Ruling without royalty

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).

Equestrian portrait of Charles I by Van Dyck (1633)

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.”

Find out more about the Civil War by reading the full feature in Vol 87 Issue 4 of BRITAIN magazine on sale here