English Civil War

English civil war, 1642–48, the conflict between King Charles I of England and a large body of his subjects, generally called the "parliamentarians," that culminated in the defeat and execution of the king and the establishment of a republican commonwealth.

The Nature of the Struggle

The struggle has also been called the Puritan Revolution because the religious complexion of the king's opponents was prevailingly Puritan, and because the defeat of the king was accompanied by the abolition of episcopacy. That name, however, overemphasizes the religious element at the expense of the constitutional issues and the underlying social and economic factors. Most simply stated, the constitutional issue was one between a king who claimed to rule by divine right and a Parliament that professed itself to have rights and privileges independent of the crown and that ultimately, by its actions, claimed real sovereignty.

Parliament in this period did not represent the full body of the English people; it was composed of and represented the nobility, country gentry, and merchants and artisans. The 16th cent. had seen a decline in the influence of the nobility and a striking rise in the numbers, wealth, and influence of the gentry and merchants, the beneficiaries of a tremendous expansion of markets and trade in Tudor times. It was from this middle class of gentry and merchants that the opposition to the crown drew most of its members. Their ambition to do away with financial and commercial restrictions and their desire to have a say in such matters as religious and foreign policies had been severely restrained by the Tudors, but on the accession (1603) of a Scottish king to the English throne the popular party began to organize its strength.

The Rise of the Opposition

Under James I

James I was not long in gaining a personal unpopularity that helped to strengthen Parliament's hand. At the Hampton Court Conference (1604) he resolutely refused to compromise with Puritans on religious questions. The Parliament that met in 1604 soon clashed with the king on questions of finance and supply. James was forced to temporize because of his urgent need of money, but the dissolution of the Parliament in 1610 left feelings of bitterness on both sides.

A new Parliament met in 1614, and the Commons engaged in quarrels not only with the king but also with the House of Lords. Because it passed not a single statute, this was called the Addled Parliament. James had little understanding of the popular unrest and aroused deeper opposition by his continued collection of impositions and benevolences, his dependence on favorites, and his scheme of a Spanish marriage for his son Charles.

Meanwhile a legal battle was being waged in the courts, with Sir Francis Bacon zealously upholding the royal prerogative and Sir Edward Coke defending the supremacy of common law. The king dismissed Coke from the bench in 1616, but the Parliament of 1621 impeached Bacon. The last Parliament (1624) of the reign accompanied its grant of money with specific directions for its use. James's reign had raised certain fundamental questions concerning the privileges of Parliament, claimed by that body as their legal right and regarded by James as a special grant from the crown.

Under Charles I

Charles I, married to a French Roman Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria, proved more intractable and even less acceptable to the Puritan taste than his father, and Parliament became even more uncompromising in the new reign. The leaders of the parliamentary party—Coke, John Pym, Sir John Eliot, and John Selden—sought ways to limit the powers of the king. The Parliament of 1625 granted him the right to collect tonnage and poundage (customs duties) only for a year and not, as was customary, for his entire reign. The Parliament of 1626 went further and impeached the king's favorite, George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham. Charles dissolved it in anger.

Failing to raise money without Parliament, he was forced to call a new one in 1628. The new Parliament drew up the Petition of Right, and Charles accepted it in order to get his subsidy. He continued to levy customs duties, an act that the parliamentarians declared illegal under the Petition of Right. Parliament in 1629 vigorously protested Charles's collection of tonnage and poundage and the prosecution of his opponents in the Star Chamber. The religious issue also came up, and Commons resisted the king's order to adjourn by forcing the speaker to remain in his chair while Eliot presented resolutions against "popery" and unauthorized taxation.

In the succeeding 11 years Charles attempted to rule without a Parliament, resorting to such expedients as ship money (a tax levied originally on seaports but extended by Charles to the entire country) to raise revenue. The reprisals against Eliot and the prosecution of William Prynne and John Hampden aroused widespread indignation. Charles's chief advisers, Archbishop William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, later 1st earl of Strafford, were cordially detested.

The ominous peace was broken by troubles in Scotland, where efforts to enforce Anglican episcopal policy led to the violent opposition of the Covenanters and to war in 1639 (see Bishops' Wars) and compelled Charles to seek the financial aid of Parliament. The resulting Short Parliament (1640) once more met the king's request for supply by a demand for redress of grievance. Charles offered to abandon ship money exactions, but the opposition wished to discuss more fundamental issues, and the king dissolved the Parliament in just three weeks.

The Long Parliament

The disasters of the second Scottish war compelled a virtual surrender by the king to the opposition, and the Long Parliament was summoned (Nov., 1640). The parliamentarians quickly enacted a series of measures designed to sweep away what they regarded as the encroachments of despotic monarchy. Those imprisoned by the Star Chamber were freed. A Triennial Act provided that no more than three years should elapse between sessions of Parliament, while another act prohibited the dissolution of Parliament without its own consent. Ship money and tonnage and poundage without parliamentary authorization were abolished. Strafford was impeached, then attainted and executed (1641) for treason; Laud was impeached and imprisoned. Star Chamber and other prerogative and episcopal courts were swept away. However, discussions on church reform along Puritan lines produced considerable disagreement, especially between the Commons and Lords.

Despite the king's compliance to the will of the opposition thus far, he was not trusted by the parliamentary party. This distrust was given sharp focus by the outbreak (Oct., 1641) of a rebellion against English rule in Ireland; an army was needed to suppress the rebellion, but the parliamentarians feared that the king might use it against them. Led by John Pym, Parliament adopted the Grand Remonstrance, reciting the evils of Charles's reign and demanding church reform and parliamentary control over the army and over the appointment of royal ministers. The radicalism of these demands split the parliamentary party and drove many of the moderates to the royalist side. This encouraged Charles to assert himself, and in Jan., 1642, he attempted to arrest in person Pym and four other leaders of the opposition in Commons. His action made civil war inevitable.

In the lull that followed, both Parliament and the king sought to secure fortresses, arsenals, and popular support. In June, 1642, Parliament sent to the king a statement reiterating the demands of the Grand Remonstrance, but since the proposals amounted to a complete surrender of sovereignty by the crown to Parliament, the king did not even consider them as a basis for discussion. Armed forces (including many peers from the House of Lords and a sizable minority of Commons) gathered about him in the north. Parliament organized its own army and appointed Robert Devereux, 3d earl of Essex, to head it. On Aug. 22, 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham.

The First Civil War

The followers of king and Parliament did not represent two absolutely distinct social groups, as the popular conception of the royalist Cavaliers and the parliamentary Roundheads would indicate. However, it is true that the parliamentary, or Puritan, group drew much of its strength from the gentry and from the merchant classes and artisans of London, Norwich, Hull, Plymouth, and Gloucester; it centered in the southeastern counties and had control of the fleet. The majority of the great nobles followed the king, who had the support of most Anglicans and Roman Catholics; geographically the royalist strength centered in the north and west.

The first major engagement of the armies at Edgehill (Oct. 23, 1642) was a drawn battle. Charles then established himself at Oxford. The royalist forces gained ground in the north and west, although repeated attempts by the king to advance on London proved abortive. The indecisive engagements of 1643 were remarkable mainly for the emergence of Oliver Cromwell, an inconspicuous member of the Long Parliament, to military prominence with his own regiment of "godly" men, soon to become famous as the Ironsides.

Futile negotiations for peace had been conducted at Oxford early in 1643, and in Sept., 1643, Parliament took a decisive step by securing the alliance of the Presbyterian Scots in accepting the Solemn League and Covenant. Scottish aid was obtained only by a promise to submit England to Presbyterianism, which was soon to produce a reaction from the Independents and other sectarians (particularly in the army) who opposed the idea of any centralized national church.

The war now entered a new phase. A Scottish army, under Alexander Leslie, 1st earl of Leven, advanced into Yorkshire early in 1644 and gave aid to the parliamentary army in the north. Charles's nephew, the brilliant and dashing Prince Rupert, did something to stem royalist losses by retaking Newark, but his gains were temporary. His campaign to relieve the besieged York led to the battle of Marston Moor (July 2, 1644), in which Cromwell and Leslie inflicted a crushing defeat on the royalists. Charles managed to cut off Essex in the southwest but shortly thereafter met parliamentary troops from the north in an indecisive engagement at Newbury.

To stem the rising dissension among parliamentary leaders, Cromwell sponsored in Parliament the Self-Denying Ordinance, by which all members of Parliament were compelled to resign their commands, and the parliamentary army was reorganized (1644–45) into the New Model Army. Thomas Fairfax (later 3d Baron Fairfax of Cameron) became the commander in chief.

After further futile peace negotiations at Uxbridge, Charles, hoping to join the forces under James Graham, marquess of Montrose, moved north and stormed Leicester. He met Cromwell in a sharp battle at Naseby (June 14, 1645). This battle cost the king a large part of his army and rendered the royalist cause hopeless. Unable to join Montrose (who was defeated by Leslie in Scotland) and thwarted in his attempts to secure aid from Ireland or the Continent, the king was unable to halt the steady losses of his party and finally was compelled to surrender himself to the Scots, who made him reassuring but vague promises. The first civil war came to an end when Oxford surrendered in June, 1646.

The Second Civil War and Its Aftermath

The king was delivered (1647) by the Scots into the hands of Parliament, but the Presbyterian rule in that body had thoroughly alienated the army. The army resisted Parliament's proposal to disband it by capturing the king from the parliamentary party and marching on London. Army discontent gradually became more radical (see Levelers), and the desire grew to dispose of the king altogether.

Refusing to accept the army council's proposals for peace (the Heads of the Proposals), Charles escaped in Nov., 1647, and took refuge on the Isle of Wight, where he negotiated simultaneously with Parliament and the Scots. In Dec., 1647, he concluded an agreement with the Scots known as the Engagement, by which he agreed to accept Presbyterianism in return for military support. In the spring of 1648, the second civil war began. Uprisings in Wales, Kent, and Essex were all suppressed by the parliamentary forces, and Cromwell defeated the Scots at Preston (Aug. 17, 1648). Charles's hopes of aid from France or Ireland proved vain, and the war was quickly over.

Parliament again tried to reach some agreement with the king, but the army, now completely under Cromwell's domination, disposed of its enemies in Parliament by Pride's Purge (Dec., 1648; see under Pride, Thomas). The legislative remnant known as the Rump Parliament erected a high court of justice, which tried the king for treason and found him guilty. Charles was beheaded on Jan. 30, 1649, and the republic known as the Commonwealth was set up, governed by the Rump Parliament (without the House of Lords) and by an executive council of state.

Charles I's son Charles II was recognized as king in parts of Ireland and in Scotland but was forced to flee to the Continent after his defeat at Worcester (1651). The years of the interregnum, under the Commonwealth to 1653 and the Protectorate after that, are largely the story of Oliver Cromwell's personal rule, which was marked by strict military administration and enforcement of the Puritan moral code. After his death and the short-lived rule of his son, Richard Cromwell, the Commonwealth was revived for a brief and chaotic period. It ended in 1660 with the Restoration of Charles II. Although some of the changes brought about by the war were swept away (e.g., in the restoration of Anglicanism as the state church), the settlement of the contest between the king and Parliament was permanently assured in the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


The standard works on the period of the war are by S. R. Gardiner. See also C. V. Wedgwood, The King's Peace, 1637–1641 (1955) and The King's War, 1641–1647 (1958); A. H. Burne and P. Young, The Great Civil War, a Military History (1959); G. Davies, The Early Stuarts (2d ed. 1959); J. E. C. Hill, Puritanism and Revolution (1958) and The Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution (1965); I. A. Roots, The Great Rebellion, 1642–1660 (1968).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

English Civil War: Selected full-text books and articles

Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited By Christopher Hill Clarendon Press, 1997 (Revised edition)
The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland 1638-1660 By John Morrill; Jane Ohlmeyer; John Kenyon Oxford University Press, 1998
How Humane Was the English Civil War? By Wilkinson, Richard History Review, March 2001
Dissent and Debauchery: Women and the English Civil War: A Group of Second-Year Students from Southampton University Present the Results of a Collaborative Research Project By Jones, Alison; Dulay, Harjit; Cobley, Jennifer; Hammond, Joanne; Purcell, Lisa; Barlow, Laura History Review, No. 47, December 2003
The Cult of King Charles the Martyr By Andrew Lacey Boydell Press, 2003
Charles I and the Popish Plot By Caroline M. Hibbard University of North Carolina Press, 1983
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