What Caused the English Civil War?

Laura Mackenzie

3 mins

13 Jun 2018

The English Civil War was in fact a series of wars that pitted supporters of the monarchy, known as “Royalists” or “Cavaliers”, against supporters of the English parliament, known as “Parliamentarians” or “Roundheads”.

Ultimately, the war was a struggle over how much power parliament should have over the monarchy and would challenge forever the idea that an English monarch had the right to rule without the consent of their people.

When was the English Civil War?

The war spanned nearly a decade, beginning on 22 August 1642 and ending on 3 September 1651. Historians often divide the war into three conflicts, with the First English Civil War lasting between 1642 and 1646; the Second between 1648 and 1649; and the Third between 1649 and 1651.

The first two wars saw fighting between supporters of Charles I and supporters of the so-called “Long Parliament” and culminated in the trial and execution of the king and the abolition of the monarchy.

Parliamentarian forces head into battle against the Royalists. From the documentary Battlefield Britain: The Battle of Naseby on HistoryHit.TV.

The third war, meanwhile, involved the supporters of Charles I’s son, also called Charles, and supporters of the Rump Parliament (so-called because it was made up of the remnants of the Long Parliament following a purge of MPs hostile to trying Charles I for high treason).

Charles Junior was luckier than his father and the third war ended with his exile, rather than his execution. Just nine years later, however, the monarchy was restored and Charles returned to become Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Why did the English Civil War start?

Before the outbreak of the war, England was governed by an uneasy alliance between the monarchy and parliament.

Although the English parliament did not have a large permanent role in the system of governance at this time, it had been around in some form since the middle of the 13th century and so its place was fairly well established.

What is more, during this time it had acquired de facto powers which meant it could not easily be ignored by monarchs. The most important of these was parliament’s ability to raise tax revenues far beyond any other sources of revenue available to the monarch.

“Charles I” shares his views on the English Civil War in the documentary Battlefield Britain: The Battle of Naseby on HistoryHit.TV.

But, like his father James I before him, Charles believed he had the God-given – or Divine – right to rule. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with MPs. And nor did his choice of political advisers, his involvement in expensive foreign wars and his marriage to a French Catholic at a time when England had been Protestant for several decades.

Tensions between Charles and MPs came to a head in 1629 when the king shut down parliament altogether and ruled alone.

But what about those taxes?

Charles was able to rule alone for 11 years, using legal loopholes to squeeze money out of his subjects and avoiding wars. But in 1640 he eventually ran out of luck. Facing a rebellion in Scotland (of which he was also king), Charles found himself in desperate need of cash to stamp it out and so decided to summon parliament.

Parliament took this as its opportunity to discuss its grievances with the king, however, and it only lasted three weeks before Charles shut it down again. This short lifespan was what led to it becoming known as the “Short Parliament”.

Read more: 10 Facts About the Battle of Naseby

But Charles’ need for money hadn’t gone away and six months later he bowed to pressure and once again summoned parliament. This time around parliament proved even more hostile. With Charles now in a deeply precarious position, MPs saw their chance to demand radical reforms.

Parliament passed a multitude of laws diminishing Charles’ power, including one law that gave MPs power over the king’s ministers and another that forbade the king from dissolving parliament without its consent.

Over the ensuing months, the crisis deepened and war seemed inevitable. In early January 1642, Charles, fearing for his safety, left London for the north of the country. Six months later, on 22 August, the king raised the royal standard in Nottingham.

This was a call to arms for Charles’ supporters and marked his declaration of war against parliament.

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