The pirate Prince Rupert and the Booby-Trapped Boat

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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 367 years ago today 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).

Marking the 375th anniversary of the stand-off that sparked the English Civil War

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On 23 April 375 years ago, the governor of Hull, Sir John Hotham, refused to allow King Charles to enter the city and access the weapons stored within its walls.

This small act of defiance heralded ten years of brutal civil war between the supports of the King and those of the English Parliament.

The Sealed Knot and The Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote would like to invite you to bring the family and step back to this pivotal moment in Hull’s history at the dawn of the English Civil War – all taking place next to the remains of the Beverley Gate, the site of the unique stand-off between monarch and Parliament.

Reenactors wearing the clothes of the period will march in the city centre to mark the 375th anniversary of Hotham’s defiance, bringing the sights and sounds of a 17th Century army on the march, with a special performance at the Beverley Gate to commemorate the occasion.

The schedule for the day:

11am – Youngsters can join in the occasion and make their own Civil War flags with Artlink, next to the Beverley Gate

11.30am – The costumed troops of the The Sealed Knot Society will form up on Paragon Street

11.45am – The Sealed Knot will walk down Paragon St, drums sounding and standards advanced, while The Lord Mayor and Keith Emerick from Historic England judge local youngsters’ flag designs

11.55am – The Sealed Knot will arrive at the Beverley Gate

12.00pm – The Town Crier will make a proclamation and the Lord Mayor will introduce the Playgoers Society

12.05pm – The Hull Playgoers Society will perform a play about Sir John Hotham and the closure of Hull’s gates on King Charles, 375 years ago

12.45 – Keith Emerick from Historic England will give a speech and the winning flags will be presented.

Join the event on Facebook for up-to-the-minute event details

hothamhull.jpgOn 23 April 1642, Charles I arrived at the gates of Hull with 300 soldiers with the intention of securing the arsenal within for his looming war with Parliament.

However, Sir John Hotham had been made governor of the town and sent north by Parliament to stop the King’s design.

When Charles arrived at the Beverley Gate, Hotham refused him entry – with the novel political theory that an order from the King was not necessarily an order from the sovereign authority of that king.

Charles proclaimed Hotham a traitor and rode away disappointed. It was an early PR coup for Parliament, who could now argue that the King was attempting to arm himself for war. Within weeks, the first siege of Hull began – the first armed conflict of the English Civil Wars. That summer, the King raised his standard at Nottingham and the two sides were formally at war.

Hotham’s stand was the spark that lit the slow fuse of civil war and by the following September, England began a decade of conflict.

The complicated but tragic life of Sir John is currently being brought to life by the Royal Shakespeare Company, with Mark Addy starring as the doomed aristocrat in The Hypocrite.  Despite his position as the man who defied a king, Hotham and his son soon found themselves branded traitors and heading to the scaffold.

ECW Q&A: Women, know your place – did anyone fight for votes for women during the English Civil Wars?

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Over on Twitter we asked if there were any questions people would like answered about history, politics, and society during the English Civil Wars. First up was Mat, who asked “Was the question of “the poorest She” – female suffrage – ever raised by any of the revolutionary groups during the English Civil War?”

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Thanks for the great question, Mat!

It is almost an understatement to say that the 1640s and ‘50s saw some of the most radical political movements in British history.

From the Levellers to the Diggers, from Quakers to Muggletonians, a massive proliferation of radical ideas erupted as the old institutions of government broke down. In the chaos of war and political strife, previously unthinkable notions bubbled to the surface and called into question every assumption society had about itself: the war had created what poet John Milton called the “womb of teeming birth”.

In a series of debates between the New Model Army and the Parliamentarian grandees at Putney in 1647, the radical notion of universal male suffrage put forward by the Levellers was treated with barely concealed horror by Oliver Cromwell and his son-in-law Henry Ireton. Meanwhile, groups such as the the Ranters claimed they could not sin as sin itself was immaterial and the Diggers, led by Gerrard Winstanley, attempted to establish a religious form of proto-communism that eschewed the private ownership of land – an idea that would not be seen again in western civilisation for another century and a half. These groups have long been portrayed as early modern progressives, claimed by modern political movements as their antecedents. In the political tumult of the age it seemed any idea was on the table, so surely it makes sense that these radical movements would be fighting for equality between the sexes?

But they did not.

Although women became a much more visible part of public life during the period, in her brilliant best-selling account of the lives of women in seventeenth century England, The Weaker Vessel, Antonia Fraser shoots down any suggestion of 17th Century Suffragettes: “Hindsight – and only hindsight – has shown the importance of female suffrage in the elevation of women’s condition; this importance was certainly not appreciated in the seventeenth century”

That is not, however, to say that women were invisible during the English Civil Wars – quite the opposite. If anything, their voices begin to be heard at levels never seen before in British history. From the Leveller “lusty lasses” demanding the release of arch-pamphleteer John Lilburne who laid siege to Parliament for three days in April 1649 before rioting when told to “look after their own business, and meddle with their huswifery”, to the forthright language of their Women’s Petition, which demanded that:

“…since we are assured of our creation in the image of God, and of an interest in Christ equal unto men, as also of a proportional share in the freedoms of this Commonwealth, we cannot but wonder and grieve that we should appear so despicable in your eyes, as to be thought unworthy to petition or represent our grievances to this honourable House.

“Have we not an equal interest with the men of this Nation, in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right, and the other good laws of the land? Are any of our lives, limbs, liberties or goods to be taken from us more than from men, but by due process of law and conviction of twelve sworn men of the neighbourhood?”

Elsewhere, The Quakers were regarded as particularly radical because they allowed women to preach, which showed that within radical sects those who previously enjoyed little autonomy or opportunity for self-expression could find positions of leadership. Indeed, this seemed to be part of such sects’ appeal.

Alison Plowden’s Women All On Fire also details just a few of the women – both Parliamentarian and Royalist – who found themselves organising the defence of castles, campaigning to secure the release of their husbands, printing pamphlets, defending their homes, and dealing with the depredations of war. That we can hear their voices 400 years later demonstrates just how much more weight those voices carried at the time.

But, simply put, no-one was pushing for women to have the vote.

In a country where men not only had complete control over the nation’s economic structure but were also simply seen as better and more worthy human beings than women, the suggestion alone would have been considered ludicrous.

Most importantly, it would have been considered so by women themselves.

A century after the incredible advances won by the Suffragettes, it seems antithetical to us that anyone would not want political agency and a greater say in affairs of state – but this was the prevailing structure of English society at the time.

872eb096c58d1d4598c2b2d7039bf824Fraser points out that there were occasions when women did try to vote. The political position of widows of “freeholders” (i.e. landowners) was ambiguous in Stuart England: since the qualification for voting was owning property, as owners of their late husbands’ estates some women did try to vote in elections in the early 1640s. More often than not these votes were annulled after complaints and when barrister and politician Sir Edward Coke published another of his legal treatises, The Institutes of the Lawes of England (which formed the backbone of English common law), in 1644 it starkly disenfranchised even these small numbers, stating that people without “freehold” could not vote and nor could “all women having freehold or no freehold”.

Several years later, extending suffrage to men who did not possess property or land was considered so dangerously radical that it had to be suppressed – the Leveller ‘agitators’ were purged from the New Model Army, the Diggers were harassed until they gave up, and other non-conformist movements were suppressed by the post-Restoration Act of Uniformity. Even in an age when it seems like no idea would have been too far fetched, votes for women was never one of them.

Mat’s original question references Colonel Thomas Rainsborough’s famous quote from the Putney debates:

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under…”

It was a noble and far-reaching defence of the rights of the common man to political expression. But even the most extreme Levellers never suggested they were fighting for anything other than the rights of men.

Fraser says it is significant that “throughout a period of unparalleled radicalism – and radical debate – in English history, when so many revolutionary political ideas were discussed that to contemporaries it must have seemed that Pandora’s Box had been opened, the series question of giving a vote to Pandora herself was never even mooted.”

On This Day in the English Civil Wars: Charles Stuart becomes king

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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.

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With a profound belief that kings are appointed by God to rule by divine right, Charles found himself at constant loggerhead with Parliament. His 11-year ‘Personal Rule’ stored up deep resentments among the emerging middle class and gentry, and his religious reforms alienated many. Eventually, it was a Catholic rebellion in Ireland and a Presbyterian revolt 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.

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Charles I was, in the words of the Revolutions podcast, “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 is a fascinating man and his actions had a profound effect on the history of the British Isles.

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)

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The Battle of Boldon Hill was a skirmish fought during the English Civil War in March 1644, between a Royalist army attempting 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.

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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.

“If God is for us, who can be against us?” Why was King Charles executed 368 years ago?

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charles_executionToday marks 368 years since the execution of Charles Stuart, king of England, Scotland and Ireland, on a scaffold built next to the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall in London.

Surrounded by large numbers of soldiers, who faced the crowd rather than the scaffold, he addressed his last speech, uttered in a quiet voice, to Colonel Tomlinson and Bishop Juxon who reported his words after the execution:

“All the world knows that I never did begin a war with the two Houses of Parliament. ….for I do believe that ill instruments between them and me has been the chief cause of all this bloodshed. I have forgiven all the world, and even those in particular that have been the chief causers of my death……For the people; And truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever, but I must tell you, that their liberty and freedom consists in having of government; those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government that is pertaining to them; A subject and a sovereign are clean different things, and therefore until you do put the people in that liberty as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves. Sir, it was for this that I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, for to have all laws changed according to the power of the Sword, I needed not to have come here, and therefore I tell you….that I am the martyr of the people. I have a good cause and a gracious God on my side.” 

Charles was brought forward to the anonymous executioner’s block – which was too low, the normal block having been lost – wearing two shirts, since he feared the cold might make him shiver and people would think him afraid. His hair wrapped up in the small cap he was wearing, he said a prayer, placed his head on the block, and signalled the executioner when he was ready by thrusting out his arms.

He was beheaded with one clean stroke.

It was common practice for the head of a traitor to be held up and shown to the crowd with the words “Behold the head of a traitor!”. Although Charles’ head was held up, it is unclear whether the words were used, various sources disagree. But in a highly unusual move after a traitor’s death, the King’s head was sewn back onto his body for burial. Charles was buried in private on 7 February 1649, inside the Henry VIII vault in St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

So how did the English come to try and then execute their own monarch?

When Parliament went to war against its own monarch in 1642, it did not claim that it was for Parliament against the king – the cry was “for King and Parliament”. Medieval attitudes about the supremacy of a divinely-appointed monarch still maintained a strong grip on the public consciousness so those who had risen against Charles Stuart were careful to blame the discord not on him but on ‘evil advisers’ who, they claimed, deliberately misinformed him – either for personal gain or for a foreign, Roman Catholic, agenda. The king, they contended, had been led astray.

The frustrations that had led both sides to this point and numerous and complex – Tim Harris’ Rebellion: Britain’s First Stuart Kings, 1567-1642 sets out an argument for both economic and social problems made worse by a flawed transition from the Tudors to the Stuarts, with Charles’ actions exacerbating existing tensions, and a religious settlement that only increased instability. None of these can be laid at any one person’s feet, least of all Charles’, but it was his way of ruling – blind, obstinate, uncompromising, loyal to a fault but easily swayed – that pushed the country over the edge. This personality flaw would certainly contribute most particularly to his own fate. However, in The Noble Revolt, John Adamson sets out in microscopic detail the events leading up to the breakdown in the relationship between crown and Parliament, arguing that a ‘junta’ development amongst Puritan-leaning peers and MPs – when their attempts to clip the King’s wings met his stubborn obstinacy, events boiled over into all-out war.

Either way, as the first Civil War dragged on and the tide ebbed and flowed back and forth across the country, voices within Parliament began to become frustrated with the lack of a decisive victory that would bring the king to a settlement of their liking.

The night before the Battle of Marston Moor, outside the city of York, in July 1664 the commanders of the three Parliamentarian armies that faced Prince Rupert’s Royalists – the Earl of Manchester, Lord Fairfax, and the commander of the Scottish forces, Lord Leven – met with an envoy from their political masters in London, Sir Henry Vane. It was during these discussions that Vane first proposed the idea of a government without the king. The idea was roundly rejected by the generals, who believed Charles could still be accommodated – especially the Earl of Manchester who had been a boyhood friend of Charles’. But there was one man present at that meeting who would give a sympathetic ear – Manchester’s colonel of horse, Oliver Cromwell. With the seed of an idea planted, it quickly took root, especially within the increasingly radicalised ranks of the New Model Army, England’s first professional army which had been raised and trained to act as the decisive instrument in Charles’ downfall.

For the men of Parliament it became increasingly clear that the king would not compromise and was merely playing for time so that he could attempt to drive the factions of Parliament apart. When Charles provoked a second Civil War in 1648 by arranging a Scottish invasion of England while negotiating with Parliament in what appeared to be good faith, it sealed his fate in his opponent’s eyes – he could not be trusted and there would be no peace so long as Charles Stuart, “the man of blood”, lived.

Men such as Cromwell, ‘common’ men who had risen on merit rather than position, had come to prominence since the end of the first Civil War and he, amongst many others, suspected that their Parliamentary comrades would be only too willing to join with the king to combat a rise in religious sectarianism within the army, which Parliament tried to disband without settlement of its arrears or grievances. Parliament was quickly losing control of the army it had created, an army fired up by a sense of betrayal and of what many of them saw as a divinely-appointed mission. The tyrant had been brought to his knees and freedom – of religion, of trade, of conscience, of speech – was the prize at stake.

In December 1648, during ‘Pride’s Purge, the army marched on London, forcibly removed or scared off moderate voices, and allowed only a minority of extremists to remain – creating the Rump Parliament, which would not only sanction the trial of the king but sit in judgement upon him.

trialThe case against Charles was a complex and, quite literally, a revolutionary one – not only did it insist that the monarch must abide by the law like everyone else (opponents argued that since all authority flowed from the crown, therefore the monarch was above that authority) but Parliament argued that since the king is charged with the welfare of his own people when he wages war against them he is guilty of treason. Whatever the merits of the case, the judgement was a foregone conclusion – death.

With a swing of the executioner’s axe, more than 10 years of war and almost 50 years of Stuart rule of England, came to an end. England was a republic, for the first and last time.

But it did not mark an end of the country’s woes, for greater conflict – and the bloody and costly invasions of Scotland and Ireland – beckoned.

We re-enact this period to keep these memories alive, to ensure that people don’t forget the bloody and divisive period which helped form our nation, and the people whose lives and deaths bought us our freedoms and privileges.

We are a Parliamentarian regiment, but it’s not about claiming one side was right and the other was wrong, and the anniversary of Charles’ death is a good time to remember that.

Seven reasons why the Battle of Naseby changed British history forever

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On 14th June 1645, the fields between the Northamptonshire villages of Naseby and Sibbertoft saw one of the most significant battles in British history.

Royalist troops loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarian ‘New Model Army’ led by Sir Thomas Fairfax met in the culmination of a three-year bloody civil war that had pitted families and friends against each other and the fates of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland rested in the balance. 

So why is The Battle of Naseby so important in British history…?

There are acres and acres of writing about the most “pivotal” moments in history, those occasions when the future seems to turn on a single act and everything after it owes its existence that that moment.

In lists of British history, the Battle of Naseby is one such moment.

Fought on gently sloping fields next to a quiet Northamptonshire village on 14th June 1645 by the Royalist forces of King Charles I and the English Parliament’s New Model Army, Naseby is exactly one of those moments that changed British (and to a certain extent world) history forever.

So what are the top reasons why this battle, in this place, at this time, had such a profound effect?

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1. It decided the first English Civil War.

In 1645, the English Civil War could have gone either way – there was no obvious indication that either Parliament nor the Royalists had a clear military advantage over the other. Both sides had large armies filled with a mix of battle-hardened veterans and fresh newbies, plus solid supply bases and well-provisioned garrisons. Although King Charles had lost the North at Marston Moor in 1644, his forces in Scotland were doing well and he still controlled the West and Wales.

Yet his decision to fight the New Model Army at Naseby was arguably one of the single biggest military blunders in British history.

IC100813battle-22Not only was he heavily outnumbered by Thomas “Black Tom” Fairfax’s New Model Army – 10,000 versus 15,000 – but his men still fought the way they had fought back in 1642 when the war started.

However, Parliament had raised a new army imbued with fresh ideas (see below) and created for one purpose – to strike the decisive blow against the king. At Naseby it did just that.

By concentrating his best forces into one army, leaving his fortified capital of Oxford, and then dithering around in the Midlands, Charles gave Parliament the best chance it had to catch and destroy his forces.

Ironically the battle started well for Charles – Prince Rupert smashed the Parliamentarian left wing with a dashing charge and the King’s pikemen and musketeers pushed Parliament’s infantry back almost to breaking point. However, Rupert’s charge left his men scattered and on the other flank Marmaduke Langdale was routed by Parliament’s golden boy Oliver Cromwell, whose cavalry then turned on the Royalist infantry. A running retreat/rout over 12 miles took place, with thousands of the king’s men captured or killed.

Naseby destroyed the veteran infantry Charles relied on, condemned him to spend the rest of the summer being chased around the Midlands and West Country, and gave the New Model Army the impetus to sweep up the remainder of his forces. Although the King himself believed he could still win the war and fighting dragged on into 1646, his military machine was irrevocably broken and the overwhelming success of the New Model Army at Naseby was the moment King Charles lost the English Civil War.

2. It helped assert the right of Parliament over the monarch.

englicher-buergerkriegIgnore what you may have been taught at school – the English Civil War did not start because some people wanted a king and others wanted a republic. That happened, almost by accident, later.

But though they may not have known it the men who fought at Naseby were setting their country on the path to both a constitutional monarchy and a modern Parliamentary democracy.

The war had begun as the culmination of a long, drawn-out argument over who controlled the levers of power with few, if any, people arguing for a kingless state. Even before Charles had ruled without Parliament during his ’The Personal Rule’ (also known as the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ depending on who you asked), MPs had been clamouring for more control over the country, especially with foreign policy, religion, and taxes. That argument eventually boiled over into all out war, which the King would go on to lose.

The victory at Naseby established Parliament’s right to a permanent role in the government of the kingdom.

3. It gave us the Armed Forces.

Before the English Civil War, the British were naturally suspicious of soldiers. To have lots of them hanging around was a recipe for disaster, either because they’d get bored and go on a rampage or it meant the king wanted to use them against his own people. And the people didn’t like either of those options. So armies were only raised when they were needed – either to defend the country or invade somewhere else – and would then be disbanded.

The New Model Army was different.

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Before 1645, winning battles mostly came down to good fortune, surprise, soldiers who wouldn’t immediately turn and run (who were common), and commanders who knew what they were doing (who were not). Also, many of the troops Parliament relied upon from London and what we now call the Home Counties had been raised as defensive troops, so as soon as the threat to their counties was over they’d either refuse to move or simply pack up and head home.

The Second Battle of Newbury in October 1644 was a wake up call for Parliament. They had won but only on paper; arguments between the commanders let the King’s defeated forces escape virtually intact. So MPs became convinced that to win the war, rather than several armies led by individual commanders, it needed a single national army committed to the cause. This lead to the New Model Army or, as it was called at the time, “The Army, Newly Modelled”.

To remove political interference in tactical decision making, MPs and Lords(with a few notable exceptions) were forbidden from being officers by the Self-Denying Ordnance while rank was awarded on merit, meaning the brave and militarily gifted rose quickly. Rather than ranks of fresh or conscripted men without adequate arms and provisions, the New Model was to be made up of properly trained, well supplied, and regularly paid professional troops (side note: the latter of these wasn’t exactly followed through).

The New Model Army was Britain’s first professional army and was the beginning of the modern British Army that we know today (in fact, two existing regiments – The Coldstream Guards and The Blues and Royals – can trace their history all the way back to the New Model).

It was a truly revolutionary idea and, at Naseby, it worked.

4. It turned Oliver Cromwell into the historical leviathan we know today.

oliver_cromwell_samuel_cooper1He’s been dubbed “God’s Englishman” and was voted amongst the top ten Britons of all time but, despite what many think, Oliver Cromwell neither started nor ended the first English Civil War, nor was the conflict “Cromwell vs Charles I”. In fact, he didn’t come to totally dominate English politics until after the King was dead and the second Civil War in 1651 tipped off his beloved and (arguably) more capable superior, Lord Fairfax, as to which way the wind was blowing so that he stood down as leader of the New Model Army.

Cromwell was, however, very good at being a cavalry commander.

At the start of the war in 1642, he was just a lowly Huntingdonshire squire with little in the way of prospects, who only really got elected as an MP because of his family connections. At the outbreak of the war, he organised a local troop of cavalrymen but turned up late to the Battle of Edgehill just in time to witness Parliament’s cavalry get their backsides handed to them by the dashing Prince Rupert’s men.

Cavalry tactics at the time involved two wings of cavalry charging at each other and trying to drive the other side off, the winners then chasing their defeated foes across the countryside in a disordered gallop and maybe stoping off for a pint or two afterwards. Once that initial job was done, the cavalry usually took no more part in a battle. Cromwell realised that if you trained your cavalry properly you could drive off the enemy, get back into order, and then wheel round and attack the enemy’s infantry – and if there’s one thing infantry don’t like, it’s enemy cavalry. Thus were born Cromwell’s elite cavalry, The Ironsides, who turned the tide in pretty much every battle they fought in.

This was certainly the case at Naseby, where he commanded Parliament’s right wing. While Prince Rupert smashed Parliament’s left wing, he couldn’t control his men and by the time they got back to the fighting it was all over – thanks to the Ironsides. Cromwell’s reputation was well on the rise by this point anyway, but Naseby made him a Parliamentarian hero. And the rest, as they say, is history.

(Oh, and for the record he didn’t ban Christmas. Or mince pies. Or dancing. Or the theatre. Or much of anything.)

5. It showed what King Charles was really up to.

Charles_Landseer_Cromwell_Battle_of_NasebyAfter the battle, the victorious Parliamentarians rampaged through the Royalists ‘baggage train’ – which is where an army keeps its supplies. While capturing great amounts of powder, arms, and food, they also seized the carriage carrying the king’s private papers, which had been left behind in the rout.

What it contained was sheer dynamite. Confirming all Parliament’s worst fears and suspicions about Charles, the papers showed that he had been trying to raise an army of Roman Catholic soldiers from Ireland to invade England, as well as negotiating help from French and Spanish mercenaries – all of them also Catholic.

What was wrong with them being Catholic? Bear in mind that Protestant England had been at war with Roman Catholic powers such as Spain and France pretty much ever since Henry VIII had broken from Rome and established the Church of England. Henry and his daughter Elizabeth had mixed Protestantism up with a bombshell cocktail of religious zealotry, national pride, and plain old xenophobia; the despotic reign of Bloody Queen Mary, the Spanish Armada, and the plots against Elizabeth were all still strong in the collective memory and Charles’ dad and King of Scotland, James VI, had only become King James I of England because he was Elizabeth’s closest Protestant relative. So hated were the Catholics that Irish-sounding Royalist soldiers were routinely hanged, Irish-Scottish regiments were given no mercy, and when Parliament’s soldiers overran the Royalist baggage train at Naseby, they infamously raped, mutilated, and killed many of the female camp followers – later justifying it by saying they thought they were Irish Catholics (they undoubtedly weren’t).

Parliament wasted no time in publishing copies of this damning correspondence for the whole nation to see. Charles was shown to not only to be duplicitous but also that he seemingly only cared about being in power and he didn’t care a jot about how he got it.

This moment, combined with his sparking of the second English Civil War by getting the Scottish to invade in 1648, was what sealed his fate and led him to the executioner’s block in 1649.

6. It destroyed the idea of the divine right of kings.

Sir_Anthony_Van_Dyck_-_Charles_I_(1600-49)_-_Google_Art_ProjectCharles believed, as his father and many others before him, that he was divinely appointed to be king by God himself. Therefore, whatever he wanted to do was – naturally – what God wanted and those who were against him were against the deity himself. Unfortunately, Parliament was becoming increasingly dominated by ultra-devout Puritans who believed THEY were the ones divinely appointed by God and their mission was to overcome the tyranny of fallible Earth-bound kings.

While the war was sparked by issues over forms of worship, money, and power, it soon took on a dangerously dogmatic religious tone. With the removal of their critics in a purged Parliament and the decisive defeat of the King’s army at Naseby, it seemed to the Puritans that God now agreed with them.

After Naseby, the Puritan ‘Independent’ faction would become a political force to be reckoned with. And with one stroke of the executioner’s axe, they irrevocably changed the relationship between England’s monarch and England’s people forever.

7. It was a stepping stone to a political revolution.

In the New Model Army, Parliament had unwittingly created a pet bulldog that it could not control.

Once it had won the war and disposed of the king, and with no military force that could match it, the army quickly came to realise that IT carried the balance of political power and it became a hotbed of radical politics and discontent. Many, including political agitators within the army dubbed Levellers (because, their critics claimed, they wanted to bring rich and poor to the same level), demanded a greater say in government and a famous meeting called The Putney Debates in 1647 was the first time common people and their social superiors had sat down to discuss the very question of the nation’s governance.

putneyIt hinged on the question of why had they fought in the first place. Surely, said leading Leveller sympathiser and friend of Cromwell Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, even the lowliest Englishman has the same right to a say in England’s affairs as the highest?

This, and The Leveller’s idealism, has echoed down the centuries ever since. Some claim them as proto-socialists, others as anarchistic radicals, but either way Putney set the terms of the argument for almost 370 years – an argument that is still going on today.

After Charles was executed in 1649, England (soon to be joined, whether they liked it or not, by Scotland and Ireland) became a republic called ‘The Commonwealth of England’. A limited form of Parliamentary democracy was now in practise and it finally seemed like the tyranny of absolute monarchs that had begun with the Norman invasion in 1066 was over.

However, grand words are just that – words. After the army smashed the Scots and invaded Ireland, they were in no mood to compromise with anyone about anything and the purging of anti-army MPs from Parliament, Cromwell’s elevation to ‘Lord Protector’, and the military dictatorship that followed turned hopes of a peaceful, tolerant, and free English republic to dust.

After the death of Cromwell in 1658 it was ironically part of the army itself, led by General George Monck (who had been cunningly keeping out of things up in Scotland), that helped usher in the return of the monarchy in 1660.

But absolute monarchy had had its day in England and, following the invasion of the William of Orange’s Dutch forces in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, England’s one and only true “revolution” came to a close with the constitutional monarchy that still stands, more or less in the same shape, today.

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A panoramic view of the battlefield from the Naseby Memorial, Northamptonshire