Britain’s civil wars: the 15 key moments

Britain was engulfed by war in the mid-17th century. Here, three leading historians of the conflict – Micheál Ó Siochrú, John Adamson and Blair Worden – consider the pivotal points. The story begins with Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, coming under pressure for his authoritarian rule and his religious policies...

Woodcutting depicting the beheading of Charles I. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine

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1

The National Covenant (28 February 1638)

When Charles I’s unpopular religious innovations sparked revolt in Scotland

In 1637-38, attempts by King Charles I to impose religious uniformity throughout his diverse realms encountered organised political resistance in Scotland.

On 28 February 1638, a meeting at Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh adopted a National Covenant that rejected the religious innovations of William Laud, archbishop of Canterbury, specifically those relating to the introduction of a Book of Common Prayer.

The Covenanters also sought to unite Scotland in opposition to absentee monarchy – as Charles I, though born in Scotland, ruled from England. They declared their loyalty to the crown but seized control of the kingdom and prepared to defend themselves.

Their actions triggered a series of bloody wars. Initially at least, the success of the covenanters in the Bishops’ Wars (1639–40) encouraged opponents of the king in England and this led to the recall of the Westminster parliament for the first time since 1629. Leading Irish Catholic rebels later admitted to being inspired by the Scottish example.

The developing crisis expanded the ambitions of the Covenanters. In early 1642, following an insurrection by the Catholic Irish, they sent a large army to protect Protestant settlers in Ireland’s northern province of Ulster.

In September 1643, the Covenanters decided to export their revolution, signing the Solemn League and Covenant with the English parliament. A few months later 20,000 Scottish troops marched south across the border, effectively turning the tide of the civil war in England.

The National Covenant, therefore, acted as a catalyst for major upheaval in all three Stuart kingdoms during the early 1640s.

By Micheál Ó Siochrú

2

Scottish Covenanters invade England (August 1640)

When a Scottish army attacked its southern neighbour – on the invitation of dissident English peers

Towards the end of June 1640, seven English noblemen committed treason by writing to a foreign government and urging it to undertake an invasion of England. The foreign government was that of Scotland, which had risen in rebellion against Charles I’s political and religious policies three years earlier.

The Scots had already demonstrated that resistance to Charles I could be successful. They had created a de facto republic north of the river Tweed: independent, noble-dominated and committed – through their National Covenant – to the defence of Calvinism at home and abroad.

The treasonous English peers who wrote to the Covenanter government in the summer of 1640 aimed to achieve a similar emasculation of royal authority in England. Led by three daring and charismatic figures – Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick; Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford; and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex – the dissident noblemen provided the spokesmen and organisational leadership for a much larger body of dissent, alienated by the policies of Charles’s decade-long ‘Personal Rule’.

From that treasonous letter of invitation, a series of momentous consequences followed: the Scottish Covenanters’ invasion and occupation of the north of England; the military humiliation of the king’s forces; a financial crisis that made the summons of a parliament all but unavoidable (in November 1640, parliament met again, and then proceeded to dismantle the structure of Charles’s personal rule); and a public threat from the dissident nobles to call that parliament on their own authority if the king refused to do so.

Yet the new parliament’s ability to create a stable new political order was compromised by the treasonous circumstances of its calling.

With the king intent on revenge, the ‘traitors of 1640’ could never accede to any settlement that stopped short of stripping him of his personal executive powers. And, for the potential targets of Charles’s wrath, that meant creating a de facto republic in England no less dangerous in the eyes of many than the authoritarian ‘personal monarchy’ that it was intended to replace.

By John Adamson

3

The prosecution of the Earl of Strafford (March-May 1641)

When parliament put one of the king’s chief henchman to death

Of all Charles I’s counsellors, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was the most intelligent, indifferent to the traditional rule of law, and readiest to use force to maintain the authoritarian monarchy that the king had begun constructing during the 1630s. So, for the new parliament’s reformists, the neutralising of Strafford – by debarring him permanently from office or by exacting the death penalty – became a necessary precondition of any lasting settlement with the king.

Staged in Westminster Hall in March and April 1641 before an audience that ran into thousands, Strafford’s trial was the parliamentary leaders’ first exercise in public theatre. The earl stood proxy for the king’s government during the 1630s, with the Lords sitting as his judges and the entire House of Commons (accommodated in huge grandstands to either side of the ‘theatre’ of the court) arranged as a tableau vivant of the nation presiding in judgement on the old regime.

But the trial’s managers had not counted on Strafford’s brilliance in the dock. When an acquittal eventually seemed the possible outcome, they abandoned the trial and took up the cruder weapon of an act of attainder – by which the parliament simply declared his crime and stipulated the death penalty.

Even this might not have brought about Strafford’s death, had not Charles I attempted a (characteristically botched) coup d’état, intended to spring Strafford from the Tower and effect a forcible dissolution of the parliament. Strafford was beheaded on Tower Hill, before a festive crowd of over 100,000, on 12 May 1641. Warwick and Essex were with him on the scaffold, to observe their victory at close quarters.

By John Adamson

4

The battle of Julianstown (29 November 1641)

When a brutal ambush of government troops signalled a Catholic Irish rebellion

In October 1641, after decades of political and religious discrimination, as well as large-scale dispossession and dislocation, the Catholic Irish of Ulster rebelled.

On a chilly morning in late November, a relief column of about 600 government troops moved slowly towards the besieged town of Drogheda, 30 miles to the north of Dublin. Suddenly, out of the morning mist, a significantly larger rebel force, commanded by Philip McHugh O’Reilly, ambushed the column and slaughtered all the infantry. Only a handful of cavalry managed to escape.

Although a relatively insignificant encounter in military terms, the battle of Julianstown marked a major turning point in the Irish conflict.

The victory convinced the Old English Catholics of the Pale, descendants of the original Anglo-Norman colonists of the 12th/13th centuries, to throw in their lot with the rebels, thus transforming a regional uprising into a national rebellion.

Soon after, at a carefully stage-managed meeting nearby on the Hill of Crofty, the Ulster Irish and Old English formally joined forces, declaring their intention to defend the ancient liberties of the kingdom and the prerogatives of the king. The statement that they belonged to “the same religion and the same nation” was greeted with wild applause.

This signalled the emergence of the Catholic confederate association, which controlled most of the island during the 1640s, the only example of sustained self-government by the Catholic Irish prior to the 20th century.

By Micheál Ó Siochrú

5

The Adventurers Act (19 March 1642)

When parliament determined to fund a military campaign that would devastate Irish Catholicism

In March 1642, Henry Jones, dean of Clogher and head of a government commission charged with collecting witness statements from those fleeing the rebellion in Ireland, arrived in London. He presented a report to parliament describing a massacre of Protestant settlers which, combined with the sensationalist outpourings of the newssheets, further convinced MPs at Westminster of the need for action.

On 19 March, King Charles I, under intense political pressure to take a firm line on Ireland, assented to the Adventurers Act. The act sought to raise money for a military campaign in Ireland, using 2,500,000 acres of forfeited Irish Catholic land as collateral. Parliament alone, however, could declare the rebellion at an end and dispose of the forfeited land, powers hitherto reserved to the monarchy.

The king’s acquiescence in this matter precluded the possibility of a compromise settlement to the conflict in Ireland and condemned Irish Catholic landowners to economic, political and social ruin in the event of an English parliamentary victory, which duly occurred 12 years later.

The subsequent Cromwellian settlement was the single largest transfer of land anywhere in early modern Europe, some 60 per cent of the total, and helped establish a new Protestant settler elite, which dominated almost every aspect of Irish life until the land reforms of the late 19th century.

By Micheál Ó Siochrú

6

The battle of Edgehill (23 October 1642)

When a “test of arms” descended into a bloody, chaotic melee

After relations between the king and the parliamentary leadership broke down irretrievably at the beginning of 1642, both sides saw a test of arms as the likeliest way of determining the conflict. Few, however, thought that large-scale mobilisation by the ‘king’s party’ and the ‘parliament’s party’ would necessarily end in widespread killing.

There was every reason to believe that the War of 1642 would be much like the recent wars of 1639 and 1640 against the Scots. One side or the other would concede once they saw the military superiority of the other (as Charles had done when confronted by the Scots in 1639). Or, as one privy councillor put it, if matters did actually come to a fight, “One day of battle will decide under what power or person we must all hereafter breathe”.

Edgehill confounded all these expectations. Fought near the village of Kineton, in Warwickshire, on Sunday 23 October 1642, it was a chaotic melee, long and viciously fought, and with heavy casualties on both sides.

Instead of the clearly defined outcome that both sides had expected, neither party emerged with a decisive war-winning advantage. Both sets of combatants were confronted with the choice they had all hoped to avoid: between ending the bloodshed and coming to some form of compromise at the negotiating table; or fighting on – with all the perils and bloodshed that course entailed – until one side or the other achieved an ‘absolute’, definitive victory.

By John Adamson

7

The reform of the parliamentarian armies (October-November 1644)

When a parliamentarian clique bent on securing a decisive victory ousted their commander-in-chief

By the second anniversary of Edgehill, in October 1644, neither side was significantly closer to achieving decisive victory. Escalation of the conflict during 1643 into a three-kingdoms war (with the king seeking to enlist Irish Catholic troops and parliament responding by calling in the Covenanter Scots) had raised the stakes, but had still failed to deliver the body-blow that would produce an unambiguous victor.

Blame for parliament’s failure fell, at Westminster, on its commander-in-chief, the Earl of Essex, whose reluctance to fight the war to an ‘absolute victory’ was explained by his critics not as a failure of the army’s resources, but of its commander’s resolve.

In the autumn of 1644, those critics turned on him. Led by an influential group of peers and Commons-men in the parliament’s key executive body – known as the Committee of Both Kingdoms – they devised a bold series of plans: to demote Essex and most of the senior commanders he had appointed, and create the sort of well-funded and supplied fighting force on which, they believed, a decisive victory over the king depended.

What followed was a legislative and organisational coup. By the spring of 1645, six months of often rancorous debate at Westminster had transformed the political control of the war. Essex was replaced as commander-in-chief by a loyal creature of the win-the-war party (Sir Thomas Fairfax), and, through the ‘Self-Denying Ordinance’, almost all the senior commanders appointed since 1642 were ousted from their posts. A clique had captured control of parliament’s war-effort, and intended to use that control to determine the government and godliness of postwar England. 

By John Adamson

8

The battle of Naseby (June 1645)

When a longed-for parliamentary victory sent the king fleeing to the Welsh borders

Naseby was all that Edgehill had been intended to be: that ‘one day of battle’ that decided the outcome of the war once and for all. Fairfax’s ‘newly modelled’ army inflicted a crushing defeat on the royalist forces and sent a demoralised king to find refuge in the Marquess of Worcester’s vast fortress, Ragland Castle, in the Welsh borders.

Ironically, the very bolthole that the king had planned for his retreat if he had lost control of southern England in the autumn of 1640.

Following further reverses, Charles eventually surrendered to the Scots in May 1646. The capitulation of the king’s former capital, Oxford, the following month marked the end of the First Civil War.

But Naseby constituted more than simply the longed-for victory to end the war. To many (even to those of the king’s party), it was a manifest judgement of God – the Old Testament ‘God of Battles’ – on the justice of the competing royalist and parliamentarian causes. And for those at Westminster who had backed the controversial army reforms of the previous winter, it once again provided the prospect of remaking the ‘commonwealth’ of England in a form that was republican in all but name.

By John Adamson

9

The Agreement of the People (1647)

When London’s citizens demanded that parliament introduce radical reforms

In 1647, the year following the end of the First Civil War, the revolution took a new turn. Hitherto it had been a conflict between king and parliament. Now it was also one between the state, whether run by king or parliament, and the citizen.

Parliament had won the war by methods that made the prewar centralising policies of Charles I look tame, and had created a Puritan church government as intolerant as the Anglican one before it.

In the autumn, New Model soldiers and London citizens, who had eagerly supported parliament in the war, submitted a charter of liberty, the Agreement of the People, to the army’s high command. It demanded radical parliamentary reform, which would guarantee fair and frequent elections and establish the accountability of parliaments, or ‘representatives’ as they were henceforth to be called, to the electorate. And it proclaimed ‘native rights’ of the people, chief among them freedom of worship, which no government might invade.

Parliament, which had claimed to fight the war as the representative of the people, now found the idea of representation aimed at itself. Though the Levellers, as the promoters of the agreement were derisively called, were crushed by the army high command, their ideas touched a nerve in national feeling. 

By Blair Worden

10

Pride’s Purge (December 1648)

When the New Model Army scuppered MPs’ attempts to restore Charles to the throne

In fighting the king, parliament aimed to bring him to order, not to destroy him. It promised to restore him on terms that would guarantee his subjects’ safety and religion.

In late 1648, parliament finally wrung concessions from the captive Charles that a majority in the Commons were willing to accept. However, the New Model Army wasn’t in the mood for compromise. Having fought the bitter Second Civil War against the king in the summer, it had resolved to bring him to justice as a traitor to his people and, as we would say, a war criminal.

On 6 December, leaders of the parliamentary ‘peace party’ found their entry to the Commons blocked by soldiers under Colonel Thomas Pride, and were imprisoned. Then, over the following days, Pride and his accomplices excluded large numbers of other MPs from the House.

The army’s actions transformed the cause for which Roundheads had fought. In the following months, the MPs whom the army allowed to remain at Westminster, the ‘Rump Parliament’, destroyed the constitution that parliament had pledged itself to preserve. They had the king tried and executed, they abolished the monarchy and the House of Lords, and they turned England into a ‘Commonwealth and Free State’.

By Blair Worden

11

The declaration of the Scottish parliament (5 February 1649)

When Scottish Covenanters set themselves on a collision course with the English Commonwealth

The public execution of Charles I on 30 January 1649 was a truly revolutionary act, followed within a matter of days by the abolition of the monarchy. The new Commonwealth regime claimed jurisdiction over England and the allegedly dependent kingdom of Ireland. Their actions, however, effectively severed the personal union, established under James VI and I, which had bound the kingdoms of England and Scotland together for almost 50 years.

The Scottish Covenanters now faced three choices. They could replicate the decision to abolish monarchy, but few supported such a move. Alternatively, Charles I’s successor could be declared King of Scotland alone, but the presence of Scottish settlers in Ireland complicated matters, as did the ongoing commitment of the Covenanters to religious reform in the three kingdoms.

On 5 February 1649, therefore, the Scottish parliament signalled its opposition to developments in England by declaring Charles II King of Great Britain, France and Ireland. This placed the Covenanters on a direct collision course with the Commonwealth.

The Scottish declaration meant that war with England could not be avoided, particularly once Charles II arrived in Scotland in June 1650. The actions of the Covenanters and Oliver Cromwell’s subsequent conquest of Scotland ensured that the Anglo-Scottish union survived the English experiment in republican government.

By Micheál Ó Siochrú

12

The storming of Drogheda (11 September 1649)

When Cromwell’s massacre of Catholic and Protestant royalists sparked a period of unprecedented bloodletting in Ireland

On 11 September 1649, soldiers of the New Model Army, commanded by Oliver Cromwell, stormed the town of Drogheda. The defenders, comprising Irish and English royalists, both Catholic and Protestant, repulsed the first assault but eventually fell back from the walls. Within a matter of hours, the parliamentary forces had slaughtered almost the entire garrison of 3,500 men, alongside an indeterminate number of civilians.

The massacre created a legacy of bitterness, which persists to this day. Cromwell justified the mass killing, which breached all contemporary codes of conduct, on two grounds. In the first instance, he saw it as the “righteous judgement of God against those barbarous wretches, who have imbrued their hands in so much innocent blood,” allegedly murdering thousands of Protestant settlers during the early months of the 1641 rebellion.

None of Drogheda’s defenders, however, had taken part in the initial uprising. Secondly, Cromwell hoped that his harsh tactics might “prevent the effusion of blood for the future,” by terrifying the enemy into submission. In fact, his actions had exactly the opposite effect, stiffening Catholic Irish resolve to resist to the bitter end.

Events at Drogheda, therefore, undoubtedly prolonged the Cromwellian conquest. This phase of the war lasted for four years, resulting in the death of almost a quarter of Ireland’s population, the biggest demographic disaster in its history.

By Micheál Ó Siochrú

13

The battle of Worcester (September 1651)

When Cromwell effectively ended royalist resistance throughout England, Scotland and Ireland

The execution of Charles I removed the king not only of England but of Ireland and Scotland. The English republic could survive only by conquering those other nations.

Cromwell’s ruthless campaign in Ireland in 1649–50 was followed by his expedition to Scotland in 1650–51. After his triumph at Dunbar in September 1650 he could not bring the Scots to a conclusive battle. So he allowed them, with Charles II at their head, to invade England, and followed in their rear. Their defeat at Worcester on 3 September 1651, exactly a year after Dunbar, ended large-scale royalist resistance across the three nations.

For the first time, a Puritan regime not only occupied Westminster and Whitehall but had the nation at its feet. But what would it do with its victory? The external royalist threat had more or less held the Rump and its army together. Now issues of political settlement and social and religious reform would fatally divide them.

By Blair Worden

14

The dissolution of the Long Parliament (April 1653)

When Cromwell ejected MPs from the Commons, and locked the doors behind them

Oliver Cromwell destroyed both sides of the civil war. In January 1649 he steered through the trial and execution of the king. On 20 April 1653 he removed the Long Parliament, which had sat since 1640. It was no less revolutionary a step. After a vitriolic speech against its members he called his musketeers into the Commons to clear the chamber, and had the doors locked to prevent their return.

To Cromwell, forms of government, whether royal or parliamentary, were means to ends of godliness and justice, to be used or cast aside as they served or failed those purposes. The ‘Rump’ of the parliament left behind by Pride’s Purge had antagonised the army. Cromwell looked to it to implement a programme to achieve religious reform, which would purge and Puritanise the clergy and provide for liberty of conscience and reform of the legal system. Henceforth he would seek those goals through other means.

Eight months after the coup he was made lord protector. Though he hoped to give his rule a constitutional basis, it never overcame its origin in armed force or the memory of his expulsion of the parliament in whose service the army had ostensibly fought.

By Blair Worden

15

The Hispaniola Expedition (December 1654)

When Cromwell’s crusade against Catholic darkness suffered a morale-sapping reverse

Cromwell won all his important battles, sometimes against daunting odds, and saw his victories as witnesses to God’s approval of his cause. It was not, in Cromwell’s eyes, a cause confined to England or even Britain. It was a European, even worldwide struggle between Protestant light and Catholic darkness.

Charles I had shocked Puritans by his friendship with Spain during the Thirty Years’ War. Then the Rump had fought an epic naval war with fellow-Protestants, the Dutch, who were newly liberated from Spanish sovereignty.

When he became protector, Cromwell ended that conflict and took on the Spanish empire in the New World. In December 1654 he sent an expedition to launch an unprovoked attack on Hispaniola, the island now shared between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Ill-planned, ill-led, ill-disciplined, it was humiliatingly routed by a handful of Spaniards.

It did limp on to take Jamaica, and later, when the war with Spain reached Europe, the English won naval victories and acquired the Channel base of Dunkirk. But the defeat at Hispaniola, which any Puritan was bound to interpret as a rebuke by God for the government’s or the nation’s sinfulness, was a terrible blow to Cromwell’s and his government’s morale.

By Blair Worden

Micheál Ó Siochrú is associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. His book God’s Executioner was published by Faber in 2009.

John Adamson is a fellow in history at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge. His book The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I was published by Phoenix in 2009.

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Blair Worden is emeritus fellow of St Edmund Hall, Oxford. His book God’s Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell (OUP, March 2012) is out now.