The Civil War Prior to the English Revolution


By Lynne Ann HartnettVillanova University

In the civil war between Charles I and the Parliament, Charles fared poorly against the parliamentarian forces—known as Roundheads—led by the Puritan Oliver Cromwell. And the king’s fortunes worsened when it was discovered that Charles had reached out for help to both Ireland and continental powers to dispatch the Cromwellian threat. Such a move struck many in England as treacherous.

Charles I receiving a rose from a young girl when about to be brought as a prisoner
Charles I’s fatal mistake was to turn himself over to the Scottish Army, not knowing that they would surrender him to the parliamentary forces who would keep him prisoner. (Image: Eugène Lami/Public domain)

Charles’s Fatal Mistake

In 1646, Charles I turned himself over to the Scottish Army. By most accounts, he didn’t look at this as a surrender but rather as the start of negotiations. This turned out to be a fatal mistake. The Scottish Army surrendered Charles to English parliamentary forces who held him in custody as the civil war continued. His fate had yet to be decided. By the end of summer 1648, the victory of the parliamentarians was all but assured.

Portrait of Cromwell opening Charles I’s coffin
Oliver Cromwell thought that it was necessary for Charles I to be executed. (Image: Paul Delaroche/Public domain)

Oliver Cromwell now decided that a lasting peace would be impossible so long as the king lived. But many members of Parliament resisted the idea of executing a legitimate monarch. Cromwell decided to forcibly shift the balance of opinion in Parliament in his favor.

Pride’s Purge

On December 6, 1648, one of Cromwell’s allies—an army colonel named Thomas Pride—entered Parliament with his soldiers and prevented the more than 200 members of Parliament (MPs) who were out of the building from entering and forced them out of power. Nearly 100 more MPs left in protest over this coup that became known as Pride’s Purge. 

Another 200 MPs remained, all of whom shared Cromwell’s perspective. And a parliamentary court convened in Westminster Hall and declared Charles I guilty of treason. It condemned him to death, even though many Britons protested.

On January 30, 1649, King Charles I was beheaded. The public execution symbolized much more than just the death of a man. The divine right of kings also suffered a crushing blow. It was the death of a system and the rejection of assumptions previously considered sacrosanct. 

This article comes directly from content in the video series The Great Revolutions of Modern HistoryWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Start of a New Era

Portrait of Charles I
The execution of Charles I struck a major blow to the public image of kings and their divine right to rule. (Image: Anthony van Dyck/Public domain)

Moving forward, anything seemed possible. Cromwell now abolished the monarchy and Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords. And he established what he called a commonwealth in their place.

By this time, almost 200,000 people across England, Ireland, and Scotland had died in the civil war. Property had been destroyed and religious division swirled anew. The world in Britain had been turned upside-down. The civil war led to radical reimaginings and is evident through the experience of a group known as the Levelers.

The Levelers and Their Ideals

The Levelers had supported Parliament against the king. But they’d also sought to democratize Parliament, and the political process, by abolishing property requirements for the voting franchise. They felt doing so would produce a more equitable society.

The Levelers believed God imbued humans with the ability to accept faith through reason. And, so, they extrapolated from this that all people have the capacity to determine their own fates. A logical extension was that people have the capacity to make political decisions—like voting for MPs—independent of whether or not they are property owners. 

For Oliver Cromwell, this was a bridge too far. He might have held a revolutionary view of the proper form of the English government, but he did not share the Levelers’ democratic ideals. Once the monarchy was abolished, Cromwell silenced views that departed from his own.

Did the Civil War Not End Tyranny? 

Parliament tried for several years after the king’s execution to formulate a new constitution. But it was unable to reach a consensus. And by the end of 1653, disputes over taxes and customs duties had renewed political tensions. 

Cromwell and his supporters now moved to dissolve Parliament and establish a protectorate. This placed sovereignty in a single person—the Lord Protector and his Council of State. And who do you think that was? You guessed it! Oliver Cromwell.

Little distinguished the lord protector from a monarch. Like Charles I before him, Cromwell would even dissolve Parliament in 1655 to gain a more pliant group of legislators. He also suppressed revolts at home and abroad with a heavy authoritarian hand. And he banned newspapers, and implemented religious restrictions, to conform to his personal beliefs.

In a nutshell, Cromwell’s rule represents the first phase of the 17th century English revolution.

Common Questions about the Civil War Prior to the English Revolution

Q: Why was Charles I turning himself to the Scottish Army a strategic mistake?

Though Charles I viewed turning over to the Scottish Army as the start of negotiations to end the civil war, he might as well have surrendered. The Scottish Army turned Charles I over to the parliamentary forces and after a while in custody, he was executed for being guilty of treason.

Q: What were the direct consequences of the civil war in England?

The civil war left many devastated. Approximately 200,000 people died. The execution of Charles I was a sign of the monarchy coming to an end and it destroyed the notion that the right to rule was a divine right.

Q: What did Cromwell do after winning the civil war?

After the civil war, several years had passed and the Parliament had yet to reach a consensus on forming a new constitution. This along with growing political tensions led to Oliver Cromwell dissolving the Parliament and placing sovereignty in a single person, himself. And just as those before him, he used his power to dissolve Parliament yet again, while also ruling with an iron fist.

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