English Civil Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The escalating political struggle between Royalists, who supported absolute power for the English monarch, and Parliamentarians, who sought constitutional limits upon royal power, finally erupted into overt civil war. King Charles I was ultimately defeated, executed, and replaced by a commonwealth government. Although the Commonwealth was short-lived, the eventually restored monarchy was indebted to the will of Parliament, and the civil wars permanently ended British monarchs’ absolutist ambitions.

Summary of Event

The English Civil Wars, also called the English Revolution, grew out of a conflict between the Stuart monarchy and the English parliament that began almost as soon as James I James I (king of England) was crowned in 1603. The Stuarts believed in the divine right of kings, which meant that they saw themselves as God’s representatives on Earth and believed their will should therefore be absolute. England, however, had a common-law constitution that had placed limits upon the monarch’s powers from the time of the Magna Carta (1215), and Parliament had a vested interest in preserving those limits and enhancing its own powers at the expense of the king. Most important in the first decades of the seventeenth century, the king was absolutely forbidden from levying new taxes upon any of his subjects. Only Parliament had the power to create new taxes, although the Stuarts could and did find creative ways to generate revenue by expanding enforcement of existing taxes, forcing wealthy subjects to give them loans, and imprisoning those who refused their requests for money. Taxation;England [kw]English Civil Wars (1642-1651) [kw]Wars, English Civil (1642-1651) [kw]Civil Wars, English (1642-1651) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1642-1651: English Civil Wars[1430] Government and politics;1642-1651: English Civil Wars[1430] England;1642-1651: English Civil Wars[1430] English Civil Wars (1642-1651)

As soon as Charles I Charles I (king of England) came to the throne in 1625, it became apparent not only that he believed he should have absolute authority but also that he lacked the tact to hide that belief from Parliament. The relationship between the legislature and the king, who had the power to call and dissolve Parliament as he saw fit, was thus adversarial from the beginning. The conflict between them intensified in 1628, when Charles I was forced to sign the Petition of Right, agreeing to limits on his powers in return for tax money, but then ignored the limits established in the document. The following year, Charles dissolved Parliament and inaugurated the period of Personal Rule (1629-1640) Personal Rule (1629-1640) , in which he sought to reign without a Parliament.

Ultimately defeated by Parliament, King Charles I was found guilty of treason. He was beheaded on January 30, 1649.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

The period of Personal Rule came to an end when Charles’s religious policies in Scotland led to the Bishops’ Wars Bishops’ War, First (1639)[Bishops War, First (1639)] being fought there in 1639 and 1640. Lacking the funds to raise an effective English army to fight the Scots, Charles had no choice but to call a Parliament in 1640. The first, the so-called Short Parliament Short Parliament (1640) , was dissolved after less than a month, but Charles called what came to be known as the Long Parliament Long Parliament (1640-1648) in November, 1640. The reinstated Parliaments refused to obey the king’s will: He wanted them simply to pass the taxation bills he needed as quickly as possible. Instead, Parliament ignored the issue of taxes and instead began to air grievances against the king and once again to debate appropriate limits on his powers.

In 1642, the conflict erupted into open war. The English Civil Wars are divided into two phases, sometimes referred to as separate wars. The first phase, often referred to as the First Civil War or sometimes simply as the English Civil War, lasted from 1642 to 1646. The Second Civil War began in 1647, and the Civil Wars came to an end in 1651. The Second Civil War is sometimes said to have lasted from 1647 to 1651, but some historians say that it ended in 1649 and a Third Civil War occurred from 1650 to 1651. Despite having built up over a period of four decades, it came as a shock to the English people that, only forty years after the death of their beloved Queen Elizabeth I, there was now war against their monarch. People struggled to choose a side or to avoid involving themselves in the conflict.

The war had political, economic, and religious causes. There was relative social diversity within each side. Those who supported Charles I were collectively called the Royalists Royalists or Cavaliers. The foundation of the Cavaliers was the nobility, the great majority of which had views and interests similar to those of the king. Religiously, the Anglicans, or members of the Church of England Church of England;English Civil Wars and , backed the Royalists, since the king was the Supreme Head of that church. The minority Roman Catholics also sided largely with the king, whose expansion of the ceremonial liturgy within the Anglican Church appealed to them. The geographic center of Royalist power was in the north and west of England. Catholicism;English Civil Wars and

The forces of Parliament were unified largely through their religious affiliations, specifically the Puritans Puritanism;English Civil Wars and of England and the Presbyterians Presbyterianism;English Civil Wars and of Scotland. Parliamentarians Parliamentarians are thus sometimes called Roundheads because of the distinctive Puritan haircut. The landed gentry, merchants, and artisans of southeastern England, including London, supported Parliament. A major factor in the war was the fact that Parliament also controlled the nation’s naval forces. Each side’s army in 1642 numbered about thirteen thousand men.

The precipitating event that finally led to the outbreak of war was the order by Charles I, on January 4, 1642, to arrest five members of Parliament. The baseless or politically motivated arrest of his subjects was one of the central acts forbidden to the king in the Petition of Right, and it infuriated the members of the House of Commons. The men escaped arrest, Charles left London, and both sides began gathering men and weapons. In August, Charles raised his standard in Nottingham as a challenge to Parliament, which responded by naming the third earl of Essex Essex, third earl of its lord general.





On October 12, 1642, Charles marched his army, led by his nephew, Prince Rupert, Rupert, Prince back toward London. Almost simultaneously, Essex led the Parliamentary forces west. The two armies met in the Battle of Edgehill, Edgehill, Battle of (1642) the first battle of the war, on October 23. Charles deployed his infantry on the slopes of the hill with his cavalry on the outside. Essex lined his forces up the same way. Prince Rupert attacked first: He initiated a cavalry attack on both flanks of the opposing army that routed the opposition but ended with his horsemen looting a nearby town rather than supporting the infantry in the rest of the battle. The Parliamentary forces made mistakes as well, and the battle ended in a draw. When the Royalist forces resumed their march the next day, they were not pursued. The route of Charles to London seemed open.

By November 12, the king had advanced to Turnham Green, west of London, where opposition to him was increasing rapidly. He now faced an army of twenty-four thousand, twice the size of his own forces. Charles did not engage the Parliamentary force but instead retired to Oxford for the winter.

The next year, 1643, was one of indecisive combat. Three Royalist victories—one in June at Adwalton Moor in the north and two in July at Lansdown Hill and Roundway Down in the east—gave the king the momentum. The tide began to turn in September, however. The First Battle of Newbury Newbury, First Battle of (1643) (September 20) was indecisive, but the Royalists were defeated at Winceby, Winceby, Battle of (1643) in the northeast, in October. Winceby marked the rise as well of Colonel Oliver Cromwell, Cromwell, Oliver;Battle of Winceby a previously insignificant member of Parliament who would become the dominant leader of the Parliamentary forces and of the new government. Cromwell’s army of Puritans soon became known as the Ironsides Ironsides . The third baron Fairfax Fairfax, third baron also emerged from Winceby as a major leader for Parliament. In December, Parliament won another victory at Alton in the south.

A new phase of the war began early in 1644, when Alexander Leslie Leslie, Alexander led his Scottish Presbyterian army, which had defeated Charles in the Bishops’ Wars, into England to aid the primarily Puritan Parliamentary armies. He was joined by Fairfax and the now Lieutenant-General Cromwell to win the most decisive battle of the war so far at Marston Moor Marston Moor, Battle of (1644) on July 2, 1644. This victory led to the surrender of the northern Royalist stronghold at York on July 16. However, Charles led his Royalist troops to a victory of their own at Lostwithiel in the west in September, and the Second Battle of Newbury Newbury, Second Battle of (1644) in October was indecisive.





By the end of 1644, Cromwell, now dominant in the Parliamentary forces, realized they needed a more professional army. At his urging, Parliament passed the Self-Denying Ordinance, which stipulated that no member of Parliament could simultaneously hold a military commission. Members of the House of Commons could choose to resign their positions in Parliament to remain in the army, but members of the House of Lords, whose seats in Parliament were not elective, had no choice but to leave the military. The earl of Essex and others therefore resigned their military positions but remained active politically. Only Cromwell, because of his proven military ability, was exempt from the ordinance. The New Model Army New Model Army was established in April, 1645, with Fairfax replacing Essex as commander in chief. Cromwell now had his professional army with about twenty-two thousand men.

The next decisive battle of the First Civil War was the Battle of Naseby, Naseby, Battle of (1645) northwest of London, on June 14, 1645. Prince Rupert had sacked the nearby city of Leister on May 31 and was rejoined by Charles I. They then marched to relieve a siege of Oxford by Fairfax. They succeeded on June 7, but Fairfax moved up to Naseby, where he was able to choose the next battleground. His infantry was commanded by Sir Henry Ireton, Ireton, Henry his left flank cavalry by Phillip Skippon, and his right flank cavalry by Cromwell.

Rupert commanded the right flank cavalry for the Royalists and initiated the battle by charging through Ireton’s left flank cavalry. However, Cromwell’s right flank held its ground and forced the Royalist left flank to retreat. The professionalism of the New Model Army was proven when part of Cromwell’s horsemen separated and attacked the Royalist infantry in the center. The Royalist infantry began to retreat along with its left flank cavalry. Charles I was in command of the Royalist reserves, but he fled the area rather than face almost certain death if he had tried to support the retreating Royalist forces. The majority of the Royalist infantry was either killed or captured by the advancing New Model Army. Fairfax recaptured Leister a few days later.

On July 10, Fairfax defeated the Royalists again at Langport, Langport, Battle of (1645) in the southwest. The army of Lord George Goring Goring, George , the Royalist commander, mostly deserted following this defeat. The Battles of Naseby and Langport sealed the fate of Charles I. His armies almost nonexistent, he fled north in 1646 and surrendered to the Scots. The town of Oxford surrendered in June, 1646, ending the first and major phase of the Civil Wars.

The second phase of the English Civil Wars, also referred to as the Second Civil War, began in 1647, after Charles had been ransomed from the Scots by Parliament and imprisoned at Holmby House while Parliament debated his future. A series of Royalist rebellions, including a new Scottish invasion, allowed the king the opportunity for conspiracy, which some in Parliament and in the army classified as treason by the king. The rebellions were all quickly crushed by the New Model Army, and the king’s future was left extremely uncertain.

Disagreement in Parliament on the future role of Charles I led to Pride’s Purge Pride’s Purge (1648)[Prides Purge (1648)] of Parliament in 1648. The army, led by Thomas Pride, Pride, Thomas arrested forty-five members who wanted to retain Charles as monarch. Many more were banned from taking their seats. Those arrested and banned were mostly Scottish Presbyterians. Seventy-five members of the original Long Parliament elected in 1640, mostly Puritans, now formed the Rump Parliament Rump Parliament . The army ordered the Rump Parliament to put the king on trial for treason.

The trial of King Charles I was conducted in January, 1649. He was found guilty of treason against the English people and beheaded on January 30.

The second phase of the Civil War was not yet over, however. Royalist uprisings in Ireland had to be crushed by Cromwell in August, 1649. In Scotland, the son of Charles I was crowned as King Charles II Charles II (king of England);Restoration of . He prepared to lead an army of Scots into England to claim the rest of his throne. Cromwell was sent into Scotland and destroyed a large Scottish army at Dunbar Dunbar, Battle of (1650) on September 3, 1650. Charles II was still able to march deep into England, but he was defeated by Cromwell at Worcester exactly a year after Dunbar, on September 3, 1651. Charles II escaped and made his way to France, where he stayed until 1660.


The execution of King Charles I began a period of English history called the Interregnum, which means a temporary break in a monarchial line. Power was now divided between the army and the Rump Parliament. Since Oliver Cromwell was part of both, he became the link between them. Much of the English population was shocked by the execution of Charles I, but they were not yet ready to accept his son Charles II as their next monarch. They were also not ready to abandon the monarchy entirely. The immediate need was to reestablish peace and security to the realm. For that reason, the next eleven years were years of political experimentation and continued political turmoil. The experimentation began with a government called the Commonwealth Commonwealth (1649-1660) in 1649. Cromwell was named lord protector of England, in effect the ruler of the country, in 1653.

After Cromwell’s death, an opportunity existed to create the kind of government that many of England’s politicians had desired all along, a constitutional monarchy Monarchy, constitutional in which the Crown shared power with Parliament. The movement toward establishing this system began in 1660, when Charles II Charles II (king of England);Restoration of was restored to the throne by Parliament. Constitutional monarchy would not be fully established in England, however, until 1689, with the installation of William III and Mary II in the Glorious Revolution and passage of the English Declaration of Rights. Bill of Rights, English (1689)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carlin, Norah. The Causes of the English Civil War. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1999. Detailed coverage of the causes of the war, in the context of English politics and government from 1603 to 1649. Bibliographical references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Norman. The Isles: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Has a long chapter devoted to the seventeenth century, including detailed coverage and a map of the Civil Wars. Emphasizes the parts relating to the three kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hill, Christopher. Intellectual Origins of the English Revolution Revisited. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Revision of 1965 work, covering the intellectual life of England during the period, the Puritan Revolution, and other related topics. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kenyon, John, and Jane Ohlmeyer, eds. The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638-1660. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Essays cover the background, the war in each kingdom, naval operations, logistics and supply, and other major topics.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; Third Baron Fairfax; James I; James II; Mary II; Thomas Pride; Prince Rupert; William III. English Civil Wars (1642-1651)

Categories: History