Mike Ingram looks at the county’s part in the English Civil War…
The ‘Great Rebellion’ better known today as the English Civil War began on 22 August 1642. Northamptonshire was split between Royalists and Parliamentarians and was always on the front line. Very little of the county was untouched by the ravages of war. Since the 1580’s, the county, and particularly Northampton itself had been at the forefront of Puritanism in England and its people were described as “…the hotter sort of Protestants.”
Long before war broke out, Fawsley Hall home of Richard Knightly, lay at the heart of a group of Puritan nobles and gentlemen from the Oxford-Northampton-Warwick border area who were leading opponents of Charles I’s religious and financial policies. John Pym, a prominent critic of Kings James I and then Charles I took refuge at Fawsley Hall in 1637. By the time war broke out, Northampton had become a nursery of “Independency” or Congregationalism. King Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud remarked, “In no other county In England was there probably the same extreme defiance of rubrics, order and doctrine, as was the case of some of the parishes in Northants.”
So, in 1641, as the country began to descend into chaos, Northampton prepared for war. It naturally declared for Parliament, the walls of the town were repaired, and 20 men patrolled each of Northampton’s four wards every night. Its MP, Zouche Tate of Delapré Abbey was part of a Committee of seven sent to Northampton by Parliament with Instructions for the Putting the Militia in Execution, and the Preservation of the Peace of the County. It would become the main infantry garrison and supply depot for the Parliamentarian Army in the East Midlands for the entire war. To show how polarised the county was, just seven miles down the road, 500 Royalist Musketeers were garrisoned at Holdenby House. Many of Northampton’s gentry left their estates to join the King including Spencer Compton, 2nd Earl of Northampton and his son James.
As soon as the war started, King Charles sent around 300 men under the command of Sir John Byron (the poet’s ancestor), from Nottingham to the Royalist centre of Oxford with a large sum of money and other valuables which were intended for the launch of the Royalist effort in the south. Byron’s route took him through Brackley, where he arrived on the evening of 28th August. Then, as supper was being prepared, they were attacked by a force of some five hundred locals wielding pikes, bills and pitchforks. Whether the attack was opportunistic or planned is unknown, although the numbers are large enough to suggest an ambush. Byron and about half his men made their escape towards Oxford. The others were caught unprepared and routed. The booty was enormous, and the value of all the gold, money and apparel taken was worth more than £6,000 to £8,000. Most but not all was handed over to Parliament. Around the same time, whilst passing through Kilsby, John Smith, the brother of Lord Carrington with a contingent of cavalry, on the way to meet the Earl of Northampton, was met by villagers armed with pitchforks and clubs. Over a dozen were killed.
Parliament began to assemble its army at Northampton under the Earl of Essex. For the most part, it was untrained, ill-equipped and poorly fed. In letters to his brother in London, Nehemiah Wharton, sergeant of musketeers recounted how he, and his men marched from Coventry to the town, plundered the countryside as they went. On 1 September, they spent a night at Long Buckby, ignoring the Royalist presence at Holdenby House, but there was a shortage of accommodation and the church was crowded with tired soldiers. Nehemiah Wharton, told his brother they “were glad to dispossess the very swine.” He goes on to describe Northampton as “for situation, circuit, and
statelynese of buildinge, exceeds Coventry; but the walls are miserably ruined, though the country abounds in mines of stone.”
On 14 September, the Earl of Essex reviewed his army in Northampton. It was said to be 15,000 – 20,000 strong. The assembled army made an impression on the observers as they recounted “both front, rear and flank, the drums beating and the trumpets sounding … a harmony delectable to our friends, but terrible to our enemies.” Five days later, the army left the town heading towards Worcester and the King. The two armies met in their first pitched battle just over the county border with Warwickshire at Edgehill Sunday, 23 October. The battle was inconclusive. The King made his quarters at Aynho before taking Banbury and then moving on to Oxford which he made his headquarters for the whole war. The Parliamentarians marched back to Northampton, then on to London.
In November that year Spencer Compton, Earl of Northampton was given command of Banbury for the Royalists but was killed at Hopton Heath the following March. His son James, the third earl, was then made governor of Banbury. On 26 December, Zouche Tate sent a party of dragoons from Northampton to arrest Francis Gray, a prominent royalist in Wellingborough, and a clerk of the peace. The parliamentarian press reported that a shot was fired, and “the town being full of malignants took distaste thereat and betook themselves to their arms”. Bells were rung, “which brought in the country, who beset the town around”, and attacked the dragoons as they left. Before they could get back to Northampton, the dragoons were attacked again, this time by a force numbering over 500. Unable to secure Gray’s release, the country people then plundered ‘puritans’ in the nearby village of Wilby. The following day, more dragoons were sent to suppress the rising. The troops were again attacked by the inhabitants, some armed only with knives, bodkins and shears. The insurgents were finally defeated, and Wellingborough was plundered by the parliamentarian troops. They did however, bring back a considerable number of prisoners including a lame Rev Thomas Jones. According to Royalist propaganda, Rev Jones struggled to walk, and they make a bear, taken from the barber chase him, but he managed to climb on the bears back, who carried him to the town.
In January, Royalist troops led by the King’s dashing nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine and the Earl of Northampton were raiding villages between Daventry and Banbury. They are reported to have taken over twelve hundred horses, and sixty wagons of cheese, “leaving in many Villages, neither beds to lie on, nor bread to eate, nor Horse, Cow, nor Sheepe.” They also looted Daventry itself, filling stolen wagons with plunder.
James Compton had only just taken up his post when on 6 May he received information that 700 infantry and 300 cavalry were at Culworth and preparing to attack Banbury. The new Earl sent a detachment commanded by a Captain Trist to face them and keep them in action, whilst he advanced with approximately 5-600 cavalry. He found the enemy in close formation in the ‘Town Field’ of Middleton Cheney (near to the present day Moors Drive) where they made a stand – firing their brass cannon and volleys of musket shot in a co-ordinated movement. The Earl then charged them from the front, with Captain Trist on his left wing and Sergeant Major Daniel on his right and routed them. In order to avoid former mistakes by too rashly pursuing the fugitive cavalry, the Earl immediately followed up by charging their infantry – completely defeating them. The earl then made a retaliatory attack on Northampton with 1,000 horse and foot. Although details are scant, Thomas, Lord Grey of Groby with 500 cavalry supported by infantry from the town, intercepted them to the south of Wooton and drove them off.
In March 1643, during a raid on the north of the county which swept through Market Harborough and Oundle, Lord Grey captured Rockingham Castle without a fight. He immediately set about strengthening its defences and adding cannon.
With the increasing threat from Royalist raids, in May 1643, the Parliament authorities ordered that every household in Northampton provided one man every afternoon to build fortifications around the northern edge of the town. This included a number of gun emplacements along the town wall known as mounts. And, it is from these that ‘the Mounts’ gets its name today. A gunpowder mill was also built to the south, outside the town walls, where Morrisons now stand.
Also, in May, a raid led by Royalist Henry Hastings, soon to be 1st Baron Loughborough, went through Wellingborough and Kettering and to the walls of Rockingham, disarming “malignants” as they went, before being driven off. Royalist parties from Belvoir and the garrison at Newark harried east Northamptonshire in April to late July 1643, before being stopped by Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry. Parliamentarian pamphlets also reported psychological warfare by the Earl of Northampton who loaded up wounded parliamentarians in carts and left them in “ill affected parts and villages” of Northamptonshire in the spring of 1643.
The Royalists were not having it all their way as Rockingham Castle also served as a base for raids into royalist territory in Leicestershire and Rutland. When a royalist party attempted to recruit around Crick in early June 1643, they were caught by parliamentarian forces, and a number of officers were taken prisoner to Northampton. During the same month, a Royalist raiding party of over 300 men from Belvoir Castle led by Colonel Murray entered Northants. After having taken 700 or 800 cattle they were intercepted near Rushton by 136 Parliamentarians from Rockingham Castle under Captain Wollaston. In the skirmish that followed, Murray, a Sergeant Major and a number of Captains were captured. The remainder were chased all the way to Stamford and those animals that could be proved to be from local residents were returned to their owners. On 2 July 1643, a Parliamentarian cavalry raid out of Northampton under Captain Samuel, attacked Lois Weedon. According to Royalist propaganda they captured the Rev William Losse in his church. However, he managed to escape back into church and took refuge in the bell-tower. Wounded, the Reverend was taken for dead and left where he lay. Then, according to the account, soldiers then rode up and down the church “spurring and twitching their horses purposely to endanger the people.”
On 29 July, leading a raid from Huntingdon, Oliver Cromwell, then a Colonel, captured Burleigh House (still in Northants at that time). He took two Colonels, six Captains, four hundred foot, and two hundred horse prisoners, killing sixty more. In August, 50 Royalist Horse under Captain James Chamberlain arrived at Towcester from Banbury to levy ‘contributions’ for the Royalist cause. He took 20 troopers towards Northampton but were intercepted by 120 Parliamentarians from the town under a Captain Lawson. In a skirmish that lasted for half hour, Chamberlain was wounded several times before being shot in the head.
Then, on 14 October, Prince Rupert with 2000 horse and 700 foot launched a raid towards Northampton via Long Buckby. Parliamentarian cavalry were sent out of Northampton to meet them at Kingsthorpe, and their advance guards clashed at Brampton Bridge. The Royalists clearly got the upper hand as the main Parliamentarian force retreated back into the town through Kingsthorpe Hollow, chased by Rupert’s cavalry. By this time, it was dark, although it was a moonlight night. The gate which stood where Regent Square now stands was opened to let the retreating cavalry in, and musketeers lining the walls fire on their pursuers. The Royalists then moved out of range to await the infantry and there were exchanges of fire until the Parliamentarian cannon were brought to bear. Two Royalists were killed in the fighting, so finding the defences too strong, the Royalists moved off through Kingsthorpe Hollow and Moulton Park to Billing Bridge and into Bedfordshire.
Prince Rupert, who was by this time based at Easton Neston, sent out a proclamation to all the local villages demanding labourers with shovels to fortify Towcester based around Bury Mount where two guns were placed. His forces were then increased by a further 14 regiments of Horse from Oxford. Three hundred of Rupert’s horse scoured the countryside in all directions looking for provisions, as well as to disrupt supplies being taken to Northampton. The value of this pillaging and forced contributions were reckoned to be £1000 each day.
With a major Royalist base so close to Northampton, constant skirmishes took place between the two sides. On 2 November, there were skirmishes at Alderton and Stowe Nine Churches. On one occasion, a party of horse from Newport Pagnell, headed by Colonel Harvey, surprised Towcester in the night, slew the guards, killing about 30 men, taking 2 colours, and 20 prisoners, whom they took to Newport, without the loss of a single man, and only two slightly wounded. Prince Rupert, having strengthened Towcester by constructing water filled ditches and using the remains of the Roman walls, moved to Oxford but left a strong force behind. On the 14 November, Colonel John Digby moved into Grafton Regis with a regiment of horse, to control the main road from London to Northampton and Leicester, and another 400 horse were stationed at Paulerspury. They quickly set about fortifying Grafton Manor, forcing men from the surrounding villages to dig and build bulwarks. Very soon after it was garrisoned with 100 musketeers, 300 horse and six cannon. They then set about ‘taxing’ the area, as well as taking all the feather beds they could find, collected £250 per week from the Cleley hundred alone.
Towcester was still a thorn in the Parliamentarians side. With a major supply train waiting to leave Northampton for Gloucester, the town had to be taken before it was safe for it to move. On 20 November, Colonel Whitam with 1400 horse and foot from Northampton approached Towcester from the north, attacking quarters at Duncote, killing 20 and returning with 30 prisoners. From there he attacked the Earl of Northampton’s horse at Church Stowe, killing 4 and taking another 14 prisoners. At the same time, Sir Phillip Skippon advanced on Towcester from Newport Pagnell with two troops of horse and 400 foot. He attacked a Royalist outpost near Cuttle Mill and Alderton on the modern A5, killing 15 men and taking 22 prisoners. So many Royalist horses were captured that “a horse fayre was kept at Newport that day, and horses sold cheape for ready money.”
On 21 December, the order was given to lay siege to Grafton. Skippon gathered together around 3,000 men including the Orange and Green Regiments of the London Trained Bands. En-route he was joined by around 1,400 local troops mainly from Northampton. The siege began the following day. With such overwhelming odds, it did not last long and surrendered on Christmas Eve.
On 18 April 1644, around 40 foot from Northampton seize Dryden’s house at Canon’s Ashby. The Earl of Northampton’s horse and some 200 foot from Banbury tried to eject them. When the Parliamentarians barricaded themselves in the church, the Royalist brought up a type of mortar called a petard and blew the door down. At that point, most surrendered, however some held out in the steeple and were only ejected by the threat of burning. Colonel Whetham offered to exchange prisoners, but this was rejected. So he planned a daring raid to rescue them. On the night of 26 April, a party of 20 horse rode through the night and rescued them from a barn next to the walls of Banbury Castle beating off a Royalist counter-attack and taking 32 prisoners of their own before returning to Northampton. A few weeks later, two troops of horse under Major Lydcot from Northampton attacked Royalists near Towcester again, killing 25 of them.
On the morning of the 29 June, a royalist army of around 9,000 men marched north from the royalist garrison at Banbury, towards Daventry. The Parliamentarian commander, Sir William Waller, shadowed the king, along on the west side of the Cherwell, with an equal number of troops. The Royalist army became strung out. Waller decided to attack, and the fighting took place over a wide area including in Northamptonshire. The Royalist vanguard and main body crossed a stream at Hay’s Bridge (near the present-day village of Chipping Warden), leaving a rearguard of only two cavalry brigades under the Earl of Cleveland and the twenty-year-old Earl of Northampton, with some infantry, to the south of the bridge.
Waller, seeing his opportunity, sent Lieutenant General John Middleton across Cropredy Bridge with two regiments of horse including those of Sir Arthur Haselrig (whose descendant and namesake is currently the Chair of the Naseby Battlefield Project) with nine companies of foot to isolate the Royalist rearguard, while he himself led 1,000 men across Slat Mill Ford, a mile to the south of the bridge, to catch the Royalist rear in a pincer movement. Neither side gained the upper hand, and the battle ended as a stalemate with both armies on opposite banks of the Cherwell. While the Royalists had suffered few casualties, Waller had lost 700 men, many of those had deserted immediately after the battle. The Parliamentarians retreated through Towcester to Northampton. From Towcester, Waller wrote to Parliament saying “…till you have an army merely your own … it is impossible to do anything of importance.”
In November 1644, Northampton’s men from Banbury ransacked Kilsby for provisions, taking 24 men away. The women of the village marched on Banbury, demanding their men, 200 cattle and 80 horses back. In return, they agreed to pay £300, and forfeit the horses but managed to get their men and cattle returned to them.
Waller’s words after Cropredy Bridge had stirred Parliament, and on 9 December, the first “self-denying ordinance” was put before Parliament by Zouch Tate of Delapré Abbey. It stated that “no member of either house shall have or execute any office or command…” etc. in the armed forces. As a result, on 6 January 1645, the Committee of Both Kingdoms established the New Model Army, appointing Sir Thomas Fairfax as the Captain-General and Sir Philip Skippon as Sergeant-Major General of the Foot. The two sides were now squaring up for not only the most important battle of the war but probably the most important battle in English history after Hastings. And it would take place thirteen miles from Northampton near the sleepy village of Naseby…