Nottingham Castle:
Charles I raised his standard on "Derry Mount", a mound just north of the castle's gateway,
 22 August 1642

 The coming of Civil War



1. The meeting of the Long Parliament

The Parliament that assembled 3 November 1640 was fundamentally hostile to Charles I. Candidates associated with the court had been defeated, and almost everyone elected was aggrieved at some aspect of Charles' policies.

Charles' opponents

John Hampden (1594-1643) was a wealthy Buckinghamshire gentleman, who had led to opposition to Ship Money.

His lawyer in the Ship Money case (1637) was Oliver St John (1598?-1673) who gave a speech against arbitrary taxation and in support of the belief that the King had no extra-legal powers; this speech was printed frequently.

John Pym (1584-1643) was a friend of both Hampden and St John, and an old enemy of Buckingham. In the late 1620s, he opposed Arminianism and the collection of tonnage and poundage. In the Long Parliament, he became the leader of opposition to Charles in the House of Commons.

William Fiennes, 1st Viscount Saye and Sele (1582-1662) was prominent amongst Charles' opponents in the House of Lords. Oliver St John was his family lawyer and Hampden his close associate.
All these men, along with Francis Russell, 4th Earl of Bedford (1593-1641), and Robert Greville, 2nd Baron Brooke (1608-1643) worked together in two companies formed to fund the colonization of America. The Providence Island Company and the Saybrook Company. (Providence Island is in the Caribbean, and the Saybrook settlement was in Connecticut).
Another important MP was Denzil Holles. After the incident of holding down the Speaker, Holles had been imprisoned (first in the Tower of London and then in Marshalsea prison) until 1630 when he was banished from London and obliged to pay a large fine.
Sir Henry Vane the younger (1613-62) was a zealous puritan. He had been Governor of Massachusetts from 1636-37, but left after taking the losing side in a doctrinal dispute. Vane's father was a Privy Councilor, and Vane himself was treasurer of the navy, but his hostility particularly to Charles and Laud's ecclesiastical policies aligned him firmly against the court.
More moderate opponents of Charles I included Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland (1610-43) and his friend Edward Hyde (1609-74). Both were committed to tolerance in religious matters (Cary's mother was a Roman Catholic) and so opposed Laud's repressive policies, but their commitment to toleration was equally at odds with puritan fanaticism.

The lawyer John Selden (1584-1654) was another advocate of tolerance in religion. He firmly believed in secular control of the church, and his History of Tithes (1617) had offended puritan clerics as well as bishops (it suggested that how the clergy gets funded depends onthe state, and that they have no divine right to tithes.)
Selden helped to frame the Protestation of 1621 and the Petition of Right (1628) and was imprisoned after the events on March 2 1629.
Released in 1631, he became a friend of Laud in the 1630s, but when elected Oxford University's Member of Parliament he opposed Charles on constitutional matters.
Parliament had been assembled only because Charles needed money to pay the Scots army. To ensure that it was not dissolved as soon as the Scots army disbanded, Parliament forced Charles to sign an Act (10 May 1641) agreeing that this Parliament would not be dissolved without its own consent.
The threat of the Scottish army was also used to persuade the King to consent to the Triennial Act (15 February 1641). This stated that Parliament must be called every three years, and that if the King failed to call Parliament, the Members of the last Parliament should assemble unsummoned.
Passing laws was all very well, but many Members of Parliament were afraid that Charles might still mount a violent coup to regain absolute control. To try and prevent this happening, they decided to attack all those who had helped Charles organize the personal rule of the 1630s:  William Laud, Lord Keeper Finch, Secretary Windebank, the judges who had upheld the legality of Ship Money and - most importantly - Thomas Wentworth, Earl Strafford.


2. The execution of Strafford.

" it was the general and the statesman, whom the people had to fear. [Robert Devereux, Earl of] Essex said, on that occasion, with more truth than elegance, Stone dead hath no fellow."

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Critical & Historical Essays (1828).


Strafford planned to raise an army in Ireland and use it against the Scots, and perhaps also the English.
Strafford and Charles regarded the collusion of the English opposition with the Scottish rebels as treason, and would have punished them as traitors if given the opportunity.
The House of Commons struck first and started impeachment proceedings against Strafford. Unsure that the Lords would convict, they changed this to a Bill of Attainder.
The Lords might well have rejected this also, but then evidence emerged that Queen Henrietta Maria had been conspiring with some army officers to put down Parliament by force. In retaliation, the Lords passed the Act of Attainder, 10 May 1641.
Frightened by the riots of the London mob, Charles I signed the warrant and Strafford was beheaded 12 May 1641. About 200,000 spectators watched him die. He was given a final blessing by Laud, who was then himself imprisoned in the Tower.
Charles always regretted having broken his promise ("upon the word of a king, you shall not suffer in life, honor or fortune") to protect Wentworth and longed for revenge on his killers.


3. Constitutional Reforms

Parliament tried to prevent a repetition of the personal rule of the 1630s by passing various laws:
The Triennial Act mandated that Parliament meet every three years.
The courts of High Commission and Star Chamber were abolished.
Ship Money and fines in distraint of knighthood were pronounced illegal, as was levying tonnage and poundage without Parliamentary consent.
There was general support for these measures in the House of Commons, but in the House of Lords the Bishops resisted the efforts to subordinate King to Parliament.
The House of Commons worked for the passage of a law to remove the Bishops from the House of Lords; Charles finally assented to this, February 1642. (In the meantime, some MPs encouraged the mobs which massed to prevent Bishops from attending the House).
As Pym and the other leaders of the opposition pressed for more and more measures to restrain Charles I's power, the balance of opinion - at first completely against Charles - began to shift. Increasingly,  it came to seem that the opposition were acting unconstitutionally.


4. Growing divisions

Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland (1610-43)


Pym's willingness to use the London mob to put pressure on the House of Lords alienated many gentlemen who feared encouraging popular revolution.
The abolition of Bishops - demanded most dramatically in the Root and Branch Petition - also aroused fears of overturning social hierarchy.
Religious questions at first were shelved, but came increasingly to the fore once the constitutional reforms were completed. Edward Hyde and Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland feared that the changes proposed by John Pym and John Hampden would lead eventually to a Presbyterian Church in England.
In November 1641, Pym drew up a long catalogue of Charles I's misdeeds entitled The Grand Remonstrance. The House of Commons debated and passed this, 23 November 1641, by 159 to 148 votes. This was a close margin in comparison with earlier votes in the House, and the conservatives were further angered by the decision to publish the Remonstrance - a move they thought would only further inflame the working classes.


5. The Irish Revolt

Phelim O'Neill (1604-53)

By August 1641, the Scottish army had gone home, for the Scots had achieved their religious and political aims.
Charles went to Scotland in the summer of 1641 to try and drum up some support for his cause. While he was still there, the Irish revolt broke out in October 1641.
Deeply alienated by the plantation of Connaught and Ulster with Scottish and English settlers, the Irish revolted soon after the iron grip of Strafford's government was relaxed.
Led by Phelim O'Neill and Roger/ Rory More, the Irish tried to seize Dublin by force. When they failed, they killed thousands of Protestant settlers. (The numbers reported in England were much exaggerated - figures such as 30,000 being bandied about).

In 1644, Sir John Temple published a True and Impartial History of the Irish Rebellion - his "eyewitness account" of the Revolt played an important role in establishing the tradition of a genocidal massacre.


There was general agreement in Scotland and England that the "barbaric Irish papists" had to be subdued by military force. However, who should command that army became a knotty problem given the profound distrust between Charles and his subjects.

6. The attempt on the Five Members

By the winter of 1641, Charles I was building a considerable following. Charles returned from Scotland, 25 November 1641. The popular welcome he received encouraged him to overestimate the strength of his position.
In December 1641, he appointed Sir Thomas Lunsford (1610?-1653?) as Keeper of the Tower of London. Lunsford was an adventurer with a record of violent assault, and the Commons immediately petitioned for his removal.
The Commons also imprisoned as traitors twelve bishops, who had complained about the legality of laws passed in the House of Lords while they were prevented from attending by mob violence. The Bishops had acted on the advice of John Williams, Archbishop of York (1582-1650), who had long been an enemy of Laud and a friend to Laud's critics, but this did not protect them.
Charles decided to respond to the impeachment of the Bishops by seizing the main leaders of the opposition and charging them with treason.
He targeted Edward Montagu (1602-71) Baron Montagu of Kimbolton, [known by the honorary title of Viscount Mandeville until he became the 2nd Earl of Manchester in 1642]  in the House of Lords, and five Members of the House of Commons John Pym, John Hampden, Denzil Holles, Sir Arthur Haselrig (or Hesilrige), and William Strode.
On 4 January 1642, accompanied by 500 soldiers, Charles entered the House of Commons and ordered the Speaker, William Lenthall (1591-1662) to hand over these five MPs.
Because Henrietta Maria had inadvertently leaked the plot, the five members were not present. "The birds are flown", commented Charles, and withdrew.
The Five Members were hidden in the City of London, which refused to give them up to the King.
The Commons were furious at what they regarded as a gross infringement of privilege. Even Charles' supporters in the Lords did not endorse handing over Edward Montagu as a traitor.
The attempt on the Five Members practically ended efforts at compromise between the King and his opponents.
On 10 January 1642, Charles, Henrietta Maria and their three eldest children fled London for Hampton Court.


7. The struggle for the militia

Charles sent Henrietta Maria to Europe to try and pawn the crown jewels. He also hoped that she might persuade Frederick Henry, Prince of Orange, to give financial help, and the King of Denmark (Christian IV, Charles' uncle) to send military assistance.
Charles sought support in the North and Midlands of England.
Meanwhile, the Irish revolt was spreading, and a bitter winter was killing the settlers, who sought refuge in safe towns. James Butler, 12th Earl of Ormonde (1610-88) was organizing an army, loyal to Charles, but initially his raw recruits met with little success.
The House of Commons had prepared a Militia Bill, so that they could call up local militias to suppress the Irish, but when Charles refused to pass this Bill, they issued it as an Ordinance. The Commons asserted that in a time of emergency they could issue ordinances - without royal assent - which possessed the force of law. This was a constitutional novelty.
Charles responded by issuing a Commission of Array, calling his subjects to arms. Charles said he would go in person to Ireland to suppress the rebellion, but many English Protestants feared that he would merge his forces with those of the Irish Papists and return to England to suppress all resistance to his rule.
Charles I went to Hull - an important fortified arsenal in North-East England - and demanded that its Parliamentary Commander, Sir John Hotham, surrender the city. Hotham's refusal to admit the King amounted to a declaration of war.

Sir John Hotham became a hero of the Parliamentary cause for his actions at Hull, but later was executed by Parliament (1645) for secretly negotiating to join the royalists.

Charles I formally declared war by raising his standard at Nottingham, 22 August 1642.
Charles was in personal command of all Royalist forces.
Parliament tried to preserve unity and social order by placing their forces under the overall command of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex (1591-1646). [The Devereux family had nursed a grievance against the Stuarts since the Divorce case of 1613.]
The first battle of the Civil War was at Edgehill in Warwickshire, 23 October 1642. Neither side won.

Previous lecture

Next lecture

Return to top of page Course schedule Home