English Civil Wars
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!
English Civil Wars, also called Great Rebellion, (1642–51), fighting that took place in the British Isles between supporters of the monarchy of Charles I (and his son and successor, Charles II) and opposing groups in each of Charles’s kingdoms, including Parliamentarians in England, Covenanters in Scotland, and Confederates in Ireland. The English Civil Wars are traditionally considered to have begun in England in August 1642, when Charles I raised an army against the wishes of Parliament, ostensibly to deal with a rebellion in Ireland. But the period of conflict actually began earlier in Scotland, with the Bishops’ Wars of 1639–40, and in Ireland, with the Ulster rebellion of 1641. Throughout the 1640s, war between king and Parliament ravaged England, but it also struck all of the kingdoms held by the house of Stuart—and, in addition to war between the various British and Irish dominions, there was civil war within each of the Stuart states. For this reason the English Civil Wars might more properly be called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. The wars finally ended in 1651 with the flight of Charles II to France and, with him, the hopes of the British monarchy.
Personal Rule and the seeds of rebellion (1629–40)
Compared with the chaos unleashed by the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) on the European continent, the British Isles under Charles I enjoyed relative peace and economic prosperity during the 1630s. However, by the later 1630s, Charles’s regime had become unpopular across a broad front throughout his kingdoms. During the period of his so-called Personal Rule (1629–40), known by his enemies as the “Eleven Year Tyranny” because he had dissolved Parliament and ruled by decree, Charles had resorted to dubious fiscal expedients, most notably “ship money,” an annual levy for the reform of the navy that in 1635 was extended from English ports to inland towns. This inclusion of inland towns was construed as a new tax without parliamentary authorization. When combined with ecclesiastical reforms undertaken by Charles’s close adviser William Laud, the archbishop of Canterbury, and with the conspicuous role assumed in these reforms by Henrietta Maria, Charles’s Catholic queen, and her courtiers, many in England became alarmed. Nevertheless, despite grumblings, there is little doubt that had Charles managed to rule his other dominions as he controlled England, his peaceful reign might have been extended indefinitely. Scotland and Ireland proved his undoing.
In 1633 Thomas Wentworth became lord deputy of Ireland and set out to govern that country without regard for any interest but that of the crown. His thorough policies aimed to make Ireland financially self-sufficient; to enforce religious conformity with the Church of England as defined by Laud, Wentworth’s close friend and ally; to “civilize” the Irish; and to extend royal control throughout Ireland by establishing British plantations and challenging Irish titles to land. Wentworth’s actions alienated both the Protestant and the Catholic ruling elites in Ireland. In much the same way, Charles’s willingness to tamper with Scottish land titles unnerved landowners there. However, it was Charles’s attempt in 1637 to introduce a modified version of the English Book of Common Prayer that provoked a wave of riots in Scotland, beginning at the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh. A National Covenant calling for immediate withdrawal of the prayer book was speedily drawn up on February 28, 1638. Despite its moderate tone and conservative format, the National Covenant was a radical manifesto against the Personal Rule of Charles I that justified a revolt against the interfering sovereign.
The Bishops’ Wars and the return of Parliament (1640–42)
The turn of events in Scotland horrified Charles, who determined to bring the rebellious Scots to heel. However, the Covenanters, as the Scottish rebels became known, quickly overwhelmed the poorly trained English army, forcing the king to sign a peace treaty at Berwick (June 18, 1639). Though the Covenanters had won the first Bishops’ War, Charles refused to concede victory and called an English parliament, seeing it as the only way to raise money quickly. Parliament assembled in April 1640, but it lasted only three weeks (and hence became known as the Short Parliament). The House of Commons was willing to vote the huge sums that the king needed to finance his war against the Scots, but not until their grievances—some dating back more than a decade—had been redressed. Furious, Charles precipitately dissolved the Short Parliament. As a result, it was an untrained, ill-armed, and poorly paid force that trailed north to fight the Scots in the second Bishops’ War. On August 20, 1640, the Covenanters invaded England for the second time, and in a spectacular military campaign they took Newcastle following the Battle of Newburn (August 28). Demoralized and humiliated, the king had no alternative but to negotiate and, at the insistence of the Scots, to recall parliament.
A new parliament (the Long Parliament), which no one dreamed would sit for the next 20 years, assembled at Westminster on November 3, 1640, and immediately called for the impeachment of Wentworth, who by now was the earl of Strafford. The lengthy trial at Westminster, ending with Strafford’s execution on May 12, 1641, was orchestrated by Protestants and Catholics from Ireland, by Scottish Covenanters, and by the king’s English opponents, especially the leader of Commons, John Pym—effectively highlighting the importance of the connections between all the Stuart kingdoms at this critical junction.
To some extent, the removal of Strafford’s draconian hand facilitated the outbreak in October 1641 of the Ulster uprising in Ireland. This rebellion derived, on the one hand, from long-term social, religious, and economic causes (namely tenurial insecurity, economic instability, indebtedness, and a desire to have the Roman Catholic Church restored to its pre-Reformation position) and, on the other hand, from short-term political factors that triggered the outbreak of violence. Inevitably, bloodshed and unnecessary cruelty accompanied the insurrection, which quickly engulfed the island and took the form of a popular rising, pitting Catholic natives against Protestant newcomers. The extent of the “massacre” of Protestants was exaggerated, especially in England where the wildest rumours were readily believed. Perhaps 4,000 settlers lost their lives—a tragedy to be sure, but a far cry from the figure of 154,000 the Irish government suggested had been butchered. Much more common was the plundering and pillaging of Protestant property and the theft of livestock. These human and material losses were replicated on the Catholic side as the Protestants retaliated.
The Irish insurrection immediately precipitated a political crisis in England, as Charles and his Westminster Parliament argued over which of them should control the army to be raised to quell the Irish insurgents. Had Charles accepted the list of grievances presented to him by Parliament in the Grand Remonstrance of December 1641 and somehow reconciled their differences, the revolt in Ireland almost certainly would have been quashed with relative ease. Instead, Charles mobilized for war on his own, raising his standard at Nottingham in August 1642. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms had begun in earnest. This also marked the onset of the first English Civil War fought between forces loyal to Charles I and those who served Parliament. After a period of phony war late in 1642, the basic shape of the English Civil War was of Royalist advance in 1643 and then steady Parliamentarian attrition and expansion.