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The English Civil War: Summary, Causes, Effects & Timeline

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  • 0:41 Background
  • 2:17 Charles' Era of Personal Rule
  • 3:07 First Phase: 1642-1646
  • 4:29 Second Phase: 1646-1649
  • 5:36 Aftermath
  • 5:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the English Civil War, a conflict that took place in the 1640s between forces loyal to King Charles I and those loyal to Parliament. The conflict arose due to complex political and religious disagreements and culminated in the trial of the king.

English Civil War

Civil wars are not uncommon occurrences both throughout history and today; it seems that at any time there is at least one, if not several, being fought. The history of Western Europe is full of insurrections that pitted an ethnic, religious, or political group against the prevailing government of the day. What, then, makes the English Civil War so special? The civil war that occurred from 1642 to 1649 in England was unique in that it pitted a monarch and his representative assembly against one another for the first time ever. Even more groundbreaking, the English Civil War culminated in the first ever trial and execution of a sitting monarch.

Background

The English Civil War was a highly complex conflict, one which cannot be pinned on one cause alone. Indeed, several things contributed to the animosity between Parliament and the monarchy, which erupted into armed conflict in 1642. Firstly, England, and specifically Parliament, exhibited a rabid paranoia concerning Catholicism in the 17th century. English Protestants were constantly fearful of Catholicism being foisted upon the English, whether through foreign invasion or internal rebellion. As a result, the English were suspicious when Charles I attempted to impose a new, Arminian prayer book upon both England and Scotland.

The book reinstituted some Anglican principles and practices that Puritan activists had sought to eliminate from English practice. Many Englishmen, especially the more radical Protestant activists, viewed these practices as inherently Catholic, and rumors abounded that Charles was preparing to reintroduce Catholicism to England and that Charles was himself a secret Catholic. Charles' 1625 marriage to a Catholic French princess, Henrietta Marie, certainly did not help.

If the perceived threats to the religious settlement in England were not enough, Charles was a terrible politician, especially when it came to understanding and dealing with Parliament. As far as Charles was concerned, Parliament existed merely to rubber stamp the taxation that the English Crown desperately needed. Parliament, on the other hand, believed itself to be the forum for which the people's grievances could be brought to the king's attention. Additionally, tax money was not granted to the crown at its request. Rather, it could be withheld if the people's grievances were not redressed. This basic disconnect in how Charles and Parliament viewed each other underpinned many of the problems between them.

Charles' Era of Personal Rule

Considering this, it should come as little surprise that Charles attempted to rule without Parliament for an extended period of time. After an acrimonious parliamentary session in 1628, where Charles only received the money he wanted after agreeing to recognize several inalienable rights of English citizens, Charles chose not to call Parliament again until he was forced to ask for money in 1640. This was after the Scots had invaded and occupied Northern England over the imposition of the Arminian prayer book.

Parliament was furious at not being called for over a decade, and rather than granting the king money, Parliament immediately began redressing grievances and soon passed a law forbidding Charles from proroguing or dissolving Parliament without its consent. The Long Parliament, as this session is called, also began attacking Charles' advisors, including trying and executing Charles' Lord Deputy of Ireland, the Earl of Strafford.

First Phase: 1642-1646

Matters came to a head in January 1642 when Charles entered Parliament and attempted to arrest the chamber's leaders. Charles failed as the leaders had been warned and had left the building. The city of London largely sided with Parliament, and Charles chose later that month to leave the city, fearing for his own safety.

As both sides attempted to gather forces for the imminent conflict, most cities and counties initially attempted to remain neutral, dually hoping not to get in the middle and that any conflict would end quickly. Eventually the majority of the heavily agricultural North and West sided with the king, while the South and East and urban centers sided with Parliament, though pockets of resistance existed on both sides. Though diplomatic efforts were still made by both sides to conclude the conflict peaceably, these efforts failed, and the two sides first met at the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. Most historians consider the battle a draw, though heavy casualties were taken on both sides.

The first few years of fighting following Edgehill were all largely won by Charles' forces, with the exception of the Battle of Marston Moor. Parliament did not gain an upper hand in the fighting until they reorganized their forces under the direction of Oliver Cromwell into the New Model Army. Afterward, Parliament decisively defeated Charles at Naseby in June 1645, which caused Charles to surrender to a Scottish army in 1646, who soon handed him over to Parliament.

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