English Civil War

Oliver Cromwell, by Samuel Cooper

The English Civil War involved much blood-letting, but it also generated a lot of writing and thinking about democratic-republican government.

The conflict between rising notions of participatory government and divine-right monarchy were at the heart of the English Civil War which spanned roughly 1641-1649. The rise of Puritanism in England was very influential in causing people to think in terms of finding inner guidance as opposed to following outside rules and rituals.


The domination of Puritans in the House of Commons in 1629, three years after Charles I succeeded his father James I to the throne, led to open hostility between Commons and the King. Commons tried to limit Charles’ power to manipulate religion in England as well as impose taxes. This threat to the King’s prerogative led Charles to disband Parliament and it stayed disbanded for eleven years.

During this period, Charles was forced to raise money in a number of unpopular ways and by 1640, a rebellion in Scotland precipitated Charles’ need to recall Parliament. Parliament asserted its power by abolishing Star Chamber and trial by martial law. They also impeached some of Charles’ nobles who were acting against the religious and republican desires of the Puritan-dominated House of Commons. Most notably, Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford, and Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud were arrested for treason. Wentworth was executed and Laud was imprisoned.

When a rebellion broke out in Ireland, Charles sent an army to put it down. Puritans in Parliament became concerned that Charles would use the army against them. With John Pym in the leadership, they issued the “Grand Remonstrance” condemning Charles divine-right rule. Charles responded by arresting Pym, which pretty much guaranteed a Civil War, as Parliament devised to raise an army. Charles, too, raised an army that won victories until 1644, when Parliament’s army won an important victory at Marston Moor.

Prosecution and Outcome

After Marston Moor, Parliament’s army became quite powerful under the supervision of Oliver Cromwell and his lieutenant Henry Ireton. Known as the “New Model Army,” these “Roundheads” as they were called represented a citizen army — something new in England, or in Europe for that matter. Not based on feudal titles and hierarchies, the New Model Army was England in miniature in many ways.

Charles I was captured in 1647 and placed in his country estate. Married to a French Catholic, Charles sent a letter to his in-laws requesting military aid. The letter was intercepted by the Puritans, and Charles was arrested and put on trial for treason. Convicted by what is known as the Rump Parliament – a small group of Puritan Members of Parliament – Charles was condemned to death. The King denied the legitimacy of the proceedings, but he did not have enough support to free him from custody. On January 30, 1649, he was executed in front of a crowd before Whitehall in London.


As with any case of toppling a government, there is a void in the center of power which allows certain aspects of society to emerge that had remained hidden. In this case, religious and political movements whose members were soldiers in the New Model Army began to come into focus. For example, Quakers and Anabaptists – offshoots from the Puritan movement – became widely known. Quakers, in this early stage, were sometimes seen naked, daubed with excrement, professing their faith. Anabaptists eventually came to be known as Mennonites and Amish peoples, for a long time committed to simple living.

Political movements also emerged from the shadows. A group known as Levellers voiced their views that the aristocracy was unnecessary and should be ended. These gentry farmers and merchants were not willing to abandon their own privileged status however, as they desired to retain their servants, gardeners, and cooks. The true radicals of the revolution were a group known as the “Diggers.” These were individuals who wanted to reverse the confiscations of Enclosure, where the public commons were fenced, plowed and planted to cash crops. Diggers dug up the fences and set about to reclaim the land for those who had been displaced by the landlords.

Finally, committing regicide raised the issue of governance sans a monarch. This was not something the English people had experienced within memory. Numerous of the intelligentsia began speculating on the question. Most notably, James Harrington, a country gentry in his own right, left England during the Civil War and traveled to Italy and studied the city-states, most notably Naples. The result was a book entitled Oceana, which laid out a fictional Britain that was wrestling with the whole question of republican, i.e., representative government.

Writings such as Harrington’s and others were very influential in the coming decades, generating more speculative studies on the subject. When the colonists were considering separation from the Empire, many turned to this discourse that had begun in England during the Civil War.

The Return of the King

With the death of Charles, Parliament made Oliver Cromwell, head of the army, the “Lord Protector,” maintaining a Puritan theocracy until his death in 1658. This period is known as the Interregnum – or “between kings” – period. With the failure of Cromwell’s son Richard to assume the mantel, and the weariness of the English people with Puritan austerity, Parliament turned to Charles’ son waiting in exile in the Spanish Netherlands and asked him to return as the King of England. He accepted, and in 1660 the Crown was restored and Charles II was proclaimed King.

The English Civil War changed England forever. The prospect of sharing power with the King became a viable option that would eventually become a way of life for the English. This notion also infiltrated the thinking of the colonists, and many of the religious and political radicals that were unveiled by the Civil War immigrated to the provinces, including North America. Not only was Britain changed, but so were her colonies.