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The English Civil War explained in less time than it takes to drink a pint (slowly).......

(or a true relation of a conversation between Ed and Henry in the Aylesbury beer tent)



"So what's it all about?" said Ed.


"Well, you see, while it's called the English Civil War, there are actually three of them plus two in Scotland and one in Ireland."


"Is this going to take long?"


"It all starts with the Scots. They were a separate Kingdom with their own church with its own rules, a Presbyterian Kirk. Charles wanted to change that by appointing lots of bishops and things like he had done in England. As you can imagine from listening nowadays to Reverend Ian Paisley (the real one) this sort of thing was viewed by the Scots as a Catholic plot. So the Scots got all uppity and went around signing a petition called the Solemn League and Covenant to defend their religion. So Charles, having irritated most of the Scots, decides to chastise his rebellious subjects.


"The resulting two wars are called the Bishops' Wars because it was all about whether the Scots should have bishops or not. While that might appear a strange thing to have a war about, at the time people tended to disagree over religion rather than politics. Politics was just the art of ruling, religion was the higher cause that people got worked up about. But when Charles arrives for the first war (June 1639) there's an army waiting for him just across the border. So after a bit of marching up and down, Charles sees he's not going to get anywhere without a fight and he can't afford a proper war. So they have a truce and start negotiating. But the problem with Charles is that he isn't very keen on negotiating with subjects. And as a King he doesn't see why he has to follow the rules, I mean rules are for subjects and he's a ruler so he thinks he should be able to make them and break as he sees fit.


"Anyway, this bloke called Strafford tells Charles that he has a great idea, which was to call Parliament and get them to pass taxes and make a load of money to pay for an army to go and fight the Scots. Now Charles hadn't called a Parliament since right at the start of his reign (1624). This was because holding a Parliament meant having to allow a lot of people the opportunity to present grievances and ask awkward questions before they got on with passing taxes. Charles wasn't very keen on this sort of thing, as what was the point of being King if you had to keep on explaining yourself to your subjects? Charles had instead just scraped by on the traditional taxes and the money from the royal estates. This wasn't a lot to run a country on, but enough to support him and his wife and a few palaces. When he tried doing something else, like building a Navy he'd had to cheat by inventing Ship Tax. Now this was something that some ports had paid in medieval times to pay for a few boats to stop the French raiding. But things had got a bit more expensive by Charles' day, so he'd had the cunning plan of getting everybody to pay this tax, even places like Rutland that doesn't have much of coast. This had caused a big uproar and some people had got throw in prison for not paying. But Strafford said, I've got it all worked out, while I've been in charge of Ireland I've run the local Parliament and it was all hunky-dory. I'll manage it so that you get your money and no questions asked. Alright, said Charles, and then we'll go and bash the Scots.


"But it all went horribly wrong. They didn't manage to fix the elections and there were a lot of uppity types asking rude questions and making sure that taxes were right down at the bottom of the list of things to do. So Charles, seeing that there was no chance of any cash, said stuff that, and dissolved Parliament (April 1640). In the history books they call that the Short Parliament. And it was worse than that, because while Strafford had his hands full in England the Irish Parliament also got all irritable and refused to hand over any money. So Charles decides to go and bash the Scots anyway. Now, what with having asked Parliament for money to bash the Scots, it was pretty obvious to the Scots what was coming. So, pre-empting a surprise attack, the Scots march south, fight their way across the Tyne, and capture Newcastle (August 1640). Now Charles is really stuffed. The Scots have Newcastle and a big army in England and they're not going to leave until they get what they want, which includes a huge wedge of money to pay for the cost of their army. With all his plans in ruins Charles has nothing left to do but summon another Parliament (November 1640). Only a Parliament can raise the taxes needed to pay off the Scots. But first there were going to be a lot of awkward questions. And the Scots sent a group to make sure that they know what's going on and make sure they get what they want and generally stir things up.


"The first thing that Parliament decides to do is to pick on Strafford. He had made a lot of enemies in trying to 'fix' the Short Parliament and the Scots saw him as the man who had started the war against them. So on the old theory that the King was always a good bloke but just misled by evil advisors, Strafford was put on trial in Parliament. Now Strafford didn't try to duck the fight, instead he reckoned if he could defend himself and get off, then he could still turn it round, confound his enemies, get Parliament to vote taxes for an army to kick the Scots out and end up a winner. However his enemies were aware of the danger and had no intention of giving him a fair trial and therefore a fair chance. They used a bill of attainder, which had been invented during the War of the Roses to execute nobles on the losing side for treason. Strafford was therefore accused of general naughtiness and the Commons voted for the bill. Everybody thought that the House of Lords would then throw the bill out, but they didn't. So then everybody thought that Charles would refuse to sign it, but he did and Strafford was executed (May 1641)."


"I don't get it," said Ed "why did the King execute Strafford for treason?"


"Search me, I reckon that nobody liked Strafford enough to stand up and defend him while Strafford refused to admit that he had mucked up and so finally he preferred to die for his King in the hope that his execution might shock public opinion. It's one of those points of history that you could debate for a long time and whole books have been written about it."


"Yes, that's all very well" said Ed "but I've almost finished my beer and you haven't even started the war."


"Frankly that's a bit harsh, I'm just about to do my third war and that will be half way.


"Anyway while all this was going on things got a whole lot worse in Ireland. There was an uprising in Ulster in which some Irish Catholics massacred a load of Scottish Presbyterian settlers (October 1641). Because of the problems stirred up by the last Irish Parliament this quickly became a general civil war. The Scots intervened to save their fellow countrymen in Ulster and it all became very confused until, some ten years later, Cromwell finally comes along and ends it all by massacring a load more people.


"While Parliament celebrated its victory over Strafford, some people were having second thoughts. Nobody liked Strafford, but now he was gone. Surely, some people were saying, that was the end of it. Sort out the problem with the Scots and it would be back to business as usual. However the group of Lords and MPs that had co-ordinated the attack on Strafford had other ideas. Like the Scots they had gained the advantage, but they couldn't trust Charles to let bygones be bygones.


"By having Strafford executed they had raised the stakes and the same fate now awaited them if they lost. And some of them were Puritans who wanted to make changes in religion and other things. So they kept on demanding more and more. More and more radical demands from Parliament meant that more and more people started questioning where it was all leading. Charles gained increasing sympathy and support. People may not have been keen on what he had done in the past or on some of his mates at Court, but they certainly didn't want to be ordered around by a load of Puritans in Parliament.


"In the meantime various plots and rumours added to the distrust and fear on both sides. The conflict in Ireland also provided a worrying backdrop. Both sides tried to gain control of the militia, the nearest thing to an army in the country. Parliament passed a militia act that gave control to it, while Charles wrote to all his mates who were Lord Lieutenants' in the counties. People took sides because of religion, politics and because their friends and relations were on one side or their enemies or mother-in-law were on the other side.


"Finally Charles decided to act. He sent soldiers to arrest five leading opponents while they were in the House of Commons. But the MPs barred the doors and the five escaped. This was the big one, an open attack on the rights of Parliament, an out and out act of tyranny. And that is why at the Queen's State Opening of Parliament a bloke dressed in old fashioned black clothes, called the Black Rod, goes to summon the House of Commons and they slam the doors in his face and he has to knock politely. It is acted out to remind everybody about Parliament's rights that were won through the Civil War and still remain. Charles then left London and went to Nottingham. Here he would unveil the Royal Standard (August 1642), raise an army and march back to London to restore the natural order of things. No more having to negotiate with subjects, time to do some ruling. Big mistake, just as he found an army of Scots when he attempted to crush their opposition, so he ran into the army of Parliament."


"Hurrah," said Ed "it's war!"


"The battle of Edgehill was indecisive and Charles pushed on to London. However the trained bands mustered and marched out to Turnham Green, twenty thousand strong, and Charles withdrew without a fight."


"Hurrah," said Ed "that's us, we saved London."


"The next year (1643) was a tough one for Parliament with defeats in the North and the West Country and things looked grim. So that winter the Scots finally intervened. They couldn't stand by and let Parliament be defeated, because they would be next. With their help Rupert was beaten at Marston Moor (1644) and the Royalists lost the North. The war continued through the next year until Charles was finally brought to battle at Naseby by the New Model Army and soundly thrashed (1645).


"While some Royalists were still to be mopped up in the West and Wales, Charles fled to the Scots. Presumably he thought he might get some sympathy, but they simply gave him to Parliament in return for some dosh (1646). Frankly the Scots were better off without him. As Parliament was to discover, a defeated King is nearly as dangerous as an undefeated King. Charles still refused to negotiate in good faith. Instead he conspired to start another war to free him. Parliament and the Scots had fallen out over what should happen now that they had won. As usual it was mostly about the brand of religion that should be adopted. While they had always been on the other side, that didn't mean that a lot of Scots weren't still loyal to their King. As a result the Scots were persuaded that if they beat up Parliament and released Charles they would get an even better deal.


"So the Second English Civil War (1648) started with the Scots marching south to support the expected Royalist uprising. However most English people, while they may not have agreed with everything Parliament was doing, were not prepared to fight another war about it. So the only areas that got a good turnout were Essex and Kent. Neither area had seen any fighting during the previous war and so there were lots of Royalists left to kill. It was all a bit of a farce, the Scots were beaten and the risings were soundly crushed and a number of leading Royalists were hung for their pains.


"The last victim of the Second English Civil War was Charles. Parliament decided that he could not be trusted and that he would continue the struggle to either victory or death. So death it was then. This caused a further division in Parliament as many thought that this was a step too far and Charles' execution (January 1649) marked the triumph of the Puritans under Cromwell.


"Finally the Scots crowned Charles' son (who was conveniently named Charles the Second to avoid confusion) and marched south to start the Third English Civil War (1650) and restore him to the throne. Presumably they had been offered an even better deal by Charlie Two than the previous time, but they got even less English help and all got massacred at Worcester. Then Cromwell conquered Scotland, Ireland and Jamaica and fought the Dutch and the Spanish, but that's the story of the Interregnum and I don't know anything about all that.


"So how was that?"


"Not bad," said Ed "it's your round."


Article contributed by Henry Lancaster

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