The Battle of Nantwich, Part Three: will Parliament’s relief force make it in time?

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As well as giving you a taste of what’s happening with The Battle of Nantwich this weekend, we’re also looking at the build-up to the battle in 1644…

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On 21st January 1644, Lord Thomas Fairfax set out from Manchester to relieve Nantwich in the teeth of a bitter winter.

He was accompanied by Sir William Brereton and a force of 1,800 cavalry, 500 dragoons and almost 3,000 infantry.

It was rare for an army to march or fight in the winter months but Fairfax ordered his men to march on, despite deep snow. Although he had provided many of them with a new uniform out of his own money, they had not been paid for some time and it was undoubtedly a mark of the respect his men held for him that they continued.

Three days later, Fairfax’s men defeated a force of 200 Royalists who had been attempting to block their advance as he passed through the forest of Delamere in Cheshire on the way to relieve the siege of Nantwich. With this threat brushed aside, the road to Nantwich was open.

Fairfax intented to reinforce the Nantwich garrison, rather than engage Lord John Byron’s army in besieging open battle, as he believed the Royalist force was larger than it actually was. The king had also brought in many veterans of the campaigns in Ireland, who were likely to be better soldiers than the fresh men Fairfax had raised in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cheshire.

But by the time Fairfax he got to Nantwich, he found that the Royalist forces had been markedly reduced by the poor weather and disease. He probably faced no more than 2,400 foot and less than 1,000 horse.

After a Council of War, Fairfax decided to fight just outside of Nantwich where his horse would be more effective. He gathered his men just outside of the town at Welsh Row and prepared for battle…

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George Monck: the ‘turncoat’ of Nantwich

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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.

 

Bibliography:

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

The Battle of Nantwich, Part Two: the Royalists storm the defences!

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As well as giving you a taste of what’s happening with The Battle of Nantwich this Saturday, we’re also looking at the build-up to the battle in 1644…

On 18th of January 1644, the Royalist forces of Lord John Byron launched an attack against the defences around the Parliamentarian stronghold of Nantwich.

In the bitter winter, the King’s men had spent eight days besieging and bombarding the town to no avail. When the storming came, hundreds of men threw themselves at the defences, but were thrown back. Byron’s men were forced back, leaving 500 casualties. Thanks to previous casualties, sickness and desertions, his army was reduced to about 3,500 men. It was not an insurmountable loss, so Byron continued the siege.

But his time was fast running out…

Sir William Brereton, the Parliamentarian commander in Cheshire and Lancashire, had urgently appealed to Parliament for reinforcements.

The Parliamentarian commanders for Yorkshire, Sir Thomas Fairfax and his father Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, had had mixed fortunes since the war began in 1642. The father and son, whose ancestral home was just outside Otley in Yorkshire, had initially secured the area in their campaign against the Marquis of Newcastle, whose Royalists forces threatened from the north. But there had been significant set-backs, with losses at Seacroft Moor near Leeds and Adwalton Moor near Bradford. They had spent the second half of 1643 besieged in Hull.

In response to Brereton’s desperate pleas, The Committee of Both Kingdoms – the body which ran the war for Parliament – ordered Sir Thomas to proceed to Manchester, collect infantry forces there and march on to relieve the situation to Nantwich.

On 29 December, Sir Thomas had set out to cross the Pennines in harsh winter weather with 1,800 cavalry. On arriving at Manchester, he found the infantry of the Parliamentarian garrison so ragged that it was claimed he burst into tears. But with the infantry and his cavalry, he prepared to march to the defence of Nantwich.

In 1644, the Parliamentarian town of Nantwich was given a chance to surrender. It refused.

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As well as giving you a taste of what’s happening with The Battle of Nantwich on 27th January, we’ll also be looking at the build-up to the battle in 1644…

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Pikemen defend a barricade, known as chevaux de frise. Photo by John Beardsworth.

Three hundred and seventy-four years ago, the town of Nantwich in Cheshire was given a second chance to surrender by the forces surrounding it. It refused.

Besieged by Royalist troops, it was the last remaining stronghold for Parliament in the county and things looked dire for the defenders. 1643 had been a good year for King Charles in his on-going war against Parliament and his forces had enjoyed a number of successes in the west of the country.

The Royalist commander, Lord John Byron, had around 4,000 men under his command while Nantwich’s garrison numbered just 2,000 men under Colonel George Booth. However, the River Weaver formed a natural defence to the west and th town was fortified with a circuit of earthworks, ditches and barricades. On 10th January 1644, when Byron summoned Nantwich to surrender Booth turned him down flat. The next day the bombardment of the town’s defences began.

To a degree, Byron was responsible for the town’s stubbornness. His mission had been to mop up the remaining Parliamentarian garrisons in Cheshire to tighten the Royalists’ grip on this key area. As he swept north, they fell easily. On Christmas Eve, when a group of Royalists plundered the village of Barthomley, twenty villagers – mostly militia men – took refuge in St Bertoline’s Church. The Royalists made a fire to smoke them out and they surrendered. They were then stripped and twelve of them murdered in cold blood.

Such ruthless actions hardened the hearts of defenders because, to them, they echoed the brutality of the on-going 30 Years War in Europe, where entire towns were being put to the sword. So if they were to die, they would die fighting for their cause.

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Unbeknownst to Byron, despite being in the heart of Royalist territory, his time was actually running out. On 27 December, he had defeated the forces of Sir William Brereton, the Parliamentarian commander in Cheshire and Lancashire, at the Second Battle of Middlewich. Brereton retreated with the remnants of his army to Manchester in Lancashire. With Nantwich besieged, he urgently begged Parliament for reinforcements.

Tune in tomorrow for the next installment of the story of the Battle of Nantwich…

 

The countdown to the Battle of Nantwich begins: mud, fighting, beer, and song!

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Battle of Nantwich

Nantwich is a pleasant little town just outside of Crewe, famed for its old buildings and once a prosperous salt-producing and coaching centre.

But for one day every January, the town plays host to hundreds of re-enactors who march through the town to commemorate the lifting of the Siege of Nantwich in 1644. After parading through the town square, the regiments form up on Mill Island to recreate the battle itself.

This colourful re-enactment of the Battle of Nantwich has been marked by the townspeople of Nantwich since 1644 and for more than 40 years The Sealed Knot has recreated the battle.

On Saturday 27th January the town will come alive with the sounds of battle once again!

After the spectacle of battle, we then populate the town’s pubs to catch up with friends, have a great time over a drink – and maybe even sing a few songs!

In the lead up to the big day, we’ll be posting historical background about the battle in 1644 along with information about this year’s event and encouraging you to join us in what should be another fantastic weekend’s entertainment.

For more info, visit the Holly Holy Day webpage at http://www.hollyholyday.org.uk/

Join us as we crack open another season of re-enactment and celebrate a pivotal moment in the Civil War, and an important one in the history of our society as we celebrate its 50th anniversary.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

What’s the future for the 17th Century on screen?

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The English Civil War was one of the most turbulent periods of British history.

Between 1642 and 1651, the population of the British Isles would suffer a proportionally greater loss of life than it did during the First World War and the nine years of war would result in the deaths of over a quarter of a million. The destruction and devastating loss of life would eventually lead to the entrenching of Parliament as the primary source of government, the radically reduced power of the monarchy, and the formation of the first permanent and professional army in England.

But for all the monuments and plaques across the country, the film and television industry has largely overlooked the period. There have been a few exceptions — perhaps most notably the Richard Harris film, Cromwell — but why, compared to other periods of British history, has the English Civil War not generated the same level of interest, and what does the future hold for the 17th Century on screen? In the second part of his look at portrayals of the period on screen (part one is here), Earl of Manchester’s member David Rowlinson takes a look…

Money, Money, Money

Every film and television series, regardless of its budget, needs investment. The British film industry has always struggled when it comes to raising funds, and historical dramas are notoriously expensive, so it’s no surprise that the English Civil War, and perhaps the genre of the historical drama as a whole, has been somewhat overlooked by the film and TV industry. While there’s always the chance of a good performance at the box office or high ratings, studios are only likely to give the green light if they think a production is going to appeal to a wide audience, which brings us to…

Global Appeal

Before a production can hope for any investment, it needs to know that if it were to be made, there would be enough people wanting to see it to justify the studio putting their time and money into it. Other historical films and series that have proved successful, particularly those set in ancient Rome or the Tudor dynasty, have done well because the periods of history they portray are well known to an international audience. The English Civil War on the other hand, has not had the focus its importance deserves, to the point where there are now many misconceptions that simplify the war. There are not many examples of the English Civil War in film or TV, and those that exist are littered with damaging inaccuracies.

Films such as the 2003, To Kill A King, which flopped with both audiences and critics alike, discourage other filmmakers from examining the period and attempting to rectify the inaccuracies that have gone before. Until productions begin to portray the English Civil War accurately, its importance in British, and global, history will not be recognised to the extent it should. However, this may not be too far from happening…

A Renaissance?

While it may be a while before the English Civil War appears again on screen, the 17th Century as a whole is beginning to show signs of a resurgence in film and TV. Since 2008 there have been several notable productions, each with their own take on the 17th century.  The 2008 mini-series, The Devil’s Whore, was successful enough to warrant a sequel, The New World, and indeed the European settling of the Americas and the establishment of the colonies looks to be a setting new productions are eager to explore.

Films like the chilling horror, The Witch, and the English Civil War film, A Field In England, suggest that the 17th Century can be a setting for all kinds of genres and not just the traditional historical drama, and studios are beginning to show signs of faith in the era once again.

Sky 1’s Jamestown, which tells the story of women’s arrival at the colony of the same name, was commissioned for a second series before the first episode had even been broadcast, so for the decades of uncertainty surrounding the 17th Century on screen, its future is now beginning to look far more promising.