Wars of the Three Kingdoms


The Wars of the Three Kingdoms or Wars of the Three Nations were a series of interconnected conflicts that took place in Scotland, Ireland and England between 1639 and 1653, a time when all three countries were under personal union, with Charles I Stuart as monarch. The best known of these conflicts is the English Civil War.

The wars were the result of tension between the king and his subjects over religious and civil matters. Religious disputes centered on whether religion would depend on the monarch or on the choice of the subject, who would have a direct relationship with God. The civil issues consisted of the limitation of the King”s power by the parliament, particularly his ability to raise taxes and launch his armies into war without his consent. In addition, these wars also had an element of national conflict, such as the Irish and Scottish rebellion against English primacy among the Three Kingdoms. The victory of the English parliament led by Oliver Cromwell over the king, the Irish and the Scots helped determine the future of what was to become the United Kingdom as a constitutional monarchy with power concentrated in London.

The wars of the three kingdoms coincide in time with several similar conflicts in Europe, such as the Fronde in France and the so-called crisis of 1640 of the Catholic Hispanic Monarchy, with the rebellion of Catalonia, Portugal, Naples, Sicily and Andalusia; all of this forming part of the so-called crisis of the 17th century that would be characterized, according to the interpretation of some historians, by the conservative rebellion of the nobles against the centralization of the kings who sought to build absolute monarchies.

The wars of the three kingdoms include the Bishops” War of 1639 and 1640, the Scottish Civil War of 1644-5; the Irish Rebellion of 1641, the Confederate Ireland of 1642-9 and Cromwell”s Conquest of Ireland of 1649 (and the English Civil Wars (First 1642-6, Second 1648-9 and Third 1650-51).

The naming of these conflicts as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms comes from the purpose of current historians to give a unified view of all of them, instead of considering them only as the backdrop of the English Civil War. Some others propose the name British Civil Wars, but others consider that using the adjective British may be understood as premature before the Act of Union of 1800.

The personal union of the three kingdoms under a single monarch occurred in relatively recent terms for seventeenth-century contemporaries. Since 1541, the kings of England had ruled their Irish territories as if they were another kingdom (with the help of an Irish Parliament distinct from the English), while Wales had been much more integrated into the Crown of England since the reign of Henry VIII. Scotland, the third independent kingdom, was joined to the same crown when James VI of Scotland acceded to the throne of England as James I in 1603. Jointly governing the three states would become a difficult task for James I and his successors, especially when they tried to impose religious unity.

In each of the Three Kingdoms a different religion prevailed; in England, after the English Reformation, Henry VIII became the head of the Anglican Church, prohibiting Catholicism in England and Wales, and during the 16th century, Anglicanism became a sign of English identity. The English saw Catholicism as the great enemy of their country, incarnated mainly in France and Spain. However, Catholicism persisted as the majority religion in Ireland, and was for many the symbol of resistance to the reconquest of the island by the Tudor dynasty. Finally, in Scotland, the Protestant Reformation was a popular movement led by John Knox. The Scottish Parliament legislated in favor of a National Church of Scotland of Presbyterian sign, also called “Kirk”. After this, Queen Mary of Scotland, a Catholic, was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James, who grew up in the midst of a regency disputed by the Catholic and Protestant parties. When he came to power, he aspired to be a “Universal King” and tried to implement a system of Episcopal church management along the lines of the English one, in which the King would be the one to appoint the bishops. In 1584 he tried to put this into practice but, in the face of vigorous opposition, he was forced to let the General Assembly that had governed the church up to that point continue to do so.

Scotland and the religious question

James VI continued to be a Protestant, trying to maintain his chances to the throne of England. In 1603 he was finally crowned king as James I of England and moved to London. All his diplomacy and political skills he devoted from then on to dealing with the English court and Parliament while ruling Scotland through letters to the Privy Council of Scotland and controlling the Scottish Parliament through the Lords of the Congregation. He suspended meetings of the Scottish General Assembly and increased the number of Scottish bishops, and, in 1618, held a General Assembly at which he imposed the Five Articles of Episcopalian practices, which were widely boycotted. On his death in 1625, he was succeeded by his son Charles, who was far less able than his father. Crowned in St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, he assumed and tried from the beginning to impose the rites of the Anglican Church on his Scottish subjects. His clashes with the Church of Scotland reached their peak when he tried to impose the use of the Book of Common Prayer. When in 1639 Charles tried to use military methods to force the Scots, the situation exploded.

In a way, this revolt was a manifestation of Scottish resentment at the secondary position that Scotland had taken after the accession of James I to the throne of England.


Charles shared his father”s belief in the divine character of the monarchy and his assertions in this regard led him to drive a major wedge between the crown and the English Parliament. As long as the Church of England continued to hold positions of power, a powerful Puritan minority, represented by a third of the members of Parliament, had many features in common with the Scottish Presbyterians.

The English Parliament frequently clashed with the King on issues such as taxation, military spending, or the role of Parliament in government. Although James I had held the same view as his son regarding the Royal Prerogative, he had been clever enough to persuade Parliament to accept his policy. Charles lacked this ability, leading to the crisis of 1639-1642 and the subsequent Civil War. When Charles asked Parliament for funds for a campaign in Scotland, the members of Parliament refused, went into permanent session, and laid out a long list of political and religious grievances that Charles had to address before seeing his new legislation passed.


Meanwhile, in the Kingdom of Ireland (proclaimed as such in 1541, although it was only fully conquered by the crown in 1603), tensions had risen again. The Lord Deputy, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford had frequent clashes with the natives due to the policy of confiscating land and granting it to English settlers. He angered the Catholics by imposing new taxes and curtailing their legal rights. This situation exploded in 1639 when Wentworth offered the Catholics the reforms they demanded in exchange for the creation of an Irish army to quell the uprisings in Scotland. Although the army would be led by Protestant officers, the idea of an Irish Catholic army supporting what many saw as a tyrannical government horrified Scottish and English parliamentarians, who threatened to invade Ireland.

Modern historians have emphasized the inevitability of the Civil Wars, noting that all sides involved resorted to violence in the midst of a situation characterized by mutual distrust and paranoia. Charles I”s inability to bring the Bishops” War to a swift conclusion caused other disgruntled groups to begin to consider the use of violence as a means to achieve their goals.

Alienated by English Protestant rule, and frightened by the rhetoric of the English and Scottish Parliaments, a small group of Irish conspirators revolted in 1641 in support of the king. The uprising led to widespread assaults on Protestant communities in Ireland, some of them ending in massacres. Rumor spread through England and Scotland that these massacres had royal approval, and that this would be their fate if the king”s Irish army landed on the island of Great Britain. As a result, the English Parliament refused to fund a royal army to put down the Irish rebellion, and decided to organize a force of its own. For his part, the King succeeded in assembling a force composed of those who believed that loyalty to the Legitimate King was more important than other political principles.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642. The Scottish Covenanters, as the Presbyterians, allied with the English Parliament, called themselves, joined the war in 1643 and played a decisive role in the victory of the Parliamentarians. The king”s forces were overwhelmed by the new Parliamentary army – backed and financed by the City of London. Charles I finally surrendered in 1646 and was imprisoned. However, in 1648 he managed to escape from prison and join the Scottish Catholics, starting the Second English Civil War. Captured again, he was beheaded in January 1649. In Ireland, the Irish Catholics formed their own government – Confederate Ireland – with the intention of helping the Royalists in exchange for religious toleration and political autonomy. English and Scottish forces fought in Ireland, while the Irish Confederates organized an expedition to Scotland in 1644, initiating the Scottish Civil War. For their part, the Scottish Royalists won a series of victories between 1644 and 1645, but were finally defeated at the end of the English Civil War with the return of the Protestant armies to Scotland.

After the end of the Second English Civil War in January 1649, Parliamentary forces, now commanded by Oliver Cromwell, invaded Ireland and defeated the coalition formed by Royalists and Irish Confederates. The alliance of the English Parliament with the Covenanters had been broken, and the Scots had proclaimed Charles II king, initiating hostilities against England. Cromwell undertook the conquest of Scotland in 1650-1651 and, on September 3, defeated Charles II at the Battle of Worcester, who led a Scottish army in the hope that a Royalist uprising in England would help him regain his throne.

After the conclusion of the wars, the Three Kingdoms emerged as a single state, known as the Commonwealth of England; formally, it was governed as a republic, although in practice it functioned as a dictatorship.

While the Wars of the Three Kingdoms anticipated much of the changes that would eventually shape the face of modern Britain, they resolved very little at the time. The Commonwealth managed to reach a solution (albeit a relatively unstable one) between monarchy and republic. In practice, Oliver Cromwell exercised his power through control of the parliamentary military forces, but his legal status was never clear, even when he became Lord Protector. None of the proposed Constitutions were ever put into practice. Thus, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate established by the victorious Parliamentarians left little in the way of new forms of government.

The main developments arising from these events were:

English Protestants enjoyed religious freedom during the Interregnum, but English Catholics did not. The new authorities abolished the Church of England and the House of Lords. Cromwell dissolved the Rabbis Parliament, but was unable to create a valid alternative. Neither Cromwell nor his supporters moved towards a popular democracy, as the more radical wings of the Parliamentarians (such as the Levellers) intended.

The New Model Army occupied Ireland and Scotland during the Interregnum. In Ireland, the new government confiscated almost all the property of the Catholic-Irish in punishment for the rebellion of 1641, who were hit by extremely severe penal legislation. The confiscated lands were given to Parliamentarian soldiers, who settled on them. The Commonwealth abolished the Irish and Scottish Parliaments. In theory, these countries would have representation in the English Parliament, but since this body never came to have real power, such representation never took effect. On Cromwell”s death in 1658, the Commonwealth was dissolved without violence and Charles II resumed the title of King of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1660.

Under the English Restoration, the political system returned to the pre-war constitutional position. The new regime executed or imprisoned for life those responsible for Charles I”s regicide. The neo-Realists dug up Cromwell”s corpse and executed him posthumously. The radicals considered responsible for the war were severely repressed. Scotland and Ireland regained their Parliaments, and some Irish (not all) regained confiscated lands, while the New Model Army was disbanded.

In any case, the issues that had originated the wars – the religious question, the power of Parliament and the relations between the three States – had remained unresolved, so it was only a matter of time before the problems re-emerged, which would happen in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It was from then on that Great Britain began to show the distinctive signs that have survived to the present day: Protestant Constitutional Monarchy, with England at its head, and a powerful standing army.



  1. Guerras de los Tres Reinos
  2. Wars of the Three Kingdoms