The English Civil War: Failure of the Monarchy & Rise of Theocracy

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  • 0:02 British Civil War
  • 0:41 Background
  • 2:19 Relations with Parliament
  • 3:48 Interregnum
  • 5:53 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 factors that led to the breakdown of royal authority in England, the civil war, and subsequent trying and beheading of King Charles I, followed by a decade-long period of rule without a true king.

British Civil War

It seems that most countries in the world have experienced a civil war at one time or another. In the U.S., the civil war was fought between northern and southern states over the issue of slavery and the states' prerogatives to govern themselves. In China, a civil war was fought in the mid-20th century between the western-supported but weak imperial government and Mao Zedong's communist movement. While many other countries have experienced civil wars as well, England's 17th-century civil war is of particular importance to historians because of the issues over which it was fought and the results, namely, the rule of Parliament versus the absolute authority of kings and the unprecedented beheading of a king by his people!


In order to understand the English Civil War, you have to know a few things about 17th-century England. First of all, the Stuart Dynasty, who ruled England beginning in 1603, had ruled Scotland before that. Scotland's long history of fighting the English was enough to make any Englishman wary of Scottish monarchs on the English throne, and Scotland's traditional alliance with England's fierce continental rival, France, only worsened matters. Though James I ruled England and Scotland relatively peaceably, his son, Charles I, who took the throne upon his father's death in 1625, did not possess the same political tact.

To make matters worse for Charles, he married a French Catholic and was rumored to be a Catholic himself. 17th-century England was a Protestant country and had been so since the 1530s when Henry VIII instituted the Church of England. The English were always fearful that a Catholic enemy, such as France or Spain, would invade England and reestablish the Catholic religion. As such, English Catholics were constantly suspected of treason, and the idea of a Catholic being in the court, let alone married to the king, made the English very uncomfortable.

In addition, Charles often upset the aristocracy and the parliamentary classes by ruling without Parliament and attempting to make up the loss in crown revenue through duties, fees, and other indirect taxes. Indeed, Charles was so fed up with Parliament, he ruled without one from 1629 to 1640! Needless to say, when a new session of Parliament was finally called by Charles, they were not too pleased. Instead of granting Charles the funds he required to raise an army to repel Scottish forces (who were occupying northern England at the time), Parliament set about trying the king's counselors and advisors for treason.

Breakdown of Relations with Parliament

In response, Charles unsuccessfully tried to arrest several leading Parliamentarians. Relations between Charles and Parliament continued to deteriorate, and Charles fled the capital in January 1642 and began raising an army. Parliament raised its own army, and war broke out between the two sides in the summer. Order in the countryside quickly broke down as people chose sides. Though pockets supporting both sides existed everywhere, the north and west primarily sided with King Charles, while the south and east primarily sided with Parliament.

Fighting initially favored the better-equipped and better-organized royalists. Then, in 1645, Parliament reorganized its forces into the new model army, which was placed under the control of the brilliant general Oliver Cromwell. Before long, Parliament's forces began winning battle after battle. By 1646, even Charles' royalist stronghold of Oxford was under siege, and the King was forced to leave the city under disguise. Hoping to find refuge in his other kingdom, Charles fled to the Scottish army's position in Newcastle, though the Scots simply ransomed Charles back to Parliament.

Despite a short-lived escape and counter-revolution in 1648, Charles' days governing England were over. Parliament was unsure of what to do with their captured King, though the military commander, Thomas Pride, soon purged all indecisive members from the assembly. The remaining parliamentarians, known today as the Rump Parliament, did not waver. In January 1649, they convicted Charles of treason against his own people and sentenced him to death.


Despite Charles I's death, the struggle was not yet over. Charles' heir, the presumptive Charles II, gathered the remaining Royalist forces and fought on until 1651 when he was defeated and escaped to France. In addition, unrest in both Scotland and Ireland needed to be quelled. The Parliamentarian army completed both of these tasks; in Ireland through a bloody campaign of repression, and in Scotland by defeating the Scottish army and promising the Scots representation in the English Parliament.

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