4 Key Figures of the English Civil War

For 8 years between 1642 and 1650 England was torn apart by civil war. These were years that would leave a king dead and a country in tatters, but their legacy is still being felt today. Here are four individuals which shaped this course of events.

1. Charles I

We remember Charles as the first and only King to be executed in this country. Others had been deposed and quietly murdered, in the past, but this was the first one to have a full trial and execution.

A portrait of Charles I by Sir Anthony Van Dycke.

A portrait of Charles I by Sir Anthony Van Dycke.

Charles was marked by a sense of divine right, arrogance, an inability to compromise and most of all – at crucial times – a weakness of character. First he antagonised Parliament by his attempts to rule without them throughout the 1630s.

When war with the Scots forced him to call them back, he found himself forced to go along with a series of measures including the arrest of some of his key advisors. However, as soon as the opportunity arose, he attempted to have his opponents arrested. When that failed he panicked and believing his life to be in danger, fled to the North and raised an army.

Even after his defeat and capture in the first Civil War he still could have regained his throne if he had only recognised the weakness of his own position. Instead he escaped and attempted to form an alliance with the Scots. This sealed his fate and convinced Parliament that England would never know peace while their King lived.

2. Prince Rupert

Rupert was the nephew of Charles I and the leader of the Royalist army – also known as the Cavaliers. Although extremely young he was already a veteran of the 30 Years War and would use all this experience in England. He was a brilliant military tactician willing to do anything and everything if it would help him to win

A painting of Prince Rupert taken shortly after  the war.

A painting of Prince Rupert taken shortly after the war..

He fell out with the King after the Battle of Naseby when he advised the King to make terms with Parliament. Believing he could still win, Charles refused. Rupert would later surrender Bristol to the parliamentarians – an act which would see him stripped of his commissions. He left England for exile in Holland, but received naval commissions after the restoration and would be involved in the Anglo Dutch Wars.

3. John Pym

John Pym was perhaps one of the leading voices of opposition to the King’s policies in Parliament. He first rose to prominence during what became known as the ‘Short Parliament’ of 1640 when he delivered a brilliant speech setting out all the grievances against the King.

Initially he didn’t support action against the King or his counsellors, but the dissolution of Parliament changed all that. He was determined to see Parliament recalled. He travelled the country setting out the parliamentarians case, and organised a petition setting out the grievances. When Parliament was recalled he was their acknowledged leader.

John Pym who was the focal point of early opposition in parliament.

John Pym who was the focal point of early opposition in Parliament.

Pym would be instrumental in proceedings which saw William Laud and the Earl of Strafford charged with treason, as well as a document called the Grand Remonstrance which set out a list of over 200 grievances against the King.

He was among five members of Parliament that Charles tried to arrest and when Charles fled the city he returned in triumph with some dubbing him ‘King Pym’.

During the war he sought negotiations with the Royalists on the one hand, while making sure the finances and infrastructure was in place for Parliament to fight a war on the other. With the tide seemingly turning against Parliament, his final achievement was to sign a covenant with the Scots, securing their military support . He died of cancer shortly afterwards.

4. Oliver Cromwell

More than anyone else, Oliver Cromwell has come to symbolise the civil war. This gruff, no-nonsense politician had been a member of Parliament since 1628 and was again elected to represent Cambridge in the short and long Parliaments of 1640.

When war broke out he lacked military experience but quickly demonstrated a knack for it. He rose through the ranks and led a formidable cavalry force known as the Ironsides. He convinced Parliament to establish a professional fighting force which became known as the New Model Army. He would later be a prime mover in the trial and execution of the King in 1649 and was one of the leading names in the new Republic.

Oliver Cromwell's statue which stands outside the Houses of Parliament.

Oliver Cromwell’s statue which stands outside the Houses of Parliament.

In 1649 he commanded the army which put down resistance in Ireland. The ferocity with which he did so means he is still remembered with hatred on that side of the Irish Sea.

Meanwhile he was to see that governing could be difficult in itself. In 1653, frustrated at the lack of progress, he dissolved Parliament and declared himself Lord Protector. He was offered the crown in 1657 but refused it. Even so he ruled as King in all but name until his death.

Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.