London in the English Civil War


Ensign with 4th captain’s colour, Red Regt., London trained bands 1643 • Sergeant, Red Regt., London trained bands 1643.


The battle of Turnham Green

The Battle of Turnham Green 1642, painted by John Hassall.

The reigns of Mary’s successors, Elizabeth I (1558—1603) and James I (1603—1625) saw less political and religious upheaval, and though there was an attempted coup by the Earl of Essex in 1601 against the elderly Queen, this had little support and soon petered out. However, James’s son and successor, Charles I (1625—1649) lacked the political wisdom of his two predecessors. All the attacks on and in London mentioned so far have been by forces antipathetic to the status quo, but in the autumn of 1642 it was the King’s troops that were planning to march on London, not those of the rebels.

Conflict between Charles I and his enemies in Parliament, led by John Pym, reached their peak in 1640—1642. London was, on the whole, hostile to the King, forcing him to sign the order to execute the Earl of Strafford, one of his ministers, and causing Charles to believe that his family were in physical danger. The City Common Council was dominated by Charles’s opponents. After trying to arrest five members of Parliament, the King and his supporters left the capital on 10 January 1642. Part of this hostility was directed against the King’s political and religious policies. Anti-Catholic fears resurfaced as Henrietta Maria, the Queen, was Catholic, and there had also been massacres of Protestants in Ireland in 1641. Other factors included Charles’s levying of non-Parliamentary taxes, his defeat by the Scots in the ‘Bishops’ Wars’ and his recruitment of Irish Catholic troops, as well as rebellion in Catholic Ireland. The English Civil War had begun.

In the summer of 1642, Charles raised an army and marched towards London. There was a battle at Edgehill on 23 October. This was inconclusive, and the royal army’s march south was diverted. Yet they continued towards London and planned to attack the capital from the west in the following month. This alarmed many in London. According to the Earl of Clarendon (1609—1674), a Royalist statesman and historian, ‘It is certain the consternation was very great at London.’ Survivors from Edgehill arrived in London and spread terrible stories. They said that Parliament’s army had been routed and its commander, the Earl of Essex, was dead. They suggested that resistance was futile and that all should flee. Unsurprisingly, the whole city was full of the news of a Parliamentary defeat. Clarendon wrote that ‘without doubt very many, in the horror and consternation of eight and forty hours, paid and underwent a full penance and mortification for the hopes and insolence of three months before’. But contradictory news soon arrived and a more balanced picture emerged. This calmed the anxious supporters of Parliament for a time.

By early November, the King’s forces were at Oxford and advanced on Reading. Essex’s army was still in the Midlands. News of the situation reached London. According to Clarendon:

This alarum quickly came to London, and was received with the deepest horror: they now unbelieved all which they had been told them from their own army.

Overtures for peace then went between Parliament and the King. These came to nothing. Prince Rupert, the King’s nephew, believed that the King had many supporters in London and a march on the capital would result in a speedy victory there.

But London was not undefended. The London Trained Bands, under the command of the City, were the only semi-professional body of armed men in the country. At the beginning of 1642 they numbered about 6,000 men, divided into four regiments. Parliament vested control of these troops with the radical Common Council of the City. Philip Skippon, an experienced soldier, was put in charge. By the autumn of 1642 numbers had risen to 8,000 and each man was paid twelve pence a day. Yet there was reluctance among some to enlist. On 23 September it was noted that ‘a very small number of men enrolled do make their appearance, and some of them appearing do depart from their colours before they be lodged, in contempt and great neglect of the said service’. Constables were ordered to enforce attendance. In the following month, when the suggestion was made that they should be sent to guard the suburbs, ‘the major part consented unto by every company, only some few did make some excuses and desired to be exempted’. Some men, though, were keen — in October, two companies advanced as far as Windsor before being forced back by Royalist militia.

Others in London were suspected of loyalty to the King. Meanwhile, some aldermen and clergy were gaoled for their lack of zeal regarding the Parliamentary cause. One was the Reverend Griffith of St Mary Magdalen, gaoled in October 1642 for preaching sermons deemed ‘seditious’ by Parliament.

In order to resist enemies from without, defences were put into place. Barricades were erected in the streets in case of attack. These were supervised by parish officials, who represented local government. Sheds lining the outside of the City walls were pulled down. Trenches and ramparts were constructed ‘near all the Roads and highways that come to the City, as about St James, St Giles in the fields’. Women and children helped sailors dig trenches at Mile End. Parish patrols were mounted in the streets, both by day and night, and were to seize all suspicious individuals and prevent arms and ammunition passing through. Suspected Royalists were arrested. Artillery was taken from the Tower to protect the routes to London.

From the autumn of 1642 to the spring of 1643, defensive works were constructed around London. It is uncertain how enthusiastic Londoners were about these, as they cost both time and money. Even so, William Lithgow thought that 100,000 civilians worked on them — an incredible number if true, as that would account for a third of all Londoners, young and old, rich and poor, men and women. According to Lithgow:

The daily musters and shows of all sorts of Londoners here, were wondrous commendable in marching to the fields and outworks (as Merchants, silk dealers, mercers, shopkeepers &c.) with great alacrities, carrying on their shoulders iron mattocks, and wooden shovels, with roaring drummers, flying colours and swords; most companies also including ladies, women and girls: two and two carrying baskets for to advance the labour, where several wrought until they fell sick in their pains. All the trades and whole inhabitants (the Inns of Court excepted) within the City, liberties and suburbs and adjacent dependencies, went about to all quarters for the erection of their forts and trenches; and this has continued this four months past.

Even though the number was probably closer to the Venetian ambassador’s estimate of 20,000, the latter reported that they worked without pay and ‘do not even cease on Sunday, which is so strictly observed by the Puritans’. Lithgow claimed they worked ‘with great alacrity’ and even members of the City’s Common Council helped.

Such enthusiasm was not necessarily due to their zeal for the Parliamentary cause. Rather, it may have been their fear of the Royalist army. Towns and cities often faced being looted by a victorious enemy army. The terrible sack of Magdeburg in 1631 during the Thirty Years’ War in Europe was a recent example, and Parliamentary propaganda played on these fears. Preachers also encouraged their congregations. As a contemporary source put it:

the Ministers in the City gave notice in the churches that those that were able and had good Affections to the Cause [. . .] should repair to the new Artillery Ground the next morning by eight o’clock in the morning, and they should be listed for service.

Following the defeat of a force of Parliamentary soldiers at Brentford on 12 November 1642, a Parliamentary newspaper claimed:

But the town of Brentford was cruelly pillaged and plundered by them for they left neither beer, wine nor victuals, in all the town, and carried away all their brass, pewter, linen and other things as they could, and cut to pieces other utensils of households. Which they were forced to leave behind [. . .] they did inhumanely kill a woman being a brewer’s wife, which they did when they came to plunder her home, she behaving been brought to bed but about three weeks before.

Thus it was Londoners’ own self-interests that dictated their responses.

Obtaining funds for the defences of London was not always easy. Many were reluctant to give money to this end. The City was forced to give funds for building but negotiated a remission, yet their payments were often in arrears. There were petitions from tradesmen about the damage that the diversion of labour and capital for the building of the defences was causing to their businesses. After all, in October 1642, Parliament ordered that all shopkeepers cease trading that ‘they may with greater diligence attend the defence of London’.

In late 1642 returns of London parishes were made in order to check how well they had obeyed an order from the Lord Mayor to supply Parliament with funds. It was noted that there were:

Lists of residents in Broad Street and Vintry Wards, with their valuations, some of whom have lent money but inconsiderably [. . .] several of these returns contain also names of such as refuse or contribute not in proportion to their ability.

The Royalist army marched on. By this time, part of Essex’s army was at Brentford, a few miles to the west of London, with other units at Acton, 5 miles west of the capital. As said, the armies clashed at Brentford on 12 November and the Royalists were victorious. Stories of massacre and pillage by the Royalists were spread in London, but were not believed by everyone. Even so, as Clarendon wrote:

They who believed nothing of those calumnies were not yet willing the King should enter the city with an army, which, they knew, would not be governed in so rich quarters.

London’s Trained Bands were mustered on Turnham Green. In numbers they were superior to the King’s forces. According to Bulstrode Whitelocke, their morale was high: ‘The City Bands marched forth very cheerfully under the command of Major General Skippon, who made short, and encouraging speeches to his soldiers.’ When Essex spoke to them, ‘the soldiers would throw up their caps and shout, crying “Hey for old Robin.”’ Whitelocke also reported that those in the front line were supported by non-combatants:

The City good-wives, and others, mindful of their husbands and friends, sent many cartloads of provisions, and wines, and good things to Turnham-green, with which the soldiers were refreshed and made merry.

Yet the men were not all wholly enthusiastic for the cause. Whitelocke reported that ‘the City were in much trouble, and different opinions’. Parliament was also unsure where their allegiances lay and ordered that the arms of those who refused to serve be confiscated. Some later claimed that the Londoners would have given way if they had been attacked. According to Clarendon:

I have heard many knowing men, and some who were then in the city regiments say, that if the King had advanced and charged that massy body, it had presently given ground and that the King had so great a party in every regiment, that it would have made no resistance. Yet we cannot be sure that this would have happened.

However, when the opposing armies confronted each other on Turnham Green, neither felt confident enough to attack. In the end there was no battle, except for a small exchange of cannon fire. The King’s forces withdrew that evening to Kingston and later to Reading. London was never directly threatened again.

Not all Londoners supported Parliament against the King, of course. But since the former had the whip hand, local Royalists had to be discreet or face arrest. The young John Evelyn recorded that, after the confrontation on Turnham Green, he wanted to join the King’s forces:

I came in with my horse and arms just at the retreat; but was not permitted to stay longer then the 15th by reason of the army marching to Gloucester, which left both me and my brothers exposed to ruin, without any advantage to His Majesty.

Evelyn and his family had property near London, which would be confiscated by Parliament should his Royalist sympathies be discovered. In the event, Evelyn spent most of the war abroad, with the King’s permission. But a brief trip to London in 1643 left him dismayed:

I saw the furious and zealous people demolish that stately cross in Cheapside. The 4th I returned with no little regret for the confusion that threatened us.

Londoners’ responses were never put to the test in the Civil War after 1642, as Parliament maintained control throughout and no Royalist force ever came within striking distance. It is difficult to tell how Londoners would have reacted to a major assault. There was some enthusiasm for the construction of defences, but there were others who did not share that zeal. Overall, though, Londoners’ attitudes and actions were important. The loss of London was a major factor in the defeat of the King. First, it reduced his international standing, lessening the chance of any friendly foreign intervention on his behalf. Second, it deprived him of the military muscle as represented by the Tower of London and the city’s Trained Bands. Finally, London was the wealthiest city in Britain and the one which, through its great trade, produced more income than any other. Of course, the great military victories of Parliament’s armies at Marston Moor in 1644 and Naseby in 1645 were also decisive. Yet without the military power and money supplied by London, these could not have been possible. The possession of London was thus of great importance in deciding victory in the Civil War.


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