Oliver Cromwell and the Civil War

The English Civil War of the 1640s was marked by the trial and execution of King Charles I (1600-1649) and the suspension of the monarchy for a period of eleven years. It was during this revolution, and the subsequent interregnum, that Oliver Cromwell became the most influential man in Britain.


The Rise to Power

Though Charles I was a capable monarch, he was not a popular ruler. Charles was widely criticized for high rates of taxation; however, there were also more specific complaints about his rule. Charles was viewed as distant and aloof and his policy of ruling according to divine right alienated many of his subjects. Local elites felt that the monarch was stripping them of their power, while individual subjects believed that their freedom was being eroded by the Crown. Charles I appeared to be setting the government of Britain on a course towards absolute monarchy. He was also seen as something of a Catholic sympathizer who practiced an unsettlingly "popish" version of Protestantism; Catholicism appeared to be driving out Protestantism at court.

In parliament, the House of Commons was dominated by the Puritans, who objected to the views of Charles I's advisor, the Duke of Buckingham, whom they blamed for a military defeat at the hands of Spain in 1626. A movement by the Puritans to impeach the duke for treason was cut short by Charles I, who dissolved parliament as a preventive measure. However, another British military defeat attributable to Buckingham led parliament to coerce Charles I into signing the "Petition of Rights", which limited the power of the Crown. Yet, the taxation and "popishness" continued.

Parliament's Condemnation

In 1629, parliament unilaterally condemned the actions of King Charles I. Sensing a revolutionary mood, the king dissolved parliament once again and he did not call it into session again for eleven years. In so doing, King Charles abandoned the foundation upon which his rulership relied: the consent of his subjects. As a result, the general feeling of discontent continued to ferment.

When parliament finally reconvened in 1640, it remained in session throughout the following year and beyond. This Long Parliament gained some concessions from the Crown, but Charles I refused to surrender the army to parliamentary control and also rejected their demands that a program of church reform be undertaken. These irreconcilable differences plunged the country into a bitter civil war, with the royalist forces facing the New Model Army led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.

The Trial and Execution of King Charles I

Revolution raged in England, Scotland, and Ireland throughout the 1640s. In 1648, the parliamentary rebels finally crushed the king's English and Scottish forces, and placed Charles I on trial for high treason in August of that year. Refusing to recognize the legality of the trial, the king remained defiant and uncooperative. Charles I was found guilty of high treason, sentenced to death, and was beheaded at Whitehall on January 30, 1649.

Republic of England

The parliamentary forces then faced the task of forming a new government and restoring order. Britain was declared a republic and the new regime was headed by an oligarchic parliament and backed by the army. However, Cromwell grew dissatisfied with the ineffectiveness and incompetence of parliament and he developed an appreciation for absolute power. Reforming parliament to suit his tastes, Cromwell set himself up as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth. Although he resisted the temptation to declare himself king, the military strongman did maintain the right to choose his successor. Often called a virtual kingship, his regime was certainly a dictatorship governed under martial law.

Royalist sentiment did not cease with the death of Charles I, and the king's supporters in Scotland attempted to install his son as King Charles II; however, this attempt was crushed decisively. In the eyes of some, the execution of Charles I transformed him into a martyr. Others demanded a greater level of democratic socialism than the new regime was prepared to supply.

Irish Invasion

In Ireland, conflict persisted until 1652, and Cromwell eventually subdued the Irish through a ruthless policy of massacre. Some witnesses reported all life to have been completely wiped out in some counties. The 'Act of Settling of Ireland' confiscated the property of all Irishmen who could not prove themselves to have been loyal to the Commonwealth. Two-thirds of Ireland passed into the hands of Englishmen as thousands of Irish families were dispossessed and displaced. Hundreds were deported to Barbados and elsewhere. Catholicism was outlawed and mandatory Protestantism was rigorously enforced. (see Plantation of Ulster)

Cromwell's son, Richard, proved to be a weaker ruler than his father. Upon Cromwell's retirement as Lord Protector, Richard could not maintain control over the army. Before long, he retired from politics. The Long Parliament was compelled to come to its official end in 1660, when increasing royalist sentiment forced a new election. The new parliament was overwhelmingly royalist and immediately proclaimed Charles II as king, restoring the monarchy after eleven years. However, the British monarchy was less despotic than it had been prior to the civil war, due to the lingering example that had been made of Charles I. Additionally, the church had been thrust into a position of only marginal importance during the Cromwell regime. It remained less influential after the Restoration, leading to the secularization of the British state.

See Also


  1. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials