The history of Britain includes only one genuine civil war. The Wars of the Roses (q.v.) do not come into this category because they were a private struggle between families, including dethroning of kings, usurpation of the throne, terrible violence, vengeance, and settling of accounts. Warlords sought to put their favourite in the Number One Spot, and thousands died as a result, but they were not necessarily civilians. In fact usually they were foreign mercenaries hired by the barons. The people of Britain watched with horror as the flower of the aristocracy tore into each other like wolves.
The English Civil war however was an armed struggle between supporters of the crowned and annointed king Charles I (the second Stuart), always known as ‘The Cavaliers’ . . . and the Parliament and its army, known as ‘The Roundheads’.
The War erupted in 1642, though things had been simmering in the pot in England and Scotland since James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England) succeeded Queen Elizabeth I. It arose from constitutional, religious and economic differences between the King and the elected members of what is called ‘The Long Parliament’. Religion was certainly the most contentious of the three. Archbishop Laud attempted to force liturgical uniformity on everyone, and was being criticised by a surprisingly substantial number of clergymen, gentry, craftsmen and the liberals of the period.
All sections of the public were affected, though most on both sides would have preferred no war. But it happened, and it was a real civil war, severely dividing whole families. Each man and woman was expected to declare their allegiance.
Parliament was strongest in London, and when conflict broke out London was the King’s chief target. Unfortunately for him, the first serious engagement with his enemy was at Edgehill, near Banbury, which itself is near Oxford, some forty miles west of the capital. Charles was defeated at Edgehill and took refuge in the university town. He made Oxford his battle HQ. His plan in 1643 was to combine Cavalier armies from Oxford, Newcastle in the north, and loyal followers from the south-west. They would then march east to take London, but this plan did not work either, mainly through lack of adequate leadership, starting with the King. Charles was superior and distant and had none of what is now called ‘charisma’. His son, also called Charles (q.v.) had charisma in spades, and that is one of the important differences between father and son.
The Parliamentarians had not been idle after Edgehill. With the ‘Solemn League and Covenant’ they secured Scottish assistance, and the King was beaten again at Marston Moor (1644). Charles escaped unhurt, and tried once again to march on London, only to be frustrated by much superior Roundhead forces at the Battle of Newbury. Parliament’s armies had by now been re-organised, disciplined and inspired by a pock-marked gentleman from Cambridgeshire called Oliver Cromwell. He has named the divisions ‘The New Model Army’, and very efficient it was. It was also destructive: a great number of beautiful and historic houses belonging to ‘cavaliers’ were torched by the soldiery, and their owners and their children slain. This happened in all levels of society, to anyone foolish enough to be pro-Monarchy or anti-Parliament. War is never civil, and a Civil War is the most uncivil.
At Naseby in 1645 Charles was defeated again and forced to come to terms in nearby Uxbridge, but he refused to listen or surrender. He reiterated again that he was King by ‘Divine Right’ and that Parliament was committing high treason. He got away and made for what he thought would be the safety of Scotland. He was at Newark by 1646.
There was now a brief interval in the bloodletting, used by Cromwell to train more troops and settle differences (there were many) between his generals. The King wandered vaguely about Scotland (of which he was also King) trying to get the Scots to make up their mind or keep their promises. This was rather a vain hope. Irritaded, he came south again and went to the Isle of Wight, where he thought he might be secure, but was immediately banged up in house arrest by the governor. His allies raised unsuccessful armies In Wales, Essex and Kent. The Scots now made up their mind and declared for the King. Cromwell dashed all their hopes at the Battle of Preston. Charles escaped from the Isle of Wight but soon re-captured.
He was now brought to London to stand trial for treason. This was a frightful surprise for the rest of Europe, and especially for the King of France, who could not at first believe that the English would bring their monarch to a trial for treason. After a seventeenth century version of a kangaroo court, in which Charles remained cold and dignified, refusing even to accept the authority of the Court, he was found guilty of all the charges and sentenced to death. This was quite extraordinary, and Europe held its breath, afraid of precedences being set. Charles had been sentenced at the command of a Court whose members claimed they were unconstitutionally unable to listen to him.
It was on a freezing morning in 1649 that Charles I, King of Great Britain, was brought out of the Palace of Whitehall to a hastily prepared scaffold platform, where the axeman waited. It was so cold that the King had asked beforehand for a thick cloak, because he did not want his shivering to be taken as fright by the large crowd. When the Kings head was struck off with one blow (this did not always happen) the crowd remained silent, but then a loud moan arose from the people, and the Roundhead soldiers grasped their pikes; thus died the second Stuart in that dynasty, because he had opposed Parliament with arms. Democracy had triumphed.
Oliver Cromwell and the others had committed regicide, considered the worst crime in the book, and all other crowned heads in Europe became uneasy. 150 years later the French did the same to their king and queen, and 150 years after that the Bolsheviks, though they did not see it as a crime.
Charles had been foolish, vain, lacking in intelligence and a victim of his own pride. His son however, who had escaped via glamorous and exciting adventures to France and Flanders, was restored later as Charles II, known (wrongly, for he suffered from melancholy) as The Merry Monarch (q.v.).