You are here
Home > The English Civil War

The English Civil War or Wars?

It’s often misunderstood that what is commonly referred to as the “English Civil War” actually consisted of three distinct phases or separate English Civil Wars.  The first English Civil War as we all know started in 1642 with its first major engagement being Edgehill in October and ended with the final battle at Stow-on-the-Wold in March 1646.  In between virtually every county in England saw local forces clashing for dominance whilst the main field armies manoeuvred for position and advantage.  The intervention of the 20,000 strong Scottish Covenanter army in late 1643, on behalf of Parliament, won the north for them whilst the King struggled to control the Midland, Wales and the Southwest.  The King managed to frustrate the London based armies of Parliament but eventually his last major field army succumbed at the Battle of Naseby in 1645 following the merger of three Parliamentary armies into the New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax.  There then followed a period of “mopping up” whilst loyal Royalist garrisons were reduced one by one by the New Model Army, including our spiritual home at Basing House.  Charles surrendered to the Scottish army besieging Newark; the Scots promptly sold him to Parliament!  A peace of sorts was achieved and the First English Civil War ended.  However negotiations between the King and Parliament faltered, as the King tried to cause dissention between factions within the Army, Parliament and Scotland.  He succeeded and the Second English Civil War erupted – the best summary was written by Winston Churchill:-

“The Story of the Second English Civil War is short and simple.  King, Lords and Commons, landlords, merchants, the City and the countryside, bishops and presbyters, the Scottish army, the Welsh people, and the English Fleet, all now turned against the New Model Army.  The Army beat the lot!”

The Royalist forces in England were crushed at Colchester, the Scot’s Army at Preston and the Welsh at St Fagan’s.  By mid 1648 it was all over, Cromwell was in charge and Parliament purged of any moderation.  He now resolved to bring his anointed King to trial.  The King was arraigned tried at one of history’s first “show trials” in front of an appointed panel of “judges”.  The few real judges in the land refused to participate.  The verdict was not in doubt and the King murdered in January 1649 with fifty odd signatures of the regicides on the death warrant.  The tyranny of the army now held sway, as Churchill wrote:-

“We must not be led by Victorian writers into regarding this triumph of the Ironsides and of Cromwell as a kind of victory for democracy and the parliamentary system over Divine Right and Old World dreams.  It was the triumph of some twenty thousand resolute, ruthless, disciplined, military fanatics over all that England has ever willed or ever wished.  Long years and unceasing irritations were required to reverse it.”

The execution of his father immediately made his son Charles King and he was able gain support from the Scots who were horrified at the illegal murder of his father.  For promising to support their Presbyterian aims Charles was able to raise a large army of Scots ready to invade England.  The Third English Civil War was under way!  However the New Model Army now under Cromwell struck first and marched into Scotland crushing the Scots at Dunbar.  Rebuffed besieging Edinburgh, Cromwell had to weather appalling conditions in Scotland and lost many men due to disease.  Charles II managed to give Cromwell the slip and manoeuvred his army into England, however the country was tired of war and few English recruits joined him.  Eventually he was brought to stand at Worcester in 1651 exactly one year after Dunbar.  His tired army of 12,000 men was surrounded by 30,000 veterans of Parliament – the end was not in doubt.  Eventually Charles II had to flee and was eventually smuggled out of England, ending the Third English Civil War.

So as you can see the English Civil War was actually made up of three English Civil Wars, increasingly acrimonious and deadly to those involved.  Not until Cromwell dies (on the anniversary of Worcester and Dunbar) does Charles II return to virtually universal acclaim and the murder of his father settled with the remaining regicides.  Though we call it the English Civil War as you can see it involved England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Channel Islands – so perhaps we should call the English Civil War the British Civil Wars and rename the Wars of the Roses as the English Civil War?

James Churchill