Crown v Parliament: your guide to the Civil War of the 17th century

So I think in those early years, he certainly wasn’t a popular monarch and he faced quite a lot of hostility. During Charles’s Personal Rule – from 1629-40 – I think you could argue that things got a little better and that the level of hostility towards him receded to a certain extent. But then, of course, everything went wrong again, starting with his waging war with the Scots in 1639 and 1640.

How did Charles’s style of kingship compare to that of his father, James VI and I?

They were very different on the surface, but not so different underneath. James VI and I was very familiar in courtly life and he delighted in drinking, jokes, horseplay and bawdiness. His court was a bit of a free-for-all in a way. Charles was quite shocked by the laxness of his father’s court, and when he became king, he deliberately instituted a new regime.

Charles I’s court was much more formal and dignified – the broad humour and practical jokes of his father’s reign went straight out the door. So on the surface, things looked very different. But underneath, Charles’s policies weren’t all that different from James’s and he, too, attempted to pursue a sort of middle-line policy within the church. I actually think a lot of what Charles did as monarch, he learnt at his father’s knee.

As a second son, Charles was never meant to rule. What impact did the death of his brother, Prince Henry, have on him?

One of Charles’s problems was that, as a boy, he was overshadowed by his older brother. Around six years older than Charles, Henry was tall, handsome and glamorous, and he was seen as a sort of Protestant hero. When Henry died, in 1612, the nearly 12-year-old Charles was suddenly pushed into the position of heir to the throne. He was much smaller and not nearly as physically robust as Henry, and he had a bad stutter.

The future Charles I, as a young man, at a feast in the court of King James VI and I – a more relaxed court than his own would be (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On the face of it, there would have seemed a big contrast between the two princes. I think one of the ways that Charles tried to impose himself in later life was through structures of order, dignity and formality, deliberately adopting a different personal style to that of his late brother and father. I think the type of controlled environment he favoured at court is probably connected to that. So, yes, I do think the loss of his brother did play a very big part in Charles’s life. He was really pushed into a role that he hadn’t been expecting, or probably wanted, to inherit.

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How successful was Charles’s marriage to Henrietta Maria?

This is one of the things that’s very poignant about Charles. Initially the marriage, which took place by proxy just a month after he became king, was a disaster. That was partly because Charles had no experience, as far as we know, with girls before his marriage. He was quite shy and when he married Henrietta Maria, she was only 15. So, between them, they had no experience at all, really, with the opposite sex.

There was a lot of external pressure on the pair as well; the marriage had been set up for diplomatic reasons and the French alliance then went horribly wrong. But what is really interesting, I think, is that when Charles was grieving the execution of his close friend and favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, it was Henrietta Maria who became his main source of comfort. From that point onwards, they had an incredibly happy marriage.

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A mother’s love

In 1644, Henrietta Maria gave birth to the royal couple’s last child, Henrietta Anne, as her husband’s enemies were closing in. Fifteen days later she was forced to leave her baby and flee to France. It would be two years before she saw her again.

Charles never took mistresses and in the years before the Civil Wars they had nine children together. It always strikes me as sad that Charles’s marriage was probably the best and most successful thing in his life, but, from the point of view of his Protestant countrymen and women, it was this closeness to a Catholic princess that made people suspicious. It was widely suspected that it was Henrietta Maria who was actually calling the shots in the relationship and the country.

Charles, his wife Henrietta Maria and their children, feeding swans on the Thames, from a mid-19th century painting titled ‘An Episode in the Happier Days of Charles I’ (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

How did Charles feel about ruling with Parliament?

I think Charles’s views of Parliament changed over the course of his reign. In 1624, Charles, his father, and the Duke of Buckingham were very keen to push for a war with Spain, and Parliament, which was then pretty xenophobic and certainly anti-Spanish, was delighted with this. So, just before Charles came to the throne, there seems to have been a sort of unity of purpose between the monarchy and MPs.

But as soon as Charles became king and went to Parliament to ask for money to fight the Spanish, they were suddenly not so keen to give him large sums of money for a war. And I think he felt very betrayed by that. From Parliament’s perspective, MPs felt very suspicious of Charles because he had married a French Catholic princess, and they also refused to grant him certain monies. So instantly that created a tension between the king and his MPs, which worsened during the 1620s.

As soon as Charles became king and went to Parliament to ask for money to fight the Spanish, they were suddenly not so keen to give him large sums of money for a war

What started as quite a happy relationship rapidly turned sour. In 1629, there was a famous episode where some MPs held the Speaker down in his chair and passed three resolutions against the king’s government. At that point, Charles became really quite frightened of Parliament and started to believe that Parliament was bent on seizing his power.

Commons Speaker Sir John Finch is held down while resolutions against Charles I are read out in 1629; Charles would dissolve Parliament in favour of personal rule immediately afterwards (Photo by Print Collector/Getty Images)

He certainly thought that it would be a good idea to rule without Parliament for a while, which he did for 11 years. The difficult question to answer is how long Charles intended to rule alone – after all, James VI and I had also ruled without Parliament, for seven years. It may be that Charles would have called Parliament back eventually, even if he hadn’t needed them to grant him money, or he may have decided to rule alone indefinitely. It’s really hard to judge.

What sort of man was Oliver Cromwell?

Oliver Cromwell came from a gentry family in East Anglia, but we don’t know a great deal about his early life. There are hints that he may have had some sort of depression when he was young, possibly because he was worried about whether his soul would be saved or not, and eventually he became a very devout Protestant.

Cromwell was actually a pretty obscure MP at first and nothing close to a leader at the beginning of the Civil Wars. What really brought Cromwell to prominence was military affairs. As soon as war broke out, he threw himself into the parliamentary cause and raised a very strong cavalry unit, known after the 1644 battle of Marston Moor as Cromwell’s Ironsides. He became involved in a whole series of battles, engagements and skirmishes and gradually became more and more successful.

Oliver Cromwell with members of his famous cavalry regiment after the 1644 battle of Marston Moor, seen in a 1909 painting by Ernest Crofts (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

I’d say the crucial turning point for Cromwell’s career was Marston Moor, where he was very successful and managed to spin his military achievements in letters and pamphlets, presenting himself as a key figure in the battle. But what really catapulted him to fame was Parliament’s New Model Army, which was set up in 1645. Cromwell eventually emerged as the lieutenant general of the army’s cavalry.

Was Cromwell really the great military leader he’s often made out to be?

Some of Cromwell’s enemies have argued that he was just lucky, but I think that’s probably a bit harsh. He was certainly determined and industrious, and utterly convinced that he was doing God’s work. Cromwell created a great spirit of camaraderie in the military units that he raised, and his men were obviously very attached to him.

It has been pointed out that Cromwell was lucky in that the parliamentarian forces were so much better supplied than the royalist ones and so his troops were usually quite well paid – certainly much better paid than any of the king’s soldiers – due to the parliamentary hold on London, by far the biggest city in England, seat of trade and a huge source of wealth. As a result of that, Cromwell was able to raise a large cavalry force, which in turn helped him win various encounters.

Timeline: key milestones in the Civil War

28 August 1640

After Charles I tries to impose a new prayer book on his Scottish subjects, they defeat his army at Newburn Ford and occupy Newcastle. In need of funds to pay them off, Charles recalls Parliament.

3 November 1640

The new parliament meets in London. Before voting to give Charles any money, it demands several major constitutional reforms, along with the execution of Strafford – the king’s hated first minister.

23 October 1641

A Catholic rebellion breaks out in Ireland. However, Parliament is unwilling to let the king exercise his traditional right to raise an army to put down the rebellion, fearing that he might also use it against his English subjects.

22 November 1641

The House of Commons narrowly passes its ‘Grand Remonstrance’, listing its numerous grievances with the king and calling for further restrictions on royal power and the authority of bishops.

4 January 1642

Charles further polarises opinion by marching into the Commons and attempting to arrest five prominent MPs.

22 August 1642

Charles raises his standard at Nottingham. Both the royalist and parliamentarian causes begin to assemble forces for battle.

23 September 1642

Royalist forces emerge victorious after a brief skirmish at Powick Bridge near Worcester. It is the opening engagement of the Civil Wars.

23 October 1642

The first major battle is fought at Edgehill in Warwickshire, which results in a draw. Charles heads to London but is unable to take the city. He retires to Oxford, which he makes his new capital.

26 July 1643

Royalist forces led by Charles’s nephew, Prince Rupert, seize the port city of Bristol, which has been held by a parliamentary garrison for several months.

25 September 1643

Five days after the royalists lose a key battle at Newbury, Berkshire, Parliament signs the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ with the Scots. They agree to adopt the Presbyterian form of religion in England in exchange for vital Scottish military aid.

2 July 1644

Assisted by the Scots, Parliament inflicts defeat upon the royalists at the battle of Marston Moor near York. They soon gain control over most of the north of England.

2 September 1644

A disastrous invasion of royalist Cornwall forces the parliamentarians to surrender at the battle of Lostwithiel.

27 October 1644

The second battle of Newbury results in a draw. It is regarded as a disappointing failure by the parliamentarians, who set about reorganising their forces.

February 1645

The New Model Army is formed, giving the parliamentarians a national and professional army capable of turning the tide of the war.

14 June 1645

The New Model Army crushes the royalists at Naseby, a few miles north of Northampton.

10 September 1645

Parliamentarian forces retake Bristol after a brief siege.

5 May 1646

Charles I surrenders to the Scots. The First Civil War soon ends.

11 November 1647

The king escapes captivity and manages to flee to the Isle of Wight. However, he is quickly recaptured and imprisoned in Carisbrooke Castle where he makes plans for further royalist uprisings and a deal with the Scots.

8 July 1648

A Scottish army crosses the border and launches an invasion of England in support of the king. Meanwhile, several royalist risings elsewhere are quashed.

17-19 August 1648

Having made it as far south as Lancashire, the Scottish army is defeated at the battle of Preston. The short-lived Second Civil War is brought to a close.

6 December 1648

Some 186 MPs sympathetic to the king are refused entry to the House of Commons in what becomes known as ‘Pride’s Purge’ – a further 45 are arrested and 86 others leave in protest.

30 January 1649

After having been found guilty of high treason and “other high crimes against the realm of England”, Charles is beheaded at Whitehall.

A painting of the battle of Naseby, 1645, a decisive victory for Oliver Cromwell and his parliamentarian forces (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

At what point do you think the Civil Wars became inevitable?

There are two extreme answers to that. The first is that civil war had become pretty much inevitable a century or so earlier, when Henry VIII pushed through his sort of half-cock reform of the Church in the 1530s; he had broken away from Rome, but he hadn’t set a full Protestant church in its place. You could say from then onwards, England had been destabilised in religious terms and that there was always likely to be a final reckoning between conservative and radical Protestants.

The second more extreme view is that war wasn’t inevitable until literally the morning of the battle of Edgehill, in October 1642. It’s sometimes said that if Charles had suddenly died the night before the battle, both sides might still have been able to pull back from the brink of war at that point.

Those are the extreme views. If you’re asking when did war become very likely, I would say it’s after Charles’s attempt to arrest five MPs in January 1642, after which he was forced to abandon London. At that point, you had the two opposing sides physically drawing apart.

Charles I in Parliament in 1642, where he made an abortive attempt to arrest five MPs, from a 19th-century painting by Charles West Cope (Photo by The Print Collector/Alamy Stock Photo)

How were the Civil Wars viewed at home and abroad?

Like most wars, lots of people were horrified from the start and most didn’t want a war at all. There were some people, particularly young men, who were quite excited by the prospect of a war and at first, there were lots of volunteers for both king and Parliament; the armies both sides raised in 1642 were largely made up of volunteers.

I think that was a point where, much like in the First World War, everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas. But when it became clear after the first battle that the war was going to drag on, more and more men desperately tried to avoid fighting and both sides eventually had to conscript men to join them.

Everyone thought the war would be over by Christmas. But when it became clear after the first battle that the war was going to drag on, more men desperately tried to avoid fighting

In terms of how the conflict was viewed abroad, I think there was initially a feeling of amazement and shock at what was going on, because England had mostly seemed a stable polity. For many foreign powers it was obviously useful that England was engaged in a war within itself and that the English navy, which had been quite powerful in European waters, was suddenly inward looking again. But there was actually very little real foreign intervention in the Civil Wars.

Prince Maurice, who was, along with his elder brother Prince Rupert, son of Charles I’s elder sister Elizabeth and a leading figure in the royalist forces (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)


This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed