Is it incorrect to refer to the ‘English Civil War’?
There are many names for the multiple conflicts which are often referred to collectively as the ‘English Civil War’. Learn more about the reasons behind the varied labels for the wars that led to much bloodshed across England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland during the 1630s–50s…
One old joke has it that to refer to the ‘English Civil War’ is to get three things wrong: it wasn’t just fought by the English; it wasn’t just one war; and it wasn’t particularly civil.
The conflict that many will think of as the ‘English Civil War’ is the 1642-46 war – the first civil war – which broke out in England between supporters of the King (known as ‘Royalists’ or ‘Cavaliers’) who fought against supporters of Parliament (known as ‘Parliamentarians’ or ‘Roundheads’).
But there were many other countries involved in the interconnected series of mid-17th-century conflicts across England and Wales (then unified as a single kingdom), and Scotland and Ireland. They have been known variously as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the British Civil Wars, the Great Rebellion, and the Puritan Revolution. Meanwhile, events in Scotland in the late 1630s were known as the Bishops’ Wars.
“It’s always been very controversial,” explains Professor Mark Stoyle on an episode of HistoryExtra’s Everything You Wanted To Know About podcast series. At the start of the conflict, he says, “of course people didn't know what was happening. They just talked about ‘these unhappy differences ’, ‘these troubles’, and so forth. Once the war was over and the king's forces had been defeated, it was difficult to know what to call the conflict, because both sides tended to use different terms.”
From the royalists’ perspective, explains Stoyle, the civil wars had been a huge rebellion against royal power. Particularly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, when the crown was restored to the Stuarts, “they referred to it as the ‘Grand Rebellion’ or the ‘Great Rebellion’. Of course, at this time rebellion was seen as a very bad thing, a very negative word.” The term ‘Great Rebellion’ was commonly used well into the 19th-century.
What you called the wars would often reveal quite a lot about your own political views
But from the point of view of those who fought for Parliament, it wasn't seen as a rebellion at all. It was much more a fight for English liberties, against what was seen as a tyrannical form of government, says Stoyle.
Once the conflict had died down, these partisan names continued to be used alongside more neutral euphemisms, explains Stoyle. “Many people preferred to term the wars ‘these recent troubles, the recent troubled times, or our unhappy divisions’. There were lots of different ways of referring to the wars. And what you called them would often reveal quite a lot about your own political views.”
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What were the conflicts that make up the Civil War?
The ‘Great Civil War’, the first civil war that took place between 1642–46, was fought between the forces of King Charles I and Parliament, in England.
There were also conflicts going on in other parts of the British Isles at the same time. In Ireland, there was an uprising and a series of bitter conflicts fought in that country from 1641 into the later 1640s.
There were also wars taking place in Scotland and in 1644, Scottish forces crossed the border and took part in England's civil war. “So that widened into a broader conflict in which the Scots were fighting on the side of Parliament,” says Stoyle.
The ‘Great Civil War’ came to an end in 1646 with the defeat of King Charles I, but there were two subsequent conflicts. There was a second civil war in 1648, and then a third and final civil war in the early 1650s.
Although many tend to see the Civil Wars as a British conflict, involving men and women from England and Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Cornwall (the latter often regarded as a separate and distinctive territory during the early modern period), several thousand people from across continental Europe and beyond were also engaged in the conflict in one way or another.
“There were many foreign mercenaries who travelled to England to fight for the Crown or Parliament”, comments Stoyle, “particularly on the side of the King. We know that Charles I raised several regiments of French soldiers, and there is evidence of Dutch and German fighters in the royalist and parliamentarian armies, as well as soldiers from as far away as the American colonies, North Africa – and even Mesopotamia.”
Then there were Charles’s own nephews. “Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice, who both assumed leading roles in the royalist armies were themselves half-German,” says Stoyle. “There was a real mix of people involved in the fighting.”
What’s the correct term?
Even today, it seems, how one chooses to refer to the series of conflicts is revealing. And while the term ‘English Civil War’ is still ubiquitous in popular history as a term for the conflicts, it’s clear that the name remains complicated. Yet the question of ‘correctness’ provides an opportunity for academics, teachers, and writers to engage with myths about the era, to challenge popular assumptions and to broaden the way in which we see the interlinked conflicts of the mid-17th-century.
Across HistoryExtra.com, you’ll see the series of conflicts referred to as ‘the Civil War’ – though clearly other phrases remain available.
Mark Stoyle is professor of history at Southampton University. Hear more about the conflict between Royalists and Parliamentarians that wracked the British Isles in the middle of the 17th century, in our Everything You Wanted To Know About podcast episode
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