Prince Rupert of the Rhine was the leading Royalist commander. Young and dashing, he had seen action in the Thirty Years War and had developed new techniques in the use of landmines and cavalry charges. A passionate Royalist, he regarded the opponents of his uncle, the King, as treacherous rebels.
The Earl of Essex had overall command of the Parliamentary forces. Dutiful and loyal rather than dynamic, he had also seen action in the Thirty Years War and was given his post by Pym, a former ally in the attack on Strafford. Essex was also the most senior aristocrat who sided with Parliament.
Edgehill (October 1642) was the first major encounter of the First Civil War. After initial success, the Royalist cavalry advanced too far and gave their Parliamentary opponents an opportunity to re-enter the fray. The battle ended in a draw, with Essex retreating to the safety of Warwick Castle. The road to London was open for Charles.
Fearing an imminent visit by a vengeful sovereign, London was in uproar. Parliament called out the Trained Bands to defend the city against an anticipated onslaught, and the two sides faced each other at Turnham Green. However, Charles blinked first and began to withdraw, first to Hounslow and then to Oxford. The cautious Essex declined to harry his opponents.
Charles and Rupert enjoyed a pleasant winter in Oxford during 1642- 43. Charles pursued a full social calendar, and the Royalists also established a propaganda press to counter the efforts of the great Puritan poet, John Milton.
While Charles enjoyed his time in Oxford, some of the Parliamentary troops embarked on an orgy of church desecration, attacking popish furnishings in churches. Puritans preferred a form of worship free from imagery, statues and stained glass, and the Cathedrals of Winchester, Rochester and Canterbury were badly vandalised during this period.
The war in the West Country was particularly brutal when fighting re-commenced in early 1643. The bravery of the Cornish pikemen won two engagements for the Royalists (Lansdown and Roundway Down) and Rupert seized Bristol in July. Poole, Dorchester, Portland and Weymouth fell in quick succession and late 1643- early 1644 represented a high-point in Royalist military fortunes.
While Charles enjoyed military success on the mainland, he attempted to secure a truce in Ireland to release Royalist troops to join the war in England. The truce was achieved but it proved to be double-edged. On the one hand, Charles gained additional troops but it also drove the Parliamentarians into concluding a Solemn League and Covenant with the Scottish Covenanters. Scottish, Irish and English troops were now at war with each other throughout the three kingdoms.
In the spring and summer of 1644, Rupert made significant advances in the north-west, capturing Bolton, Preston, Wigan and Liverpool from the Roundheads. In early summer, he received a letter from his uncle, asking him to lift the seige of York and relieve the Earl of Newcastle, setting the two armies on a collision course for one of the great battles of the First Civil War.
More than anything else, The Civil Wars might be characterised as wars of religion, both religious idealism and religious bigotry. The outbreak of war in August 1642 gave Puritan zealots the chance to destroy artefacts they associated with 'popery'.