The English Civil War

The English Civil War is one of those strange eras of England’s history. Like the period involving King John and the Magna Carta or beliefs in the existence of a historical Robin Hood, it is generally defined by assumptions of what happened as opposed to what took place.

The term ‘English Civil War’ encompasses a sequence of major conflicts that occurred in England, 1642–6, 1648–9, and finally 1649–51. The background of the war is in many ways, just as important as the outcome. Also explored are the lives of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell and their impact on the Civil War.

The Reign of Charles I

Charles I had replaced his father, James I, on the throne in March 1625, and ruled England alongside his wife, Henrietta Maria, the youngest daughter of Henry IV of France. Charles was unlike his father. While James had been pretentious but strong, Charles was cultured but indecisive. Though his small stature and nervous stammer made it very difficult for him to gain the unqualified loyalty and respect of Britain’s elite, his passion for art and generous patronage of artists such as Rubens and Van Dyck made him many friends in the art world.

His unfortunate misjudgement, from the outset of his reign, in clinging uncompromisingly to his father’s belief in the Divine Right of Kings, contributed significantly to the troubles that confronted him. When addressing Parliament, Charles spoke plainly and concisely, a welcome change from his father’s garrulousness. Still, his monetary demands exceeded those made by James and were viewed as excessive by the members. A Protestant-heavy House of Commons consistently refused his desires and began to consider labelling charges against the Duke of Buckingham, a principal advisor to James who had maintained a strong influence over Charles. With Charles’s early actions brought into question, a new charter of political liberty was in the offing by 1628, in many ways a logical extension of the Magna Carta that, among other things, condemned the King’s ability to sentence without trial, tax without the consent of the Commons, control his own troops or even impose his rights against parliament without their approval. When the Petition of Right was first put to Charles, he dismissed it as a contradiction of his divine right.

Over the next ten years, the political situation became delicately poised in England. The murder of Buckingham in 1628 was followed in 1630 by Charles’s becoming a father (the later Charles II), and the King’s decision to dissolve parliament, ruling without one from 1629 till 1640. The void left by Buckingham’s death saw the rise of two key supporters, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and former parliamentarian Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford. By 1635 Charles had ruled England with relative success, but his need for funds had become critical. After achieving mixed success in his attempts to raise funds through ‘ship money’ – funds levied on the coastal towns that didn’t require parliament’s consent – Charles’s decision, in 1637, to impose William Laud’s controversial high church prayer book on his Scottish subjects led to riots in Edinburgh. Shortly afterwards, the King declared a so-called ‘Bishops’ War’ on Scotland. His forces suffered defeat at Newcastle, and a lack of funds led him to call the ‘Short Parliament’. His request for funds was refused, and a second parliament opposed his demands by nearly four to one. The events of what historians later dubbed ‘The Long Parliament’ was noteworthy in England’s history, as the shift in consciousness toward republicanism escalated alongside a shift in wealth from the church and baronial magnates to the ever-emerging Middle Class.

The Long Parliament had been a notable setback to the King. Bullied to put his signature on Strafford’s death warrant, the spectre of the Magna Carta returned to haunt him again in 1641 with an updated 200-clause version of the Petition of Right that included the removal of the King’s Star Chamber (his personal court), regularisation of taxes and a demand that bishops be forever banned from sitting in the House of Lords. The proposal was radical, even compared to the current mindset, and was only narrowly voted in by MPs. Charles’s response became legendary. In January 1642 he entered the House of Commons and demanded the arrest of five MPs, including John Pym and Arthur Hesilrige, all of who escaped. Within two months, armed gangs from London began to bombard Westminster, forcing Charles and the Queen to take flight. While the Queen headed to France, along with the Crown jewels, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham, thus beginning England’s sixth major civil war.

The First Civil War

Perhaps the most fascinating legacy of this civil war is that even after more than three centuries opinion remains split over which side represented the heart of the English people. The longstanding stories that the war saw families divided is a somewhat surprising notion that is genuinely supported by much evidence, primarily at a local level. In terms of logistics, the parliament’s strengths were many. It had access to the key seaports that had been so critical in the First Barons’ War of the 13th century, and London was also firmly in parliament’s grip. The voice of the commoner, however, often remained nostalgically in Charles’s favour. When the conflict began at Edgehill in October 1642, it was the bravery of these courageous but undisciplined forces that successfully drove the Parliamentary horse from the field but failed to see the job through. As the first battle of the war ended without a decisive outcome, the general commanding the Parliamentary forces returned to London as Charles set up his new HQ at Christ Church in Oxford.

The King’s nephew, Prince Rupert, fresh from excelling himself at Edgehill, had overseen Royalist control of the north, including York, and by the middle of 1643, the Royalist position was secure. Isolated military conflict throughout the year kept tensions simmering. Still, little occurred on either side to change the direction of the war until the fiercely republican John Pym convinced the Edinburgh assembly to assist the Roundhead cause with 18,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry in recognition of parliament’s vow to abolish bishops from government and impose religious reforms in England. These reinforcements met up with their Roundhead counterparts near York in the summer of 1644, where a further band of East Anglian cavalry led by the Cambridgeshire MP, Oliver Cromwell, joined them. Conflict at Marston Moor, a short distance from York, saw the butchering of 3,000 Royalists and a key momentum shift in the Roundheads’ favour.

If the previous year had been pivotal to the direction of the war, the remainder of 1644 and early 1645 were no less significant. Royalist recovery at Newbury and in Cornwall saw Cromwell come close to blows with the aristocratic Parliamentarian generals, the earls of Manchester and Essex, culminating in now-famous words, “I hope to live to see never a nobleman in England.” Cromwell’s wishes were partially fulfilled, along with his demands for a New Model Army consisting of paid troops. A winter’s training paid off when the decisive action came at Naseby, a resounding Royalist defeat. After the fall of Bristol and finding himself besieged at Oxford, Charles escaped and remained successfully undercover before being recognised in disguise among the Scottish camp near Newark. After a year negotiating the King’s handover to parliament, the Scots sent Charles to London.

The Second Civil War

The King was greeted surprisingly well by the people of England on his way to London in February 1647. The country had suffered during four years of war, and there was a new belief among the citizens that it was time for a swift conclusion. The Long Parliament agreed that Cromwell’s New Model Army should be disbanded, the majority of their pay to come from fines laid against the Royalist gentry. Cromwell was enraged that promises to his men had been broken. Adamantly opposed to any plans to disband his troops, Cromwell led them to capture the King as he was travelling to the city, and then held him captive at Hampton Court.

A series of debates ensued. While later historians have pointed in particular to events held at Putney Church between 28 October and 9 November 1647 as having paved the way for the now established democratic principle that no man should be bound to a system of government that he played no part in creating, the fate of the King remained unresolved. Later in November Charles escaped Hampton Court and set up a new home on the Isle of Wight. Buoyed by his newfound freedom and warmed by rumours of rekindled affection for him among the people, he made contact with his subjects in Scotland about renewing the military campaign against the Roundheads. A Scottish invasion, accompanied by risings in the north, saw Cromwell return to the field, and elements of dissent were brutally defeated. The King was returned to London where the Long Parliament had been growing increasingly concerned by the radicalism of Cromwell’s New Model Army. As negotiations between the King and parliament began to fall through, it was the army, not parliament, who took control. The Long Parliament was dismissed, aside from members approved by Cromwell and the military, a number estimated between 154 and 210. The so-called ‘Rump’ of the Long Parliament established a committee to try the King on the grounds of treason. As the trial ended, during which Charles had shown nothing but contempt, the decision was guilty. On 30 January 1649, forty-three years to the day after the execution of four of the Gunpowder Plotters, Charles was led to a scaffold erected outside the Banqueting House in the heart of Whitehall and beheaded, a mournful groan among the crowd taking the place of the usual cheer.

The Third Civil War

The execution of the King was the first occasion of its type in England. Many kings had been killed. Edward II, Richard II and Richard III all met their downfalls in some way at the hands of their successors. But until now, the monarchy had always survived. The Rump Parliament ordered that no successor would replace Charles on the throne, but that England would become a republic. The image of the monarch, used for so long to decorate the seal used to authenticate acts of Parliament, was removed and the House of Lords was abolished; replaced by a forty-one-man council, with the enigmatic Cromwell sitting unchallenged as chief citizen. While Cromwell took his military skills to Ireland to neutralise elements of dissent with such ferocity that his actions are now considered genocide, the Scots who had opposed Charles I now crowned his son Charles II in Edinburgh. An invasion by Scottish forces in the summer of 1651 ended in defeat at Worcester. Although Cromwell had succeeded in defeating a second king, Charles survived, spending a night hidden within the body of an oak tree in the grounds of Boscobel House on the Shropshire/Staffordshire border before making his way to France, disguised as a servant.

Oliver Cromwell

A full biography of Oliver Cromwell is far beyond the potential of this section, not to mention redundant thanks to the tireless efforts of Lady Antonia Fraser. In short, Cromwell was born in the town of Huntingdon in 1599 to one of the wealthiest and most influential families in the area. He attended the University of Cambridge from 1616 and was elected MP for Huntingdon in 1628. His role in local politics was widely established in 1640 when he moved constituency to Cambridge. In the first year of the civil war, he played a prominent role in raising troops for the Parliamentarian cause before being made a colonel in the Eastern Association. His prowess on the battlefield was celebrated amongst his contemporaries, leading to his being made lieutenant-general of the Eastern Association a year later and then the New Model Army that lined up at Naseby.

Cromwell’s rise to success was nothing short of phenomenal. When the King came to trial, Cromwell’s command over the forces had augmented his position as the strongest placed Parliamentary statesman and a key pioneer in the running of a republican England. Cromwell imposed his will on both Ireland and Scotland, forcing a union with England, expanding on the vision of James I, and ruled by elected MPs throughout the union. The so-called commonwealth lasted only four years before Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament in 1653. As the year ended, he agreed to be named Lord Protector, ruling England with ‘somewhat of monarchical power’. Over the next four years, elected parliaments came and went. Cromwell’s hold on the nation intensified with the establishment of eleven military regions in England, an introduction of puritanical rules and censorship topped off with bouts of Calvinist-style iconoclasm in the east of England. In 1657 he took seriously a petition by a group of lawyers and MPs with the potential to see the restoration of the monarchy. Whilst refusing the crown, his second inauguration as Lord Protector mirrored much of past coronations and included his being seated in the coronation chair and donning the purple robes of previous kings. A year later, he died at Whitehall, most likely from a combination of malaria and urinary complications, perhaps made worse by the death of his daughter, Elizabeth Claypole. He named as his successor Richard Cromwell, who was ousted after less than a year in office. In 1660, after an interregnum of eleven years following the death of Charles I, the restitution of the monarchy was completed by the succession to the throne of his son Charles II.

Sir Arthur Hesilrige

Born in 1601, Hesilrige was the eldest son of Sir Thomas, first Baronet, Hesilrige who hailed from Leicestershire. Hesilrige’s political career began in earnest after being elected MP for Leicestershire in the Short Parliament of 1640 and soon after in the same seat in the Long Parliament. Like many of his contemporaries, his fiery puritanical values put him on a direct collision course with Archbishop Laud. In 1641 he was noted for his involvement in the Act of Attainder that saw the execution of the Earl of Strafford. Mainly in response to this, Hesilrige was one of the five MPs the King targeted for arrest in 1642, leading in no small part to the war that followed.

Hesilrige was prominent throughout the conflict. After raising horse for the Earl of Essex, he fought at Edgehill and subsequently at the battles of Lansdowne, Roundway Down and Cheriton; in the first two of which he survived wounds. Much is made of his later falling out with Cromwell. When Cromwell came to blows with the earls of Manchester and Essex, Hesilrige supported him and, after achieving success as Governor of Newcastle, joined Cromwell in taking up arms against the Scots in 1650.

His position against the King is also clear. Though he turned down the opportunity to act as a judge at the trial, he remained an unrepentant republican. His success as a soldier and as governor of Newcastle made him an obvious member of the four-year commonwealth. Still, his relations with Cromwell became fraught when Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament and took on the title of Lord Protector. Remaining fixed to his republican ideals, he was barred from taking his seat in the two protectorates and later instrumental in the downfall of Richard Cromwell in 1659. After being re-elected to the restored Rump Parliament, he was one of the key members of the Council of State before becoming marginalised over the next year as his republican ideals were undermined by parliament’s decision to restore the monarchy.

Elizabeth Cromwell

Born in London in 1598, Elizabeth Cromwell was the wife of the Lord Protector and mother to his nine children. Elizabeth was the first of twelve children born to Sir James Bourchier of Felsted in Essex, a wealthy leather merchant, and his wife. Oliver and Elizabeth married on 22 August 1620. Sir James’s influence among the merchant society in London would later be of great advantage to Cromwell, along with his father-in-law’s extensive land holdings in Essex. The marriage was a happy one, and many of the letters between the pair survive. Those mentioned in my novel, The Cromwell Deception, are, of course, made up, but they are inspired by first-hand accounts of Cromwell writing to her.

As Protectress of England, insufficient evidence of her character has come to light to make a meaningful assessment. After her husband’s death, she was treated relatively well; however, on the back of the Restoration of the Monarchy, she decided to take flight. The story mentioned in the novel of her attempting to flee London while in possession of many valuables, once the property of the royal family, is supported by historical evidence. When the items were discovered, she was forced to part with them. What happened next is something of a grey area. There have been some claims that she fled from England and resided for some time in Switzerland, but primary records do not support this. She did spend some time in Wales before living with her son-in-law, John Claypole, at the manor in Northborough. Her date of interment is recorded as 19 November 1665. In 1846 the author John Heneage Jesse in his Memoirs of the court of England, from the Revolution in 1688 to the death of George the Second recorded Elizabeth’s death as having occurred on 8 October 1672. In 1784, the antiquary and biographer Mark Noble, writing in his Memoirs of the protectorate-house of Cromwell: deduced from an early period and continued down to the present time conjectured that Elizabeth’s death in 1665 was merely a ‘political death’ due to her fear of persecution. The author credited the Rev James Clarke of Peterborough for making him familiar with the story.

Northborough in Cambridgeshire is a real place, and has a population of approximately 1,300 people. Connection with both the Claypole family and Cromwell’s wife and daughter is true, with many of the Claypole family laid to rest within the church. St Andrew’s Church also exists. The Claypole Chapel in the south transept also still exists, and a plaque placed by The Cromwell Association is currently on display. There is a vault, apparently, beneath the chapel where the body of Elizabeth Cromwell was placed in 1665. According to the 1789 edition of William Camden’s Britannia: ‘The vault has long been opened and used as a charnel house’, basically a place to store bones. In volume one of the 1948 edition of Northamptonshire Past and Present the writer adds, ‘The family vault beneath the chapel has long been cleared, so that it is doubtful whether the remains of any of these Claypoles or of Mistress Cromwell still exist . . . The Claypoles have vanished from the scene, but their manor house and their monuments in the church at Northborough are still with us, to remind us of a family who made their contribution to the history of their country, and in a very special way to their county also’.

The nearby manor house is real and is now privately owned. In 2014 it was up for sale for over £1.7m.