The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) stemmed from conflict between Charles I and Parliament over an Irish insurrection. The first war was settled with Oliver Cromwell’s victory for Parliamentary forces at the 1645 Battle of Naseby. The second phase ended with Charles’ defeat at the Battle of Preston and his subsequent execution in 1649. Charles’ son, Charles, then formed an army of English and Scottish Royalists, which prompted Cromwell to invade Scotland in 1650. The following year, Cromwell shattered the remaining Royalist forces and ended the “wars of the three kingdoms,” though Charles II eventually ascended to the throne in 1660.
The civil wars of seventeenth-century England also involved the two other kingdoms ruled by the Stuart dynasty, Scotland and Ireland. The invasion of England by a Scottish army seeking religious concessions in 1639 and again in 1640 precipitated political deadlock in London, which paved the way for a rebellion by Catholic Ireland (October 1641). The struggle between King Charles I and his Westminster Parliament over who should control the army needed to crush the Irish insurrection in turn provoked the outbreak of civil war in England (August 1642). Initially northern and western England, together with much of Ireland, stood for the king, while the southeast (including London), the Royal Navy, and Scotland fought for Parliament. However, at Marston Moor (July 2, 1644) Charles lost control of the north; and the following year, at Naseby (June 14, 1645) the Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell routed his main field army.
Having pacified all England, Parliament turned to the conquest of Ireland and Scotland. Since 1642 the Catholic Confederation of Kilkenny had controlled Irish affairs and periodically aided Charles. However, any chance of rekindling the Royalist cause in Ireland ended in September 1649, when Oliver Cromwell massacred the combined force of Irish Confederates and Royalists at Drogheda and, the following month, captured the Confederate fleet in Wexford.
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The Cromwellian reconquest of Ireland dragged on until the fall of Galway in April 1652 because of the outbreak of the third English Civil War. Early in 1650, Charles II, son and heir of the executed Charles I, cobbled together an army of English and Scottish Royalists, which prompted Cromwell to invade Scotland; at the Battle of Dunbar (September 3, 1650) he won control of most of Scotland. The following year at Worcester (September 3, 1651) Cromwell shattered the remaining Royalist forces and ended the “wars of the three kingdoms.”
The English conflict left some 34,000 Parliamentarians and 50,000 Royalists dead, while at least 100,000 men and women died from war-related diseases, bringing the total death toll caused by the three civil wars in England to almost 200,000. More died in Scotland, and far more in Ireland. Moreover, the trial and execution of an anointed sovereign and the presence of a standing army throughout the 1650s, combined with the proliferation of radical religious sects, shook the very foundations of British society and ultimately facilitated the restoration of Charles II in 1660. This was the last civil war fought on English—though not Irish and Scottish—soil.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.