical/path-dependency reasons, so the axis of religious conflict was between Catholicising Protestants who wanted more ritual in the liturgy and a Catholic-like episcopal church polity and more committed Reformed Protestants who advocated a more stripped-down liturgy and a presbyterian or even congregationalist polity. There was also a further dispute between those who believed that the power of the state should be used to ensure religious uniformity and those who called for freedom of (Protestant Christian) worship; while this disagreement was theoretically orthogonal to the Catholiciser-versus-Reformer axis of debate, the supporters of freedom of worship tended in practice to be on the far Reforming end of the other one.
As for England, for centuries there had been tensions in England between the Monarchy and Parliament, both of whom saw themselves as being the rightful rulers of the country. Kings and Queens had the right to call and dismiss Parliament, but couldn't govern without it as it was Parliament that granted them the money they needed to do things—the English nobles and rich commoners having gotten it into their heads that taxes are a gift from the people to the king in gratitude for doing his job right,note rather than money taken by the king because he could—and kept the nobles happy and stopped them overthrowing the Monarch.note Well, mostly, anyway.
Come the 17th century, the idea of The Divine Right of Kings was beginning to become popular through Europe—popular with Kings, at least—and England's new king, Charles I, was very keen on it indeed. He regarded Parliament as an irritant at best and mostly as a bunch of downright traitors. He solved this by the simple expedient of dissolving the annual Parliament one year, as usual, and simply not summoning it again. For eleven years. For just over a decade, Charles rules England directly, raising taxes directly through using some archaic laws and imposing heavy fines on the nobility for perceived misbehaviour.
He also tried to impose his own idea of what the Church of England should look like. The Church of England was in effect a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism: its structure and ceremonies were essentially Catholic, with priests reporting to bishops and so on, just with the monarch in place of the Pope, but to the extent it had solid doctrines (a lot was left rather vague), they were Protestant. Protestant mind, Catholic body and clothing, basically. Charles had turned the ritual Up to Eleven, and a lot of ordinary people (like Members of Parliament or MPs) were afraid that he was winding up for a full re-Catholicisation of the church.
Meanwhile, a significant portion of the English population (including many of the aforementioned MPs) had gone to the opposite extreme and become Puritans. Puritanism had arisen in the previous century when a number of Anglican ministers came under the influence of the Franco-Swiss theologian John Calvin, who pushed an even more radical (for the times) version of Protestantism than the Lutherans and mainstream Anglicans. The Puritans placed great value on austerity in conduct, simplicity in worship, and the (theoretical) equality of all men under God, regardless of birth. In short, they basically stood against everything that King Charles and his supporters stood for.
It wasn't, however, until Charles tried to get the English church system—and in particular impose episcopal church governance—on Scotland (which he was also king of) that it all kicked off. The Church of Scotland was (and remains to this day) Reformed (i.e. thoroughly Protestant—and specifically Calvinist—in doctrine) and Presbyterian (i.e. run as a kind of federal republic, with elected boards running individual parishes and sending delegates to assemblies that ran the regional and national Church on a quasi-democratic basis), thanks in part to the influence of one John Knox, who had been a disciple of Calvin in Geneva. The Scots rose up against him and captured Newcastle. Charles was in the unique position of paying both sets of troops: he was king of Scotland and England and they appeared to be at war with each other. He called Parliament to get them to vote him some money. Parliament took the opportunity to give him a good ticking-off, so he promptly dissolved it again a few weeks later - hence why it's called The Short Parliament.
But the Scots were now occupying most of Northern England and still needed paying. Twice. So Charles reluctantly called Parliament again, and this time it was a doozy. Parliament held him to ransom, forcing him to sign all sorts of legislation guaranteeing England would remain Protestant, making it illegal for the King to levy taxes himself, giving Parliament control over who advised the King, and finally, forbidding the King from summarily dissolving Parliament while specifying that it would meet at regular intervals whether called or not. This Long Parliament had one of the King's favourites put to death for treason, which caused chaos in Ireland as Catholics there feared there was about to be a Puritan purge of Catholics.
The King reacted by having his men storm Parliament and try to arrest five MPs for treason. When the Speaker of the House refused to co-operate, he realised that he'd lost the loyalty of the House of Commons and fled London.note
The First Civil War
During 1642, cities and towns began declaring their allegiance either to King or to Parliament. Charles headed for the northern port of Hull to secure supplies of arms left over from the war with Scotland, but Hull declared for Parliament and locked the gates. Charles retreated to Nottingham and raised his Royal Standard - a symbolic act calling men to fight for their King and effectively declaring war on his own Parliament. He started to move through the countryside, again using archaic laws to recruit men, and promised to uphold the liberties of Parliament and the Protestant religion.
Parliament, meanwhile, organized an army of its own under the command of the Earl of Essex. Before long, both sides had armies numbering in the tens of thousands and the inevitable first skirmish came between two sets of reconnoitering cavalry at Powick Bridge, near Worcester in the west Midlands, which was followed by the first full-scale battle, the Battle of Edgehill on 23 October. It was inconclusive, not least in part thanks to the indiscipline of the Royalist cavalry, charging off in pursuit of a fleeing foe rather than sticking around to make a difference on the battlefield.
The war dragged on through 1643, and the Royalists seemed to be winning for much of that time. Most of Yorkshire was controlled by the King, and the cities of Lichfield and Bristol were captured after sieges. The turning point came late in the summer, when Essex's army lifted a Royalist siege of Gloucester and defeated them at the Battle of Newbury.
With both sides in need of more soldiers, Parliament cut a deal with the Scots while the King negotiated a ceasefire in Ireland to release his English troops there to come back and fight for him at home.
Heading into 1644, the kingdom's second city of York, a Royalist stronghold, came under siege for most of the year and a Royalist army sent to relieve the city was intercepted and defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor, in which a junior cavalry commander called Oliver Cromwell distinguished himself for the Parliament side. However, the Battle of Lostwitheil in Cornwall and the Second Battle of Newbury were both Parliamentarian defeats, and it was clear that something had to be done.
In 1645, Parliament came up with a radical idea. It passed a law called the Self-Denying Ordinance, forcing all its generals to resign and drastically reorganising the army. Instead of a series of semi-private militias trained and equipped by local bigwigs, the New Model Army would be centrally-organised, issued with uniforms and given officers with genuine experience and ability rather than merely the means to buy a commission. The commander of this new army would be Sir Thomas Fairfax, and his second-in-command was that man Oliver Cromwell. The New Model Army is the direct ancestor of the modern British Army, which is why it's not called the Royal Army (as opposed to the Royal Navy, Marines, and Air Force).
The New Model Army soundly thrashed the Royalist forces at Naseby on 14 June and Langport on 10 July and the game was up. Charles tried to set up a new power base but eventually sought refuge with some "friendly" Scots in May 1646, who promptly handed him over to the Parliamentary forces, and he was imprisoned.
The Second Civil War
However, Charles wasn't done yet. He secretly negotiated with the Scots, promising some church reform they wanted if they would invade England and restore him to his throne. They did, and a series of Royalist revolts erupted through England as well throughout 1648. Eventually, the Parliamentary forces were able to defeat all the Scots and rebels, culminating in the Battle of Preston in Lancashire on 17-19 August, in which Oliver Cromwell demolished the last remnants of the Royalist armies with remarkably few losses.
Parliament was now divided on what to do next. Some supported the idea of trying the King for treason as he had made war on his own people. Others were horrified at this idea. Eventually, the New Model Army settled matters by marching on Parliament and taking over, arresting 45 MPs and keeping another 145 out of the chamber in what is called Pride's Purge (after the Colonel who oversaw the operation). Those who were left - the Rump Parliament - were ordered to set up a court to try King Charles. He was found guilty and executed on 30 January 1649 by beheading. The monarchy was then abolished and a Republic was set up, called the Commonwealth Of England, with a governing council leading the Rump Parliament. It also introduced England's first written constitution - the 'Instrument of Government'.
The Third Civil War
But Britain's troubles weren't over yet by any means. Charles had a son, who could now call himself Charles II, and he wanted the throne. A group of Irish Catholics known as the Irish Confederates signed a treaty with young Charles, disturbed at events in Parliament and fearing another Protestant purge. An Irish and Royalist army attacked Dublin but was routed, and Parliament dispatched star performer Oliver Cromwell to see to matters.
See to them he did - the bloody and atrocity-filled campaign that Cromwell waged in Ireland (and particularly his massacre of the civilian populations of Drogheda) became one of the symbols of English oppression in Ireland and continues into the folk memory to this day, causing Historical Villain Upgrade (he got the opposite from 19th Century Whigs) - as bloody and brutal as Cromwell's conquest was it was motivated by a desire to end the English Civil War once and for all, preventing further 'effusion of blood'. While Cromwell and his immediate subordinates really did hate Catholics (as they did all other servants of Satan), as with the 'crusading' forces of both sides in the continental Thirty Years' War there was no serious consideration of genocide by any party, whatever the rhetoric of 'annihilating the unbelievers' (and some degree of support for that on the outspoken religious fringe).
After the event, the very real atrocities and persecution tales of him became as exaggerated in modern times as the 1641 Irish revolt's massacre of Protestants was exaggerated then. The Irish campaign ground on until 1653 when, with an estimated 30% of Ireland's population dead, Cromwell confiscated almost all Catholic-owned land on the island and redistributed it to Parliamentarian supporters, and English settlers. Again, this redistribution of land and the way it concentrated all the power in the hands of a Protestant, English-oriented elite, was one of the major causes of The Troubles later.
Meanwhile, Scotland had been having its own Civil war since 1644 which occasionally overlapped with the English one. The execution of Charles altered things a bit, particularly for the Royalist faction, who had been fighting the Covenanters who wanted the Scottish church to remain Presbyterian rather than have bishops like Charles wanted. So anyway, Charles II shows up, makes a deal with both sides and gets them to invade England in order to put him on the throne.
Oliver Cromwell paused briefly in his conquest of Ireland to nip over and beat the Scots at Dunbar and Inverkeithing. Leaving the army with General Monck to finish conquering Scotland, he headed South to engage the King's army which had slipped into England and was heading for the old Royalist strongholds in the Southwest. Cromwell finally engaged Charles II's army at Worcester in September 1651 and defeated him. The king escaped, famously hiding in an oak tree to escape his pursuers at one point, and fled to France.
Cromwell then returned to England, declared that the Rump Parliament wasn't doing any good at all, made a famous speech declaring "You have been sitting too long for all the good you are doing. In the name of God, go!"note . Parliament, anxious for a new powerful figure to fill the vacuum left by the monarchy, offered Cromwell the crown. He agonised over whether to accept for around two weeks before deciding that God had judged monarchy and so compromised by accepting the position of Head of State as "Lord Protector" of the Commonwealth in 1653 - an early form of "President for Life". This office had all the powers of the former King but was officially appointed by Parliament, the Protector also had the right to nominate a successor. As if that wasn't enough, he was also "enthroned" in a lavish ceremony, given the monarchical style of address "His Highness" and the abolished House of Lords was restored, in fact if not in name, as a second house of Parliament. Many republicans regarded this as far too similar to the old government of "King, Lords and Commons" and turned against Cromwell, but others believed the new regime was essential to fill the power vacuum left by the removal of the King and continued the English revolution in spirit, since Parliamentary support was officially required by the Lord Protector rather than divine right, and the state remained constitutionally republican.
Under the "Protectorate", England (including Wales), Scotland and Ireland were politically united for the first time in Britain's history.
The fall of the Protectorate and the Restoration
This new form of republic in which Cromwell ruled with the powers of a monarch with two houses of Parliament was stable but didn't last much longer than he did. Cromwell remained in power until his death in 1658, at which point his
little brother son, Richard, got the job of Lord Protector, and initially seemed secure in office with recognition from overseas and the approval of Parliament in early 1659. However, in the Spring of that year he clashed with the powerful army who quickly removed himnote , abolished the Protectorate and restored the Rump Parliament as sole government of the Commonwealth. Parliament found itself unable to control the powerful Army who started splitting into factions loyal to certain commanders and it looked rather like Britain was heading for total anarchy. It didn't help that the common people were heartily tired of Oliver Cromwell's puritanism - he had banned celebrating Christmas, encouraged witch-hunts and closed theaters - and that he had gotten involved in yet more wars, this time with the Netherlands and Spain.
In the Spring of 1660, General Monck who had been the Cromwellian governor of Scotland, marched south with his troops to sort things out. He called a new Parliament, the Convention Parliament, which agreed to invite Charles II to come and take up the throne. The monarchy was officially restored in May 1660 and, although assuring people that he would respect the will of Parliament, Charles II was a believer in the "divine right" of Kings, like his father. Charles was something of a playboy and seems to have been popular with ordinary people; despite this, the restored Royalist regime was unable to pacify the politically troubled country and there was considerable friction between the new King and his Parliament. This came to a head over the question of the succession of his openly Catholic brother, James, and came close to igniting another civil war. Charles II used his powers as monarch to frustrate Parliament's attempts to pass a bill which would outlaw his brothers succession and eventually dismissed the body, ruling as an absolute monarch.
After his death in 1685, Charles' brother became King James II and after a few troubled years in power was overthrown in 1688 in the so-called "Glorious Revolution" which established Parliamentary supremacy and the right of Parliament to effectively determine who became monarch - the beginnings of Britain's modern Constitutional Monarchy. William of Orange was invited to become King, and it's hard to imagine a better choice: he had links to the old regime since he was married to James II's daughter Mary (who held the Crown jointly with her husband for a variety of reasons), he was Protestant, and he was stadtholder (elected head of state)note of the Dutch Republic, meaning he had experience with constitutional rule and had the military of a great power backing him up, which would lead to peace and improved trade between the two countries. The Dutch experience with new financial innovations like modern central banking, modern commercial banking, paper money, cheques, new forms of insurance, and the limited-liability joint-stock company also recommended William to the moneyed classes of the British Isles. Following several attempts by forces loyal to James to defeat the "usurpation", the new Williamite regime was solidly in power.
James II was exiled to France. His supporters, who disagreed with the idea of Parliamentary supremacy and what they saw a a blatant breaking of the legitimate line to the throne, became "Jacobites" and made two serious attempts to restore the Stuarts in the 18th century. James II's descendants died out in exile in the early 19th century and the "claim" passed to a Sardinian King who did not acknowledge it, essentially extinguishing Jacobitism as a political force.note
The English Civil War or English Revolution as it is sometimes known was the beginning of the end of England and later Britain being ruled by a single powerful monarch. Although the republic only lasted eleven years, and was only truly stable for about six of those, it was the first time that the British Isles were united under a single government and the first time that the idea of Parliamentary supremacy was established. The Restoration of the House of Stuart in 1660 ultimately proved to have no more of a future than the Cromwellian Commonwealth and the post-1688 monarchy had specific limits set on its powers, ultimately leading to a "monarchy" that was actually governed by its elected Parliament,note a system which has been called a "crowned republic".
Oliver Cromwell, the key figure of the Civil Wars and Commonwealth, remains a very controversial historical figure. Admired for his bravery but widely disliked by his own people at the time, not just Royalists but also Republicans who considered him a traitor to their cause, and loathed in Ireland to this day, he is nonetheless now honored in England as the man who gave the country its current system of government, secured the power of an elected Parliament over a hereditary monarch, and in doing so possibly spared England from the excesses of something like the French Revolution years later. When the BBC commissioned a public poll to find the "100 Greatest Britons", Oliver Cromwell made the top 10, one of only two elected political leaders (the other was Winston Churchill); although when this top 10 was put to a further nationwide vote to determine "Greatest Briton" he ranked tenth. Clarendon, a prominent Royalist who regarded Cromwell as the most wicked of all men neatly summed up the contradictory nature of Cromwell, noting that 'as he had all the wickedness against which damnation is denounced and for which hell fire is prepared, so he had virtues which have caused men in all ages to be celebrated' even praising his industriousness and wisdom even if they were put to what he saw as evil use.
King Charles I is also a controversial figure. After the restoration he was canonized as a "martyr" (the only figure to receive this honor from the Anglican church) and subsequently portrayed as a brave, principled but weak man who could not control his rebellious subjects or understand their needs. However, he is also regarded by some as a bona fide tyrant, a "man of blood"note who waged war against his own people and would rather have seen thousands of his subjects dead than relinquish any power and who ultimately paid the price.
While there are no universally agreed figures historians have given estimates of 190,000 dead in England, 60,000 dead in Scotland and 618,000 dead in Ireland (to put that into context the UK suffered 449,800 deaths total due to World War II, when the population was much larger). Factoring in all the deaths outside of battle as a result of the wars and the estimates come to somewhere around 10% of England and 40% in Ireland for the period covering the connected wars known as the 'Three Kingdoms Wars' (which included the Bishops War started during Charles's period of personal rule and the start of the Irish revolt which polarized many in the English Parliament before the English Civil War broke out.) Basically, more than 7% of the population of the entire British Isles were killed.
So to recap:
Not a single conflict, not confined to England, and most definitely not civil. It may be the most erroneously named conflict in history.
Depictions in media
- A Field in England
- As Meat Loves Salt
- The Devil's Whore
- To Kill A King
- A Midsummer Tempest (Alternate History version)
- By The Sword Divided
- 20 Years After: The musketeers see the tail end of the second war, attempting to rescue the king at the request of his wife.
- Revolutions: The very first season of this podcast by Mike Duncan is about this conflict, which he is quite explicit about regarding as an "English Revolution" or "British Revolution". On the whole, Season 1 of Revolutions is a good primer on this revolution, and Duncan (as is his wont) has made it easy to find his sources for listeners eager to read more.