“The Great Rebellion.”
From 1629, Charles I governed without Parliament, even raising new taxes such as the infamous ship money by decree. He was supported by most of the Anglican episcopacy and segments of the nobility. He looked to Arminianism and ascendant royal authority to overcome competing confessional cultures that had divided the “Three Kingdoms” of England, Ireland, and Scotland since the reign other VIII. In trying to impose a unitary monarchy and conformist religion on the diverse peoples of the British Isles, Charles provoked three discrete oppositions to himself and the monarchy, each defending a distinct confessional-patriotic identity. Nascent Irish patriotism was linked to international Catholicism but divided by ethnic and religious differences among Old Irish, Old English, and New English. Scotland was steered by a radical assembly of the Scottish Kirk, the Covenanters, who sought to outmaneuver rather than overthrow the king. Outlying areas such as Cornwall and Wales, and parts of northern England, were staunchly loyal to the crown. But the English south was very different. English patriots were restrained, at first, by a conservative Parliament that emphasized tradition and public order over aspiration to utopian godliness. But in the end, king and Parliament alike would be set aside by zealots who set up an English theocracy, enforced by military dictatorship, in place of what they saw as the twin evils of a corrupt and heretic monarchy under Charles and moral timidity and an overly compromising spirit in Parliament.
Dissent was everywhere evident in the “Three Kingdoms” in 1640. The Covenanters controlled Scotland, except where Highland clans attacked their outposts in the old style of private raids and warfare, while Ireland was plunging toward a confessional insurrection and murderous violence in 1641. English troops had sacked churches on their way to the Bishops’ Wars, apprentices rioted in London, and payment of taxes was refused. The Long Parliament, which first met on November 3, focused its discontent on Charles’ key ministers, the Earl of Strafford and Bishop Laud, impeaching them for recruiting Catholic troops in Ireland and for promoting Arminianism in the English Church. In December the Commons declared ship money illegal and accepted the Root and Branch petition. When Charles refused to disband his 9,000-man Royalist army in Ireland, Parliament sharply curtailed his legal authority (February 15, 1641), then executed Strafford for treason (May 12). Peace talks with the Covenanters nearly foundered over religious conformity, with the Scotts offering Presbyterianism and the English arguing for episcopacy, each deeply distasteful to the other camp. Still, a truce was agreed (Treaty of London, August 1641). Then the long-simmering revolt of Catholics against the advance of Protestantism in Ireland erupted in serial massacres of some 4,000 “Plantation” Protestants. Local Irish armies were quickly reinforced by tough mercenary captains and soldiers home from the German and Dutch wars. Soon, Catholics controlled most of the countryside while Protestant militia and a Royalist army under Ormonde held the major towns of the Pale and Ulster. More than any other factor, the Irish rebellion influenced English and Scottish politics until 1651: neither Parliament nor the Covenanters, both virulently anti-Catholic, could accept a Catholic ascendancy in Ireland, but neither would they pay for or entrust any army to the king for fear he would turn it against them. After his death, they could not trust armies raised by Irishmen or by each other.
The Scots sent a Covenanter army to Ulster to assist the Protestant settler militia. No sizeable English army was sent to Ireland until 1647, however, because civil war now broke out in England. The trigger was Parliament’s effort to take control of the Army by introducing impressment, which in turn brought confrontation between Commons and king over exclusion of bishops from the Lords, where they could block Acts passed in the Commons. Brash young nobles egged the king to confrontation. He gave in, sending the Sergeant-at-Arms to arrest five members of the Commons on January 4, 1642, then going there himself surrounded by reformadoes, only to find the sparrows had flown. The members retired to London under protection of the trained bands. Charles moved to Hampton Court and then to Oxford, to raise an army to impose his will on Parliament and the Kingdom. The queen crossed to France to raise money and allies, while Charles tried but failed to seize the armories at Portsmouth and Hull: this was important, as England had been so long at peace, 1603-1642, it was barely armed. By October each side had scrounged or imported enough arms to field large, if rather poorly equipped and trained armies: the king had 19 regiments of foot and 10 of horse, close to 24,000 men; Parliament had a larger force of mostly trained bands, London apprentices, and most of the navy.
When fighting started the Royalists (Cavaliers) were strong in Wales, the West counties and the Midlands, while Parliamentary forces (Roundheads) controlled London and the south, including most naval assets, officers, and men. The first Royalist attempt to take London led to a skirmish at Powick Bridge, near Worcester, on October 23, 1642, where Prince Rupert saw his first action. The larger battle of Edgehill was also fought that day. A renewed Royalist advance led to a scuffle at Brentford, 10 miles north of London, on November 12, 1642, after which the victorious Royalists sacked the town. However, an uninspired Cavalier pursuit of the beaten Roundheads allowed Essex to join with 12,000 men of the trained bands of London. There followed a standoff “battle” at Turnham Green (November 13-14, 1642), where Essex barred the Royalists with a display of superior numbers. The two sides exchanged desultory cannon fire, but neither attacked and no blood was shed. The first year of the war ended ingloriously, with Charles withdrawing to winter quarters in Oxford. The Royalists had displayed a highly aggressive spirit, compared too much lethargy and tactical caution on the part of Essex and other Parliamentary generals. Frustration with the Army built among harder men of zealous views in Parliament’s ranks.
Meanwhile, rebellion broke out in Ireland in 1641. It drew thousands of Irish veterans of the continental wars home, including 1,300 from the Army of Flanders and 1,000 from French or Swedish service. These formed the core of the Confederate Army that gathered to support the principles of the Confederation of Kilkenny. The Irish rebels never controlled a major harbor in Ulster, and thus had great difficulty supplying their troops with modern artillery and shot or preventing Royalist amphibious operations and resupply. In the south the Confederates held onto Waterford, Wexford, and Limerick. While protecting these ports was a drain on limited resources, they supported naval actions and kept contact open with the Catholic powers of Europe. At sea, about a dozen Confederate 18- or 24-gun “Dunkirk frigates” and other light warships were quite successful in coastal raiding, harassment of English supply lines, and protection of southern Irish ports. In addition, letters of marque were issued to over 30 foreign frigates to operate in Irish waters against Protestant shipping, of which they took hundreds of prizes. The Confederate navy peaked at close to 50 warships in the late 1640s. From the outset all sides built artillery fortresses, most extensively around Limerick, Dublin, and Belfast. In the country, older castles served as forts, compelling the Royalists to spread overly thin as they occupied too many small garrisons. In turn, that meant field armies in Ireland remained small and battles were mostly indecisive.
During the winter of 1642-1643, Parliament created four “Association” armies. The Western Association army was quickly defeated, by Ralph Hopton at Braddock Down (January 19, 1643). Then Rupert sacked Birmingham (April 3) and took Lichfield (April 21). The Roundheads struck back as William Waller captured Hereford (April 25) and Essex forced surrender of the garrison at Reading (April 26). Oliver Cromwell spent a winter training the Eastern Association Army, then fought a sharp action at Grantham (May 13) where his Ironsides beat a Cavalier force twice their strength: the Royalists no longer enjoyed the advantage of superior cavalry, but not all Parliamentary horse was up to Cromwell’s standard. Returning to Oxford from a raid, Rupert met Roundhead cavalry at Chalgrove Field (June 18). He charged, as always, scattering the enemy and killing their commander, John Hampden. Pym ushered the National Covenant through Parliament and impeached the queen for raising foreign monies and troops, while Essex only sat while Parliament’s army deteriorated fromdisease and desertion. In Yorkshire, Thomas Fairfax was beaten at Adwalton Moor (June 30), but secured Hull for Parliament as he fell back. In the West, Hopton defeated “Lobsters” from London at Stratton (May 16) and again at Lansdowne (July 5), where he captured their artillery and baggage train. Hopton lost so many troopers at Lansdowne, however, he had to retreat to Wiltshire. He won again at Roundway Down (July 13), killing nearly 1,000 and capturing or scattering Waller’s whole army of 4,500. That opened the way for Rupert to take Bristol for the Royalists, which he did on July 26 after hard fighting and the loss of over 500 Cavaliers. A hard fight, but Bristol was a real prize: it gave the Royalists access to commercial wealth, trade, and foreign aid. The next day a cavalry fight at Gainsborough saw Cromwell and 1,800 Ironsides scatter some 2,000 Cavaliers. Still, the king was enjoying real military success. Cavalier armies moved into Dorsetshire and Devonshire in August, took Exeter, and laid siege to Plymouth and Gloucester. It was the apex of Royalist fortunes: Charles was winning in the regions and planned a final assault on the stronghold of London. In near panic, Parliament approved new excise taxes and ordered conscription of 6,500 horse and 10,000 foot for the Eastern Association Army. Reinforced, Essex relieved Gloucester (September 8) while the navy resupplied Plymouth. Essex’s route back to London was blocked by Charles and Rupert, so that Essex had to fight at First Newbury. There, Charles deployed poorly and lost badly and Essex fought well and won. In October, Parliament agreed to the “Solemn Oath and Covenant,” a military alliance with the Scots against “papists . . . in arms under pretext of serving the king.” Meanwhile, the Irish Confederates allied with Charles. It was becoming a whole other war.
In early 1644 the Earl of Leven led 21,000 Scots, the largest army in Britain, south to fight the king. As they moved, Rupert took Newark, giving the garrison generous terms. Waller won for Parliament at Cheriton (March 29), forcing Hopton to withdraw to Cornwall. There, he was hemmed in until forced to surrender in 1646. On May 28, Rupert sacked Bolton, massacring 1,600 defenders and civilians. On June 11 he took Liverpool and two weeks later Charles won at Cropedy Bridge (June 29), near Banbury. That rout allowed him to release Rupert to relieve the siege of York, where Fairfax, Manchester, and Cromwell had linked forces with Leven, gathering 27,000 men. Charles gave Rupert just 18,000 men and orders to seek battle. The great clash came at Marston Moor on July 2, a disaster for the king that lost him the north and much of the center of England. York fell on July 16, and other garrisons followed as Manchester and Cromwell marched south. Meanwhile, Charles caught Essex at Lostwithiel (September 2), in the far west. Over two days Charles surrounded and crushed Essex, who deserted his men and fled, leaving 6,000 prisoners to Charles. The king magnanimously allowed them to leave, stripped only of muskets and cannon. That was foolhardy considering Parliamentary armies now outnumbered the king’s, though it is hard to see what else he might have done short of atrocity. He was aided by Roundhead generals falling into bitter quarrels over strategy and the prestige of command. An indecisive clash at Second Newbury (October 27) did nothing to staunch jealousies, or fears, among higher officers about social radicalism brewing in the Parliamentary Army. The core dispute was that Cromwell and the Puritans were determined on victory over Charles, while Manchester, Essex, and the Lords doubted the war could be won if the king, the rightful sovereign whatever his faults, refused to surrender his will.
Over the winter Parliament funded, and Fairfax and Cromwell officered and trained, the New Model Army. The older, Northern Army took Shrewsbury by surprise on February 22, 1646. That forced Charles to send Rupert north and delayed operations to clear the southwest, where Waller’s unpaid men were near mutiny and Waller himself resigned. But Cromwell scoured the Oxford countryside, scooping up small parties of Royalists and denying Charles the horses he needed to move his armies while the New Model Army completed training. The war in Ireland continued to no real end other than to tie down potential Royalist reinforcements and 10,000 Covenanters in Ulster. In Scotland, the Royalist cause fared better under the inspired leadership of the Marquis of Montrose. He led Highlanders to victory over the Covenanters at Tippermuir (September 1, 1644), and three more times in 1645, at Auldearn (May 9), Alford (July 2), and Kilsyth (August 15). However, when Montrose moved south at the behest of the king, who was desperate to retake the north of England and for relief from Roundhead pressure, Montrose’s highlanders were wiped out by David Leslie at Philiphaugh (September 13, 1645). Montrose barely escaped with his life, and later went into exile.
All that was peripheral: the decisive battle was fought in England on June 14, when the New Model Army caught up with the Royalists at Naseby. That brilliant and decisive victory for Fairfax and Parliament broke Charles’ ability to lay siege or wage aggressive war. Among the spoils were the king’s papers, proving he was conspiring to bring 10,000 Irish Catholics to fight in England. That did in the Royalist cause politically, as well. Fairfax and Cromwell moved directly to the southwest, to reduce that core Royalist stronghold. Cavaliers tried to stop them at Langport (July 10, 1645), but were no match for the New Model Army. That fight cleared the way for a siege of Bristol, starting on August 23. Rupert surrendered the town on September 11, to the lasting disgust of the king, who disgraced and banished the talented if impetuous Bavarian.
The last Royalist field army in England, just 1,500 men, was trapped and crushed at Stow-on-the-Wold (March 21, 1646). Charles I was forced to abandon Oxford, and on May 5 he surrendered to David Leslie’s Scottish army. His hopes to bring the Scots to his side foundered on his known mendacity and his lack of understanding of the depth of religious feeling loose in the Three Kingdoms. In any case, Montrose was on the run in Scotland. The Royalists in Ireland were ascendant after Owen Roe O’Neill crushed the Covenanters at Benburb in 1646, but that was not enough. Royalist rats deserted the king’s sinking ship by the hundreds, going abroad or to London to submit to Parliament. With Charles in semi-exile on the Isle of Wight, the Army and Parliament controlled England. Disputes immediately broke out with the Scots over pay-in-arrears for Scottish troops in England, and over gentler Erastianism versus rigid Presbyterianism in the Church of England. The king’s continuous plotting with the Irish, French, and Spanish, his duplicitous negotiating and easy lies, raised Cromwell’s suspicions that the “peace party” in Parliament might surrender in negotiations with the king all fruits of victory won by the Army. As fighting continued in Ireland, Parliament struggled with paying off its war debts and argued with Fairfax and Cromwell about quartering and arrears, as well as Presbyterianism versus Puritanism and who really controlled policy and the government. Inside the Army grumbling increased as Levellers agitated for radical social change. Matters came to a head on August 6, 1647, when Fairfax and Cromwell occupied London over objections of Parliament. For the next eight months they were the effective government. In 1648, Fairfax split with Cromwell over the matter of the king. Cromwell then moved to settle for once and all with a stubborn man who refused to recognize in law what had been decided in fact on the field of battle. In December 1648, Charles was charged with treason and tried before Parliament. He was beheaded on January 30, 1649.
While events were moving toward the king’s execution, Royalist and Confederate fortunes also deteriorated in Ireland. The papal nuncio, Rinuccini, failed to unite Irish Catholics politically even as the Confederates lost their Leinster army to defeat at Dungan’s Hill (August 8, 1647) and their Munster army at Knocknanuss (November 13, 1647). Anti-Parliament riots by London apprentices, a major Army mutiny, a naval mutiny, rebellion in Wales, and Royalist risings in Essex and Kent consumed the first half of 1648. Cromwell marched to Wales in May and put down the rebellion by July, more by offering generous terms than by fighting. Fairfax smashed the uprising in Kent at Penenden Heath (June 2) and in Essex at Colchester (June 13), the latter one of his harder fights. A Scots-Royalist army of just 10,000 men invaded England on July 8, reopening hostilities (“Third Anglo-Scots War”) over the matter of establishing Presbyterianism in England and demands that religious dissenters be ruthlessly suppressed. The Scots-Royalists were destroyed by Cromwell at Preston (August 17-20, 1648). In Ireland, George Monk seized Belfast, Colerane, and Carrickfergus for Parliament. In August 1649, Ormonde was surprised and routed at Rathmines (August 2, 1649). A month later, Cromwell sacked Drogheda, butchering all Catholic clergy still alive when the walls fell; he repeated the deed at Wexford. Montrose landed in Scotland a year later with 1,500 men, vainly hoping to spark a Royalist uprising. He was surprised, routed, and captured at Carbiesdale (April 27, 1650), and executed by Argyll the next month.
Fighting in the island kingdoms continued for several years, but the major issues were decided by 1649. Parliament was established as supreme in law, though the Army was superior to the Commons in fact and deed. England henceforth was overwhelmingly dominant among the Three Kingdoms, with Scotland warily independent but increasingly subservient, and Ireland pressed under the iron heal of foreign garrisons and government. Catholicism would not be established in Ireland; it would be barely tolerated on the margin in England, and repressed in Scotland. Militarily, guerrilla fighting in Ireland and mopping up operations in Scotland were all that remained, and were mostly completed by 1653. From an amateur start, England had developed one of best land forces in Europe and possessed a superior navy. It was prepared to use both against whatever dash of Gaelic romanticism or fatalistic resistance remained within the Three Kingdoms, and to support a burgeoning overseas territorial and commercial empire.
Suggested Reading: John Barratt, Cavaliers (2000); Charles Carlton, Going to the Wars (1992); R. Cust and Ann Hughes, eds., The English Civil War (1997); James Wheeler, Irish and British Wars, 1637-1654 (2002).