What if Charles I had won the Civil War?

In 1651 Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarian army succeeded in a brutal civil war against Charles I, the king of England, who was executed. This is an extract from issue 17 of All About History where we spoke to historians Christopher Langley and John Morrill about the potential consequences if Charles I had won instead.

What would have happened if Charles I had won the war?

Christopher Langley: A serious policy of purging national and local councils of those who were clearly disaffected with the royalist cause. Those who had changed sides would be tolerated in exchange for an oath declaring their allegiance – similar to the oaths administered by his son after 1660. Charles would have had to change his religious policy. A broad-based system would continue with bishops at its head, but perhaps local disciplinary structures may have been tweaked to allow local management. Extremists on either side (Presbyterian, Catholic or radical) would have been excluded.

John Morrill: It depends on whether it was won by a knock-out blow, such as complete victory at Edgehill or Turnham Green at the outset and a royal occupation of London, or as a result of a ‘winning draw’ – a negotiated settlement in which Charles agreed to honour the concessions he had made in 1640 and 1641 but not the new demands of 1642 and later.

Which battles would Charles have had to win to regain control?

Langley: This is a difficult question as much depended upon political machinations after battles. I am inclined to mention that a decisive victory at Edgehill may have allowed for a more dramatic march toward the capital – the loss of any real royalist presence in the southeast severely hindered the war effort. A real royalist victory at the first Battle of Edgehill may have inclined some in Parliament to soften their stance and provide Charles with an important bargaining chip. Alternatively, Marston Moor in 1644 was critical as it had serious consequences for any royalist desire to connect supporters in Scotland, Ireland and the north of England.

What would have happened to Oliver Cromwell, the Roundhead Army and the Parliamentary supporters?

Langley: With the possibility of routing the New Model Army [the force raised by the Parliamentarians], the royalist negotiating position would have been much stronger. While Charles may have wanted the New Model disbanding, he would have had to deal with the arrears in pay accrued since its formation. If Charles would have carried the day early on in the conflict, Cromwell may have been imprisoned, but his position would not have been so prominent. After Marston Moor in 1644, Cromwell’s star really rose. Cromwell’s destiny would have been dependent on his own response. However, if he continued to oppose Charles and refused to accept his authority, he would have been executed for treason.

Would Charles now have complete power over Parliament?

Morrill: In the unlikely event of Charles winning an all-out victory, he would have attempted to resume the Personal Rule. As it happens, with no foreign threat and the economy bouncing back from the wartime recession, he could probably have managed on the funds available but being Charles there would have been provocations. And the genie of Puritanism was well and truly out of the bottle and it is impossible to see him behaving as sensibly as his elder son did in managing that problem.

Would England have regressed as a country without a parliament?

Langley: Following the 1641 Triennial Act [requiring that Parliament meet for at least a 50-day session once every three years], Parliament would certainly have been recalled. The question of ‘when’ is more tricky. I am inclined toward thinking that Charles would have recalled a purged Parliament and pressured it to pass acts against treasonable figures. Of course, Charles would have had to deal with the ‘ordinances’ (rather than full-blown ‘acts’) that Parliament had passed in his absence. As many of these were associated with cash generation, one is inclined to feel that Charles would have kept some of them and rubber-stamped them as full acts. Following the fears of social unrest, the return to stability may have been greeted happily in some quarters. Parliament had already obtained concessions from Charles, so England would not have emerged from a Caroline victory as an absolutist state. Despite the 11 years when Charles ruled without a parliament (1629-1640), he had no designs on serious reform along the lines we see by ‘absolutist’ French kings later in the century.

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