Why the English civil war is a misnomer

This week, I started a new six-week evening class at London’s City Literary Institute. The course – deliver by Dr Jamie McDougall – is entitled: “The Making Of The United Kingdom 1603-1801: Restoration, Revolution, and Political Unions”. I thought it would be a good time to understand how the UK was created when we are conducting a general election which could lead to the break-up of the UK.

A major part of the first session of the course concerned what is usually called the English Civil War. In fact, like so much of our supposed knowledge of history, the concept of the English Civil War is a substantial over-simplification.

It was not an exclusively English affair but involved forces from, and battles in, Wales, Scotland and Ireland as well. Furthermore it was not so much a single conflict as a series of five wars: the First Bishops War of 1639, the Second Bishops War of 1640, the First Civil War of 1642-1646, the Second Civil War of 1648 and the Third Civil War of 1649-1651.

What were the main constitutional results of these civil wars?

  • The feudal rights of the Crown and the Tudor prerogative courts were never to be restored.
  • The King’s power to levy taxes without the consent of the House of Commons or his right to arrest members without just cause was destroyed.
  • Parliament became an unchallengeable part of the British constitution and the Church of England ceased to be the sole religious institution.

In the next three and a half centuries, England has had no civil war. Not many countries can say that. But the current conflict over Brexit could be seen as a non-military civil war – certainly a profound clash of cultures that, in modern times at least, is an unprecedented strain on this United Kingdom.


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