The English Civil War: The Breakdown - Introduction

Featuring: Video Video

Tristram Hunt introduces the second section of the Civil War: The Breakdown of relationships in the nations.

By: Tristram Hunt (Queen Mary, University of London)

  • Duration 5 mins
  • Updated Sunday 7th January 2001
  • Introductory level
  • Posted under TV, Civil War
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Copyright The Open University


Not only was the English Civil War not English, it wasn't even British. The troubles of the 1640s were part of a European war of religion. In 1618 the great Catholic and Protestant armies of Europe went to war to settle the religious differences which had been simmering since the Reformation of the 1530s. From 1618 to 1648, Europe was engulfed in a savage conflict known as the Thirty Years War. With their overwhelming might, the Catholic armies pushed back the Protestants. During the course of the 17th Century the land area held by Protestants fell from one half of Europe to one fifth.

This conflict engulfed Britain. At the time an English preacher wrote, 'These are days of great shaking and this shaking is universal: the Palatinate, Bohemia, Germania, Catalonia, Portugal, Ireland, England.' And as the triumphant Catholic forces gained more ground, the Protestant communities in England became ever more fearful. They feared not only the attack on their religion, but also the politics of absolute monarchy which all Catholic countries seemed to endure.

This is the crucial context for understanding the hostility which Charles's religious reforms provoked during the 1630s. At a time when Protestantism was being attacked abroad, Charles and his Archbishop Laud seemed to be undermining it at home. And as his religion was suspected of Catholic tendencies, so his refusal to call Parliament hinted at precisely the kind of authoritarianism beloved by Catholic monarchs.

The final straw was Charles's attempt to introduce a new quasi-Catholic prayer book into the far more Protestant, or Presbyterian, Scottish Church. When the Scottish Covenanters (as they were known) rebelled, Charles quickly declared war. So here was a King waging war on his loyal, Protestant subjects when across Europe the Protestant religion was itself fighting for life. The problem though was Charles didn't have enough money to win a war against the Covenanters. To raise more money, he needed to call Parliament.

And when Charles finally summoned a Parliament in 1640, it provided an excellent opportunity for the repressed, simmering tensions of the previous 11 years to come bubbling up to the surface.

The origins of the Civil War are evident in the early reign of Charles I. Although Charles' period of personal rule appeared to be successful, conflict simmered below the surface, often focused on religion. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, initiated a series of high church reforms which antagonised Puritans and led to a wave of religious persecution. Charles' French wife, Henrietta Maria, became a focus for Catholic sentiment at court and this reinforced the notion that Charles was a 'closet papist', while Charles' refusal to assist fellow Protestants in Europe during the Thirty Years War only strengthened this belief.

While English tensions simmered below the surface, the Scottish origins of the English Civil War are extremely important. Charles' attempt to impose an Anglican Prayer book on the Scottish Kirk in 1637 resulted in the fiasco of the First Bishops War and the calling of a Parliament in spring 1640, the first for eleven years. However, while Charles expected the Parliament to provide support and supply for a second Scottish expedition, MPs used this opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with royal policy. Charles dismissed the Parliament after only three weeks.

Charles experienced further setbacks during the Second Bishops War and called a second Parliament in November 1640. During this Parliament, the King's opponents aimed their fire on royal advisers Laud and Strafford, resulting in an escalation of crisis. Laud and Strafford were both jailed before the Christmas recess, and Strafford was executed in May 1641.

By mid-1641, the crisis seemed to have passed. Charles had caved in to several Parliamentary demands, and he was on his way north to make his peace with the Scots. However, just at this moment, Ireland exploded in rebellion and the three kingdoms were hurtling towards a fresh crisis.

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