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Endgame - Between the wars

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

While Charles fled his captors, the army debated what the new world should look like. It wasn't peaceful between the wars

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Picture showing execution of King Charles I Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Wark Clements

After five years, the Irish Confederates achieved a major victory over their Presbyterian opponents at Benburb in June 1646. As a Te Deum rang out in Rome, Ireland seemed to be on the verge of returning to Catholicism.

As always, Irish affairs profoundly influenced mainland politics. Terrified by the prospect of Catholic revival, the Covenanters handed Charles over to Parliament so that they could renew their old anti-Catholic alliance. At £400,000, Charles joked that they had sold their King too cheaply.

Charles was now the prisoner of Parliament, and this moment represented the zenith of moderate old guard influence.

Everyone believed that the king had to be involved in any peace settlement and so, whoever, controlled the king, also controlled the political agenda. Infuriated by this turn of events, the Army responded by seizing Charles so that they would hold the advantage in any peace talks. On 2nd June, 1647, Charles became a prisoner of the Army.

However, the Army was not a cohesive, unitary force. Four years of war had radicalised the rank and file and the ordinary soldiers were starting to articulate their own views. In spring 1647, they began to elect 'agitators' (shop stewards) to represent their views to the Army Grandees.

The political views of John Lilburne and the Levellers were especially popular with rank and file. A political and religious radical, Lilburne argued that as all men were equal before God, they should also be equal before the law, and the Levellers argued strongly for church dis-establishment, an extended franchise, and an end to censorship. Some of these concepts have not yet been fully implemented in Britain.

In October 1647, agitators and Grandees met to discuss Leveller views in a series of debates at Putney Church in London.

However, property-owners such as Cromwell and Ireton were horrified by the social radicalism of men such as Thomas Rainsborough and the debates were wound up in early November. All agitators were returned to their units and those who continued to expound radical ideas were shot. Dissent was unacceptable in time of crisis for Charles had slipped his gaolers again.

Panicked by the news from Putney, Charles escaped his gaolers at Hampton Court, and, unfamiliar with the territory, got lost before handing himself over to the Parliamentary Governor of the Isle of Wight. The King's prospects looked bleak at this stage.

However, just at this point, events took another unexpected turn. Alarmed by the rising influence of the Independents, Charles and the Covenanters concluded an 'Engagement' in December 1647; in return for an army, Charles promised to introduce Presbyterianism for three years following his return to the throne. The course was set for war once more.


The Civil War witnessed a remarkable upsurge in social and political radicalism, and the Levellers were a particularly influential group. Led by ex-Parliamentary soldier John Lilburne, they demanded a major extension of the franchise and the abolition of censorship. Lilburne was imprisioned seven times between 1645 and 1652 and died in 1657 but continues as an inspiration to many.

Civil War: The Endgame





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