Conflicts – Fighting the British Civil Wars 1642-1649

Time Title Content
[01.16] A game of two halves The period from the outbreak of civil war in England and Wales in late summer 1642 to the execution of the reigning Monarch and the abolition of the institution of monarchy in the opening weeks of 1649 can be seen as a game of two halves and it’s probably best approached, evaluated and understood in two chronological sections.


1.   The First Civil War War From late summer 1642 until early summer 1646 when Parliament completed and secured a complete and unconditional military victory, England and Wales were caught up in a bitter and intense civil war lasting just shy of four years.  The level of intensity of active campaigning and fighting varied between regions, and some areas largely escaped direct conflict, but all regions and every part of England and Wales were caught up in the war if only through Conscription, heavy wartime taxation and being compelled to support the Parliamentarian or Royalist war efforts.  War, supplying the war, military affairs and fighting dominated. There were political, administrative and religious developments during this period, but they were generally secondary to and contingent upon and shaped by the war and the war effort.
[02.41] 2. The ‘Second Civil War… Between summer 1646 and the opening weeks of 1649 there continued to be fighting in some parts of England and Wales, though now at a much more sporadic and chronologically and geographically limited level, not merely the risings and rebellions which took place in some parts of England and Wales between spring and summer 1648 and which combined with a failed Scottish Royalist invasion which was stopped in its tracks in Lancashire, sometimes collectively labelled as a Second Civil War, but also other riots or violent outbursts in a string of provincial towns and mutinies in some units of the Parliamentarian army.
[02.14] The search for a settlement However, the period from summer 1646 onwards was dominated by an uneasy and only intermittently broken peace in England and Wales.  The focus shifts to the failed attempt to make a durable peace and to reconstruct a political, constitutional and religious settlement which could win wide and genuine support amongst the key players on the victorious Parliamentarian side but also amongst the defeated Royalists.
[03.59] Divisions Part of the explanation for that failure of settlement lies in the obduracy and insincerity of the King, though it also rests in the way in which the Parliamentarian factions and groups which worked well enough together to win the main civil war then divided and split asunder in the later 1640s.
1.   1642-6
[04.22] Armies The Civil War of 1642 to ’46 was in part a conflict of large marching armies which campaigned across much of the country and which occasionally clashed with enemy armies in major set piece battles.  These large armies, initially made up of volunteers but from late 1643 onwards, increasingly kept up to strength or enlarged by adding conscripts, comprised of a mixture of mounted troops or Cavalry and foot soldiers or infantry, the latter comprising a mixture of Pikeman units, men armed with long steel-tipped wooden staves, and musketeers, men armed with muskets.
[03.03] Seasonal operation Large armies also had with them some Dragoons, that is foot soldiers who were initially mounted on horses, enabling them to move quickly into advanced positions and some ordinance or field artillery pieces. A large army of this sort moved quite slowly, generally no more than ten miles a day, and also needed plentiful supplies of food, drink and fodder to keep it going.  Hence large marching armies of this sort could only really operate between spring and early autumn.  The weather, the state of the roads and the dearth of supplies meant that these big armies generally went into winter quarters for the rest of the year.
[05.56] Size The King always had a major army office ilk under his command, generally based in his heavily defended wartime capital of Oxford and hence known as the King’s Oxford Army.  Typically, it numbered around 15,000 men.  Parliament’s main Southern army, often based in the London area under its first commander in chief, the Earl of Essex, also numbered generally around 15,000 men, but there were other Royalist and Parliamentarian generals operating in the South-West, the Midlands or the North with armies which were often a little smaller; 6-8,000 men was a perfectly respectable and operational size for a regional army of this sort.
[06.51] The New Model Army In spring 1645 Parliament, frustrated by the military performance of several of its armies in the previous year, amalgamated some of them and added further men to create a bigger field army, on paper up to 22,000 men strong, quickly dubbed ‘The New Model Army’.  The stunning victory it achieved over the King’s main army at The Battle of Naseby in summer 1645 broke the back of the Royalist war effort and secured a Parliamentarian victory, though it took a further year to mop up the whole of England and Wales.
[07.32] A Local War However, the account of large marching armies, national campaigns and big set piece battles provides barely half the story of the Civil War of 1642 to ’46.  Most troops and most of the civilian population were caught up in a war fought at a smaller scale, at a more local level, what some historians refer to as the local or county war.  This was a war fought by small bodies of troops, perhaps just a few score in number trying to hold local strong points, raiding and counter-raiding, skirmishing with small bodies of enemy soldiers.  The Civil War very rapidly became a territorial war as both sides deployed many of their troops to occupy and secure the urban and rural landscape of England and Wales.
[08.30] Territory Each side wanted to secure strategically important territory, things like towns and ports, key roads and road junctions, river valleys such as the Thames, the Severn and the Trent, and key crossing or bridging points.  But more than that, each side needed to secure territory and the resources it offered in order to supply the war effort.  Fighting an intense four-year war required a huge and continuing supply of resources, and so troops on the ground holding an area were expected to draw off from the civilian population in their patch a supply of hard cash raised via unprecedentedly high wartime taxes, food and drink, fodder for the Cavalry, conscripts to replenish the armies and other supplies needed for war.
[09.27] Garrisons All this was achieved via garrison.  A garrison was a body of troops, maybe just a few dozen strong, maybe in the hundreds or even low thousands in a few cases.  They were based in strongholds.  These might be hastily fortified towns, repaired Medieval stone castles, in some cases Tudor country houses made defensible, occasionally in completely newly constructed earthwork forts.  Only through the hundreds of garrisons established by King and Parliament across England and Wales could sufficient resources be drawn off to keep the Civil War going.
[10.11] 1642-3 Royalist success Neither side gained the upper hand during the opening months of the war.  The campaign of autumn 1642, which culminated in the drawn and indecisive Battle of Edgehill in Warwickshire, fought in October.  However, during 1643, the King’s forces clearly gained the upper hand conquering large swathes of territory in the South-West, central Southern England and parts of the Midlands.  Parliament lost territory and was pushed back into the heartlands, the heartlands of London, the South East and East Anglia.  Parliament seemed to be losing the Civil War.
[10.58] 1644 Parliamentarian recovery However, during 1644 Parliament began to recover and to regain territory in part because of allies.  During 1643, both King and Parliament had looked to beef up their war efforts by making alliances with other British Kingdoms.  The King looked to Ireland making a truce with the majority Irish Catholic population who had risen up in Rebellion in 1641.  That truce, giving the Irish Catholics control of most of the island of Ireland would enable the King to bring back to England English and Welsh soldiers who had been dispatched to Ireland earlier in the decade and also, perhaps, to recruit fresh troops amongst the small surviving Protestant communities who were living in Ireland.
[11.49] The King’s alliance with the Irish Catholics In fact, the King’s deal brought him very little benefit.  Even many Royalists believed that doing a deal with the Irish Catholics who had so recently killed thousands of Protestants in Ireland was wrong and in practical terms, because Parliament had naval supremacy throughout the war, it was able quite easily and successfully to station a small number of naval vessels in the Irish Sea and thus to prevent any significant contingents of troops crossing over from Ireland to the English and Welsh mainland to reinforce the King’s armies.
[12.28] 1644 Parliament’s alliance with the Scots The Battle of Marston Moor Far more valuable in military terms was the alliance made by Parliament with the Scots in early autumn 1643.  In return for financial support and a more controversial pledge to introduce a Scottish-style Presbyterian Church in England and Wales after the war had been won, the Scots agreed to send an army of around 20,000 men to support Parliament’s war effort in England and Wales.  That Scottish army crossed the border early in 1644 and, coordinating its efforts with English Parliamentarian armies in the North, forced the Royalists to relinquish much of their territory in Northern England.   A Royalist army sent North to defend York was decisively beaten at Marston Moor to the West of York in early July 1644, and in the wake of that crushing defeat, the King lost control of almost the whole of Northern England.
[13.34] Parliament’s ‘New Model Army’ However, the position in the Midlands and the South did not change greatly during 1644 and Parliamentarian armies operating in that region performed quite poorly during the year.  That was the stimulus behind Parliament creating a bigger, partly new field army in spring 1645, and it was that New Model Army, in coordination with other smaller Parliamentarian field armies, which secured full military victory during 1645 and the opening months of 1646, eventually overwhelming the hitherto strongly Royalist territories of Wales and the far south-west of England.

In 1645 Parliament reformed its war effort, creating the New Model Army but also clearing out many of the generals who had under-performed earlier in the Civil War.  The King never undertook such thorough and thoroughgoing reforms of his armies and his command structure and perhaps, too, Parliament’s forces were more strongly motivated than their enemies, not least in terms of Godly religious enthusiasm, though we should note that the King’s armies, too, believed that they were fighting a war supported by God and to protect the true church.
[14.58] County Committees Parliament’s victory of 1646 had come at huge cost in terms of loss of life, the wrecking of towns and villages caught up in the fighting, oppressive taxes, the militarisation of the country.  Parliament itself and the new Executive Council it set up during the war years to share the burden of administration, had taken on extensive extra powers and, like the King in the areas he had controlled, had established new military-backed County Committees to run and to extract resources from those parts of England and eventually Wales under its control.

There is ample evidence that much of the civilian population, even those living in areas which saw mercifully little actual fighting, came to hate the war and wartime depredations and that they were desperate for the establishment of a solid, durable peace and a return to traditional ways and normal life.
[16.03] Hopes for a settlement In 1646 as war gave way to peace, the Parliamentarians, too, including the MPs and Peers sitting in the Long Parliament, hoped to reach a deal and to make a settlement with the King, now held in honourable and fairly luxurious captivity, and they soon opened negotiations, so why was no deal reached in 1646 or 1647, and why instead do we see renewed war in 1648 and then Regicide?
[16.37] Charles hedges his bets.. Part of the answer lies in the stance of the King.  His line in 1646 and ’47 seems to have been to say ‘Yes’ to no set of terms, to say ‘No’ to no set of terms, to say ‘Maybe’ and ‘Let’s talk’ to just about any group who approached him in the hope of spinning things out. Charles was probably calculating, quite intelligently and perceptively, that the various groups opposing him and who had won the war would not hold together after the war had ended and instead, given time and a bit of leverage, they would fall out so badly amongst themselves that they would turn to the traditional monarchical system as the only viable way to get out of the resulting mess.
[17.31] Execution And in a way, Charles was right.  In the end, that is more or less what happened.  That is a reasonable description of events of the late 1650s leading to the Stuart Restoration of 1660, but the beneficiary then of course was not Charles himself but his son and heir who became Charles II.  For Charles I, this game did not end so well, for eventually the most powerful of the Parliamentarian groups he had tried to string along lost patience with him and forced his removal and his death in 1649.
2.    1646-1649
[18.12] Divisions

The Long Parliament had already shown clear signs of fracturing during the Civil War.  MPs and Peers who actively supported the King had departed and they were not allowed to return and retake their seats after the war, but even MPs and Peers who continued to sit in London and to support the Parliamentarian cause had different outlooks, expectations and levels of commitment.  Those wartime tensions and divisions led on to clearer and deeper divisions post-Civil War.

[18.49] Faction 1… One group of MPs and many Peers might be labelled ‘The Doves’.  They favoured reaching a fairly gentle settlement with the defeated King and his supporters, one which would not further reduce Royal power and which, in terms of political and constitutional settlement, would do not much more than returning to the position reached by late 1641.
[19.18] …Political Presbyterians

Many of these MPs and Peers also favoured a religious settlement that would restore religious harmony.  Many of these people feared a breakdown in religious order and stability and they favoured a post-War settlement involving a single national church to which everyone had to conform.  That might be a reformed Church of England, though many were happy to see some sort of a soft Presbyterian national church as had been promised to the Scots several years before.  Members of this group or faction in Parliament were therefore dubbed ‘The Presbyterians’ or ‘The Political Presbyterians’.  

[20.04] Faction 2.. They were opposed by another group of MPs and Peers who we might characterise as ‘The Hawks’.  They wanted to do a deal with the King which would retain an active monarch as part of Government, but they were more distrustful of Charles, and hence they wanted provisions included in any settlement which would further curtail Royal powers in things like appointing officers of state and the executive arm in general, his military command and his relationship with Parliament.  At the same time, most members of this group strongly opposed the re-imposition of a single national church of any hue, including and perhaps especially a Scottish-style Presbyterian Church.
[20.53] …The Political Independents The pre-War Church of England had effectively collapsed during the war years and during the early and mid-1640s, especially in Parliamentarian-held areas and amongst the Parliamentarian armies.  Protestantism had fragmented and several new Protestant sects, including Baptism and Independency had sprung up.  This group within Parliament, often dubbed ‘The Independents’ or ‘The Political Independents’ saw that Protestant fragmentation as a gift from God and they wanted Protestant plurality secured and guaranteed as a key element of any post-War settlement.

Quite soon after the Civil War ended and certainly by the closing weeks of 1646, divisions between the Political Presbyterians and the Political Independents within the Long Parliament were becoming apparent.  The Political Presbyterians generally had majority support in both Houses, and they were keen to press ahead and reach a settlement with the King which reflected their religious, political and constitutional objectives. However, they envisaged and feared potential opposition to that sort of settlement more potent than that from the other MPs and Peers within the Long Parliament.
[22.24] The Army The victorious Parliamentarian armies, especially the New Model Army, also had an agenda.  The New Model had its own material and army-related grievances which it wanted Parliament to redress, things like meeting arrears of pay, proper provision for old or injured soldiers, legal Indemnity so they could not be prosecuted for wartime actions and so forth. But the New Model agenda was wider and it was much closer to that of the Political Independents than the Political Presbyterians.

The New Model favoured at least some further constraints being imposed on Royal powers in any future settlement, and they certainly wanted Protestant plurality as an essential element of the religious post-War settlement.  Therefore, they were pretty well diametrically opposed to the agenda being pursued by the Political Presbyterians within the Long Parliament.
[23.33] A struggle for power Hence the year following the end of the war saw something of a power struggle between these Parliamentarian cliques.  In particular, the Political Presbyterians, fearful that the New Model and other Parliamentarian armies might intervene to block their favoured deal with the King, sought to push ahead with disbanding those armies as quickly, as cheaply and as extensively as possible in order to remove or neuter any potential block to them being able to do a deal with the King on their terms.
[24.15] The New Model Army seizes the King The New Model Army increasingly dragged its heels and resisted the moves of the Political Presbyterians, culminating in summer 1647 with the New Model Army bluntly refusing Parliament’s orders claiming that it now better represented the interests of the nation and its people and temporarily occupying London, frightening leading Political Presbyterian MPs to withdraw from Parliament.  By this stage, the New Model Army had also taken direct control of the King and was holding him in honourable captivity close to the army so that they could directly negotiate with him, and perhaps side-line the Political Presbyterian clique within the Long Parliament.
[25.08] Radical ideas However, by late summer 1647, the New Model Army itself was beginning to show signs of fracturing.  Most notably, the senior army officers, quickly dubbed ‘The Grandees’ began to lose the trust and confidence of some of the more radical junior officers and members of the rank and file.  These New Model Army members wanted to go further and to offer or impose a more radical settlement than that favoured by the senior officers.  This more radical settlement might keep a King and a House of Lords, but they would be mere empty figureheads holding little or no power.  Instead, they favoured a settlement that would stress and protect the sovereignty of the people and give power to the people’s elected representatives in a House of Commons of a reformed Parliament.
[26.13] The Putney Debates Many of these more radical views and objectives being supported by parts of the New Model Army reflected the programme of The Levellers, one of the radical religious and political pressure groups which had emerged in London and other Parliamentarian territories in the early and mid-1640s.  The divisions opening up between The Grandees, the senior officers, on the one hand, and the more radical junior officers and regimental representatives on the other hand, were laid bare at a series of New Model Army debates held at Putney Church in autumn 1647 when they discussed the future course of events and the type of settlement they wished imposed on the country.

Thus, during the latter half of the course of 1646 and through 1647, what the King had probably hoped would happen from the outset did clearly begin to happen.  Parliament had divided into two factions.  One of those factions had taken on but been out-gunned by the New Model Army and finally, the New Model Army itself was beginning to divide.
[27.32] Terms En route, Charles had been offered a number of draft terms: Parliament’s Propositions of Newcastle in summer 1646, the New Model Army officers, Heads of the Proposals in summer 1647, a far more radical set of proposals emanating from parts of the New Model Army called The Agreement of the People in autumn 1647, and then a revised set of proposals from Parliament combining parts of the Propositions of Newcastle and a bit of the army’s Heads of the Proposals presented to him in the form of four Parliamentarian Bills in late 1647.
[28.17] The Scots There was one other significant power group, that is the Scots.  They had allied with Parliament during the Civil War, but they had been rather cold-shouldered by the English Parliament once the war had been won.  They felt that their allies, the English, had failed to keep their part of the deal.  They had expected the English Parliament to enforce a Scottish-style Presbyterian Church as the only church and form of religion available in post-War England and Wales, but the Long Parliament had not done that.

At Christmas 1647, after 18 months of prevarication and hedging his bets, Charles appeared finally to commit himself to a set of terms, the terms offered to him by the Scots.  Under The Engagement, the Scots pledged to intervene militarily to restore the King to full power in England and Wales.  In return, Charles ostensibly pledged to establish Presbyterianism throughout England and Wales, at least for a temporary and experimental period.
[29.40] The ‘Second Civil War’ Aware that a Scottish Royalist army was preparing to intervene and invade in 1648, many old Royalists in England and Wales sought to take up arms once again and to renew the fight, but by this time many former Parliamentarian supporters, including a few army officers, had become disillusioned by the lack of settlement and also by the continuation of wartime conditions, the heavy taxes, the continuing presence of garrisons, the continuing running of local affairs by County Committees even though the war had now been over for two years.  Hence, the renewed home-grown risings and rebellions seen in parts of England and Wales between the spring and early autumn of 1648 had a joint and overlapping nature; old Royalism combining with anti-Parliamentarianism to foment violence.

Although there were some major risings in Kent and Essex, culminating in an attempt to hold Colchester ,and in Pembrokeshire spreading across parts of South Wales culminating in an attempt to hold Pembroke, in the end, local Parliamentarian forces, and in some cases regiments of the New Model Army which had reunited and pulled together in the face of this new threat, put down all these pro-Royalist or anti-Parliamentarian outbursts in England and Wales.  When it finally happened in summer 1648, the Scottish Royalist invasion also came to grief, defeated, torn to pieces around and south of Preston in Lancashire in the latter half of August 1648 by part of the New Model Army commanded by Oliver Cromwell.
[31.44] Man of Blood Before going on campaign in this so-called Second Civil War of 1648, the New Model Army officers had come together and at a big Windsor Prayer Meeting had roundly condemned the King, Charles Stuart, ‘That man of blood’ as they referred to him, for plunging the country into a renewed and unnecessary civil war, and the officers pledged that if victory was theirs, they would enforce exemplary justice against the King.  Horrified by this, The Doves in Parliament, the Political Presbyterians,, sought in autumn 1648 to reach a deal with the King who by that stage had fled from Hampton Court but only as far as the Isle of Wight where he was being held a prisoner.
[32.38] Pride’s Purge

However, in December 1648, the New Model Army intervened to curtail these negotiations and to impose their harsher path.  Entering London at the beginning of the month on 6 December, a New Model colonel, Thomas Pride, and his troops surrounded and purged Parliament.  In the aftermath of Pride’s Purge, most MPs were denied entry or chose to absent themselves, leaving a body of around 70 MPs sitting, the hard men who were prepared to enforce the army’s agenda against the King.


Parliament had long claimed the right in all its wartime and post-war legislation to make new laws without seeking or obtaining the King’s Royal Assent.  In January 1649, the small group of MPs sitting in the purged House of Commons went further and claimed the right to legislate without seeking the consent of the House of Lords.  By this stage, most Peers had absented themselves anyway.
[33.53] The Trial and execution of Charles I Legislation of early January 1649 set up a special high court to try the King on the capital charge of treason.  A trial of sorts took place in late January, though Charles refused to enter a plea or to recognise the legitimacy of this court.  Nonetheless, evidence of his personal involvement in the Civil War was heard in absentia, he was convicted and sentenced to death, and on 30 January 1649, he was beheaded in Whitehall.