10 great misconceptions of the Civil War

The Civil War (1642-51) was an accidental war. It was fought by gentlemen, and Cromwell was the key to victory... right? There are many myths and misconceptions about the seismic 17th-century conflict, which saw fighting break out between supporters of King Charles I and opposing groups in each of Charles's kingdoms (including Parliamentarians in England, Covenanters in Scotland and Confederates in Ireland). But what's fact and what's fiction?

Catholics massacre Protestants in Ulster in a contemporary illustration. However, Catholics were also the victims of mass killings in 1641. (© Getty)

Here, a panel of experts debunk 10 Civil War myths…

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1

War broke out by accident

Wrong, says John Adamson

This misconception has a long pedigree. It came about because, at the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, a number of those involved in raising forces against the king were still alive. They peddled the idea that the war was an accident and that no one was to blame; that the war “came out of the mist”, as the parliamentarian Bulstrode Whitelock had it. But it’s untrue.

Recent archival research has revealed that Charles I’s aristocratic opponents, particularly the group around the Earl of Warwick, were preparing to use military force as early as the summer of 1640. They did this by calling in the Scottish army and by suborning English militia regiments that had been mobilised to meet the Scottish challenge. Warwick’s group had a military strategy in case the king refused to call a parliament: four Yorkshire militia regiments were to join the Scots and march on London.

King Charles I of England (1600–1649). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

This was the backdrop to the first two years of the Long Parliament, called by Charles I in November 1640 in an attempt to raise money for war against the Scots. The king was aware that this group had committed treason. In fact, that was one of the reasons it was so difficult to reach settlement over the constitutional impasse in 1640. The stakes had been raised for both sides.

Charles I showed himself ready to risk a civil war from May 1640 with the plan to use Spanish troops against his own subjects. He also tried to arrest five members of parliament in January 1642. The parliamentarians expected to win a decisive victory that would force the king to accept his subordinate position. The war that followed was longer and bloodier than the belligerents had expected, but its outbreak was anything but accidental.

John Adamson is author of The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2007)

2

Cavaliers were aristocrats, Roundheads were yeomen

Wrong, says Ronald Hutton

When I was a schoolboy, there was a textbook on the Tudor and Stuart period, part of which followed the fortune of a mythical family from 1485–1660. When the family divided during the Civil War, the two brothers were pictured arguing; the text pointed out that the elder, the Cavalier, wore satin and lace, while the younger, the Roundhead, wore linen and leather. It went on to state that the Cavaliers were mostly formed of aristocracy and gentry, while the Roundheads were drawn from the lesser gentry and the middle classes.

The reality was that, to challenge the authority of the king, parliament had to have a substantial number of great nobles on its side. In the words of John Adamson, it was a “noble revolt”. The older nobility, who had served in government and at court, tended to fight against the king (their long-establishment gave them a greater confidence in challenging the crown). The classic royalist noble tended to hail from a family that had not been involved in government or court, or a nouveau riche who had got their title since 1600.

Both sides had more or less equal support among the rest of society. And on both sides, rank-and-file troops on the ground came from the lower classes and fought for the same reasons: partly ideological, but mostly because big money was offered upfront for service at the beginning of the war. Then, when the money ran out, they were conscripted by force by both sides.

But there is a twist to the story. Both sides gradually pushed out the nobility from their armies during the course of the war, because in order to win, they had to grab talent wherever they found it rising. By 1649, just 8 per cent of the senior officers in parliament’s New Model Army had been to university, by then the mark of a gentleman. When you look at the king’s field officers throughout the war, you find that three-quarters of them didn’t have a coat of arms. In other words, they weren’t even drawn from the class that traditionally ran local government, let alone central government.

Ronald Hutton is professor of history at the University of Bristol

3

The 1641 massacres in Ireland were a one-sided affair

Wrong, says Micheál Ó Siochrú

The Irish rebellion of 1641 began as an attempt by Irish Catholics to defend their interests and recover lands that had been lost to Protestant settlers from England and Scotland. But it descended into a horrifying sectarian bloodbath. It is one of the great defining moments in Irish history. But what actually happened remains highly contested.

The focus of historical attention has been on the scale and ferocity of Catholic attacks on the Protestant settlers, and on the suffering of that community. Part of the reason for that is the surviving source material. When Protestant settlers fled the rebellion for Dublin, many gave testimony about their experiences and about 8,000 of the depositions survive today, housed at Trinity College Dublin. The sheer amount of this evidence has meant that the narrative has been dominated by the Protestant experience. What isn’t present in the depositions, or in most surviving evidence, is the Catholic side of the story.

There is no question that the Protestant settler community underwent a traumatic experience. But in the initial weeks of the rising, there were relatively few killings. What really triggered the cycle of violence were the brutal and absolutely indiscriminate retaliatory attacks carried out by the colonial government in November and December 1641. What quickly became clear was that they were targeting the entire Catholic population. You had summary justice, mass executions and the destruction of entire communities. This unrestrained violence generated a reaction and the violence spiralled, escalating into a full-scale sectarian bloodbath.

The narrative of Protestants suffering at the hands of savage Catholics has played a key role in creating the British Protestant identity still very much in evidence in the north of Ireland today. But it doesn’t explain what really went on in the first six months of the rebellion. This was not a one-sided massacre but a period of unrestrained warfare, from both sides, with all its attendant horrors.

Micheál Ó Siochrú is author of God’s Executioner: Oliver Cromwell and the Conquest of Ireland (Faber & Faber, 2009)

4

Large numbers of people were unaffected

Wrong, says Ann Hughes

At least one in 10 – or perhaps as many as one in five – men in England and Wales fought in the Civil War. It has been calculated that loss of life, in proportion to the national population of the time, was greater than in the First World War. Perhaps 85,000 people, mostly men but also women camp followers, died in combat. Up to 130,000 people were killed indirectly, primarily as a result of disease spread by troops.

Many parts of the country saw fighting, but everyone was affected by recruitment of troops and troop movements, which brought disease and compulsory boarding, usually without payment. National taxation was heavier than ever before: perhaps 10 times prewar rates. And it reached down the social scale; an excise on many consumer goods had an effect on even those people too poor to pay taxes based on land or goods. Administration was affected in many areas, too, which meant poor relief was disrupted. The birth rate was 10 per cent lower in the 1650s than it had been 20 years earlier and the population stagnated. Disruption of trade and bad harvests meant the late 1640s were some of the hardest on record for ordinary people.

So, the social, economic and cultural impact of the war is significantly underestimated. It involved a massive and enduring expansion of the state’s capacity to extract resources from the population, and there was significant familial and demographic upheaval. It was so traumatic in an English context that it was easier to try to forget about it.

Ann Hughes is professor of early modern history at Keele University

5

It was a restrained and gentlemanly conflict

Wrong, says Peter Gaunt

In some quarters, there remains an impression that the Civil War was an almost ‘civilised’ conflict, waged in an restrained and reluctant manner by a small number of elite gentlemen.

Commanders on both sides generally did try to adhere to the military codes of conduct and rules of war set out by king and parliament, but they had none of the squeamishness for war that has been suggested. They were committed warriors, fighting for what they often believed to be a just cause, glorying in the defeat and, where necessary, destruction of the opposing force.

The Civil War was a conflict of major battles and incessant, dour skirmishing, raiding and counter-raiding, of siege and storm. Although the scale of the fighting, and of the atrocities was not as great as that seen on the continent during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618–48, many historians now suggest that the English and Welsh experience was not so different from that particular European war as was once thought.

To take one example, in December 1643 a party of royalist troops entered the village of Barthomley in Cheshire, whereupon a group of around 20 locals, including women, sought refuge in the tower of St Bertoline’s Church. The royalist troops entered the church and forced the locals to come back down to ground level, both by burning pews and rushes at the foot of the tower to smoke them out – and by offering them quarter. However, when they emerged, 12 men were killed on the spot.

Following the king’s truce in late summer 1643 with the Irish Catholic rebels who controlled most of Ireland – and his attempts to ship over troops from Ireland to fight for him – parliament took a hard line against so-called ‘Irish’ royalist troops. Parliamentarian troops often treated any royalist soldiers and camp followers who were thought to have Irish connections brutally. Summary execution, with the killing, wounding or maiming of the women found travelling with them, almost became a matter of routine.

So the image of a restrained, gentlemanly affair is fundamentally wrong, and should have no place now in our interpretations of the Civil War.

Peter Gaunt is author of The English Civil War: A Military History (IB Tauris, 2014)

6

Cromwell won the war for parliament

Wrong, says Diane Purkiss

Although Oliver Cromwell was important, the general who in fact led the New Model Army to victory was Thomas Fairfax, who was in charge of the infantry forces. It was Fairfax who shaped the New Model Army, who trained them, and who developed the strategy critical to their overall success.

Parliament had to create the New Model Army because its own army had been destroyed. They were scraping around. People who were manifestly unfit for military service were called up, and it was Fairfax who was trusted with turning this job lot of ruffians into a proper military force. One of the crucial decisions he took was to promote to officer rank on merit, rather than on social rank. Fairfax had to fight a real political battle in the Commons and the Lords to push this through, but he succeeded, creating an army that was pretty much a meritocracy.

A painting depicting Oliver Cromwell gazing at the body of Charles I, after the execution of the king. (Photo by Museum of London/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

In June 1645, Fairfax and his New Model Army caught up with the king outside Naseby in Northamptonshire, where parliament won a sweeping victory. Cromwell was responsible for the overall battle plan, but it was Fairfax who took the initiative in changing that plan during the battle. The royalists had assumed that the parliamentarians’ numerical advantage would be outweighed by the fact that they were a rabble of idiots. But when they realised the New Model Army was, thanks to Fairfax, actually very disciplined and well organised, they collapsed and fled.

Fairfax wasn’t one to brag about his own military skills, but in a crisis he had a terrific sense of what needed to be done – and he did it. Eventually, his New Model Army besieged Oxford, capturing what was then the royal capital. What was also remarkable was that he did it all very decently. In contrast to the late-stage royalist army, which was renowned for looting and pillaging, Fairfax’s army was so disciplined and controlled that it’s rare to find an account of it leaving a trail of death and destruction through the countryside.

Fairfax retired to the country rather than accept the laurels due to him as victor – one of the reasons that the misconception about Cromwell winning the war arose.

Diane Purkiss is author of The English Civil War: A People’s History (Harper Perennial, 2007)

7

Only British people fought

Wrong, says Mark Stoyle

In the last few decades, historians have been keen to emphasise the British-ness of the Civil War, but it’s often forgotten that there were quite large numbers of people from outside the British Isles involved.

Most famous are the king’s relatives: Henrietta Maria, his French wife, who was head of a royalist army in the north in 1643, and his two half-German nephews, Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice. But scores of foreign specialists – experts in military engineering, artillery and fortification – and cavalry commanders led both royalist and parliamentarian efforts. England had been at peace with itself for a long time, so English gentlemen didn’t have the military skills required.

The majority of foreign soldiers came from France. There were also Protestants from France and the Netherlands who wanted to fight against a king who often seemed to be allied with Catholicism. Then there were participants from outside western Europe. One of the most famous foreign mercenaries was a Croat called Captain Carlo Fantom, who fought for parliament. When asked why he’d come to fight, he said: “I care not for your cause, I come to fight for your half crowns and your handsome women.” Some came from even further afield. The most exotic cavalry regiment was one that contained soldiers from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Ethiopia.

When the New Model Army was first formed, there were few foreigners involved. Indeed, several parliamentarians revelled in the idea that it was an army “entirely of our own nation”. Towards the end of war, there were three regiments of French cavalry fighting for the king, which the parliamentarians made great use of in their propaganda. Such perceptions meant that ‘outlanders’ had an influence out of all proportion to their numbers.

Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton

8

For parliamentarians, it was a war of religion

Wrong, says Rachel Foxley

It has been tempting to assume that the parliamentarians thought it was legitimate to go to war to defend religious liberty. It’s quite an easy assumption to fall into because it’s true that there was a huge amount of religious motivation whipping up parliamentarians. A lot of Puritans definitely thought that they would be instruments of God in fighting the Civil War. And it’s tempting to see Cromwell as a godly warrior because his rhetoric is so religious. But when you look closely at what he believed, it’s clear that he didn’t think you could fight a war of religion.

In a speech from 1655 when looking back at the war, Cromwell said: “Religion was not the thing at the first contested for, but God brought it to that issue at last and gave it to us by way of redundancy, and at last it proved that which is most dear to us.” Historians have often dismissed this as a mistake or hindsight on Cromwell’s part, but I think he was quite serious: it was God, not people, who had the power to bring religious reform out of civil war. The godly could not set out to fight a war of religion.

So parliamentarians and Puritans like Cromwell were quite careful to avoid saying that religion could be a justification for war. Instead, they justified their war by saying they were fighting for a set of liberties protected by law and that Charles I, in their view, had been attacking. They didn’t think it was legitimate to fight for religion with the sword because religion could only be fought for with spiritual weapons. But they did think it legitimate to take up arms against a ruler who was breaking the law of the land. Along with political liberties and rights, this also included religion because the English Reformation had been established through parliamentary statute.

Rachel Foxley is associate professor of history at the University of Reading

9

Wales was against the king Wrong, says Lloyd Bowen

Wrong, says Lloyd Bowen

When you suggest that the Welsh were among the most ardent royalists, people are usually really surprised. Our historical memory has been refracted through a more modern tradition of leftwing radical politics. Many historians working in the shadow of that tradition have feted Welsh parliamentarians and republicans, suggesting they were more representative of the country than was the case.

There was no more fervent hotbed of royalist sentiment during the Civil War than in Wales, earning it the soubriquet of the “nursery of the king’s infantry”. The propaganda of the time suggests Wales was really enthusiastic in its support for Charles I. One pamphlet noted how the appearance of the king made the men of north Wales “flock to [his] standard like wilde geese”.

Wales saw itself as having a special relationship with the crown, one to be defended with blood. An important part of that was Charles I’s defence of a conservative Protestantism, one sold to the Welsh as a rediscovery of their ancient aboriginal religion, rather than the more radical version promulgated by the parliamentarians. They became passionate defenders of a particular type of church, with the king at its apex.

There was a smattering of support for parliament in some towns like Wrexham and Cardiff, but these were minority voices. For the king, Wales was a reliable source of money and troops, and it provided a bridgehead to bring troops from Ireland.

Lloyd Bowen is senior lecturer in early modern and Welsh history at the University of Cardiff

10

Parliament wanted union with Scotland

Wrong, says John Morrill

There is a perception that, in the mid-17th century, the English parliament forced Scotland to integrate into a greater Britain. Actually, parliament had been trying to avoid union for years and only entered into it reluctantly.

Throughout the 1640s, the Scots had been calling for a union because they believed that there could be no future for Scotland except in a defined federal relationship. The English parliament resisted for two main reasons. It was determined not to let Scotland impose strict separation of church and state and clerical supremacy. And it did not wish to allow the Scottish parliament to have any kind of veto over policies in England.

In return for Scottish support during the wars, parliament had promised federal union and a united church. But when parliament abolished the monarchy in England and Ireland after the execution of Charles I in 1649, it told the Scots they were an independent nation free to go their own way. The Scots refused to accept this and voted to fight to instate Charles II as king of England, Scotland and Ireland.

After Cromwell defeated the Scots at Worcester in 1651, the English had to make a choice: they could either withdraw or they could occupy Scotland to prevent constant attacks on England. Eventually, they decided to quell the threat by uniting England and Scotland. So it was a reluctant conquest. There may have been no great enthusiasm for union, but it was deemed necessary.

John Morrill is professor of British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge.

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This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine