Easter: The Devil’s Holiday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pirate Prince Rupert and the Booby-Trapped Boat

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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.