Wars of the Three Kingdoms

The Wars of the Three Kingdoms,[b] sometimes known as the British Civil Wars,[c][d] were an intertwined series of conflicts that took place between 1639 and 1653 in the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland – separate kingdoms which had the same king, Charles I. The wars were fought mainly over issues of governance and religion, and included rebellions, civil wars and invasions. The English Civil War has become the best-known of these conflicts. It ended with the English parliamentarian army defeating all other belligerents, the execution of the King, the abolition of the monarchy, and the founding of the Commonwealth of England; a unitary republic which controlled the British Isles until 1660.

Wars of the Three Kingdoms
Part of the European wars of religion
Charles I in Three Positions by Anthony van Dyck, 1635–1636
Monarch of the Three Kingdoms: Charles I in Three Positions by Anthony van Dyck, painted in 1633
Date1639–1653 (14 years)

English Parliamentary Army victory over all other protagonists

  • Execution of King Charles I
  • Exile of Charles II
  • Defeat of the Irish Confederates
  • Defeat of the Scottish Covenanters
  • Establishment of the republican Commonwealth
English, Scottish and Irish Royalists Scottish Covenanters
Irish Confederates Parliamentarians
Commanders and leaders
Casualties and losses
50,000 English and Welsh[1] ? ? 34,000[1]
127,000 non-combat English and Welsh deaths (including some 40,000 civilians)[a]

The wars arose from civil and religious disputes, mainly whether ultimate political power should be held by the King or by parliament, as well as issues of religious freedom and religious discrimination. Royalists (or 'Cavaliers') supported Charles I in his claim to be above parliament. Parliamentarians (or 'Roundheads') believed the King was behaving as a tyrant, particularly by levying taxes without parliamentary consent. They wanted parliament to have more power over the King, although some were republicans who wanted to abolish the monarchy. Reformed Protestants such as the English Puritans and Scottish Covenanters opposed changes the King tried to impose on the Protestant state churches, and saw them as too "Catholic". Meanwhile, the Irish Confederates wanted an end to discrimination against Irish Catholics, greater Irish self-governance, and to roll back the Plantations of Ireland. The wars also had elements of national conflict, in the case of the Irish and Scots.

The series of wars began with the Bishops' Wars of 1639–1640, when Scottish Covenanters who opposed the King's policies took over Scotland and briefly occupied northern England. Irish Catholics launched a rebellion in 1641, which developed into ethnic conflict with Protestant settlers. The Irish Catholic Confederation was formed to control the rebellion, and in the ensuing Confederate Wars it held most of Ireland against the Royalists, Parliamentarians and Covenanters. Both the King and parliament sought to quell the Irish rebellion, but neither trusted the other with control of the army. This tension helped spark the First English Civil War of 1642–1646, which pitted Royalists against Parliamentarians and their Covenanter allies. The Royalists were defeated and the King was captured. In the Second English Civil War of 1648, Parliamentarians again defeated the Royalists and a Covenanter faction called the Engagers.

The Parliamentarian New Model Army then purged England's parliament of those who wanted to negotiate with the King. The resulting Rump Parliament agreed to the trial and execution of Charles I, and founded the republican Commonwealth of England. His son Charles II signed a treaty with the Scots. During 1649–1653, the Commonwealth (under Oliver Cromwell) defeated the Scots and remaining English Royalists, and conquered Ireland from the Confederates. Scotland and Ireland were occupied, and most Irish Catholic lands were seized. The British Isles became a united republic ruled by Cromwell and dominated by the army. There were sporadic uprisings until the monarchy was restored in 1660.



After 1541, monarchs of England styled their Irish territory as a Kingdom—replacing the Lordship of Ireland—and ruled there with the assistance of a separate Irish Parliament. Also, with the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542, Henry VIII integrated Wales more closely into the Kingdom of England. Scotland, the third separate kingdom, was governed by the House of Stuart.

Via the English Reformation, King Henry VIII made himself head of the Protestant Church of England and outlawed Catholicism in England and Wales. In the course of the 16th century Protestantism became intimately associated with national identity in England; Catholicism had come to be seen as the national enemy, especially as it was embodied in the rivals France and Spain. But Catholicism remained the religion of most people in Ireland; for many Irish it was a symbol of native resistance to the Tudor conquest of Ireland.

In the Kingdom of Scotland, the Protestant Reformation was a popular movement led by John Knox. The Scottish Parliament legislated for a national Presbyterian church—namely the Church of Scotland or the "Kirk"—and Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, was forced to abdicate in favour of her son James VI of Scotland. James grew up under a regency disputed between Catholic and Protestant factions; when he took power he aspired to be a "universal King" favouring the English Episcopalian system of bishops appointed by the king. In 1584, he introduced bishops into the Church of Scotland, but met with vigorous opposition, and he had to concede that the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland would continue to run the church.

The personal union of the three kingdoms under one monarch came about when King James VI of Scotland succeeded Elizabeth I to the English throne in 1603, when he also became King James I of England and of Ireland. In 1625, Charles I succeeded his father, and marked three main concerns regarding England and Wales; how to fund his government, how to reform the church, and how to limit (the English) Parliament's interference in his rule. At that time he showed little interest in his other two kingdoms, Scotland and Ireland.[6]


The spark—riot in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, reputedly started by Jenny Geddes

James VI remained Protestant, taking care to maintain his hopes of succession to the English throne. He duly became James I of England in 1603 and moved to London. James concentrated on dealing with the English Court and Parliament, running Scotland through written instructions to the Privy Council of Scotland and controlling the Parliament of Scotland through the Lords of the Articles. He constrained the authority of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and stopped it from meeting, then increased the number of bishops in the Church of Scotland. In 1618 he held a General Assembly and pushed through Five Articles of Episcopalian practices, which were widely boycotted.

After his death in 1625, James was succeeded by his son Charles I, who was crowned in St Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1633, with full Anglican rites. Charles was less skillful and restrained than his father; his attempts to enforce Anglican practices in the Church of Scotland created opposition that reached a flashpoint when he introduced the Book of Common Prayer. His confrontation with the Scots came to a head in 1639, when he tried and failed to coerce Scotland by military means during the Bishops' Wars.


Charles shared his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings, and his persistent assertion of this standard seriously disrupted relations between the Crown and the English Parliament. The Church of England remained dominant, but a powerful Puritan minority, represented by about one third of Parliament, began to assert themselves; their religious precepts had much in common with the Presbyterian Scots.

The English Parliament and the king had repeated disputes over taxation, military expenditure, and the role of the Parliament in government. While James I had held much the same opinions as his son regarding Royal Prerogatives, he had discretion and charisma enough to often persuade Parliamentarians to his thinking. Charles had no such skill; faced with multiple crises during 1639–1642, he failed to prevent his kingdoms from sliding into civil war. When Charles approached the Parliament to pay for a campaign against the Scots, they refused; they then declared themselves to be permanently in session—the Long Parliament—and soon presented Charles with a long list of civil and religious grievances requiring his remedy before they would approve any new legislation.


Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Ireland (proclaimed such in 1541 but only fully conquered for the Crown in 1603), tensions had also begun to mount. Thomas Wentworth, Charles I's Lord Deputy of Ireland, angered Roman Catholics by enforcing new taxes while denying them full rights as subjects; he further antagonised wealthy Irish Catholics by repeated initiatives to confiscate and transfer their lands to English colonists. Conditions became explosive in 1639 when Wentworth offered Irish Catholics some reforms in return for their raising and funding an Irish army (led by Protestant officers) to put down the Scottish rebellion. The idea of an Irish Catholic army enforcing what many saw as already tyrannical government horrified both the Scottish and the English Parliaments, who in response threatened to invade Ireland.


Modern historians have emphasised the lack of inevitability of the civil wars, noting that the sides resorted to "violence first" in situations marked by mutual distrust and paranoia[citation needed]. Charles' initial failure to quickly end the Bishops' Wars informed the antagonists that force could serve them better than negotiation.

In Ireland, alienated by English Protestant domination and frightened by the rhetoric of the English and Scottish Parliaments, a small group of Irish conspirators launched the Irish Rebellion of 1641, ostensibly in support of the "King's Rights". The rising featured widespread violent assaults on Protestant communities in Ireland. In England and Scotland, rumours spread that the killings had the king's sanction, which, for many, foreshadowed their own fate if the king's Irish troops landed in Britain. Thus the English Parliament refused to pay for a royal army to put down the rebellion in Ireland; instead Parliament decided to raise its own armed forces. The king did likewise, rallying those Royalists (some of them members of Parliament) who believed their fortunes were best served by loyalty to the king.

The English and Scots armies lovingly embrace each other

The English Civil War ignited in 1642. Scottish Covenanters (as Presbyterians there called themselves) joined forces with the English Parliament in late 1643 and played a major role in the ultimate Parliamentary victory. Over the course of more than two years, the king's forces were ground down by the efficiency of those of Parliament, including the New Model Army, backed as they were by the financial muscle of the City of London. On 5 May 1646 at Southwell, Charles I surrendered to the Scottish army besieging Newark-on-Trent. What remained of the English and Welsh Royalist armies and garrisons surrendered piecemeal over the next few months.[7]

Meanwhile, the rebellious Irish Catholics formed their own government—Confederate Ireland—intending to help the Royalists in return for religious toleration and political autonomy. Troops from England and Scotland fought in Ireland, and Irish Confederate troops mounted an expedition to Scotland in 1644, sparking the Scottish Civil War. There, the Royalists gained a series of victories in 1644–1645, but were crushed after the main Covenanter armies returned to Scotland upon the end of the first English Civil War.

The Scots handed Charles over to the English and returned to Scotland, the English Parliament having paid them a large sum for their expenses in the English campaign. After his surrender, Charles was approached by the Scots, the Presbyterians in the English Parliament, and the Grandees of the New Model Army, all attempting to reach an accommodation with him and among themselves that would gain the peace while preserving the crown. But now, a breach between the New Model Army and Parliament widened day by day, until the Presbyterians in Parliament, with allies among the Scots and the remaining Royalists, saw themselves strong enough to challenge the Army, which began the Second English Civil War.[8]

The New Model Army vanquished the English Royalist and Parliamentarians, and their Scottish Engager allies. On account of his secret machinations with the Scottish Engagers, Charles was charged with treason against England.[9] Subsequently, the Grandees and their civilian supporters would not reconcile with the king or the Presbyterian majority in Parliament. The Grandees acted; soldiers were used to purge the English Parliament of those who opposed the Army. The resultant Rump Parliament of the Long Parliament then passed enabling legislation for putting Charles I on trial for treason. He was found guilty of treason against the English commons and was executed on 30 January 1649.[10]

After the execution of King Charles I the Rump Parliament passed a series of acts declaring England a republic and that the House of Commons—without the House of Lords—would sit as the legislature and a Council of State would act as the executive power. In the other two kingdoms the execution of Charles caused the warring parties to unite, and they recognised Charles II as king of Great Britain, France and Ireland, which would lead to a Third English Civil War.

To deal with the threat to the English Commonwealth posed by the two kingdoms (Ireland and Scotland), the Rump Parliament first charged Cromwell to invade and subdue Ireland. In August 1649, he landed an English army at Rathmines shortly after the Siege of Dublin was abandoned by the Royalists following the Battle of Rathmines. Then, in late May 1650, Cromwell left one army to continue the Irish conquest and returned to England and to take command of a second English army preparing to invade Scotland. On 3 September 1650, he defeated the Scottish Covenanters at the Battle of Dunbar; his forces then occupied Edinburgh and Scotland south of the River Forth. Cromwell was advancing the bulk of his army over the Forth towards Stirling, when Charles II, commanding a Scottish Royalist army, stole the march on the English commander and invaded England from his base in Scotland. Cromwell divided his forces, leaving part in Scotland to complete the conquest there, then led the rest south in pursuit of Charles.[11]

The Royalist army failed to gather much support from English Royalists as it moved south into England; so, instead of heading directly towards London and certain defeat, Charles aimed for Worcester in hopes that Wales and the West and Midlands of England would rise against the Commonwealth. This didn't happen, and one year to the day after the Battle of Dunbar the New Model Army and English militia regiments vanquished the last Royalist army of the English Civil War at the Battle of Worcester, on 3 September 1651. It was the last and most decisive battle in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.[12]


Having defeated all organized opposition, the Grandees of the Parliamentary New Model Army and their civilian supporters dominated the politics of all three nations for the next nine years (see Interregnum (1649–1660)). As for England, the Rump Parliament had already decreed it was a republic and a Commonwealth. Ireland and Scotland were now ruled by military governors, and constituent representatives from both nations were seated in the Rump Parliament of the Protectorate, where they were dominated by Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector. When Cromwell died in 1658, control of the Commonwealth became unstable. In early 1660, General George Monck, commanding English occupation forces in Scotland, ordered his troops from the Coldstream barracks, marched them south into England, and seized control of London by February 1660.[13] There he accumulated allies and agreements among the English and London establishments, including the newly constituted Convention Parliament, to which he was elected a member.[14] Monck, first a Royalist campaigner, then a Parliamentary soldier, now contrived the Restoration of the monarchy. Monck arranged that the Convention Parliament would invite Charles II to return as king of the three realms—which was done by act of Parliament on 1 May 1660.

The Wars of the Three Kingdoms pre-figured many of the changes that ultimately would shape modern Britain, but in the short term, the conflicts actually resolved little for the kingdoms and peoples of the times. The English Commonwealth did achieve a notable compromise between monarchy and a republic (by ending with the compromise between Charles II and General Monck), even one that survived destabilizing issues for nearly the next two hundred years. In practice, Oliver Cromwell exercised political power through his control over Parliament's military forces, but his legal position—and provisions for his succession—remained unclear, even after he became Lord Protector. None of the several constitutions proposed during this period were realized. Thus the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the Parliamentarians—the wars' victors—left no significant new forms of government in place after their time.

Still, in the long term, two abiding legacies of British democracy were established during this period:

  • after the execution of King Charles I for high treason, no future British monarch could expect their subjects would tolerate perceived despotism—the "divine right of kings" was no more;[15]
  • the excesses of the New Model Army, particularly those of the Rule of the Major-Generals, left an abiding mistrust of military dictators and military rule that persists until today among peoples of British descent or national association.[e]

English Protestants experienced religious freedom during the Interregnum, but there was none for English Roman Catholics. During the term of their control, the Presbyterian partisans abolished the Church of England and the House of Lords. Cromwell denounced the Rump Parliament and dissolved it by force,[16] but he failed to establish an acceptable alternative. Nor did he and his supporters move in the direction of popular democracy, as the more radical Parliamentarians (the Levellers) wanted.

During the Interregnum, the New Model Army occupied Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland, the new government confiscated almost all lands belonging to Irish Catholics as punishment for the rebellion of 1641; harsh Penal Laws also restricted this community. Thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers settled in Ireland on confiscated lands. The Commonwealth abolished the Parliaments of Ireland and Scotland. In theory, these countries had representation in the English Parliament, but as this body never held real powers, representation was ineffective. When Cromwell died in 1658 the Commonwealth fell apart—but without major violence. Historians record that adroit politicians of the time, especially George Monck,[17] prevailed over the looming crisis; Monck in particular was deemed the victor sine sanguine, i.e., "without blood", of the Restoration crisis.[13][18] And in 1660, Charles II was restored as king of England, Scotland, and Ireland.

Under the English Restoration the political system returned to the antebellum constitutional position. Although Charles II's Declaration of Breda, April 1660, offering reconciliation and forgiveness, had promised a general pardon for crimes committed during the English Civil War, the new régime executed or imprisoned for life those directly involved in the regicide of Charles I. Royalists dug up Cromwell's corpse and performed a posthumous execution. Those religiously and politically motivated individuals held responsible for the wars suffered harsh repression. Scotland and Ireland regained their Parliaments, some Irish retrieved confiscated lands, and the New Model Army was disbanded. However, the issues that had caused the wars—religion, the powers of Parliament vis-á-vis the king, and the relationships between the three kingdoms—remained unresolved, postponed actually, to re-emerge as matters fought over again leading to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Only after this later time did the larger features of modern Britain foreshadowed in the civil wars emerge permanently, namely: a Protestant constitutional monarchy, a strong standing army under civilian control, and the ongoing suppression of religious and civil liberties to Catholics[citation needed].

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "While it is notoriously difficult to determine the number of casualties in any war, it has been estimated that the conflict in England and Wales claimed about 85,000 lives in combat, with a further 127,000 noncombat deaths (including some 40,000 civilians)."[2]
  2. ^ Gentles 2007, p. 3, citing John Morrill, states, "there is no stable, agreed title for the events.... They have been variously labelled the Great Rebellion, the Puritan Revolution, the English Civil War, the English Revolution and most recently, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms."
  3. ^ Although the term Wars of the Three Kingdoms is not new, having been used by James Heath in his book A Brief Chronicle of all the Chief Actions so fatally Falling out in the three Kingdoms, first published in 1662,[3] recent publications' tendency to name these linked conflicts the term represents a trend by modern historians aiming to take a unified overview rather than treating some of the conflicts as mere background to the English Civil War. Some, such as Carlton and Gaunt have labelled them the British Civil Wars.[4][5]
  4. ^ Trevor Royle published his 2004 book under different titles. In the UK it was called Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms while in the US it was called The British Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638–1660 Royle 2004 and Royle 2005
  5. ^ "Around the rule of the Major-Generals there has grown a legend of military oppression which obscures the limits both of their impact and of their unpopularity" (Worden 1986, p. 134)



  1. ^ a b "ENGLISH CIVIL WARS". History.com. Retrieved 4 October 2014.
  2. ^ Ohlmeyer, Jane H. (24 April 2018). "English Civil Wars : Causes, Summary, Facts, & Significance". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 19 June 2018.
  3. ^ Raymond 2005, p. 281.
  4. ^ Carlton 1994.
  5. ^ Gaunt 1997.
  6. ^ "The origins of the wars of the three kingdoms". Archived from the original on 25 July 2015. Retrieved 24 July 2015.
  7. ^ Atkinson 1911, pp. 403–417.
  8. ^ Atkinson 1911, p. 417.
  9. ^ Gardiner 1906, p. 371.
  10. ^ Atkinson 1911, pp. 417–418.
  11. ^ Atkinson 1911, pp. 418–420.
  12. ^ Atkinson 1911, pp. 420–421.
  13. ^ a b Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Monk, George" . Encyclopædia Britannica. 18 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 723-.
  14. ^ Henning 1983.
  15. ^ Jane 1905, pp. 376–377.
  16. ^ Cromwell 1939, p. 501.
  17. ^ Burnet 1753.
  18. ^ Pepys 1660, Entry for 16 March 1660.


Further readingEdit

Great Britain and IrelandEdit

  • Bennett, Martyn (1997). The Civil Wars in Britain and Ireland, 1638–1651. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19154-2.
  • Bennett, Martyn (2000). The Civil Wars Experienced: Britain and Ireland, 1638–1661. Oxford: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-15901-6.
  • Kenyon, John; Ohlmeyer, Jane, eds. (1998). The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638–1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866222-X.
  • Russell, Conrad (1991). The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637–1642. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-822754-X.
  • Stevenson, David (1981). Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates: Scottish-Irish Relations in the Mid-Seventeenth Century. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation. ISBN 0-901905-24-0.
  • Young, John R., ed. (1997). Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars. Edinburgh: John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-452-4.



  • Lenihan, Pádraig (2000). Confederate Catholics at War, 1641–1649. Cork: Cork University Press. ISBN 1-85918-244-5.
  • Ó hAnnracháin, Tadhg (2002). Catholic Reformation in Ireland: The Mission of Rinuccini, 1645–1649. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-820891-X.
  • Ó Siochrú, Micheál (1999). Confederate Ireland, 1642–1649: A Constitutional and Political Analysis. Dublin: Four Courts Press. ISBN 1-85182-400-6.
  • Ó Siochrú, Micheál, ed. (2001). Kingdoms in Crisis: Ireland in the 1640s. Dublin: Four Courts Press. ISBN 1-85182-535-5.
  • Perceval-Maxwell, M. (1994). The Outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 0-7171-2173-9.
  • Wheeler, James Scott (1999). Cromwell in Ireland. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan. ISBN 0-7171-2884-9.


  • Stevenson, David (1973). The Scottish Revolution, 1637–1644: The Triumph of the Covenanters. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0-7153-6302-6.
  • Stevenson, David (1980). Alasdair MacColla and the Highland Problem in the Seventeenth Century. Edinburgh: John Donald. ISBN 0-85976-055-3.

External linksEdit