Published On: Tue, Nov 12th, 2013

Lessons from the English Civil War / English Revolution

The English Civil War, or English Revolution, which kicked off in 1642, is perhaps the most important of all revolutions in modern European history.  What took place here provided the blueprint for many revolutions in the future.

{Editor’s note: This is part of a longer series on “What does it take to get Europeans to have a revolution?“}

Ultimately, this revolution was about a struggle for control over a country.  On one side you had Charles I, King of England, Scotland and Ireland, who wanted to rule the country without interference from Parliament.  On the other side you had Parliament, which, by long tradition and law, was supposed to have significant influence over the governing of the country – including raising taxes- but had been ignored and had its power circumvented by King Charles I.

Before any reader gets carried away thinking that this was about democracy vs monarchy, think again. Parliament was the representative body of the rich and the powerful. Not the common man. The English Civil War was paid for by Parliament on one side, who offered a reasonably reliable salary to the toiling classes who would become their soldiers, and the King on the other side, who was increasingly unable to pay his soldiers.  He lost.

Parliament was fed up with being ignored and decided to fight the legitimate ruler of the country for control.  Parliament won.  Eventually the King was beheaded and Parliament took over.  But Parliament was not sure about what to do after it had won: their initial war aims had been simple- get the King to share power with them like he was legally obliged to do.

In the end, they handed over power to their commander in chief, Oliver Cromwell, who had led the Parliamentary side to victory.  Ironically, he ended up wielding more personal power than Charles I had ever held.  Parliament was not happy with this and so after Cromwell’s death they invited Charles’ son back to England to restore the monarchy with a clear understanding that he would rule in conjunction with Parliament and not as a divinely appointed absolute monarch.  Faced with a choice of permanent exile or becoming king, albeit with strings attached, Charles’ son agreed to their demands. In 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II was proclaimed King.

So the lesson of the English Civil War was not that the English were particularly keen on getting rid of the monarchy.  Rather it was that the upper middle class, who controlled Parliament, were fed up of being ignored by the monarchy and wanted a real voice and real governing power.  That was enough.

To read more about European Revolutions, click here.

History Future Now, ebook edition, is now available from the Apple iBookstore!  So if you have a iPad or iPhone click on this link to download it.  It is currently on at a special offer of 99c.   The Kindle version has been submitted to Amazon and should be available shortly.

HFN on Twitter