Great rebellion, English Revolution or War of Religion?

The Civil War was, and remains today, one of the most controversial episodes in the history of this country. Historians continue to argue about its causes and significance. Its historiography (the way its historical interpretation has changed over the years) is still vibrant and fascinating.

Whig history

In the 19th century, the 'Whig view' was that this huge upheaval should be seen as constitutional fight between two sides: an absolutist, reactionary, King and a reforming, democratic Parliament - paving the way ultimately for the liberal democracy, Parliamentary sovereignty and a constitutional monarchy such as the 19th century believed had been established.

Cromwell was seen as the great liberator of the English people; a hero of democracy.

This is history seen as an inevitable progress towards a glorious future: a pattern imposed on the past with little thought of anachronism or the subtleties of events and personalities.

Marxist interpretations

In the 1940s, another school of thought - espoused by Marxist historians - interpreted the events of the ‘English Revolution’ as a class war, with the merchant and commercial classes supporting Parliamentary ‘liberty’ and giving rise to a new Parliamentary class linked to protestant economic expansion.


By the 1970s a new ‘Revisionist’ school of thought had emerged which rejected both these views and saw more complex issues behind the Civil War. These issues included consideration of local interests and loyalties, the role of Charles I’s character and kingship, and the importance of widening the English Civil War to take in a ‘British’ Civil war (or wars) including England, Scotland and Ireland.

Some of the most recent work on the Civil War has looked at the complexity of religious belief behind who fought whom between 1629 and 1660. Many historians now believe that it is religion and not political or social aims which were the driving force behind events in the 17th century.

There is now a strong case for believing that the Civil War should be treated as English, or British, Wars of Religion, which fits it neatly into a wider context of brutal European wars of religion occurring at much the same time.

Also in this section

Some suggestions of sources to continue your research of the Civil War


You can access biographies of

Oliver Cromwell
Charles I

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.