The English Civil War and its Aftermath

The English Civil War and its Aftermath (1642-1658)

Prior to the 17th century, England witnessed two civil wars. The first opposed the English nobles to King Henry III. The second, better known as the War of the Roses, brought into opposition two royal families contending for the English throne. But the most formidable civil war took place in 1642. Surely the nobles mostly represented in Parliament were from time to time at variance with the Crown, particularly when their interest and that of the latter clashed.Surely, King Edward II (reigned 1307–27) was deposed by Parliament in 1327. However, Parliament’s arguments with the Crown never went so far as to execute the sovereign, abolish the monarchy and establish a republic in its stead. So, who were the main actors of the Civil War? What were their political complexions? Why was the King executed and then a republic substituted for monarchy. Last but by no means the least did the republic live up to the expectations of the winners of the war? First and foremost, it would difficult and misleading to put the origins of the Civil War down to one single factor. In fact a number of factors interacted to bring about the outbreak of the English Civil War. There is no doubt that events in Scotland and Ireland contributed to the timing of the outbreak of the English Civil War. King Charles’s decision to impose on his Scottish subjects an English Prayer Book that restored episcopacy and High Church aroused a Presbyterian rebellion in Scotland in 1638. His refusal to back down only inflamed the situation. The result was that some Scots gave their support to the Covenanters (the Scottish rebels thus named after they had drawn up the National Covenant in February 1638). By November the same year, the Covenanters declared episcopacy abolished in Scotland and directly challenged the power of the monarch.

In Ireland the outbreak of a rebellion in October 1641, when Irish Catholics were said to have massacred 37,000 English and Scottish Protestants, provoked even more divisions in England. The point of contention revolved around the raising and the control of an army to put down the Irish insurgency. Then the poignant question was “Who will control the army that will be raised, Parliament or King?” “What if the king directs the army against Parliament?” Additionally, King Charles’s endeavour to unify religiously Anglican England, Presbyterian Scotland and Catholic Ireland fuelled tension and animosity in the three kingdoms.[i] There is no doubt that these events contributed to the timing of the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. But most of the reasons why King Charles I faced opposition by 1640 are to be found in England. The Civil War that pitted the English Parliament against King Charles I was fought because the belligerents held divergent views as far as the governance of the country was concerned. In fact, while the monarch believed that he held absolute power over his subjects, the deputies held the firm conviction that they were the inheritors of a Constitution balanced between the monarch, the Lords and the Commons, a Constitution confirmed as part of the Magna Carta; a document that compelled the king to respect the rule of law and the traditional rights of his subjects. The 17th century Civil War triggered off because of the breaking of that consensus.

Equally Parliament, which had for long been allied to the Crown, grew into opposition to it. Under Elizabeth I's later years, for example, the Queen had to deal with new elements in the Lower House, namely the gentry. These were those well off people who accumulated wealth since the early years of the 16th century when they purchased the Church lands that the English Crown had confiscated during the Reformation. These economic forces were detrimental to the English nobility who had no military role to play in England. They were also losing authority in government while, on the other hand, the gentry were becoming politically more important as they had money. Because of their wealth and their contribution to the wealth of the country, the gentry believed it their right to have a voice in Parliament. What should be underscored was that the very existence of the gentry in Parliament was not the only cause of the Civil War. What underlay the outbreak of the Civil War was that the gentry were sympathetic to the Puritans who argued that the Anglican Church that had been established by Queen Elizabeth was still closer to the Roman Catholic Church in terms of liturgy and church government. Therefore they believed it was incumbent upon them to initiate reforms in that direction. What fuelled the Puritan' rancour against the Anglican Church was the payment of tithes (a third of the harvest) to support the Church, particularly, non preaching clergy. Unlike the Anglican clergy, the Puritans privileged preaching over praying, which goes far to explain their effective influence over their audiences. Yet, by attacking the Church of England, the Puritans were, in fact, attacking King Charles I in person, being the head of the Anglican Church.

When the latter summoned Parliament in 1640, animosity came to a head as the representatives of both Houses grew critical of the King's fiscal policies However, by the end of 1641, things changed as some deputies in both Houses of Parliament believed that the attack on the Crown had gone far enough. It was at this point that the Royalists and the Parliamentarians began to be more clearly defined. Because both parties held uncompromising stances, open confrontation was inevitable. The Royalists controlled the North, the centre and the west of the country, while the Parliamentarians dominated London, Hull, Plymouth and Gloucester. What should be underscored was that each side relied on volunteers at the outset of the war. The belligerents engaged in 3 major battles: The Edge Hill was the first major pitched battle, which the Parliamentarians and the Royalists fought in Oct.1642. In it both armies were numerically evenly matched as each of them numbered around 14,000 men. The battle was inconclusive. After Edgehill Battle, neither the Royalists nor the Parliamentarians relied on volunteers. Instead, they introduced conscription. They also began to collect new taxes. The excise, for example was a tax that was levied on consumer goods. The warring parties also passed measures legalizing the confiscation of the wealth and property of those who fought against them, and set up county committees composed of people loyal to their cause to put these measures into effect In 1643, both sides made alliances. While King Charles made a truce with the Irish called the Irish Cessation Treaty, in return for military help, the Parliamentary party made an alliance with the Scots in return for the establishment of a national Presbyterian Church in England. [ii] If the belligerent parties' primary motive was to reinforce their military units, their alliances were to enlarge the war to implicate Scotland and Ireland since both kingdoms were under the authority of the same monarch. However, the Cessation Truce did a great deal of damage to the Royalists' war effort as very few soldiers came from Ireland to support the Royalists in England. Equally, the truce was a propaganda disaster for the King, for his opponents were able to depict him as someone willing to use Catholic murderers against his English subjects. In contrast the Scottish alliance gave the Parliamentarian military cause a major boost.[iii]

In Marston Moor the warring parties were not numerically matched as the Royalists numbered 17,500 soldiers while the Parliamentarians counted 27,000. Marston Moor (1644) which was the second pitched battle was critical for the Royalists because they lost their control over the North However, after Marston Moor a disagreement arose in the ranks of the king’s opponents as to the way to conduct the war. As a result of this disagreement, two factions emerged within the Parliamentarians: The Independents and the Presbyterians. While the Independents favoured religious toleration and the decisive defeat of the King,[iv] the Presbyterians were for a negotiated settlement with him, even if this settlement would be detrimental to some of the principles they took up arms for, the limitation of the King’s constitutional powers, among others.[v] Edward Montagu, the Earl of Manchester expressed the uselessness of defeating the King decisively in the following: If we beat the king ninety - nine times he is king still, and so will his posterity be after him; but if the king beat us once, we shall be all hanged, and our posterity be made slaves. [vi] This contention led the Parliamentarians to effect military reforms before they started the third battle at Naseby in 1645. The Naseby battle, in which 10,000 Royalists confronted 14,000 Parliamentarians, gave the Royalists a death blow.[vii] The latter were conclusively defeated because they had to confront a more organized; a well disciplined and regularly paid military force called the New Model Army. Notwithstanding their victory at Naseby, the Presbyterians and the Independents were unable to come to terms as to their political and religious boundaries. On the contrary, their argument became more heated as the Presbyterian MPs, having the majority in Parliament, deprived the soldiers of their arrears. Oliver Cromwell, being one of the leaders of the army, made common cause with the soldiers.[viii] That was how the army became part and parcel of the organs of government. In order to make Parliament more tractable, the army purged it of the unmanageable Presbyterian MPs. [ix]

After their unsuccessful negotiations with King Charles, the army sentenced the latter to death and executed him in 1649. Subsequently, they abolished monarchy and established a republic they named the Commonwealth. Following King Charles’s execution, the purged Parliament, also named the Rump Parliament did not live up to the expectations of the army. It did not live up to the aspirations of the populations of the Commonwealth either as it had been expected to initiate political, social, legal, and religious reforms in addition to the preparation of new elections which would give the Commonwealth government a legal basis. In consequence of the inertia that the Commonwealth witnessed, Cromwell opted for the dissolution of Parliament in 1653. Being aware of the constitutional vacuum that was left by the absence of a permanent law that would govern the country, Oliver Cromwell adopted “The Instrument of the Government”, a Constitution that shared political power among a Lord Protector, a council of twenty-one members, and a Parliament.

Despite this political novelty, the Instrument of the Government proved unworkable because of the diversity of the political and religious groups, all aspiring to use the parliamentary institution to implement their programmes, which were in most cases conflicting. In sum, the Civil War did not solve the constitutional problem that Parliament took up arms for. They took up arms to ensure the sovereignty of Parliament, but they were disappointed to see this institution fall into the hands of the army. Indeed, they fought King Charles’s absolutism to fall into the army’s dictatorship. Surprisingly enough, Oliver’s rule resembled King Charles’s in some respects. Both of King Charles and Cromwell dissolved Parliaments at will. Both sent the opponents of their policies into prison, and both of them censured the press and tortured those who dared write seditious libels. Additionally, in 1657 the “Conservative MPs” presented Cromwell with a Constitution, which he accepted as it made him King in fact, not in name. It also empowered him to appoint up to seventy members to a Chamber parallel to the House of Lords that he named “the Other Chamber”. What is more Oliver Cromwell, like King Charles, was installed at Whitehall, holding a golden scepter in addition to his sword.


[i] G .M. Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England, London, Penguin Books, p.291. [ii] S.R.Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War (1642-1649), Vol.3, London, 1893, p.55. [iii] G. M. Travelyan, England under the Stuarts, London, Penguin Books, 1960, p. 244. [iv] ‘House of Commons Journal', Volume 2:13 March 1643, Journal of the House of Commons: volume 2:1640-1643 (1802), pp.1000-002. [v] George Yule, The Independents in the English Civil War, England, Cambridge, 1958, p. 5. [vi] Lacy Baldwin Smith, This Realm of England 1399 to 1688, Toronto, Fifth Edition, D.C Health and Company, 1988, p.259. [vii] Ian Gentles, The New Model Army, Great Britain, Blackwell Press, 1992, p.60. [viii] André Maurois, Histoire D'Angleterre, Paris, Albin Michel, 1963, p. 59. [ix] Francis. D. Wormuth, The Origins of Modern Constitutionalism, New York, Harper & Brothers, 1949, p. 50.