Whose Fault Was The English Civil War Essay


Charles I                         Oliver Cromwell

The English Civil War has many causes but the personality of Charles I must be counted as one of the major reasons.Few people could have predicted that the civil war, that started in 1642, would have ended with the public execution of  Charles. His most famous opponent in this war was Oliver Cromwell  – one of the men who signed the death warrant of Charles.

No king had ever been executed in England and the execution of Charles was not greeted with joy. How did the English Civil War break out?

As with many wars, there are long and short term causes.

Long term causes:

The status of the monarchy had started to decline under the reign of James I. He was known as the “wisest fool in Christendom”. James was a firm believer in the “divine right of kings”. This was a belief that God had made someone a king and as God could not be wrong, neither could anyone appointed by him to rule a nation. James expected Parliament to do as he wanted; he did not expect it to argue with any of his decisions.

However, Parliament had one major advantage over James – they had money and he was continually short of it. Parliament and James clashed over custom duties. This was one source of James income but Parliament told him that he could not collect it without their permission. In 1611, James suspended Parliament and it did not meet for another 10 years. James used his friends to run the country and they were rewarded with titles. This caused great offence to those Members of Parliament who believed that they had the right to run the country.

In 1621, James re-called Parliament to discuss the future marriage of his son, Charles, to a Spanish princess. Parliament was outraged. If such a marriage occurred, would the children from it be brought up as Catholics? Spain was still not considered a friendly nation to England and many still remembered 1588 and the Spanish Armada. The marriage never took place but the damaged relationship between king and Parliament was never mended by the time James died in 1625. 

Short term causes:

Charles had a very different personality compared to James. Charles was arrogant, conceited and a strong believer in the divine rights of kings. He had witnessed the damaged relationship between his father and Parliament, and considered that Parliament was entirely at fault. He found it difficult to believe that a king could be wrong. His conceit and arrogance were eventually to lead to his execution.

From 1625 to 1629, Charles argued with parliament over most issues, but money and religion were the most common causes of arguments. 

In 1629, Charles copied his father. He refused to let Parliament meet. Members of Parliament arrived at Westminster to find that the doors had been locked with large chains and padlocks. They were locked out for eleven years – a period they called the Eleven Years Tyranny.

Charles ruled by using the Court of Star Chamber. To raise money for the king, the Court heavily fined those brought before it. Rich men were persuaded to buy titles. If they refused to do so, they were fined the same sum of money it would have cost for a title anyway! 

In 1635 Charles ordered that everyone in the country should pay Ship Money. This was historically a tax paid by coastal towns and villages to pay for the upkeep of the navy. The logic was that coastal areas most benefited from the navy’s protection. Charles decided that everyone in the kingdom benefited from the navy’s protection and that everyone should pay. 

In one sense, Charles was correct, but such was the relationship between him and the powerful men of the kingdom, that this issue caused a huge argument between both sides. One of the more powerful men in the nation was John Hampden. He had been a Member of Parliament. He refused to pay the new tax as Parliament had not agreed to it. At this time Parliament was also not sitting as Charles had locked the MP’s out. Hampden was put on trial and found guilty. However, he had become a hero for standing up to the king. There is no record of any Ship Money being extensively collected in the areas Charles had wanted it extended to.

Charles also clashed with the Scots. He ordered that they should use a new prayer book for their church services. This angered the Scots so much that they invaded England in 1639. As Charles was short of money to fight the Scots, he had to recall Parliament in 1640 as only they had the necessary money needed to fight a war and the required authority to collect extra money.

In return for the money and as a display of their power, Parliament called for the execution of  “Black Tom Tyrant” – the Earl of Strafford, one of the top advisors of Charles. After a trial, Strafford was executed in 1641. Parliament also demanded that Charles get rid of the Court of Star Chamber.

By 1642, relations between Parliament and Charles had become very bad. Charles had to do as Parliament wished as they had the ability to raise the money that Charles needed. However, as a firm believer in the “divine right of kings”, such a relationship was unacceptable to Charles.

In 1642, he went to Parliament with 300 soldiers to arrest his five biggest critics. Someone close to the king had already tipped off Parliament that these men were about to be arrested and they had already fled to the safety of the city of London where they could easily hide from the king. However, Charles had shown his true side. Members of Parliament represented the people. Here was Charles attempting to arrest five Members of Parliament simply because they dared to criticise him. If Charles was prepared to arrest five Members of Parliament, how many others were not safe? Even Charles realised that things had broken down between him and Parliament. Only six days after trying to arrest the five Members of Parliament, Charles left London to head for Oxford to raise an army to fight Parliament for control of England. A civil war could not be avoided. 

The personality of Charles I

At the heart of the conflict lay the policies and personality of the King himself. Charles I was a reserved, slightly diffident figure whose abilities as a monarch left a good deal to be desired. During the 1630s, his apparent determination to rule England without the assistance of Parliament, his introduction of all sorts of controversial financial measures and his support for 'high-church' religious practices aroused considerable alarm among his subjects. Many people, particularly the more zealous protestants, or 'puritans', came to fear that Charles was pursuing a hidden agenda: that he planned to remove his people's rights, or 'liberties', and to restore England to the Catholic fold.

When, in 1637, Charles attempted to introduce a new form of prayer book in his northern kingdom of Scotland, a major rebellion erupted. The King did not have enough money to raise an army against the Scots and was therefore forced to summon a Parliament. Yet the men who assembled at Westminster were unwilling to give the King the money he needed until their own grievances had been dealt with. The angry, disaffected members of Parliament seized political control and set about dismantling the hated instruments of the Personal Rule. During 1640-41, Charles I's prerogative courts were abolished, his ministers arrested or forced to flee, and his unpopular financial expedients declared illegal. To many contemporaries, it seemed that the kingdom's political problems were solved. In fact, they were only just beginning.


Class divisions

Among the peerage and the greater gentry, a majority favoured the King: partly, perhaps, because they felt bound to him by ties of personal loyalty, mainly because they saw him as the chief guarantor of the established social order. Similar considerations influenced the lesser gentry. Among this group, too, it seems probable that supporters of the Crown outnumbered supporters of the Parliament, though by a considerably narrower margin. Beneath the level of the gentry it is harder to make definite connections between social status and political allegiance. Many historians believe that the 'middling sort' of people were more inclined to favour Parliament than the King because Parliament's party was less rigidly hierarchical - and this may well have been so. Yet, for the vast majority of ordinary men and women, it was factors other than those of 'class' or 'rank' which determined the eventual choice of sides.

Mercenaries and conscripts

Some had no particular preference for either party, but joined up with the first army which happened to come along, in the hope of pay and plunder. Captain Carlo Fantom, one of the hundreds of foreign mercenaries who flocked to England during the Civil War, frankly admitted that 'I care not for your Cause, I... fight for your halfe-crowne[s], and your handsome woemen'. Others found themselves forced to fight when they would much rather have stayed at home: tenants called out by their landlords, for example, and village rogues conscripted by parish constables who were anxious to see them gone. Some were even compelled to fight at gunpoint. In Lancashire, the Royalists press-ganged crowds of local men and marched them away to attack the Parliamentarian garrison at Bolton, 'the reare being brought up with troopers that had commission to shoot such as lagged behind, so as the poor countrymen ... [were] in a dilemma of death, either by the troopers if they went not on, or by the... shot of the towne if they did'.


Ideological and ethnic divisions

Yet for every man who enlisted under compulsion, or for purely mercenary reasons, there was another who did so because he sincerely believed in what he was doing. One of the best definitions of the ideological division which lay at the heart of the Civil War was given by the Worcestershire clergyman, Richard Baxter. 'The generality of the people... who were then called puritans, precisians, religious persons', Baxter wrote, those 'that used to talk of God, and heaven, and scripture, and holiness... adhered to the Parliament. And on the other side... [those] that were not so precise and strict against an oath, or gaming, or plays, or drinking nor troubled themselves so much about the matters of God and the world to come [adhered to the King]'. Baxter's view was biased, of course. Royalist sympathisers would have countered that it was not that they were irreligious, but that they remained true to a purer, more traditional form of Protestantism: one which was untainted by puritan 'zeal'. Nevertheless, Baxter's words convey an essential truth. Across the country as a whole, it was religion which ultimately divided the two parties. Puritans everywhere supported the Parliament, more conservative protestants - together with the few Catholics - supported the King.

Beneath the all important religious divisions lurked anxieties about nationhood and ethnicity. Parliament set out, from the very first, to portray itself as the party of 'Englishness', and although this image played well throughout most of the kingdom, it provoked a counter-reaction in 'Celtic' Cornwall and Wales. Here, the overwhelming majority of the population came out for the King in 1642, and throughout the rest of the war these two regions remained Charles I's most important 'magazines of men'. Cornish and Welsh troops were vital to the Royalist war effort, but the King's reliance upon them reinforced his opponents' claims that the royalist party was fundamentally 'un-English'. So did Charles' use of soldiers brought over from Ireland, many of whom, the Parliamentarians maintained, were Catholics. During the first half of the war, Parliament's close links with the Scots tended to undermine the claim that Parliament's cause was the cause of England itself - and anti-Scottish feeling undoubtedly helped to bring many English men and women into the King's camp. Once the relationship between Parliament and the Scots started to deteriorate in 1645, however, and the King began to court the Scots in his turn, this situation changed.


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