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The First English Civil War (1642-1646)

The map shows the approximate division of England when war broke out in August 1642.

map showing the approximate division of England when war broke out in August 1642

Parliament seemed to have the advantages from the beginning. It controlled London, with its power and wealth, and the richest regions of the kingdom: the South and East Anglia. It controlled the ports and the navy, thereby preventing the king from getting help from abroad. Many Roundheads were rich merchants and could pay for complete regiments out of their own pockets. Areas loyal to the king, such as the West Country and the North, were poorer. They could provide men but not much money.

Strangely, both sides claimed to be fighting for the king! Initially, Parliament simply wanted to defeat the king's army and leave the king on the throne to rule as it considered a king should rule. The Royalists fought for the king whether he was right or wrong in his political struggles.

England had seen no real fighting since the end of the War of the Roses in 1485. Since England possessed a powerful navy, it did not need a standing army. Armies were only raised in time of war. Charles only had 300 infantrymen when he declared war on Parliament. He did have the support of his nephew, Prince Rupert (son of Frederick of Bohemia), however, and Rupert commanded 800 cavalrymen.

Few officers on either side were experienced soldiers, although some had fought in the Thirty Years War. Foot soldiers were either pikemen, who carried a five metre pike with a metal tip, or musketeers who carried a muzzle-loading musket.

Cavalrymen carried pistols and swords and enjoyed charging from the flanks (sides) straight into the enemy. Dragoons were really infantrymen on horseback since they dismounted to fight. The cavalry, when they were not charging the enemy, were kept busy spying on the opposite side, attacking supply trains, capturing bridges and taking prisoners to obtain information.

Artillery was not very important in battle since the guns were old and difficult to move. Artillery was more valuable in fixed sieges.

Most people simply wanted to avoid fighting. In Cornwall, one village set up its own militia to fight either side should it be disturbed.

One of the biggest problems for both sides was supplying food to the soldiers. England was sparsely populated and villages did not have very big reserves of food or fodder for horses.

Soldiers received cheese and biscuits to survive on. Good grass for the horses was only to be found in summer; this, plus the appalling state of the roads in winter, meant that campaigns could only be fought in summer.


In October 1642 the king's army began to march on London. It was commanded by the 23 years-old Prince Rupert. At Edgehill, near Birmingham, they met a Parliamentary army.

Rupert's cavalry charge was so terrifying that the Parliamentary forces ran for fourteen kilometres. The legend of Rupert was born. He was said to move faster than the wind, that bullets could not hurt him and that he was a "friend of the Devil". He had a little white dog called "Boy" who ran beside his horse. He was said to be on good terms with the Devil also. ("Boy" was finally killed at Marston Moor two years later, to the delight of the Puritan soldiers.)

Edgehill was a crushing defeat for the unprepared Parliamentary forces and one of its officers, Oliver Cromwell, was determined to make sure such a rout would never be repeated.

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