On 23 April 1642, a herald appeared at the gates in the fortifications of Hull that led to the road to nearby Beverley.
He called on the governor, Sir John Hotham, to open the gates and admit the King, Charles Stuart, who was nearby with 300 troops.
Hull was a strategic port and site of an arsenal left after the Bishops’ Wars against the Scottish Covenanters in 1638 and 1640. Already limbering up for armed conflict against Parliament, Charles wanted access to the weapons stored with its walls. Sir John’s job was to make sure he never got them.
So he refused.
Yet in just a few short months, the same Sir John would be negotiating with the King’s allies to surrender the town to the Royalists.
This Sunday, reenactors from the Sealed Knot and the Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote will reenact this moment with members of Hull Playgoers Society, next to the actual remains of the Beverley Gate.
But who was Sir John Hotham?
With five marriages and military service on the Continent under his belt, Hotham was MP for Beverley. Dismissed from the governorship of Hull because of his objection to the Bishops’ Wars, which he thought would damage the fortunes of the northern counties, he was nonetheless elected MP for Beverley in the Long Parliament of 1640 and actively opposed the King. In January 1642, Parliament re-appointed him governor of Hull and told to head there forthwith.
Specifically instructed not to deliver up the town or its arsenal without Parliament’s authority, when the King appeared before the walls on 23 April 1642, Hotham barred the town gates and denied him entry. The King declared Hotham a traitor, but Parliament praised his actions. In July, the King returned with a small army and the first siege of Hull became the earliest military action of the English Civil War.
Hull’s strategic importance increased during 1643 when the military success of the Royalist general, the Marquis of Newcastle, against the Yorkshire forces of Sir Ferdinando and his son Thomas Fairfax, as well as the defection of Sir Hugh Cholmley at Scarborough, left the city as the only Parliamentarian stronghold in the county.
Rather than attack the city’s impressive walls, the Royalists instead turned their efforts to trying to convince Sir John to change sides. Hotham had grown disenchanted with the Parliamentarian cause and its leadership and had already entered into secret negotiations with Newcastle to surrender the town.
But the indiscreet behaviour of his eldest son, Captain John Hotham, aroused the suspicion of Parliamentarian commanders. Captain Hotham had originally secured Hull against the Royalists with the support of the radical MP Peregrine Pelham and the Yorkshire Trained Bands, the local militia force. But military blunders, the poor behaviour of his troops, and his resentment at Thomas Fairfax’s authority led to the secret negotiations.
At a rendezvous of Parliamentarian troops at Nottingham in June 1643, Colonels Cromwell and Hutchinson reported their suspicions to their superiors and and the arrest of Captain Hotham was ordered. He escaped from Nottingham and fled to Lincoln, but was arrested again when he went to confer with his father at Hull.
Sir John himself made a desperate attempt to escape but was finally arrested at Beverley.
So suspicious and angry had people become with Hotham’s behaviour that one detractor at the time marvelled that after his failed defection he “found nott soe much as one man to lift a hand on his behalf”. His arrest was not handled with kid gloves:
one musketeer battered Sir John, felling him from his horse and striking his face with a musket butt, inflicting a grievous wound from which Hotham suffered until his execution.
Both Hothams were imprisoned in the Tower of London but worse was to come – when Newcastle’s correspondence was captured after the battle of Marston Moor, the full extent of their plotting was revealed.
The popular Parliamentarian general Sir William Waller presided over the court-martial of the Hothams in December 1644. Sir John was found guilty of treason – thus earning the dubious distinction of being declared a traitor by both King and Parliament – and despite trying to lay all blame on his father, Captain Hotham too was condemned.
Hotham was beheaded on Tower Hill on 2 January 1645, the day after the execution of his son.
Sir John Hotham was characterised by both sides as a weak man and a turncoat who, despite his steadfast handling of the incident at the Beverley Gate in 1642, showed his true colours by prevaricating, possibly to buy himself time to see which side would be victorious. His son was a hot-headed and stubborn man whose actions undoubtedly helped lead him and his father to the scaffold.
As described in Andrew Hopper’s Turncoats and Renegadoes: Changing Sides during the English Civil Wars, there was – at least – one upside to Hotham’s wavering – it kept the King’s forces outside the gates of Hull:
Whether it was due to Sir John’s second thoughts or his deliberate sabotaging of their efforts, the royalists’ failure to secure Hull’s arms magazine led to the king’s army being poorly equipped at Edgehill – itself a decisive factor in their failure to inflict a crushing defeat on the Earl of Essex.
He may have been a traitor but Sir John Hotham, probably without realising, did the Parliamentary cause one big favour.