THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR DEFINED

 

Any writer who refers to the events of the English Civil War runs into an immediate definitional controversy. Authors inevitably have to apologize for using a description of events that doesn’t suit everyone’s tastes. Many people will immediately remind the author calling the conflict ‘The English Civil War’ of the involvement of the Scots, and the Irish. It is often rightly said that the English Civil War began and ended in Scotland. Many commentators prefer to call the events The Wars Of The Three Kingdoms, but even that forgets the fighting that went on in Wales. This was not a battle for Welsh identity – the fighting crossed the English-Welsh borders into predominantly Royalist Wales many times. Even the Channel Isles, Scillies, and Orkney Isles were embroiled in the conflict.  Charles 1st spent most of the second Civil War virtually under house arrest on the Isle of Wight.

 

The Great Rebellion is another alternative label for the conflict, though that can be confusing given that the troubles swamping Ireland at this time were known as The Great Irish Rebellion. The conflict has also been called the English (or British) Revolution, though it is uncertain how many of the people, and intellectuals understood how much of the King’s powers they would ultimately be taking – many Parliamentarians were shocked as it became apparent that Cromwell and his allies were going to go as far as the execution of the monarch and transformation of Britain into a republican state. The Scots and Irish were understandably shocked by the regicide, given that Charles was their King too. The decision to take the King’s head was made entirely in England. Cromwell is not likely to have had such an objective from the outset of hostilities. It was Charles’s initiation of the second Civil War / Rebellion / counter –revolution, etc that made many realize that any peace offerings he made were only superficial and that he would do anything he could from expedience to recover full power. His death was recognition that Charles could not be trusted not to start a fresh war at the earliest opportunity.

 

Another problem is created by using the word ‘War’ in a singular rather than plural (Wars) context. The full story of the period involves the two Anglo-Scots Bishops Wars, and the Irish Rebellion, and no less than three major cross border civil wars, broken apart by periods of peace. The Scots and Irish who came to fight on English soil did not see their involvement there as a Civil War, while the fighting on their own soil was a Civil War (always anything but Civil of course). Most of the events involved Charles 1st, while the last full scale war of the period involved the doomed attempts of Charles 2cd to reclaim his throne by force.

 

Though many alternative labels exist, few are satisfactory the most common search engine or library category under which studies of the period are found is the English Civil War. Some studies do exclusively look at the English events, focusing on the key battles like Marston Moor and Naseby. The Scottish and Irish events are often relegated to brackets or footnotes. Great fighters like Montrose get little mention in some studies.  Worse, many book on the Scottish and / or Irish events do similar to the English elements the struggles. A few authors do try to cover all the events in context, and from this emerges the War Of The Three Kingdoms label – Shorthand for The English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh Civil War.

 

I generally use the title English Civil War, for the express reason that it is the one under which most people looking up the subject will find this page, if not coming in from a related study. I realize that the definition is flawed, but I think all others are too. In a way, this essay will stand as my own footnote to the use of the English Civil War label in my work. 

 

Arthur Chappell

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