Devon played a major role in the English Civil War

An engraved vintage illustration portrait image of Oliver Cromwell 1599-1658, from a Victorian book

Oliver Cromwell ruled the Commonwealth of England - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Perhaps there is no such thing as a good war, but many would argue there is nothing worse than a civil war. 

While a general war arguably has the advantage that it at least unites the population against a common foreign enemy, a civil war can see communities divided and members of the same family pitted against each other.

England has certainly had its share of civil wars over the years. In the 11th century, King Stephen and Empress Matilda waged a bitterly fought power struggle against each other known as ‘The Anarchy.’ Both were grandchildren of William the Conqueror and both had good claims to the throne. Stephen’s forces besieged Rougemont Castle in Exeter at one point. The conflict ended with Matilda conceding the throne to Stephen on the condition that her own son, the future Henry II, would be crowned king on Stephen’s death. Matilda lived long enough to see this happen.

Another major civil war was the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century. I may discuss this more fully in a later column.

The conflict known specifically as the English Civil War was waged between the Parliamentarians (also known as the ‘Roundheads’, perhaps because of their round helmets, but more likely due to their short hair) and the Royalists (or Cavaliers, who tended to wear wide-brimmed hats and often had longer hair or beards). The war was fought between 1642 and 1651 although some people like to divide it into three separate wars, the First English Civil War (1642-46), the Second (1648) and the Third (1650-51).

Whichever dates you use, the English Civil War is often considered the bloodiest in British history if you take into account the size of the population at the time. It is thought 3.7% of the English population died in the Civil War. But the conflict was not restricted to England. In Scotland, 6% of the population died while in Ireland an astonishing 41% of the entire population were killed. This compares to the 3% of the British population who were killed as a result of the First World War.

The county of Devon played a major role in the war. Generally speaking, Devon was more inclined towards Parliament than to the Royalist side. According to the historians Ted Gosling and Roy Chapple, powerful local figures such as Lord Rolle, the Drakes of Ashe, the Erles, Northcotes and the Strodes all fought against the King while the Aclands, the Fulfords and the Poles of Shute were on the other side. Towns and villages were plundered, livestock was stolen and a number of country homes were burnt, notably Colcombe Castle, Shute Manor, Stedcombe at Axmouth and Ashe at Musbury. The Royalists besieged Lyme Regis whereas the city of Exeter, initially a Parliamentary stronghold, eventually fell to the Royalists after a siege. The King’s daughter, Henrietta was born in the city not long after this. Soon, following another siege, Exeter again fell into Parliamentary hands.

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Ultimately, the war ended in defeat for the Royalist forces and in the execution of King Charles I in 1649. For a brief, rare period in history, England became a republic. A Commonwealth of England was established under the rule of the leader of the Parliamentary forces, Oliver Cromwell who became Lord Protector.

It is not unusual for a country to overthrow its monarch at some point or another. Russia, for example, overthrew the rule of the Tsars in 1917. The French king was executed in the years after the 1789 Revolution. Germany never had a king again after the Kaiser abdicated following Germany’s defeat in the First World War in 1918.

What is unusual in the English case, was that we brought the monarchy back. Following Cromwell’s death, it soon became clear his son, Richard, had no interest in ruling England himself. The year 1660 saw the return of Charles I’s exiled son as King Charles II was crowned.

That is not to say nothing had changed. The centuries since have witnessed a gradual erosion of Royal power and a steady growth in the rise of parliamentary democracy. The Civil War did not just signal the end for Charles I, therefore, but also brought an end to the era of all-powerful English monarchs.

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