Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War: Part I

Charles I demanding the surrender of five members of parliament 1642. Credit: www.bridgemanimages.com

We look back at the tumultuous events that led to the English Civil War, setting the scene for Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power

On January 4, 1642 King Charles I took his armed guards and burst into the chamber of the House of Commons. Amid the sudden alarm at such a breach of etiquette, he strode to the Speaker’s chair and demanded the surrender of five members of parliament. But Charles was too late. The men, noted thorns in the royal side, had already fled and the humiliated King could do no more than ruefully mutter: “All my birds have flown.”

Within eight months of this extraordinary scene that revealed Charles for the tyrant he had become, he raised his Royal Standard at Nottingham: King and Parliament were at war. The ensuing strife would tear the country and whole families apart, dispense with the Crown and set in motion a revolutionary experiment of republican rule without royalty unique in British history. Controversy over who were the heroes and the villains in the drama, and what it all really meant, continues to this day.

You don’t need to dig deep to find the seeds for the civil wars that erupted in Charles I’s reign, first with the Scots (from 1637), in Ireland (from 1641) and in England (1642–46 and 1648). Money, religion and above all government power struggles between King and Parliament provided the flashpoints.

Charles had followed his father King James VI of Scotland/I of England onto the throne in 1625, inheriting also the Stuarts’ absolutist belief that sovereigns took their authority from God alone. Court painter Anthony Van Dyck’s iconic equestrian portraits of Charles typify the regal image the King sought to project (in real life he was a less imposing five feet four inches tall).

Oliver Cromwell English civil war
Equestrian portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck (1633) Credit: Paul Williams/Alamy

But the monarch’s haughty intransigence sat ill with an increasingly muscular Parliament, just as Charles’ espousal of High Anglican forms of worship full of ritual ran counter to Puritan demands for plainer devotions. The fact that the King was married to a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, only fuelled suspicions over his intentions, while his attempts to impose the Anglican liturgy in Scotland sparked the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640.

When Charles embroiled the country in costly, ill-fated wars with Spain and France, Parliament refused to grant funds, while his luxury lifestyle didn’t endear him to creditors. As bickering continued, Charles dissolved Parliament three times between 1625 and 1629, and then dismissed it altogether to rule alone from 1629 to 1640, raising money through his own somewhat irregular taxation methods. Further parliaments were recalled and dissolved when they called for reforms. Then, convinced that his most outspoken adversaries included traitors who had supported the Scots in the Bishops’ Wars, Charles made his fateful attempts at arrest in 1642.

With the raising of the Royal Standard at Nottingham, battle lines were drawn: Charles and his Royalists, or Cavaliers, expensively mounted on horseback and wearing their hair long and owing; infantrymen – traditionally drawn from the lower classes – were slower to heed the King’s call. Opposing them were the Parliamentarians, or Roundheads, with their closely cropped hair.

Of course the Civil War was far more than a clash between the aristocratic, snappy dressing Cavaliers and plain-garbed Roundheads of popular history. Political and religious stakes were high, whole families were bitterly split, and terror, death and suffering reached every corner of the land. One in five adult males would fight; one in 20 would die. “We are so many frighted people,” one householder wrote. “For my part, if I hear but a door creak I take it for a drum.”

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Cromwell wanted his portrait to be a true likeness. Credit: © ACTIVE MUSEUM/Alamy

The Battle of Edgehill in October 1642 and other early encounters proved inconclusive, but broadly speaking the Royalists had the upper hand in the north, west and southwest of the country, with Charles setting up his capital at Oxford; Parliament controlled London, East Anglia and the southeast.

The wreckage and tales of sieges and slightings (punitive demolitions) are told at castles everywhere: three-times besieged Pontefract in West Yorkshire, in ltrated by disguised Royalists pretending to bring in beds for the Parliamentarian garrison; Royalist Donnington in Berkshire that held out for nearly two years; the romantic ruins of Corfe Castle in Dorset where the formidable Lady Mary Bankes took to the battlements with her daughters and maids to fend off local Roundheads.

In the end the tide turned with Scots’ support for the Parliamentarians and the emergence of outstanding Parliamentarian generals like Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell who delivered victories at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). It was at Naseby, too, that the Parliamentarians’ highly disciplined New Model Army – known as Ironsides for their iron breastplates – scored its first major success.

Oliver Cromwell: Ruling without royalty

Oliver Cromwell, to this day one of the most controversial and divisive gures in British history, had come into his own during the Civil War. In Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire, where he was born in 1599, you can explore his story at The Cromwell Museum (his former grammar school), and also at Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely where he later lived with his large family.

A minor gentleman landowner and blunt-speaking MP, he could hardly contrast more with Charles I, famously commanding the portrait painter Sir Peter Lely to: “paint my picture truly like me and not atter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts, and everything, otherwise I never will pay a farthing for it.”

Cromwell was also a zealous Puritan convinced that the struggle against Charles was not merely political but also necessary in order to establish “godly” government and greater religious freedoms; every battle won seemed to him a sign that God was on the Puritans’ side. Yet as the first chapter of the Civil War now came to an end Cromwell was among those still keen to reach a peaceful compromise with the King.

Oliver Cromwell English civil war
Charles I was held at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Credit: DP Landscapes/Alamy

While Parliament and the army debated what to do next, an unrepentant Charles escaped house arrest at Hampton Court Palace. Recaptured, he was held at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, where he enjoyed considerable comfort and freedom – visitors today can play bowls on the castle bowling green made for his leisure.

But with typical recklessness, Charles ignored a lenient settlement with Parliament and instead secretly promised the Scots he would impose Presbyterianism in England if they would invade on his behalf. Scottish supporters duly did but were defeated by Cromwell at Preston in 1648.

Parliament’s mood now hardened against Charles amid fears that he would never compromise and always be the focus for unrest. Pride’s Purge in December 1648 – essentially a military coup led by Colonel Thomas Pride – prevented moderate MPs from entering the Commons to vote on the way ahead.

Dissenting voices over the legality of bringing a monarch to trial were later shouted down by Cromwell: “I tell you we will cut off his head with the crown upon it!” The scene was set for the unthinkable; the path opening towards the unknown.

READ MORE: Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War: Part II