English Civil War

There was a conflict between King Charles I of England and Parliament over fundamental issues of state and church control during the English Civil War (1642-1646). As a result of the war, the king was executed in 1649.

The Outbreak of the Civil War

Following the death of his father, James I, in 1625, Charles I inherited the thrones of England, Scotland, and Ireland. However, he faced significant discontent with his early English Parliaments. In 1629, he began an eleven-year period of personal rule, governing England on his own. But in the summer of 1640, his attempts to forcibly alter the Presbyterian Church in Scotland led to an invasion of northern England by the Scottish, who demanded a payment to withdraw.
Charles I was forced to convene Parliament for assistance and those summoned to London in November 1640 were determined to ensure that the king would never rule without them again. As the parliamentary opposition called for greater innovations in governance, a reaction set in among the more moderate members of the Commons and Lords. In late 1641, a rebellion by Catholics in Ireland further complicated the situation, as Parliament refused to entrust the king with the command of an army to put down the rebellion.
Charles I’s failed attempt to arrest opposition leaders in January 1642 demonstrated his willingness to use force against political opponents. Negotiations throughout the first half of the year failed to resolve the crisis, and on August 2, 1642, Parliament declared that England was in “imminent danger by reason of a malignant party prevailing with his Majesty.”
In response, both houses issued a call to arms to defend the “true Religion, the Laws and Liberties of the Kingdom, and the Power and Privilege of Parliament.” Thus, Parliament declared war on the king, who countered with his own call to arms at Nottingham on August 22. Charles, I fought to maintain not only his royal prerogatives in governing the state but also his role as supreme governor of the Church of England.
Charles, I believed in the Anglican episcopate and rituals, in contrast to the Puritans who led his parliamentary opposition and aimed to further reform the church. His followers, known as royalists or Cavaliers, were dominant in the north, parts of the Midlands, the West Country, and Wales.
The parliamentarians, derogatorily labeled as rebels or Roundheads by their opponents, controlled London and its wealth, the navy, and the richer shires in the center, east, and southeast. Despite the formal declarations of hostilities, most English people hoped for a negotiated settlement to avoid a fratricidal war. The king and Parliament each believed they would win the first major military encounter and be able to dictate peace terms to the defeated opponent.
In the fall of 1642, Parliament’s lord general, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, led his forces northwest from London to stop the king from marching south from Yorkshire, where he had been recruiting. The two armies, each numbering about 14,000 men, met at Edgehill in Warwickshire on October 23, 1642. Charles I and his cavalry commander, his 22-year-old nephew Prince Rupert, who was already a veteran of the Continental wars, were in the field.
Despite the prince’s sweeping cavalry charge, the battle of Edgehill ended in a draw. That winter, both sides commissioned local nobles and gentry to build up regional armies and engaged in an intense war of words, producing and distributing numerous propaganda pamphlets and news sheets to win public opinion. The parliamentary leaders in London and the king at his headquarters in Oxford set in motion plans for a protracted conflict.

Campaigns of 1643–1644

In early 1642, Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen, departed from England with the royal jewels, which she pawned on the Continent to raise money for her husband’s cause. She returned to England in February 1643, safely landing on the coast of Yorkshire. The men and supplies she brought with her aided the northern royalists in their struggle against local parliamentary forces led by Lord Ferdinando Fairfax and his son, Sir Thomas.
By the end of June, the Fairfaxes were expelled from the heart of Yorkshire, and the queen was able to journey south to reunite with her husband at Oxford. Meanwhile, in the West Country, Sir Ralph Hopton led royalists to hold off Sir William Waller’s parliamentary forces at Lansdown, north of Bath, on July 5. With cavalry reinforcements from Oxford, Hopton decisively defeated Waller at Roundway Down in Wiltshire on July 13.
After suffering losses in battle, the parliamentary strongholds of Gloucester and Bristol were left vulnerable to attack by the royalists. In July, Rupert quickly set off to capture Bristol, which surrendered on the 26th, providing the royalists with a much-needed port and manufacturing center. Charles I then besieged Gloucester in August, but a relief army led by Essex forced the king to raise the siege on September 6. The two armies then had an indecisive encounter at Newbury in Berkshire on September 20 before marching off – the king to Oxford, and Essex to London.
As a result of the royalist victories in 1643, John Pym and his colleagues sought additional military support for their cause, while the king brought back English troops from Ireland to bolster his forces. In a major coup, Pym negotiated an alliance with the Scots, and on September 25, the House of Commons subscribed to the Solemn League and Covenant, in which they promised to adopt a Presbyterian system of church government. However, not everyone in England was in favor of such a religious settlement. Pym, having accomplished this last service in Parliament’s cause, died on December 8. On January 19, 1644, Scot’s army crossed the border into England.
To direct military operations in the field, a new joint executive, the Committee of Both Kingdoms, was formed in London. The royalist north was again endangered, and the Marquess of Newcastle was forced to withdraw to the walled city of York, where he was besieged by three allied armies in June. Joining the Scots were the Fairfaxes, who had rebuilt their army, and the Eastern Association, led by William Montagu, Earl of Manchester, and his cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell.
In early 1644, King Charles I sent Prince Rupert to relieve the besieged city of York and defeated Waller at Cropredy Bridge. Rupert surprised the besiegers by approaching from the north and breaking the siege of York, but in doing so, he exposed his smaller army to battle against the larger enemy force. The ensuing Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1644, was one of the largest and bloodiest ever fought on English soil, resulting in over 4,000 royalist casualties and the loss of York to the king. The parliamentary cavalry under Cromwell played a decisive role in the allies’ victory, making him a hero to Parliament.
Despite the setback, Charles I still had his field army and dealt a major blow to Parliament’s lord general, Essex, at Lostwithiel in Cornwall in early September. Although London had hoped for an end to the war, the king’s army was still a force to be reckoned with. The parliamentary armies of Essex, Manchester, and Waller failed to encircle the king on his return march east, and at the second battle of Newbury on October 27, the royalists held off their opponents until nightfall and then retreated to Oxford. The year that began with high hopes for Parliament ended on a triumphant note for the royalists.

Conclusion of the English Civil War with the aid of the New Model Army

The House of Commons voted in December 1644 to restructure their armies for a stronger chance of victory. The House of Lords, however, took several months of negotiations before agreeing to the formation of the New Model Army, which would be composed of the armies of Essex, Manchester, and Waller.
On April 3, 1645, these commanders were removed by the Self-Denying Ordinance, which aimed to discharge all members of both Houses from military and civil offices, except for Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, who sat in the Commons, was appointed lieutenant general of the horse of the New Model Army, which was to be commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax.
In May, Charles I left Oxford and had to decide on his strategy for the upcoming campaign season. His queen had gone to France for safety, and his heir, Charles, prince of Wales, was in the loyalist West Country. The king decided to split his forces, with him and Rupert marching north, while 3,000 of his cavalry were sent west.
Meanwhile, Fairfax and the New Model Army had been directed on various inconclusive missions by the Committee of Both Kingdoms. It was only after the king surprised the parliamentary stronghold of Leicester in the Midlands on May 31 that the committee gave Fairfax permission to proceed as he saw fit.
Fairfax wasted no time chasing after the king’s army. On June 14, the New Model Army, consisting of 14,000 to 17,000 men, clashed with the king’s 10,000 soldiers at Naseby in Northamptonshire. Despite being outnumbered, the experienced royalist infantry fought fiercely, but it was the parliamentary cavalry, led by Cromwell, that ultimately turned the tide. The king’s army suffered a total defeat, with more than 4,000 of his infantry taken captive. Although the king himself managed to escape to Wales, where he began to rebuild his forces.
Fairfax was eager to end the war as quickly as possible, as war-weariness was growing throughout the country, and the Clubmen, popular self-defense forces, had emerged in many areas to protect against the depredations of both armies. The New Model Army marched west, avoiding any clashes with the Clubmen, and on July 10, they defeated the last significant royalist field army at Langport in Somerset.
Instead of pursuing the fleeing royalists further west, Fairfax focused on capturing a series of royalist strongholds, including Bristol, which Prince Rupert surrendered on September 10. The war wound down that winter as the New Model Army turned west once again, and Hopton surrendered the king’s last forces in March 1646, but not before sending the Prince of Wales out of the country.
After securing his son’s safety, Charles I surrendered to the Scottish army on May 5, 1646, effectively ending the civil war. However, the peace that followed did not resolve the contentious state and church issues in England. Instead, the New Model Army, which included more radicalized members such as Cromwell, began to diverge from Parliament, its nominal commander, as they advocated for independent congregations.
Fairfax continued to serve as lord general during the royalist uprisings in 1648, which he and Cromwell quelled. However, he did not participate in Charles I’s trial and execution in January 1649, nor did he lead the New Model Army against the Scots when they supported Charles II, which prompted his resignation in 1650.
Cromwell then assumed control of not just the New Model Army but also the English state until his death in 1658. However, even he could not establish a permanent form of government, and in 1660, the Stuart monarchy was reinstated. The newly founded British North American colonies were too far away to play a direct role in the civil war. The Puritans in New England supported the parliamentary cause, while the royal colony of Virginia remained loyal to Charles I. It wasn’t until October 1649, nine months after his execution, that the Virginia House of Burgesses condemned the king’s death. Read More – Siege of Louisbourg


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