By Tim Lambert

The Background to the Civil War

What were the triggers of the English Civil War? In the early 17th century tension between king and parliament was growing. However, matters came to a head in 1637. In 1634 the king began levying ship money. This was a traditional tax raised in coastal towns to enable the king to build ships when more was needed. However, in 1635 Charles began levying ship money in inland areas. A Buckinghamshire squire called John Hampden refused to pay. In 1637 he was taken to court and although he lost his case he became a hero. Ship money was very unpopular with the propertied class. Worse in 1637 Charles and Laud enraged the Scots by proposing religious changes in Scotland. Laud and Charles tried to introduce a new prayer book in Scotland. There were riots in Edinburgh. In February 1638 Scottish nobles and ministers signed a document called the National Covenant.

Charles made two attempts to bring the Scots to heel. Both were humiliating failures. The first Bishops War of 1639 ended with the peace of Berwick but it was only breathing space for both sides. In April 1640 Charles summoned parliament again, hoping they would agree to raise money for his Scottish campaign. Instead, parliament simply discussed its many grievances. Charles dissolved parliament on 5 May and it became known as the Short parliament because it met for such a short time.

The Second Bishops War followed in 1640. In August 1640 the Scots invaded England and they captured Newcastle. Charles was forced to make peace with the Scots. By the treaty, they occupied Durham and Northumberland. Charles was forced to pay their army's costs. Finally, in August 1641, Charles was forced to abandon all attempts to impose religious changes on Scotland. In return, the Scots withdrew from northern England.

Meanwhile, desperate for money, Charles was forced to call parliament again in November 1640. This parliament became known as the Long Parliament. Parliament passed the Triennial Act, which stated that parliament must be called every three years. A Dissolution Act stated that parliament could not be dissolved without its consent. Fining people who had not obtained knighthoods was declared illegal. So was fining landowners who had encroached on royal land. Ship money was also abolished

Parliament also took revenge on the king's hated adviser, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. They passed a special act declaring Strafford was a traitor. The people of London took to the streets demanding his execution. Charles feared for the safety of his family and himself and he was forced to sign the act. Strafford was executed on 12 May 1641. Unfortunately, parliament then divided. Opposition to the king was led by John Pym but many began to fear he was going too far. In November 1641 a list of grievances called the Grand Remonstrance was drawn up but it was passed by only 11 votes. Pym then demanded that the king hand over control of the militia. For many, that was a step too far. They feared that Pym might replace arbitrary royal government with something worse.

Meanwhile parliament and the country split cover religion. Some wanted to return the Church of England to the state of affairs before Laud. Others wanted to abolish bishops completely. The country was becoming dangerously divided. In January 1642 Charles made the situation worse by entering the Commons and attempting to arrest 5 MPs for treason. (They had already fled). No king had entered the Commons before and his actions caused outrage. Once again Charles feared for his safety and he left London.

In March 1642 Parliament declared that its ordinances were valid laws and they did not require the royal assent. In April 1642 king then tried to seize arms in Hull but he was refused entry to the town. Meanwhile in London parliament began raising an army. (Although most of the House of Lords went over to the king). The king also began raising an army and he set up his standard at Nottingham in August.

The English Civil War Begins

However most people were reluctant to take sides in a civil war and wished to stay neutral. Yet gradually people were sucked in.

From the start parliament had several advantages. Firstly it held London and the customs dues from the port were an important source of money. Secondly most of the Southeast and East of England supported parliament. In the 17th century they were the richest and most densely populated parts of the country. Wales, most of northern England and most of the Southwest supported the king but they were poor and thinly populated. Thirdly the navy supported parliament and made it difficult for the king to receive help from abroad.

The first clash of the civil war took place at Powick Bridge near Worcester. It was only a skirmish but it ended in royalist victory. The first major battle took place at Edgehill near Banbury. On 23 October 1642 the parliamentarians started by firing artillery. Prince Rupert, the king's nephew then led a cavalry charge. They chased the parliamentary cavalry off the field. Then infantry then fought but neither side could gain the upper hand. By the time the royalist cavalry returned to the field it was growing dark so the battle ended indecisively. The king advanced towards London but he was stopped at Turnham Green on 13 November 1642.

In 1643 things went better for the king. His army won a victory at Adwalton Moor in Yorkshire in June 1643. They also won battles at Landsdown Hill near Bath and at Roundway Down in July 1643. However, in September 1643, the first battle of Newbury proved indecisive. However, the parliamentarians won a victory at Winceby in Lincolnshire on 11 October 1643.

Then, in September 1643, the parliamentarians persuaded the Scots to intervene on their behalf by promising to make England Presbyterian (a Presbyterian church is one organized without bishops). A Scottish army entered England in January 1644. On 2 July 1644, the royalists were severely defeated at the battle of Marston Moor in Yorkshire. Following this battle, the parliamentarians captured all of Northern England. (although the royalists did win a victory at Lostwithiel on 2 September 1644. The parliamentarians then decided to reform their army. In December 1644 they passed the Self Denying Ordinance, which stated that all MPs (except Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton) must give up their commands. Early in 1645 parliamentary forces were reorganized and became the New Model Army.

The New Model Army crushed the royalists at the battle of Naseby in June 1645 and at Langport, near Yeovil in July 1645. Afterwards, the parliamentarians slowly gathered strength. Finally, in May 1646, the king surrendered to the Scots.

The Scots eventually handed the king over to parliament. That left the problem what to do with the king? Most people did not wish to abolish the monarchy but it was difficult to keep the king but limit his power. Charles made things worse, as usual, by being obstinate and refusing to compromise.

Meanwhile following civil war radical ideas flourished. In November 1646 a man named John Lilburne, one of a group of radicals called the Levellers published a tract called London's Liberty in Chains. He demanded a republic and the abolition of the House of Lords. He also said that all men should be allowed to vote and there should be religious freedom. Furthermore, the army fell out with parliament. By the spring of 1647, the soldier's pay was heavily in arrears and they were not happy. In April 1647 parliament voted to disband the army and give them no more than 6 weeks pay. However, the army refused to disband.

The Second English Civil War

Meanwhile in December 1647 Charles made a secret agreement with the Scots. They agreed to invade England on his behalf. However Oliver Cromwell crushed an army of Scots and English royalists at Preston. A royalist uprising also took place in Kent. However the royalists failed to capture London and instead they marched to Colchester where they were besieged and finally defeated. The army now felt that parliament was being too lenient with the king. They occupied London and Colonel Thomas Pride ejected about 140 members of the Commons. This action was called 'Pride's Purge'. It left a 'rump parliament' of about 60 members.

In January 1649 Charles was put on trial for treason. He was found guilty on 27 January 1649 and he was beheaded outside Whitehall on 30 January 1649. On 17 March 1649 parliament passed an act abolishing monarchy and the House of Lords.

17th Century Weapons

In the early 17th century firearms were either matchlocks or wheel locks. A matchlock held a slow burning match, which was touched to the powder when the trigger was pulled. With a wheel lock a metal wheel spun against iron pyrites making sparks. During the 17th century both of these were gradually replaced by the flintlock which worked by hitting a piece of flint and steel making sparks. Furthermore in the early 17th century the cartridge was invented. The musket ball was placed in a container, which held the right amount of gunpowder to fire it. The soldier no longer had to measure powder from a powder horn into his gun.

Apart from artillery there were two branches of an army. The cavalry were usually armed with wheel lock pistols and sabres. They were protected by back plates, breastplates and helmets. The infantry consisted of men armed with muskets and those armed with pikes. A musket took a long time to reload and the soldiers were very vulnerable while they did so. Therefore they were protected by men with pikes (a weapon like a long spear). In theory there were two musketeers to each pike man. The pike men usually had a steel helmet but musketeers did not usually wear armor.

A History of Weapons

Life in the 17th Century

A History of England

A Timeline of English History