The Wars of the Three Kingdoms,[b] sometimes known as the British Civil Wars,[c][d] formed an intertwined series of conflicts that took place in the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1639 and 1651. The English Civil War proper has become the best-known of these conflicts; it included the abolition of the monarchy and the execution of the kingdoms' monarch, Charles I, by the English Parliament in 1649.
The history of these wars is often extended to include the uprisings and conflicts that continued through the 1650s until the English Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and sometimes to include Venner's uprising the following year. The wars were the outcome of broadly set tensions over religious and civil issues. Religious disputes centred on whether religion was to be dictated by the monarch or by choice, the conscience of the individual, with many people feeling that they ought to have freedom of religion (freedom of conscience). The related civil question was settling the extent to which the king's rule was to be constrained by Parliament--in particular the right to raise taxes and armed forces without consent of the Parliament.
The wars also had elements of national conflict, as Ireland and Scotland rebelled against England's primacy within the Three Kingdoms. The broad and durable victory of the English Parliament--ultimately (under Oliver Cromwell and the Army) overcoming the king, the Irish and the Scots, and then outlasting the Cromwellian Protectorate itself--helped establish the future of Great Britain and Ireland as a constitutional monarchy with political power centred on the Parliament in London.
These wars included the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640; the Irish Rebellion of 1641; Confederate Ireland, 1642-1649; the Scottish Civil War of 1644-1645; and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649 (collectively the Eleven Years War or Irish Confederate Wars); and the First, Second and Third English Civil Wars of 1642-1646, 1648-1649 and 1650-1651.
After 1541, monarchs of England styled their Irish territory as also a Kingdom--replacing the Lordship of Ireland--and ruled there with the assistance of a separate Irish Parliament, while Henry VIII integrated Wales more closely into the Kingdom of England. Scotland, the third separate kingdom, was governed by the House of Stuart.
Via the English Reformation, King Henry VIII made himself head of the Protestant Church of England and outlawed Catholicism in England and Wales. In the course of the 16th century Protestantism became intimately associated with national identity in England: English folk in general saw Catholicism as the national enemy, especially as it was embodied in the rivals France and Spain. But Catholicism remained the religion of most people in Ireland; for many Irish it was a symbol of native resistance to the Tudor conquest/reconquest of Ireland in 1541.
In the Kingdom of Scotland the Protestant Reformation was a popular movement led by John Knox. The Scottish Parliament legislated for a national Presbyterian church--namely the Church of Scotland or the "Kirk"--and the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate in favour of her son James VI of Scotland. James grew up under a regency disputed between Catholic and Protestant factions; when he took power he aspired to be a "universal King" favouring the English Episcopalian system of bishops appointed by the king. In 1584, he introduced bishops into the Church of Scotland, but met with vigorous opposition, and he had to concede that the General Assembly would continue running the church without his say.
The personal union of the three kingdoms under one monarch came about when King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I to the English throne in 1603, when he also became King James I of England and of Ireland. In 1625, Charles I succeeded his father, and marked three main concerns regarding England and Wales: how to fund his government, how to reform the church, and how to limit (the English) Parliament's interference in his rule. At that time he showed little interest in his other two kingdoms, Scotland and Ireland.
James VI remained Protestant, taking care to maintain his hopes of succession to the English throne. He duly became James I of England in 1603 and moved to London. His diplomatic and political skills now concentrated fully in dealing with the English Court and Parliament--at the same time running Scotland by writing instructions to the Privy Council of Scotland and controlling the Parliament of Scotland through the Lords of the Articles. He contravened the sovereign authority of the Scottish General Assembly and stopped it from meeting, then increased the number of bishops in the Church of Scotland. In 1618 he held a General Assembly and pushed through Five Articles of Episcopalian practices, which were widely boycotted.
After his death in 1625, James was succeeded by his son Charles I, who was crowned in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh--the Scottish coronation--in 1633, with full Anglican rites. Charles was less skillful or restrained than his father; his attempts to enforce Anglican practices in the Church of Scotland created opposition that reached a flashpoint when he introduced the Book of Common Prayer. His confrontation with the Scots came to a head in 1639, when he tried and failed to coerce Scotland by military means, the Bishops' wars.
Charles shared his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings, and his persistent assertion of this standard seriously disrupted relations between the Crown and the English Parliament. The Church of England remained dominant, but a powerful Puritan minority, represented by about one third of Parliament, began to assert themselves; their religious precepts had much in common with the Presbyterian Scots.
The English Parliament and the king had repeated disputes over taxation, military expenditures and the role of the Parliament in government. While James I had held much the same opinions as his son regarding Royal Prerogatives, he had discretion and charisma enough to often persuade Parliamentarians to his thinking. Charles had no such skill in political or human management; faced with multiple crises during 1639-1642, he failed to prevent his kingdoms from sliding into civil war. When Charles approached the Parliament to pay for a campaign against the Scots, they refused; they then declared themselves to be permanently in session--the Long Parliament--and soon presented Charles a long list of civil and religious grievances requiring his remedy before they approved any new legislation.
Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Ireland (proclaimed such in 1541 but only fully conquered for the Crown in 1603), tensions had also begun to mount. Thomas Wentworth, Charles I's Lord Deputy of Ireland, angered Roman Catholics by enforcing new taxes while denying them full rights as subjects; he further antagonised the native Irish Catholics by repeated initiatives to confiscate and transfer their lands to English colonists. Conditions became explosive in 1639 when Wentworth offered Irish Catholics some reforms in return for them raising and funding an Irish army (led by Protestant officers) to put down the Scottish rebellion. The idea of an Irish Catholic army enforcing what many saw as already tyrannical government horrified both the Scottish and the English Parliaments, who in response threatened to invade Ireland.
Modern historians have emphasised the lack of inevitability of the civil wars, noting that the sides resorted to "violence first" in situations marked by mutual distrust and paranoia. Charles' initial failure to quickly end the Bishops' Wars informed the antagonists that force could serve them better than negotiation.
In Ireland, alienated by English Protestant domination and frightened by the rhetoric of the English and Scottish Parliaments, a small group of Irish conspirators launched the Irish Rebellion of 1641, ostensibly in support of the "King's Rights". The rising featured widespread assaults on Protestant communities in Ireland. In England and Scotland, rumours spread that the killings had the king's sanction, which, for many, foreshadowed their own fate if the king's Irish troops landed in Britain. Thus the English Parliament refused to pay for a royal army to put down the rebellion in Ireland; instead Parliament decided to raise its own armed forces. The king did likewise, rallying those Royalists (some of them members of Parliament) who believed their fortunes were best served by loyalty to the king.
The English Civil War ignited in 1642. Scottish Covenanters (as Presbyterians there called themselves) joined forces with the English Parliament in late 1643 and played a major role in the Parliamentary victory. Over more than two years the king's forces were ground down by the efficiency of those of Parliament, including the New Model Army, backed as they were by the financial muscle of the City of London. On 5 May 1646 at Southwell, Charles I surrendered to the Scottish army besieging Newark-on-Trent. What remained of the English and Welsh Royalist armies and garrisons surrendered piecemeal over the next few months.
Meanwhile, the rebellious Irish Catholics formed their own government--Confederate Ireland--intending to help the Royalists in return for religious toleration and political autonomy. Troops from England and Scotland fought in Ireland, and Irish Confederate troops mounted an expedition to Scotland in 1644, sparking the Scottish Civil War. There, the Royalists gained a series of victories in 1644-1645, but were crushed after the main Covenanter armies returned to Scotland upon the end of the first English Civil War.
The Scots handed Charles over to the English and returned to Scotland, the English Parliament having paid them a large sum for their expenses in the English campaign. After his surrender, Charles was approached by the Scots, the Presbyterians in the English Parliament, and the Grandees of the New Model Army, all attempting to reach an accommodation with him and among themselves that would gain the peace while preserving the crown. But now, a breach between the New Model Army and Parliament widened day by day, until the Presbyterians in Parliament, with allies among the Scots and the remaining Royalists, saw themselves strong enough to challenge the Army, which began the Second English Civil War.
The New Model Army vanquished the English Royalist and Parliamentarians, and their Scottish Engager allies. On account of his secret machinations with the Scottish Engagers, Charles was charged with treason against England. Subsequently, the Grandees and their civilian supporters would not reconcile with the king or the Presbyterian majority in Parliament. The Grandees acted; soldiers were used to purge the English Parliament of those who opposed the Army. The resultant Rump Parliament of the Long Parliament then passed enabling legislation for putting Charles I on trial for treason. He was found guilty of treason against the English commons and was executed on 30 January 1649.
After the execution of King Charles I the Rump Parliament passed a series of acts declaring England a republic and that the House of Commons--without the House of Lords--would sit as the legislature and a Council of State would act as the executive power. In the other two kingdoms the execution of Charles caused the warring parties to unite, and they recognised Charles II as king of Great Britain, France and Ireland, which would lead to a Third English Civil War.
To deal with the threat to the English Commonwealth posed by the two kingdoms (Ireland and Scotland), the Rump Parliament first charged Cromwell to invade and subdue Ireland. In August 1649, he landed an English army at Rathmines shortly after the Siege of Dublin was abandoned by the Royalists following the Battle of Rathmines. Then, in late May 1650, Cromwell left one army to continue the Irish conquest and returned to England and to take command of a second English army preparing to invade Scotland. On 3 September 1650, he defeated the Scottish Covenanters at the Battle of Dunbar; his forces then occupied Edinburgh and Scotland south of the River Forth. Cromwell was advancing the bulk of his army over the Forth towards Stirling, when Charles II, commanding a Scottish Royalist army, stole the march on the English commander and invaded England from his base in Scotland. Cromwell divided his forces, leaving part in Scotland to complete the conquest there, then led the rest south in pursuit of Charles.
The Royalist army failed to gather much support from English Royalists as it moved south into England; so, instead of heading directly towards London and certain defeat, Charles aimed for Worcester in hopes that Wales and the West and Midlands of England would rise against the Commonwealth. This didn't happen, and one year to the day after the Battle of Dunbar the New Model Army and English militia regiments vanquished the last Royalist army of the English Civil War at the Battle of Worcester, on 3 September 1651. It was the last and most decisive battle in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Having defeated all organized opposition, the Grandees of the Parliamentary New Model Army and their civilian supporters dominated the politics of all three nations for the next nine years (see Interregnum (1649-1660)). As for England, the Rump Parliament had already decreed it was a republic and a Commonwealth; but Ireland and Scotland were now ruled by military governors, even as constituent representatives from both nations were seated in the Rump Parliament of the Protectorate--all which were dominated by Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. When Cromwell died in 1658, control of the Commonwealth became unstable, until in early 1660, General George Monck, commanding English occupation forces in Scotland, ordered his troops from the Coldstream barracks, marched them south into England, and seized control of London by February 1660. There he accumulated allies and agreements among the English and London establishments including the newly constituted Convention Parliament, to which Monck was elected a member. First a Royalist campaigner, then a Parliamentary soldier, he now contrived for the Restoration of the monarchy; Monck arranged that the Convention Parliament would invite Charles II to return as king of the three realms--which was done by act of Parliament on 1 May 1660.
The Wars of the Three Kingdoms pre-figured many of the changes that ultimately would shape modern Britain, but in the short term, the conflicts actually resolved little for the kingdoms and peoples of the times. The English Commonwealth did achieve a notable compromise between monarchy and a republic, even one that survived destabilizing issues for nearly the next two hundred years. In practice, Oliver Cromwell exercised political power through his control over Parliament's military forces, but his legal position--and provisions for his succession--remained unclear, even after he became Lord Protector. None of the several constitutions proposed during this period were realized. Thus the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the Parliamentarians--the wars' victors--left no significant new forms of government in place after their time.
Still, in the long term, two abiding legacies of British democracy were established during this period:
English Protestants experienced religious freedom during the Interregnum, but there was none for English Roman Catholics. During the term of their control, the Presbyterian partisans abolished the Church of England and the House of Lords. Cromwell denounced the Rump Parliament and dissolved it by force, but he failed to establish an acceptable alternative. Nor did he and his supporters move in the direction of popular democracy, as the more radical Parliamentarians (the Levellers) wanted.
During the Interregnum, the New Model Army occupied Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, the new government confiscated almost all lands belonging to Irish Catholics as punishment for the rebellion of 1641; harsh Penal Laws also restricted this community. Thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers settled in Ireland on confiscated lands. The Commonwealth abolished the Parliaments of Ireland and Scotland. In theory, these countries had representation in the English Parliament, but as this body never held real powers, representation was ineffective. When Cromwell died in 1658 the Commonwealth fell apart--but without major violence. Historians record that adroit politicians of the time, especially George Monck, prevailed over the looming crisis; Monck in particular was deemed the victor sine sanguine, i.e., "without blood", of the Restoration crisis. And in 1660, Charles II was restored as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Under the English Restoration the political system returned to the antebellum constitutional position. Although Charles II's Declaration of Breda, April 1660, offering reconciliation and forgiveness, had promised a general pardon for crimes committed during the English Civil War, the new régime executed or imprisoned for life those directly involved in the regicide of Charles I. Royalists dug up Cromwell's corpse and performed a posthumous execution. Those religious and political radicals held responsible for the wars suffered harsh repression. Scotland and Ireland regained their Parliaments and some Irish retrieved confiscated lands; the New Model Army was disbanded. However, the issues that had caused the wars--religion, the powers of Parliament vis-á-vis the king, and the relationships between the three kingdoms--remained unresolved, postponed actually, to re-emerge as matters fought over again leading to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Only after this later time did the larger features of modern Britain foreshadowed in the civil wars emerge permanently, namely: a Protestant constitutional monarchy, and with a strong standing army under civilian control.