12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet

Mike Wood - February 16, 2018

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
A manuscript showing Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer. Wikipedia.

5 – Despenser War 1321-22

John I was a tyrannical ruler and provoked a backlash from the major landowners of his day. His son, Henry III, was equally as despotic and fairly incompetent to boot, so his Barons didn’t care for him much either and again rose up in protest. His son, Edward I was Edward Longshanks, the hammer of the Scots, the baddie from Braveheart and the man who expelled the Jews from England. So when we tell you that Edward II, the man who would preside over the Depenser War, was pretty unpopular, you can see where he got it from.

Edward II had assumed the throne in 1307 and picked up from where his father had left off. He defeated Robert the Bruce and the Scots at Bannockburn in 1314, finally ending that protracted war, only for a mass famine to break out and kill between 10% and 25% of the population. Edward’s personal popularity had never been high, largely stemming from his friendship with Piers Gaveston, a leading noble with whom he was rumoured to being having a homosexual affair. The rumours have fascinated historians ever since and have never been proven, but the effects at the time were clear: Gaveston was exiled initially, and then when he was accepted back, he was widely seen as being far too close to the throne for anyone’s liking. Gaveston died in 1312, executed by rebellious Barons, but his influence would not be forgotten.

Edward struggled through wars in Scotland and famine at home, all the while dealing with huge debts and a failing economy. Without Gaveston, he turned a series of other royal favourites to counsel him, and it was one of these who would provoke the next civil war. Hugh Despenser the Younger, from whom the Despenser War gets its name, was the son of (quelle surprise) Hugh Despenser the Elder, a close confidant of the King. The Elder had risen to be the King’s chief adviser and had stood by him throughout the Gaveston affair. The Younger was similarly well-positioned in court and many of the rumours of homosexuality began to resurface.

The so-called Marcher Lords – the barons around the “Marches” near the Welsh border, who had pacified Wales and brought it under the King’s influence – took great offence at the power of the Despensers and, when they were granted lands in the Marches, it was too great an insult to abide. When Despenser the Younger began to style himself “Lord of Glamorgan”, after the Welsh county, it was war.

The Marcher Lords invaded Despenser lands in Wales, provoking Edward to engage the army against them. Edward demanded audiences with the Marchers, but the refused and continued their advances. They took all the major castles of Wales and moved into England, capturing several towns in the North, before marching south on London. They besieged the capital and demanded that the Despensers be exiled, to which the King eventually assented.

The tensions did not go away, however, and within months of the Despensers exile, the King was able to make a counter strike. He besieged Leeds Castle – Leeds in Kent, rather than the larger modern city in Yorkshire – and when it succumbed, exacted brutal revenge on the defenders. Some barons switched sides and back in the Marcher homelands in Wales, the peasantry staged an uprising against their feudal lords. Edward managed to cross into Wales and defeat the Marchers in March 1322.

It would not be the end of the rebellion, however. Roger Mortimer, the main Baronial leader, escaped from his captivity to France and managed to invade England in 1326, assisted by Edward II’s estranged wife, Isabella. They captured the Despensers and executed them, with Edward himself dying in prison – assumed to have been murdered. Mortimer and Isabella assumed the throne, but were themselves deposed by Edward’s son, Edward III, in 1330.

You might have gathered by now that Mediaeval Britain was fond of a succession crisis – perhaps making it easier to understand why the current line of succession is over five thousand names long – and the biggest of them is yet to come…

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
The Battle of Bosworth Field. Encyclopedia Britannica.

6 – War of the Roses 1455-87

The War of the Roses is a misnomer in almost every aspect of the name. It wasn’t so much of a war as several intermittent and semi-linked wars spread over twenty three years, and the significance of the roses – the White Rose of Yorkshire associated with Richard of York and the Red Rose of Lancashire, associated with Henry of Lancaster – was only attributed hundreds of years after the fact. Since we’re deep diving into the name, it also bears point out that actual symbols of the Yorkists and the Lancastrians were the boar and the dragon respectively, and that Richard’s lands were not really in Yorkshire but rather spread all over England and Wales, and Henry’s fiefdoms were predominantly in Wales, Cheshire and the south west of England rather than in Lancashire.

Still, while the symbols might have been slightly messed up, the war itself was pivotal to the history of England. Naturally, it was a succession crisis – we promise that it’s the last succession crisis on this list – but it was not one in the traditional sense that we have seen before. For starters, it began with the King still alive and well. Henry VI, of the House of Lancaster, had reigned since 1422, but his time on the throne had been in severe decline during the course of the so-called Hundred Years’ War. The Hundred Years’ War was exactly what it sounds like: a century long conflict. It was fought between England and France over who was the legitimate king of France – OK, so one more succession crisis – and took in such seminal moments as Agincourt, Crecy, Joan d’Arc. If you think of a stereotypical mediaeval battle scene, with knights on horseback, chivalry and stone castles, you’re probably thinking of something from the Hundred Years’ War. We haven’t got time in five articles to go through it all, but suffice to say that at the start of Henry VI’s reign, it was all going very well for the English, with their influence in France at its absolute height. The trouble for Henry was that he was an infant regent and, by the time he took real power, it had all gone very sour. The war was incredibly expensive, the English had been all but kicked out of France and the common people were in near revolt. Henry himself was a woeful leader, utterly interested in war or violence and now faced with economic collapse.

Lancastrian Henry’s major rival was Richard of York, the leading noble in the land. With Henry’s popularity plummeting, Richard lead calls for reform, particularly regarding the advisors to the King who had failed so spectacularly in France. The nobles hated the King’s court and the King couldn’t bear the strain, suffering a mental breakdown in 1453. This presented a major problem: the next in line to the throne was Prince Edward, a newborn baby, leaving the Lancastrian line of succession to compete with the Yorkist branch for control.

An initial period of fighting lead to Henry VI being captured and imprisoned by Richard, with Richard appointed “Protector” of the King, de facto ruler during his illness. Henry was recaptured and returned to the throne, but the battle lines had been drawn. There was another two years of skirmishes, before again Henry was captured by Richard. This time, they made him sign the Act of Accord, which agreed to name Richard as the legitimate king when Henry died. Of course, things did not turn out as simply as that.

Richard was killed in battle in 1460 and his son, Edward, became the heir to the throne. Edward was crowned in 1461 – despite Henry still being alive – and marched on the Lancastrians, forcing Henry to hide in the mountains of northern England for a year. Yorkist rule would continue through the 1460s, with sporadic uprisings and low-level fighting. The Earl of Warwick, the richest man in England, rose in rebellion and managed to capture Edward and remove him from the throne, briefly leaving England with two kings, or more practically, none at all. Warwick was the most powerful noble, but had no claim to the throne, while Henry was murdered in 1471, leaving Edward as the only possible man to be King.

That was far from the end of the fighting, however. He died suddenly in 1483 and his son, Edward V, was just 12. The King’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was appointed Regent but soon imprisoned the heir to the throne in the Tower of London. Edward V and his brother, Richard of Shrewsbury, the famed Princes in the Tower, disappeared mysteriously in 1483 and the regent became Richard III. He would be the last Plantagenet king. Richard endured a revolt by the Duke of Buckingham before Henry Tudor, head of the House of Lancaster, finally met Richard in battle at Bosworth Field in Leicestershire. As any student of Shakespeare knows, Richard lost and was killed, ending the rule of York and ushering the Tudor era.

It was the final act of the Middle Ages in England and, while there were still succession crises, it would be the last major war over the issue. Though, as we are to find out, that might well be because Henry Tudor’s grandson, Henry VIII, was about to bring about an even bigger issue to quarrel over; religion.

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
Henry VIII, King of England during the Pilgrimage of Grace. Wikipedia.

7 – Pilgrimage of Grace 1536

Religion in England underwent a huge transformation after the ascent of the House of Tudor to the throne under Henry VII in 1485. He would reign until 1509, when his son and heir, Henry VIII became King at the age of 17. The young Henry’s reign would go down as one of the most important, most turbulent and most studied in British history, in no small part because of the extensive religious reforms that were ushered in under his rule.

When he came to the throne, England was a staunchly Catholic country, as was most of the rest of Europe. In 1519, the Protestant Reformation began in Germany, but the ripples were barely felt in Britain. Henry, however, would begin a religious revolution of his own and provoke a huge backlash in the process. His arranged marriage to Catherine of Aragon had failed to produce a living male heir – she had a girl, Mary, a boy that died in infancy and three stillbirths – and with the House of York always waiting to retake the throne, Henry decided that he needed to ditch her. He sought to have the Pope annul his marriage, but the pontiff, Clement VII, refused. Henry responded by breaking England away from the Church of Rome and named himself head of the Church of England.

Now in charge of the Church, Henry proceeded to confiscate the vast wealth of the Catholic monasteries in 1536, which many saw as little more than a naked cash grab. Certainly in the North of England, where Catholicism was still widely practised and the Church and its monasteries had formed the central focus of most people’s lives. Disillusioned by a King who treated religion as something to be changed to his own ends and angered by economic hardship – there had been a poor harvest and several unpopular land reforms – a rising began in Yorkshire, led by lawyer Robert Aske.

He led 9,000 men into York and immediately restored Catholicism, before further successes swelled the rebel’s numbers to somewhere between 20 and 40,000. The Duke of Norfolk tried to negotiate a peace with Aske, offering for the restoration of the monasteries and a pardon for those who had participated in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace, as well as a Parliament to be held in the northern city of York. Aske accepted and sent his men home.

Shortly afterwards, a second rising began even further north, in Cumberland, and Norfolk crushed it mercilessly. With the advantage back with the King, Norfolk arrested Aske and all the leaders of the Pilgrimage on charges of treason. They were executed alongside 216 other people, including many monks and priests, while martial law was enforced all over the North.

Henry’s track away from Rome and towards the establishment of the modern-day Church of England was not seriously altered, but his search for a male successor would continue to be in vain. His new wife, Anne Boleyn, would produce a daughter, the future Elizabeth I, but suffered a stillborn son. She was executed and Henry married his mistress, Jane Seymour, who finally produced a son, Edward VI, but died in the process. Edward would succeed Henry eventually – but not before he had gone through another three wives – and subsequently died at the age of 15 after 6 years on the throne. The succession plan had failed, but the religious changes survive to this day.

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
Edward Montagu, 1st Baron Montagu of Boughton, the officer sent to put down the Midland Revolt. Wikipedia.

8 – Midland Revolt, 1607

The religious changes instituted by Henry the Eighth would continue to be fought over for most of the next two hundred years, but another factor was to enter into English society that would make internal conflict even more likely. Social change was sweeping through England and whereas our civil wars previously had been about kings fighting kings and lords fighting lords, now the people were about to enter the stage as a force with which the government would have to reckon.

The average working classes had always been the fodder of the conflicts over successions and kingdoms, but by the 17th century, they were ready to become the agents of change as well. Among the first uprisings to take place as a result of popular pressure was the Midland Revolt, which sprung up in 1607 in, unsurprisingly, the Midlands. The spark was the enclosure of common land, a fundamental change in the economic circumstances of the vast majority of the people – estimated at 90% – who made their living from agriculture.

The mediaeval English village had always been organised thus: the common man in the countryside grew vegetables on strips of land that they rented from local landlords, while their animals grazed on commonly-held fields, also using these common lands for hunting, firewood, timber and thatch for building materials. As the population grew – largely because of the success of farming and improvements in technology – it became more profitable for the landlords to graze their own sheep for wool on the land rather than allowing people to rent it. Thus, the common land was enclosed and sold off, forcing people off the land and into cities.

In the Midlands, where the vast majority lived from the land, this was particularly felt. In Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire, riots began against enclosure, with thousands following a leader called John Reynolds, an itinerant former peasant who claimed to have authority from God and the King to fight enclosure. He was known as Captain Pouch, as he carried a pouch that he said contained an item that would protect all those who followed him in his protests.

As many as 5000 rallied to Captain Pouch’s cause and marched on the town of Newton in Northamptonshire, where they intended to undo the enclosures of land that had been enacted by the Tresham family, the local landowners. The Treshams were already hated because of their association with the Gunpowder Plot – which had failed to kill the King two years previously – and had further angered locals by buying out Rockingham Forest, where the poor had once hunted.

The King despatched Edward Montagu, the local Member of Parliament, to put down the rebellion. He had previously spoken against enclosure, but was now tasked with defending it. He attempted to raise a local militia, but the population refused to rally to the King against their neighbours. Instead, the local landowners armed their own servants and charged the rioters, leaving 50 dead after a protracted battle. When the riot had been quelled, the ringleaders hanged and quartered, as was the custom for those convicted of treason.

Captain Pouch John Reynolds was among those executed – and his magical pouch was found to contain nothing more than a piece of mouldy cheese.

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, leader of the Monmouth Rebellion. Wikipedia.

9 – Monmouth Rebellion, 1685

Religious disagreements and economic concerns were beginning to take hold as a major motivator of conflict in England, but that isn’t to say that the British monarchy had forgotten about its long-standing love affair with the succession crisis. In fact, they were just learning how they might combine the three of them.

Charles II had been restored to the throne in 1660 after the brief period during the English Civil War in which England was a republic, but he had no legitimate issue and it thus fell to his brother, James II, to take over as King of England. This caused major uproar, as James II was already King of Scotland and also a Roman Catholic. One of the major narratives in the English Civil War had been the tensions between the largely Puritan (and therefore virulently anti-Catholic) commoners who had fought for the Parliamentarians and the Anglican monarchy, which many on the Puritan side considered little more than thinly-veiled Catholics. The Monarchy may have been restored after Cromwell’s death but they were still far from popular in many quarters, and particularly in those with strong Protestant tendencies.

On James’ accession to the throne in 1685, many in the staunchly Protestant south-west of England coalesced around the other candidate to the throne, Charles II’s only son, the Duke of Monmouth. He was ineligible to suceed his father as he had been born out of wedlock while the future Charles II had been in exile in the Netherlands. The Duke fitted the bill perfectly: he was a Protestant and had been raised in Holland, one of the most Protestant countries in the world, while also having a direct link to the previous King. Moreover, he was an experienced military leader, having commanded troops in two Anglo-Dutch Wars, and was popular with the local public, having toured the South West of England to great acclaim in 1680.

Monmouth was proclaimed King in June and soon commanded a force of around 6,000 men. They advanced through Cornwall and Devon, reaching as far as the city of Bath, before turning round rather than face battle with the King’s forces. A similar revolt had been organised in Scotland to coincide with the Monmouth Rebellion, but when news of its failure reached the South West, morale plummetted.

King James sent out troops to face down the rebels and, at the Battle of Sedgemoor, they would meet. Monmouth found his troops, though more numerous than those of the King, to be far less experienced and well-trained. Monmouth’s forces were predominantly peasants armed with pitchforks and farm equipment and were no match for a regular standing army with guns and armour. They were routed at Sedgemoor, suffering over 1,300 killed to just 200 on the other side.

Of those who survived, 320 were executed for their part in the uprising, most by being hanged, drawn and quartered. A further 750 were transported to the colonies – in this case the Caribbean. Monmouth himself managed to survive the battle and flee unharmed, but was eventually captured and taken to the Tower of London. He was beheaded – high-ranking nobles were rarely subjected to the brutal treatment that regular treasonous types incurred – and reports claim that it took the executioner a full eight blows to remove his head.

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Wikipedia.

10 – Jacobite Rising, 1745

The Monmouth Rebellion – and more specifically the Battle of Sedgemoor – are often cited as the last proper, pitched battles ever to take place on English soil, but there is one major addendum to that: the Jacobite Rising.

It might be improper to talk of one singular Jacobite Rising, as there were rebellions in Scotland along similar lines dating from Argyll’s Rising, contemporaneous with the Monmouth Rebellion, through others in 1689, 1709, 1715 and 1719 until we reach the last major conflict to take place on British soil in 1745. The 45, as it became known, was the work of Charles Stuart, better known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the last of the Stuart dynasty. The Stuarts had included his great-grandfather, Charles I – executed in the English Civil War – and his grandfather, James II, who was deposed by William of Orange in 1688 when the Bonnie Prince’s father was just a baby.

Charles was born in exile in Italy and raised as a Catholic. He was well aware that the English and Scottish thrones were his birthright and was determined to return the Stuarts to what he saw as their rightful place. When he was in his 20s, a conflict over succession arose in Austria – this was hardly just a British problem – and the various alliances that had held between the major powers began to crack. The Stuarts were able to secure French backing for an invasion of Scotland and landed on the Outer Hebrides in July 1745.

The Highland clans gathered to his banner and the Jacobite forces, as they were known, marched and took Edinburgh. The only government forces in Scotland were routed at the end of the summer and by the autumn, Bonnie Prince Charlie had continued down into England with 6,000 men at his back. They went as far as Derbyshire in the English Midlands but later returned to Scotland, having not received the support from the French and dissenting English that they had banked upon.

The Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II, gave chase and eventually engaged Charles Stuart at Culloden in April 1746. The Bonnie Prince made some major tactical errors in the battle and his army was massacred by the English. Charles escaped and was hounded through the Highlands by Cumberland’s men, relying on his decreasing number of loyal friends for protection. He fled the country in September of 1746 and would never return to Scotland. His followers were not as lucky: thousands of Jacobites were arrested with the leaders executed and many more transported to the colonies for their part in the uprising.

It would be the last time that a major rebellion would challenge the British monarchy: the then King, George II, had been born in Germany, but would be the last monarch to be raised outside of the British Isles. His great-great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter is the current Queen Elizabeth II, with his House of Hanover only losing prominence due to the succession of a woman, Queen Victoria, and thus the ascension of the house of her husband, Prince Albert of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the throne.

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
A plaque erected in memory of John Baird and Andrew Hardie, two leaders of the Radical War in 1820. SATH.

11 – Radical War, 1820

It is widely recognised that Britain has never had a revolution in the mould of the French, Russian or American – though the English Civil War was arguably a similar break with the old and beginning of the new – and thus inferred that there is something in the British character that holds an aversion towards the sort of radical politics that tend to be necessary to make a revolution happen. That theory doesn’t hold much water: if there is one thing we have learned over the last few pages it is that the British are more than capable of the high passions needed to start a civil war, so a revolution is far from beyond them. It is worth also bearing in mind that those who created the American Revolution were, prior to the successful revolution, British.

What might be a better explanation is that, at the time that everyone else was having their uprisings, the British were insulated by a combination of economic circumstances, piecemeal reform and prohibitive levels of state violence. When the Storm of the Bastille was in full swing, for example, the British had just begun settlement of Australia and the class that produced the sans-culottes, the motor engine of the French Revolution, were the most likely to be sent there as convicts. Moreover, as revolution hit in France before it did in England, the English government were always able to learn from their dear decapitated neighbours over the Channel and plan accordingly – not to mention that the majority of the British public, hardened by years of war with France, were not particularly inclined to take after them. Once the Revolutionary Wars started and subsequently morphed into the Napoleonic Wars, the chances plummeted.

In Scotland, however, there was some revolutionary enthusiasm. Once Waterloo had been and gone – and crucially, all the troops had returned home – there would be an effort at revolution that would become known as the Radical War. The troops were central to it: thousands had fought against the French, only to return home and find an economic recession in full swing. Jobs were few, pay was low and the government didn’t seem to care a jot. In 1819, the killing of protestors at the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester sparked outrage and in 1820, the government executed a group known as the Cato Street Conspirators, whom they had accused of plotting revolution. The mood was ripe.

A group of radical societies in Scotland came together and proclaimed a “Committee for organising a Provisional Government” to replace the Crown in Scotland. Their leader would be John Baird, a weaver who had fought in the Army. A few days later, the revolutionary plan would come into effect. Strikes broke out all over Scotland and there were reports of working men performing military manoeuvres in the streets and making pikes. The mood was electric, but the government were prepared. A group sent to obtain weapons from an ironworks were attacked by soldiers and elsewhere, it became clear that the forces of reaction were ready to strike.

Later, it became clear that the government had acted as a catalyst for the revolt in order to deliberately expose the provocateurs. John Baird and 87 other men were charged with treason and many of them faced the hangman, while 20 found themselves on the next boat to Australia. The government were cognisant, however, of their massive unpopularity in Scotland, and organised a tour by the King to engage people and raise the popularity of the crown. Reform would follow too, with Glasgow receiving its first Member of the British Parliament in 1832.

12 British Civil Wars Your History Books Kept Quiet
The Eureka Flag is raised in Ballarat, Victoria, Australia in 1854. Wikipedia.

12 – Eureka Stockade, 1854

Though we have been discussing civil wars in Britain, we are going to take a major departure for our last example. The contention that British people are disinclined towards internecine conflict has been thoroughly taken apart in this piece and in fact, it has been shown to be endemic throughout the history of the country. Even, as in our final case, when the participants are on the other side of the world.

Our last example takes place in Australia, in 1854 but it is in every way a British civil war. The participants were British – Australia would not become a separate country for another 45 years and the vast majority were British or Irish born – and the social struggles that made the conflict take place were resolutely based in British society and the British attitude to law and order.

The Eureka Stockade, as it became to be known, took place in the gold mining town of Ballarat in the southern Australian colony of Victoria in the Australian summer of 1854 between the largely poor miners and the heavy-handed forces of authority. Miners had flocked to the area from all over Australia after gold was struck ten miles from Ballarat in 1851, creating a huge influx of people to the tiny community. The government attempted to capitalise on the discovery of gold by imposing a licence to mine, which was considered a tax by miners, and a tax for which they received no vote and thus representation in the governing of the colony.

This was exacerbated further by the religious makeup of the miners. They were mostly Catholic and of Irish descent, while the British were (obviously) British and strongly Protestant. The miners, inspired by the Chartists back in Britain, formed the Ballarat Reform League and wrote a set of demands to be presented to the Victorian government – with the meeting that drew up the demands voting to secede from Britain if their calls were not accepted.

When their demands were ignored, 12,000 miners met and voted that active resistance to the government would be the next step. Mining licences were burned and, on December 2, the miners raised the new Eureka Flag and swore the following oath to each other: “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.” The Eureka Flag notably included no reference to the Union Jack – possibly a result of having so many Irish participants – and the password to enter the newly-built stockade was “Vinegar Hill”, referencing a battle of the 1798 United Irishmen rebellion.

The Stockade was erected on the evening of December 2, a Saturday, and many in the barricaded area left after an evening’s drinking, assuming that the British would not attack on the following Sabbath. Instead, almost 300 soldiers struck at 3 am and destroyed the remaining miners inside in just ten minutes. It was a massacre, with 22 miners killed, many of them butchered by the soldiers when already injured. By 8 am, the Stockade had been destroyed.

The British thought that they had won a famous victory and went to spread the word around the rest of the colonies, but were greatly mistaken. On hearing of the news, people all over Victoria reacted with disgust at the brutality. Thousands marched in Melbourne in support of the Ballarat dead. When the

The effect on wider Australian history was profound: the Eureka Stockade is now seen as one of the founding events in the history of the nation, with Mark Twain later writing:

“I think it may be called the finest thing in Australasian history. It was a revolution—small in size; but great politically; it was a strike for liberty, a struggle for principle, a stand against injustice and oppression. … It is another instance of a victory won by a lost battle. It adds an honorable page to history; the people know it and are proud of it. They keep green the memory of the men who fell at the Eureka stockade, and Peter Lalor (the leader) has his monument.”