The English Civil War

In this episode, we cover the major events of the English Civil War that shaped the England out of which Methodism was born and the major figures like Oliver Cromwell and Prince Rupert.

Episode 15

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode: The English Civil War. In 1910, the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford University, Charles Harding Firth, presented a lecture at Cambridge titled The Parallel Between the English and American Civil Wars. Firth sees parallels among the actors and among some of the circumstances of the conflict, but for our purposes today, the central parallel we must point out is that both English and American Civil Wars made individual actors in the conflict so famous as to shape public consciousness for generations. How many Americans can name a single general in World War I? Maybe Pershing. The American Civil War is filled with figures who have been idolized and lionized over the last 160 years. Union heroes have their foil in Confederate heroes and vice versa. We have Grant and Lee, Lincoln, and Davis, Sherman and Jackson. The English Civil War was filled with equally large personalities, Cromwell being the most famous today, but many others who were celebrities and heroes and villains for many in the time of Wesley.

Wesley himself writes of the figures in the war, saying,

“No period since England began could show so many instance of courage, abilities, and virtue, as the present fatal opposition called forth into exertion. Now was the time when talents of all kinds, were called from the lower ranks of life to dispute for power and pre-eminence. Both sides, equally confidence of the justice of their cause, appealed to God to just of the rectitude of their intentions. The parliament was persuaded that it fought for heaven, by asserting its regards for a peculiar mode of worship: and the king was not less persuaded that his claims were sacred, having ever considered them as of divine original.” (180)

On August 25, 1642, King Charles I raised his banners. The day did not go well. Charles had issued a proclamation that all men able to bear arms appear that day, but not a man appeared. The banners meant war. Charles had a few things going for him. Royalists who supported the king were referred to as Cavaliers, especially thanks to the bravado of the king’s nephew, Prince Rupert, was the son of Charles’s sister, Elizabeth, and the Elector of Palatine, Frederick V. One of Rupert’s sisters, Sophia of Hanover, would eventually be the mother of the king at Wesley’s birth, George I, but we have a long way to go before the Act of Settlement of 1701.

In 1620, Frederick had been named King of Bohemia in order to prevent the Hapsburgs in Vienna from taking over, but the the Hapsburgs invaded and Frederick’s army was defeated and his family sent into exile in the Netherlands. One of Frederick’s uncles was Prince Maurice of Orange, whom you may recall from our episode on Jacob Arminius. Rupert grew up in the Netherlands and fought as a teenager in battles during the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War. When his Uncle, Charles, raised the banner, Rupert and his younger brother, Maurice, eventually came. They were both skilled horsebacks riders and gave the Royalist Cavalry a distinct advantage.

The Parliamentary opponents to the king were referred to as Roundheads because early in the conflict, many had short cropped hair. Like the term Methodist, both roundhead and cavalier originally began as terms of abuse that were later adopted by the groups. The earls of Manchester and Essex were nominally in charge of the Parliamentary forces, but it was a rather disorganized mess. Parliament controlled London and most of the nation’s wealth, but they did not have an efficient way to utilize this advantage.

One of the principle differences between the English Civil War and the American was that there was no Mason-Dixon line. There was no clear geographic demarcation. Most roundhead strongholds were in the east of the country, but they had some in the west and vice versa. Yet one of the clear similarities was that both Royalists and Parliamentarians felt that God was on their side. All of the writings of King Charles are infused with religious fervor. As well, as Michael Walzer argues, the rise of parliamentary power came from the infusion of calvinist piety with the English gentry. The Parliamentarians weren’t just the King’s opponents but God’s instruments.

While each side had its strengths and weaknesses, the first battle at Edge-Hill in October of 1642 ended in a virtual stalemate. Yet between battles were the real hallmarks of the first stage of the war: the siege. Sieges took place all over England and Scotland. Some lasted for months, others for years. Holed up in castles, farmers couldn’t tend their land and herders couldn’t care for their sheep, thus the precise balance of English agriculture fell apart in many places in the country. Famine and sickness were the children of the siege.

Through the rest of 1642 many sieges and battles took place, each side winning or losing depending on a given location or an intended goal. Parliament maintained the navy thanks to the defection of the Lord Admiral to the Parlimentary cause, but the Royalists were able to be resupplied from the continent.

Near the end of 1643, Parliament ratified the Solemn League and Covenant, which combined the Parliamentary forces with the Scottish forces under Alexander Leslie, who had humiliated the king in the Bishop’s War five years prior. Without going deeply into the details, there were battles and sieges all over the country. Oliver Cromwell, the MP for Cambridge, was decisive in the Parliamentary victory at Marston Moor near York in the middle of 1644, but even the strategic victory of driving the Royalists from the north of England did not bring the country any closer to peace.

Parliament kept sending delegations to the King in Oxford in the hopes of negotiating a peace but they continued to fall apart. Again, we must remember that each side thought God was on their side, yet neither had the clarity of Abraham Lincoln in his Second Inaugural to move beyond this claim into seeking God’s side.

Archbishop William Laud had been in the Tower of London this entire time and while battles and sieges raged across the country, Laud was tried for High treason and execututed. As Wesley writes, “The death of Laud was followed by a total alteration of church-discipline. The Liturgy was, by a public act abolished the day he died, as if he had been the only obstacle to its removal. The church of England was in all respects brought to a conformity to the presbyterian establishment; while the citizens of London, and the Scotch army, gave public thanks for so happy an alteration.” (190-191).

The religious zeal in the country had effects beyond London. As Wesley writes, “these were a body of men that were now growing into consideration; their apparent sanctity, their natural courage excited by enthusiasm, and their unceasing perseverance, began to work considerable effects; and tho’ they were out-numbered in the house of commons, they formed a majority in the army.”(192)

At the start of 1645, Parliament had distinct advantages, but there were still many limitations to Parliament’s hold on the country: something had to change. Thus was born the New Model Army. Under Sir Thomas Fairfax, a soldier who had fought under the continent under Gustavus Adolphus, this new military force would not be restricted by geography. They would be paid directly by parliament, and they would be recruited based on ability and piety rather than blood. Without this explicit intention, the Parliamentarians created the first merit-based military where advancement was based on experience and ability and not who your father was. The famous redcoats the British wore during the American Revolution were first instituted as a military in the New Model Army. As well, there was a special catechism written for the army to explicitly describe quote, “the justification and the qualification of our soldiers. Written for encouragement and instruction of all that have taken up arms in the cause of God.” Wesley writes, “Never was a more singular army assembled. The officers exercises the office of chaplains; and, during the intervals of action, instructed their troops by sermons, prayers, and exhortations.”

Cromwell was eventually placed in command of the calvary, which Prince Rupert would call the Ironsides, because of their ability to cut through opponent forces like a ship.

With his new Army, Fairfax led a siege on Oxford, but he lifted this in the summer in the hopes of meeting the Royalist forces on the field of battle. A siege is long, a battle decisive, and there have been few battles as strategically decisive as the Battle of Naseby on June 14, 1645. All the munitions and artilary were taken, half of the Royalist veterans are captured or killed. The king’s papers were captured which showed his attempts to recruit Irish Catholic’s to his side. Naseby is like if at Gettysburg, the Union had captured all the Confederate generals and canon.

After Naseby, the first stage of the Civil War was effectively over. Charles had no way back to power but he was also no where close to giving up. The Royalists could no longer compete on the open field. In 1647, after sneaking out of Oxford dressed as a servant, Charles surrendered to a Scottish force who eventually traded him to Parliament for 100,000 pounds.

In 1648, Charles negotiated with the Scottish and an Army came from the north, linking up with Royalists. Charles was excited but Cromwell and the New Model Army were nonplussed. They soundly defeated the Scots at the Battle of Preston. Soldiers were quite angry about this and turned on the king in droves. After victory, the army marched to London. They were now the greatest power in the land. Many members of Parliament feared the radicalism of the Army hoped to still treat with the King and, after what Wesley calls “a violent debate,” the King’s treaty passed. But it was too late. Colonel Pride arrived the next day and surrounded the house of parliament and arrested over forty members of Parliament. With only 60 members left, from then on, the Long Parliament would be called the Rump.

Soon, a high court of justice was called and on January 20, 1649, King Charles was brought to trial. Wesley writes that “the conduct of the king under all these instances of low-bred malice was great, firm, and equal.” (216-17)

Charles was found guilty and beheaded on January 30, 1649. Fifty-Nine men had signed his death-warrant four days earlier. Wesley was harsh on those men but light on the King. He wrote,

All agree that king Charles was a pattern of piety, sobriety, temperance and chastity. He could not endure an obscene or a profane word. He was punctual in his devotions both public and private. He was rigorously just; but is supposed to have been sometimes wanting in sincerity. He was a good father, a good master, and a good husband : yea, a fond one, which was the chief source of his troubles; together with the wrong bias towards arbitrary power, which had been instilled into him from his infancy. But for this, he would have been one of the most accomplished princes, that ever sat upon the English throne.” (221)

With the death of Charles came the death of the monarchy as it had been. The next period is called the Commonwealth, followed by the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660. While the Civil War served as a conflagration on the past in order to build a new England. The Commonwealth and Restoration were two failed attempts to do so. Neither lasted a generation, but both left their deep impress on the England of Wesley’s youth, and shaped a conflict inside the Wesley household between John Wesley’s mother and father, next time on the History of Methodism Podcast.


Diane Purkiss, The English Civil War

Christopher Hibbert, Cavaliers and Roundheads

Charles Harding Firth, The Parallel Between the English and American Civil Wars, 1910.

Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Up, 1965).