In Brief – Civil War & Restoration

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.

Like his father before him, it was the belief of King Charles that the monarch ruled the country and that Parliament existed to pass the occasional law and raise taxes to fund the royal court as well as the army and navy in time of war. MPs in the Commons, on the other hand, had grievances regarding many issues. That led to Charles’s frustration when Parliament insisted on negotiation each time he requested funds, particularly for his wars against France and Spain. Parliament could only sit when called by the King, so Charles’s solution was to dismiss Parliament, rule without it, and find other ways to raise funds.

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.

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 in one form or another from November 1640 until 1659 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 the King. Fearing reprisals, Charles and the 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, generally supported by Dissenters, and Royalists who were primarily Anglicans.

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.

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.

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 59 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 Royalists 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.

Whitehall Palace was largely ransacked after the royal family departed in the early 1640s, with those paintings and treasures the Dissenters found offensive destroyed or thrown in the Thames. Various ancient London landmarks such as Charing Cross and Paul’s Cross at St. Paul’s Cathedral were demolished during the Commonwealth period. Many found it strange that churches were ordered to stay closed on Christmas Day from 1652 but shops allowed to open.

After Parliamentarians took control of London there was little in the way of censorship, with a proliferation of pamphlets broadcasting all kinds of opinion. From 1649 onwards Parliament began to enforce censorship of views to which they disagreed. One of the greatest English writers of the mid-17th century, John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, worked as a writer of propaganda for the republican government.

During the 1640s people holding a variety of different overlapping views – religious, parliamentarian, anti-monarchist, republican or social – made up the anti-Royalist opposition. One such group came to be known as the Levellers, an early version of socialists or democrats.

The Society of Friends in Truth, or ‘Quakers’, evolved during the Commonwealth period under the leadership of the Leicestershire weaver George Fox who had begun preaching in 1647. Three years later sixty members were sent around the country to spread their message and were so successful in gaining new members in London that the capital was to eventually become the main centre of the Society.

Jews had been absent from England since they were expelled by Edward I in 1290. When 20 arrived in 1656, declaring themselves as refugees from the Spanish Inquisition and as asylum-seekers from torture by Catholics, it was difficult for the government to refuse them refuge. They were allowed to set up a synagogue at the house of Moses Athias in the City, at Creechurch Lane near Aldgate, and a burial ground in a former orchard at Mile End. Ironically, while different groups of Christians – Anglicans, Catholics and non-conformists – were at violent odds with each other, the small number of Jews in England in the mid-17th century managed to largely avoid persecution. They were the vanguard of much larger numbers that were to arrive later in the century.


During the period from the 1620s to the 1640s Oliver Cromwell rose from being a Member of Parliament to military commander. When the Commonwealth republic was declared he was appointed as a member of its governing Council of State. Backed by the army, in 1653 Cromwell was appointed Lord Protector, becoming head of the nation. Following a military campaign in Ireland he was plagued with malarial fevers and died at Whitehall Palace in September 1658.

Cromwell had previously announced his son Richard as his successor, but Richard did not have the authority of his father and was forced to resign after just eight months. As Parliament dissolved into chaos General George Monck, commander of the army in Scotland, marched his men south to restore order. There was rejoicing in London as Monck’s ‘Coldstream Guards’ arrived in the capital, with bonfires lit, church-bells rung and people able to openly drink for the first time in ten years. Elections brought a new Parliament that voted to restore the monarchy. In April 1660 Prince Charles, son of the executed King and living in the Low Countries, issued the Declaration of Breda in which he promised to honour parliamentary liberties and religious freedoms in Britain if he returned to take up the throne. He landed at Dover, then onward by boat to London, entering the City across London Bridge on his thirtieth birthday of 29th May 1660.

The leading Parliamentarians who had not already fled were rounded up and put on trial. Those remaining who had signed the death warrant of Charles I were hanged (at Charing Cross facing towards Whitehall), drawn and quartered. In December Parliament voted that the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, two other Parliamentarians, and Cromwell’s mother should be exhumed from their graves at Westminster Abbey. In January 1661 their corpses were hung from the gallows at Tyburn, north of Hyde Park. Their decapitated heads were then exhibited on poles at Westminster Hall and their bodies buried below Tyburn’s gallows. After the Restoration of the monarchy a statue of Charles I was set up at the northern end of Whitehall where it remains to this day.

A rebellion by Fifth Monarchist religious extremists in 1661, and unsuccessful plots to assassinate Charles, convinced the majority of MPs that a crackdown on republicans and Dissenters was necessary. The Five Mile Act of 1665 prevented any non-Anglicans from preaching within that distance of the City and non-conformist schoolmasters to teach within that area. The result was that new Dissenter churches and schools were established outside London in villages such as Highgate, Hampstead, Stoke Newington, Chelsea and Fulham.

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