British Civil War, Revolution and the execution of Charles I

Civil Wars and Revolution dominated the British Isles in the Seventeenth Century. Charles I, like his father, believed in the divine right of kings to rule. It led to a long period of personal rule, ended only by need for taxation. Scottish Covenanters rebelled against Charles’ prayer book; a humiliating defeat was suffered by the King. He then clashed with Parliament. These disagreements led to Civil War in England. These English Civil Wars were fought out in the mid 1640s. A settlement proved impossible. War reignited with involvement across the British Isles. Parliament inflicted defeat upon the King who was then found guilty of treason and beheaded in 1649. Why was Charles I executed? For many reasons including his becoming ‘A Man of Blood’. With no king the ‘World was turned upside down’ and a Commonwealth was established. Cromwell emerged as de facto ruler of this until his death. This period saw plots and resistance, leading eventually to the restoration of the monarchy. 

Causes of the English Civil Wars
The Bishops Wars
Long Parliament
Taking Sides in the English Civil Wars
Battles of the English Civil Wars
The New Model Army
1646: Attempts at reaching a settlement
Political Radicalism of the 1640’s: Diggers and Levellers
1648: Why did the Scots change sides?
1649: To Kill a King. Why was Charles I executed?
What were the consequences of the English Civil Wars?

What caused the English Civil Wars?

The three kingdoms of England, Ireland and Scotland faced many problems in the early 17th century. Financial problems made government problematic. Religious differences and change threatened the very fabric of society. These issues were complex. Additionally there was, in King Charles I, a monarch who shunned Parliament, believed in his Divine Right to rule by Royal Prerogative and who aroused suspicion through his marriage to a French Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria.

In May 1626 Parliament called for the dismissal of the Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was King Charles’ chief minister. He had failed in military operations at Cadiz and was rumoured to be supporting the French in their brutal campaign to put down the Huguenots. Charles took exception and instead of dismissing Buckingham, dismissed Parliament. It was the start of clashes with Members of Parliament that would continue until the outbreak of war. . In March 1628 Parliament were recalled to vote on taxes for war with France and Spain. In April, 1628 Charles reissued the 39 articles into the Church of England.This again led to tension with Parliament. A Committee was formed in opposition to this move, it was viewed as a step towards Catholicism. A Petition of Right was forced upon Charles. It restricted his right to levy tax without Parliament. The following year the Speaker of the House was held in his chair to prevent him from delaying the passage of the Petition of Right through Parliament. In the meantime, George de Villiers, the Duke of Buckingham, had been assassinated.

Issues between King and Parliament became increasingly hostile. In March 1629 three articles were passed by Parliament:

1.That they would condemn any move to change religion.
2. That they would condemn any taxation levied without Parliament’s authority.
3. That any merchant who paid ‘illegal’ taxes betrayed the liberty of England. Charles dismissed Parliament

Charles responded by having 9 Members of Parliament arrested. 3 of whom were imprisoned. He then reaffirmed the Divine Right of Kings to rule:

Princes are not bound to give account of their actions, but to God alone.

Parliament was then dismissed. In the 1630’s Charles ruled without reference to his Parliament. He showed scant regard for the Petition of Right. Much of policy was aimed at Scotland and his plans for government and the Church (Kirk) there. In 1638 the Book of Common Prayer was imposed on the Scottish Church. It was widely opposed. A National Covenant was formed of those who opposed Charles’ intentions. Riots spread throughout Scotland. Bishops appointed under King James were expelled. In January 1639 Charles decided to enforce his will on Scotland. An English army was raised and the first of the Bishops Wars was fought.

Ruling without Parliament did mean that Charles had to be creative with his financing. New taxes had to be approved by Parliament. To get around this, Charles used old taxes. A tax called Ship Tax was available. It had traditionally been used in coastal areas to pay for the upkeep of the Royal Navy. In 1634 Charles imposed the tax across the whole of England.

Charles’ army did not manage to enforce his will in Scotland. The Scots defeated the English army. Charles’ commander informed him that the army was inefficient and needed new recruits and finance. Charles would need to raise a new tax, meaning that he would have to recall Parliament.

The Short Parliament met in 1640. Members of Parliament refused to consent to new taxes unless Charles agreed to stop using Ship Tax and guarantees about religion were made. Charles refused to compromise. He dismissed Parliament without having raised a new tax. A second Bishops War was launched with no new finance.

This second Bishops War proved disastrous for Charles. Again the English were defeated. Now the Scots demanded a daily rate of pay in exchange for them not continuing the war against Charles. With no funds available, Charles had no choice but to recall Parliament again. This time with no option but to make some concessions. This led to the Long Parliament and Grand Remonstrance.

History Today article (2012) exploring historiography around the Causes of the English Civil Wars.

History.com article about the causes of the English Civil Wars.

The Bishops Wars


1637 Riot against the Scottish Prayer Book introduced by King Charles I

The Bishops Wars were caused by Charles’ attempts to reform the church in Scotland. Two short wars broke out over the issue. Scottish Covenanters took up arms to prevent the reforms in 1639 and 1640. On both occasions they were able to defeat the Royal army. Peace was agreed between Charles and the Scots in 1641. The Treaty of London set out the terms of the peace. King Charles needed to recall Parliament to have the treaty ratified.

Scottish protestant prayer book issued to subscribers of the Covenant. Published in 1638.

British Civil Wars Project pages on the Bishops Wars

The Long Parliament

Charles had undertaken personal rule since 1628. In this time he had done much to anger members of Parliament. When Charles was forced to recall Parliament the members were determined to limit Charles’ personal power. His rule had been dominated by the influence of favourites. Parliament targetted one, the Earl of Strafford, upon it’s recall in April 1640.

Stafford faced impeachment charges. Parliament put him on trial. However, Stafford presented a powerful defence. The MP’s most opposed to Strafford decided to pursue an alternative route. Led by John Pym, they pressed for an Attainder. Attainers had been issued frequently in the Wars of the Roses, they labelled the recipient a traitor and put them beyond the law (it outlawed them). It was in practise a death sentence.

Pym stirred public opinion as Parliament debated the bill of Attainder. Pressure was put on members of the commons and lords to vote in favour of the act. It was passed. In May 1641 Charles was left with little choice but to sign the execution warrant for his friend, the Earl of Strafford.

Parliament had flexed it’s muscles. Following the execution of Strafford it set about ensuring that the Kings power was checked and it’s own voice heard. This included:

  • Ensuring that Parliament met at least once every three years
  • Making the granting of tax a Parliamentary role. This put an end to the hated Ship Tax
  • Abolishing prerogative courts, bringing law and justice under Parliamentary control
  • Impeaching the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, and pressing home reforms of the church based on Scottish Presbyterianism

These reforms limited the personal poeer of King Charles. It was a huge change in the way that monarchs could rule. It was very divisive and pushed through without universal approval. This led to political clashes as king and parliament sought to assert their rights. Ultimately these differences were insurmountable and led to the outbreak of the English Civil Wars.

History of Parliament website

Taking Sides in the English Civil Wars

When King Charles raised his standard in Nottingham in 1642 many people were faced with a decision about which side to take. On the one hand you had the Royalists, loyal to King Charles and believers in his right to rule as anointed king appointed by god. The other side was the Parliamentarians. They wanted members of parliament to have a bigger say in the way in which the country was run. The power of the King ought, they felt, to be restricted and matters of taxation and justice in their control.

Taking sides in the English Civil Wars

Choosing a side was not as simple as decided whether the King’s power ought to be checked though. Religion played a large part in peoples decision making. The introduction of Prayer Books had caused dissent in Scotland. Settlers in Ireland under the Plantation schemes had clashed with the irish over many things, Religion included. The Royalists were more open to Catholicism, the Kings wife was Catholic after all. The Parliamentarians, in general, were supportive of the Scottish Covenanters, wanted a simpler form of worship had a support that was more protestant in it’s views that the Royalist support.

The complexities of these issues led to divided loyalties. People were loyal to the lords from whom they had lands, rights and justice. Yet these lords may have religious views at odds with their own. With Literacy and Education improved there were a large number of people who were aware of a wide variety of views about all aspects of politics. This led to divisions within regions, towns, villages and even families.

BBC Choosing Sides in the English Civil Wars by Dr M Stoyle

Battles of the English Civil Wars

The English Civil Wars can be split into three distinct wars. The first one lasted from 1642 to 1647. The Second English Civil War broke out in 1648 and lasted until the following year, 1649. A final ar was fought in 1650 and 1651. Each of these wars saw many engagements. Wikipedia, for example, lists 63 engagements or battles of the English Civil Wars. These battles ranged from small engagements, skirmishes, through to large set piece battles. Some of these battles were highly significant and had a major impact on the course of the war, others were a stalemate. The larger battles are outlined below:

Battle of Edgehill 1642. Indecisive battle.

Battle of Adwalton Moor 1643. Royalist victory. The Parliamentarians were attempting to reinforce Bradford before a Royalist attack. They failed to do so, suffering defeat at Adwalton Moor.

Battles of Newbury (1643 and 1644)

Battle of Marston Moor 1644. Parliamentarian and Scottish victory over the Royalists.

The Battle of Marston Moor

Battle of Naseby 1645. Decisive victory by the New Model Army formed and led by Cromwell. The Royalist army was devastated in this battle, effectively ending the First English Civil War.

Battle of Preston 1648. A long and drawn out affair that saw Cromwell’s men push Scottish Royalists back. The Battle lasted 9 days and saw the Scots pushed back some 140 miles.

Battle of Dunbar 1650. Cromwell’s army is victorious against a Scottish and Irish army at Dunbar. Some 10000 prisoners are taken. Cromwell noted that 3000 Scots had been killed. Though this number is probably an exaggeration it shows the level of success enjoyed by Cromwell’s forces.

Battlefields Trust – Battlefields of the British Civil Wars

Cromwell’s New Model Army

In 1644 a dispute arose in Parliament about the way that the war was being conducted. Oliver Cromwell made an impassioned speech on the issue, arguing that the war would drag on unless improvements to the Parliamentarian force were made. In response to the criticisms made of their army, Parliament changed the structure of its forces. Members of Parliament resigned their posts as a result of the Self Denying Ordinance. A new army was formed of 11 divisions. Cavalry was drawn from existing forces of the Earls of Manchester, Essex and Sir William Waller. Infantry from militias was brought in and assigned to organised units. Dragoons, a form of mounted infantry were also brought into the new army. Rank was not based on political status but appointments were made by the captain in chief, Lord Fairfax. Indeed, Cromwell himself did not get assigned a command until shortly before the Battle of Naseby. Training was coordinated and disciple firm.

The New Model Army was to all intents and purposes a professional one. It trained, it promoted on merit, it was organised and it was paid on time as far as possible. This reorganisation had a dramatic effect on the ability of Parliament to wage war. Instead of small militias being scattered and under the leadership of untrained men, units could be deployed that were effective. Naseby was to prove this. At Naseby the organisation and motivation of the New Model Army won the day. It went on to win other decisive battles, at Dunbar and Worcester, for example. The New Model Army also garrisoned important towns and cities. This made Royalist attempts to capture or recapture areas much more difficult.

One unintended outcome of the creation and success of the New Model Army was it’s political importance and power. In issuing the Self Denying Ordinance, Parliament had wanted to ensure that military matters were managed efficiently. Now, it found itself beholden to the wishes of the Army, it had become more powerful than its creator.

Open Learn – The New Model Army

Attempts at reaching a settlement

Between 1646 and 1649 there were some attempts to reach a settlement between the warring parties. Charles had surrendered himself to the Scottish Covenanters. This meant that discussions could take place about how to address the problems that had led to a costly and bloody Civil War.

That settlement was never reached. Negotiations didn’t really get to a point where reconciliation was considered as an option. Why didn’t attempts at reaching a settlement work?

Settlement proved impossible for a number of reasons: theological differences; Charles’ intransigence and the growing influence of the New Model Army.

In 1646 the Irish Confederates won a victory over the Presbyterians. This prompted the Scottish Covenanters to hand Charles to Parliament, in exchange for a sum of £400000. There was a fear that Catholicism would gain the upper hand in Ireland as a result of this victory. This alarmed the Scots and the Puritan elements of the English.

The fears and the prominence of moderates in the Long Parliament led to King Charles having a significant role in discussion about what to do next. This in turn caused the New Model Army to be alarmed. They had just fought against Charles. He had been defeated. It was his policies and these religious differences that had provoked warfare in the first place. The moderates were being ineffectual. The New model Army, radicalised during the war, was opposed to these discussions. So, in 1647 the Levellers within the New Model Army began to elect shop steward style leaders.

The leadership of the New Model Army was not willing to accept radicalism. It took things too far and threatened their own livelihoods. They quashed the agitation, sent agitators home and imposed strict discipline.

As this was taking place, Charles negotiated with the Scottish Covenanters. He made an agreement with them. Then, as the New Model Army was being disciplined, he took advantage and slipped his captors.

These issues wrecked attempts at negotiating a peace. The Scots had already seen Charles refuse to compromise when they made their Newcastle Proposals. These had asked for recognition of Presbyterianism, the execution of a listed number of Royalists and the disbanding of the New Model Army: possibly the best deal that could have been reached at that time. Charles had not accepted though.

Article on the failure to reach a peace settlement.

The Historical Association members podcast on the failure to reach a negotiated settlement. Requires member log in.

Political Radicalism of the 1640s

Two radical groups emerged during the 17th century. The Diggers and the Levellers.

The diggers aimed to return to the earth and take back for the common people what had been stripped away from them since the Norman Conquest. The aim of the diggers was to have common ownership of the land rather than a feudal arrangement. By seizing land and controlling it in a communal fashion, freedom would be gained. Theoretically this would create a classless society. To this end, Diggers occupied common land in Cobham, Surrey. They lived off the land there for over a year, despite interventions by locals and the army.

The best known literature relating to the ideals of the Diggers was published shortly after the Civil Wars. In 1652 the pamphlet The Law of Freedom in a Platform was printed. Throughout the 1640’s Diggers travelled the country, particularly the South East, preaching their ideas. They gained limited support. The leadership of the New Model Army was able to suppress the radical ideas of this group reasonably easily.

The Levellers posed a greater threat to the discipline of the New Model Army. Levellers radical programme was published as ‘The Agreement of the People’. It called for the abolition of the House of Lords, a secular government elected by all, freedom of speech and religion and a ban on censorship. The political theories within the Leveller platform are similar to later political theories and movements such as the Chartist Movement or Marx’s Communism.

The World Turned Upside Down. Radical pamphlet of the 1640's

As the First English Civil War raged, Leveller literature and ideas was spread through the New Model Army. It had a huge appeal to many of the soldiers, and dismayed the leadership. The New Model Army had fostered an environment in which free thinking was allowed and encouraged. That was one of it’s strengths, the beliefs that bound the men together had been discussed and agreed. The Leveller programme went much further than the leadership wanted reform to go.

When the Second Civil War broke out the leadership took the opportunity to rid the New model Army of Leveller agitation. Leaders were executed, others put on trial. For the time being, Leveller ideas were quashed.

Libcom.org – The Diggers and the Levellers

1648: Warfare reignites. Why did the Scots change sides?

Many Aristocrats and areas changed sides over the course of the English or British Civil Wars. Some changed sides multiple times. There is an excellent book on ‘turncoats’ and ‘renegados’ written by Andrew Hopper. There is an academic review of the book here.

By 1647 Parliamentary unity had disintegrated. There was confusion about the direction in which the war ought to take; how to settle issues with the Royalists and disagreement over the end aims and objectives of the conflict. Royalist rhetoric at this time highlighted the flaws in Parliamentarian actions and words. The inconsistencies were worrying. If Parliament was split on major issues then it could lead to further dissent and different forms of conflict arising.

In this context the relationship between Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters broke down. At the same time they were in communication with Royalists who appeased their fears. The King had made concessions to them before and was not going to attempt to undo those: whereas Parliament might. Charles, though imprisoned at Carisbrooke Castle, brokered a deal with the Scots. If they invaded England and assisted him in regaining the throne, he would accept Presbyterians and the suppression of heresy. The Scots agree.

1649: To kill a king. Why was King Charles I executed?

In 1649, Charles was executed. Following a trial in London he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. The execution of King Charles I took place at Whitehall, London, on 30th January 1649. England had committed Regicide and became a republic as a consequence. Killing a king was not a decision to take lightly. Even in an age where execution was common, it was unheard of to see the monarch of a nation executed.

This Court doth adjudge that he the said Charles Stuart, as a Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy to the good people of this Nation, [and] shall be put to death, by the severing of his head from his body

Why did Parliament want to execute the king?

Tension between Charles I and Parliament had begun almost as soon as he acceded the throne. His personal rule had cost him much sympathy within Parliament. Those frustrations, Parliament felt, were the root cause of the First Civil War. It had been Charles Stuart, not they, who had raised a standard and declared war. That war was costly. Very costly. In terms of the percentage of the population killed or wounded it was more devastating than either the First or Second World Wars. Only the Wars of the Roses have seen a higher proportion of fighting age men killed and that was over a much longer period of time. Charles may have been able to avoid punishment in 1646 though. Despite those high casualty figures the war had been one fought on principles of how the country ought to be governed. It was an important matter. As an anoited king Charles had numerous examples of previous monarchs to cite as examples of his right to act as he did. People did not want to change the natural order. They simply wanted Charles to act in the best interests of the three kingdoms. However, the war dragged on. Charles proved to Parliament that he could not be trusted. He was a danger to the country. This opinion of him changed as a result of his deeds. At the same time, Parliament was becoming more radical itself. The New Model Army had stripped away the Long Parliament of the moderate voices who had failed to negotiate a settlement. Now a Rump was in place. A Rump that had pressure from the New Model Army to act decisively. For them only one outcome was now acceptable, the execution of the king. Why? He was ‘A Man of Blood’ a King who had restarted a war that had already been fought.

OpenLearn by the Open University. Endgame, Charles’ execution

Why was Charles I executed in 1649? Why didn’t he get executed earlier?

The King had been in custody of the Scots, then New Model Army prior to escaping and reigniting the conflict through the brief Second Civil War. If the decision to execute him in 1649 was so easy, why had it not been so straight forward three years earlier? In 1646 there was hope of a comprised settlement. The Newcastle proposals had offered a route towards a system of constitutional monarchy in which the rights of all parties were assured, albeit with some areas of give and take required. All other parties were engaged in discussing such proposals. A return to war was abhorrent. It had been too costly. The notion of kingship was one that the country as a whole was more than comfortable with, it just needed to be kept in check. So in 1646 there was no need to put the king on trial for high treason with an aggressive prosecution demanding his execution. This only becomes a real possibility when he escapes. The escape in itself would concern Parliament. The death sentence was sealed not by that but by what he did with his new found freedom. His deal with the Scots led directly to the resumption of war. Though the Second Civil War was brief and the Scots defeated at the Battle of Preston, it made Charles impossible to trust and he became known as a ‘Man of Blood’ who caused war. This was totally at odds with the duty of a monarch or government, it flies in the face of the duty to protect the people and society as far as possible. This makes it possible for the radicals within the New Model Army leadership to force the issue after Charles’ recapture.

What were the consequences of the British Civil Wars?

The immediate consequence of the English Civil Wars and the wars of the three kingdoms was that there was no monarchy. It was replaced at first by a Commonwealth government based on the Rump Parliament and then by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The Protectorate passed to Cromwell’s son following Oliver’s death. He was a far less capable or willing politician. In 1660 the monarchy was restored.

The Civil Wars also had consequences socially and economically. Any conflict that results in the loss of so many lives will impact upon the nations ability to perform well economically. The damage that was caused by the wars took some time to recover in places.

The Architectural appearance of some towns and cities changed as a result of the English Civil Wars. For centuries some towns had been dominated by castles. Parliament ‘slighted’ many of these. This was an act of reducing the height of the defensive walls. It rendered them useless in any future conflict. This has a benefit of minimising the chances of disgruntled Royalists taking up the cause but also runs the risk of giving any invader or raider an easier advance.

Legislation and the method of government still sees consequences in day to day running of Parliament. That England, then Great Britain, have had a Constitutional Monarchy is a result of the changes made following the English Civil Wars and as part of negotiations for the Restoration of the monarchy.

Actions taken by both sides in the wars of the three kingdoms have had lasting political consequences. The religious nature of the disputes tied in with political decisions made in the immediate aftermath. These in turn led to other decisions being made. It contributed to divisions being reinforced. This is perhaps most visible in Northern Ireland where there remain murals relating to battles and sieges of this period.