The English Civil War Period
Updated on 16 March 2021
Between 1642 – 1651, the English Civil War Period saw King Charles I fight Parliament for control of England.
YQN uses the term English Civil War Period to define the three separate wars that together formed England’s civil war.
Ascending to the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1625 – Charles I believed in the divine right of kings that stated that his right to rule came from God rather than any earthly authority. This led him to frequently clash with Parliament as their approval was needed for him raising funds.
Dissolving Parliament on several occasions, Charles I was angered by both its attacks on his ministers and its reluctance to provide him with money. In 1629, he elected to stop calling Parliamentary sessions and began funding his rule through outdated taxes such as ship money and various fines. Charles I approach angered both the population and nobles. This period became known as the the Eleven Years’ Tyranny.
Next, in desperate need of money to contain rebelling Scots who were unhappy with his rule, Charles I was forced to recall Parliament. However, once reassembled, Parliament declined to give the King any money and instead set about curbing his powers as monarch of the realm.
Now tensions were like a powder-keg ready to explode.
The Period Of War
The First Civil War (1642 – 1646)
The powder-keg tensions finally exploded when Parliament ordered the Earl of Strafford, a close adviser of the king, to be executed for treason.
In January 1642, an angry Charles marched on Parliament with 400 men to arrest the five members he believed were responsible for the execution.
Failing to make the arrests, he withdrew to Oxford.
Through the summer of 1642, Charles and Parliament negotiated while all levels of society began to align in support of either side. While rural communities typically favored the king, others such as the Royal Navy and many cities aligned themselves with Parliament.
On 22 August 1642, Charles raised his banner at Nottingham and commenced building an army. These efforts were matched by Parliament who began assembling a force under the leadership of the Earl of Essex.
Unable to come to any resolution, the two sides clashed at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642. Largely indecisive, the campaign ultimately resulted in Charles withdrawing again to his wartime stronghold of Oxford. The next year saw Royalist forces secure much of Yorkshire as well as win a string of victories in western England.
However, in September 1643, Parliamentarian forces led by the Earl of Essex succeeded in forcing Charles to abandon the siege of Gloucester and won a victory at Newbury. As the fighting progressed, both sides found reinforcements as Charles freed troops by making peace in Ireland while Parliament allied with Scotland.
Dubbed the Solemn League and Covenant, the alliance between Parliament and Scotland saw a Scottish army under the Earl of Leven enter northern England to reinforce Parliamentarian forces. Though Sir William Waller was beaten by Charles at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644, Parliamentarian and Scottish forces won a key victory at the Battle of Marston Moor the following month.
A key figure in the triumph of the Marston Moor battle was cavalryman Oliver Cromwell. Having gained the upper hand, the Parliamentarians formed the professional New Model Army in 1645. Led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Cromwell, this fighting force routed Charles at the Battle of Naseby. That June, in 1645, the New Model Army scored another victory at Langport in July.
Though he attempted to rebuild his forces, Charles’ situation declined and in April 1646 he was forced to flee from the siege of his Oxford stronghold. Riding north, he surrendered to the Scots at Southwell who later turned him over to Parliament.
With Charles defeated, the victorious parties that had fought on the side of Parliment, sought to establish a new government. In each party’s case, they felt that the king’s participation was critical.
Interbellum (1646 – 1648)
Between the end of the first civil war and the start of the second civil war there was a two-year period where England was left with a power vacuum. The Royalists had been dealt a bitter blow, but it wasn’t completely decisive. Their rule had been severely weakened, but Charles I still remained king.
The only thing that had been decided was that the fate of the English Crown hung in the balance as various groups vied for power.
The Second Civil War (1648 – 1649)
Playing the various groups off one another, Charles signed an agreement known as the Engagement with Scottish rebels. The Engagement agreed the Scottish would invade England on his behalf in exchange for the establishment of Presbyterianism (a form of Protestant religion) in their country.
The Scottish rebels were ultimately defeated at Preston by Cromwell in August 1648 and the bulk of Royal forces were now wiped out and their cause lost.
Although, albeit temporarily, Charles I remained King.
The Third Civil War (1649 – 1651)
Angered by Charles’ I betrayal of using Scottish rebels, the New Model Army marched on Parliament and purged those who still favored an association with the king. The remaining members, known as the Rump Parliament, ordered Charles I tried for treason.
Found guilty, Charles was beheaded on 30th January, 1649. In the wake of the king’s execution, Cromwell sailed for Ireland to eliminate resistance there. He won bloody victories at Drogheda and Wexford that Autumn.
The following June saw the late king’s son, Charles II, arrive in Scotland where he allied with the Scottish rebels. This forced Cromwell to leave Ireland and he was soon campaigning in Scotland.
Though Cromwell triumphed at Dunbar and Inverkeithing, he allowed Charles II’s army to move south into England in 1651. Pursuing, Cromwell brought the last of the remaining Royalists to battle on 3 September at Worcester. Defeated, Charles II escaped to France where he remained in exile until his later return several years later.
After The War
With this final defeat of Royalist forces in 1651, power passed to the republican government of the Commonwealth of England.
The common people had won but at what cost?
Thomas Hobbes, a contemporary philosopher of the time, used the civil war as a metaphor for the futility of human existence calling it, “war of all against all”.
An estimated 180,000 people died from fighting, accidents and disease – approximately 3.6% of mid 17th century England’s population. Hunger was rife and, despite a cessation in fighting, the country was still bitterly divided. Whatever England’s future was post-war, only one thing was clear – the country would never be the same again.
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