Between 1638 and 1660 the British Isles were subject to a series of rebellions and
revolutions – the English Civil Wars.
There were a number of distinct phases:
1638-1642 – The Bishops Wars
1642-1647 - The First Civil War
1648-1651 - The Second and Third Civil Wars
1653-1660 – The Protectorate
1660 – The Restoration
The reasons behind the Civil Wars are complex and a culmination of a number of factors:
Religious: the fear that a predominantly Protestant country had of a return to Catholicism,
with the King falling under the influence of his Spanish, Catholic wife. An uprising
in Ireland in 1641 and the atrocities ( real and exaggerated ) against the Protestant
population bought this fear to the fore. The ‘godly’, including the ‘Puritans’ wanted
to expel from the church all they considered corrupt and unscriptural.
Political: The King wanted to rule without having to call Parliament, who importantly
had the power to approve taxation. This led to him resorting to ancient forms of
raising funds, further alienating his people. Prior to 1640 Parliament had not sat
for eleven years, building up a list of grievances to put before the King. As the
wars went on politics became more radicalised with groups such as the Levellers expounding
ground breaking ideas such a one man-one vote ( but not women of course!).
Social: A rising gentry of yeoman landowners, merchants and industrialist wanted
a political voice, challenging the governing classes – the monarchy and the landed
aristocracy. The explosion in mass circulation pamphlets, whether fact or fiction,
for people to read or have read to them made even commoners much more aware of current
affairs and politically active.
The situation that brought all these tensions to a head was the King’s imposition
a new prayer book on his Scottish subjects. Their rejection of this and their taking
up arms led to the King having the recall Parliament to approve the taxes necessary
to raise an army to suppress the Scots.
Parliament had other grievances that they wanted to discuss first.
Views became entrenched; attitudes hardened; sides began to emerge.
Late in 1641 many of King Charles' closest advisers believed that "extremists" in
the Commons were about to impeach the Queen.
Those in Parliament believed that the Kings was being ill advised by ‘malignants’
Early in 1642 Charles tried to arrest five of the leading members of the Commons.
Shortly after this the King and his family left Whitehall for Hampton Court - little
did he know at the time that he would not return to London until his trial.
Parliament quickly took control of the armed forces. Charles responded by issuing
a proclamation that the forces were not to obey their new 'masters'. Both sides started
recruiting and Charles was soon aided by the arrival of his nephew, Prince Rupert.
In August 1642 King Charles set up his standard at Nottingham and two months later
met the Parliamentary army at Edgehill.
Fortunes ebbed and flowed with successes and failures on both sides.
In 1644 Parliament formed the New Model Army under the command of Oliver Cromwell.
With this properly trained and equipped army the Royalist army was defeated at Naseby
and with its strength broken it never regained the initiative.
In 1646 Charles surrendered to the Scots who in turn handed him over to Parliament.
The flames of the Royalist cause flickered into a life again in 1648 with risings
in Wales, Kent and Essex in anticipation of Scots help. These were quickly crushed
and the Scots defeated.
Despite repeated attempts to reach a settlement with the King, he time and time again
proved himself to be untrustworthy and finally he was tried for being the chief cause
of the trouble. The result of the trial was a foregone conclusion and he was beheaded
on January 30th 1649, outside the Banqueting House, which still stands, in Whitehall.
With his fathers death, his son Charles II was proclaimed King, backed by a Scottish
Army. In 1650 this army was defeated by Cromwell at Dunbar and again in 1651 at Worcester.
After this defeat Charles fled to France and exile (it was during this flight that
he famously hid in an oak tree to avoid his would-be captors).
Without a King Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector until his death in 1658, after
which his son, Richard, ruled for a short time.
With no viable alternative form of government, in 1660 the son of Charles I returned
to his kingdom and his throne, ruling as Charles II.
The lasting legacy of the Civil wars is the foundations of the Parliamentary democracy
and constitutional monarchy that we enjoy today.