This article was first published in the March 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
Following the battle of Marston Moor in July 1644, the parliamentarian Earl of Manchester, declared: “It was easy to begin the war, but no man knew where it would end.” It was a statement that was to prove uncannily accurate, as parliament and the king went head to head in a series of bloody battles and rebellions that engulfed the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1638 and 1651.
Many historians divide the events that occurred in England during this period into three separate conflicts: the First Civil War (1642–46); the Second Civil War (1648–49); and the Third Civil War (1649–51). Other historians, such as John Morrill, see the English Civil Wars in a wider context. They view the period between 1638 and 1651 as a war of three kingdoms, with events in all three territories leading to the outbreak of civil war in England in 1642.
Morrill comments: “The stresses and strains in 17th-century England were not alone sufficient to generate civil war. There could not have been a war without the collapse of royal power in Scotland in the late 1630s following Charles’s failure to exert royal authority over the Scottish church, or without the king’s difficulties in raising an army to deal with the Catholic massacre of Protestants in Ireland in 1641. England was a diesel-engined state that was not capable of spontaneous combustion – all the wars were wars within and between each of the kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland.”
Charles I came to the throne in 1625 with a firm belief in his divine right to rule, a desire to unite the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, and little respect for the role of parliament. His decision to dissolve parliament in 1629 merely strengthened many people’s belief that he sought an absolutist monarchy. Charles’s decision to marry the French and, more importantly, Catholic princess Henrietta Maria did little for his popularity in a Protestant England that feared Catholicism.
It was during the 1630s that Charles flexed his monarchical muscles in Scotland by imposing a new English-inspired book of common prayer on the Scottish church and then mobilising thousands of men from all three kingdoms to overcome Scottish resistance. Their armed response forced Charles to call parliament for the first time in 11 years to request funds, a move that ultimately ended with the impeachment and execution of his closest advisor and friend, the Earl of Strafford, and the imprisonment of Archbishop Laud, the much-hated figure believed to be behind the new religious reforms.
By 1641, the kingdom of Ireland had also erupted into extreme violence and word soon reached England of atrocities being carried out against English settlers at the hands of Irish Catholics. As a result, fears of popish plots reached new heights and many believed that Charles himself was involved in the rebellion.
Outraged by the demands placed on him by parliament and their refusal to grant him money to quell the Irish unrest – many feared Charles would use the money to raise an Irish army against England – the king made the unprecedented, and unsuccessful, move to storm Westminster and arrest five key members of parliament for high treason on 4 January 1642. This prompted the people of London to turn on their king for what they saw as the actions of a tyrant, and Charles was forced to flee the capital for York and later Nottingham where he raised his standard and declared war on parliament in August 1642. The scene was set for the First English Civil War between crown and parliament, and Oxford was declared the royalist capital the following month.
The first blood was shed during minor skirmishes across the country, but the opening major battle took place at Edgehill in Warwickshire in October 1642 after the king and 14,000 men left Nottingham to reclaim London. The much smaller parliamentary army under the command of the Earl of Essex rushed to block the royalist advance and around 1,500 lives were lost in what was ultimately a stalemate. Essex withdrew to Warwick while the king remained encamped near the battlefield.
Other significant early clashes included the two battles of Newbury and the royalist victory at Roundway Down in July 1643, which cleared the way to the west for the king’s supporters and laid the groundwork for Prince Rupert, Charles’s hot-blooded nephew, to successfully storm Bristol the same month.
If Rupert and the royalists enjoyed some early success, the tide turned with their crushing defeat at the hands of parliament’s forces at Marston Moor (July 1644). Yet, for many historians, the real turning point arrived with the parliamentarian creation of the New Model Army in early 1645. The concept of a professional, full-time fighting force was first proposed after mutinous soldiers and deserters handed parliament defeat at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644. It was then decided that a national army made up of men with no regional affiliations was required, and a force of 22,000 men was proposed, pledging loyalty and discipline in return for regular pay.
Men were promoted on merit rather than social standing, and soon the New Model Army was proving its worth, fighting and winning its first major battle at Naseby in June 1645.
Such an army needed a strong leader, and in 1645, a devout Puritan and military commander named Oliver Cromwell was appointed second in command of the New Model Army, and then lord general of all parliamentary forces in 1650. Cromwell was a driving force in the trial and execution of the king in January 1649, an event that many historians believe triggered the Third English Civil War, which continued until its final major battle at Worcester in September 1651.
Cromwell was named lord protector in 1653, but he wasn’t in the ascendancy for long. In 1661, after the restoration of Charles II to the throne, Cromwell’s body was exhumed and hanged; his head mounted on a pole above Westminster Hall.
Eight related places
Marston Moor, near York, Yorkshire
Where up to 50,000 men contested one of Britain’s largest battles
The parliamentary victory at Marston Moor was one of the major turning points in the civil war in England and was the location for its biggest battle. Three parliamentarian armies – men from Scotland, Fairfax’s northern army, and cavalry from East Anglia under Cromwell – fought head to head with the two major royalist armies under the Marquess of Newcastle and Prince Rupert in July 1644.
Although it is difficult to confirm numbers, many historians believe there could have been as many as 50,000 men on the battlefield, making it one of the largest battles ever to be fought on British soil. The clash was significant for a number of reasons, not least because it decided the fate of the city of York and control of the north, and saw Prince Rupert facing his
biggest defeat, tipping the scales of war in favour of the parliamentarians.
The fields and moorland where the battle took place are relatively unchanged since 1644, making it a particularly evocative place to visit. The road between the villages of Long Marston and Tockwith runs across the centre of the battlefield, while a monument commemorating the battle is located halfway along it. Visitors can also walk to the rabbit warren from where Cromwell’s cavalry launched its attack.
The Queen’s Sconce, Newark
Where the royalists struggled to defend a key military location
The town of Newark was viewed by both crown and parliament as an important strategic military location and suffered three separate sieges during the period: in 1643, 1644 and 1646.
Newark was staunchly royalist in its loyalties throughout the campaign but eventually surrendered after a six-month parliamentarian siege in 1646. The royalists built major earthwork defences at the edge of Newark, which were used as platforms from which to prevent the advance of the enemy.
The Queen’s Sconce in Newark, named for Queen Henrietta Maria who passed through the town in 1643, was one of a pair of earthworks guarding the entrance to the town. The sconce, essentially a fort made of earth, is surrounded by a ditch about 30 feet wide and around 12–15 feet deep, and was used to spot advancing enemy troops. Square-shaped with bastions at each corner, the Queen’s Sconce would have given the royalists an excellent view of the crossing point over the river Devon at Markhall bridge and the Fosse Way.
The sconce can still be visited today. Visitors to the town can also walk the Newark Civil War Heritage Trail, which encompasses various sites of historical significance around the town.
Where parliament’s New Model Army fought, and won, its first major battle
Fought in June 1645, the battle of Naseby is seen by many as the battle that made an overall parliamentary victory in England inevitable, as it was here that the royalists faced Fairfax and Cromwell’s New Model Army for the first time. This new Puritan force was made up of full-time, paid soldiers, liable for service anywhere in the country and no longer led by peers or members of parliament with little military knowledge.
The royalists were heavily outnumbered, fighting uphill on difficult terrain with the wind against them, and were no match for Cromwell’s professional fighters. Marching over the brow of a hill, contemporary sources tell us that the royalist forces, who believed they were chasing a retreating army, were instead confronted by an advancing, 15,000-strong New Model Army, a sight that must have struck fear into their hearts.
Their fears were to prove well-placed: Prince Rupert and his cavalry over-charged the enemy, while Charles’s attempt to lead an assault from the centre failed. His retreating troops were cut down as they fled.
The battlefield with raised viewing platforms and information boards is now open on a daily basis. It can be visited by people on their own or with the aid of one of Naseby Battlefield Project’s tour guides. Leaflets describing the battlefield site and a suggested tour are available upon request. There is parking at all sites, except Sulby Hedges which is easily accessed on foot.
Basing House, Basingstoke, Hampshire
Where up to 100 royalist supporters were massacred
When built in 1535 by Sir William Paulet, the 1st Marquess of Winchester and lord treasurer of England, Basing House was the largest private residence in England, comprising some 360 rooms and visited by monarchs such as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
At the time war broke out in 1642, the house was owned by John Paulet, 5th Marquess of Winchester, a staunch royalist and a prominent Catholic who defended the house in the name of the king during three separate attacks by parliamentarian forces. When the house finally fell to Cromwell’s troops in October 1645, it became the scene for one of the few massacres of the English theatre of the wars and was eventually burned to the ground.
A parliamentary source from the time wrote of the carnage that ensued once the house had been stormed: “In the several rooms, and about the house, there were slain 74, and only one woman… who provoked our soldiers into a further passion… The plunder continued until Tuesday night. One soldier had 120 pieces in gold for his share, others plate, others jewels… And what the soldiers left, the fire took hold.”
Up to 100 people were slain in cold blood and John Paulet was sent to the Tower of London on charges of high treason. The remains of the house can still be seen today, including the Great Barn, which is the only part of the house to remain intact.
St Fagans, Cardiff
Where Cromwell crushed a rebellion
In May 1648, a major battle between crown and parliament took place when parliamentary leaders John Poyer, governor of Pembroke Castle; Colonel Rice Powell, and Rowland Laugharne declared for the king and advanced on Cardiff. The three were disillusioned with the parliamentary cause and feared that their forces were to be disbanded.
Hearing of the rebellion, Cromwell and 3,000 men from the highly trained New Model Army defeated the 8,000-strong royalist army just outside Cardiff in the battle of St Fagans. Laugharne and his fellow turncoats fled the battlefield and barricaded themselves in Pembroke Castle before the building fell to Cromwell’s siege eight weeks later.
Visitors to St Fagans National History Museum can still walk the battlefield, although the topography has changed somewhat since 1648. Pembroke Castle is also open to the public.
Drogheda, County Lough
Where hundreds of Irish soldiers were slaughtered in cold blood
Although a great deal of the fighting took place on English soil, many historians see the period as a war of all three kingdoms, and certainly Ireland witnessed some of its bloodiest encounters.
In August 1649, Cromwell and 10,000 troops set sail for Ireland to reconquer the country for England and seek vengeance for the slaughter of Protestant settlers at the hands of Irish Catholics in 1641. They were intent on delivering the “righteous judgment of God upon these barbarous wretches”.
While marching from Dublin, Cromwell and his army besieged the town of Drogheda, which sat in the hands of royalist Catholic commander Sir Arthur Aston who refused to surrender the town. A bombardment of the city walls broke Drogheda’s resistance, and then followed one of the period’s worst atrocities. Around 3,500 people were slaughtered over a 48-hour period – several hundred in cold blood after they had surrendered. Nine in ten of the town’s common soldiers were killed, and the rest sent as slaves to Barbados. Historical debate still rages as to whether any civilians were killed in cold blood, with the two most recent accounts concluding that around 700 civilians perished in the crossfire.
The events at Drogheda were designed to terrorise other Irish towns into surrender and a further 32 towns were captured over a nine-month period, securing the entire eastern side of Ireland for parliament.
The original Millmount Fort where Aston made his last stand before being allegedly beaten to death with his own wooden leg no longer stands, but a 19th-century replacement is still open to the public. You can also visit St Peter’s church, where many took refuge before Cromwell’s forces burned its steeple – killing those inside.
Dunbar, East Lothian
Where Charles II and his Scottish army failed to regain the English throne
The battle of Dunbar in September 1650 is one of the most important and well-documented clashes in Scotland, and took place more than 18 months after the execution of Charles I and the declaration of a Commonwealth in England.
The king’s execution had effectively ended the union of England and Scotland, and in February 1649 the Scottish parliament had declared the dead king’s son, Charles II, “King of Great Britain, France and Ireland” with the hope of a Presbyterian church settlement once the king had been restored to the throne.
Charles II landed on Scottish soil in June 1650, where he was proclaimed King of Scotland. On hearing the news, the English parliament decided to take matters into its own hands. Anticipating a Scottish invasion under Charles II to regain the English throne, it launched a pre-emptive strike, sending some 15,000 troops across the border.
The Scots retaliated with a superior force of 25,000 and eventually met the New Model Army at Dunbar in what was ultimately an extraordinary parliamentary victory. Trapped between the Scottish army and the open sea, Cromwell found himself completely surrounded, and made the decision to launch a night attack. It was a highly risky move, but one that proved overwhelmingly successful. Caught completely off guard, the Scots lost 3,000 troops in the ensuing clash, and gave up a further 10,000 in prisoners.
Dunbar became one of Cromwell’s greatest victories, and opened the way for the parliamentarians to conquer all of Scotland. Although much of the battlefield has now been built over, visitors can still walk to Doon Hill, from where the royalist commander Sir David Leslie led his men to meet Cromwell and his army.
The Commandery, Worcester
Where the last battle of the civil wars in England was fought
Worcester played a significant role in the opening and final chapters of the civil wars in England. The city saw one of the first major skirmishes between crown and parliament, in October 1642. Then, nine years later in September 1651, it was the scene of the last civil war battle on British soil – a clash that saw Cromwell quashing (for the time being, at least) Charles II’s attempts to gain the English throne.
Believing always that he was fighting God’s cause, Cromwell described the battle as his “crowning mercy”, referring to the clash as God’s final blessing on his victorious parliamentary army.
After Charles II and his army arrived in Worcester in August 1651, the Commandery was used as the personal headquarters for William, 2nd Duke of Hamilton and the royalist commander in chief. During the battle itself, the building was used as a dressing station for wounded soldiers and the duke was treated there for a gunshot to the leg. Although the limb was later amputated, the duke died of gangrene and blood poisoning and was buried under the altar in Worcester Cathedral.
The Commandery is open to the public and boasts excellent displays on the city’s role in the civil wars.
Words: Charlotte Hodgman. Historical advisor: John Morrill, professor of British and Irish history at the University of Cambridge, and author of Oliver Cromwell (Oxford University Press, 2008).
Read part two of this feature here.