The English Civil War represents several sets of conflicts between King Charles the I and his Cavaliers (also known as the Royalists) versus Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians (also known as the Roundheads). All in all, the conflicts lasted from 1642 until the last of Charles’ supporters were defeated in 1651. Raging across England, the results included the execution of King Charles I, the exile of his son, King Charles II, and the rise of Oliver Cromwell and the Protectorate period. But what of London during this time? As the seat of power for both the king and parliament, city was ground zero for the conflict.
From nearly the beginning of the English Civil War, London was on the side of the Parliamentarians. Before the war broke out officially, Charles sought the arrest of five Members of Parliament in January 1642. These members had attempted a coup against the Crown that went badly and when Charles entered the Commons to ensure their arrest, he discovered that “the birds had flown” and sought refuge within the city. When the king attempted to pursue them, he found the City of London’s gates shut, its portcullises lowered, and the streets chained to prevent travel down them. The people of the city armed themselves against Charles and some women even boiled water to throw on the cavaliers if necessary.
However, the conflict never came and only a few days later, Charles fled the city. By March, Parliament declared that its ordinances did not require royal assent and the next month, it started raising an army in the city against the king. King Charles attempted negotiations with the Long Parliament during the summer, but in August, these talks broke down and Charles raised his standard in Nottingham, ready for war. After Charles won the Battle of Brentford only a few miles from the city, Londoners became concerned about an attack and organised a new army and strengthened the city’s defences, which was enough to make Charles reconsider his tactics and retreat.
London would not come under serious threat again from the Royalists, but that was not the end of the city’s association with the English Civil War. By 1643, protests both for and against the war had broken out. A peace demonstration put on by the city’s women turned violent and was suppressed by William Waller, whose forces beat, arrested, and in some cases—killed the protestors. This was not the end of such violent censorship, as representatives from Venice reported back to their government that Parliamentary forces in London were quick to suppress any dissention.
Having a hold on London certainly worked in the Roundheads’ favour. The city’s ports and banks made it the absolute centre of commerce and wealth for England, which gave the Parliamentarians plenty of funding for their continued rebellion against the king. However, this wealth wasn’t shared with the army, as they demanded full pay from Parliament and received only six weeks’ pay in April 1647. This was not forgotten when conflicts flared up again in 1648 and the army entered Parliament to expel 140 members of the Commons in what became known as “Pride’s Purge”, installing the Rump Parliament that the army felt would not be as lenient on the king. The Rump Parliament then engaged in a show trial, charging King Charles I with treason, and executed him in 1649 outside of Banqueting House in Whitehall.
Following Charles I’s execution, his son was proclaimed king by the Royalists and invested as King Charles II. Under Charles, the Cavaliers attempted to carry on the good fight for another two years and even made another push for London that ultimately fell flat. By the time that Charles II fled Britain for France in 1651, the city was firmly under Parliament’s control and would remain so for another nine years until the Restoration, by which time the city was clamoring for Charles’ return after the strict governance of Oliver Cromwell.