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The English Civil Wars 1642-51

By John French

Shop our English Civil War range here. 

The Bishop's Wars 1639 & 1640

Eleven Years' Tyranny

The years 1629-40 were the so called 'Eleven Years' Tyranny', when Charles used his Prerogative Powers to govern the country largely without the aid of Parliament. Various grievances on both sides led to Charles dissolving Parliament. He instead used a small council of advisors including William Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Thomas Wentworth. This was known as the Conciliar System. Laud wanted to impose uniformity within the Church and persuaded Charles to make it compulsory for Scotland to use the English Prayer Book of 1635. Various Scots signed a National Covenant objecting to its usage, and put an army in the field to reinforce their objections. When the Scots army marched south, there was no standing English army with which to oppose them. Charles was only able to field various local militia units as he was unable to raise an army without the aid of Parliament. The militia were unable to put up much opposition and the First Bishops' War ended with the Treaty of Berwick.

John Pym

Upon the advice of Wentworth, the King decided to recall Parliament under its new leader John Pym, in the hope that he would be granted the money with which to raise troops. Parliament's various grievances were again aired, however, and it was dissolved after only three weeks (being consequently known as the 'Short Parliament').

The King once more put a patched-together army into the field, including troops raised in Ireland, but, as before, the Scots proved too strong and managed to fight their way down as far as Northallerton on the River Tees.

Grand Remonstrance

At the insistence of the gentry the King called another Parliament in 1640 ('The Long Parliament'), during the life of which there were two important sessions. The first, in the autumn and winter of 1640- 41, saw the persecution of the King's advisors Laud and Wentworth (who were both imprisoned) and the systematic destruction of the Conciliar System. The King is obliged to henceforth recall Parliament every three years, and each Parliament can only be dissolved with its own consent. The second session was less radical, but many members felt that they needed to maintain pressure on the King in case he should retaliate. It is worth noting that at this stage there were still many Members of Parliament who were moderates. Parliament drew up a 'Grand Remonstrance' in 1641, which was a listing of all the good things they felt they had done and all the King's failings. It was then that the King went with some musketeers to arrest Pym and four other radical members. Having been alerted, Pym and the others had already left, and this blunder led to the King leaving London. Parliament insisted that a struggle could be averted if three things were placed under their control, demanding that they should oversee the education of the King's children, should choose the King's advisors, and be given complete control of the armed forces. The last point was probably the biggest bone of contention and led to the King raising his standard at Nottingham in August 1642, marking the outbreak of the Civil War.



The English militia or 'Trained Bands' wore a similar style of uniform to that used during the Civil War period. Uniforms for the militia of some areas were as follows: Northampton, blue coats; Warwickshire, blue coats (possibly); East Yorkshire (Beverley), grey coats; and North Yorkshire (Ainsty and York), buff coats, red breeches with silver lace, black caps with feathers. Other regiments included those of Sir William Saville, which wore red coats; and the Earl of Essex, probably orange-tawny (they wore this colour by 1642, and his standard of 1639 was the same colour). Cavalry usually supplied their own clothing and equipment so would vary according to wealth of the individual.


Thomas Wentworth also raised troops in Ireland on Charles' behalf in an attempt to beat the Scots. Ten regiments of foot and two of horse were proposed. Details of the ensigns for these units are given in the books mentioned below.


Scots from the Lowlands wore civilian clothing rather than uniforms, including a jacket, breeches, and a flat Kilmarnock bonnet. Border infantry would be similar in dress, although they would also have a plaid, similar to a blanket roll. Muskets and pikes were used as in the English armies. Their cavalry, however, were mainly heavy lancers, often additionally armed with two or more pistols. Highlanders also wore their own clothing, consisting of plaids, stockings, and bonnets. There was no 'clan tartan' system at this time. They were armed with sword and targe (shield), and some also had one or more pistols. There were no musket-armed Highlanders; they relied instead on archers for their missile arm.


Details of flags are not as prolific as for the English Civil War. There are two books by Prince & Peachey listed at the end of the ECW section which offer some help and are recommended, as is the Stephen Ede-Borrett book on ensigns which is also listed there.

The English Civil Wars 1642-51

Foundry produce a whole host of figures from which to build Royalist and Parliamentarian armies. Popular terminology gives them the sobriquet 'Roundheads and Cavaliers'. Both of these terms were originally of a derogatory nature, having been given to them by their opponents. 'Roundhead' came from the way that some Puritans cut their hair, while the reproachful term 'Cavalier' given to the Royalists epitomised their off-hand treatment of the civilian population. The name 'Cavaliers' has now acquired an almost romantic definition, embodying daring and gentlemanly conduct. Both terms, however, are actually misnomers, as some Parliamentary supporters were just as foppishly dressed as any Royalist - so much so that it was frequently difficult to tell which side a soldier was fighting on. Clothing colours were of equally little value in identifying an individual's loyalties. Red, blue, green, yellow, and white coats were all used by regiments on both sides at first, and it was only with the advent of the New Model Army that Parliament's forces started to adopt red as a uniform coat colour, thereby establishing the traditional colour of British military jackets for the next 200 years. There were more similarities than differences between the armies. Each side had noblemen raising, equipping and frequently leading regiments. Although there were some professional officers who had fought on the Continent, most were amateurs. Both sides had infantry which were almost entirely lacking in any kind of military experience, made up of soldiers who were not usually politically motivated but simply followed their landlords into battle, fighting for whichever side he supported.

It is worth bearing in mind that when the fighting first erupted, the Parliamentarians had no intention of removing the King. They were looking for a way to curb his authority, or, as they viewed it, his misuse of power. It was only when it was realised that Charles was not to be trusted and that he was looking further afield for aid and support, that they decided he would need to be replaced.

Initial Stages of the Civil War

The causes of the English Civil War are touched upon briefly in the section on the Bishops' Wars, and are covered in detail in most general history texts. Like many other conflicts in history, there were also religious overtones to the conflict, especially where Scotland and Ireland were concerned. The King and Parliament began to raise forces from a variety of sources. 'Trained Bands' were used, troops were introduced from Scotland and Ireland, and some professional soldiers from the Continent were employed. In addition new regiments were raised, and frequently equipped, by various noblemen, including Members of Parliament. These amateur soldiers often commanded the regiments they had paid for, so military competence varied greatly.

Neither side was really ready for war, but many advantages lay with Parliament. They held London, certain sea ports such as Hull and Plymouth, and garrison towns such as Bristol and Gloucester. The Navy also went over to Parliament en masse.. Parliament was at first averse to open conflict, and the Earl of Essex, commanding its army, feared for his life in the event of a reversal. Once the fighting started, many battles proved to be little more than skirmishes, often localised on a county level. Consequently the war took a long time to resolve.

A Brief Outline of Events

There were, in fact, three Civil Wars between 1642 and 1651. The first occurred in 1642-46, the second between March and August 1648, and the third from 3 June 1650 to September 1651.

1642: The King raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642 and the rival armies manoeuvred around the Midlands before finally coming to blows at Edgehill on 23 October. There was no decisive outcome to this battle and the King made his way towards Oxford, which he was to make his new capital. Indeed, Charles did not return to London again until taken there as a prisoner. There was also an engagement at Turnham Green, where the Royalists were thwarted in their intended advance upon London.

1643: Localised armies evolved as support for both sides became more regionalised. Early in the year the Royalists gained control of much of the West Country, the exceptions being some of the major towns and cities. One such city was Gloucester, which was besieged by the King's main army during August. Parliamentarian forces under the Earl of Essex were able to raise the siege the following month. The King tried to intercept Essex as the Parliamentarian army returned to London, resulting in the indecisive Battle of Newbury. In the north, Royalist attempts to march southwards to London were foiled by a combination of well-organised armies fielded by the Parliamentarian Eastern Association and by the continued resistance of the seaport of Hull.

1643-44 saw five main Parliamentarian armies in the field, under the Earl of Essex (around 10,000 men), the Earl of Manchester (14- 21,000 men), Lord Fairfax, Sir William Waller, and the Earl of Denbigh.

1644: A Scots army came to the aid of Parliament and strengthened the forces besieging York. The King sent his cousin Rupert northwards from Oxford in an attempt to relieve the city. The Earl of Essex attempted to take control of Cornwall but ended up being caught between the Royalist forces already in the West Country, and an army led by the King to his rear. Essex's infantry surrendered at Lostwithiel, his 2,000 cavalry having escaped. Rupert managed to relieve York, but the following day (2 July) he was heavily defeated at Marston Moor by the combined armies of Parliament and the Scots. From this point on the North of England was lost to the King. After Marston Moor the Parliamentarians marched south and joined with the forces of William Waller and a newly raised army under Essex. Their combined forces then engaged the King at the Second Battle of Newbury, but once more the action was indecisive, and the King was able to retire to Oxford.

1645-46: The Parliamentarian armies of Essex, Waller and the Earl of Manchester were combined to form the New Model Army (NMA), under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax. Waller's army had been badly knocked about and provided only around 600 infantry. Despite three armies having been combined, there were still insufficient infantry available. More were consequently impressed in London and the South-East, but there was still a shortfall of 4,000 men when the army took the field. The cavalry arm was easier to raise, being a more popular service, and several regiments were taken piecemeal into the NMA. Oliver Cromwell was made deputy commander.

In April 1645 a 'Self-Denying Ordinance' was passed by Parliament which meant that men could no longer both sit in Parliament and command troops. There were just two exceptions to this - Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. This ordnance helped pave the way for a more professional approach to raising and commanding an army. The NMA nevertheless remained just one of several Parliamentarian armies in the field at the same time, the others being:

- The Scots army under Leslie (around 20,000 men).
- Major-General Poyntz,* commanding an army from Nottinghamshire and six northern counties (10,000 men).
- Major-General Massey,* commanding troops raised in Wiltshire and four western counties (10,000 men).
- Major-General Browne,* commanding local levies in the Midlands.
- 5,000 horse and foot in the eastern counties.
- Two small bodies of troops in SouthWales and the North.
These armies gradually disappeared or were absorbed into the NMA, although the commanders marked with an asterisk retained their independence for a while.


The Battle of Naseby saw the destruction of the King's Army, although it was to be almost another year before the final pockets of Royalist resistance were dealt with. Realising the futility of his cause, Charles finally decided to surrender to the Scots, thinking he would get a better deal from them. However, they turned him over to Parliament in exchange for arrears of pay.

The Second Civil War, 1648

Whilst imprisoned on the Isle of Wight, Charles managed to come to an agreement with the Scots. In return for an army of 30,000 men, the King would enforce the Presbyterian religion in Scotland for a minimum of three years. Various Royalist uprisings took place in anticipation of the Scots' advance. They were, however, crushed before the Scots had crossed the border to join them. The Scots army was then cut in two and heavily defeated at the Battle of Preston (28 August).

The King was now looked upon by many as someone who could not be trusted. The NMA wanted to put him on trial for his life, but moderate elements within Parliament were unlikely to have agreed to this. Consequently when Parliament was reconvened the moderates were not allowed to take their seats. Colonel Pride was in charge of this operation, which therefore became known as 'Pride's Purge'. Only those sympathetic towards the army were allowed to take their seats, this down-sized Parliament becoming known as the 'Rump'. It was the 'Rump' which brought the King to trial, and he was executed on 30 January 1649. The House of Lords was abolished, and there was a period of constitutional shambles as Cromwell tried to organise the Government.

1650: Cromwell conducted a terror campaign in Ireland, with two massacres at Tredah (Drogheda) and Wexford. As a result other places surrendered quickly.

The Third Civil War, 1650-51

The executed king's son, Charles II, landed in Scotland and raised an army, but was defeated at Dunbar, in south-east Scotland, on 3 September 1650. Another army raised in support of the Royalist cause marched as far south as Worcester before it, too, was defeated exactly a year later (3 September 1651). Charles II escaped to France and did not return until the Restoration in 1660.


When an officer raised a regiment it was usually named after him. He would usually pay for the men's jackets or coats himself, the colour being left to his personal choice. It was therefore not unusual to have men from opposing armies dressed very similarly. For this reason field signs were frequently adopted, consisting of things like pieces of paper or beanstalks worn on their hats. Another distinguishing sign sometimes adopted was the use of coloured scarves or sashes, tied either around the waist or across one shoulder. The Royalists generally adopted red, whilst Parliamentarian supporters would usually wear tawny-orange. It does not take much imagination to see why confusions occurred, nor to see how men were able to make good their escape from danger by simply removing the appropriate field sign. Such coats as were initially supplied were worn over ordinary civilian clothes, but as they were replaced in the course of a campaign there was even less uniformity. It was only as the New Model Army began to take shape that other items of uniform clothing and equipment began to appear.


Flags were not of much help either in terms of regimental distinction. Both sides used similar formats for their infantry flags, both in terms of colours and the devices used to distinguish companies. The captain of each company usually had his own flag , which was similar to those of his regiment's other companies except in he number of 'devices' painted or sewn upon the field. The devices could be circles, trefoils, and other geometric designs, or might have some connection to the arms or heraldic badges of the man who had raised and equipped the regiment. It is generally thought that flag and coat colour of a regiment tended to be the same, but often this was not the case. There are even examples of different-coloured flags within the same regiment. The Peachey & Prince book listed below give worthwhile notes on this subject. (As units were so similar in dress, why not have alternative command figures - one with Royalist and one with Parliamentarian flags?)


Regiments at this time still tended to have a block of pikemen with two 'wings' of shot, one on either side of the pikes. The ratio of pike to shot would depend upon the resources available within a given area. Parliament often controlled the larger towns and cities, and therefore the arsenals, so tended to have more muskets available. In some cases a regiment would have two muskets for each pike. In Royalist regiments the numbers of musketeers and pikemen were more likely to be of equal proportions. 'Commanded musketeers' were men selected to take up positions within cavalry units to give them some degree of firepower.


Pikemen were armed with a pike which was around 16 ft (5 m) in length. It was quite unwieldy and many men hacked off the bottom 3-4 ft to make it easier to handle. (It is said that a soldier could distinguish an inexperienced unit by its wavering pikes, which resulted from the extra length and weight of their weapons.)


The King's Army suffered from a reckless issuing of commissions. Instead of systematically filling the existing regiments as ranks thinned, the losses were replaced by raising new regiments. In 1643- 44 no fewer than 49 colonels of foot and 40 of horse were commissioned to raise new regiments. They were frequently grossly undermanned and were little more than company or troop strength. In September 1644, the Earl of Cleveland's Brigade of Foot, in Cornwall consisted of six regiments but totalled only 800 men. At Naseby, Thomas Howard's Brigade of Horse had some 880 men, although it contained seven regiments. Howard's own regiment was only 80 strong. For those who like painting flags, this provides an ideal excuse to add several to even a small wargame unit.

Civilians & 'Clubmen'

Some men had no uniforms at all. They sometimes banded together in a particular area to resist marauders or foragers from the armies of either side. These 'Clubmen' fought in their own clothes, using improvised weapons such as pitchforks and clubs if no better armament was available. Items from the General Purpose range should prove very useful here.

Artillery, Engineers and Sappers

Artillery at this time was generally quite cumbersome, and once emplaced on the battlefield tended to remain there until after the action was over. Theoretically the 3-pdr Falcon could be manhandled into new positions, but it was not used to the same extent that the Swedes had used such guns during the Thirty Years War, when they were pulled into place alongside advancing infantry formations.

Sieges and the use of earthworks were a common feature of many engagements. Civilian clothing was the norm. Petards were explosive devices rested against or nailed to doorways. Mortars were used in siege warfare rather than on the battlefield.


Both mounted and dismounted dragoon figures available. Both sides used dragoons, which were really mounted infantrymen who used their frequently poor quality horses to get them to their positions. They could be used to line hedges, walls, and the like, often in an attempt to outflank enemy cavalry. They frequently had a uniform coat (e.g. red or black) and usually carried a guidon with rounded end, rather like an elongated 'D'.


Mounted and dismounted cavalry figures are also available. Cavalry dress could be even more difficult to distinguish than that of the infantry. As the cavalry were usually men with more money, their clothing would tend to reflect this and would frequently have little resemblance to a uniform. Many men from both sides wore a 'buff' leather coat as some protection from sword cuts. At the start of the war some men (known as 'cuirassiers') wore almost full armour. Although its use was rapidly declining, breast and backplates were often retained, worn over the top of the buff coat. Some veterans of the Thirty Years War in Europe, officers in particular, retained items of weaponry, armour or clothing that would be considered out of fashion. For this reason some figures from the Thirty Years War range could well be included within your forces. The cavalry frequently used political slogans or caricatures on their flags, so it may have been slightly easier to distinguish friend from foe - always assuming that the onlooker could read or could understand the pictorial references, or could even see the flag, which was much smaller (around 2 ft square) than those carried by infantry units. As with the infantry, sashes or scarves were often worn. A troop of cavalry was nominally around 70 men.


The sedan chair can be used to carry a general or an important visitor. This, like the other three groups, is suitable for either Parliamentarian or Royalist armies. Some of these items could also be used to complement the 'Cutthroats' range, especially for Spanish Colonial towns of the Caribbean and Central America.


The use of Scots troops was not straightforward in terms of Royalist or Parliamentarian sympathies, but there is not the space for an explanation here. Stuart Reid's Scots Armies of the English Civil Wars gives good background information. The dress of the Scots is briefly covered above in the section on the Bishops' Wars.

Suggested Reading

For history and campaign details:
Wendham, P.
The Great Close & Siege of York (Roundwood Press, 1970).
Young, Peter,
Marston Moor (Roundwood Press, 1970). One of the best books on this campaign, reprinted in paperback in recent years. Young, Peter. Edgehill 1642 (Roundwood Press, 1967).

There are many other books available, some of which give quite localised campaign information for relevant sieges and actions.

Uniforms and organisation:
Osprey Elite Series 25 and 27 Soldiers of the English Civil War 1: Infantry and 2: Cavalry.
Osprey MAA Series 110 New ModelArmy 1645-60 and 331 Scots Armies of the English Civil War.
Firth, C.H. Cromwell's Army (first published in 1902, but reprinted in paperback several times). A classic. There is plenty of text, but no illustrations. It is well worth scouring second-hand book shops to obtain a copy.
Partizan Press have published a host of booklets upon specific armies, standards, and colours. Two of the most useful are on flags and colours: 1: English Foot by S. Peachey and L. Prince (1991); and 2: Scots Colours by S. Reid (1990). Both use original source material and dispel some of the myths surrounding this subject. Ensignes of the English Civil Wars by Stephen Ede-Borrett (Gosling Press, Pontefract, 1997) is another useful book for details of standards, many of which are illustrated in colour.

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