Atlantic History Religion in the British Civil Wars
Rachel N. Schnepper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 February 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0186


Religion and the British Civil Wars, also known as the War of the Three Kingdoms or the English Revolution, are inextricably interconnected: it is impossible to understand the causes and course of the English Revolution and exclude religion. Once the Long Parliament committed itself to the reformation of the Church of England, the question remained of what shape this reform should take. Competing visions of church-government or ecclesiologies, such as Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Erastianism, dominated debate within the halls of Parliament. However, the breakdown of state-controlled religious conformity released an explosion of new and often radical sects. These radical denominations, which included Ranters, Baptists, Diggers, Levellers, and Quakers, played a prominent role in both political and religious considerations of the Revolution. Furthermore, debates on national religious settlement favoring one church government over another were also complicated by the appearance of an initially minor, but sustained and increasingly important, transatlantic conversation over liberty of conscience. The centrality of religion was recognized, to a degree, in the 19th century, with Samuel Rawson Gardiner terming the English Revolution as the Puritan Revolution. Until comparatively recently, however, the religious factors in the Revolution tended to be downplayed or explained away in nonreligious terms. Recent historiography has renewed interest in the religious dimensions of the English Revolution, an interest that has been shaped by a reconceptualization and redefinition of the meanings of religious belief for ordinary men and women in the 17th century. It is now almost universally agreed upon by historians of the English Revolution that the civil wars between the three kingdoms of the British monarchy—England, Scotland, and Ireland—erupted principally over differing visions of national church-government. Despite being a relatively recent intervention in the scholarship, the literature on religion in the English Revolution is vast, and it continues to provide fertile ground for research and debate. With such breadth of scholarship, the focus of this bibliography must necessarily be truncated and selective. Nevertheless, many of the works included in this article are intended to give the researcher an overview not only of religious history in England in the 1640s and 1650s, but also of the other components of the British monarchy, including not just Scotland and Ireland but also the Atlantic colonies of the nascent British Empire.

General Overviews

The almost annual appearance of general overviews of the English Revolution or the British Civil Wars points to the continued vitality of this historiographical field. Researchers new to the field will probably gain the most by starting with Woolrych 2002, which addresses the “multiple kingdoms” with multiple religions problem of the British state, integrating the Scottish and Irish histories into what until recently was mostly focused on England. This recent shift to focusing on the problem of multiple kingdoms with multiple religions within the British state owes its origins to Russell 1990, but Gardiner 2011, a multivolume series on the outbreak and course of the Revolution, engages with similar ideas and themes. Recent broad narrative accounts of 1640–1660, such as Scott 2000, push this trend in the scholarship even further, locating the British Isles’ century of revolution within a pan-European context. Morrill 1993 builds upon the historiographical intervention of Russell 1990 but places more emphasis on the centrality of religious belief in the outbreak and course of the English Revolution. Morrill 1993 continues to be relevant, as evidenced by Prior and Burgess 2011, which takes the author’s claim that the British Civil Wars were “the last of the Wars of Religion” (p. 68) as its point of departure. Just when exactly the Revolution radicalized continues to be a fiercely debated topic, but Cressy 2006, looking at the first two years of the Revolution from a wider, more popular point of view, challenges prevailing notions that the Revolution radicalized in the mid- to late 1640s, locating the seeds of popular radicalism from its outset. Adamson 2007 looks at the same period as Cressy 2006 but from a wholly different perspective, at the godly elites in the House of Lords.

  • Adamson, John. The Noble Revolt: The Overthrow of Charles I. London: Orion, 2007.

    Exhaustive reconstruction of events from 1640 to 1642 that focuses exclusively on the peers who, Adamson argues, were responsible for the revolt against Charles I. In his provocative analysis of these peers, Adamson maintains that their religious and political frustrations at the policies of the monarchy incited them to revolt.

  • Cressy, David. England on Edge: Crisis and Revolution, 1640–1642. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Cressy argues that England was in the midst of revolutionary turmoil and upheaval before the outbreak of civil war in 1642. The bulk of the book, Part 2, focuses exclusively on English religious culture prior to 1642, tracing the rise and collapse of Laudianism and the factionalism that emerged in its wake.

  • Gardiner, Samuel Rawson. History of England from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War, 1603–1642. 10 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    First published in 1883–1884; continued in History of the Great Civil War, 1642–1649 (5 vols., London: Longmans, Green, 1893) and History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate, 1649–1660 (4 vols., London: Longmans, Green, 1903). Exhaustive treatment of constitutional, religious, and legal thought from the early Stuart period and Revolution. Useful mostly for scholars interested in historiographical evolution.

  • Morrill, John. The Nature of the English Revolution: Essays. New York: Longman, 1993.

    A collection of essays by Morrill subdivided into three thematic sections: the importance of localism during the Civil Wars, the centrality of religion to the conflict, and a push to see the English Revolution from a British point of view. His essay titled “The Religious Context of the English Civil War” famously claimed that the English Civil War was “the last of Europe’s wars of religion” (pp. 45–68).

  • Prior, Charles W. A., and Glenn Burgess, eds. England’s Wars of Religion, Revisited. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 2011.

    Introduction argues that, until recently, historians understood the English Revolution as a struggle to preserve civil liberty, but one in which participants used a religious idiom to express a politically revolutionary ideology. Each essay rejects this view, maintaining that historians must take seriously the religious language of the time.

  • Russell, Conrad. The Causes of the English Civil War. Oxford: Clarendon, 1990.

    Russell’s seminal breakdown of the causes of the English Civil Wars, attributing them to the constitutional problem of multiple kingdoms, the religious problem of competing theologies, and the financial and personal poverty of Charles I.

  • Scott, Jonathan. England’s Troubles: Seventeenth-Century English Political Instability in European Context. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511605741

    Scott situates England’s century of “troubles” within the wider contexts of European confessionalization, state formation, and militarization of the 17th century.

  • Woolrych, Austin. Britain in Revolution: 1625–1660. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Massive narrative account of the English Revolution with particular focus on Irish and Scottish roles.

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