My name is David Flintham and I’ve had a long interest in history, especially battlefields and fortifications. Ever since I saw the film ‘Cromwell’ in 1970, I’ve been fascinated by the British Civil Wars.
I have travelled extensively, not only in the UK and Europe but as far afield as North America and South Africa, just to explore fortifications and battlefields. This is my passion and I hope that your interest grows too as a result of this walk.
Today we’re in Westminster, which is a popular visitor and tourist destination. Many of the sites that you see today are centuries old and would have been known to visitors 360 years ago. This route takes the walker on a journey through two of the most significant decades of British history: the 1640s and 1650s. You’ll stand face to face with the two main characters in the Civil War – King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell – and see the very buildings where dramatic events unfolded. You’ll also learn how London has changed and developed in the centuries since.
The walk starts in Trafalgar Square and ends at Marble Arch. It is about 3 miles long. The roads and pavements can be very busy in this area so please take care, particularly when crossing roads.
The English Civil War. Some people think it’s another boring bit of history. Some people think it’s the most significant chapter in the nation’s history. So what was it all about?
For two decades, from Cornwall to Caithness and from Kent to Cork, family and friends, villages and towns found themselves ‘by the sword divided’. It was a time that often saw brutal fighting, the execution of a king, Britain becoming a Republic for the only time in its history and finally the joyful restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
London missed any major fighting – although only just. But as the nation’s capital it was often at the centre of things throughout the period.
Indeed, it can be said that the Civil War started and finished in Westminster at points within 500 metres of each other. These two points are central to this walk. We’ll explore the main sites and landmarks finding out the stories behind the facades and how Westminster was, in fact, at the centre of the English Civil War.
Armour and weaponry from the Civil War era
Linda Spashett (Creative Commons License)
From Trafalgar Square use the pedestrian crossings to cross to the traffic island at the top of Whitehall and stop where there is a statue of King Charles I on horseback.
3 A good man but a bad king
Charles I is the first character to introduce in our story. He was born in Dunfermline Palace in Scotland in 1600. He was the second son of James I of England (who was also James VI of Scotland).
When his popular older brother, Henry, died in 1625, Charles became King. He married Henrietta Maria of France, who was a Catholic, and they had a happy marriage with five surviving children.
The equestrian statue of Charles I was made eight years into his reign. As we will hear later, his reign was cut short in a very real sense by the executioner’s axe.
After his execution in 1649, the statue was handed to a man called John Rivett, who was a brazier (someone who makes things from brass). He was ordered to destroy the statue. He claimed to have sold parts of it as souvenirs but actually he had buried it in his garden!
After the monarchy was restored, the statue reappeared and was erected here in 1675 on a pedestal designed by Sir Christopher Wren and carved by Joshua Marshall.
Portrait of Charles I by van Dyck (1636)
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Use the pedestrian crossing to cross to the left side of Whitehall. Walk down Whitehall in the direction of the Houses of Parliament. Immediately after crossing Horse Guards Avenue, stop outside the Banqueting Hall on the left.
4 Traitor or Martyr?
This road is Whitehall. It got its name from being the site of the Palace of Whitehall, which was the main residence of English monarchs in London from 1530 until 1698.
The Palace was continually added to and became a rambling maze of apartments, grand halls and courtyards, eventually having nearly 2,000 rooms. The Palace was destroyed by fire in 1698 and the Banqueting House is the only remaining part.
The Banqueting House has a magnificent ceiling commissioned by Charles I and painted by Rubens that celebrates wise kingship. This is rather ironic because this was exactly where Charles was executed for his misdemeanours as a king!
A group of radical MPs put the king on trial for treason. We’ll hear more about the reasons why in due course. He was found guilty and that’s why – on the bitterly cold morning of 30 January 1649 – the disgraced king, Charles I was led out onto the balcony above you to be executed. He was wearing two shirts just in case his shivering from the cold weather was mistaken by the crowd for fear or weakness.
The executioner was masked, and there is some debate over his identity. The Commissioners did approach Richard Brandon, the common Hangman of London, but he refused to do the job, although one source says that, on his deathbed, he confessed to being the executioner.
Charles’ final words were: “I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, where no disturbance can be.”
In those days, it was common practice for the head of a traitor to be held up and exhibited to the crowd with the words “Behold the head of a traitor!” Although Charles’ head was exhibited, the words were not used. In an unprecedented gesture, the King’s head was sewn back on to his body so the family could pay its respects.
One week after the king’s execution, the monarchy in England was abolished. But that was by no means the end of the story! Although accused of being a “Tyrant, Traitor, Murderer and Public Enemy”, Charles I was no more a tyrant than Elizabeth I and significantly less of a one than Henry VIII. In addition, Charles was later to be celebrated as an Anglican Martyr.
Execution of Charles I at Banqueting House (1649)
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Continue along the left side of Whitehall. When you reach Parliament Square, use the pedestrian crossing to go straight across to the front of the Houses of Parliament. Stop near the first vehicle gates, known as the Carriage Gates, where there are usually some police on guard.
5 "I see the Birds have Flown"
At the previous stop, we heard about Charles’ execution. In order to understand how the situation reached such a dramatic point, we need to go back a few years and learn a little about the early years of Charles’ reign.
A lot of the problems stemmed from Charles’ religious preferences. Since the reign of King Henry VIII, England had been a Protestant country. But Charles had married a Catholic woman. He preferred a form of High Anglicanism that, for many, was almost indistinguishable from Catholicism. His own religion was one thing, but his attempts to make High Anglicanism the standard form of religion didn’t go down well with ordinary people, many of whom were Puritans. Puritanism had been a growing movement within Protestant Christianity, which advocated a “purity” of worship and doctrine, as well as personal and group piety.
Charles and parliament did not agree about various issues. So Charles decided to dismiss parliament in 1629 and rule alone. This period saw escalating problems – rebellion in England over new taxes, riots in Scotland about the new prayer book, and murders of Protestants by Catholics in Ireland. The whole realm was in disarray. Charles couldn’t resolve this on his own: he needed parliament. So after 11 years without a parliament, it was reinstated. But despite this, parliament did not trust the king and the king did not trust parliament.
Then in January 1642, Charles made a fatal move. He came here to St Stephen’s Chapel. The original chapel is no longer here – it was destroyed by fire – but it was where the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft now is. The king –accompanied by 400 soldiers – burst into the chapel where parliament was in session. He demanded the arrest of five leading MPs. But the five men had been tipped off and had already fled by river boat. Charles withdrew and the Royal family fled London. Since that day, no Monarch has been allowed to set foot in the House of Commons.
Parliament and the king were in a state of unresolvable disagreement. Both sides started collecting armies. People were forced to choose the side of the king or the side of Parliament. Civil war had begun. This building appears in our story seven years later as the location for the king’s trial.
Portrait of Charles I at his trial by Edward Bower
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Continue a short way further with the Houses of Parliament on your left. Stop beside the statue of Oliver Cromwell.
6 Tyrant or hero?
Oliver Cromwell. A name that we all know. But who was he? In a BBC poll to find the greatest British person of all time, he came in tenth place. Other people think he was a tyrant, religious fanatic, military dictator and even a war criminal.
The first forty years of his life were spent more or less as a gentleman farmer. He was a good family man. He was a Member of Parliament for Huntingdon in 1628/9 and for Cambridge throughout the 1640s. When the civil war started, he was on the side of parliament, not the king. He recruited a regiment of cavalry in 1642 and rose steadily through the ranks to command the cavalry of Parliament’s army of the Eastern Association. With the formation of Parliament’s New Model Army, he was appointed to command its cavalry, becoming second-in-command of the army as a whole. His reputation as a military leader grew and so did the strength of his political opinions. He became convinced that the king must be brought to trial.
After the execution of the king, England effectively became a republic governed by an executive council of which Cromwell was a member. By 1653, Cromwell had installed himself in the top position. He was “Lord Protector”, a king-like figure.
This statue of Oliver Cromwell, dating from the end of the nineteenth century, depicts him with a sword in one hand and a Bible in the other. Parliament declined to pay for the statue due to strong opposition from the Parliamentary Irish Party. Ultimately it was paid for by former Prime Minister, Lord Roseberry.
Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
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Cross St Margaret Street and go through the passageway between Westminster Abbey and St Margaret’s Chapel. Stop just to the left of the main door of St Margaret’s Church.
7 Not a final resting place
Now we’re at Westminster Abbey, which is normally the burial place for kings and queens. But Charles I is not among the former monarchs buried here. After his execution, he was buried in private in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent parliamentarians were buried at the Abbey during the later 1640s and 1650s. But after the monarchy was restored, most of the bodies were exhumed and buried in a common grave. All that remains is a memorial tablet on the Western wall of St. Margaret’s Church.
Inside Westminster Abbey you can find one body that was not removed – that of the Earl of Essex whose tomb is inscribed the “late Lord General of the Forces Raised and Imployed by the Parliament of England”.
Continue through the Abbey grounds towards the front entrance of Westminster Abbey. From the plaza in front of Westminster Abbey use the pedestrian crossing to cross Victoria Street. Pass in front of the Methodist Central Hall and continue along Storey’s Gate. At the end, turn left into Birdcage Walk. Cross over to the entrance of St James’s Park. Stop near the entrance to the park.
8 Royal menagerie
We’re now at the corner of St James’s Park. It is the oldest of London’s Royal Parks, and was established during the reign of Henry VIII. Originally it was a royal hunting ground but King James I decided to formalise the park.
This is Birdcage Walk and, as the name indicates, was the site of an aviary established by King James. He also created a menagerie (which was home to two crocodiles and an elephant amongst other animals) and a physic garden. In subsequent years, Charles II expanded the aviary and the menagerie grew to include leopards, antelopes, an elk and the first of St James Park’s famous pelicans (which were a present from the Russian Ambassador).
Follow the main path through St James’s Park to the lake. Cross the lake using the Blue Bridge and follow the path straight ahead. Stop after a short distance.
9 The longest walk
As we heard at the previous stop, St James’s Park was a place for pleasure and entertainment for the monarch. But Charles I probably wasn’t enjoying his walk through this park on 30 January 1649. He was walking with his dog, Rogue, towards his execution in Whitehall at the Banqueting Hall where we stopped earlier. The king was escorted by a great number of Parliamentary soldiers who, it is said, made so much noise that conversations were impossible.
After the end of the monarchy, the park was neglected and most of its trees cut down for fuel. Later on, Charles II laid the park out afresh, advised, it is said, by André le Nôtre, the landscape gardener at the Palace of Versailles. Charles II also established a canal which later became the lake you can see.
The park was a favourite of Charles II and he was often seen playing bowls and the ball game ‘pall-mall’ with one of his many mistresses (including Nell Gwyn), or simply feeding the ducks on the lake.
The park also became notorious as a meeting place for degenerate acts, described in the Earl of Rochester’s poem A Ramble in St. James’s Park. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, cows were grazed on the park, and milk could be bought fresh locally.
Design for St James Palace and Park by Jan Kip
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Continue up the path towards the ornamental gates. Cross over The Mall via the pedestrian crossing and walk up Marlborough Road towards St James’s Palace. The courtyard of St James’s Palace is on the left side and the Queen’s Chapel is on the right. Stop outside the Chapel doors.
10 A Catholic queen
This chapel located opposite the entrance to St James’s Palace is the Queen’s Chapel, which was designed by Inigo Jones and built between 1623 and 1627.
It was intended for the Spanish princess Maria, who was expected to marry Charles I. But Charles instead married Henrietta Maria of France and the chapel was completed in time for their wedding. It was a Catholic chapel because Henrietta was a Catholic.
After the abolition of the monarchy, the chapel was used as a stables. Once the monarchy was restored under Charles II, so the chapel was restored for his queen, Catherine of Braganza. From the 1690s it was used by Continental Protestant courtiers and in later centuries was the home of the Danish Church in London.
Portrait of Princess Henrietta Maria of France
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Continue to the top of Marlborough Road and turn left into Pall Mall. Stop outside the main entrance to St James’s Palace.
11 Royal births
St James’s Palace was built by Henry VIII on the site of St James’s Hospital. It was one of the principal residences for the monarchy for more than 300 years. It features in our story in several ways.
Charles I had two sons that succeeded him as king – Charles II and James II – and both were born here in 1630 and 1633 respectively. Charles also was held here after his trial. He spent the night before his execution here and took Holy Communion in the Chapel Royal on the morning of his death before walking across the park, as we heard earlier.
During the civil war it was used as a barracks and was then restored by Charles II. After much of Whitehall Palace was destroyed by fire in 1698, St James’s became the principal royal residence in London.
Five children of Charles I by (1637) by van Dyck
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Continue straight along Cleveland Row. At the end of Cleveland Row are a few steps down into Green Park. Turn left down the wide path and then the first right along the wide path that crosses the whole park. Stop part way along this path.
12 How a king kept his cool
This is Green Park. As you walk across, you will notice the depression that runs right to left in front of you. This is the course of the Tyburn, one of London’s lost rivers. It was once an area of marshy ground around the river. It was originally the burial ground for the lepers from St. James’s Hospital.
The park was enclosed by Henry VIII and was owned by the Poulteney family. In 1668 an area of the estate known as Sandpit Field was surrendered to Charles II and made into a Royal deer park. Charles laid out the walks and built a snow house for cooling drinks during the summer. It was one of the first anywhere in Britain. The mound of this snow house can be seen opposite 119 Piccadilly.
It was for a celebration in Green Park that Handel wrote his “Music for the Royal Fireworks” but during the eighteenth century, Green Park was a favoured location for highwaymen and for duels.
Continue walking through Green Park towards Hyde Park Corner. Use the pedestrian crossing then go through Wellington Arch. Follow the pathway to the other side and use the pedestrian crossing to reach the archway into Hyde Park to the left of Apsley House. Cross South Carriage Drive and head towards the Statue of Achilles. From there follow the path towards the London Bombings memorial. After passing this memorial stop on the right near a series of grassy mounds and embankments.
13 To dig like moles
Here we can return to our central story where we left it at parliament. The standoff between Charles and Parliament led to civil war, which began in the summer of 1642. The armies of the king known as Royalists fought the Parliament’s armies.
In November 1642, the Royalist Army advanced on London from the west. They sacked Brentford on 12th November and by the 13th, had reached Turnham Green, less than five miles from here. Parliament mustered 24,000 soldiers in Hyde Park but the Royalists were outnumbered by nearly 2:1 and retreated.
Parliament expected the Royalists to approach London again so they ordered the fortification of London. Between November 1642 and May 1643, London was surrounded by an 11 mile circuit of defences earthworks and bastioned forts. Built in two phases, it was a major undertaking and involved volunteer citizen labour on a massive scale. A fort was constructed here at Hyde Park Corner, some 125m in length and mounting 19 cannon.
But the Royalists did not advance on London again and the defences were decommissioned in 1647. What you see running parallel to Park Lane are the only remains of these defences in existence. When they were built, they would have stood 5 metres high and had a ditch in front 1.5m deep and 5.5m wide. It was massive.
Parliamentarian troops were camped here until at least 1649. When Parliament got short of money, it actually tried to sell the Park in 1652 – a sale declared null and void at the Restoration.
Apparently, Apsley House here at Hyde Park Corner was haunted by Cromwell’s ghost who appeared to the Duke of Wellington in 1832 during the Reform Bill crisis.
Continue though Hyde Park towards Marble Arch. At Marble Arch, use the pedestrian crossings or subways to cross to the bottom of Edgware Road. Cross to the traffic island at the bottom of Edgware Road. Stop by the circular stone tablet in the ground.
14 Posthumous revenge
This busy intersection is Tyburn. It’s now very much in central London but in Charles I time it was on the very outskirts of the city. It is well known as the principle place of public execution in London for almost 400 years from 1388 until 1783. The site of the gallows, known as Tyburn Tree, is marked by a circular stone set in the traffic island here at the junction of Marble Arch, Bayswater Road and Edgware Road.
We’ve reached the end of our walk and a rather grisly conclusion of our story. Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector of the Commonwealth from 1653. He died of illness in 1658 and had an elaborate funeral and burial at Westminster Abbey. His son, Richard, took over as Lord Protector but was a failure.
As a result, the monarchy was restored under Charles II in 1660. The corpses of Cromwell, his brother-in-law Henry Ireton and John Bradshaw (the judge who presided over the King’s trial), were exhumed from Westminster Abbey and posthumously executed here at Tyburn. Then their heads were put on display on spikes on the roof of Westminster Hall, while their headless corpses were buried near Tyburn.
Cromwell’s headless body almost certainly rests somewhere under the surrounding streets. Number 1 Connaught Place (just to the north of Tyburn) is often suggested as Cromwell’s place of burial as his ghost has been seen here. His head is buried 50 miles away, close to the Chapel of his old college, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
I hope you have enjoyed this retelling of the English Civil War. It was one of the most dramatic periods in our island’s history when there was a fundamental disagreement between the monarchy and the government, largely over religion. Charles was an unpopular king, whose actions angered and agitated his people. Eventually this prompted a civil war. The king lost, was tried for treason and executed. England briefly became a republic before the monarchy was restored under Charles’ son.
Whether you think that you would have been a Royalist or a Republican, it is exciting to be able to stand on the exact spots where much of this drama took place over 350 years ago.
The execution of Cromwell, Ireton and Bradshaw (1661)
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You have now reached the end of the walk. To return to Trafalagar Square use Marble Arch Underground station. Alternatively you may like to go to the West End by following Oxford Street or enjoy exploring the Royal Parks.
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Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper, Wikimedia (CCL)
Civil War London walk
A walk reliving the drama of the English Civil War
Westminster is the heart of Britain’s capital and the hub of the nation’s three most powerful institutions – the monarchy, the government and the church. They are not always in harmony.
In the 1630s and 1640s, the king and parliament were in major disagreement about religion. This led to one of the most dramatic periods in our island’s history.
Parliament was disbanded, the country went to war, the king was executed and England briefly became a republic.
This walk is a story of politics and power, riot and rebellion, treason and trial, beheadings and hangings. See where some of these dramatic events unfolded and also explore how geography and history influence each other.
Follow the walk by clicking on the map pins or downloading the guides below