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The English Civil War: The Endgame - 1646 - 1649 - Introduction

Updated Sunday 7th January 2001

Tristram Hunt introduces the fifth chapter of the Civil War: the Endgame.

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Copyright The Open University

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The tensions and upheavals of war - the political and religious unrest, the social chaos, the violence - had profound effects on society during the 1640s. In an era of uncertainty, which pitted brother against brother and when all the old truths were turned on their head, new and dangerous ideas started to ferment. In the interlude between the first and second Civil Wars, these radical ideas exploded into public debate.

Some of the most profound changes took place in the rank and file of the New Model Army, the highly motivated troops who had gone to war for a reason, who were ideologically committed to a new vision of society. Many of the ordinary soldiers of the New Model Army found the political ideas of men like John Lilburne and the so-called Levellers extremely attractive. In October 1647, the General Council of the Army, the Grandees, met with the rank and file radicals to discuss the Leveller Manifesto at Putney Church. The arguments which reverberated round that church in 1647 have influenced constitutional and political thinking to this day.

Two months after the Putney Debates, the Civil Wars took another surprising and unexpected turn. Alarmed by the rising radicalism which groups such as the Levellers embodied, Charles and the Scottish Covenanters formed an 'Engagement' or understanding. In return for raising an army which would restore him to power, Charles promised to observe a Presbyterian settlement for at least three years. The former antagonists had become allies.

The Second Civil War was much less bloody and prolonged than the first. The Covenanters were decisively beaten by the New Model Army at Preston in August 1648 and the last pockets of Royalism were quickly snuffed out in their few remaining strongholds

But Charles's actions in re-igniting the war following the Battle of Naseby sealed his fate. He was condemned as a 'man of blood' - a war-monger. The militants in the Army argued that the only way out of the impasse was to remove Charles from the equation. As long as he survived, he would remain a focus for interminable dissent - he had to go.

In January 1649, Charles I was placed on trial, accused of trying to subvert the ancient and fundamental laws of the land and replace them with arbitrary and tyrannical government. The result was never in doubt. On 30th January 1649, Charles I, King and Martyr was led out to meet his fate under an executioner's axe. In an age where the monarch ruled by 'Divine Right', the common people had executed their king and offended God. What would happen next?

The First Civil War ended when Charles surrendered to the Covenanters in 1646, but political developments between the wars were extremely profound. After learning of the Confederate victory at Benburb, the Covenanters handed Charles over to the Parliamentarians so that they could re-kindle their anti-Catholic alliance. Perturbed by the influence which control of the King conferred on Parliament, the Army seized Charles in June 1647 so that it would gain the upper hand in any future negotiations.

Four years of war had radicalised the Parliamentary troops, and Leveller ideas were extremely popular within the New Model Army. In October 1647, Army Grandees and 'agitators' met to discuss Leveller ideas in Putney Church but for property-owners such as Oliver Cromwell, the ideas of men such as Thomas Rainsborough were too extreme and the debates were wound up. Agitators who continued to expound Leveller ideas in their regiments were shot.

Charles and the Covenanters were equally alarmed by radicalism in the Army and the rising influence of Independents. In December 1647, they formed an Engagement in which Charles promised to introduce Presbyterianism for three years in return for a Scots Covenanter army. The three kingdoms were on course for war again.

The Second Civil War was short and brutal and ended in complete victory for Parliament when Cromwell's troops put the Scots Engagers to flight at Preston in August 1648. Although brief, the Second Civil War had great repercussions. Charles was now viewed as an unscrupulous monarch, a 'man of blood' who would do anything to regain his throne. From having been seen as essential to any peace deal, Charles was now viewed as an impediment.

To remove Charles, the army needed a compliant Parliament and this could only be achieved by purging its moderate and conservative elements. In December 1648, Colonel Thomas Pride did exactly this and the remaining 'Rump' was prepared to do the Army's bidding in any regard - even regicide if necessary.

The outcome of Charles' trial was pre-ordained. He refused to acknowledge the court's legitimacy or respond to any of the charges but it was no use. He was sentenced to death on 27th January 1649.

Charles met his end with great fortitude on 30th January. After he had reaffirmed his Protestantism and his innocence of all charges, Charles’s head was then severed from his body by the executioner with a single blow. A terrible low moan issued from the crowd - the people had committed regicide. What next?

The Endgame

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