4 Key Figures of the English Civil War

Tristan Hughes

5 mins

01 Aug 2018

For 9 years between 1642 and 1651 England was torn apart by a civil war that raged across Britain and Ireland. These were years that would leave a king dead and a country in tatters and their legacy is still being felt today. Here are four individuals which shaped this course of events.

1. Charles I

We remember Charles as the first and only King to be executed in this country. Others had been deposed and quietly murdered in the past, but this was the first one to have a full trial and execution.

Charles believed in the divine right of kings, whereby kings drew their authority from God and only God had the right to overthrow a monarch.

It seems that it was at least partially because of this belief that Charles failed to recognise the importance of Parliament and refused to compromise with dissident MPs. He antagonised Parliament by his attempts to rule without them throughout the 1630s.

Dan Snow meets Leanda de Lisle, whose new biography of Charles I attempts to re-evaluate the reign of Charles I.Listen Now

When war with the Scots forced him to recall Parliament, he found himself forced to go along with a series of measures – including the arrest of some of his key advisers. However, as soon as the opportunity arose, he attempted to have his opponents arrested.

When that failed Charles panicked and, believing his life was in danger, fled to the North and raised his royal standard at Nottingham – the moment war was declared between the King and the parliament.

Even after his defeat and capture in the first Civil War he still could have regained his throne if he had only recognised the weakness of his own position. Instead he escaped and attempted to form an alliance with the Scots. When he was captured, Charles refused to accept the supremacy of the Commons, effectively giving Parliament no choice but to cut off his head.

On 30 Januray 1649 Charles was led out from his confined quarters in St James’ Palace to the scaffold at Whitehall and beheaded with one clean stroke. The final words of his last speech were,

‘I shall go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.’

King Charles I.

2. Prince Rupert

Rupert was the nephew of Charles I and the leader of the Royalist army – also known as the Cavaliers. Although extremely young he was already a veteran of the 30 Years War and would use all this experience in England. He was a brilliant military tactician willing to do anything and everything if it would help him to win.

Rupert’s cavalry developed an especially-fearsome reputation as some of the greatest horsemen around. It was only after Oliver Cromwell created his own ‘Ironside’ troopers that the Parliamentarians had a mounted force able to rival Rupert’s.

Rupert fell out with the King after the Battle of Naseby when he advised the King to make terms with Parliament. Believing he could still win, Charles refused. Rupert would later surrender Bristol to the parliamentarians – an act which would see him stripped of his commissions.

He left England for exile in Holland, but received naval commissions after the restoration and was later involved in the Anglo-Dutch Wars.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine leads a cavary charge at the battle of Edgehill. Date: 23 October 1642

3. John Pym

John Pym was perhaps one of the leading voices of opposition to the King’s policies in Parliament. He first rose to prominence during what became known as the ‘Short Parliament’ of 1640 when he delivered a speech setting out all the grievances against the King.

Initially he didn’t support action against the King or his counsellors, but the dissolution of Parliament changed all that. He was determined to see Parliament recalled. He travelled the country setting out the parliamentarians case, and organised a petition setting out the grievances. When Parliament was recalled he was their acknowledged leader.

John Pym who was the focal point of early opposition in parliament.

John Pym who was the focal point of early opposition in Parliament.

Pym would be instrumental in proceedings which saw William Laud and the Earl of Strafford charged with treason, as well as a document called the Grand Remonstrance which set out a list of over 200 grievances against the King.

He was among five members of Parliament that Charles tried to arrest and when Charles fled the city he returned in triumph with some dubbing him ‘King Pym’.

During the war he sought negotiations with the Royalists on the one hand, while making sure the finances and infrastructure was in place for Parliament to fight a war on the other. With the tide seemingly turning against Parliament, his final achievement was to sign a covenant with the Scots, securing their military support . He died of cancer shortly afterwards.

Tucked away in the beating heart of London, we find one of Britain’s most iconic landmarks – Horse Guards Parade. Famous for its dazzling ceremonies and remarkable uniforms, the Parade stands as a testament to the fearlessness – and style - of the British soldier.Watch Now

4. Oliver Cromwell

More than anyone else, Oliver Cromwell has come to symbolise the civil war. He had been a member of Parliament since 1628 and was again elected to represent Cambridge in the short and long Parliaments of 1640.

When war broke out he lacked military experience but learned quickly, rising through the ranks and later leading the Parliamentarians’ most formidable cavalry force: the Ironsides. He convinced Parliament to establish a professional fighting force which became known as the New Model Army.

Cromwell was later a prime mover in the trial and execution of the King in 1649 and was one of the leading names in the new Republic.

Oliver Cromwell's statue which stands outside the Houses of Parliament.

Oliver Cromwell’s statue which stands outside the Houses of Parliament.

In 1649 he commanded the army which put down resistance in Ireland. The ferocity with which he did so, particularly his bloody sack of Wexford, means he remains remembered with hatred on that side of the Irish Sea.

Meanwhile he was to see that governing could be difficult in itself. In 1653, frustrated at the lack of progress, he dissolved Parliament and declared himself Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. He was offered the crown in 1657 but refused it.

Even so Cromwell soon started to show some regal tendencies – being addressed as ‘your highness’ and signing his name Oliver P. His critics were sure to mock these tendencies in several pamphlets such as the one below.