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Wars of the Three Kingdoms

The Wars of the Three Kingdoms were an intertwined series of conflicts that took place in Scotland, Ireland, and England between 1639 and 1651 at a time when these countries had come under the personal rule of the same monarch. The wars were the outcome of tensions between king and subjects as to whether religion was under the monarch or a direct relationship with God, and to what extent the king's rule was constrained by parliaments. 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 - in the wars helped to determine the future of Britain as a constitutional monarchy with power centred on London. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms also parallelled a number of similar revolts at the same time in Europe - such as the Fronde in France and the rebellions of the Netherlands, Catalonia and Portugal against Spanish rule. Some historians have seen this period as one of General Crisis in Europe, characterised by the rebellion of conservative societies against centralising Absolutist monarchs.

The Wars included the Bishops' Wars of 1639 and 1640, the Scottish Civil War of 1644-5; the Irish Rebellion of 1641, Confederate Ireland, 1642-9 and the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649; and the English Civil Wars of 1642-6, 1648-9 and 1650-51.

These linked conflicts were named the Wars of the Three Kingdoms by recent historians aiming to have a unified overview rather than treating some of the conflicts as background to the English Civil War. Some have described them as the British Civil Wars, but this can be misleading as the kingdoms did not become a single political entity until the Act of Union 1800.

Alternate meanings: Three Kingdoms (disambiguation)



The unity of the Three Kingdoms under one monarch was quite a recent development. Since 1541 monarchs of England had also ruled the Kingdom of Ireland through a separate Irish Parliament, while Wales was made part of the Kingdom of England. With the Reformation the king made himself head of the Protestant Church of England and Roman Catholicism was outlawed in England and Wales, but remained the religion of most people in Ireland.

In the separate 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, 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 an "universall King" favouring the English Episcopalian system of bishops appointed by the king. In 1584 he introduced bishops, but met vigourous opposition and was forced to concede that the General Assembly running the Kirk should also continue. 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 remained Protestant, taking care to maintain his hopes of succession to the English throne, and duly also became James I of England in 1603 and moved to London. His diplomatic and political skills were now fully engaged in dealing with the English Court and Parliament at the same time as running Scotland by writing to the Scottish Privy Council and controlling the Scottish Parliament through the Committee of Articles . He stopped the 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. Charle's confrontation with the Scots came to a head in 1639, when Charles tried and failed to coerce Scotland by military means. In some respects, this revolt also represented Scottish resentment at being sidelined within the Stuart monarchies since [[[James I]]'s accession to the throne of England. See Also Bishops Wars


Charles shared his father's belief in the Divine Right of Kings and his arrogant assertion of this led to a serious break between Charles and his English Parliament. While the Church of England remained dominant, a powerful Puritan minority who made up 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 the King's Rights, 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 was unable to prevent his Kingdoms from sliding into civil war. When Charles approached the Parliament to pay for a campaign agaisnt 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.

See also the English Civil War (Background).


Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Ireland which had been declared in 1541, but only fully conquered in 1603, tensions were also mounting. 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 Egnlish colonists. He had also angered them by enforcing new taxes but denying Roman Catholics full rights as subjects. What made this situation explosive was his idea, in 1639, to offer Irish Catholics the reforms they had been looking for in return for them raising and paying for an Irish army to put down the Scottish rebellion. Although the army was to be officered by Protestants, the idea of an Irish Catholic army being used to enforce what was seen by many as tyranical government, horrified both the Scots and the English Parliament, who in response threatened to invade Ireland.

War Breaks Out

See Also

Modern historians have emphasised how the Civil Wars were not inevitable, but 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 be used successfully to get what they wanted.

Alienated by British 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 was marked by widespread assaults on The British 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 was a foretaste of what was in store for them 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 was the most important political principle.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642. The Scottish Covenanters as the Presbyterians called themselves, sided with the English Parliament, joining the war in 1643 and playing a mojor role in the Parliament's victory. The King's forces were 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 failing to come to compromise with e Parliament, he was arrested and executed in 1649. In Ireland, the rebel Irish Catholics formed their owned 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 end of first English Civil War and the return of the main Covenanter armies to Scotland.

After the end of the first English Civil War, the victorious Parliamentary forces, now under Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland and crushed the Royalist-Confederate alliance there in the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1649. Their alliance with the Scottish Covanters had also broken down, and the Scots crowned Chalres II as king of the Three Kingdoms. Cromwell therefore embarked on a further conquest of Scotland in 1650-51. By the end of the wars, the Three Kingdoms was a unitary state called the English Commonwealth, ostensibly a republic, but having many characteristics of a military dictatorship.

Main events

  • 1637: Charles attempts to impose Anglican services on the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Jenny Geddes starts riots
  • 1638: Signing of the National Covenant.
  • 1639: Conflict between Covenanter and Royalists in Scotland which began with the Covenanters seizing the City of Aberdeen in February
  • 1639: The Bishops' War Charles brings his troops into Scotland but decided not to attack but negotiate instead. The Treaty of Berwick is signed — peace agreement between the Scottish army and Charles I in June
  • 1640 The English Short Parliament is recalled in order for Charles to obtain money to finance his military struggle with Scotland
  • 1640: The Second Bishops' War or 'Second War of the Covenant' broke out in August. An army of Covenanters crossed the Tweed and overran the English force at the Battle of Newburn marching on the city of Newcastle.
  • 1640: The Treaty of Ripon left Newcastle in Scots hands who received a large tribute from Charles.
  • 1640-1660 The English Long Parliament convenes in November as Charles needs to raise finances after being bankrupted by the cost of the Bishops' Wars
  • 1641 Irish Rebellion (also know as the Irish Rising). Alliance of Ulster Catholics and the Old English to form the Catholic Confederation who won a battle against Crown forces at Julianstown Bridge near Drogheda in December
  • 1642 A Protestant Scots army is sent by the Covenanters to Ulster to defend the Protestant plantations.


While the Wars of the Three Kingdoms pre-figured many of the changes that would shape modern Britian, in the short term it resolved little. The English Commonwealth was niether a monarchy nor a real republic. In practise, Oliver Cromwell exercised power rather informally, and without a written constitution. There was religious freedom under this regime, but not for Roman Catholics. The Church of England was abolished, as was the House of Lords, but power was never given to the House of Commons and there werree no fresh elections. Nor did Cromwell and his supporters move in the direction of a popular democracy, as the moree radical fringes of the the Parliamentarians, such as the Levellers wanted. Ireland and Scotland ere occupied by the New Model Army during the Commonwealth period. In Ireland, almost all lands belonging to Irish Catholics were confiscated as punishment for the rebellion of 1641, harsh Penal Laws were also passed against this community. Thousands of Parliamentarian soldiers wer settled in Ireland on confiscated lands. The Parliaments of Ireland and Scotland were abolished. In theory, they werre represented in the English Parliament, but since this body was never given real powers, this was insignificant. When Cromwell died in 1659, the Commonwealth fell apart, without major violence and Charles II was restored as King of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Under the English Restoration, the political system was restored to what it had been before the wars. Those responsable for the execution of Charles I were themselve executed. Cromwell's corpse was dug up symbolically hanged. There was also harsh repression against religious and political radicals, who were held responsable for the wars. Scotland was returned its Parliament, some confiscated Irish land was returned and the New Model Army was stood down. However, the issues that had caused the wars - religion, the power of Parliament and the relationship between the Three Kingdoms had not been resolved, only postponed and they would be fought over again in the Glorious Revolution of 1689. It was only after this point that the features of modern Britian that were seen in the Civil Wars - a Protestant constitutional monarchy with England dominant and a strong standing army - emerged permanently.

See Also

External Links

  • The British and Irish Civil Wars article by Jane Ohlmeyer who argues that the English Civil War was just one of an interlocking set of conflicts that encompassed the British Isles in the mid-seventeenth century

Further Reading

British Isles

  • John Kenyon and Jane Ohlmeyer (eds.), The British and Irish Civil Wars. A Military History of Scotland, Ireland and England 1638-1660 (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • The Civil War: The Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660 by Trevor Royle (2004)
  • Martyn Bennett, The Civil Wars in Britain and Ireland (Blackwell)
  • Martyn Bennett, The Civil Wars Experienced: Britain and Ireland 1638-1661 (Routledge)
  • Charles Carlton, The Experience of the British Civil Wars 1638-1651 (Routledge)
  • John R. Young (ed.), The Celtic Dimensions of the British Civil Wars (John Donald)


  • Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates: Scottish-Irish Relations in the mid Seventeenth Century by David Stevenson (Belfast, 1981)


  • Reformation and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms in Ireland: The Mission of Rinuccini, 1645-49 by Tadhg Ó hAnnracháin (Oxford, 2001)
  • Confederate Catholics at War, 1642-1649 by Pádraig Lenihan (Cork, 2001)
  • Confederate Ireland, 1642-49: A Constitutional and Political Analysis by Micheál Ó Siochrú (Dublin, 1999)
  • Kingdoms in Crisis: Ireland in the 1640s by Micheál Ó Siochrú, ed. (Dublin, 2000)
  • The Outbreak of the Irish rebellion of 1641 by Michael Perceval-Maxwell (Dublin, 1994)
  • Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates: Scottish-Irish Relations in the mid Seventeenth Century by David Stevenson (Belfast, 1981)
  • Cromwell in Ireland by James Scott Wheeler (1999)


  • G.E. Aylmer, Rebellion or Revolution? England 1640-1660 (Oxford University Press)
  • Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down (Temple Smith, Penguin)
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04