A brief history of the 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms'

Image: Charles I in Three Positions by Van Dyck | Wikimedia | Public Domain

The English Civil War, with its violent clashes between Roundheads and Cavaliers, is a much-mythologised chapter in British history. Yet it was actually part of a larger arc of events known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms (England, Scotland and Ireland) – which sprawled throughout much of the 17th Century.

The Bishops’ Wars

The Wars of the Three Kingdoms began with the Bishops’ Wars of 1639 and 1640. This was the culmination of tensions between Charles I and the Church of Scotland, with the king trying to bring intensely controversial religious reforms north of the border. When Charles imposed a version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, riots broke out. As the legend goes, an Edinburgh market trader called Jenny Geddes triggered the uprisings by throwing a stool at a minister in St Giles’ Cathedral.

The Scottish rebellion was formalised by the signing of the National Covenant – a kind of pact to defy Charles’ attempts to meddle with the Church of Scotland. Outright war broke out between Charles’ forces and the Covenanters in 1639, but the king was hampered by a lack of funds or widespread public enthusiasm for the cause. This first phase in the 'Bishops’ Wars' fizzled out without much violence, and Charles was forced to recall Parliament in order to raise money to fund the conflict.

This was the first time he’d brought Parliament together in 11 years – a period known as the Personal Rule – and MPs were more concerned with airing their annoyance than boosting Charles’ military coffers. Frustrated, the king dissolved the assembly after only a few weeks, which is why it’s since been known as the Short Parliament.

Hostilities broke out against the Covenanters again, with Scottish troops surging into England. A decisive moment came with the Battle of Newburn, on the outskirts of Newcastle, in 1640. Here, the Scots defeated a massively outnumbered English army, leading to a lingering Scottish occupation of northern England. Humiliated and badly in need of more funds, Charles was forced to recall Parliament again. This time, the MPs would stick around for decades, in what became known as the Long Parliament. Complex tensions and grievances between the Long Parliament and the king would eventually escalate into the Civil War.

The Irish Rebellion of 1641

Charles’ reign was also rocked by violence in the Kingdom of Ireland, when Catholics rose up against the Protestant establishment there. The causes of the 1641 rebellion were highly complex and still debated by historians today. Key factors included the need to end religious discrimination, as well as lasting anger over the colonisation of vast swathes of the country by Protestant settlers from England and Scotland (the biggest example being the Plantation of Ulster). Many Irish Catholics also feared that Scottish Covenanters were poised to invade Ireland to shore up their position against the king.

The uprising was led by Catholic noblemen, and their forces swept through a series of counties, claiming to be acting in support of Charles against his Protestant opponents in Parliament. It was a brutal, bloody period, with thousands of Protestant killed or dispossessed. One of the most notorious events was the Portadown massacre in November 1641, when Catholic rebels forced around 100 naked Protestant prisoners off a bridge into the freezing river below.

All of this worsened the friction between Charles and Parliament, with some believing the king would use the rebellion as a pretext for raising an army he would have direct control over. The Irish rebellion was just the opening chapter of what would become known as the Irish Confederate Wars, and helped propel the king and Parliament towards Civil War.

The English Civil War

Years of bitter differences between Charles and Parliament, exacerbated by the troubles in Scotland and Ireland, led at last to physical conflict in 1642. England was divided up between forces loyal to the king, known as Cavaliers, and the Parliamentarians who became known as Roundheads because of their cropped hair. A decisive engagement came at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, when Roundheads co-led by an MP turned military commander named Oliver Cromwell crushed the Cavaliers.

The defeat turned the tide against Charles, and the king was eventually taken into custody. Determined to wrangle his way back to supremacy, he made a secret pact with the Scots, promising to impose Presbyterianism (the Protestant structure of the Church of Scotland) in return for their help in reclaiming the throne. This led to what is known as the Second English Civil War, with a series of Royalist uprisings across the country. The campaign was doomed, with Charles’ chances extinguished by a key Royalist defeat at the Battle of Preston in 1648.

Having run out of patience with Charles, Parliament put the king on trial for treason. Charles, who believed absolutely in the divine right of kings, didn’t recognise the authority of the court, but he was found guilty of being a 'tyrant, traitor, murderer and public enemy'. His death warrant was signed by 59 officials, including Oliver Cromwell, and he was beheaded in January 1649.

Cromwell would go onto consolidate his power by engaging in a bloody military campaign to subdue Catholics and Royalists in Ireland. The last major event of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms is considered to be the Battle of Worcester in September 1651, when Cromwell’s forces defeated troops loyal to the executed monarch’s son, Charles II, who fled to the continent.

Cromwell would go onto become the king-like Lord Protector of the three kingdoms in 1653, though the Protectorate fell apart after his death in 1658. Despite all the upheavals of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, and the apparently permanent abolition of the monarchy, Charles II would be triumphantly restored to the throne in 1660.