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The English Civil War

When looking at the causes of the English Civil Wars it’s important to remember that the Civil War did not start as a revolution. Those involved did not set out to remove the Monarchy and replace it with a Republic.

Conflicting attitudes towards Royal authority and religion brought about a series of events which escalated into armed conflict.

Charles I believed he ruled with the Divine Right of Kings.

This meant he thought he was King by the will of God and therefore his decisions could not be challenged or questioned.

This ideology was opposed by those who believed there should be a limit to Royal authority; that the people and their representatives, that is Parliament should have more say in how the nation was governed.

Tied up with this were arguments over the Church and religion.

There were deep divisions over what religious practices, forms of worship and organisational structure the Church should have.

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Religion was a major cause of the English Civil War.

It was part of a Europe wide conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

At the start of his reign (1625) King Charles I had married the Roman Catholic Henrietta Maria of France.

Included in her marriage treaty were provisions that she be allowed to practice her religion freely at Court.

It was also made a condition of the treaty that King Charles I set about lifting restrictions for recusants (that is Catholics who refused to attend Anglican Church services).

The marriage was not a popular one. At this time Roman Catholics were distrusted and feared.

The reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I (Bloody Mary as she came to be known) had seen the persecution of Protestants.

Within living memory there had been:

  • the attempted invasion of England by Roman Catholic Phillip II of Spain in 1588 (The Spanish Armada);
  • the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a Catholic plot to blow up James I in the Houses of Parliament; and
  • the on-going Thirty Years War, ultimately a religious conflict which saw Roman Catholic nations trying to wipe out Protestantism in Europe.

King Charles I was deeply religious.

He believed that he ruled with the Divine Right of Kings.

He preferred a High Anglican form of worship, with ceremonies, rituals and lavish ornamentation.

Charles thought the hierarchy of bishops and priests to be important.

This caused alarm for some Protestants as it appeared that Charles was leaning towards Catholicism.

The Puritans, who were extreme Protestants, considered all of this to be forms of ‘Popery’.

They wanted a purer form of worship without rituals and without religious icons and images.

Puritans believed that they had a personal relationship with God and did not need bishops.

In 1633 William Laud was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury by King Charles I.

William Laud was a Protestant but thought the Puritans too extreme.

Like King Charles I, Laud also favoured a High Anglican form of worship.

William Laud wanted to impose uniformity of worship based on The Book of Common Prayer. Bishops were considered important to the running of the Church.

Laud also wanted to bring back some of the ceremonies and rituals.

Decorative features such as statues and stained-glass windows were reintroduced.

Priests were to wear vestments as a sign of their elevated status as members of the clergy.

William Laud saw this as the ‘beauty of holiness’. Puritans saw this as an attempt to make the Church more Roman Catholic.

There was much opposition to this religious change. William Laud saw Puritans as a threat to the Church and pursued his critics in the courts.

In 1637 William Prynne, John Bastwick and Henry Burton were convicted in the Star Chamber of seditious libel for criticising Laud’s policies in a pamphlet.

They had their cheeks branded and their ears cropped.

In 1637 King Charles I and Archbishop Laud imposed a new Prayer Book on the people of Scotland. It was a revised edition of the English Prayer Book.

When it was introduced riots broke out in Edinburgh. The Scottish Presbyterians thought that the new Prayer Book had too many similarities to Catholicism.

They saw it as an attack on the true Protestant religion and on their freedom to choose how they worshipped.

Although Scotland had Charles I as its King, it was still a separate kingdom from England. Scotland had its own government, laws and established church – The Kirk.

Charles’ response was to insist on the full implementation of the new Prayer Book and punishment for those who refused. He considered their refusal to be an attack on his Royal authority.

In 1638 the Scottish people signed a Covenant in which they promised before God to defend and preserve the true religion and pledged loyalty to the King.

In 1639 King Charles sent an army to try and enforce the new Prayer Book in Scotland.

King Charles already distrusted by some as having leanings towards Catholicism was now declaring war on his loyal, Protestant subjects.

The English army was easily defeated in what was later known as the First Bishops’ War.

In 1640 King Charles was defeated in the Second Bishops’ War.

He was forced to sign the Treaty of Ripon in October 1640, which stipulated that the Covenanter (Scottish) troops were to be paid £850 a day in maintenance while they still occupied northern England.


A key factor which led to the outbreak of the Civil War was King Charles and his lack of money.

Charles’ father King James I, had led a lavish, extravagant lifestyle, which had left the Royal treasury depleted.

The cost of running the Royal household of Charles I was similarly expensive.

King Charles was a patron of the arts and spent vast sums of money on musicians to entertain his Court and in buying works of art.

King Charles needed to call Parliament to ask for money.

In June 1625 Parliament had only granted the King tonnage and poundage (income from customs duties) for a single year, rather than for life as was customary.

This meant that Charles would be forced to call Parliament again to grant further taxes.

Parliament refused to grant King Charles enough money to finance military campaigns against Spain and France.

Charles dismissed Parliament and sought to raise income through a Forced Loan. That is money from taxes levied without the consent of Parliament.

Refusal to pay often resulted in imprisonment without trial. This caused much discontent.

In 1628 a Commons’ Petition of Right was drawn up which stated that the king could not levy taxes on his subjects without the assent of Parliament, nor arbitrarily imprison them.

Although King Charles initially agreed to the Petition it was never properly enacted as a statute.

In March 1629 Charles dismissed Parliament and began what he called his ‘Personal Rule’ and what his opponents called the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’.

As only Parliament could legally grant taxes King Charles had to find other non-Parliamentary sources of revenue.

Charles exploited the Royal prerogative and imposed knighthood fees on landowners worth £40 or more a year (distraint of knighthood).

Monopolies were sold to rich merchants, even though this was forbidden by Parliamentary Statute.

Forest boundaries were reinstated to their ancient limits, so that forest fines could be levied on those who now found themselves within the new boundaries.

In 1635 the King demanded ship money from all the counties of England and not just those on the coast.

Wealthy land owner, John Hampden MP, was tried in court for non-payment of ship money as he believed the King had no legal right to collect it.

King Charles made himself very unpopular amongst those people who were traditionally royal supporters.

After his defeat in the First Bishops’ War, King Charles called Parliament in April 1640 to raise money for another campaign against Scotland.

Not having been called for eleven years Parliament had a long list of grievances they wished to present to the King.

Parliament refused to grant the money and Charles dissolved Parliament after less than a month.

After defeat in the Second Bishops’ War, the terms of the Treaty of Ripon stated that King Charles had to pay the Scottish Covenanters £850 a day while they occupied northern England.

With huge debts the only option King Charles had was to call Parliament and ask for money. This became known as the Long Parliament.

King Charles’ financial situation meant that only Parliament had the means to raise enough money to pay the Covenanters and cover the costs of the unsuccessful Bishops’ Wars.

Parliament finally had the opportunity to present their grievances and push through reforms.


Under the reign of James I there had been a breakdown in relations between Parliament and the Monarchy.

Charles I had a similar negative view of any interference by Parliament in his rule.

It was within the King’s royal prerogative not to call Parliament but they did have their purpose.

As well as being necessary for raising taxes and passing legislation they could also be used as a source of advice and as a means of getting grievances heard.

The Short Parliament

King Charles called Parliament in April 1640 to raise money for the Second Bishops’ War. He needed Parliament to grant taxes to finance an army.

Parliament expressed concern over King Charles and his administration and wanted their grievances heard.

The Puritan MP, John Pym was particularly outspoken in the call for reform.

King Charles dissolved Parliament after only three weeks when his request for money was refused. [S. R .Gardiner, 1884]

The Long Parliament

After the defeat in the Bishops’ Wars, King Charles was forced to call Parliament in November 1640.

The Members of Parliament now had the opportunity to have their complaints about Charles’ Personal Rule heard.

Their list of grievances concerned:

  • Archbishop Laud and his religious reforms, which were considered to be too Catholic;
  • The use of the Royal prerogative to raise money, such as ship money;
  • Dissolving Parliament rather than allow grievances to be heard and arresting Members.

One of the main complaints of Parliament was that King Charles was unduly influenced by some of his closest advisors.

Parliament blamed bad advice rather than the King himself for most of the problems.

In December 1640 Archbishop Laud was impeached for High Treason.

One of the charges brought against him was that he gave wicked and traitorous advice to the King.

He was imprisoned in the Tower of London in March 1641. His trial finally began in March 1644.

Unable to find any evidence that would prove him guilty of Treason Parliament passed a Bill of Attainder against him.

William Laud was executed in January 1645.

In 1641, John Pym MP accused Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford of Treason and had him impeached.

The Earl had been recalled as Lord Deputy of Ireland to become one of Charles’ chief ministers during the Bishops’ Wars.

When the attempts to impeach him failed, the House of Commons passed a Bill of Attainder.

Charles I tried to rescue Strafford by sending troops to the Tower of London.

The attempt failed and resulted in demonstrations in London, with the protestors demanding justice.

The House of Lords passed the Bill of Attainder and King Charles signed it.

Strafford was executed in May 1641.

Parliament wanted to see its place in the running of the country made more secure.

It also tried to remedy the religious and political problems that had arisen during the king’s Personal Rule.

Some of these measures would also reduce the Kings’ ability to rule without Parliament. King Charles agreed to some of these reforms.

Non-Parliamentary forms of taxation, such as ship money, were declared illegal. The court of Star Chamber, which sat without a jury, was abolished.

King Charles also agreed that the English Parliament could not be dissolved without the consent of Parliament itself.

Furthermore, Charles gave Royal Assent to the Triennial Act of 1641, requiring that Parliament be called at least once every three years.

The Puritan members of Parliament were still calling for further reforms, particularly of the Church and religious practices in England.

Divisions began to appear within Parliament and within the wider population.

The more moderate Protestants believed that religious reforms had gone far enough and did not agree with the more radical changes the Puritans were demanding.

It was these who would emerge as supporters of the King.

Road to war

The Irish rebellion broke out in October 1641.

Irish Catholics had risen up and massacred Protestant settlers in Ulster.

King Charles needed to raise an army to put down the rebellion. This led to heated debates as to whether the King or Parliament should control the army.

John Pym MP argued vociferously that “…mischievous counsels…” would influence the king.

Pym and his Puritan supporters were worried that the army might be turned against Parliament after the Irish rebellion had been supressed.

The Irish rebellion had also re-ignited fears of a Roman Catholic plot against Protestantism in the three kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland).

In November 1641 the Grand Remonstrance was presented to the House of Commons by John Pym.

This document suggested that King Charles had been ill-advised by “…malignant parties…” which included Bishops, “Jesuited Papists” and counsellors who were serving the interests of foreign powers.

These persons “…for the advantage and increase of Popery…” had been attempting to undermine the political and religious reforms approved by Parliament and create conflict between the King and Parliament.

The Remonstrance listed 204 instances from the beginning of Charles’ reign onwards.

It demanded that the King remove these advisors and replace them with ones approved of by Parliament.

It was passed by the House of Commons, but with only a very small majority of eleven. The House of Lords and the King rejected it.

In December the House of Commons voted to have the Grand Remonstrance printed and made available to ordinary members of the public.

King Charles in his response to the Remonstrance declared that there was no Church which practiced “…the true religion with more purity of doctrine than the Church of England…” Not everyone in Parliament or in England was a Puritan.

His stance on religion gained King Charles much support, especially in the House of Lords.

On the 4th January 1642 King Charles entered the House of Commons with an armed escort of soldiers to arrest five Members of Parliament on charges of High Treason.

These MPs were John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Sir Arthur Haselrig and William Strode.

Having been forewarned, the MPs were not there.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, defended Parliamentary privileges and refused to assist the King as to their whereabouts.

“May it please your majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as this house is pleased to direct me whose servant I am here…”

This abuse of Parliamentary privileges by King Charles lost him political support.

Some of the MPs already believed that the King could not be trusted and were worried that he might try and re-instate his ‘Personal Rule’.

Bringing armed soldiers into Parliament only made these fears worse.

When riots broke out in London King Charles fled to Hampton Court.

The rift between Parliament and the King had become more obvious and people were being forced to take sides.

The London Trained Bands were brought out to guard Parliament with the consent of both Houses.

Crowds gathered in London to have their opinions heard and voice their concerns.

In February King Charles sent Queen Henrietta Maria to the Netherlands for her own safety and to raise foreign support for the war.

In March 1642 Parliament passed the Militia Ordinance which put the local militias under the control of Parliament.

As it was passed as an Ordinance and not as an Act, Parliament decided that it did not need Royal Assent. They claimed they were acting for the safety and defence of the nation.

King Charles headed for York.

His supporters among the Lords and the gentry began to rally to him.

Some supported the Royalist cause as they disagreed with the Puritans demands for radical reforms and did not like the influence they had in Parliament.

Others came out of loyalty to the Crown even if they did not necessarily agree with the King’s actions.

In June 1642 Parliament presented the Nineteen Propositions to King Charles at York in an attempt to prevent the “…imminent dangers and calamities…”.

It proposed that:

  • Parliament would control all military resources.
  • Parliament would approve all ministers and officials chosen by the King.
  • Parliament would decide how the Church was to be reformed.
  • Laws against Catholics were to be strictly enforced.
  • Parliament would have a say in the education and marriage arrangements of the King’s children.

King Charles rejected the propositions.

Parliament was mustering troops under the authority of the Ordinance.

King Charles reinstated the outdated Commissions of Array to raise men.

Individuals now had to choose whether to mobilise under the Commissions of Array or the Militia Ordinance.

Royalist and Parliamentarian forces seized military strongholds and raided stores for arms and munitions.

The nation was becoming increasingly polarised. It was more difficult to remain neutral.

On 12 July Parliament voted to raise an army under the command of the Earl of Essex, for the “… preserving of the true religion, the laws, liberty and peace of the kingdom.”

On 22 August 1642 King Charles I raised his Royal standard at Nottingham. Civil War had been openly declared.

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