The First Civil War: political overview

The deteriorating relationship between King Charles the First and Parliament leads to civil war and Parliament's alliance with the Covenanters

Woodcut depicting the quarrel between roundheads and cavaliers

Scotland's victory over England in the Second Bishops' War left King Charles desperately short of money. In November 1640, he reluctantly called a Parliament for the second time that year in the hope of raising further revenue. This became known as the Long Parliament.

Parliamentary opposition to the King's policies was orchestrated by John Pym, who initially focused his attack upon the King's advisers rather than the King himself. The Earl of Strafford and Archbishop Laud were denounced and impeached within weeks of the Long Parliament assembling. During 1641, a series of constitutional reforms was implemented to ensure that a monarch could never again rule without reference to Parliament. However, the fatal rift that led to civil war between King Charles and the Long Parliament was over the question of who should control the army raised to defeat the Irish Uprising of 1641.

The King refused to allow Parliament's militia bill to pass into law, which would have conceded his control of the army and navy. He made a serious error of judgment in January 1642 when he tried to arrest the five MPs he regarded as his leading opponents in Parliament. Amid uproar and riots in support of Parliament, King Charles and royal family were forced to flee from London. Parliament then decreed that its own ordinances were legally binding without the royal assent. With the complete breakdown of dialogue between King and Parliament, an armed resolution to the conflict became inevitable. Civil war broke out in August 1642.

As the war progressed, the King tried to undermine Parliament's authority by summoning an alternative parliament at Oxford, but with little success. The Parliamentarians meanwhile split into two broad factions: the "Presbyterians", who wanted to end the war through a negotiated settlement with the King, and the "Independents" who wanted an outright military victory. Yet all attempts at negotiation failed and neither side could win a decisive victory. In December 1643, Parliament formed an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters which looked likely to tip the balance against the Royalists, but ultimately the intervention of the Scots only exacerbated the divisions between the English Parliamentarians.

In 1645, the Independent faction initiated a major reform of the Parliamentarian army. The professionally-run New Model Army decisively defeated the Royalists and brought the English Civil War to an end in little more than a year. In 1646, with all his forces defeated, King Charles surrendered to the Scots rather than to Parliament, with the intention of stirring up further discord and division among his enemies.

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