The Beginning of Britain’s Civil Wars

Before I begin writing about Britain’s civil wars I thought there needed to be some baseline posts explaining why I’d chosen the boundaries to limit the scope of the blog. To start with here’s a view on the beginning of Britain as a political entity.

The Beginning of Britain

Stonehenge – proof that people have lived in Britain for millennia (photo: James Kemp)

Geographically Britain has existed for millennia. There have been people living here continuously since the end of the last ice age around 9000BC(1). Until the sixteenth century there were multiple sovereign states, gradually coalescing over time. In 1603, when Queen Elizabeth I of England died, all three Kingdoms of the British Isles shared a monarch.

The Three Kingdoms

Modern readers may be familiar with there being four components to the United Kingdom. These are Scotland, England, Wales (which together make Great Britain) and Northern Ireland. Historically there were only three Kingdoms:

  • England;
  • Ireland;
  • Scotland.

The Kingdom of England subsumed the principality of Wales in the 14th century. There was no change of name. Wales was considered an integral part of England, in the same way as other outlying counties like Northumbria(2).

In the mid sixteenth century Henry VIII declared himself the King of Ireland. Before that the Kings of England had claimed Lordship of Ireland since the Norman invasion of Ireland in the twelfth century. Despite sharing a King the two Kingdoms were kept distinct.

The third of the Kingdoms was Scotland. England and Scotland had warred over sovereignty in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The Scots had won, although there were a number of minor wars, culminating in the Battle of Flodden which was a disaster for the Scots nobility. The two Royal houses intermarried and there followed a period known as ‘the Rough Wooing’.

Union of the Crowns

When Elizabeth I died in 1603 without issue, James VI of Scotland inherited the other two crowns. For the first time there was a single source of authority over all of the British Isles. To be fair, that authority wasn’t always recognised in the fringes.

Britain still had three governments. Separate parliaments and officers of state existed for each of the Kingdoms. They had distinct laws, customs and taxes. There were two Royal Navies(3).

It would take another 200 years and several civil wars before all three kingdoms were integrated into a single United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. That United Kingdom would only last 121 years before it was again divided.

1603 represents the beginning of Britain, that is the birth of the concept of Britain as a political entity. The internal wars within the British Isles can only be considered British Civil Wars from this point on. With a common sovereign they stop being wars between states.


(1) Bradley, Richard (2007). The prehistory of Britain and Ireland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-521-84811-3.

(2) Davies, R.R. (1987) Conquest, coexistence and change: Wales 1063–1415 (Clarendon Press, University of Wales Press) ISBN 0-19-821732-3 Online from Oxford University Press: DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198208785.001.0001

(3)  Rodger, N.A.M. (2004) The command of the ocean : a naval history of Britain, Vol. 2., 1649-1815, London : Allen Lane in association with the National Maritime Museum, ISBN 0-7139-9411-8

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