Between 1642 and 1651, armies loyal to King Charles I and Parliament faced off in three civil wars over longstanding disputes about religious freedom and how the “three kingdoms” of England, Scotland and Ireland should be governed. Notable outcomes of the wars included the execution of King Charles I in 1649, 11 years of republican rule in England and the establishment of Britain’s first standing national army.
Background: The Rise of the Stuarts and King Charles I
England’s last Tudor monarch, Elizabeth I, died in 1603, and was succeeded by her cousin, James Stuart. Already King James VI of Scotland, he became King James I of England and Ireland as well, uniting the three kingdoms under a single ruler for the first time. Though at first the Catholic minority in England welcomed James’ ascension to the throne, they later turned against his regime, even attempting to blow up the king and Parliament in the Gunpowder Plot.
James’ son, Charles I, succeeded him on the throne in 1625. His marriage to a Catholic princess, Henrietta Maria of France fueled suspicions (especially among more radical Protestants, known as Puritans) that the king would introduce Catholic traditions back into the Church of England. Charles also believed strongly in his divine right to rule, and in 1629 he dismissed Parliament altogether; he would not recall it for the next 11 years.
War in Scotland
Beginning in the late 1630s, Charles made efforts to establish a more English-like religious practice in Scotland, generating fierce resistance among that country’s Presbyterian majority. A Scottish army defeated Charles’ forces and invaded England, forcing Charles to recall Parliament in 1640 to generate the money to pay his own troops and settle the conflict. Instead, Parliament acted quickly to restrict the king’s powers, even ordering the trial and execution of one of his chief ministers, Lord Strafford.
Amid the political upheaval in London, the Catholic majority in Ireland rebelled, massacring hundreds of Protestants there in October 1641. Tales of the violence inflamed tensions in England, as Charles and Parliament disagreed on how to respond. In January 1642, the king tried and failed to arrest five members of Parliament who opposed him. Fearing for his own safety, Charles fled London for northern England, where he called on his supporters to prepare for war.
First English Civil War (1642-46)
When civil war broke out in earnest in August 1642, Royalist forces (known as Cavaliers) controlled northern and western England, while Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) dominated in the southern and eastern regions of the country. The king’s forces appeared to be gaining the upper hand by early 1643, especially after concluding an alliance with Irish Catholics to end the Irish Rebellion. But a key alliance between the Parliamentarians and Scotland that year led to a large Scottish army joining the fray on Parliament’s side in January 1644.
On July 2, 1644, Royalist and Parliamentarian forces met at Marston Moor, west of York, in the largest battle of the First English Civil War. A Parliamentarian force of 28,000 routed the smaller Royalist army of 18,000, ending the king’s control of northern England. In 1645, Parliament created a permanent, professional, trained army of 22,000 men. This New Model Army, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, scored a decisive victory in June 1645 in the Battle of Naseby, effectively dooming the Royalist cause.
Second English Civil War (1648-49) and execution of King Charles I
Even in defeat, Charles refused to give in, but sought to capitalize on the religious and political divisions among his enemies. While on the Isle of Wight in 1647-48, the king managed to conclude a peace treaty with the Scots and marshal Royalist sentiment and discontent with Parliament into a series of armed uprisings across England in the spring and summer of 1648.
After Fairfax, Cromwell and the New Model Army easily crushed the Royalist uprisings, hard-line opponents of the king took charge of a smaller Parliament. Concluding that peace could not be reached while Charles was still alive, they set up a high court and put the king on trial for treason. Charles was found guilty and executed by beheading on January 30, 1649 at Whitehall.
Third English Civil War (1649-51)
With Charles dead, a republican regime was established in England, backed by the military might of the New Model Army. Beginning late in 1649, Cromwell led his army in a successful reconquest of Ireland, including the notorious massacre of thousands of Irish and Royalist troops and civilians at Drogheda. Meanwhile, Scotland came to an agreement with the executed king’s eldest son, also named Charles, who was crowned King Charles II of Scotland in early 1651.
Even before he was officially crowned, Charles II had formed an army of English and Scottish Royalists, prompting Cromwell to invade Scotland in 1650. After losing the Battle of Dunbar to Cromwell’s forces in September 1650, Charles led an invasion of England the following year, only to suffer another defeat against a huge Parliamentarian army at Worcester. The young king narrowly escaped capture, but the decisive victory ended the Third English Civil War, along with the larger War of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland).
Impact of the Civil Wars
An estimated 200,000 English soldiers and civilians were killed during the three civil wars, by fighting and the disease spread by armies; the loss was proportionate, population-wise, to that of World War I.
In 1653, Oliver Cromwell was installed as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland, and tried (largely unsuccessfully) to consolidate broad support behind the new republican regime amid the continued growth of radical religious sects and widespread uneasiness about the new standing army.
After Cromwell’s death in 1658, he was succeeded as protector by his son Richard, who abdicated just eight months later. With the continued disintegration of the republic, the larger Parliament was reassembled, and began negotiations with Charles II to resume the throne. The triumphant king arrived in London in May 1660, beginning the English Restoration.
British Civil Wars. National Army Museum.
Mark Stoyle. Overview: Civil War and Revolution, 1603-1714. BBC.
The English Civil Wars: Origins, events and legacy. English Heritage.
Simon Jenkins. A Short History of England: The Glorious Story of a Rowdy Nation. (PublicAffairs, 2011)