In Brief – Civil War & Restoration

The trial of King Charles I in Westminster Hall in January 1649. This engraving is by Charles Edward Wagstaff from the original painting by William Fisk from 1842.

King Charles I lacked the diplomacy, political sensibility, and flexibility of his father, James I, often taking extreme positions without compromise. His was a very insular royal court that became detached from the realities of government and politics. When the King stormed Parliament it was the spark that led to civil war.

In the early part of the 17th century a difference of opinion began to emerge amongst Protestants. A growing body of Calvinists were much more intense in their religious beliefs, leading a strict lifestyle and rigorous regime of worship, taking prayers, religious study and meditation several times each day and often attending church throughout the week. They believed the Church of England needed to go much further in its reforms than it had done since the Reformation of the 16th century.

Non-conformist Protestants who disagreed with the official Church of England – known as ‘Dissenters’ – were excluded from holding most professional positions on the grounds that to do so would require them to show loyalty to religious and political laws to which they disagreed. They had instead turned to farming, manufacturing and trade, including importing and exporting to and from Virginia, with many becoming wealthy. As outsiders to the political process, which was controlled by King Charles and his ministers, they had a growing number of economic complaints, regarding taxes for example, that were hindering their businesses.

Scotland had officially been Presbyterian since 1592 but in 1637 Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud, backed by Charles, instructed the Scottish Kirk to use the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. They objected, and as the argument escalated the Scots raised an army to march on England. Charles needed finance to form a defence force but only Parliament, which he had suspended, could raise the necessary taxes. He was forced to recall Parliament in April 1640 but that led to numerous disagreements between King and MPs. After just three weeks he suspended it yet again and it became known as the ‘Short Parliament’.

As the Scots occupied Newcastle-upon-Tyne Charles was forced into the humiliating position of yet again recalling a hostile Parliament. It sat from November 1640 for eight years and thereby became known as the ‘Long Parliament’. When in January 1642 its MPs took steps to impeach his Catholic wife, Charles stormed the House of Commons in an unsuccessful attempt to arrest some of their number. The attempted arrests were a political mistake and the armed violation of Parliament turned many against Charles. Fearing reprisals, the King and royal family fled their palace at Whitehall. Henrietta Maria went abroad and Charles travelled north to raise an army of supporters. It was the beginning of civil war between Parliamentarians, supported by Dissenters, and Royalists who were primarily Anglicans.

Both sides in the conflict knew that holding London was the key to victory and the Parliamentarians put in place plans for its defence. The old wall protected the City but not Westminster and other areas, so a new defensive ditch and towers were constructed around a much larger area.

The first fighting took place in Hull in April 1642 but war was officially declared when Charles raised his standard at Nottingham in August. There was a minor battle at Brentford. The Parliamentarians gathered 20,000 troops at Turnham Green but the Royalists decided not to challenge them and moved elsewhere. Although the war advanced towards London several times, particularly during 1643, it was to never come as close again.

On the Royalist side Prince Rupert emerged as an outstanding commander while the MP Oliver Cromwell became one of the main Parliamentary military leaders. The war was inconclusive in the early years but by the summer of 1646 the Parliamentarians were victorious and Charles was held captive.

There was disagreement between Parliamentarians as to what to do with the King, with some believing it best to negotiate and return him to the throne. Those who wished to put him on trial gained the upper hand. Monarchs had often been overthrown but this was something unprecedented and a Court of Commissioners was created. The trial began at Westminster Hall on 2nd January 1649 and at the end of the month fifty-nine of the Commissioners – less than half – signed the King’s death warrant. Two days later, on a cold January morning, Charles was led across St. James’s Park to his execution by beheading outside Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace.

Five months after the execution of Charles, what was known as the ‘Rump Parliament’ declared the country as ‘the Commonwealth and Free State of England’. The monarchy, the House of Lords and the Anglican Church, with its hierarchy of archbishops and bishops, were all abolished. Those people formerly in prominent positions either fled abroad and remained in exile or moved away from London and lived quietly in the countryside in reduced circumstances.