English civil war: The First Civil War

The followers of king and Parliament did not represent two absolutely distinct social groups, as the popular conception of the royalist Cavaliers and the parliamentary Roundheads would indicate. However, it is true that the parliamentary, or Puritan, group drew much of its strength from the gentry and from the merchant classes and artisans of London, Norwich, Hull, Plymouth, and Gloucester; it centered in the southeastern counties and had control of the fleet. The majority of the great nobles followed the king, who had the support of most Anglicans and Roman Catholics; geographically the royalist strength centered in the north and west.

The first major engagement of the armies at Edgehill (Oct. 23, 1642) was a drawn battle. Charles then established himself at Oxford. The royalist forces gained ground in the north and west, although repeated attempts by the king to advance on London proved abortive. The indecisive engagements of 1643 were remarkable mainly for the emergence of Oliver Cromwell, an inconspicuous member of the Long Parliament, to military prominence with his own regiment of godly men, soon to become famous as the Ironsides.

Futile negotiations for peace had been conducted at Oxford early in 1643, and in Sept., 1643, Parliament took a decisive step by securing the alliance of the Presbyterian Scots in accepting the Solemn League and Covenant. Scottish aid was obtained only by a promise to submit England to Presbyterianism, which was soon to produce a reaction from the Independents and other sectarians (particularly in the army) who opposed the idea of any centralized national church.

The war now entered a new phase. A Scottish army, under Alexander Leslie, 1st earl of Leven, advanced into Yorkshire early in 1644 and gave aid to the parliamentary army in the north. Charles's nephew, the brilliant and dashing Prince Rupert, did something to stem royalist losses by retaking Newark, but his gains were temporary. His campaign to relieve the besieged York led to the battle of Marston Moor (July 2, 1644), in which Cromwell and Leslie inflicted a crushing defeat on the royalists. Charles managed to cut off Essex in the southwest but shortly thereafter met parliamentary troops from the north in an indecisive engagement at Newbury.

To stem the rising dissension among parliamentary leaders, Cromwell sponsored in Parliament the Self-Denying Ordinance, by which all members of Parliament were compelled to resign their commands, and the parliamentary army was reorganized (1644–45) into the New Model Army. Thomas Fairfax (later 3d Baron Fairfax of Cameron) became the commander in chief.

After further futile peace negotiations at Uxbridge, Charles, hoping to join the forces under James Graham, marquess of Montrose, moved north and stormed Leicester. He met Cromwell in a sharp battle at Naseby (June 14, 1645). This battle cost the king a large part of his army and rendered the royalist cause hopeless. Unable to join Montrose (who was defeated by Leslie in Scotland) and thwarted in his attempts to secure aid from Ireland or the Continent, the king was unable to halt the steady losses of his party and finally was compelled to surrender himself to the Scots, who made him reassuring but vague promises. The first civil war came to an end when Oxford surrendered in June, 1646.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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