In this lesson, we explore the factors that led to the breakdown of royal authority in England, the civil war, and subsequent trying and beheading of King Charles I, followed by a decade-long period of rule without a true king.
British Civil War
It seems that most countries in the world have experienced a civil war at one time or another. In the U.S., the civil war was fought between northern and southern states over the issue of slavery and the states’ prerogatives to govern themselves.
In China, a civil war was fought in the mid-20th century between the western-supported but weak imperial government and Mao Zedong’s communist movement. While many other countries have experienced civil wars as well, England’s 17th-century civil war is of particular importance to historians because of the issues over which it was fought and the results, namely, the rule of Parliament versus the absolute authority of kings and the unprecedented beheading of a king by his people!
In order to understand the English Civil War, you have to know a few things about 17th-century England. First of all, the Stuart Dynasty, who ruled England beginning in 1603, had ruled Scotland before that. Scotland’s long history of fighting the English was enough to make any Englishman wary of Scottish monarchs on the English throne, and Scotland’s traditional alliance with England’s fierce continental rival, France, only worsened matters. Though James I ruled England and Scotland relatively peaceably, his son, Charles I, who took the throne upon his father’s death in 1625, did not possess the same political tact.To make matters worse for Charles, he married a French Catholic and was rumored to be a Catholic himself.
17th-century England was a Protestant country and had been so since the 1530s when Henry VIII instituted the Church of England. The English were always fearful that a Catholic enemy, such as France or Spain, would invade England and reestablish the Catholic religion. As such, English Catholics were constantly suspected of treason, and the idea of a Catholic being in the court, let alone married to the king, made the English very uncomfortable.In addition, Charles often upset the aristocracy and the parliamentary classes by ruling without Parliament and attempting to make up the loss in crown revenue through duties, fees, and other indirect taxes.
Indeed, Charles was so fed up with Parliament, he ruled without one from 1629 to 1640! Needless to say, when a new session of Parliament was finally called by Charles, they were not too pleased. Instead of granting Charles the funds he required to raise an army to repel Scottish forces (who were occupying northern England at the time), Parliament set about trying the king’s counselors and advisors for treason.
Breakdown of Relations with Parliament
In response, Charles unsuccessfully tried to arrest several leading Parliamentarians. Relations between Charles and Parliament continued to deteriorate, and Charles fled the capital in January 1642 and began raising an army. Parliament raised its own army, and war broke out between the two sides in the summer. Order in the countryside quickly broke down as people chose sides.
Though pockets supporting both sides existed everywhere, the north and west primarily sided with King Charles, while the south and east primarily sided with Parliament.Fighting initially favored the better-equipped and better-organized royalists. Then, in 1645, Parliament reorganized its forces into the new model army, which was placed under the control of the brilliant general Oliver Cromwell. Before long, Parliament’s forces began winning battle after battle. By 1646, even Charles’ royalist stronghold of Oxford was under siege, and the King was forced to leave the city under disguise.
Hoping to find refuge in his other kingdom, Charles fled to the Scottish army’s position in Newcastle, though the Scots simply ransomed Charles back to Parliament.Despite a short-lived escape and counter-revolution in 1648, Charles’ days governing England were over. Parliament was unsure of what to do with their captured King, though the military commander, Thomas Pride, soon purged all indecisive members from the assembly. The remaining parliamentarians, known today as the Rump Parliament, did not waver.
In January 1649, they convicted Charles of treason against his own people and sentenced him to death.
Despite Charles I’s death, the struggle was not yet over. Charles’ heir, the presumptive Charles II, gathered the remaining Royalist forces and fought on until 1651 when he was defeated and escaped to France. In addition, unrest in both Scotland and Ireland needed to be quelled. The Parliamentarian army completed both of these tasks; in Ireland through a bloody campaign of repression, and in Scotland by defeating the Scottish army and promising the Scots representation in the English Parliament.
After Charles I’s death, the Rump Parliament continued to legislate for England for four years, though it was highly ineffective as several different factions had different ideas of how the new English Republic should be shaped. In the end, Oliver Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector of England in 1653. Though this was done alongside the creation of a new National Assembly, in reality Cromwell became King in all but name, and he dismissed the assembly shortly after he took power.Under Oliver Cromwell, English life was governed according to a severe form of Protestantism known as Puritanism. Puritans took many of the things that separated Protestants from Catholics to new extremes.
For example, whereas Catholics often had large, ostentatious churches, Puritans abhorred displays of wealth, and some Puritan churches banned all ornamentation on their church walls, including paint! Games and leisure activities were severely restricted during this time, and even traditional religious celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter, were muted or banned entirely.Cromwell died in 1658. Though Cromwell ensured that his son Richard would become Protector upon his death, the regime quickly unraveled.
Faced with a possible mutiny from the army and possessing little leadership skills or military acumen, Richard declared an end to the Protectorate his father had created and recalled the Rump Parliament. Amid disagreements between army officers and the Rump Parliament, the Scottish General George Monck drove a Scottish force south to bring order to the English government. There he forced a return of the full Parliament, followed by new elections. The new Parliament, nicknamed the Convention Parliament, reinstalled the monarchy and declared Charles II King of England in 1660.
The English Civil War occurred for several reasons, the most important of these being a breakdown of dialogue between King Charles I and Parliament. While there were many issues between them – the King’s French Catholic wife, Parliament’s Puritan leanings, and the King’s preference for personal rule – it was each side’s inability to deal with one another that eventually led to Charles fleeing London to raise an army. When Parliament raised its own, conflict inevitably broke out.What really sets England’s Civil War apart from civil wars in the rest of early modern Europe is Parliament’s victory, the quasi-legal execution of the King, and brief experimentation with republican rule. However, after a few short years of experimentation, Oliver Cromwell became Lord Protector – essentially King in all but name. His regime unraveled after his death and, in the interest of stability, Parliament offered the throne back to the Stuart Dynasty, proclaiming Charles II King of England.
Study this lesson on the English Civil War in order to:
- List the sources of conflict between Charles I and his subjects
- Analyze the events of the British Civil War and identify the two sides involved
- Dissect the role of Oliver Cromwell after the British Civil War
- Provide details about the crowning of Charles II as the King of England