English Civil War

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With the ascension of Charles I to the throne we come at last to the Central Period of English History (not to be confused with the Middle Ages, of course), consisting in the utterly memorable Struggle between the Cavaliers (Wrong but Wromantic) and the Roundheads (Right and Repulsive). Charles I was a Cavalier King and therefore had a small pointed beard, long flowing curls, a large, flat, flowing hat, and gay attire. The Roundheads, on the other hand, were clean-shaven and wore tall, conical hats, white ties, and sombre garments. Under these circumstances a Civil War was inevitable.
1066 and All ThatWikipedia, Sellar & Yeatman

The English Civil War or Wars of the Three Kingdoms comprised a conflict (or series of conflicts) fought from 1642 to 1651 in England, Scotland, and Ireland,[1][2][3] over the governance of these kingdoms. The conflict took place in the context of European struggles between Protestantism and Catholicism, as well as post-Reformation conflicts over the nature of Protestantism, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and changing roles of parliament within government. But in this time of strife, numerous strange religious sects flourished, preaching radical ideas of equality, liberty, pacifism, and refusal of state control: some like the Diggers and Levellers live on in folk memory, while others like the Quakers still exist.

After a series of set-piece battles in the 1640s, during which Oliver Cromwell established an early full-time professional army, the Scots captured King Charles I in 1647 and handed him over to the Parliamentarians; they tried the former king for treason and had him beheaded on 30 January 1649. There was a bit more fighting after that while Cromwell killed his remaining enemies, then things settled down for a few years of rule under the Commonwealth and Protectorate of Cromwell and then of his son Richard, banning Christmas and most other popular entertainments. But in 1660 Charles's son, Charles II, came back and everything was (mostly) forgiven. In fact, he was so chuffed with the whole affair that he had Cromwell's body dug up in 1661, so that he could fantasize about having actually executed him and then had his head put on a spike in front of Westminster hall, just to show the world why the monarchy is so nice.

The war has cast a massive shadow on British history and politics ever since.

Principal combatants[edit]

On one side were the Cavaliers, the supporters of Charles I, who was a high-church Christian, not quite Catholic but leaning in that way, and certainly in favour of a hierarchical church and absolute monarchy. On the other side were the Roundheads, who were low-church puritanical Protestants, who were on the side of parliamentary government and with the support of the rising middle classes.[4] Charles wanted the right to raise taxes, wage war, and basically do what he liked, but he could not raise taxes without parliament's approval, and their disputes through the 1630s were the proximate cause of the war, along with religious and social differences and attitudes to Catholic Spain and the Protestant French Huguenots.[5]

Other interested parties[edit]

It rapidly got much more complicated than that.


The Scots were naturally sympathetic to Cromwell and the Puritans after the Scottish Reformation: the powerful Covenanters were low-church Calvinist Presbyterian protestants with an even greater hatred for anything that smelt even slightly of Roman Catholicism. Charles I was king of Scotland and England, but the two nations had separate parliaments and his religious policies made Charles far from popular north of the border. Initially the pro-Cromwell Kirk Party was dominant in Scotland, but when Charles I was beheaded and Cromwell rather than Charles II succeeded him, the Scots took offense and decided to fight the English, and the Kirk Party were forced to support Charles II, who in turn agreed to support a Presbyterian church.[6] Therefore Cromwell invaded Scotland and smashed up most of it.

In many ways this was just one minor episode in the religious wars that swept Scotland for two hundred years from the Rough Wooing in the 1540s through the Scottish Reformation and associated wars in the later 16th century, various Covenanter rebellions in the 17th centuries, and the Jacobite uprisings in 1689, 1715, and 1745 when Charles's descendants made further efforts to seize the throne.


If the Scots were more Protestant than the Parliamentarians, the Irish were more Catholic than the Cavaliers. Anglo-Irish relationships had deteriorated over the previous 50 years, as Catholic rebellions led to Gaelic and "Old English" (Norman-Irish) feudal lords being dispossessed of lands, now granted to Protestant newcomers. Further rebellion in the Gaelic-controlled Ulster province, particularly a fierce guerilla warWikipedia, led to a joint Anglo-Scottish venture to colonise the region, encourage Protestantism, and "civilise" the inhabitants. Hostility increased while the English Parliament fought Charles I, leading to a series of massacres by Gaelic and Old English inhabitants against settlers, vice versa, and between themselves over religion and politics. This resulted in both a Scottish invasion of Ulster to protect their settlements, and an English invasion under Cromwell in 1649 to protect their settlements, leading to the Siege of DroghedaWikipedia. British and Irish sources still differ about exactly what happened.[7]


Far more extreme than Cromwell were groups like the Diggers and Levellers who not only opposed the king but all earthly powers, and wanted to establish the kingdom of God on earth.


Levellers were so called by their enemies due to claims that they supported redistribution of wealth. They began in the London middle class and supported free trade, freedom of religion, and an extension of the franchise. They later gained support in the army, mutinying against the invasion of Ireland in 1649, but the movement faded soon after. Only a radical rump remained, conspiring with Royalists or the Spanish. Miles Sindercombe led a group of radical Levellers in 1657 who made several plans to shoot Cromwell before attempting to set fire to parliament. One of the group tipped off the authorities, they were captured, and Sindercombe killed himself rather than be hanged, drawn, and quartered.[8][9]


The Diggers or True Levellers (as they called themselves) would still be considered extreme. The Diggers, whose main theologian was Gerrard WinstanleyWikipedia, opposed the privatisation of grazing lands and believed all land should be held in common, farmed by everyone, and the crops given to all.[10][11] They established several farms, most notably St George's Hill and Little Heath, both in Surrey, although they also had colonies in nearby Buckinghamshire and at Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. Their settlements were attacked by local gentry, buildings burnt and crops uprooted. The movement was finished by the early 1650s, although Winstanley wrote The Law of Freedom in 1652 setting out plans for a utopian state. Today, Winstanley's hometown of Wigan celebrates an annual Diggers' Festival.[12]


The Ranters were even more out there: they were pantheists, and antinomians, believing they were not bound by ordinary moral law. They liked to take their clothes off, smoke, drink, and indulge in free love; even Winstanley denounced them as immoral.[13] Less an organised movement than a few unconnected preachers and their followers, important figures included Abiezer Coppe, Laurence Clarkson, Joseph Salmon and Jacob Bauthumley. They believed in the Indwelling Spirit, the idea that Jesus is fully present in all who accept him. Parliament passed laws in 1650 against them, banning adultery and fornication, and restricting who could preach. Bauthumley, who denied that the Bible was God's word and claimed that Jesus was no more divine than anybody else, got a spike through his tongue for blasphemy.


Many Ranters eventually became Quakers.[14] Quaker founder George Fox preached in the 1640s that Christ is fully present in all believers, gradually gaining followers although his movement had no structure at first. Despite Cromwell's sympathy, they faced repeated prosecutions (inspiring the practice of jury nullification in Bushel's Case in 1670).[15]

Fifth Monarchists[edit]

The Fifth Monarchists were millenarian Protestants who believed that the prophecy of the Book of Daniel was about to be fulfilled with the establishment of a fifth great power following the four empires described by Daniel. Some of its followers played significant roles in the Civil Wars: Thomas HarrisonWikipedia and John CarewWikipedia were among the 59 "regicides", the commissioners who signed Charles I's death warrant. Major-General Harrison, who was an important figure in Cromwell's army, was involved in abortive plans in 1653 to establish a government of 70 "saints" modelled on the Old Testament SanhedrinWikipedia, based on Fifth Monarchist ideas. Although this did not fully come to pass, Hamilton served in Barebone's ParliamentWikipedia of 1653, which had a strong Fifth Monarchist component including Praise-God BareboneWikipedia himself. Harrison resisted when the increasingly authoritarian Cromwell tried to dissolve this parliament; Cromwell triumphed and Harrison was dismissed from the army and imprisoned. Both Harrison and Carew were executed after the Restoration.[16]

John Milton[edit]

The poet John Milton was an active figure in radical circles: he supported the Parliamentary side, writing religious tracts in their defence. However, he also wrote in favour of divorce (after his 16 year old bride Mary Powell ran off), which attracted attacks from Puritan authorities, and caused him to write his Areopagitica (1644), one of the most famous defences of free speech.[17] After 1649, he also wrote Eikonoklastes in defence of the killing of Charles I, and a number of pamphlets and poems boosting the Commonwealth and Oliver Cromwell, while opposing state control of religion. Following the Restoration, he was saved by his influential friends, and kept a fairly low profile politically other than arguing for religious tolerance (except for Roman Catholics).[18]


The radical movements of the time have proven very influential on more recent democratic and revolutionary movements, despite the great difference between them and more recent secular socialist, anarchist, or Marxist ideas, with Tony Benn citing the Levellers as an influence on his Christian socialism as well as claiming they inspired the American Revolution.[19][20] The 17th century ballad "The Diggers' Song" aka "Levellers and Diggers" ("You noble Diggers all, stand up now...") remains popular in radical folk circles, and there is a well-known Leon Rosselson song (covered by Billy Bragg) called "The World Turned Upside Down" about the Diggers.[21] Two of the main bands of the late 80s/early 90s anarcho-punk "crusty" movement were called The Levellers and (perhaps more ironically) New Model Army. The time period has attracted young and experimental filmmakers from Michael Reeves (Witchfinder General) to Ben Wheatley (A Field in England).

The Commonwealth and Protectorate[edit]


The Parliamentarian side actually didn't like a lot of the members of parliament, and through a purge in 1648 produced the Rump Parliament, which tried and sentenced the King. A new state, the Commonwealth, was established after Charles's execution, but the exact system of government changed several times. In 1649, the House of Lords was abolished, along with the monarchy, and a ruling body, the Council of State, was set up as the executive. The Rump Parliament remained the legislature until 1653, when Cromwell and a group of musketeers took military action to dismiss it.

The idea for a replacement for parliament came from Major-General Thomas Hamilton, a prominent ally of Cromwell and a follower of the millennialist Fifth Monarchy (or Fifth Kingdom) sect. He proposed a government based on the Biblical Sanhedrin of 70 "saints", and the Council of State established the Nominated Assembly (or to its enemies "Barebone's Parliament", a nickname deriving from the leather merchant and assembly member Praise-God BareboneWikipedia or Barbon, as the press sought to ridicule Barebone and the parliament for their lower-class origins and lack of political experience). Its members were chosen by a committee and approved by the Council of State; after 6 months it too was dissolved.

Cromwell took over as Protector at the end of 1653, relying on his control of the army. His Protectorate was subject to frequent challenges and rebellions, but it attempted to take control of the church via the commission of Triers and the issuance of licences to preachers, to unify Scotland and England, and to wage war against Catholic Spain.[22] Appropriating property from the Crown, Church of England, and Royalist sympathisers was a good source of income for government, although not universally popular.[23]


Cromwell was a Puritanical Christian who opposed most of what is now considered fun, although he seemed to have some belief in freedom of thought and religion (at least for Puritans, who were not required to have anything to do with the established church).[24] Cromwell's rule is notorious for things like cancelling Christmas.[25] The banning of Christmas by Parliament was the subject of the still-performed ballad "The World Turned Upside Down", which was sung in the American War of Independence.[26] The Rump Parliament imposed the death penalty for adultery and three months' jail for fornication.[23]


Fortunately for England's tinsel merchants, Cromwell died from (possibly) malaria in 1658. He was posthumously tried for treason and posthumously executed in 1661.[27] Before that, his son Richard Cromwell ruled for 9 months; Junior had nice hair but no followers, and was deposed in 1659 by George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle, who had been hiding out in Scotland, exchanging secret messages with the future king Charles II. Charles's return is known as the Restoration, and Charles is called the Merry Monarch because of his comparative cheerfulness. He also restored theatre to Britain, allowing the plays of William Shakespeare to be staged again while kicking off the genre of Restoration Comedy.


There is some debate around Cromwell's attitude to Jews. It is commonly claimed that Cromwell let Jews return to England by reversing the edict of expulsion by King Edward I that caused their banishment from England in 1290, so he could have the benefit of their money. However, while he desired their money, evidence suggests that other Commonwealth leaders were less keen and there was no formal agreement on their return; the most that might have happened was a few came in quietly, under orders not to publicly practice or profess their faith.[28][29]


The war has cast a long shadow through history, with its divisions persisting in Britain and elsewhere:

  • Roundheads: evangelical Christian (non-conformist, sometimes Methodist or Congregationalist, or low Church of England); rising middle classes, merchants, financiers, and later industrialists; supporters of King William III and later the Hanoverian monarchs; pro-Dutch and pro-German; turning into the progressive Whigs in the 18th century and later the Liberal Party (despite the Puritans' less than liberal policies).
  • Cavaliers: anglo-Catholic or actually Catholic; aristocratic landowners; Jacobites (favouring Charles II, James II and later the restoration of the Stuart monarchs); supporting the Catholic powers in Europe; Tories. The tradition of the Cavaliers and Tories also inspired the Confederacy during and after the American Civil War; the rebels associated the Whigs with the North.[30] It helped of course that the predecessor to the Republican Party was the Whig Party.

Cromwell remains a controversial figure, both for his opposition to the monarchy, and for the large number of Irish he killed. This debate has manifested over issues such as the statue of Oliver Cromwell by Hamo Thornycroft outside the Houses of Parliament in London, which was erected in 1899 after almost 50 years' debate. Recently, there have been calls for the statue to be removed and melted down, including from otherwise progressive and anti-royalist MPs like Tony Banks (who was born in Belfast).[31] The City Council of Edinburgh, capital of Scotland, had planned to erect a statue of Cromwell in the 1650s, but following the Restoration, they quickly changed tack and threw Charles II up instead.[32][33]


  1. BBC History: Civil War and Revolution
  2. English Civil Wars, History.com
  3. British Civil Wars Project
  4. Are you a Roundhead or a Cavalier?, BBC iWonder
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Charles I of England.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Scotland in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
  7. Cromwell: The Irish Question, Tom Reilly, History Today, Volume 62 Issue 9 September 2012
  8. Levellers, BCW Project
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Miles Sindercombe.
  10. Gerrald Winstanley, British Civil Wars Project
  11. The Diggers' vision to reclaim the Land - April 1649, bilderberg.org
  12. Wigan Diggers Festival 2019: 21 pictures from a packed day of talks, events and art, Jon Peake, Wigan Today, 9 Sep 2019
  13. See the Wikipedia article on Ranter.
  14. Quakers and the Civil War, English Civil War Society of America, 'ECW Notes & Queries' (Caliver Books/Partizan Press)
  15. Quakers, BCW Project
  16. See the Wikipedia article on Fifth Monarchists.
  17. See the Wikipedia article on Areopagitica.
  18. See the Wikipedia article on John Milton.
  19. George Woodcock, Anarchism, Ch 1
  20. The Levellers and the Tradition of Dissent, Tony Benn, BBC
  21. See the Wikipedia article on Diggers' Song.
  22. The Commonwealth, British Civil War Project
  23. 23.0 23.1 See the Wikipedia article on Rump Parliament.
  24. Cromwell and Religion, Oliver Cromwell Society
  25. Christmas Abolished, Oliver Cromwell Society
  26. See the Wikipedia article on The World Turned Upside Down.
  27. See the Wikipedia article on Oliver Cromwell's head.
  28. Oliver Cromwell and the Jews: a correction, Eliane Glaser, The Guardian, 9 December 2005
  29. See the Wikipedia article on Resettlement of the Jews in England.
  30. Rebels, Cavaliers & Tories, Southern Future, 10 Aug 2015
  31. See the Wikipedia article on Statue of Oliver Cromwell, Westminster.
  32. Statue of King Charles II, Royal-Mile.com
  33. Charles II statue back in Edinburgh's Parliament Square, BBC, 19 April 2011