King Charles I

The English Civil Wars and Virginia

The English Civil Wars (1642–1648) were a pair of civil wars fought in England that set King Charles I and his supporters against supporters of the English parliament, which opposed his policies. These wars and the resulting changes to English and colonial government affected Virginia in a number of ways. As a royal colony, Virginia was expected to support the king in wartime; while Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley enforced Charles I's views on religious conformity to the Church of England, he took a more relaxed approach to colonial commerce, declaring neutrality in order to maintain a robust trade. In 1648, Parliamentarian forces under the command of Oliver Cromwell prevailed. In 1649, Charles I was executed and a republican government called the Commonwealth, ruled by Parliament, replaced the monarchy. The Commonwealth pursued economic and imperial policies that linked its colonies more closely to England. Virginia initially resisted this regime, proclaiming Charles II king, but was forced to surrender to Parliament on March 12, 1652. In May 1660, Charles II was restored to the throne, and Virginians pointed toward their initial resistance to the Commonwealth as evidence of the colony's loyalty, cultivating an enduring image of Virginia as a royalist stronghold. MORE...



Between 1638 and 1648, a series of conflicts pitted King Charles I and his supporters (called Cavaliers) against groups who opposed his rule—the Covenanters in Scotland and the Parliamentarians (or Roundheads) in England. Charles I's armies were defeated by Parliamentarian troops in 1645 and again in 1648. The king was taken prisoner in 1648 and in January 1649 stood trial before a court established by the Rump Parliament. (The Rump, as it is often called, consisted of those members of the Long Parliament, assembled in 1640, who remained after troops under Colonel Thomas Pride purged that legislative body of men who supported signing a peace treaty with the king.) After being found guilty of high treason, Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649.

The English government was reorganized as a republic, without a monarch or House of Lords. Under this new government, called the Commonwealth, Parliament acted as both executive and legislative branch. The Commonwealth oversaw the conquest of Ireland and Scotland; it also forced the colonies such as Virginia that opposed regicide and republicanism to accept its authority. This government endured until 1653, when Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan statesman who had led the Parliamentarians to victory, forcibly dissolved a conflicted Parliament. Cromwell helped assemble another legal body called the Barebones Parliament (so named for one of its members, lay preacher Praise-God Barebone), composed of his political allies who were often his fellow religious radicals. But when the Barebones Parliament was unable to govern effectively, Cromwell was made Lord Protector of England. After Cromwell died in September 1658, his son Richard Cromwell succeeded him, but stepped down just nine months later. The republic resumed, but infighting among members of Parliament created an opening for forces under George Monck, the English governor of Scotland, to march to London and restore the Long Parliament. In May 1660, Charles II, son of the executed monarch, was recognized by Parliament as the King of England.

War's Impact on Virginia

From the outbreak of civil war in 1642 until the regicide in 1649, the political upheaval in England affected Virginia trade and raised questions of allegiance. The war had stymied English shipping: ships that were not diverted to military purposes were seized, along with their cargos, as an act of war, which disrupted Virginia's tobacco sales to its chief market and its supply of servants and trade goods. As a result, the colony's economic survival depended on a diverse and vigorous trade. Virginia's trade with the Dutch, New England, and the West Indies increased dramatically throughout the 1640s. As the only colony run by the Crown and not by a company of investors, Virginia had a particular responsibility for avoiding the king's enemies, and, in some cases, for punishing them. But Virginia governor Sir William Berkeley declared a policy of neutrality, allowing Virginians to trade with any merchants who came to the colony, regardless of their affiliation. While profitable, neutrality still had its risks: in 1644, two English ships—one Royalist, one Parliamentarian—fired on each other in the James River, killing a planter who was on board one of the vessels.

Berkeley was more inclined to support his king in religious matters, introducing and supporting legislation that targeted religious nonconformists, particularly ministers. The laws were an attempt to avoid the same kind of political unrest that raged in England, where Puritans, religious dissenters who believed that the Anglican church retained too many "popish," or Catholic, elements, usually sided with and fought for the Parliamentarians. These harsh conformity laws added to the tension that had sprung up between Anglicans and Puritans in Virginia as news of the English Civil Wars trickled overseas; by 1650, most Virginia Puritans had left the colony for Maryland or Massachusetts.

Surrender and a New Colonial Vision

The establishment of England's new Commonwealth government would have ended Virginia's status as a royal colony, except that Virginia resisted this change. Rather than remain tied to England under the circumstances, Virginia was one of a number of colonies to proclaim Charles II king in 1649. In part as a response to Virginia's intransigence, the Commonwealth enacted a set of uniform policies for all colonies with the intention of linking them more closely to England. One such policy was the Navigation Act (1651), which limited colonial trade to English merchants and vessels in the hope that the wealth produced by the colonies would benefit England alone. When Virginians resisted, Parliament blockaded the colony, forcing Governor Berkeley to surrender on March 12, 1652. Still, the General Assembly managed to negotiate free trade as one of its terms, circumventing the Navigation Act. Ironically, the law was later revived under Charles II.

After surrendering 1652, Virginia was ruled directly by the English government until the Restoration of 1660. Though Parliament forced Berkeley to step down as governor after the surrender, the colony was able to elect its own governor and Council—officeholders who had previously been appointed by the king. In a lucky if not prescient move, the governor's Council elected Berkeley to another term as governor in March 1660, just two months before Charles II was restored to the throne. (News of the event likely did not reach the colonies until the summer of 1660.)

English Civil Wars in Virginia's Memory

Having initially resisted England's Commonwealth regime, and having reinstalled a former royal governor of its own accord, Virginia was in an excellent position to plead its loyalty to the king after the Restoration. Indeed, the colony even gained a reputation as a Royalist stronghold—a reputation some Virginians cultivated by exaggerating the number of Royalist officers, or Cavaliers, who migrated to the colony after 1648, and claiming that most Virginians were descended from the English aristocracy. While a number of Royalists—including members of the Washington, Randolph, Carter, and Lee families—sought refuge in Virginia, most remained in England or settled in Europe. And most immigrants to Virginia in the seventeenth century were indentured servants, not English gentry. Regardless, the Cavalier myth—perpetuated by romantic, nostalgic depictions of Virginia plantation life in literature and historical studies—took hold in Virginia and persisted throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Some scholars view the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War (1861–1865) as an extension of the Cavalier myth.

In creating this enduring image, Virginia's complicity with Parliament and the Commonwealth government of England was erased from memory—although colonial Virginians remained happy to acknowledge their desire for free trade, first expressed in opposition to imperial policies during these years.

Time Line

  • August 22, 1642 - The English Civil Wars begin when Charles I raises his standard at Nottingham to rally his supporters against Parliamentary forces.
  • 1643 - Governor Sir William Berkeley and the General Assembly agree to legislation ordering that "all nonconformists … shall be compelled to depart the collony with all conveniencie."
  • 1644 - English ships hailing from Royalist Bristol and Parliamentarian London exchange shots on the James River, killing a planter aboard one of the ships.
  • March 17, 1646 - Parliament considers a statement by Virginia that its location in America necessitates neutrality in relation to the upheaval in England.
  • November 1647 - The General Assembly passes an act reinforcing the use of the Book of Common Prayer by allowing parishioners to withhold tithes from nonconforming ministers.
  • October 10, 1649 - The House of Burgesses, meeting for the first time since news of Charles I's death reached Virginia, enacts legislation punishing those who publicly support the regicide or refuse to acknowledge Charles II as king.
  • August 1650 - The Parliament of the Commonwealth government of England enacts an informal embargo of the colonies that assert their support for Charles II and their refusal to come under the authority of the new Commonwealth government, among them Barbados, Bermuda, and Virginia.
  • October 9, 1651 - Parliament passes the Navigation Act, which requires all goods shipped to and from the American colonies to travel in English ships and excludes Dutch vessels from American ports, thereby denying Virginia planters their best trading partners.
  • Spring 1652 - The House of Burgesses elects William Claiborne senior member of the governor's Council and secretary of the colony.
  • December 15, 1653 - Oliver Cromwell is appointed Lord Protector of England.
  • January 2, 1655 - A group of English merchants petitions Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell for permission to cruise the Chesapeake and seize any ship trading illegally there. Cromwell denies the petition, but the request indicates that the merchants believe Virginia is routinely violating the trade restriction policy.
  • September 3, 1658 - Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, dies at age fifty-nine. His son Richard Cromwell succeeds him, but is removed from his position by a faction of the British army just nine months later, in May 1659.
  • December 1, 1660 - Parliament's revision of the Navigation Act goes into effect. According to the law, the colonies are only able to engage in trade with ships "whereof the master and three-fourths of the mariners at least are English."
  • March 1661 - The House of Burgesses designates January 30, the anniversary of Charles I's execution, a fasting day. This act is consistent with the Church of England's campaign to present the late king as a martyr to his religion, thereby sidestepping the political, economic, and military causes of his demise.
Further Reading
Bliss, Robert M. Revolution and Empire: English Politics and the American Colonies in the Seventeenth Century. New York: Manchester University Press, 1993.
Craven, Frank Wesley. The Southern Colonies in the Seventeenth Century, 1607–1689 (A History of the South, vol. 1). Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1949.
Pestana, Carla Gardina. The English Atlantic in an Age of Revolution, 1640–1661. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004.
Cite This Entry
  • APA Citation:

    Pestana, C. The English Civil Wars and Virginia. (2012, May 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from

  • MLA Citation:

    Pestana, Carla. "The English Civil Wars and Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 4 May. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.

First published: November 15, 2011 | Last modified: May 4, 2012

Contributed by Carla Pestana, the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University, a Guggenheim Fellow, and the author of numerous books on early American and Atlantic history.