The Civil Wars
Though it is usual to refer to the English Civil War in the singular, it is more useful to consider the era as a series of conflicts - Civil Wars plural. The topic can seem overly complex, with endless lists of battles and generals. But it is still of significance today: in simple terms, the Civil Wars determined the nature of British government until our own times: the sovereignty of Parliament was confirmed; the Stuart trend towards absolutism was stopped dead; and the crown was given a graphic demonstration that truly, uneasy the head that wears the crown. Charles I lost his.
Had Charles I not decided to pick a fight with the Scots Presbyterians, however, attempting to force on them the English prayer book, it is very probable that no civil war in England would have occurred. Charles had dismissed Parliament in 1629, his relations with them poor from the start of his reign four years earlier. His personal rule lasted for 11 years, his government of the land and his military expeditions financed by forced loans, the imposition of the pseudo-tax of Ship Money on coastal towns in times of peace, contrary to precedent, and then extended to the rest of the country, rather than with monies granted by Parliament.
Though there was discontent at Charles's royal dictatorship, it may have endured had he not been forced to recall Parliament to fund the so-called Bishops Wars with the Scots in 1639 and 1640.
The recalled Parliament had its pound of flesh. Archbishop Laud and chief minister Strafford were sacrificed to appease them, both men tried and executed. That Charles too easily allowed their deaths cannot have escaped the notice of others whose natural bent was towards supporting the monarchy - Charles showed up badly in this matter, prepared to give his supporters to his enemies if it suited him so to do.
Rebellion in Ireland pushed matters further, Parliament not trusting the king to prosecute a war against the Catholics there, given his obvious Catholic sympathies and the influence of his French Catholic wife, Henrietta Maria. When on January 4 1642 Charles, with an extravagant show of force, arrived at Parliament to find and arrest the five MPs most vexing to him, they had disappeared, and so his gesture proved counter-productive in the extreme. Parliament was scandalised by the move, and united against him. Charles looked foolish personally, and as it was believed that Henrietta Maria had pushed him to make the failed move, he looked perhaps less of a man too. Within the week the king had fled the capital, and sides were being drawn up across the nation.
A phony war now began, with Charles attempting to strengthen his position by actions such as trying to grab Hull , with its huge store of weaponry and strategic importance; and likewise with attempts to seize the arsenals in Leicester and Coventry , again blocked. On August 19 1642, however, the royalists succeeded in taking the Nottingham arsenal, and perhaps buoyed by this on August 22 1642 Charles raised his colours over the town, a clear signal of martial intent.
The royal cause was always going to be a difficult one: Parliament controlled the capital and South East, most of the Midlands, and East Anglia, forcing the king to make his capital in York and later Oxford ; Parliament had the deeper pockets and greater financial and military resources; and in the main religious sentiment - and fears the king was a closet Catholic - was another recruiting sergeant for Parliament. And though he was far from stupid, the king was to prove a poor leader: indecisive at key moments, incapable of flexibility in negotiations; and on a personal level unable to engender trust. It may be speculated that his stubbornness resulted from his wish to prove himself against the measure of his more favoured older brother Henry who died when Charles was 12; whatever the cause, he could not see beyond his own point of view.
With more intelligent battlefield leadership the Cavaliers may have ended the war at the first great battle, Edgehill , in October 1642: Prince Rupert 's cavalry cut through their opponents with ease, but rather than finish the job they looted the Parliamentary baggage train (not for the last time), allowing the Roundhead leader Essex to rally his forces and bring about a stalemate. Charles though had London at his mercy, but rather than a decisive move on the capital he edged towards it, and then with the sack of Brentford (Rupert again to blame) in November 1642 managed to stiffen resistance against his party in London. The day after Brentford Charles was faced with a mass of armed London citizenry at Turnham Green , and chose to withdraw, again ignoring Rupert's advice to swing down through Kent and into the capital from the south.
The end of 1642 was the high water mark for Charles and his commanders. Parliament and the Scots decided to ally their causes in The Solemn League and Covenant, the Presbyterians providing about 20,000 soldiers to reinforce the tottering Roundhead forces.
At Marston Moor in July 1644 the allies almost ended the wars with a stunning victory, but poor leadership meant this opportunity was missed. A lack of will to secure victory was also evident in the aristocratic upper echelons of the Parliamentary cause. It may not be too great an exaggeration to say that the purge of this leadership by Cromwell and Vane, and the creation of the disciplined, well paid, and highly motivated New Model Army - a comparison with the Soviet army in WWII is tempting - both benefitting from internal propagandists, religious for the Roundheads rather than political for the Communists - meant that one Civil War ended, and another began: those of more humble rank, with stronger religious convictions and even fanaticism, provided a new opponent for Charles and Rupert.
What almost amounts to a separate conflict carried on in the West, where the royal cause was strong. At Braddock Down in January 1643 Ralph Hopton won a clear victory, holding Cornwall with its tin resources and renowned fighting men for the crown, and again in May that year at Stratton the determined Cavaliers destroyed their opponents; most significantly the royalists won a massive victory at Lostwithiel in August 1644, although they allowed their defeated enemies free passage away from the battle to reduce casualties on both sides, something which they may have bitterly regretted later in the campaign.
The battle of Naseby in the summer of 1645 showed how effective this new opponent was, the battle arguably the most significant on British soil since Hastings . Parliament had greater numbers, more artillery, and in Fairfax a general of better judgement than Essex had ever been. The royal cause was lost that day and was probably doomed thereafter.
Individual clashes after Naseby may not all have been in Parliament's favour, but the Roundhead tide was irresistible, Charles and his generals could not adapt their forces in the same way, and in 1646 Charles was to all intents and purposes a defeated man, sheltering with his Scottish enemies.
A wiser and less obstinate man, and a more humane one - the Civil Wars cost around three times more lives in terms of the percentage of the population lost than did WWI - might have seen the hopelessness of his cause, and in negotiations with Parliament sought a lasting peace and to retrieve a modicum of power. But not Charles Stuart. He managed to get Scottish supporters to invade England, only for Cromwell to wipe them out; he was happy to see doomed uprisings in various English counties offer brief hopes of royalist recovery in what is often referred to as the Second Civil War in 1648. He played one opponent against another, though with less than consummate skill.
The reaction of Cromwell to the confused situation showed the decisiveness Charles could never match: the army seized London, Parliament was rendered a puppet to the army with opponents ejected and The Lords soon abolished; and the unthinkable became the inevitable: Charles was tried for treason, the verdict never in doubt, and to the shock of much of the population rich and poor the king was executed on January 30 1649 .
Conflict in Ireland continued for some time after this, and the Scots still had to be dealt with as they and Charles II certainly were in the decisive defeat at Worcester in the early autumn of 1651.
Cromwell became both the symbol and the driving force of the new regime, and though there were some constitutional fig leaves - power locally in the hands of JPs for example - he eventually became dictator, his title Lord Protector, and the country though called a Commonwealth was a Republic.
The devastation of the Civil Wars meant Britain's economy was set back, and Cromwell had his hands to a certain extent tied in terms of foreign adventures by the national fatigue and empty coffers. But internally the Puritan cause enjoyed a short period of dominance, the joyless nature of that wing of the church still part of our heritage understood by most.
Had Cromwell found and developed a strong successor able to carry on the work he had begun, our history may have been very different. But as is typical of dictators he preferred not to plan for the inevitability of his demise, and when finally he was forced to do so his choice was foolishly dynastic, selecting his own son Richard. The younger Cromwell lacked his father's nerve, steel, and experience, and when Cromwell the father died in 1658 the only question about the return of the monarchy was when it would happen, rather than if. The when was to be 1660, with the Restoration of Charles II .
The newly returned king wrought his vengeance on surviving regicides, and even on the body of the long dead Oliver Cromwell who was posthumously hung, drawn and quartered. But of far greater significance was the fact that Parliament remained sovereign. When the less diplomatic James II succeeded Charles II this was again demonstrated, another king thrown out of power when his religious and political manoeuvrings upset the country and threatened what had become the established constitutional arrangement.
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