The armed conflicts that raged across Britain in the mid-17th century claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000-250,000 people – a greater proportion of the population than those lost in the First World War. The fighting was brutal and widespread, characterised as much by scrappy siege warfare as formal pitched battles, and encompassing all corners of the British Isles, even spilling across the seas to Europe and the New World. It seemed to those who lived (and died) through the conflict, that the whole world had turned upside down and the shock to the social and political fabric of Britain reverberated for generations.
And yet, our traditional view of the English Civil War, and even the very name we use to describe it, does little to convey the scale and devastation of this most turbulent time in British history – a contributing factor, perhaps, to its unjustly diminished profile in our national story. Most obviously it was not a conflict limited only to England, and historians in recent decades have repeatedly argued for it to be seen as a British war – the ‘War of the Three Kingdoms’. Rebellions in Ireland and Scotland in 1639-41 triggered full-scale war in England in 1642 and these same two nations provided the final theatres of conflict in 1649-51. Furthermore, the Scots were key players in the conflict between Parliament and the King, allying first with one side and then the other, fundamentally shifting the political landscape. This period is central to understanding the relationships between the modern nations of the United Kingdom and Ireland as the Commonwealth and Protectoral governments of the 1650s were the first to rule over England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland as a unified nation.
But an even more fundamental and necessary shift in perspective is to change the traditional concept of one civil war, to that of several civil wars. Popular descriptions of these conflicts, from Horrible Histories up, speak of ‘the English Civil War 1642-49’ (see also ‘the Interregnum 1649-1660’) but in fact there were certainly three (even at a stretch four!) distinct wars, each fought by different coalitions, and separated by periods of peace negotiations that most participants expected to put an end to the fighting once and for all. Because of this, each war was successively more desperate and less civil than the last. Each time hopes of peace were dashed, the stakes rose, violence escalated and the geographical spread of the conflict widened. It is only by seeing the Civil Wars in this way that we can truly understand how the extraordinary sequence of events of the 1640s and 50s unfolded.
War first broke out between King and Parliament in the summer of 1642 leading to the opening battle of Edgehill in October. The fortunes of each force ebbed and flowed through several campaign seasons until the entry of the Scots’ army on Parliament’s side in 1644 and the creation of Parliament’s professional New Model Army contributed to their decisive victory over the King at Naseby in June 1645. Hostilities finally came to an end a year later with the surrender of the royalist headquarters of Oxford. Though many lost their lives, both sides usually strived to remain civil as people were often fighting their friends or even families: when food ran low in the besieged city of Oxford at the very end of the war, for instance, the commander in chief of the New Model Army, Sir Thomas Fairfax, sent a present of a brace of bucks, two muttons, two veal, two lambs, and six capons into the city for the King’s second son the Duke of York.
At the end of the First Civil War, the vast majority of participants on both sides assumed they would agree a lasting constitutional settlement that incorporated the King and Parliament. Fighting gave way to politics as countless proposals were hammered out and put before the King. However, as time passed the interests of the fragile alliance which had won the war (principally the Presbyterian members of the House of Commons, the increasingly radical New Model Army and the Scots) increasingly diverged and the King took advantage of this to play each constituency off against the others. The result was a second outbreak of civil war in the spring and summer of 1648. This was a shorter and altogether nastier conflict, characterised by uprisings and sieges and culminating in the Scottish army invading England, this time at the invitation of the King. Attitudes hardened as many fighting for Parliament now considered the King a traitor whose unprincipled double-dealing had caused unnecessary bloodshed. The siege of Colchester, where the Royalists were finally defeated, was particularly brutal for example: the starving townspeople, who had been loyal to Parliament, were reputedly reduced to eating dogs, cats and candle wax and Fairfax ordered two of the Royalist commanders executed at their eventual surrender.
Parliament’s forces had now defeated the King in two bloody civil wars, and fundamentally changed themselves and their goals in the process. What began as a rebellion to restrain an overmighty king had, with the increasing politicisation of the New Model Army amid the bloodshed of the Second Civil War, shifted towards a wholesale revolution. Even now, many of the Army leaders and key MPs, including the rising star Oliver Cromwell, sought a last-minute deal with the King. But, when this proved impossible, Charles I was tried and executed for making war on his own people in January 1649. The monarchy and House of Lords were abolished, and a new Commonwealth government swiftly installed. This fledgling State was extremely vulnerable, surrounded by a new coalition of enemies, from hostile foreign powers to exiled Royalists and disaffected Levellers. The government’s ambassador to the Dutch Republic, Isaac Dorislaus, was assassinated only days after arriving at his post. Charles I’s nephew, Prince Rupert, captained a piratical fleet that harried English ships across the Mediterranean and as far as the West Indies. The American colonies saw skirmishes between Royalist and Parliamentarian sympathisers well into the 1650s.
Closer to home, Royalist forces gathered in Ireland and Scotland looking to invade England on behalf of Charles I’s son, the now self-proclaimed King Charles II. The new Commonwealth government sent the Army, only now for the first time commanded by Oliver Cromwell, to prosecute a Third Civil War against this threat, first in Ireland in 1649 and then in Scotland in 1650, which it did with brutal efficiency. Once again, the violence in this next conflict reached new heights as the geographical theatre of war spread and campaign became conquest: Cromwell’s besieging of Wexford and Drogheda in Ireland, for example, are infamous for their brutality with an enormous loss of both military and civilian lives.
With the New Model Army’s last victory at Worcester in September 1651, these uncivil wars were finally over, though the tremendous task of peacefully governing three revolutionised and newly unified nations had only just begun. The decade that followed was one of unparalleled constitutional experiment, resulting eventually in the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector – a more moderate and cultured regime than most assume. Throughout these years, the primary objective of each successive government was to seek a lasting, stable settlement; an ambition that very nearly succeeded with the Protectorate before Cromwell’s sudden death and the Army coup that brought down his son and successor Richard. This proved a monumental challenge with so many political and religious interests to balance at once and the intractable problem of integrating the Army into civilian life. It has been challenging too for us to untangle the complex politics of this period – usually dismissed as the ‘Interregnum’ between the reigns of Charles I and II and whitewashed by the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Yet seeing the Civil War as three separate and ever escalating conflicts helps us to understand the landscape of the 1640s and 50s more clearly and challenge popular myths.
The events of the First Civil War are most usually those taken to represent the whole of the seismic conflict between King and Parliament: Charles I goes to the block via Edgehill, Marston Moor and Naseby, and at the command of the rebel leader Oliver Cromwell. But this popular story obscures the more fascinating truth. It was in fact the avoidable slide into a Second Civil War in 1648 which convinced many of the King’s opponents that he could not be trusted and so had to be removed entirely from power and potentially even tried and executed; a treasonous thought unimaginable to almost everyone at the outbreak of the First Civil War in 1642. The drive to reach a settlement with the King had been a desperate one, pursued in vigorous good faith and to the detriment of their own reputations by those, including Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton, who would become the leading regicides. But now, Royalists who had previously surrendered and then broken their parole to take up arms again, were deemed rebels and punished more harshly by an indignant New Model Army with iron in its soul. This is the story I tell in my new novel The Rebel Daughter, revealing the evolution of the wars from the inside by grounding the story within the Cromwell family. In its pages, we experience the extraordinary events of all three Civil Wars through the eyes of Oliver’s eldest daughter, Bridget, who, married to his deputy Henry Ireton, sees for herself the draining away of civility in the contrasting sieges of Oxford, Colchester and Wexford.
The raising of stakes and accompanying escalation of violence also helps us understand the brutal treatment of the Irish meted out by Cromwell and the Army in the Third Civil War. The Army was now fighting a war of conquest to subdue a dangerous and rebellious nation which threatened the new, fragile Commonwealth. While this context does not excuse the violence at Wexford and Drogheda, it helps to explain how it came about. This understanding of the evolving nature of the three Civil Wars also sheds light on Cromwell’s role. Having begun the First Civil War as a minor MP and cavalry captain, with each subsequent war he became more prominent and powerful until he was received back to London from the final battle of Worcester as an all-conquering hero. Cromwell never in fact led the Army against King Charles I as he only took over command from Sir Thomas Fairfax after the King’s death when Fairfax refused to lead the campaign into Scotland. Neither was Cromwell single-handedly responsible for killing the King and abolishing the monarchy: he worked hard to keep Charles I on his throne until the very last weeks of the King’s life and retained his belief that a limited monarchy was the best form of government throughout his own rule as Lord Protector – the reason he very nearly accepted the crown himself.
In these ways, changing how we frame the complex events of the 1640s and 50s from an English Civil War between King and Parliament to the British Civil Wars fought by a shifting coalition of interests brings them into clearer focus. With this perspective, we can move away from the cartoon version of ‘Wrong but Wromantic’ Royalists facing ‘Right but Repulsive’ Roundheads across a smoke-filled battlefield and deeper into the more complicated and captivating history.