Summer Blog 4: An Occasional Series on The English Civil War - THE WAR & ORDINARY FOLK
The majority of the English population in 1640s (approx 5m), of whom some 190 thousand died during the war, were essentially spectators on the sidelines; unless, with great misfortune, the war came to their village, town, or city. They had no vote, no voice, and many were illiterate; male illiteracy was probably around 70%, and female anything up to 90%. Of course this did not mean they did not know what was going on, especially in their own neighbourhoods and counties, but it did mean they were difficult to politicise save through the clergy or through involuntary conscription into one of the two army groups of Royalists and Parliamentarians.
In an earlier blog I wrote about the Clubmen, rural workers, often led by clergy, who took the view of 'to the devil with both of you' and formed vigilante groups to defend their parishes, their families, and their livelihoods. Yet such Clubmen groups were never organised into anything like a national movement and had no firm agenda other than 'Keep the war out of here'.
When working as an adult educator in Warwickshire in the 1970s, and often speaking in villages on local folklore and local history, I was told the tale from a village near to the site of the opening battle of the war at Edgehill, of a young farm labourer leaning on a gate when a troop of Parliamentary horse rode through the village. Seeking a laugh they asked the lad whether he was for King and Parliament. He had heard of the King and answered therefore 'The King'. They chased him off laughing as they did so.
Just a story from Warwickshire but fact from the Essex town of Colchester. The town was besieged during the summer of 1648, during the so-called Second Civil War. A Royalist force was caught inside the town walls by a Parliamentary force from whom they were hoping to escape. The siege was long and nasty, made worse by the fact that The Mayor and Corporation, and the majority of the citizens, were Puritan and thus for Parliament. They were trapped with the enemy inside their town whilst their 'friends' attacked from outside. Inevitably food began to run out, and we have contemporary accounts of the besieged forced to eat cats, dogs, rats, and in extremis soap and candles. Seeking to eke the food supplies out for as long as possible and responding to growing resistance from the citizens, the Royalists allowed them to walk out towards 'their friends' in the Parliamentary besieging force.
John Evelyn records, 'The townspeople became very uneasy to the soldiers, and the mayor of the town, with the aldermen, waited upon the general desiring leave to send to the Lord Fairfax [Commander of the Parliamentary Army before Colchester's walls] for leave to all the inhabitants to come out of the town, that they might not perish, to which Lord Goring [Royalist Commander] consented, but the Lord Fairfax refused them'. The reason being that if the Royalists inside the town had more mouths to feed and the resentment of the townspeople grew towards them, then a speedier end to the siege could be obtained. Goring opened the gates, in the face of more demonstrations from the citizens, and they rushed towards the Parliamentary lines. But, Fairfax had shots fired at them and beat them back towards the gate with the flat of swords. Goring had little choice but to open the gates and let them back in. Civil Wars are truly dreadful for non-combatants.
To add insult to injury, Parliament fined the town of Colchester the enormous sum of £14k. The Corporation then turned on Colchester's immigrant Flemish community of weavers who were ordered to pay half the fine. Eventually, Parliament reduced the fine on appeal to £2k. Even so because of the devastation wreaked on the town during the siege it took decades to recover, and in some case centuries, as Stephen Porter writes, 'An appeal made in 1811 for a subscription to rebuild St Botolph's noted that 'a large part' of the former priory church had been battered down in 1648. That appeal was not successful, and not until 1837 was a new church built adjacent to the ruins'.
The most material damage occurred during the civil war in towns or cities that faced a siege, as in the case of Colchester. Bristol suffered two catastrophic sieges. Much of the damage was caused by deliberately pulling down houses in order to achieve a better line of fire, as in the Bristol suburb of Bedminster. Porter writes, 'The inhabitants of Bedminster claimed that not only had their parish church been gutted, but that 'a great number of houses were .....likewise burned to the ground'. The losses were said to amount to £5,470. I was always amused as a child, interested in history, that two neighbouring streets in the city centre were named 'Fairfax Street' and 'Prince Rupert Street'. As an ardent Royalist I tried to avoid walking down Fairfax Street whenever possible!
An additional problem, made worse by the war, was fire in the streets which could devastate a town in a matter of hours. Bristol suffered three such fires during the 1640s, the second one caused by the Parliamentary attack on the city in 1645. The other two were in 1643 and 1647. No property was safe, and Lichfield Cathedral suffered considerable damage. The cathedral's website says, '....the great wall around the Close proved to be the cathedral's undoing........since it turned the cathedral and Close into an ideal garrison [for both sides in turn]. During the sieges cannonballs destroyed both the roof and the central spire.'
The effect of the war could manifest itself in perhaps unusual ways, when in Wells in Somerset the local Almshouse ran out of money because they no longer received support from the cathedral whose clergy had been forced out. Anthony Nott writes, 'Besides the young, the corporation was very concerned with provision for the elderly. The confiscation of the property of the dean and chapter in 1649, some of which provided the endowment income for the Bubwith almshouse, was very worrying to Francis Standish, the master of the almshouse'. Standish referred to his elderly charges as 'aged and impotent'.... and 'in great misery and likely to perish'. Of course, he could have been bigging up the crisis in order to get the corporation to pay up!
The story of ordinary English folk during The Civil War of the 1640s is, of course, no different from that of civilians in other civil wars, most notably more recently in The Yugoslav Civil Wars. Yet what is surprising is that after the return of the King in 1660 the old divisions disappeared or went underground. The Radicals of the 1640s and 1650s largely disappear from English history once the status quo ante, with some major adjustments in 1688, is restored under Charles II. I shall turn to this puzzle at a later date, namely, in simplest terms, 'why did English Republicanism die?'
Under God's Vision by Anthony Nott (Wells during the civil war)
The Blast of War by Stephen Porter ( destruction during the civil war)
The Revolt of the Provinces by John Morrill