Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex - Role in The First English Civil War: 1642-1646

Role in The First English Civil War: 1642-1646

Essex had been put in a difficult position in 1642. Parliament had voted to raise an army to counter the Royalist one Charles was leading but it was collectively unsure about how to conduct it. This state of affairs was unprecedented in English history. Parliamentarians wanted to make a deal with the King on their terms but they did not want to commit treason.

The Parliamentary ordinance that commissioned Essex to his post of Captain-General gave him the task of "preserving the Safety of his Majesty's Person". It did not specifically instruct him to engage the King in battle as this would have been treason. It conveniently blamed the brewing troubles on those surrounding the King rather than Charles himself, specifically "the cunning practice of Papists, and malicious Counsels of divers ill-affected Persons, inciting his Majesty to raise men." It also bound Essex to, "execute the Office of Captain-General, in such Manner, and according to such Instructions, as he shall, from Time to Time, receive from both Houses of Parliament," which was inevitably going to be a constraint on his ability to command an army. All these elements were a weight on the mind of Essex. It is to his credit that he was actually able to raise an army that was capable of fighting the royalist forces in battle.

On 22 August 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham Castle. This was a symbolic declaration of war against Parliament. It was clear from this point onwards that the two armies would engage in battle at some point, starting the English Civil War. However the majority of those supporting Parliament were still fearful of committing treason against the King and this inhibited them in the early years of the conflict. They were also well aware that an agreement with Charles would be necessary to achieve the future settlement of the kingdom once the war was over. A republican settlement was not the objective of the Parliamentary army at this point and it would not be during Essex's lifetime. This inevitably gave Charles the upper hand at first.

Royalist MPs gradually filtered away from parliament during 1642. They later joined a rival Parliament set up by the King in Oxford (see the Oxford Parliament). The remnants of the Long Parliament gradually split into two camps. One wished to defeat the King in battle. The other, known as the peace party, wanted to force Charles to the negotiating table rather than defeat him. Pym led the "middle group", which sought to maintain good relations between the two.

Essex's commitment to the Parliamentary cause never wavered. However his sympathies lay with the peace party throughout the conflict. This undermined his effectiveness as a military leader.

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