The Poet MP and the 1643 Plot Against Parliament


London, 1643 – a city under threat, a resurgent enemy, dangers around every corner. And a poet, engaged by a king to lead a plot to restore him to his throne…

The year 1643 would prove to be the ‘high water mark’ of the Royalist cause in the first English Civil War. Only months after the inconclusive Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, the King seemed to have the upper hand, both politically and militarily. Thanks to defeats handed out to the Parliamentarian armies of Sir William Waller and the Earl of Stamford, and Prince Rupert aiming to confront and destroy the prevaricating Earl of Essex’s main field army, the King now sought to exploit political divisions amongst his opponents in London and weaken their cause. Between late February and late April, Parliament took measures to stiffen its cause while it faced a difficult military situation and it was during this time that Charles encouraged the development of what became known as The Waller Plot…

(c) Bodleian Libraries; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationBorn in 1605 at Colshill in Hertfordshire, by the 1640s Edmund Waller had become a notable MP and poet. His father died when he was a baby but left him well-off, while his uncle on his mother’s side was politician and future Ship Money rebel John Hampden. His separate lives as a politician and a poet began virtually at the same time: he was 18 when he wrote his first poem – ‘Of the Danger His Majesty (Being Prince) Escaped in the Road at St. Andero’ about the then-Prince Charles – and became MP for Amersham around the same time. He was reelected for the Short Parliament and then became MP for St Ives in the Long Parliament.

Initially a supporter of John Pym, the King’s chief critic in Parliament, he then moved over to a group of moderates led by Viscount Falkland and Edward Hyde – although Waller was careful to avoid directly criticising the king, these were definitely not arch-Royalists and opposed Charles’ brand of absolute monarchy. Yet Waller became increasingly concerned over Parliament’s attempts to interfere with the Royal prerogative and, as tensions between King and Parliament increased, he gravitated towards the King while also urging Parliament to seek an accommodation with him to avoid open conflict. He remained in Parliament after the outbreak of the Civil War, still arguing on behalf of the Crown.

Plots and the uncovering of them were virtually ten-a-penny in 1640s London and, following the collapse of peace talks in March 1643 and as Parliament took important measures to shore up its military situation, Charles gave encouragement to a plan to deliver London to him by stealth…


Waller was one of the commissioners nominated by Parliament to negotiate with the King at Oxford, although he was not trusted to be one of the principle negotiators. When the commissioners were presented to Charles, Dr Johnson later recounted that the King said to Waller “Though you are the last, you are not the lowest nor the least in my favour.” This was later taken to be either a subtle acknowledgement of the plot’s existence or a kind word from his monarch which then gave Waller the idea for the conspiracy. Either way, Charles already had a reputation for duplicitousness – seeming to encourage reconciliation in good faith while secretly plotting to gain the upper hand – and it was a characteristic that would later lead him to the scaffold.

Once back in London, Waller began plotting with his reluctant brother-in-law, Nathanial Tomkins (an influential London man, MP for Carlisle and Christchurch, and clerk to Queen Henrietta Maria’s Council) and a wealthy linen draper called Richard Chaloner. Not without some justification, they believed there were strong support for peace in London, as well as moderate factions in Parliament who were still hopeful of a reconciliation with Charles I. According to Clarendon, the plot aimed to create a groundswell of Royalist support in the city and then force Parliament to negotiate by withholding the taxes it desperately relied on to fun the war. As chief conspirator, Waller’s impressive list of contacts included the Earl of Northumberland, John Selden, Bulstrode Whitelocke and Simonds D’Ewes, all of them prominent Puritan critics of Charles l’s government.

They proceeded with great caution – only three conspirators met in one place, and no man was allowed to reveal the plot to more than two others, so that if any were suspected or seized no more than three others could endangered. The bibliophile politician Lord Conway joined in the plot and they conspired to conduct a census of those in London who secretly supported the King – a conspirator was to be appointed in every district to distinguish between friends of the king, adherents to the parliament, and neutrals. Parliamentarian leader John Pym later claimed that the results of their survey showed that within the walls of London there was one Royalist for every three Parliamentarians, but outside the walls it was one for Parliament against five for the King.

But while the plot seems to have begun as a means to peacefully force Parliament to seek a negotiated settlement, it soon developed into plans for an armed rising – the King issued a commission to 17 prominent London citizens, empowering them to lead an armed rising on his behalf. The Tower of London and strong points in the city would be captured and leading Parliamentarians were to be seized in their beds as a prelude to a general uprising by Royalist supporters before the gates were thrown open to troops sent from Oxford.

The plot was soon betrayed by one of Tomkins’s servants, possibly due to the boasting of loose-lipped conspirators, but news of the discovery was deliberately withheld by the Parliamentarian leadership for full propaganda effect: it was revealed theatrically on the official fast day of 31 May, when MPs were summoned from morning worship. Despite the culprits being already arrested, a precautionary mustering of the militia caused a considerable stir in the city.

The exposure of the King’s duplicity in negotiating while encouraging an armed uprising in the city did his cause considerable harm and the parliamentary leadership was quick to seize the initiative. As Ian Roy detailed in ”This Proud Unthankefull City’: A Cavalier View of London in the Civil War’ in London and the Civil War (1996): “a day of thanksgiving was ordered, to praise the Lord and His mercies to embattled London (now miraculously pre-served from imminent destruction), and Pym at last was able to gain acceptance for his long-wished-for scheme to impose a binding, and divinely sanctioned, loyalty oath upon his followers. In June a vow and covenant was made law, by which all men could dedicate themselves anew to the cause of parliament.’ Harsh measures followed. The royal peace messengers, whose incautious boasts had alerted the authorities in the first place, were arrested and died in prison … The houses and goods of those citizens named in the commission were seized.”

Once in captivity, Waller quickly turned informer against his fellow conspirators, making an “abject speech of recantation” before the Commons and – following examination by the Earl of Manchester and other commissioners – provided a full confession of “whatever he had said heard, thought or seen, and all that he knew… or suspected of others”. He then bought his way out of trouble – he paid bribes to leading members of the Commons and, after spending a year and a half in the Tower of London without trial, was fined £10,000 (effectively a year’s income) and allowed to go into exile in November 1644.

Tomkins and Challoner were less wealthy and less fortunate. Both sticking to their principles, they were tried and then hanged outside Tomkins’ home on Fetter Lane in London on 5 July 1643, their bodies were then exposed to the public gaze. Speaking from the scaffold, Tomkins blamed his involvement on his affection for his brother-in-law and loyalty to the King, but denied that he was an atheist or a Catholic: “I have sometimes had conferences and disputes with some Jesuits (in foreign parts chiefly). I thank God my principles of religion were so grounded they could never shake me. I have been called by some of them an heretic in grain. But … in regard of some relations, and in regard I received very civil usage from those of that religion in foreign parts … I returned the like civility to them here as I had occasion.”


The theatrical revelation of the Waller Plot was used to justify the imposition of a new ‘Vow and Covenant’ to shore up support for the continued war effort. It threatened that there was a “popish and traitorous plot, for the subversion of the true Protestant reformed religion, and the liberty of the subject”, pursued by a Roman Catholic army demonstrated by the “treacherous and horrid design lately discovered, by the great blessing and especial providence of God … all who are true-hearted and lovers of their country should bind themselves each to other in a Sacred Vow and Covenant”. In God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars, Michael Braddick says “subscribers were to acknowledge these distractions to be a punishment for their sins, and to promise not to lay down arms while the papists were in arms; to disavow the late plot and report any future ones; and most importantly, ‘according to my power and vocation, assist the forces raised and continued by both Houses of Parliament, against the forces raised by the King without their consent’. By declaring that ‘I do believe, in my conscience, that the forces raised by the two Houses of Parliament are raised and continued for their just defence, and for the defence of the true Protestant religion, and liberties of the subject, against the forces raised by the King’, the Vow had in effect dropped claims that the armies were fighting for the defence of the King’s honour and person. This was made the substance of a separate short declaration of ‘loyalty to the King’s person, his crown and dignity”.

This meant the moderate ‘Peace Party’ in Parliament was almost fatally compromised and hopes of a peaceful settlement to the war were dashed as those who had pushed for a negotiated peace were forced to disavow any sympathy for the plotters’ aims and to reaffirm their support for military action through the Vow and Covenant. Many prominent waverers and secret sympathisers fled the capital, making their way to the King’s court at Oxford, and a string of Royalist victories in the summer of 1643 only hastened the flow as Parliament’s military situation worsened. In London, the plot – and others that arose throughout the year – stoked fears of a Royalist Fifth Column only too eager to open the gates to the invader. Royalist captives were temporarily held in prison hulks in the Thames, there were moves to create a new army with a fresh commander, military control of London was transferred from the Earl of Essex to Lord Mayor Pennington.

For his exile, Waller chose Roan in France before moving to Paris, and then Switzerland, taking his new wife Mary with him. In 1645 his poems were first published in London as he travelled in Europe with the writer and diarist John Evelyn. During the worst period of his exile he had to sell his wife’s jewels to maintain himself but remained hopeful of a reconciliation with the Commonwealth government. In part thanks to the support of his near-relations Oliver Cromwell and Adrian Scrope, the Rump Parliament allowed him to return to England in January 1652. He had good relations with Cromwell, to whom he published A Panegyric to my Lord Protector in 1653, and was made a Commissioner for Trade a month or two later. He wrote several other poems in support of Cromwell and the Protectorate over the next few years, until the Restoration in 1660. Waller expressed his support for Charles II with his 1660 poem To the King, upon his Majesty’s Happy Return. Challenged by the new king to explain why it was inferior to his eulogy of Cromwell, the poet replied, “Sir, we poets never succeed so well in writing truth as in fiction”.

1024px-Edmund_Waller_by_John_RileyWaller was returned to the Cavalier Parliament in 1661 as MP for Hastings and soon become a familiar face, a moderate MP who refused to give unalloyed support to any administration and supported religious toleration at a time when non-conformism was often regarded with suspicion. Interestingly, he attempted to act as a broker between the factions that developed between 1678 and 1681 around the Popish Plot, the fictitious conspiracy concocted by Titus Oates that whipped up anti-Catholic hysteria, but he found little success and later withdrew from active politics.

Waller’s poems were widely read during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and enjoyed a revival in the early 20th; a 1717 engraving by George Vertue showed him alongside the prominent English poets Samuel Butler, John Milton, Abraham Cowley and Geoffrey Chaucer.

He died at home in in Buckinghamshire, surrounded by his family, on 21 October 1687, and was buried in the churchyard of St Mary and All Saints Church, Beaconsfield.



David Scott – Politics and War in the Three Stuart Kingdoms, 1637-49 (2003)
Michael Braddick – ‘History, Liberty, Reformation and The Cause: Parliamentarian military and ideological escalation in 1643’ (in The Experience of Revolution in Stuart Britain and Ireland (2011), ed: MJ Braddick, David L. Smith)
Michael Braddick – God’s Fury, England’s Fire: A New History of the English Civil Wars (2009)
Stephen Porter (ed.) – London and the Civil War (1996)


OnThisDayin1642: The stand-off at the Battle of Turnham Green


Turnham Green is a public park, around seven miles from the centre of London. With its George Gilbert Scott-designed church, war memorial, and old Town Hall, it’s typical of the capital’s civic green spaces.


But 375 years ago today, it played host to a stand-off that helped change the course of British history.

After the indecisive battle of Edgehill, King Charles found he had an open road to London after a strategic mistake by the Earl of Essex, leader of the Parliamentarian army. Prince Rupert advised Charles to authorise an immediate cavalry strike against London before Essex’s army could return.

However, the King – hoping for Parliament to negotiate and offer terms – decided to make a more cautious advance with his whole army, which allowed Essex time to march back to London unopposed – he was greeted with a morale-boosting hero’s welcome for Essex upon his arrival on 7 November.

During Essex’s absence, Parliament had commissioned the Earl of Warwick to raise a further seven regiments for the city’s defence and the 6,000 men of the London Trained Bands were mobilised. Sir James Ramsay was sent with 3,000 troops from Essex’s main army to defend Kingston, the first crossing of the River Thames above London Bridge, and detachments were posted at Acton and Brentford to guard the western approaches to the City.

The King advanced on the capital via Banbury, Oxford, Reading and Windsor – not only had Parliament rejected Charles’ suggestion that the castle at Windsor be turned over to him as a venue for peace talks, but Rupert had then failed to take it.

On 12 November, the 13,000-strong Royalist army mustered on Hounslow Heath, 12 miles from London. Although he had agreed to meet a delegation of Parliamentarian commissioners at Colnbrook in Buckinghamshire, the King wanted to strengthen his position by intimidating his opponents and approved Prince Rupert’s proposal to attack an Parliamentarian outpost. Three Royalist regiments were resupplied with ball, powder and match and ordered to attack Brentford. Two regiments of foote under Denzil Holles and Lord Brooke held fortified positions in the town, which was a strategic river crossing. Rupert’s cavalry and dragoons advanced to the outskirts of the village under a thick early morning mist. His initial attack was repulsed by Parliamentarians around the house of Sir Richard Wynne, but Rupert ordered in a regiment of Welshmen to press the attack. They successfully captured the outpost and carried their attack into Brentford, driving Holles’ troops over a bridge into the defences manned by men commanded by Lord Brooke. These in turn were driven out of the town into open fields. The fighting continued into late afternoon until the survivors were able to disengage under the protection of John Hampden’s infantry, which arrived from Uxbridge to cover the withdrawal. Nevertheless, a large number of Holles’s men drowned while trying to escape by swimming across the Thames.

Having captured 15 guns, 11 colours and about 300 prisoners, the victorious Royalists looted Brentford. One of the prisoners was a Captain John Lilburne, the future Leveller leader. He had tried to escape by jumping in the Thames but was taken as a prisoner to Oxford (as the first prominent Roundhead captured in the war, the Royalists wanted to try Lilburne for high treason. But when Parliament threatened to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal, Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer. He later joined the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester)

Parliamentary propaganda played up the ferocity of Rupert’s attack and stressed the King’s duplicity in sanctioning the raid while peace negotiations were in progress. With enthusiastic support from the citizenry, the Earl of Essex brought together all available Parliamentarian forces to block any further Royalist advance. With his army reinforced by the Trained Bands and freshly recruited regiments under the Earl of Warwick, Essex fielded a force of more than 24,000 men to face the King.

The two armies drew up on 13 November to face one another in an open area formed by Turnham Green, Acton Green and Chiswick Common on the western outskirts of London.


Essex sent six regiments under the command of John Hampden to outflank the Royalists by occupying high ground to the north of the Royalist position, but then recalled them. He also withdrew the 3,000 men under Sir James Ramsay at Kingston and sent them to a new position on the Surrey side of London Bridge. While the reasoning behind Essex’s manoeuvres is obscure, the Royalists were in no position to exploit them, being too heavily outnumbered to risk a general assault.

The two armies faced one another all day with a few casualties resulting from exchanges of artillery fire and some skirmishing. As darkness began to fall, Lord Forth withdrew the Royalist army through Brentford to Hounslow Heath, covered by a rearguard commanded by Prince Rupert and Sir Jacob Astley.

Having prevented the Royalists from advancing on London, Essex made no move to pursue them as they withdrew westwards to Reading and then to Oxford, which became the King’s headquarters and Royalist capital for the duration of the war.

Both sides sent their main armies into winter quarters but London would never again be so closely threatened by the King’s forces. While Parliament never let up its nervous defence of the capitol, the stand-off at Turnham Green marks a turning point in the first English Civil War. Had Charles gotten to London first or persisted in his attack, the war could have been over in 1642. His reluctance to attack helped ensure there would be no swift end to the war.

Easter: The Devil’s Holiday


Much like their more famous ‘war on Christmas’, the Puritans of the early 17th Century also had Easter in their sights.


The 1647 order banning the celebration of Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, and “all other Festivall dayes”

It has been said that the transformation of Easter into a secular festival second only to Christmas has accelerated in recent years. With the long weekend affording many families the chance to come together, commerce has not been slow in sensing an opportunity to capitalise and the profusion of Easter-related paraphernalia – gifts, cards, and confections – only seems to grow. “Easter”, one commentator wryly noted, “is the new Christmas”.

This would have been no surprise in late medieval England, where Easter outranked Christmas as the key festival of the Christian year and was surrounded by a schedule of feast days, public events, and rituals.

But the English Reformation saw much of the Roman Catholic ceremony associated with Easter striped away, in favour of the more austere – and, to the Puritan mind, more fitting – fasting, contemplation, and prayer.

Historian Ronald Hutton traces the downgrading of Easter to the lead-up to the English Reformation led by its chief architect, Archbishop Sir Thomas Cranmer, who energetically pursued a policy of destruction of many of the medieval rituals associated with the festival, such as the dressing of special ‘Easter sepulchres’ – an arched recess generally in a church’s chancel which, from Good Friday to Easter day, would have had a crucifix and sacred elements placed within it – a long standing English tradition that was effectively snuffed out as early as 1548.

As the effects of the break with Rome continued to spread throughout the kingdom, so too did the efforts to transform Easter from a time of celebration akin to the Twelve Days of Christmas into a strict religious affair. As the 17th Century dawned, Puritans mostly objected to what they saw as the immoral behaviour and Popish ceremony that surrounded these ‘festival days’, from mid-fast feasting, to a special ‘Easter-ale’ given to the labourers in Northamptonshire, and even a demand for free victuals in 1623 in Storrington, Sussex: “our parishioners claim of our parson by ancient custom to have bread and cheese and a barrel of beer in the church on Easter day immediately after evening prayer; which custom in regard of the place and day our parson admonished them to be unlawful, yet delivered the accustomed on Easter Monday; and most of the parishioners had into the churchyard without our approbation or consent.” (quoted from The Post‑Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain by John Spurr)

Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. In the 1640s, along with their efforts against Christmas, they demanded a stricter observance of Sundays along with banning the ‘immoral’ celebration of Easter, Whitsun and saints’ days.

Easter itself posed a problem because of its anchoring to a Sunday in the calendar – it is always the first Sunday after the 14th day of the lunar month that falls on or after the vernal equinox on or around 21 March. Whereas Parliament could order churches closed and shops open on a normal weekday Christmas, they couldn’t do the same with a Sunday. In The Quest for Purity: Dynamics of Puritan Movements, Walter, E. a Van Beek says “Because Easter invariably fell on a Sunday, this was a problem for Puritan preachers who were consistent with their repudiation of of the traditional calendar. The usual solution was to preach a sermon that had no direct connection with Easter.”

As the First English Civil War reached its climax in 1645, The Long Parliament issued the Directory for the Public Worship of God, which replaced the hated Book of Common Prayer (which had helped spark the Civil Wars in the first place). It stated that the only holy day, according to biblical scripture, was the Lord’s Day and other ‘festival days’ were not to be continued. The diktat was widely ignored.

King Charles was quite keen on Easter and even when Parliament’s prisoner, tried to challenge its relegation. In the pamphlet “Certaine queries, proposed by the King, to the Lords and Commons Commisssioners from the Honourable Houses of Parliament, attending his Majesty at Holdenby, touching the celebration of the feast of Easter”, issued on 24 April 1647, he said:

“I desire to be resolved of this question why the new Reformers discharges the keeping of Easter? I conceive the celebration of this feast was instituted by the same authority which changed the Jewish Sabbath into the Lords Day or Sunday, for it will not be found in scripture where Saturday is discharged to be kept, or turned into the Sunday, wherefore it must be the Churches authority that changed the one and instituted the other; therefore my opinion is that those who will not keep this feast, may as well return to the observation of Saturday and refuse the weekely Sunday; when any bodie can shew me that herein I am in an error I shall not be ashamed to confesse and amend it.”

The reply, presented by Parliamentary commissioner Sir James Harrington, dismissed Charles’ argument, fired numerous ecclesiastical justifications back at him, and arrogantly stated that since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh it follows that it is the Jews who were wrong and Christians correct, concluding “But for the observation of Easter to be an annuall festivall to Christians I finde nothing in the holy Scriptures.”. In a patronising postscript, the pamphlet ends by quoting Francis Waldack, the German Lutheran Prince-Bishop who brutally suppressed the Anabaptist revolt of Munster in 1534: “O Lord! What have we done that thou shouldst suffer us to stray thus? And in knowing times to be so strangely deluded?”


London apprentices are chased off after protesting the loss of religious feast days

Moves to ban feast days prompted London apprentices to march in protest from Covent Garden to Westminster on 20 April 1647 and petition Parliament. Committed to their Puritan duty but distracted by their negotiations with the captive King and fearing further riots, Parliament only partially caved in and gave labourers a day off once a month in compensation: “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”.

In June of that year, Parliament formally passed legislation abolishing Christmas and other holidays:

“Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”

Parliament much preferred the population participate in monthly fasts, which everyone – by law and regardless of the season – was meant to abide by. It seems, based on Parliament’s increasing frustrated demands for adherence in the 1650s, that few did.

In 1657, the second Parliament of the Protectorate further legislated to stop the continued ‘profanation’ of the Lord’s Day and, as described in Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry Old England, it carefully defined the offence as “dancing, secular songs, music, wakes, revels, feasts, church ales, maypoles, `or any other sports and pastimes’. The act was to be read in every parish church by the minister on the first Sunday of each March. Anybody who published arguments against it was to be fined 4s or sent to the local House of Correction”.

Mimicking Christ’s actions at the Last Supper, Holy Communion has always been at the centre of the Easter ritual. But even that did not escape the period unscathed. The Puritans’ campaign against aspects of ‘Popish innovation’ re-introduced by Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud succeeded in many places with the breaking of alter rails, the reduction of alters, and celebrants taking communion at their seats. So successful was this pressure that – for some – even communion itself began to have the whiff of Popery. In The Post‑Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, Spurr details how the number of services featuring Holy Communion fell drastically over the 1640s and 1650s, and even those that took place would be poorly attended.

Hutton, however, cites the work of influential historian John Morrill to suggest that although occurrences of communion generally fell over the 1640s, in many parishes it remained key to marking Easter, even in the face of Puritan distaste:

“He was the first Stuart historian to make extensive use of churchwardens’ accounts, assembling a sample from 150 parishes in East Anglia and western England. He noted … that before 1643 the general pattern was for communions to be held upon great feasts such as Easter, Christmas, and Whitson. What surprised and impressed historians most was that 85 per cent of his parishes still did so in 1646, and 43 per cent still held an Easter communion in 1650. After this, the proportion rose, and did so still faster after 1657, until by Easter 1660 just over half were doing so.”

After the fall of the Puritan domination of English politics following the Restoration in 1660, the nationwide celebration of Christmas returned to normal. Easter, however, never truly recovered. Although Easter and the celebration of communion remained at the heart of the liturgical calendar, Cranmer had done his work – the rich tapestry of pre-Reformation ritual and festival was gone.

What remains – Palm Crosses, Hot Cross Buns, Easter Eggs, “Pancake Day” – is but a faint echo of what was one of the most important festivals of the year.

The pirate Prince Rupert and the Booby-Trapped Boat


It’s safe to say that Prince Rupert of the Rhine is one of the unique characters of the 1640s and 1650s. With his long hair, youthful looks, and dashing deeds not only was he the archetypal “Cavalier” but more than 360 years ago he concocted one of his boldest plots in one of the strangest moments of the English Civil Wars…

Screen-Shot-2013-12-16-at-19.59.15.pngPrince Rupert’s naval career began during the Second Civil War of 1648 when he joined Charles, Prince of Wales in an unsuccessful naval exedition using Parliamentarian ships that had defected to the Royalists during the naval revolt of 1648. Retreating to the neutral port of Helvoetsluys in the Netherlands, Rupert – now appointed admiral – was blocked until November 1648 when he began a new career as a privateer, raiding English merchantmen to help raise funds for his uncle Charles I’s soon-to-be-literally-cut-short cause.

His fleet sailed to Kinsale in southern Ireland in January 1649, Rupert travelling on his flagship, the 40-gun Constant Reformation. Here he learnt of his uncle’s execution and swore revenge on the regicides and went full-blown pirate – causing enough of a problem that the Commonwealth navy prepared a larger fleet to sail against him. Rupert’s ships were blockaded by the Irish Sea squadron, which included amongst its commanders newly-appointed general-at-sea Robert Blake, with whom Rupert would ‘enjoy’ a tempestuous relationship over the coming year.

Robert_Blake.jpgBlake is one of the less well-known figures of this period, but he helped establish British supremacy at sea that would last for centuries.

After Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649, Rupert’s position was increasingly threatened. But earlier in the year he had written to King John IV of Portugal, asking permission to base his ships at Lisbon if he should be forced to leave Ireland – John responded favourably and, in September 1649, when bad weather, repairs, and other duties reduced Blake’s blockade to just five vessels, the prince made a break for it with his seven best ships.

Privateering along the way bolstered his numbers but although King John was sympathetic to Rupert’s cause, his chief minister – the Count de Miro – feared that open support for the English Royalists might damage Portuguese trade and also encourage the Commonwealth into an alliance with Portugal’s chief enemy, Spain. Despite hostility and obstruction from the local mercantile community, Rupert and his younger brother, Prince Maurice, threw themselves into a PR campaign, schmoozing with King John and Lisbon nobility, and winning the support of the local clergy.

Departure_of_fleet_from_Lisbon_harbor.jpgBut the party would soon be over. In early 1650, England’s new Council of State denounced Rupert as a pirate and commissioned Blake to destroy the Royalist squadron. Blake sailed from Portsmouth in March 1650 with a powerful fleet of fifteen ships. They arrived at Cascaes Bay at the mouth of the River Tagus on 10 March 1650 and Blake immediately demanded the use of Lisbon harbour and Portugal’s co-operation against Rupert’s pirates – his answer was warning shots fired from Portuguese forts when he tried to sail up the river.

Diplomatic negotiations resulted in Blake anchoring just two miles downriver from Rupert’s ships and a standoff ensued as each side competed for support from the Portuguese king.

As negotiations proceeded, the Portuguese agreed to allow sailors from both sides to come ashore and use the harbour. You can imagine what happened – cross Casablanca mixed with Pirates of the Caribbean and you’ll have something close. With men from both sides frequenting the same taverns, brawls inevitably broke out between crews of the rival fleets.

But the oddest part of this already-strange stand-off were the tit-for-tat assassination attempts…

After an alleged ambush attempt by Commonwealth sailors on the princes during a hunting trip, Rupert retaliated by designing an ingenious booby-trap that nearly sank one of Blake’s main warships.

On 13 April 1650, Rupert dressed a member of his crew as a merchant and employed two locals to row a small boat carrying, amongst other goods, a large barrel towards the Commonwealth vessel Leopard. Small fleets of trading boats often thronged around the opposing ships to sell provisions, and so this aroused no concern from the Leopard’s crew. When they arrived, the disguised crew member entered into discussions with the ship’s quartermaster to sell the “barrel of oil” and, after agreeing a price, the barrel was being hoisted aboard.

But the crew became suspicious and the men were seized. The barrel was found to contain a large explosive-filled shell, a string leading from the “merchant’s” boat was attached, through a bunghole, to a pistol. Pulling the string would have fired the pistol and ignited a fuse. It was clear that the plan had been to trigger the device once it had been taken aboard and, potentially, sink the ship.

It was a typically audacious plot by Prince Rupert, who maintained a lifelong interest in the sciences, but it did nothing to break the deadlock. King John refused to allow Blake to attack Rupert’s ships while they were under Portuguese protection, and Rupert could not risk leaving Lisbon harbour with the powerful Commonwealth fleet nearby. Eventually, Blake attacked and captured an inbound Portuguese fleet carrying a rich cargo of 4,000 chests of sugar from Brazil, a major blow to the Portuguese economy, and King John was forced to insist that Prince Rupert’s squadron leave Lisbon. Taking advantage of Blake sailing to Cadiz to resupply, Rupert escaped.

For more on this extraordinary episode of the English Civil Wars, we recommend John Barratt’s Cromwell’s Wars at Sea (Barnsley, 2006) as well as Frank Kitson’s Prince Rupert, admiral and general-at-sea (London, 1998).

On This Day in English Civil War history: Charles Stuart becomes king


On 27th March 1625, Charles Stuart became King Charles I. His reign would last until 1649, when his own people would execute him for treason.


With a profound belief that kings are appointed by God to rule by divine right, Charles found himself at constant loggerhead with Parliament. His eleven-year ‘Personal Rule’ stored up deep resentments among the emerging middle class and gentry, and his religious reforms alienated many. Eventually, it was a rebellion in Ireland and the revolt of the Presbyterian Covenanters in Scotland against those reforms that lit the blue touchpaper of civil war. His authority weakened, disagreements with Parliament and fears of the London mob saw Charles flee the city with his family. On 22 August 1642 he raised his standard at Nottingham, declaring that he was officially at war with his own Parliament.

After defeat in the first Civil War, his deal with the Scots sparked a second Civil War, with an even more total defeat. Exasperated by Charles’ unwillingness to compromise, a cabal of MPs convened a court and tried the King for treason against his own people. Found guilty, Charles was condemned and the “cruel necessity” of his execution took place in January 1649. Charles Stuart, who had never meant to be king, was 48 years old when he died. His death ushered in the first and only English republic.


While there has been a general effort to rehabilitate his reputation in recent years,  the Revolutions podcast described him as “a terrible leader, a terrible judge of character, he had terrible political instincts, almost no friends and was so insufferably pigheaded that he more or less forced his own subjects to behead him, even after they presented him with 72 different ways to get out of it and go back to being King like, y’know, everyone wanted”. Whether you take the side of King or Parliament, Charles was a fascinating man full of “contradictions and controversy” as historian John Philipps Kenyon puts it, and his actions had a profound effect on the history of the British Isles far beyond the scaffold.

And he was, of course, 5’6″ at the start of his reign but only 4’8″ tall at the end of it…

On This Day in the English Civil Wars: the Battle of Boldon Hill (1644)


The Battle of Boldon Hill was a skirmish fought in March 1644, between a Royalist army trying to bring the army of the Scottish Covenanters to battle.

It was one of a number of skirmishes and inconclusive battles in the North East of England between the Royalist general William Cavandish, The Marquess of Newcastle (pictured left), and the commander of the Scottish ‘Covenanter’ army, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven.


The Covenanters (so-called because of the ‘National Covenant’ virtually the entire country had signed, promising to defend their national church against King Charles’ attempt to impose the Book of Common Prayer, which had sparked the earlier Bishops’ Wars) had invaded England after Parliament secured their support in their on-going war with the King.

Held by the Royalists, Newcastle was a key target – not only because of its strategic location on the road from Scotland but because of its vital coal supplies.

After an attack on the city was unsuccessful, Leven’s army crossed the River Tyne higher upstream and attempted an attack against the defences on the southern end of the bridge over the river, which led directly into the walled fortification.

William_Cavendish,_1st_Duke_of_NewcastleCavandish led his army out of Newcastle in pursuit of the Scots. The two sides met but bad weather made a battle impossible and the Marquess retreated into the Royalist stronghold of Durham.

In the following days, Leven made raids on Chester-le-Street, a vital crossing point of the River Wear and crucial to the Marquess of Newcastle’s communications with the rest of England, and also on the Royalist garrison at South Shields. While initial attempts at a raid failed, the second raids of 20 March were successful for Leven. In response to this, the Marquess led his army out of Durham.

On the morning of 25 March, the Scots occupied Cleadon Hills and the Royalists took Boldon Hill. The present day village of East Boldon lies between these two hills. The Boldon topography was not favorable for a battle – neither force could see an advantage and were hesitant to engage with one another.

They chose to exchange cannon fire across what is now East Boldon and Cleadon but Cavendish was unable to force an entry into Sunderland itself.

The two sides met again, indecisively, at Hylton Castle near Sunderland at the end of the month but news reached the Marquess of a major defeat for the Royalists at Selby, directly threatening York and his communications with the King. The Marquis had a simple choice – continue the defence of Newcastle and lay siege to Sunderland or put his efforts into that of York, a strategically more important location that the Covenanters were now marching towards.

He chose York, situated in the county where most of his forces were from. However, the Covenanters subsequently took nearby Selby just days after Boldon Hill, before the Marquis could get there and an end game was being played once he arrived in York, outnumbered and without support. By fleeing towards York the Marquis left Newcastle open to conquest. Besieged by a Scottish army of 40,000 troops, and with scant hopes of relief, the city of Newcastle refused to surrender until its defensive walls were finally breached. The garrison of 1,500 made a last-stand at the Castle Keep, Sir John Marley – the Royalist mayor whose statue is one of four on the façade of 45 Northumberland Street – eventually handing over the city on October 20th 1644.

That summer the Royalists were soundly beaten at Marston Moor near York, a massive victory that effectively ended Royalist control of northern England. With his famous ‘Whitecoats’ destroyed and having futilely spent his fortune in the King’s services, Cavendish insisted he would not endure the mockery of Charles’ court and sailed for the Continent the following day. He stayed in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and then Antwerp, where he settled for a time due to his past friendship with people in the city, including the family of the Flemish baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck. He remained in exile until after the 1660 Restoration.

#OnThisDay – Fortify London!


On 7 March 1643, Parliament issued orders for the fortification of London.

After the indecisive Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, the King had marched slowly towards London, allowing the outmanoeuvred Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Essex, to once again get between him and the capital. At Turnham Green on 13 November 1642, the two armies faced off against each other – the King unwilling to risk an attack against a larger Parliamentarian army and Essex wary of using his inexperienced troops. Despite desultory artillery fire, neither side fully engaged and Charles and his army were forced to retreat to Oxford for the winter.

Turnham Green was a terrifying wake-up call for the men behind Parliament’s war effort. With Oxford just 60 miles away, London remained vulnerable and the city scrambled to protect itself.

Following a survey of these defences by Alderman Randall Mainwaring, a proposal was put to the Court of Common Council – the City of London’s government – and then ratified by Parliament on 7 March 1643 for the “Order for intrenching and fortifying the City of London”. Over the next year a massive series of earthworks and defences were thrown up around the city.


Antiquarian George Vertue’s 1738 plan of the London Lines of Communication

‘The Lines of Communication’, as they were known, were initially made up of street barricades, blocking streets with barriers or chains, the building of guardhouses and small earthworks by main roads. But in 1643 a major construction effort was made to provide a comprehensive ring of fortifications around the city, creating one of the largest urban defence systems in Europe.

Much of the work was done by volunteer labour, organized by the city’s militia – the ‘Trained Bands’ who already formed a major part of the Earl of Essex’s army – and the livery companies, which were the descendents of the city’s medieval trade guilds. Up to 20,000 people – including men, women and children – are thought to be involved and the works were completed in under two months, finishing in mid-May.

Thought to have been designed by Dutch siege engineers (the Dutch were experts at major defensive works thanks to their on-going wars against the Spanish), this continuous earthen rampart with 23 forts, redoubts, and sconces surrounded London at a distance of one and a half to two miles from the city centre.

Map courtesy of

Although the Royalists never again approached or even attacked London, the fortifications failed their only test when the New Model Army easily entered London in 1647. They were levelled by Parliament the same year and although evidence of their existence remained for many years, the constant expansion and rebuilding of London over the centuries means that they are now lost.

You can read Parliament’s original oder from 7 March 1643 at Wikisource, there is a fascinating article that goes into much details about the location, size, and shape of the defences at Fortified Places and you can even take a walk along the line of the defences north of the River Thames thanks to this handy map from The Londonist.