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The Wars of the Three Kingdoms formed an intertwined series of conflicts that took place in England, Ireland, and Scotland between 1639 and 1651 after these three countries had come under the "Personal Rule" of the same monarch. The English Civil War has become the best-known of these conflicts. The wars were the outcome of tensions between king and subjects over religious and civil issues. Religious disputes centered on whether religion was to be dictated by the monarch or the choice of the subject, the subjects often feeling that they ought to have a direct relationship with God unmediated by any monarch or human intermediary. The related civil questions were to what extent the king's rule was constrained by parliaments — in particular his right to raise taxes and armed forces without consent. In addition, the wars also had an element of national conflict, as Ireland and Scotland rebelled against England's primacy within the Three Kingdoms. The victory of the English Parliament — ultimately under Oliver Cromwell — over the King, the Irish and the Scots helped to determine the future of Great Britain as a constitutional monarchy with political power centred on London. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms also paralleled a number of similar conflicts at the same time in Europe — such as the Fronde in France and the rebellions of the Netherlands and Portugal against Spanish rule.

The Wars included the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, the Scottish Civil War of 1644–1645; the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Confederate Ireland, 1642–1649 and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649 (collectively the Eleven years war or Irish Confederate Wars); and the First, Second and Third English Civil Wars of 1642–1646, 1648–1649 and 1650–1651.

Although the term is not new and was 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,[1] recent publications naming of these linked conflicts as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms represents a trend by recent 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 Gaunt, Plant and Gillon have labelled them the British Civil Wars.[2]

The start — riots set off by Jenny Geddes.



The personal union of the three kingdoms under one monarch came about as a relatively recent development in contemporary 17th-century terms. Since 1541, monarchs of England had also styled their Irish territory as a Kingdom (ruled with the assistance of a separate Irish Parliament), while Wales became more closely integrated into the Kingdom of England under Henry VIII. Scotland, the third separate kingdom, came under the same ruler as England and Ireland when King James VI of Scotland also became King James I of England in 1603. Ruling over these three diverse kingdoms proved difficult for James and his successor Charles I of England, particularly when they tried to impose religious uniformity on the three kingdoms.

Different religious conditions pertained in each of these jurisdictions. With the English Reformation, King Henry VIII made himself head of the Protestant Church of England and outlawed Roman Catholicism in England and Wales. In the course of the 16th century Protestantism became intimately associated with national identity in England: English folk in general saw Catholicism as the national enemy, especially as embodied in France and Spain. However, Catholicism remained the religion of most people in Ireland and was for many a symbol of native resistance to the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland in the 16th century. 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, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland or "Kirk", and the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate in favour of her son James VI of Scotland. He grew up under a regency disputed between Catholic and Protestant factions, then took power and aspired to be a "universal King" favouring the English Episcopalian system of bishops appointed by the king. In 1584, he introduced bishops, but met vigorous opposition and had to concede that the General Assembly running the church should continue to do so. Calvinists reacted against the formal liturgy of the Book of Common Order moving increasingly to extempore prayer, though this was opposed by an Episcopalian faction.


Religious confrontation in Scotland

James VI remained Protestant, taking care to maintain his hopes of succession to the English throne. He duly also became James I of England in 1603 and moved to London. His diplomatic and political skills now concentrated fully in dealing with the English Court and Parliament at the same time as running Scotland by writing to the Privy Council of Scotland and controlling the Parliament of Scotland through the Lords of the Articles. He stopped the Scottish General Assembly from meeting, then increased the number of Scottish bishops, and in 1618, held a General Assembly and pushed through Five Articles of Episcopalian practices which were widely boycotted. In 1625, he was succeeded by his son Charles I who was less skilful or restrained and was crowned in St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, in 1633 with full Anglican rites. Opposition to his attempts to enforce Anglican practices reached a flashpoint when he introduced a Book of Common Prayer. Charles' confrontation with the Scots came to a head in 1639, when Charles tried and failed to coerce Scotland by military means.


See also the English Civil War (Background).

Charles shared his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings, and his assertion of this led to a serious breach between the Crown and the English Parliament. While the Church of England remained dominant, a powerful Puritan minority, represented by around one third of the members of Parliament, had much in common with the Presbyterian Scots.

The English Parliament also had repeated disputes with the King over such subjects as taxation, military expenditure and the role of parliament in government. While James I had held the same opinions as his son with regard to royal prerogatives, he had enough charisma to persuade the Parliament to accept his policies. Charles did not have this skill in human management and so, when faced with a crisis in 1639–42, 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, declared themselves to be permanently in session and put forward a long list of civil and religious grievances that Charles would have to remedy before they approved 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. Charles I's Lord Deputy there, Thomas Wentworth, had antagonised the native Irish Catholics by repeated initiatives to confiscate their lands and grant them to English colonists. He had also angered Roman Catholics by enforcing new taxes but denying them full rights as subjects. This situation became explosive in 1639 when Wentworth offered the Irish Catholics the reforms they had desired in return for them raising and paying for an Irish army to put down the Scottish rebellion. Although plans called for an army with Protestant officers, the idea of an Irish Catholic army enforcing what many saw as tyrannical government horrified both the Scottish and the English Parliaments, who in response threatened to invade Ireland.

War breaks out

Modern historians have emphasised the lack of the inevitability of the Civil Wars, pointing out that all sides resorted to violence in a situation marked by mutual distrust and paranoia. Charles' initial failure to bring the Bishops' Wars to a quick end also made other discontented groups feel that force could serve to get what they wanted.

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 assaults on the Protestant communities in Ireland, sometimes culminating in massacres. Rumours spread in England and Scotland that the killings had the King's sanction and that this foreshadowed their own fate if the Kings' Irish troops landed in Britain. As a result, the English Parliament refused to pay for a royal army to put down the rebellion in Ireland and instead raised their own armed forces. The King did likewise, rallying those Royalists (some of them members of Parliament) who believed that loyalty to the Legitimate King outweighed other important political principles.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642. The Scottish Covenanters, as the Presbyterians called themselves, sided with the English Parliament, joined the war in 1643, and played a major role in the English Parliamentary victory. The King's forces found themselves ground down by the efficiency of Parliament's New Model Army — backed by the financial muscle of the City of London. In 1646, Charles I surrendered. After he failed to compromise with Parliament, the Parliamentary party had him detained and then executed him in 1649. In Ireland, the rebel Irish Catholics formed their own government — Confederate Ireland — with the intention of helping 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. In Scotland, the Royalists had a series of victories in 1644-45, but were crushed with the end of the first English Civil War and the return of the main Covenanter armies to Scotland.

After the end of the Second English Civil War in January 1649 the victorious Parliamentary forces, now commanded by Oliver Cromwell, invaded Ireland and crushed the Royalist-Confederate alliance there in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. The English Parliament's alliance with the Scottish Covenanters had broken down, and the Scots crowned Charles II as king, sparking renewed hostilities with England. Cromwell embarked on a conquest of Scotland in 1650-51 and on 3 September 1651 defeated Charles II at the Battle of Worcester after the latter had led a Scottish army south in the hope that a Royalist rising in England would allow him to regain the English throne.

At the end of the wars, the Three Kingdoms emerged as a unitary state called the English Commonwealth, ostensibly a republic, but having many characteristics of a military dictatorship.

Main events

  • 1637: Charles I attempts to impose Anglican services on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Jenny Geddes starts riots
  • 1638: Signing of the National Covenant in Scotland
  • 1639: Conflict between Covenanters and Royalists in Scotland, beginning with the Covenanters seizing the city of Aberdeen in February
  • 1639: The Bishops' War: Charles brings his troops into Scotland but decides not to attack but to negotiate instead. Signing of the Treaty of Berwick (18 June 1639)
  • 1640: Charles recalls the English Parliament in order to obtain money to finance his military struggle with Scotland. Parliament agrees to fund Charles, but only on condition he answer their grievances relating to his 11-year "personal rule" or "tyranny". Charles refuses and dissolves Parliament after a mere 3 weeks, hence the name of the "Short Parliament"
  • 1640: The Second Bishops' War or "Second War of the Covenant" breaks out in August. Responding to Charles' attempt to raise an army against them, an army of Covenanters crosses the Tweed and overruns an English force at the Battle of Newburn (28 August 1640), marching on the city of Newcastle.
  • 1640: The Treaty of Ripon (26 October 1640) leaves Newcastle in the hands of the Scots, who also receive a large tribute from Charles. Charles has no option but to recall Parliament in order to raise the necessary funds. Parliament convenes in November and remains convened, in one form or another, until 1660, thus earning the name of the "Long Parliament".
  • 1641: 23 October, Irish Rebellion breaks out in Ulster, with violence marked by the massacre of Protestants by Catholics. The rebels win a battle against Crown forces at Julianstown Bridge near Drogheda in December.[3]
  • 1641: 1 December, Parliament issues the Grand Remonstrance to Charles, which some see as a direct challenge to the King's authority. Charles refuses to address the grievances it raises.
  • 1642: The Covenanters send a Protestant Scots army to Ulster to defend the Protestant plantations
"Charles I, King of England, from Three Angles" by Anthony van Dyck
  • 1642: Charles enters the House of Commons to arrest five "traitors". The news of his "assault" on Parliament causes uproar in London. Charles leaves the city in fear for his life. In his absence Parliament passes the Militia Bill which, in effect, seizes control of the London arsenal and places the trainbands and militia under its authority. Charles retaliates by appointing individuals to take control of other regional militias in the King's name. From this moment both sides actively raise troops and gather munitions.
  • 1642-1646: The First English Civil War
  • 1642: An alliance of Irish Catholics; Gaelic Irish and the Old English forms the Catholic Confederation, based at Kilkenny, meeting first in March 1642.
  • 1642: 23 October: the Battle of Edgehill, the inconclusive first battle in the English Civil War
  • 1643: Ceasefire between the English Royalists and Irish Confederates declared
  • 1643: 25 September: an alliance between the English Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters — the Solemn League and Covenant — declared. Scottish troops march into England to support the English Parliamentarians
  • 1644: 2 July: the Battle of Marston Moor, a major defeat of the royalists by the Parliamentarians and Scots
  • 1644: Scottish Civil War started by the Scottish Royalist Montrose, with the aid of Irish Confederate troops under Alasdair MacColla, including the Scots-Irish forces serving under Manus O'Cahan
  • 1645: the English Parliament forms the New Model Army
  • 1645: 14 June: the Battle of Naseby: the New Model Army crushes the Royalist army, effectively ending the First English Civil War
  • 1645: 15 August, Montrose wins Royalist control of Scotland at the Battle of Kilsyth; subsequently Covenanter armies returned from England defeat him at the Battle of Philiphaugh (13 September 1645)
  • 1646: May: Charles I surrenders to Scots Covenanters, who hand him over to the English Parliament
  • 1646: June: in the battle of Benburb, an Irish Confederate army under Owen Roe O'Neill defeats the Scottish Covenanter army in Ulster
  • 1647: in the Battle of Dungans Hill (August) and the Battle of Knocknanauss (November) English Parliamentarian forces smash the Irish Confederate armies of Leinster and Munster respectively
  • 1648-1649: The Second English Civil War
  • 1648-1649: Ormonde Peace — formal alliance between Irish Confederates and English Royalists declared
  • 1648: the Battle of Preston (August): Scottish Covenanter (Engagers faction) army invades England to restore Charles I; defeated by the Parliamentarians
  • 1649: 30 January: Execution of Charles I by the English Parliament
  • 1649: 2 August: in the battle of Rathmines, Parliamentarians rout an Irish-Royalist force outside Dublin; 15 August, New Model Army lands in Ireland — begins Cromwellian conquest of Ireland.
  • 1649: September 11: Cromwell takes Drogheda; followed by Wexford on 11 October
  • 1650: Montrose tries to launch a Royalist uprising in Scotland; the Covenanters defeat, arrest and execute him
  • 1650: Charles II takes the oath in support of the Solemn League and Covenant and repudiates his alliance with the Irish Confederates. (The Scots subsequently crown him at Scone on New Year's Day, 1651.)
  • 1650: Third English Civil War breaks out between the Scots and the English Parliament. Cromwell invades Scotland and smashes the Scottish army at the Battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650)
  • 1651: Henry Ireton besieges Limerick
  • 1651: June: Capture of the Isles of Scilly by Admiral Robert Blake
  • 1651: 3 September: the defeat of Charles II and the Scots at Worcester ends the Third Civil War. Charles II goes into exile in France
  • 1652: Surrender of the last Irish stronghold in Galway — guerrilla warfare continues
  • 1653: Surrender of the last organised Irish troops in Cavan.
  • 1654: The end of the Royalist rising of 1651 to 1654 in Scotland
  • 1655: March: Penruddock uprising in southwest England
  • 1659: August: Booth's Uprising along Welsh border
  • 1660: English Restoration
  • 1661: Venner's Uprising in London


While the Wars of the Three Kingdoms pre-figured many of the changes that would shape modern Britain, in the short term they resolved little. The English Commonwealth did achieve a compromise (though a relatively unstable one) between a monarchy and a republic. In practice, Oliver Cromwell exercised political power because of his control over the Parliament's military forces, but his legal position remained unclear, even when he became Lord Protector. None of the several proposed constitutions ever came into effect. Thus the Commonwealth and the Protectorate established by the victorious Parliamentarians left little behind it in the way of new forms of government.

Two important legacies remain from this period:

  1. after the execution of King Charles I for high treason, no future British monarch could expect that his subjects would tolerate perceived despotism;
  2. the excesses of New Model Army, particularly that of the Rule of the Major-Generals, left an abiding mistrust of military rule in England.

English Protestants experienced religious freedom during the Interregnum, but not English Roman Catholics. The new authorities abolished the Church of England and the House of Lords. Cromwell dismissed the Rump Parliament and failed to create an acceptable alternative. Nor did Cromwell and his supporters move in the direction of a popular democracy, as the more radical fringes of the Parliamentarians (such as the Levellers) wanted.

The New Model Army occupied Ireland and Scotland during the Interregnum. 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 since this body never received real powers, such representation remained ineffective. When Cromwell died in 1658 the Commonwealth fell apart without major violence, and Charles II returned as King of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1660.

Under the English Restoration, the political system returned to the constitutional position of before the wars. The new régime executed or imprisoned for life those responsible for the regicide of Charles I. Neo-Royalists dug up Cromwell's corpse and gave it a posthumous execution. Religious and political radicals held responsible for the wars suffered harsh repression. Scotland and Ireland regained their Parliaments, some Irish retrieved confiscated lands and the New Model Army disbanded. However, the issues that had caused the wars — religion, the power of Parliament and the relationship between the three kingdoms — remained unresolved, only postponed to re-emerge as matters fought over again in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Only after this point did the features of modern Britain seen in the Civil Wars emerge permanently: a Protestant constitutional monarchy with England dominant and a strong standing army.

See also

References and notes

  1. ^ Joad Raymond (2005). The invention of the newspaper: English newsbooks, 1641-1649, Oxford University Press, ISBN 019928234X, 9780199282340. p. 281
  2. ^ British Civil Wars:
  3. ^ November 1641 according to, retrieved 2008-03-02

Further reading

British Isles

  • 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.  
  • Carlton, Charles (1992). Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-03282-2.  
  • Kenyon, John; and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds.) (1998). The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866222-X.  
  • Royle, Trevor (2004). The Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1660. London: Little, Brown. ISBN 0-316-86125-1.  
  • 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.  


  • Aylmer, G. E. (1986). Rebellion or Revolution?: England, 1640-1660. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-219179-9.  
  • Hill, Christopher (1972). The World Turned Upside Down: Radical Ideas During the English Revolution. London: Temple Smith. ISBN 0-85117-025-0.  
  • Morrill, John (ed.) (1991). The Impact of the English Civil War. London: Collins & Brown. ISBN 1-85585-042-7.  
  • Woolrych, Austin (2000) [1961]. Battles of the English Civil War. London: Phoenix Press. ISBN 1-84212-175-8.  
  • J.C. Beckett, 'The Making of Modern Ireland 1603-1923'


  • 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.  



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