An Occasional Series on The British Civil War: Part 1 CLUBMEN
I am often asked what is my favourite part of history. I usually reply, to learners, 'whatever I am teaching at the moment'. And that, as a teacher, is always true. But at another, more personal level, I am trapped in the history I was taught at my Bristol Prep School, XIV School, in the 1950s. My teacher, whom I have mentioned before, Michael Cork, captured the imagination of little boys as he told the story of our country. Something that would probably be frowned on today, especially as he taught it from a right wing perspective. But it is good to remember that he was a Victorian by birth, like many of my early teachers.
So my enduring love has been for Saxon history, which Michael had studied at Cambridge, with The Civil War, where we were required to write Oliver Cromwell with a small 'o' and a small 'c', and finally with the lost cause of The Jacobites. I have added to this list over time and can count Roman Britain, thanks to my classics master, Michael Edwards, at my Public School, Winston Churchill (too modern in the 1950s for Michael Cork to teach it), and many others, including at present Rural History and the History of Natural History.
So then to The Civil War, where as a little boy I was a convinced cavalier who would gladly have taken up my sword for Prince Rupert and the King. Today, I have a far more nuanced view, and have even come to admire Cromwell (with a capital 'C' now!). I have also learnt that there was a great deal more going on than the major battles that we all know, Marston Moor, Naseby, Worcester, and the the rest.
As a Bristolian I was aware from quite a young age of The Clubmen, that group of ordinary folk who in effect said to both Parliamentary and Royalist Armies a curse on you both, and then took up arms to defend their families, homes, and property. I thought of The Clubmen as restricted to the Western Counties of Somerset, Dorset, and Wiltshire. I now know that to be untrue. They were far more widespread than that. Yet the trouble in writing about the Clubmen is that there is no 'set book'. There are references in regional histories of The Civil War (such as for the county where I now live, Sussex - 'Sussex in The Great Civil War' by C. Thomas-Stanford, published in 1910) , and especially in local pamphlets at a village level- these latter are especially difficult to track down. As I finished the writing of this blog, I learnt that a booklet was indeed about to be produced, 'Clubmen 1645' written by Haydn Wheeler. I ordered one immediately and devoured it voraciously. It is well worth a read by anyone remotely interested in the topic (v. details at end of my piece).
In retrospect I am glad I had written my piece before reading Wheeler's work as I would have felt too inhibited to put pen to paper. So below is my attempt to introduce you to a subject you may not know much about..................
Everyone knows that The Civil War was a simple war between two opposing Armies, that of The King and that of Parliament. Yet that is not the whole truth - there were mercenaries hired from continental Europe by both sides, there was the very confusing and changing political position of The Scots, and there was the Irish. All of which make for interesting study. But there was in England a distinct third group, alongside Royalist and Parliamentarian, and this is the Clubmen. They were in Wheeler's phrase 'neutrals', and as a symbol of this neutrality they sported white ribbons. They owed allegiance to neither side as they struggled to protect themselves and their property, and to restore peace to a war ridden England.
The Movement of Clubmen arose in the final two years of the war, 1644 and 1645. There is no accepted origin of the term 'Clubmen', some favouring 'those belonging to a group or club', and those who prefer the answer that they were 'so called from carrying clubs' - firearms being difficult to obtain. They first arose in Shropshire in 1644, and expanded into neighbouring Herefordshire and Worcestershire. In December of 1644, roughly 1,200 Clubmen assembled in the town of Wem. Their purpose was to stop the plundering of the countryside by the Royalist garrisons of Stokesay Castle and Lea Hall. It is of importance to note that this was not a 'Peasants' Revolt, let alone a Rebellion or Revolution. It was led by a local vicar, from Bishop's Castle, and was joined by many minor gentry (we might use the term 'gentleman farmers').
When 12,000 Clubmen assembled in Hereford and besieged the castle held by the Royalists, the authorities on both sides, Royalist and Parliamentarian alike, began to take the movement seriously. They sought either to crush them by force or to enlist their support against their enemy. In Worcestershire the Clubmen issued a Declaration, The Woodbury Declaration. Again a local vicar led them, Charles Nott of Shelsey. The Declaration described the damage being done to ordinary people and begging for peace; it was presented to the Sheriff of Worcestershire, a Royalist.
In Dorset in August 1645, Colonel Fleetwood, Parliamentarian, dispersed 1,000 Clubmen by force at Shaftesbury. Cromwell followed suit at Hambledon Hill, in the same county. The Puritan Parliamentarians blamed the local Anglican clergy for stirring the people up. Their cause was well expressed at Hambledon, where they displayed a banner with these words on it:
'If you offer to plunder or take our cattle
Be assured we will bid you battle.'
The movement dissipated after the episode of Hambledon Hill, although General Fairfax's Chaplain, Joshua Spriggs, is reported to have said that if the Clubmen had not been crushed in the egg, it had on an instant run all over the kingdom. But, this was no revolutionary movement like 'The Terror' in 18th century France, nor was it a co-ordinated national movement with a national leader. It was simply ordinary folk saying, enough of this madness for it will destroy us all. Although we should note that on occasions the Clubmen did take up arms in support of one side or the other.
If they did have any coherent political policy, it was to return to that eternal English myth of a past Merrie England where all was paradise. They were after all a conservative group not a revolutionary one. They would have warmed to Shakespeare's description of England, had they known of it, 'This other Eden, demi-paradise .... against infection and the hand of war. This happy breed of men, this little world... This England'.
Do the Clubmen, with a political stance of we don't care for either Cause, all we want is peace and to be left alone to lead our own lives, have a message for our political leadership today ? There is widespread dissatisfaction in The Western World with democratic politicians, and therein lies a grave danger. Can a centre, from outside of the political mainstream, emerge to revitalise our democracies? The Clubmen never managed that in the mid 1640s, but arguably with The Restoration in 1660 and Charles II's Merrie England they did achieve their goals longer term. And, maybe, just maybe, they are a signpost to the future and not just a footnote from the past.
I am reminded, as I finish, of GK Chesterton's words in 'The Secret People',
'Smile at us, pay us, pass us; but do not quite forget;
For we are the people of England, that never have spoken yet'
Clubmen 1645 by Haydn Wheeler. Order via retro it ain't website - just google it and it will take you to order details.