The Road to Rebellion: Why did England go to war with itself?

In just a couple of days time, it will be the 375th Anniversary of the Battle of Edgehill. This was the first pitched battle of the English Civil Wars that took place across the British Isles from 1642 to 1651.

Although Edgehill is often considered the start of the wars, there was obviously a series of events that led the country to go to war with itself. Regimental member Anne has written the following piece exploring what happened in the run up to the first battle.

‘Raising the Royal Standard’ painted in 1874 by Reuben Bussey. Image source

The English Civil Wars had many causes but the personality of Charles I must be counted as one of the major reasons – though even that could be put down to his upbringing.

Few people could have predicted that the Civil Wars, that started in 1642, would have ended with the public execution of  the King.

His most famous opponent in this war was Oliver Cromwell –  one of the men who signed the death warrant of Charles.

No king had ever been executed in England and the execution of Charles was not greeted with joy.

As with many wars, there are long and short term causes.

Long term causes:

The status of the monarchy had started to decline under the reign of James I, Charles I’s father. He was known as the “wisest fool in Christendom”. James was a firm believer in the “divine right of kings”. This was a belief that God had made him a king and as God could not be wrong, neither could anyone appointed by him to rule a nation be wrong. James expected Parliament to do as he wanted; he did not expect it to argue with any of his decisions.

However, Parliament had one major advantage over James – they had money and he was continually short of it. Parliament and James clashed over custom duties. This was one source of James’s income, but Parliament told him that he could not collect it without their permission. In 1611, James suspended Parliament and it did not meet for another 10 years. James used his friends to run the country and they were rewarded with titles. This caused great offence to those Members of Parliament who believed that they had the right to run the country.

In 1621, James re-called Parliament to discuss the future marriage of his son, Charles, to a Spanish princess. Parliament was outraged. If such a marriage occurred, would the children from it be brought up as Catholics? Spain was still not considered a friendly nation to England and many still remembered 1588 and the Spanish Armada. The marriage never took place but the damaged relationship between king and Parliament was never mended by the time James died in 1625.

Religion was a major cause of the English Civil War. It was part of a Europe wide conflict between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. At the start of his reign (1625) King Charles I had married the Roman Catholic Henrietta Maria of France.

Short term causes:

The Civil War came as the result of a mounting tide of disagreement between King Charles I and Parliament.

Charles had a very different personality compared to James. He was considered by many to be arrogant and conceited.  Also, he was a strong believer, like his father, in the divine rights of kings. He had witnessed the damaged relationship between his father and Parliament, and considered that Parliament was entirely at fault. He, too, expected Parliament to do as he wanted; he did not expect it to argue with any of his decisions. This attitude would eventually lead to his execution.

From 1625 to 1629, money and religion were the most common causes of arguments between Charles and Parliament.

In 1629, Charles again copied his father. He refused to let Parliament meet. Members of Parliament arrived at Westminster to find that the doors had been locked with large chains and padlocks. They were locked out for eleven years – a period they called the Eleven Years Tyranny.

Charles ruled by using the Court of Star Chamber. To raise money for the king, the Court heavily fined those brought before it. Rich men were persuaded to buy titles. If they refused to do so, they were fined the same sum of money it would have cost for a title anyway!

In 1635 Charles ordered that everyone in the country should pay Ship Money. This was historically a tax paid by coastal towns and villages to pay for the upkeep of the navy. The logic was that coastal areas most benefited from the navy’s protection. Charles decided that everyone in the kingdom benefited from the navy’s protection and that everyone should pay.

In one sense, Charles was correct, but such was the relationship between him and the powerful men of the kingdom, that this issue caused a huge argument between both sides. One of the more powerful men in the nation was John Hampden. He had been a Member of Parliament. He refused to pay the new tax as Parliament had not agreed to it. At this time Parliament was still not sitting, as Charles had locked the MP’s out. Hampden was put on trial and found guilty. However, he had become a hero for standing up to the king. There is no record of any Ship Money being extensively collected in the areas Charles had wanted it extended to.

Charles also clashed with the Scots. He ordered that they should use a new prayer book for their church services. This angered the Scots so much that they invaded England in 1639. As Charles was short of money to fight the Scots, he had to recall Parliament in 1640 as only they had the necessary money needed to fight a war and the required authority to collect extra money.

In return for the money and as a display of their power, Parliament called for the execution of “Black Tom Tyrant” – the Earl of Strafford, one of the top advisors of Charles. After a trial, Strafford was executed in 1641. Parliament also demanded that Charles get rid of the Court of Star Chamber.

By 1642, relations between Parliament and Charles had become even more strained. Charles had to do as Parliament wished as they had the ability to raise the money that Charles needed. However, as a firm believer in the “divine right of kings”, such a relationship was unacceptable to Charles.

In 1642, he went to Parliament with 300 soldiers to arrest his five biggest critics, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, Denzil Holles, John Pym and William Strode. Someone close to the king had already tipped off Parliament that these men were about to be arrested and they had already fled to the safety of the city of London where they could easily hide from the king. However, Charles had shown his true side. Members of Parliament represented the people. Here was Charles attempting to arrest five Members of Parliament simply because they dared to criticise him. If Charles was prepared to arrest five Members of Parliament, how many others were not safe?

Neither side was willing to back down over the principles that they held. News about this disagreement raced, by word of mouth, all over the country and people split into those who supported the king and those who supported Parliament – the classic ingredients for a civil war.

Only six days after trying to arrest the five Members of Parliament, Charles left London to head for Oxford to raise an army to fight Parliament for control of England. From there he travelled on to Nottingham, and there on the 22nd August 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham signalling what was to be the first Civil War.

After raising his standard at Nottingham in August 1642, Charles I embarked on a recruiting march in the West Midlands, while Parliament gathered an army under the Earl of Essex,  Robert Devereux, to face him.

By October Charles had finally determined to go back towards London, as the only hope of a sure victory depended on him wresting control of the administrative and financial centre of the country from the Parliamentary party. As the king was now on the move for London, Essex was forced to move his army out of Worcester in order to get between the royal army and its objective. Very soon both armies were marching in the same direction and drawing closer together every mile, although neither the king nor Essex was fully aware of the situation

The Parliamentarian Army was attempting to beat the Royalist Army to London — or block their route — when both armies accidently converged in a corner of Warwickshire. This presented an opportunity for a battle and to potentially end the conflict with a decisive clash…

We’ll be commemorating the Battle of Edgehill on here on 23rd October with a post all about what happened on that day.

You can take a look at the event we did as a society marking the event back in September by reading this post.

You can also see a blow by blow account of the events play out on our Facebook and Twitter pages over the next few days as we post and tweet our way through the events at the times they would have been happening 375 years ago.

Once again, thanks to Anne for writing up this piece for us.

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