The personality of Charles I
At the heart of the conflict lay the policies and personality of the King himself. Charles I was a reserved, slightly diffident figure whose abilities as a monarch left a good deal to be desired. During the 1630s, his apparent determination to rule England without the assistance of Parliament, his introduction of all sorts of controversial financial measures and his support for 'high-church' religious practices aroused considerable alarm among his subjects. Many people, particularly the more zealous protestants, or 'puritans', came to fear that Charles was pursuing a hidden agenda: that he planned to remove his people's rights, or 'liberties', and to restore England to the Catholic fold.
When, in 1637, Charles attempted to introduce a new form of prayer book in his northern kingdom of Scotland, a major rebellion erupted. The King did not have enough money to raise an army against the Scots and was therefore forced to summon a Parliament. Yet the men who assembled at Westminster were unwilling to give the King the money he needed until their own grievances had been dealt with. The angry, disaffected members of Parliament seized political control and set about dismantling the hated instruments of the Personal Rule. During 1640-41, Charles I's prerogative courts were abolished, his ministers arrested or forced to flee, and his unpopular financial expedients declared illegal. To many contemporaries, it seemed that the kingdom's political problems were solved. In fact, they were only just beginning.
Among the peerage and the greater gentry, a majority favoured the King: partly, perhaps, because they felt bound to him by ties of personal loyalty, mainly because they saw him as the chief guarantor of the established social order. Similar considerations influenced the lesser gentry. Among this group, too, it seems probable that supporters of the Crown outnumbered supporters of the Parliament, though by a considerably narrower margin. Beneath the level of the gentry it is harder to make definite connections between social status and political allegiance. Many historians believe that the 'middling sort' of people were more inclined to favour Parliament than the King because Parliament's party was less rigidly hierarchical - and this may well have been so. Yet, for the vast majority of ordinary men and women, it was factors other than those of 'class' or 'rank' which determined the eventual choice of sides.
Mercenaries and conscripts
Some had no particular preference for either party, but joined up with the first army which happened to come along, in the hope of pay and plunder. Captain Carlo Fantom, one of the hundreds of foreign mercenaries who flocked to England during the Civil War, frankly admitted that 'I care not for your Cause, I... fight for your halfe-crowne[s], and your handsome woemen'. Others found themselves forced to fight when they would much rather have stayed at home: tenants called out by their landlords, for example, and village rogues conscripted by parish constables who were anxious to see them gone. Some were even compelled to fight at gunpoint. In Lancashire, the Royalists press-ganged crowds of local men and marched them away to attack the Parliamentarian garrison at Bolton, 'the reare being brought up with troopers that had commission to shoot such as lagged behind, so as the poor countrymen ... [were] in a dilemma of death, either by the troopers if they went not on, or by the... shot of the towne if they did'.
Ideological and ethnic divisions
Yet for every man who enlisted under compulsion, or for purely mercenary reasons, there was another who did so because he sincerely believed in what he was doing. One of the best definitions of the ideological division which lay at the heart of the Civil War was given by the Worcestershire clergyman, Richard Baxter. 'The generality of the people... who were then called puritans, precisians, religious persons', Baxter wrote, those 'that used to talk of God, and heaven, and scripture, and holiness... adhered to the Parliament. And on the other side... [those] that were not so precise and strict against an oath, or gaming, or plays, or drinking nor troubled themselves so much about the matters of God and the world to come [adhered to the King]'. Baxter's view was biased, of course. Royalist sympathisers would have countered that it was not that they were irreligious, but that they remained true to a purer, more traditional form of Protestantism: one which was untainted by puritan 'zeal'. Nevertheless, Baxter's words convey an essential truth. Across the country as a whole, it was religion which ultimately divided the two parties. Puritans everywhere supported the Parliament, more conservative protestants - together with the few Catholics - supported the King.
Beneath the all important religious divisions lurked anxieties about nationhood and ethnicity. Parliament set out, from the very first, to portray itself as the party of 'Englishness', and although this image played well throughout most of the kingdom, it provoked a counter-reaction in 'Celtic' Cornwall and Wales. Here, the overwhelming majority of the population came out for the King in 1642, and throughout the rest of the war these two regions remained Charles I's most important 'magazines of men'. Cornish and Welsh troops were vital to the Royalist war effort, but the King's reliance upon them reinforced his opponents' claims that the royalist party was fundamentally 'un-English'. So did Charles' use of soldiers brought over from Ireland, many of whom, the Parliamentarians maintained, were Catholics. During the first half of the war, Parliament's close links with the Scots tended to undermine the claim that Parliament's cause was the cause of England itself - and anti-Scottish feeling undoubtedly helped to bring many English men and women into the King's camp. Once the relationship between Parliament and the Scots started to deteriorate in 1645, however, and the King began to court the Scots in his turn, this situation changed.
The Traditional View
In the 19th century, Whig[an error occurred while processing this directive] historians saw the Civil War as the inevitable outcome of England's long-term march towards Protestantism and democracy. They were opposed by Tory historians [Tory historians: Historians who were supporters of the monarchy.] historians, who portrayed Charles as the defender of the Church of England, wrongly attacked by an aggressive Parliament.
The Marxist historians
Marxist[an error occurred while processing this directive] historians believe that all history is a class war. They suggested that the Civil War was a war of the middle class merchants and tradesmen against the gentry. The conflict was not a 'civil war', but 'the English Revolution', because it was the time when the capitalist [capitalism: An economic system based on privately owned, as opposed to state-controlled, businesses and the creation of profit.] middle class seized power in England.
The Revisionists[an error occurred while processing this directive] suggested that the Civil War was not the result of long-term developments at all. The Civil War flared up suddenly in 1642, when relations broke down between an incompetent king and the aggressive leaders of the Long Parliament.
Recently, historians have pointed out that the Civil War was not the 'English Civil War' at all, but involved the whole of the British Isles.
There have been two significant films about the Civil War, both of which concentrate on the personality of Oliver Cromwell rather than the events of the Civil War.
The 1980s BBC TV series By the Sword Divided showed the effects of the war on two families, one of which supported King Charles I, the other Parliament.
Whose side would you have been on – king or Parliament? What was it really about – the power of the king, religion, or was it just 'a misunderstanding'? Was it a great moment in Britain's constitutional [constitution: A set of laws by which a country is governed.] history, or a tragic waste of human life?