The 6 Key Figures of the English Civil War | History Hit

The 6 Key Figures of the English Civil War

Charles Landseer's 18th century depiction of the eve of the Battle of Edgehill

Between 1642 and 1651, England was engulfed in a civil war that torn the country apart. These were years that would leave a king dead, the country in tatters, and the population decimated. Whilst this was a large-scale event, notable individuals on both sides have left their mark in the history books. Here are 6 of the most prominent figures from the English Civil War.

1. King Charles I

Charles was the leader of the Royalist cause: as a divinely appointed monarch, or so he believed, he had the right to rule. He was also, in large part, why the war had broken out in the first place. Increasingly frustrated by Parliament, Charles had tried to rule without it. The so-called ‘11 Years Tyranny‘ had seen Charles try and impose his rule across his kingdom, culminating in a Scottish rebellion after Charles tried to force the Scottish church to adopt a new Anglican-style prayer book.

Forced to recall Parliament in order to raise the sums necessary to quash the Scottish rebels, Charles tried to storm the Commons and arrest MPs who sympathised with the rebels. His actions provoked outrage and acted as a catalyst for the Civil War.

Having fled London, Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham, and based his court at Oxford for much of the war itself. Charles was actively involved in leading his troops into battle, but his safety was paramount: the Royalists needed him as a figurehead as much as a military commander.

Charles was eventually captured and imprisoned by Parliamentarian forces. In January 1649, he was tried and executed for treason: the first, and only British king to have died in this manner.

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2. Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Rupert was Charles’ nephew, born in Bohemia and effectively raised as a soldier, he was made a commander of the Royalist cavalry aged just 23. Despite his youth, he was experienced and during the first years of the war, he was remarkably successful and achieved notable victories at Powick Bridge and during the taking of Bristol. Rupert’s youth, charm and European ways made him a powerful symbol of the Royalist cause for both sides: Parliamentarians used Rupert as an example of the excesses and negative aspects of the monarchy.

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, returning to England in 1660 following the Restoration.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine by Sir Peter Lely

Image Credit: Public Domain / National Trust

3. Oliver Cromwell

Cromwell was born to landed gentry and underwent a conversion, becoming a Puritan in the 1630s. He was subsequently elected MP for Huntingdon, and later Cambridge and following the outbreak of the Civil War, took up arms for the first time.

Cromwell proved himself to be an adept commander and a good military strategist, helping secure important victories at Marston Moor and Naseby amongst others. As a Providentialist, Cromwell believed that God was actively influencing what was going on in the world through the actions of certain ‘chosen people’, of whom he, Cromwell, was one.

He played an active life in political and military life throughout the Civil War, rising through the ranks fast: he pushed for Charles’ trial and execution, arguing there was Biblical justification for it and the country would never be at peace with Charles alive. Following Charles’ execution, Cromwell was made Lord Protector in 1653.

4. Thomas Fairfax

Fairfax, nicknamed ‘Black Tom’ for his swarthy complexion and dark hair, was not an obvious Parliamentarian. His family fought against the Scots in the Bishops’ Wars and was knighted by Charles I in 1641 for his efforts.

Nonetheless, Fairfax was appointed lieutenant-general of the horse and quickly distinguished himself as a talent commander, helping lead Parliamentarian forces to victory at the Battle of Naseby. Lauded as a hero in London in 1645, Fairfax was not at home on the political playing field and was only just persuaded not to resign his role as commander-in-chief of Parliament’s military forces.

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Elected as an MP for the first time in 1649, Fairfax remained vehemently opposed to the execution of Charles I and absented himself from Parliament in late 1649 in order to distance himself from events, effectively leaving Cromwell in charge. He was returned as an MP throughout the Protectorate but found himself switching allegiance once more in 1660 as he became one of the architects of the Restoration and thus avoiding serious retribution.

5. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Devereux was born to the infamous Earl of Essex who was Elizabeth I’s favourite before his fall from grace, which resulted in his execution. Fiercely Protestant, he was known to be one of Charles’ strongest critics. The outbreak of Civil War put Essex in a difficult position: he was completely loyal to the Parliamentarians but also did not want war in the first place.

As a result, he was a somewhat average commander, failing to secure a victory at Edgehill through being overly cautious and unwilling to strike the killer blow to the king’s army. After several more years of somewhat average performance, voices clamouring for his removal as a military leader became louder and louder, He resigned his commission in 1645 and died just over a year later.

6. John Pym

Pym was a Puritan and something of a long-standing rebel against the excesses and sometimes authoritarian nature of royal rule. He was a skilled political manoeuvrist, drafting and passing legislation in the 1640s like the Grand Remonstrance, which articulated grievances against Charles’ rule.

A depiction of John Pym by Edward Bower.

Image Credit: Public Domain

Despite his premature death in 1643, Pym managed to effectively hold together Parliamentarian forces during the first months of the war. A determination to fight and to win, combined with leadership and hard skills such as fundraising and raising an army ensured that Parliament was in a strong place and able to fight when war did erupt.

Many historians have subsequently highlighted Pym’s role in the founding of parliamentary democracy, his qualities as a speaker and his political skill.

Sarah Roller