George Monck: the ‘turncoat’ of Nantwich


Following a year of set-backs, the victory of their forces at the Battle of Nantwich in January 1644 was a welcome success for Parliament.

However, Sir Thomas Fairfax and William Brereton’s success on the banks of the River Weaver in Cheshire was not one of the huge set-piece battles beloved in romantic historical fiction and it is not generally considered one of the ‘key’ battles of the English Civil War. Indeed, in Andrew Hopper’s 2007 biography of Fairfax it warrants barely a single paragraph and while other battles in the campaigns of General ‘Black Tom’ have faded from popular memory – Leeds, Adwalton Moor, Wetherby, Winceby – it has chiefly been remembered by the grateful townspeople of Nantwich itself. Nantwich was part of a series of local conflicts, all fitting into the muddled patchwork of the first civil war; a chapter of a story rather than its beginning or climax.

General_Monck_as_engraved_by_David_Loggan,_1661,_National_Portrait_Gallery,_LondonBut there is at least one reason why the Battle of Nantwich is important to the story of the English Civil War – it began a new stage in the life of George Monck, one that would see him play a pivotal role in British history.

George was no stranger to army life. Born to an impoverished landowning father in Devon on 6 December 1608 and partially raised by his mother’s wealthy family in Exeter, he had volunteered for the 1625 expedition to Cadiz. On his return to England, he and his elder brother attacked and beat up a county under-sheriff who had arrested their father for debt. Monck pursued and stabbed the under-sheriff, who later died of his wounds. To escape prosecution for murder, Monck joined the expedition for the relief of La Rochelle in 1627.

Distinguishing himself by his bravery, in 1629 Monck joined the English volunteers fighting for the Prince of Orange against the Spanish in the Thirty Years’ War. He spent nine years in Dutch service and became a hero of the siege of Breda in 1637, during which he led the storming of the breach that resulted in the city’s surrender. However, he resigned his commission after arguing with the Dutch authorities at Dordrecht, after some of his troops, accused of mistreating civilians, were tried before the city magistrates rather than a court martial.

Monck returned to England and joined King Charles’ army in the Bishops’ Wars. In the debacle of the Battle of Newburn in 1640, Monck was one of the few English officers that did not flee from the Scots. He saved the King’s artillery by covering its withdrawal and retreated with his men in good order to Newcastle.

When Ireland rebelled in 1641, Monck became lieutenant-colonel of an infantry regiment, soon earning the trust of his troops as well as gaining a reputation for great energy, ruthlessness, calmness and secrecy. However, his superior, The Duke of Ormonde, viewed Monck with suspicion as he was one of only two officers who had refused to take an oath to support the Royalist cause in England. Placed under arrest upon arrival in Bristol, Monck then justified himself to Charles I in person – citing a constitutional dislike of swearing oaths – and impressed the King, who gave him a command in the army that had been brought back from Ireland, following a cessation of hostilities there. This force was brought over to Cheshire and employed by Royalist commander Lord Byron in his efforts to pacify the county and suppress the local Parliamentarians under William Brereton.

Despite having no military experience, Brereton had been appointed Commander-in-Chief for Parliament’s army in Cheshire, where he quickly established a formidable intelligence network of spies and lead an aggressive campaign against the Royalists, winning the first Battle of Middlewich on 13 March 1643. But these successes brought renewed focus from the Royalists, leading to his only major defeat, again at Middlewich. Bolstered by fresh troops from the English forces in Ireland, the Royalists then besieged Brereton’s headquarters at Nantwich. Hemmed in, Brereton begged for reinforcements from Lord Fairfax, then at York, who raced across the Pennines to Manchester. Physically brought to tears upon finding Parliament’s forces there in a sorry state, he ordered them new clothes before setting out in the snow to relieve Brereton’s forces.

Aiding in the siege of Nantwich, Monck was in command of Michael Warren’s regiment when Fairfax arrived. In the ensuing battle, Byron’s forces were utterly routed in a flooded, muddy quagmire and Monck became one of 72 officers taken prisoner, along with 1,500 ordinary soldiers. After the battle, eight hundred royalist prisoners switched sides and joined Fairfax’s army. But Monck was not one of them. He was taken to the capital and spent the next two years in the Tower of London, where he spent time writing Observations on Military and Political Affairs, a treatise based on his experiences in Dutch service.

It was his experience fighting in Ireland that led to his release – such a man was too useful to be left to moulder and, after swearing loyalty to the Parliamentary cause, he was released from the Tower in November 1646 and made major general of an army sent by Parliament against the Irish rebels. Despite his experience, he made little headway and out of sheer military necessity he concluded a compromise armistice with the rebel leaders on terms he knew that Parliament could not accept. Following the execution of Charles I in January 1649, Scotland proclaimed his son Charles, Prince of Wales, as Charles II and most of Monck’s army went over to the Royalist cause and he returned to England to face a rebuke from Parliament for daring to negotiate with the Irish.

Oliver Cromwell always had an eye for talent and, in July 1650, Monck was given command of a regiment of foot in the army being prepared for the invasion of Scotland. However, the memory of Nantwich had not faded in the intervening years as the regiment supposedly replied: ‘What! To betray us? We took him, not long since, at Namptwick [sic], prisoner: we’ll have none of him.’ Cromwell was forced to form a new regiment for Monck, as the strength of opinion could not be overturned.

George_Monck_1st_Duke_of_Albemarle_Studio_of_Lely.jpgAfter the incredible victory over the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, in which he led a brigade of infantry in an attack on the Scottish centre, Monck was made commander-in-chief in Scotland in order to complete the subjugation of the country, a duty he carried with both efficiency and brutality. After a spell recovering his health in Bath, and despite having no naval experience, he became a General at Sea in the First Anglo-Dutch War. As with all other military matters, Monck excelled – the Dutch were fought to a stand-still.

Suspicion over Monck’s true loyalties never truly went away and rumours that he was a closet Royalist dogged him. As Lord Protector, Cromwell is said to have written to Monck in 1657: “There be [those] that tell me that there is a certain cunning fellow in Scotland called George Monck, who is said to lye in wait there to introduce Charles Stuart; I pray you, use your diligence to apprehend him, and send him up to me.”

The question of his allegiance came into sharp focus in 1658 when Cromwell died. Monck remained silent and watchful at Edinburgh, outwardly lending his support to the Protectorate under Richard Cromwell but not intervening when he was deposed by a military junta yet refusing to commit when Royalist representatives approached him during the summer of 1659 regarding a possible restoration of the monarchy.

What Monck chose to do at this point was vital as his was the only coherent force left in the British mainland. He had cunningly purged the ranks of the forces occupying Scotland of religious radicals and officers not loyal to his command, leaving himself with – essentially – his own private army, with which he could decide the fate of the nation. So what would he do? Side with Parliament and continue the Commonwealth? March on London and take power for himself? Or would he use his soldiers to reimpose the monarchy?

He continued this difficult game of politics in a highly fluid and charged situation but when Charles Fleetwood and General John Lambert declared against Parliament, Monck refused to join them and marched across the Scottish border, Lambert’s army eventually fading away due to lack of pay.

On 1 January 1660, at Parliament’s invitation, Monck slowly marched south, his ultimate purpose remaining obscure. Occupying London on 3 February 1660, he continued to proclaim his support for the Commonwealth in public but entered into secret negotiations with representatives of Charles Stuart to restore the monarchy. Charles’s conciliatory Declaration of Breda of 4 April 1660 was largely based on Monck’s recommendations and the newly convened Convention Parliament formally invited Charles to return as monarch.

When the restored King landed at Dover on 25 May, Monck was the first to greet him as he came ashore. Charles reportedly kissed him and called him “father”.

Unwittingly, Monck’s capture at the Battle of Nantwich in January 1644 put in motion a chain of events that led, after 16 years, to the Restoration. Without the intractable, practical, and secretive Monck in Scotland it is uncertain what would have happened in the dying days of the English republic and whether the transition back to a monarchy would have proceeded as smoothly. If it had not been for Fairfax’s deliverance on the outskirts of a Cheshire market town, who knows what could have become of George Monck?

Monck retrospectively claimed that he had been working towards a royal restoration since before 1660, a bitter pill to swallow for many staunch Commonwealthmen who did not baulk from condemning his betrayal, apparently without irony. Just as with the unruly regiment in 1650, this reputation as a ‘turncoat’ plagued him for the rest of his life – according to diarist Lucy Hutchinson, her husband so abhorred Royalist-turned-Parliamentarian Ashley Cooper that “he could not bare ‘the mention of his name, and held him for a more execrable traitor than Monck himself.’” Lauded by the new regime and hated by his former comrades, Irish philosopher John Toland claimed Monck’s “Dissimulation, Treachery, and Perjury, are like to remain unparalled’d in history”.

Whether he was a secret Royalist, a true Parliamentarian, or merely a practical and pragmatic soldier, it was at Nantwich that the fate of George Monck turned.



Ellis, John – To Walk in the Dark: Military Intelligence during the English Civil War 1642-1646, The History Press, 2011

Gardiner, S.R. – History of the Great Civil War, The Windrush Press, 1987

Hopper, Andrew – ‘Black Tom’: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution, Manchester University Press, 2007

Hopper, Andrew – Turncoats & Renegadoes: Changing Sides during the English Civil Wars, Oxford University Press, 2012


Traitor at the Gate: who was Sir John Hotham, the man who closed the gates of Hull?


4.a.jpgOn 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.

Wenceslas_Hollar_-_Hull.jpgHull’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.

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).

Cromwell’s Pirate: the incredible naval career of Christopher Myngs

Vice-Admiral Christopher Myngs (1625-1666)  *oil on canvas  *124 x 101.7 cm  *1665-1666

Vice-Admiral Christopher Myngs (1625-1666)

Born in Norfolk in 1625, Myngs joined the navy shortly before the outbreak of the English Civil War and, siding with Parliament, he rapidly rose through the ranks.

He first appeared prominently during the first Anglo Dutch War (1652-1654) as captain of the Elisabeth when he captured a Dutch convoy, including two men-of-war taken as prizes. In 1655 he was given command of the 44-gun frigate Marston Moor, whose crew was on the verge of mutiny. After quelling the crew’s insubordination, the Marston Moor was sent to Port Royal to safe guard England’s new possession – Jamaica.

On its arrival in mid-1655, Myngs assessed that the best de-ence was to take the war to the Spanish but the Marston Moor was the only English warship available so he decided to recruit the local buccaneers. In May 1656, he raided Santa Maria in Venezuela but the results were disappointing. In January 1657, additional English ships arrived allowing Myngs to form a Jamaica squadron with the Marston Moor as his flagship but still retaining the buccaneers as auxiliaries.

In October 1658, Myngs’ squadron was hidden off the coast of Central America waiting for the Spanish treasure fleet, but while most of the fleet was obtaining fresh water the Spanish treasure fleet appeared. The Marston Moor and another ship passed through the Spaniards, hung on their rear and unsuccessfully attempted to scatter them.

He then proceeded to raid Tolú and Santa Marta, both in Columbia, again with only moderate results. It was then Myngs decided to change tactics. Previously, a large group of ships pre-warned the local population who would retreat inland with their possessions. But he now divided his squadron into smaller flotillas and so increase the chance of surprise. He also would pursue them inland, sometimes using land troops as marines. In 1659, Myngs used his new tactics on three ports on the coast of Venezuela – Cumana, Puerto Cabello and Coro. The latter contained a Spanish silver shipment valued at 250,000 English pounds – roughly £32.5million today. However Myngs decided to split the money with his buccaneers to keep them interested for future expeditions, rather than with the governor Edward D’Oyley and the English treasury.

On his return to Port Royal, Governor D’Oyley had him arrested on charges of embezzlement and returned to England on the Marston Moor. However, in the confusion of the restoration of Charles II the charges where dropped.

In 1662, Myngs returned to Port Royal as a captain in the new Royal Navy, commanding HMS Centurion and with an unofficial policy of a ‘Cold War’ with Spain in the Caribbean. The new governor of Jamaica, Lord Windsor, completely supported Myngs while he raised a buccaneer fleet of 14 ships crewed by 1,400 buccaneers, including such notorious pirates such as Henry Morgan and Abraham Blauvelt – it was the largest buccaneer fleet yet raised on the Spanish Main. In October 1662, his fleet took and sacked the heavily fortified second city of Cuba, Santiago, and in February 1663 it raided San Francisco de Campache in Mexico, during the latter of which Myngs was seriously wounded.

The raids outraged the Spanish, who denounced Myngs as a common pirate and a mass murderer with a reputation for unnecessary cruelty and threatened war with England. This forced King Charles to send a new governor Thomas Modyford to Jamaica with orders to stop the raids. In 1664, Myngs returned to England to recover and was promoted to a vice admiral in Prince Rupert’s squadron, rising to Vice Admiral of the White under Lord High Admiral James Stuart, Duke of York and Albany.

The_Battle_of_Lowestoft,_3_June_1665_-_Engagement_between_the_English_and_Dutch_Fleets_by_Adriaen_Van_DiestThe outbreak of the second Anglo Dutch War in 1665 began for Myngs with the Battle of Lowestoft (right), which resulted in a knighthood for his actions. He then served with Edward Montagu 1st Earl of Sandwich – rising to the rank of Admiral of the Blue – after whose disgrace served under George Monck, 1st Duke of Albermarle. He was on detachment with Prince Rupert’s Green squadron on 11 June 1666 when the great Four Days’ Battle began and three days later he returned to the main fleet for the final day of fighting. His squadron engaged that of Vice Admiral Johann de Liefde’s and it was during this engagement that his flagship HMS Victory was directly challenged by Liefde’s flagship Ridderschapp van Holland, with fighting at close quarters. Myngs was first hit in the cheek and then the left shoulder by musket balls, mortally wounding him. Myngs died from these wounds shortly after his return to London.

It was Myngs’ strategy of the use of buccaneers to supplement English resources in the Caribbean that became England’s policy for nearly 60 years and his tactics were a template for Henry Morgan and other buccaneers, leading to the high watermark of the capture of Panama City in January 1671.

Two remarkable 17th Century women for International Women’s Day



As it’s International Women’s Day today let’s take a look at two very different but equally remarkable 17th Century women – Brilliana, Lady Harley and Nzinga Mbandi, the Queen of Ndongo and Matamba – who should be remembered for their strength and fortitude in the face of great hardship and prejudice.

Brilliana, Lady Harley

Brilliana, Lady Harley was a 17th Century heroine in the English Civil War who defended her home at Brampton Bryan from Royalist forces.

Born in 1598, Brilliana Conway became the fourth wife of Sir Robert Harley in 1623. Her father, Sir Edward Conway, was Secretary of State of England and her husband was his aide.

A deeply religious woman, she was a devote Puritan and when the English Civil War broke out in 1642, she and her family sided with the cause of Parliament.

Unable to return home, Sir Robert ordered his wife to leave for her own safety, but she refused. It was her duty, she said, to uphold her husband’s rights in the county.

A detachment of Royalist troops from nearby Gloucester besieged her home, Brampton Bryan Castle in northwest Herefordshire, but she refused to surrender and defended the castle for months.

From her letters we know many details of what went on in her daily life during the siege – sheep and cattle were plundered and fortifications were dug in her gardens. When the Royalists stole the bells from the town’s church tower during what should have been a truce, Brilliana was quick to order a repulse: ‘We sent some of his Majesty’s good subjects to old Nick for their sacrilege,’ she wrote.

Reluctant to treat her harshly due to her gender, the Royalists tried in vain to get her to yield. Even when a personal letter from King Charles arrived, she was not to be moved. Although relief finally arrived and the siege was lifted – she not only organised her tenants to level the Royalists earthworks but also dispatched 40 troops to raid a local Royalist camp – Royalist forces continued to threaten her safety.

Sadly, Lady Harley died of a cold on 29 October 1643, probably as a result of hardships endured during the siege.

Early in 1644 Brampton Bryan finally surrendered. Brilliana’s younger children, baby Tom and his little sisters Dorothy and Margaret, 11 and 13, were taken into custody but were well treated by the Governor of Ludlow Castle.

Brilliana was a courageous woman who steadfastly refused to conform to her society’s view of women as weak and passive. Her name lives on thanks to her position as a celebrated English letter-writer. As an educated woman versed in several languages, she wrote prodigiously, intelligently, and passionately to her husband and son, keeping Robert informed of local political affairs when he was absent from home.

Nzinga Mbandi, the Queen of Ndongo and Matamba

While the English Civil War was raging in Britain, 4,300 miles away in what would become the African nation of Angola, a woman was also steadfastly protecting her home – but on a remarkable scale.

The story Nzinga Mbandi, Queen of Ndongo and Matamba, is simply incredible. A key figure in African resistance to colonialism, she defined much of the 17th Century history of Angola and is now recognised internationally as a key figure in the period – outstandingly talented in warfare, espionage, trade, alliance-building, and religious matters she held off Portuguese colonialism and defended her country steadfastly until her death in 1663 at the age of 82.

With their slave trade threatened by England and France, the Portuguese shifted down to The Congo and south west Africa. Establishing a fort in 1618 at Ambaca, now in northern Angola, Nzinga’s brother sent her to try to negotiate a Portuguese withdrawal and the return of some of his subjects who had been taken captive.

A famous story says that when meeting with the Portuguese governor, João Correia de Sousa, he did not offer a chair to sit on during the negotiations, instead placing a floor mat for her to sit. Not willing to accept this, Nzinga ordered one of her servants to get down on the ground and sat on the servant’s back during negotiations. By doing this, she asserted her status was equal to the governor, proving her worth as a brave and confident individual.

Nzinga refused to allow Ndongo to become a vassal of Portugal and De Sousa agreed to her terms. She did convert to Christianity, possibly to strengthen the treaty.

But the Portuguese never honoured the treaty. Nzinga’s brother apparently committed suicide shortly afterwards and she assumed control – first as regent of his young son, Kaza, and then in her own right when the child died (she is alleged to have had him killed, but this may have been propaganda distributed by her enemies).

Forging an alliance with the Dutch in 1641, Nzinga defeated the Portuguese in 1644 at Ngoleme. Unable to follow up on the victory, her forces were defeated two years later at Kavanga but she rallied and, with Dutch reinforcements, routed a Portuguese army in 1647 before laying siege to the Portuguese capital of Masangano. Using troops from Brazil, the Portuguese then recaptured Luanda and forced Nzinga back to Matamba in 1648, from where she resisted the Portuguese well into her sixties and personally leading troops into battle.

In 1657, Nzinga signed a peace treaty with Portugal and attempted to rebuild her nation, resettling former slaves and allowing women to bear children.

Legends of Nzinga extend outside of her brilliant military tactics and political strategy. In Philosophy in the Boudoir, the Marquis de Sade wrote that Nzinga “immolated her lovers,” obtaining a large, all-male harem after she became queen and having each man she slept with killed after their carnal encounter. Though there is no way of knowing if there is truth to these rumors, there is no denying Nzinga was a ruthless ruler, unafraid of sacrificing men who came in her way. – Atlas Obscura

Despite numerous efforts to dethrone her, Nzinga died a peaceful death at the age of eighty on 17 December 1663 in Matamba.

Today, she is remembered in Angola for her political and diplomatic acumen, great wit and intelligence, as well as her brilliant military tactics. In time, Portugal and most of Europe would come to respect her. A major street in Luanda is named after her, and a statue of her was placed in Kinaxixi on an impressive square in 2002, dedicated by President Santos to celebrate the 27th anniversary of independence. Angolan women are often married near the statue, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. – Wikipedia

Smashing churches to save souls: who was the ‘Iconoclast General’?


Although he never took part in the fighting during the first English Civil War, William Dowsing was very much engaged in a war – the war against what many Puritans regarded as the dangerously ‘Popish’ stained glass, alter rails, statues, and effigies in England’s churches that had escaped the Reformation the century before.

Sealed Knot member, Rob Hodkinson, takes a look at the man dubbed ‘The Iconoclast General’…

William Dowsing was 47 when, in December 1643, he accepted a commission from the Earl of Manchester to remove and destroy high church idolatry from the parish churches in the Eastern Association. In the course of one year, until the end of 1644, Dowsing personally supervised the ‘cleansing’ of most of the churches of Cambridgeshire and Suffolk, and many of those in Essex and Norfolk, forcibly removing “blasphemous crucifixes, all superstitious pictures and reliques of popery”. Such iconoclasm was widespread among Parliament’s armies, but Dowsing’s was by far the most methodical and the most widespread of any individual in the period.

iconoclastAt first glance, Dowsing seems to have had little to qualify him for the task. A Suffolk man by birth, he had spent all his life as a working farmer, albeit a fairly affluent one: by the time of the Civil War he held substantial land across four parishes. He was certainly educated, possibly at a local grammar school, and during his 20s and 30s he amassed a small personal library, which included works by classical authors that required knowledge of Latin and Greek. It was a serious, scholary collection. Significantly, it also included many radical religious texts, sermons, and biblical commentaries.

In the 1620s Dowsing had married Thamar Lea, a country gentlewoman with a strikingly Puritan name. Her death, in 1640 or 41, seems to have triggered a crisis of faith and Dowsing’s religiosity became stricter and more pronounced. He sub-let his lands in Suffolk and moved to the noted Puritan parish of Dedham, Essex. Dowsing seems to have been attracted to Parliament’s cause, and by early 1643 he was writing to his local minister calling for action to be taken against churches in Cambridge. It was Dowsing’s zeal, coupled with his wide religious reading, that brought him to the attention of Essex clergy and, in time, to the Earl of Manchester. In August 1643, the same month that Manchester took command of the Eastern Association, he appointed Dowsing provost marshal of his forces, responsible for discipline and the management of Royalist Prisoners of war. Although Manchester was less of a religious radical than many who served under him (Cromwell being the obvious example) his tendency to try and appease others’ views meant that he was willing to allow destructive iconoclasm in the counties under his command. In December 1643, Dowsing relinquished his post as Provost and began his mission against the churches.

Dowsing’s first objective was the fourteen parishes in the city of Cambridge, together with the chapels of all sixteen Cambridge colleges. The work that he undertook including levelling the chancel, so that the presiding minister was not elevated above the congregation, and removing altar rails. He also ordered removed any inscriptions on tombs or windows that invited prayers for the souls of the dead (too close for Puritan taste to the Catholic idea of praying for those in Purgatory), as well as destroying any idolatrous representation of the Trinity in stained glass or carvings. Later, following new parliamentary ordinances, Dowsing oversaw to the removal of holy water stoups and organs. Dowsing fervently believed that his actions were helping to purify the English Church and to sanctify worshipers. Through iconoclasm he believed that he was making possible the victory of Manchester’s troops over the less-godly Royalists.

Between February and March 1644 Dowsing covered the whole of Cambridgeshire. He also made excursions into Suffolk, which were extended in mid-April and in late August until he had covered nearly a third of the county’s churches. During the summer months it is likely that he halted his iconoclastic mission to concentrate on his farm work. Dowsing’s iconoclasm was far more systematic and orderly that it would have been if left to Manchester’s soldiers. He kept a meticulous record of the churches he worked on, the following example being for Hadleigh, Suffolk:

Feb 2. We brake down 30 superstitious pictures, and gave order for the taking down of the rest, which were about 70; and took up an inscription, quorum animabus propitietur deus [God be merciful to their souls]; and gave order for the taking down of the cross on the steeple.

The sheer amount of destruction that Dowsing felt he needed to achieve led him to appoint deputies to carry on his tasks in Norfolk and Essex. Even so, he was forced to scale down his work. Initially the tasks were carried out by Dowsing himself, aided by the cavalry troopers that provided his escort. In time, though, he was forced simply to note the work that was to be carried out and entrust the task to local church wardens or constables. The scope of the work was also reduced, from wholesale destruction of iconography to only those images that might prove a distraction to the worshipper. Less ostentatious idolatry, such as carvings on bench-ends and misericords, were allowed to remain.

Though far from complete, Dowsing’s work began to wind down towards the end of 1644. He was reliant on Manchester’s support to carry out his work, but from November that year Manchester’s conduct of the war was being openly criticised in the Commons. As Manchester began to lose influence, Dowsing seems to have felt it necessary to lay aside his commission. He became wholly disheartened by the division in Parliament’s ranks between Presbyterians and religious Independents, believing that it undermined Parliament’s moral authority and hindered further church reform. Disillusioned, Dowsing took no further part in Parliament’s war or in the religious reform that followed its victory. Despite the benefits of education and his wide-reading, he never took up another role in public affairs. He retired to the seclusion of his Essex farm and died in 1668.

Sources: John Morrill, ‘William Dowsing’, in: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) Oxford: University Press.

On this day: the execution of King Charles’ Archbishop…


It can be argued that King Charles was, in many ways the architect of his own misfortune.  While he fervently and honestly believed in the divine provenance of his power, his obstinacy and pride did nothing to convince his enemies. Nor did those he surrounded himself with.

One of these his Parliamentarian opponents dubbed ‘malignant advisors’ was William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury. And today marks the anniversary of his execution in 1645, just a few weeks before that of his King with whose life his own had become so intertwined.

Ordained as a priest in 1601, the ambitious Laud was a rising star in the Anglican church, which was still searching for its true identity after Henry VIII had split with the church in Rome the century before. He was influenced by the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius, who emphasised free will over the Puritans’ Calvanist ideas of predestination. He also loved pomp and ceremony in his worship, which endeared him to King Charles I.

His career flourished on Charles’s accession in 1625. He officiated at Charles’ coronation and during the King’s eleven-year Personal Rule he enforced conformity of worship rigidly throughout the land, stamping down on irregularities in the conduct of services. This and his love of things like alter rails and church decoration did nothing to endear him to the Puritans, who viewed his Arminian doctrines as dangerously close to the Roman Catholicism they hated so much.

Charles admired Laud and the Archbishop became increasingly powerful in affairs of state, but not unlike his master he was inflexible, over-sensitivity to criticism, and used his power in the courts of the Star Chamber and High Commission to punish dissidents. In 1637, the religious radicals William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick were tortured and imprisoned for speaking and writing against Laud’s policies, which only inflamed the masses.

But it was Laud’s insistence on enforcing conformity in Ireland and Scotland that lit one of the touch-papers of the conflict that would engulf the land. His attempt to force uniformity on the Church of Scotland met with disaster – riots broke out in Edinburgh when Laud’s new prayer book and liturgy were introduced in July 1637. The unrest quickly escalated into England’s disastrous defeats in the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40.

King Charles’ opponents, unable to directly criticise the monarch, instead went after his “evil councillors” – Wentworth, now Earl of Strafford, and Archbishop Laud. The Long Parliament in November 1640 impeached them both. Laud was accused of assuming “tyrannical powers” in church and state, of subverting “the true religion with popish superstition” and of causing the disastrous wars against the Scots.

Laud remained a prisoner for three years before finally being brought to trial before the House of Lords in March 1644. The prosecution was led by William Prynne, whom Laud had persecuted in 1637. Unable to find evidence of treason, and with Laud ably defending himself, the House of Commons abandoned the trial and instead condemned him by special decree.

Like Strafford before him, Archbishop Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill on 10 January 1645. On 30 January, the King he had defended so passionately and yet helped condemn by his actions was also beheaded.