The great civil war between King Charles and his English Parliament began in August, 1642, when the King "raised his standard" at Nottingham. It did not really end until Charles was beheaded in 1649, and a Commonwealth or republic was set up.
In this war, the great majority of the nobles and the gentry, with their dependents, took the side of the King. The middle classes—the traders and manufacturers of the towns, and most of the small farmers—upheld the cause of Parliament. The King's supporters, for the most part, believed in the Church of England, and loved a gay life and fine clothes. They were called "Cavaliers." The supporters of Parliament were mainly sober-minded Puritans, plain in their lives and in their dress. They were called "Roundheads," from their refusal to wear the "lovelock," which Cavaliers wore curling down over one shoulder.
The east and south—which were then the most populous, industrious, and wealthy parts of England—generally sided with Parliament. The north and west went with the King. Oxford, the seat of England's greatest university, was the royalist headquarters. Parliament controlled London, the navy, most of the seaports, and the law-making and taxing part of the government. From the beginning its resources were much greater than those of the King. Both sides sought aid outside of England. Parliament secured an army from the Scots. The King's efforts to get men from Ireland and the Continent profited him very little.
In the beginning of the war, Charles gained some successes, chiefly because the Cavaliers were better soldiers than the troops which Parliament raised. But among the members of Parliament was a plain, earnest, country squire, named Oliver Cromwell. He had an unsuspected genius for war, and soon saw what was the trouble with the Parliament's army.
"Your troops," he told his cousin, John Hampden, "are most of them old decayed serving men and tapsters, and such kind of fellows; and their troops are gentlemen's sons and persons of quality. Do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows will ever be able to encounter gentlemen that have honor, and courage, and resolution in them? You must get men of a spirit that is likely to go as far as gentlemen will go, or else you will be beaten still."
Setting to work on this principle, Cromwell organized his famous body of troops, known as the "Ironsides." The name was first given to Cromwell himself, by one of the King's generals, and later extended to his troops. They were sternly Puritan men, like their commander, who "knew what they fought for and loved what they knew." And from the time when Cromwell and his Ironsides began to be prominent in the war, the balance of victory inclined in Parliament's favor.
The first great Parliamentary victory was won in July, 1644, at Marston Moor, in the north of England. An army of Scots and Parliamentarians had laid siege to the city of York. Charles ordered his nephew, Prince Rupert—a dashing cavalry general—to go to its deliverance. As Rupert approached, the Scots and Parliament men drew back, and took their stand on a long ridge above Marston Moor. When Rupert arrived at its foot, it was already seven o'clock in the evening of a long summer day. He decided not to begin the attack until morning, and he and his men began to eat such supper as they had with them.
But suddenly, while the Royalists were thus engaged, the Parliament men rushed down the hill and attacked them.
Rupert's army fought bravely, but they were outnumbered and in disorder. On the side of Parliament, Cromwell and his Ironsides did especial service.
"It had all the evidence," Cromwell wrote after the battle, "of an absolute victory, obtained by the Lord's blessing upon the godly party. We never charged but that we routed the enemy. God made them as stubble to our swords."
Part of Cromwell's Letter After Naseby
By this battle, Rupert's army was practically destroyed. York was forced to surrender, and almost all the north of England passed from the control of the King to that of Parliament.
After Marston Moor, the army of Parliament was reorganized on a more Puritan basis. Cromwell, as commander of the cavalry, now took more and more a leading part.
Another great battle was fought the next year at Naseby, in central England. Rupert, who was this time accompanied by the King, was again defeated, and again the victory was mainly due to Cromwell and his Ironsides. "The stake played for at Naseby," says a great historian, "was the crown of England, and Charles had lost it." He was left without an army and his surrender became only a question of a little time. Worse than the loss of his army was the capture of Charles's papers, containing copies of his letters to his wife. These showed that in his negotiations with Parliament he was not sincere, and that he had no intention of making a lasting peace with his rebellious subjects.
Some months after the battle of Naseby, Charles set out from Oxford in disguise. He arrived at the camp of the Scots, and surrendered to them.
Charles thought his Scottish subjects would offer him better terms than his English ones. But the Scots, in their dealings with him, found Charles so obstinate and tricky, that at last they turned him over to the agents of the English Parliament, and marched off to their homes.
Then Parliament tried its hand at negotiating with Charles. At this time Parliament was ruled by men who wanted to establish the Presbyterian form of religion in England, and persecute all other denominations. The army, on the other hand, was made up mainly of "Independents," who held radical religious ideas. They did not want any church supported by the state; but they did want equal toleration for all sects of Christians, except Roman Catholics and perhaps Episcopalians. In addition, the army was angry because Parliament tried to dismiss it without giving it the many months of back pay which were due.
In these circumstances Charles made the fatal mistake of trying to play off Parliament against the army. The result was that the army took his custody into its own hands. Late one night an officer knocked at the door of Charles's bedroom, with a small squad of soldiers, and told him that he must go with them to some other place.
"What commission have you to take me?" asked Charles, fearing that some harm might be intended.
"Here's my commission," replied the officer, pointing to the soldiers behind him.
Thus Charles passed from the custody of Parliament into that of the army. Then they tried to get him to agree to fair terms. But Charles could not understand that things were not as they had been, and that he must now make up his mind to accept important changes in the government of both church and state.
"You cannot do without me," he said to the army leaders. "You will fall to ruin if I do not sustain you."
He clung blindly to the belief that an hereditary King was absolutely necessary to England, and that if he only held out long enough he would surely have his way. So he rejected the army's proposals.
In November, 1647, Charles succeeded in escaping from Hampton Court, where he was kept in honorable captivity, to a castle in the Isle of Wight. There he concluded a treaty with the Scots by which he agreed to establish the Presbyterian worship in England for three years, and to put down the religious sects to which most of the army belonged. On these terms the Scots agreed to send a new army into England—this time to make war on their former allies, and to restore Charles to his English throne.
When the Scots came into England, Cromwell succeeded in defeating them, in the battle of Preston, after three days' hard fighting. The chief result of this new war was to bring the army leaders at last to the grim determination to put the King to death.
"If ever the Lord brings us back again in peace," they said on setting out for the war, "it is our duty to call Charles Stuart, that man of blood, to an account for the blood he has shed, and the mischief he has done against the Lord's cause and people in these poor nations."
But, in order to give any form of law to the trial of the King, Parliament must act, and to get such action the army must drive out the Presbyterians from that body and secure control of it for the radical sects which they themselves represented. Accordingly, in December, 1648, an officer named Colonel Pride took his stand before the doors of Parliament, and "purged" that body by arresting or turning back, as they sought to enter, 143 of its members. After this, many other members of their own accord ceased to attend Parliament. Thus the army got control of Parliament, and could pass what measures it wished.
To try the King, a High Court of Justice was appointed, consisting of 135 members. Only 65 members of this court appeared at the trial, and only 59 of these signed the sentence which it passed against the King.
The charge against Charles was that he had tried to overturn the liberties of the nation, and to introduce absolute government; and that he had made war against the Parliament and kingdom. He replied by denying that the court had any right to try him. In spite of this plea, the trial went on. After sitting seven days, the court found him guilty of being "a tyrant, traitor, murderer, and public enemy to the good people of this kingdom," and sentenced him to death.
Three days later, on January 30, 1649—a cold and wintry day—the sentence was publicly carried out. Charles's last acts were full of bravery and dignity.
"I fear not death," he said. "Death is not terrible to me. I bless my God I am prepared."
The scaffold was erected before the King's palace of Whitehall, in London. The great crowd of people which gathered about it showed their sympathy for the King, and disapproval of the sentence, by groans of pity and horror; and strong guards of soldiers were necessary, there and throughout London, to preserve order. Large numbers who had condemned the King's policies disapproved of his execution. A poet, who was of this number, thus describes Charles's last moments:
"He nothing common did or mean,
Upon that memorable scene,
But with his keener eye
That axe's edge did try;
Nor called the gods with vulgar spite
To vindicate his helpless right,
But bowed his comely head
Down, as upon a bed."
The army, with the iron hand of force, had overthrown Parliament and King. It remained for them, if they could, to reconstruct on those ruins a government which should be safe and free.