Causes of the English Civil War

By Will Barber Taylor

The English Civil War helped to redefine England and its politics. As such, it is important that the causes of the war are explained. This short article will provide a brief explanation as to how the war started and examine the two greatest factors behind the war; religion and monarchy – or rather, the ascendency of the Puritans and the weakness of King Charles the First.

When Charles I’s father James became King of England in 1603 he imposed his was an uncomfortable fit. Aside from the fact he was the monarch of one of England’s oldest enemies, he was keen to impose his will on his subjects. James believed fervently in witches and responsible for a revival in the execution of suspected witches – their prosecution has lapsed somewhat during Elizabeth I’s late reign. He also persecuted Catholics fervently after the failed Gunpowder Plot was foiled. James therefore divided his nation into many sections – those who opposed the execution of Catholics and witches, those who felt he was not going far enough etc. Yet, though James was divisive both within his court and outside it he managed to keep the throne by being a symbol of stability. After the succeeding reigns of childless Tudors, James with his large brood was seen as the man to ensure Britain did not slip into war or invasion. Thought he vigorously persecuted Catholics in England, James was more open to the great superpower of Spain than Elizabeth had ever been. James was greatly flawed but he was also a strong, decisive King who was able to keep the various religious and political factions in his kingdom under control. His son, Charles, was a different matter.

Charles was not meant to be King. His role, as the “spare” of James’ children was to fulfil the role of all spare male offspring of a monarch who weren’t athletic – to go into the church. Had his elder brother Henry, who disliked Charles and had perhaps too much in common with his great uncle Henry VIII, the history could have been very different. Yet Henry died in 1612 and the title of Prince of Wales passed to his younger brother Charles who suddenly had to face the prospect that he would one day be King. When that day came, nobody was entirely prepared for what followed.

The fact Charles needed advisors and an insular court more than his father proved to be his undoing. Religious non-conformism began to accelerate – ironically, partly because of James’ translation of the Bible into English- and a dissatisfaction with the King began to grow. Charles did not notice this however because he swallowed, hook, line and sinker the myth that all monarch have peddled; that they were put on Earth by God and that they could only answer to God. Charles’ belief in his own infallibility meant that he felt he could run things without Parliament’s interference. Four years into his reign, Charles dismissed Parliament and spent 11 years ruling on his own, with his court. Things did not go quite as he expected however.

After 11 years of personal rule, Charles was strapped for cash; only Parliament could legally raise taxes and religious dissent in Scotland meant Charles needed to recall Parliament to raise enough money to march on Scotland and defeat his obstinate clerics. However, Parliament were not particularly happy with not having sat for over a decade and refused. Charles managed to get money out of the Irish Parliament, but England refused – though Charles had the House of Lords in his pocket, he did not have a majority in the House of Commons. Frustrated, Charles dissolved Parliament.

Things did not get better. The Scottish army soon invaded England and soon defeated Charles’ rag tag army at Newburn and soon occupied Durham. Charles called a Great Council of Peers at York. This however was not enough; eventually Charles was forced to recall Parliament once more but once again, Parliament would not play ball. Determined to remove the King’s favourite, Lord Strafford, Parliament attempted to put Strafford on trial. When the case collapsed, they put out a bill of attainment against him. Strafford was subsequently executed, his death warrant signed by his King, forced to do so in order to enable the defeat of the Scottish army. Peace was eventually restored but there was great upheaval – Parliament pushed its hands somewhat too far and eventually, Charles cracked.

On the 4th of January 1642, with armed guard, Charles entered Parliament. This was an act that was unprecedented – the King was not allowed to enter unless invited, and particularly not with an armed guard. Charles was after five MPs who were the ring leaders of laws which had attempted to restrict his powers. Charles did not find them, but the damage was done. Within hours Parliament ordered troops to capture London, forcing the King to flee to Hampton Court and then Windsor Castle. The English Civil War had begun.

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