For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won

For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won

Patrick Lynch - January 16, 2017

The English Civil Wars were a series of conflicts between the Cavaliers (Royalists) and the Roundheads (Parliamentarians). As was the case with the 15th century War of the Roses, there were relatively few significant battles. Affairs in England were settled between 1642 and 1651 although the entire United Kingdom was involved in the Great Rebellion. In this article, I will focus on the three separate civil wars in England which resulted in the execution of a king and the installation of a Protectorate.

For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won (King James I)


King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England in 1603. He was angered by the level of constraints placed upon him by English Parliament as he was used to dealing with the much weaker Scottish Parliament. James dreamed of uniting England, Scotland and Ireland in a single kingdom but never followed through. However, his son and successor, Charles I, was less reluctant and the English Parliament were wary of the new king as he believed monarchs were ‘little Gods on Earth.’

Charles attempted to rule without Parliament and embarked on a period of peace with England’s traditional enemies. His idea of having one uniform church throughout Britain met with violent resistance in Scotland with a rebellion breaking out in 1637. The so-called Bishop’s War began when Charles introduced a new English Book of Common Prayer to Scotland and ended with the Pacification of Berwick truce in 1639.

A lack of money meant Charles had to recall Parliament to ask for financial aid when a second war broke out in Scotland in 1640. This ‘Short Parliament’ was dissolved within weeks as the king took offense to suggestions that he shouldn’t invade Scotland. He attacked the Scots and suffered a disastrous defeat. The desperate monarch recalled Parliament in November 1640. The Long Parliament made a series of demands which angered the king’s supporters while Parliamentarians believed that Charles wanted unrestricted power with the backing of military force.

Tensions rose and in October 1641, Irish Catholics started the Ulster uprising in Ireland in response to fears over growing Protestant power. Rumors spread that Charles supported the Irish and in January 1642, the King tried and failed to arrest five members of the House of Commons for treason. He asked the Speaker of the House, William Lenthall, where the men were. Lenthall responded by suggesting he was a servant of Parliament and not the Crown.

It was a huge mistake by Charles. The Irish Rebellion led to a major political crisis in England as the king and Parliament argued over who should be in control of the army sent to deal with the rebels. In December 1641, Parliament issued a list of grievances it demanded to be dealt with in its Grand Remonstrance. If Charles had listened and reconciled with Parliament, the Irish rising would probably have been crushed easily. Instead, he tried to root out apparent traitors; an act that practically destroyed any chance of peaceful relations with Parliament.

After his failure at the House of Commons, Charles fled to London to keep his family safe. Further talks with Parliament led to nothing, and by the summer of 1642, the towns and cities of England began to throw their support behind one cause or the other. Much of Eastern England was behind the Parliamentarians as the people believed Charles cared little for the welfare of the general public. Most of Wales and Northern England remained loyal to the Crown. Charles attempted to get weapons from Kingston upon Hull but was turned away. On 22 August 1642, Charles raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham. This act is typically seen as the beginning of the First English Civil War.

For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won (Oliver Cromwell)

First English Civil War (1642 – 1646)

The Roundheads were famous for having short-cropped hair whereas the Cavaliers became famed for long hair and wigs! Both sides had problems with recruitment at the beginning of the war; it is estimated that their combined forces totaled less than 15,000 men at the start. However, the conflict spread rapidly and soon involved all elements of society. By the end of 1642, both armies had more than 60,000 men.

The First English Civil War was dominated by skirmishes as local garrisons fought for territory. There were only a handful of major battles and Charles started at a disadvantage. The Roundheads held the majority of England’s important ports and London. The Cavaliers needed to capture the capital to win the war and routinely failed in this quest. While both sides claimed victory at the first major clash of the war, the Battle of Edgehill on 23 October 1642, neither group gained a clear advantage. The evenly matched armies suffered approximately 2,000 casualties apiece with around 1,000 soldiers killed in total.

The Royalists enjoyed some success in 1643 by taking control of most of Yorkshire after victory at Adwalton Moor. The turning point in the war arguably came in autumn when Charles was forced to raise the Siege of Gloucester and subsequently suffered defeat at the First Battle of Newbury. From then on, the Parliamentarians had the momentum. The first significant battle of the war occurred at Marston Moor on 2 July 1644. A Parliament force, aided by Scottish Covenanters, decisively defeated the Royalists. 4,000 Royalists were killed, and another 1,500 were captured. This was a crippling blow to the king and his armies effectively abandoned the North of England which was to prove crucial in the following year when the king was unable to gain support from the Marquess of Montrose.

Parliament created the New Model Army in 1645 with Sir Thomas Fairfax as the leader and Oliver Cromwell as second-in-command. This centralized standing army was reasonably well trained and well funded. After suffering some setbacks in early 1645, Parliament turned things in its favor permanently with victory at the Battle of Naseby on 14 June. Of the 7,400 Royalists that took the field, only 1,400 managed to escape the battle. Naseby ruined the Royalist army, and it suffered a sequence of setbacks at Langport, Rowton Heath, and Annan Moor.

Charles tried to battle on but found his resources were all but gone. He tried to hide with a Presbyterian Scottish Army but was surrendered to the Parliamentarians instead. The king was handed over at Newark on 5 May 1646 and immediately imprisoned. The First English Civil War came to an end.

For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won (King Charles I)

Second English Civil War (1648)

While the Scottish Covenanters played a significant role in the Parliamentarian victory, they switched sides for the second and third civil wars and sided with the king. Charles negotiated a secret treaty with Scotland; he promised church reform in return for a Scottish invasion of England. The Scots would restore the monarch to his throne, and for his part, Charles would establish Presbyterianism for three years. The Covenanters made good on their promise and attacked England in the summer of 1648. This invasion occurred at the same time as a number of Royalist uprisings.

Before the Scottish invasion, a group of unpaid Parliamentarians switched sides. At the Battle of St Fagan’s on 8 May 1648, these new Royalists were comprehensively beaten by Fairfax and a detachment of the New Model Army. Fairfax only had 2,700 men against 8,000 enemies, but his army was better equipped and well trained, so they easily defeated their opponents. By July, the rebel leaders surrendered to Cromwell.

In Northern England, John Lambert successfully put down various Royalist uprisings, and his victories meant the Scots had to travel through Carlisle to invade England. The Scots engaged Lambert and Cromwell at the Battle of Preston on 17 August 1648. It was a disastrous day for the Covenanters as its 9,000 men were strung out along the road. They were routed by the Parliamentarians with 2,000 soldiers killed and several thousand captured. Cromwell’s force lost fewer than 100 men.

This defeat marked the end of the brief Second Civil War. Several leading Royalists from the first conflict vowed not to take arms again which weakened the king’s cause. Parliament brutally punished those who were involved; the likes of Sir Charles Lucas, the Duke of Hamilton and Colonel John Poyer were executed. Charles’ conduct infuriated the Army, so it marched on Parliament and arrested 45 of its Members. Only 75 Members were allowed in, and this Rump Parliament was tasked with putting Charles on trial for treason.

King Charles I was found guilty of high treason and referred to as a tyrant. He was beheaded at the Palace of Whitehall on 30 January 1649. His eldest son, who was in Jersey at the time, was proclaimed Charles II.

For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won (King Charles II)

Third English Civil War (1649 – 1651)

Charles II was officially crowned king at Scone on 1 January 1651, but he was in the midst of what proved to be a losing war. The majority of the Third English Civil War took place on Scottish soil. In 1648, the Irish Confederates signed a treaty with the Royalists as they saw the English Parliament as a threat. However, Ireland was unable to participate in the final installment of the English Civil Wars because the English successfully suppressed them in 1649.

The first setback happened at the Battle of Rathmines on 2 August 1649 and when Cromwell arrived in Dublin 13 days later, he began a brutal campaign of murder and oppression. At the infamous Siege of Drogheda, Cromwell massacred approximately 3,500 people. To this day, he is reviled in Ireland. The Parliamentarians continued to grind down Irish resistance and eventually forced surrender in 1653.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the dynamic of the Civil War changed upon the execution of Charles I. Before that fateful day, the Covenanters and Royalists fought against one another. The Marquess of Montrose, the leader of the Royalists in Scotland, went into exile after the death of his king. Charles II initially asked him to raise an army but abandoned him when offered the Crown of Scotland by the Covenanters. Montrose was defeated at Carbisdale in April 1650 and hanged in Edinburgh on 21 May after being sentenced to death by the Scottish Parliament.

The anxious English Parliament recalled Cromwell from Ireland once it realized that Charles had the support of the Covenanters. Cromwell laid siege to Edinburgh, but disease and a lack of provisions forced him to retreat to Dunbar. David Leslie commanded a Scottish army that tried to block the retreat; this resulted in the Battle of Dunbar on 3 September 1650. Leslie was pressurized into attacking Cromwell by his superiors. The Scots inexplicably changed positions en route to Dunbar and Cromwell gleefully attacked their right flank. The Scottish line disintegrated during the night assault and up to 3,000 men were killed with up to 10,000 taken prisoner. The English suffered fewer than 80 casualties.

The Scottish never really recovered after Dunbar although Charles attempted another invasion of England in 1651. However, he suffered the final major defeat of the war at the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651, exactly one year after the Dunbar debacle. The King’s army numbered less than 16,000 and was no match for the 31,000 strong contingent of the New Model Army. Over 3,000 Scots died, and 10,000 were captured. In contrast, only 200 English soldiers died. The Royalists offered token resistance from then on, and the final surrender came at Dunnottar Castle on 26 May 1652.

For King or Country? How the 3 English Civil Wars Were Won (King Charles II in Royal Robes)


Charles II was the most wanted man in England after losing at the Battle of Worcester. A reward of £1,000 was offered for his capture, and it seems certain that the king would have been executed for treason had he been caught. Cavalry patrols were on the lookout for the king who was tall and boasted a distinctive appearance. Fortunately, he had the assistance of the Catholics who had vast experience when it came to helping people hide. Charles was smuggled through various towns and famously hid in an oak tree at Boscobel. Finally, he arrived in France and would not return to England until 1660.

The conflict ensured that Ireland, England, and Scotland were among the few nations in Europe that didn’t have a monarch. These countries were ruled by the Commonwealth of England from 1649-1653 and 1659-1660. Oliver Cromwell was effectively the ruler of England from 1653 until his death in 1658 when he was given the title of Lord Protector. His brother, Richard, assumed the role but was removed from his position in 1659 by the Army. After two separate short-lived Rump Parliaments dissolved, the threat of anarchy lingered.

General George Monck marched into England from Scotland, and in April 1660, Charles II issued the Declaration of Breda. He outlined the conditions of his acceptance of the English Crown, and Monck organized the Convention Parliament. On 8 May 1660, it ruled that Charles II had been the rightful king since the death of his father. He returned from exile on 23 May 1660 and was acclaimed as king in London six days later. His coronation occurred on 23 April 1661 at Westminster Abbey.

Historians estimate that 200,000 people died in England and Wales during the conflict while up to 150,000 civilians may have died in Ireland and Scotland.