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English Civil War

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History -- Military history -- War

The English Civil War that broke out on August 27, 1642 and continued until approximately 1650 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. There were two other periods of major civil war after the Norman Conquest: "the Anarchy," which occurred during the 12th century reign of King Stephen, and the Wars of the Roses, which lasted for much of the 15th century.

This article deals only with the English Civil War of the 17th century, also known (especially in Royalist circles) as "the Great Rebellion".

Table of contents

Prelude to the English Civil War

Charles I's marriage to a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, shortly after his accession to the throne in 1625, was extremely unacceptable to the Puritans who were influential within Parliament, which became even more uncompromising than it had been to his father, James I of England (James VI of Scotland). Charles inherited his father's belief in the "Divine Right of Kings", and resented any interference in his chosen way of doing things. Other important issues, such as Charles' abuse of The Court of Star Chamber and the structure of the Anglican Church were also major sources of political controversy. The leaders of the parliamentary party cast around for ways to limit the powers of the king. The Parliament of 1625 granted him the right to collect customs duties only for a year and not, as was usual, for his entire reign. The Parliament of 1626 also impeached the king's favourite, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Furious, Charles then dissolved it.

Because the king was unable to raise money without Parliament, a new one was assembled in 1628. 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.

Charles then attempted to rule without a Parliament, resorting to expedients such as "ship money" (a tax levied originally on seaports but then extended by Charles to the entire country) to raise revenue. Ship money, as a levy for the Royal Navy was for the defence of the realm and therefore within the scope of the royal prerogative. 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's chief advisers, Archbishop William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, later to become 1st Earl of Strafford, were widely disliked.

Prior to the Civil War, Charles also attempted to wage an expensive series of wars against the Scots, the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640. These resulted from an attempt to enforce Anglican-style reforms on the Scottish church. The Scots however rejected these reforms and sought to remove the control that the bishops had over the church. Charles was insufficiently funded for such an expedition, and was forced to seek money from Parliament in 1640. 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.

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. 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 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.

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. 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 Charles I entry into the city and its large arsenal. Charles took great personal affront to this act, and declared Hotham a traitor. Charles I besiged the City unsuccessfully. This seige precipitated open conflict between the Parliamentarian and Royalist causes.

At the outset of the conflict, although the 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.

In terms of the balance of power, parliament definitely had more resources at their disposal, mainly due to their possession 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 seige of Hull in July 1642 which provided a decisive victory for Parliament.

A latter 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 Rhine, a dashing cavalry commander. Playing a minor part in the battle on the other side was a cavalry troop raised by a country gentleman named Oliver Cromwell. Oliver Cromwell was to later devise the New Model Army system still evident in military organisation today. The characterised a unified command structure and professionalism which was firmly swing military advantage towards Parliament. nature unfied c The second action of the war was the Battle of Turnham Green[?] which saw Charles bested and 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, 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 Fairfax founded the New Model Army, under the command of Cromwell. In two decisive engagements, the Battle of Naseby on June 14 and at Langport[?] on July 10, Charles's armies were effectively destroyed. 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, Sir 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.

In 1648, by a 68 to 67 vote, the Parliament found Charles I of England guilty of treason, and he was executed in 1649. The majority of those who signed his death warrant were themselves executed upon the later Restoration of the Monarchy[?].

Oliver Cromwell then led the army in quelling Royalist forces in Ireland and 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 Invercharron 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. He marched with the Scots on England. 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 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.

Theories relating to the English Civil War

These events have often been explained as a popular uprising of either a religious kind (the "Puritan Revolution") or as an expression of class conflict predicted by Marxist theory, "bourgeois revolution," the latter notably by historian Christopher Hill.

Some historians claim to have discovered the origins of proletarian democracy and the "general will" in the debates about government conducted in Putney Church in 1647 among a coalition of Presbyterian dissidents and political radicals.

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.

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