In Depth

Why the English Civil Wars are still important today

With Brexit looming and England’s relationship with Ireland at breaking point, can parallels be drawn with the UK’s bloodiest hour?

On 22 August 1642, 376 years ago today, war broke out across the British Isles. The country was torn apart, pitting supporters of the king against the parliamentarians.

By the time the dust settled, just over nine years later, hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians were dead. The parliamentarians set about deconstructing the very framework of English society under the guidance of Oliver Cromwell, the actions of whom changed the political landscape of England for good.

Yet despite their importance, the English Civil Wars - often referred to as a singular “Civil War” - have been largely consigned to history. For example, the national curriculum in England does not feature any compulsory teachings on the conflict.

But debate continues to rage between historians not only about the outcome of the conflict, but on the nature of the conflict itself. Was it a class war? Was it a revolution? And, most importantly, do its effects still matter?

As the UK hurtles toward Brexit, some historians have spotted a number of intriguing parallels between the Civil Wars and the present day. In the past two years, questions have arisen over the sovereignty of parliament, the role of the UK in Europe, and the relationship between England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all of which paved the way for the Civil Wars, and all of which were altered for ever in its wake.

“The lingering influence of the Civil Wars within modern English life is part of something much wider in England’s culture,” writes Martin Kettle in The Guardian. “Few countries are more historically minded in some respects than England. Yet English history – what it was, what is important in it, how it shapes us, and how it is taught – remains a political battleground.” 

What happened?

Fought from 1642 to 1651, the English Civil Wars involved King Charles I battling Parliament for control of the English government. 

The two sides disagreed over the role of the monarchy and the rights of Parliament, with Charles believing in the “divine right of kings”, which stated that his right to rule came directly from God. 

“During the early phases of the war, the Parliamentarians expected to retain Charles as king, but with expanded powers for Parliament,” ThoughtCo says. “Though the Royalists won early victories, the Parliamentarians ultimately triumphed.”

As the conflict progressed, Charles was executed by the parliamentarians and a republic was formed, known as the Commonwealth of England.

This state later became the Protectorate under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell, who subsequently sailed for Ireland to eliminate anti-parliamentarian resistance and occupy the country - one of the most controversial events in British history and regarded by some modern historians as a genocide. 

Charles II was invited to take the throne in 1660 under what has become known as the Restoration, but Cromwell ensured that no monarch would be able to rule without the consent of Parliament. The war had ended the notion of the divine right of kings and laid the groundwork for the modern UK parliament and monarchy.

Why is it still important today?

Aside from the fact that the parliamentarians laid the foundations for modern monarchy-government relations, the English Civil Wars left deep wounds that took centuries to heal, according to historians.

In some cases, parallels can be drawn between the Civil Wars and current wealth inequality in the UK, exemplified by the riches of the royal family.

“The events of the mid-17th century cannot be commemorated without raising uncomfortable questions about hereditary monarchy and, by extension, the nature of British democracy,” historian John Rees writes in History Today. He argues that the royal family “represents an ideological and customary habituation to tradition, however ‘invented’, to social hierarchy and to disparity in wealth and ownership”.

Rees adds: “Since monarchist views are widely regarded as an essential part of conservative (as well as Conservative) thinking, the past is unavoidably seen as a left-right dividing line. One only has to remember the furore over whether the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was singing the national anthem heartily enough to see how this plays in contemporary politics.”

Others argue that Brexit reflects divides left over by the Civil Wars.

“If you compare the areas of England that supported the King with those that voted for Brexit they are startlingly similar,” Reaction.life reports. “In particular, the South West, Wales, the North and Lincolnshire all supported the King. So did Kent, although it was occupied by Parliament throughout the war. All of these areas voted overwhelmingly for Brexit.”

Yet perhaps the most keenly felt parallels can be felt in the ongoing Irish border dispute and England’s fragmented relationship with Scotland.

“The Scottish Government is now forging ahead with its own EU Withdrawal Bill – despite being told it is beyond the Scottish Parliament’s powers,” writes Professor Stefan Collignon for the London School of Economics. “A constitutional conflict seems inevitable.

“And the danger of locking people up behind borders is nowhere more obvious than in Ireland. The UK government has repeatedly stated that it does not want trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Britain, but a hard Brexit is simply not compatible with that option.

“Scotland and Ireland have saved England from itself in the 17th century. It may well turn out, once again, that Scotland and Ireland will keep Britain open and defeat little England.”

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