Background to the English Revolution
The English Revolution of the 1640s, also known as the English Civil War, was a period of violent civil, political and military upheaval in England. Tensions had been building between King Charles I and Parliament over the role of the monarchy versus Parliament’s authority. Religion also played a major role, with many disagreeing over the Protestant reforms initiated since Henry VIII and the threat of Catholicism. These tensions eventually led to civil war breaking out in 1642 between supporters of the King (Royalists) and supporters of Parliament (Parliamentarians).
Causes of Discontent under Charles I
Charles I ascended to the throne in 1625 and quickly faced discontent over his policies. Charles believed in the divine right of kings and thought he could rule without calling Parliament. However, to raise money amidst war with Spain and France, Charles was forced to call Parliament to obtain taxes. Parliament used this to voice grievances over Charles’ policies. Issues included Charles’ marriage to a Catholic, disagreements over foreign policy, and the granting of monopolies without Parliament’s consent.
Tensions escalated when Charles attempted to force religious uniformity in Scotland. This led the Scots to invade England in 1640, forcing Charles to recall Parliament to raise additional war funds. However, the Long Parliament he summoned used the opportunity to criticize Charles’ rule and push for reforms that further checked the king’s powers.
The Long Parliament and Start of Civil War
The Long Parliament sat for over a decade starting in 1640. It enacted laws to limit the king’s powers, including the Triennial Act requiring regular parliamentary sessions. Charles conceded, but relations continued deteriorating. In early 1642, Charles entered Parliament intending to arrest five MPs who opposed him. Forewarned, they had already fled. This violation of parliamentary rights outraged the public.
Soon after, Charles left London to raise an army, setting off the English Civil War in 1642. Parliament also raised its own army, led by noblemen and funded by the City of London merchants. With both sides unwilling to compromise, the conflict would rage on for several years.
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Key Events and Battles of the Civil War
The first major battle at Edgehill in October 1642 was inconclusive, signaling the long conflict ahead. Over the next two years, Charles’ Royalist forces initially held the advantage in the war. But Parliament’s victory at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 marked a turning point.
Oliver Cromwell emerged as Parliament’s most capable military leader. His creation of the New Model Army, with its disciplined and religiously inspired soldiers, decisively defeated the king’s forces by 1645. The Royalists made a last attempt to seize London in 1647 but were defeated at the Battle of Preston.
Execution of Charles I and the Interregnum
Charles finally surrendered to the Scottish army in 1646, believing they would treat him more favorably than Parliament. However, the Scots eventually handed Charles over to Parliament for payment. Charles escaped and civil war briefly reignited, but was crushed in 1648.
With Charles captive, Parliament put him on trial for treason. Convicted, Charles I was beheaded in January 1649, establishing England as a republic. Parliament and the army ruled jointly. Cromwell invaded Ireland and Scotland, defeating Royalists there and expanding English control.
Cromwell and the Protectorate
Cromwell emerged as the most powerful figure and eventually took the title Lord Protector of England in 1653, ruling with the army’s backing. Cromwell died in 1658 and his son briefly succeeded him, but was unable to control the military. The Protectorate collapsed in 1659, leading to a power vacuum.
The Restoration of the Monarchy
With instability, General George Monck allowed the remnants of Parliament to reassemble and call back the eldest son of Charles I to take the throne as Charles II in 1660. This peaceful Restoration returned the monarchy and relative stability. However, it was restored under stricter parliamentary limits on royal authority.
Legacy and Impact on England
The English Revolution resulted in the execution of a monarch, the temporary overthrow of the monarchy, and the imposition of a republican proto-democracy under Cromwell. It demonstrated Parliament’s power to check royal authority. The restored monarchy was much weaker, no longer able to rule alone through divine right. This paved the way for the constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy that later developed in Britain.