The impact and consequences of the English Civil Wars (1642-1651) were many and far-reaching. Charles I of England (r. 1625-1649) was executed, and the monarchy was abolished. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) then headed the Republic as the Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland. For many commoners, their lands and property were confiscated, taxes were higher than ever, and they suffered death and disease like never before. Finally, the uncertainty of just how to replace the monarchy brought forth a spring of new groups with new ideas on how to live, how to interpret the Bible, and what should be the obligations and responsibilities of those who governed them.
The main consequences and impact of the English Civil Wars include:
- Execution of Charles I
- Exile of Charles II to France
- Abolition of the monarchy in England
- Abolition of the House of Lords
- Abolition of the Star Chamber
- Reforms in the Anglican Church
- Increase in the powers of the English Parliament
- A wave of new and radical ideas concerning religion and politics
- A boom in printed material, especially by various religious groups
- People were subjected to high taxes and duties to pay for the wars
- Many Irish Catholics had their land confiscated
- The Scottish Kirk was dissolved
- Scotland and Ireland sent members to the Westminster Parliament
- Creation of a permanent and professional army
- Royalist and church estates were sold off
- Destruction of historic castles, buildings, and towns in all three kingdoms
- Around 100,000 deaths in battle
- Around 100,000 civilian deaths
From Monarchy to Republic to Monarchy
Having lost on the battlefield what has become known as the First English Civil War (1642-1646) and the Second English Civil War (Feb-Aug 1648), King Charles I was tried and found guilty of treason to his own people and government. He was executed on 30 January 1649, the first English monarch to be so treated and reason for some to label the event as an ‘English Revolution’. The institutions of the monarchy and the House of Lords were abolished. So, too, was the medieval Star Chamber, which was the king’s Privy Council and two Chief Justices charged with maintaining public order. Royal estates totalling around 10% of the land in England were sold off. None of these events changed things for ordinary commoners. The middle and lower institutions of central and local government remained in place. As the historian J. Morrill put it, “There was a shift of power within the gentry but not from the gentry” (377).
Scotland was given a free choice, and it remained loyal to the crown. Accordingly, Charles’ eldest son Charles was, by right of birth, Scotland’s new king, but he ultimately escaped the Parliamentarians and was, for the moment, obliged to live in exile in France. Replacing the monarchy, Oliver Cromwell now ruled the ‘Commonwealth’ Republic as Lord Protector. The state was a military one, divided up into military districts, each led by a major-general.
The Lord hath done such things amongst us as have not been known in the world these thousand years. Oliver Cromwell in 1654 (Hunt, preface).
The Kirk in Scotland, the centre of the Presbyterian Church, and the Scottish Parliament were dissolved, and, instead, 30 representatives were sent to the Westminster Parliament. After Cromwell’s brutal repression of a rebellion in Ireland in 1650, that kingdom, too, sent representatives to Westminster. Lands were confiscated from Catholics and given to Protestants so that the latter now owned over half of the territory in Ireland.
Although Cromwell himself disbanded Parliament in 1653, through the war years it had steadily grown in power through Acts passed by the 1640 Long Parliament which obliged the monarch to call a parliament at least once every three years. The king could not dissolve Parliament, and his royal ministers now had to be approved by Parliament. Cromwell, frustrated by a lack of unity and progress in legislation, replaced Parliament with himself and a small Council of State composed of a handful of allies and like-minded former members of the House of Lords.
Cromwell may have created a military dictatorship backed by the professional New Model Army, but when he died in 1658, his chosen successor, his son Richard Cromwell, was not supported, and to avoid another civil war, there was the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. Charles returned from France to become Charles II of England (r. 1660-1685). All of Oliver Cromwell’s Acts of Parliament (from March 1642) were cancelled, but Parliament, because of the 1641 Acts passed to end Charles I’s period of ‘Personal Rule’, was now much more powerful so that by the end of the century, England and Scotland were united in a system which was heading towards becoming a true Parliamentary democracy.
The historian P. Gaunt gives the following figures for active participation in the wars:
A large proportion of the population was directly involved in the fighting: during each of the campaigning seasons of 1643, 1644 and 1645 it is estimated that more than one in 10 of the male population aged between 16 and 60 was in arms and that during the civil wars as a whole perhaps one in four of the adult male population of England and Wales took up arms at some stage. (8)
With over 600 battles and sieges, there were obviously a great many deaths and seriously injured in their aftermath. Perhaps 100,000 soldiers died during the wars, although with such a high number of small-scale battles and skirmishes over the decade, it is very likely many more deaths went unrecorded. Figures for the larger-scale battles are recorded, but there are often discrepancies between the numbers given by each opposing side. There were around 1,500 total deaths at the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Edgehill in 1642. 4,500 Royalists died at the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644, and 3,000 Scots were killed at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650. In total, there were some 200,00 deaths of soldiers and civilians during the war, which, taken as a proportion of the population, was greater than the casualties in the First World War (1914-1918).
One in ten civilians in urban areas lost their homes during the Civil War.
The Impact on Civilians
Then there were the civilians who had to bear a great many hardships, assuming they escaped being conscripted into the army, a method both sides employed. Over 150 cities and towns, 100 villages, and around 200 country manors were directly involved in armed conflicts which ranged from long and terrible sieges to mere skirmishes. There were around 300 sieges with “around 21,000 casualties, totalling 31 per cent of those sustained by the Parliamentarians and 21 per cent of those suffered by the Royalists” (Barratt, 1)
Troops billeted in an area often ransacked local communities and pillaged food stores. If a garrison was established, the locals could expect to be exploited for money and resources in exchange for ‘protection’. Civilians were pressed into forced labour, digging huge earthworks defences to make walled fortifications a more formidable challenge to artillery units. Then the locals were very often employed in ‘slighting’ (ruining) those very same defences after they had been captured. Soldiers also brought violence and diseases to local communities. Armies confiscated what was useful to them, especially horses, and though bills for future payment were often given, they were rarely paid. As Parliament gained the upper hand in the conflict, those who had supported the Royalists or who were Catholics often lost their property. Throughout the conflict and afterwards, communities were divided, and even single families split according to which side they supported.
The physical landscape changed when urban areas were destroyed. Towns like Bristol, Chester, and Colchester were particularly bashed by artillery, and they required a generation to recover. Many castles, manor houses, and churches suffered destructive episodes or were looted, vandalised, and abandoned. It was also a deliberate policy of Parliament to tear down many medieval castles so that they could never be used again in war; some had their towers blown up using gunpowder. One in ten people in urban areas lost their homes. Finally, if people avoided one of life’s certainties – death and destruction – they had to face the second certainty. The vast majority of people had to bear heavy taxes, imposed by both sides on all forms of income and payable every week, two weeks, or month.
Religious Toleration & Repression
During and after the wars there was more religious freedom for various branches of Protestantism and a flourishing of alternative ideas now that the central pillars of state and church had cracked, if not actually collapsed. Many of these ideas were not new, but now they could be more openly discussed and spread, especially in the atmosphere of toleration during the war itself, from around 1642 onwards. Further, new ideas in religion led people to consider their implications on politics and society more generally. Many different groups came up with their own take on what should be the proper relationship between a believer, the Church, and God, which raised further questions like what should the relationship be between a citizen and their government and what should be the responsibilities and obligations of the rich to the poor. In this sense, “the war split the country by conscience uninformed by class” (Morrill, 370), not only into pro- and anti-monarchists but into countless splinter groups with their own ideas on how to replace the old regime and Church. The printing press, which produced works by women authors as well as men, spread these new ideas far and wide as various schisms and sects tried to recruit new followers, as the historian T. Hunt notes:
The amount of published material soared: 22 new titles appeared in 1640…by 1660, around 3 new titles appeared every day…pamphlets and broadsides appeared, written in easy, accessible English often shouted through the streets for the illiterate majority. The civil war saw competing newspapers, often published weekly, which presented religious separatists both as notorious rebels against God and champions of new, insightful forms of worship. (231)
The sweeping away of the hierarchy of bishops that followed the war was, for some, a turning of the world upside down. Many feared anarchy both inside and outside the Anglican Church as the power vacuum sucked in heretics of all kinds from the fringes of 17th-century society. It became impossible to effectively censor printed material, such was the volume of it and because it had been the bishops who had been in charge of censorship.
Some of the more prominent groups included the Independents or Congregationalists, who wanted the religious freedom to allow individual believers to follow their own consciences free from a centralised governing body. The Presbyterians opposed the Congregationalists as they believed in a church hierarchy, albeit a less strict one than previously, perhaps still with bishops but with reduced powers, and certainly with a minister of a congregation reporting to some sort of higher governance of elected senior church members.
The Levellers, prominent in Parliament’s New Model Army, called for radical reforms such as wider suffrage, equalising wealth, farming common land, and creating communities that were entirely self-sufficient. The latter was a project of the Diggers or True-Levellers. The Quakers called for believers only to look within themselves for spiritual guidance and criticised the wealthy for not doing enough to help the poor. The Ranters claimed to be inspired by divine visions, and some of them claimed that sin did not exist. The Fifth Monarchists believed that Charles’ reign had been the last of the Fourth Monarchy’ and that the fifth would be led by a soon-to-be returning Jesus Christ, who would then rule for 1,000 years. Some of these groups involved another radical element for the period since they gave greater freedoms to women and, for the first time in the sphere of religion, the possibility to participate in decision-making processes.
Cromwell did manage, through various Acts of Parliament and repression (especially of Catholics), to impose his Puritan policies on the country, but they were not at all popular. Misguided attempts to ban the celebration of Christmas and football on Sundays were just two examples of leadership out of touch with its people, a situation that permitted the possibility of a restoration of the monarchy in 1660. By military means, the Puritan Parliament had won wars in three kingdoms but not, it seems, the hearts of the people who lived in them.
This article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.