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What Was the English Civil War?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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The English Civil War was a period of conflicts waged over control of England, Scotland, and Ireland in the mid-1600s. The events of the English Civil War were incredibly complex, and ended in the execution of Charles I of England, and the installation of the Commonwealth of England, a government which controlled England for almost 12 years before the British Monarchy was restored.

Charles I of England laid the groundwork for the Civil War early in his career. He was struggling to govern England, Ireland, and Scotland, and he made the profound mistake of trying to treat these territories like a single entity, raising ire in many parts of his kingdom. Charles also became engaged in conflicts in Europe, leading to unrest among members of Parliament. During this period in British history, the Parliament was weak, held only when the Monarch needed funds or other forms of support. As a result, when Charles I called a parliament into session to raise funds to pay for his involvement in Europe, the members only complained bitterly about the problems they saw in the government, leading the King to dissolve the Parliament in 1628. He did not call another Parliament for 12 years.

In the 1630s, Charles I attempted to institute religious reforms in Scotland, and he was soundly rebuffed. Scottish and English forces battled along the Scottish border, and Charles I was running out of money, leading him to call a Parliament again in 1640. This Parliament again spoke in opposition to the Monarchy, and Charles I dissolved it shortly after it was formed, leading to the nickname “The Short Parliament.” Under immense financial and political pressure, the King established yet another Parliament, and two years later, England, Ireland, and Scotland had descended into chaos, and the first English Civil War began.

Supporters of the King were known as Royalists or Cavaliers, and Parliamentarians were called Roundheads, after their severely cropped hairstyles. During the First and Second English Civil Wars, these factions fought bitterly for control of England and Scotland, and a number of political intrigues complicated matters even further. In 1648, these conflicts culminated with a rash of executions and a trial of the King for treason; he was executed in 1649.

After the King's execution, England experienced a Third Civil War, which ended with the establishment of the Commonwealth. England was essentially ruled by Oliver Cromwell, a major leader in the English Civil War, from 1653 to 1658, and his son took over to rule briefly before Charles II was brought back from exile in Europe and restored as the King of England. Charles II had learned his lesson from the English Civil War, and the government took the form of a parliamentary monarchy when it was reestablished in 1661.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By NightChef — On Oct 14, 2010

Perhaps because of the fact that the present model of government was formed in 1661 is why I am so confused by the English government's form of rule.

It seems almost contradictory to me to have both a monarchy and a Parliament as a form of government. Perhaps some day the British society will be able to get over the concept of having a queen still at the top of their government.

It almost seems futile and childish to keep up this whole charade but at least the Queen doesn't have the same powers she used to have back in the Middle Ages when it meant the difference between a cruel leader or a civil leader. Now we get just vote politicians in and out of office when we become disgruntled with the actions they take in how they run our government.

By fitness234 — On Oct 14, 2010

As a student here in Great Britain we've been educated with plenty of knowledge concerning the English Civil War and other civil wars that Great Britain has experienced in it's very long history.

While there is lots of conflicting story information and research topics that you can find concerning the civil wars, the main ideas are the same and the conclusion of us reaching an industrialized economy and being a world power is the same.

In fact learning about the English Civil War was one of my favorite parts of history class as a student growing up. It is hard to realize just how much our own people can fight against each other.

By sammyG — On Oct 14, 2010

There have actually been a lot of popular movies made about civil wars in other countries and one prime example is that of this is the and movie Braveheart.

In this movie Scottish rebels are seen as barbaric creatures with little or no value to the high society life of Great Britain. The reality is these Scottish farmers were often the food source for many of these industrialized towns inside of Great Britain.

While Hollywood might have glorified the events of such a bloody war it is important for us to understand that civil wars have caused harm and great loss of family in many nations around the world.

By jeancastle00 — On Oct 14, 2010

as a citizen of the United States when I think of civil war I think of the great American Civil War that happened between the North and South.

While I realize that many different types of civil wars have occurred all over the world in many different types of countries and political climates I usually fail to think about the Civil War that happened for the English and in Great Britain.

If we think the American Revolutionary war was truly bloody we should examine the history books and realized that the long drawn out century long civil wars that occurred in other countries have killed many more people and many more soldiers.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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