Sir Thomas Fairfax
Royalist officer Sir George Lisle at the Siege of Colchester, English Civil War- by Peter Dennis
What proved to be the only substantial English rising was by then under way in Kent. There were plenty of signs of hostility to Parliament elsewhere in England, however: May saw the riots at Bury St Edmunds, and a petition from Surrey, approved by a meeting of freeholders, in imitation of one from Essex that had claimed 20,000 signatures. The petition called for restoration of the King, disbandment of the army and restoration of known laws – all very well, but offering little guidance about the religious or constitutional settlement. It had a cool reception at Westminster, leading to serious disorder. In London the Essex petitioners had been cheered through the streets. News of the raising of the Scottish army reached Westminster as an army prayer meeting was taking place at Windsor, and there was very evident discontent around the country about taxation, the army and the end of negotiation. Awareness of all this prompted the suspension of the Vote of No Addresses in late April, so that members could consider how to settle the kingdom.
The Kentish rising had grown out of the Christmas disturbances. Leading figures in the Canterbury Christmas riots were put on trial at the assizes starting on 10 May in Canterbury. Two trials were organized, one for the city and one for the county, and the Grand Juries were carefully filled with the well-affected. However, Sergeant Wilde, one of the judges sent down to ensure a clear outcome, delivered a misjudged address, which seems to have inflamed opinion and the Grand Juries proved less tame than hoped. They refused to support the prosecution and rumours immediately circulated that they would be prosecuted, or even hanged. In the heated atmosphere a petition was drawn up and approved by the Jurymen, calling for a personal treaty with the King to settle the just rights of King and Parliament; disbandment of the army; government by known laws; and defence of property according to the Petition of Right against illegal taxes and impositions. When the county committee drew up an order declaring the petition to be seditious, however, the campaign took off. Two hundred gentlemen signed the petition in Canterbury and then sent copies all over the county to be signed more widely. In fact all but ten members of the county committee signed, and the copies returned from the county were collated on 29 May. Anyone who wanted to accompany the petition was called to assemble at Blackheath the following day.
Annexed to the petition was an engagement to defend the petition by force of arms, if necessary, and a remonstrance declaring the necessity of this provocative step. More than 27,000 people were said to have signed this declaration – more or less equivalent to the total adult male population in the county. Helped by defections many of the county’s strongpoints and magazines fell into the hands of those promoting the petition, although Dover held out. Crucial too was the mutiny of the navy. The displacement of the Earl of Warwick as admiral by the Self-Denying Ordinance, and of Sir William Batten on partisan grounds in September 1646, had been unpopular; so, too, was the appointment of his replacement, William Rainborough. Many of the crews were from Kent, and in May there was an open mutiny, which included Rainborough’s own ship. Swift military action was taken, Fairfax abandoning his march north in order to relieve Dartford. In order to forestall what seemed like an imminent general mutiny in the fleet Rainborough was moved aside in favour of Warwick. The origins of the Kentish rising can be traced to numerous discontents, but it is again clear that its political programme did not sit particularly easily with any of the main players on the national stage, and there were significant divisions within the county about what this movement was for.
With superior resources and the advantage of a singular purpose, the New Model was able to contain the military threat in Kent very easily. Fairfax occupied Blackheath, the place set aside for the mustering of the Kentish army, on 30 May and the following day moved on through Gravesend towards Rochester. Unable to cross the Medway he moved south along the river reaching Malling on 1 June. The royalist forces, around 11,000 men, were concentrated in and around Maidstone under the command of Goring’s father, the Earl of Norwich, who had filled in a blank commission for himself. But he was no military commander. Fairfax marched into Maidstone without significant trouble and there followed a major engagement in which the parliamentary forces were completely victorious. As a consequence Norwich pulled his forces out, heading first for Blackheath and then Bow Bridge, but the way into London was blocked by Skippon. By now reduced to only 3,000 men, and with Fairfax’s army doing efficient work of putting down resistance in Kent, Norwich crossed the Thames, hoping to make political capital out of discontent in Essex.
There, a demonstration against the county committee on 4 June quickly threatened to become a rising. Norwich arrived at Chelmsford on 7 June and Sir Charles Lucas was able to induce the Essex men to rally to his support, arranging a rendezvous at Brentwood on 8 June. The following day a substantial royalist force was established at Chelmsford, but the county magazine was seized by Sir Thomas Honeywood on behalf of Parliament. Edward Whalley, a parliamentary colonel at the head of only 1,000 cavalry, was content to shadow their movements, rather than engage them. They marched through Essex via Leighs (the Earl of Warwick’s house, where they took what arms they could) and Braintree before heading for Colchester. There, Lucas hoped, he would be able to get recruits. On 12 June they were admitted to the town.
Fairfax had crossed from Gravesend to Tilbury the previous day, meeting with Honeywood and Whalley at Coggeshall and on 12 June parliamentary forces began to gather outside Colchester. The town was not easily defensible and Fairfax ordered a swift attack, hoping for another quick success, as at Maidstone. The fighting, however, was intense. By 19 June an attempt to bring supplies for the defenders up the river from the sea had been repulsed and the besiegers had settled down to building fortifications – it looked as if it would be a long stay. Norwich and Lucas settled in for a long resistance, hopeful, no doubt, that events elsewhere would go their way.
They did not. Kent had quickly given way and risings elsewhere did not amount to much. Efforts to raise royalists in Devon and Cornwall in June were headed off, and preparations in Herefordshire to rise in support of a Scottish invasion also came to little. The minutes of the Derby House Committee betray a sense of panic, and there were signs of at least some trouble in Nottingham, Lincoln, Huntingdon, Rutland, Leicester, Hertford, Cambridge, Sussex, Dorset, Hampshire, Surrey, Worcester and Warwick. But this was not the same as a co-ordinated war effort. The Earl of Holland, charged with co-ordinating the English royalist effort, was arranging for the removal of horses from London two or three at a time, but the organization was extremely leaky and the Derby House Committee well-informed about the operation. On 4 July he took the field and the following day appeared at Kingston to try to raise men. He sought recruits at a horse race on Banstead Downs and in Reigate, but was eventually chased out by Colonel Michael Livesay. He gave up on 8 July and headed north with 200 horse, arriving at St Neots on the evening of the following day. There, however, he was surprised and captured. The debacle was a great morale-booster for the Derby House Committee and they signalled their new confidence by taking a sterner tone with the City, calling on the Lord Mayor to keep better order in London.
In the north of England the seizure of Pontefract Castle on 1 June and the desertion of the garrison at Scarborough at the end of July were the sum of royalist successes. Many fortifications in England had been ‘slighted’ (rendered indefensible) the previous year, and that drew the teeth of these risings. Pontefract Castle was not among them and illustrates the danger – taken by John Morris, a former officer in Ireland who had returned to fight for the King, before defecting to Parliament, and now fought on the other side. His control of Pontefract effectively tied up a considerable body of John Lambert’s forces. The failure of co-ordination, the successful suppression of those risings that did occur, the containment of naval mutiny and the failure of discontent in many places to support risings meant that by early June the situation was far less threatening than it once might have appeared. When Pembroke Castle surrendered on 11 June, the threat in England and Wales had been contained – Colchester, Pontefract, Scarborough, Carlisle and Berwick aside.
To that extent the second civil war in England was more or less over by the time the Scots invaded. They crossed the Tweed on 8 July, only days before resistance in south Wales gave out and Cromwell was freed to march north against them. With risings elsewhere either abortive or snuffed out this left Colchester very isolated and gave Fairfax no particular reason to risk troops in more assaults. Naval mutiny, although not suppressed, had been contained. Attempts to put the Prince of Wales at the head of an army, with Dutch support, also came to little. With the navy in mutiny, and support for the rising in East Anglia, a landing on the east coast might have posed serious problems to the parliamentary forces. But his blockade of the Thames eventually came to nothing. There were defections from Parliament – notably of Scarborough and Batten, who took with him one of the best of the parliamentary ships. But when the Engagers arrived the main strategic hope had already been lost – parliamentary forces were not divided amongst numerous threats but confronted only two: Colchester and the Engagers. Parliamentary control of the seas was not entirely secure, but help from Ireland or the continent was not going to arrive.
Hamilton had raised only 9,000 of the projected force of 30,000 men. His march through the north of England, however, was opposed only by Lambert, commanding the remnants of the Northern Association army. Some of Lambert’s men had been despatched to lay siege to Pontefract and this left him with only 3,000 men, not enough to engage Hamilton. Cromwell was able to leave Pembroke on 14 July with 3,000 foot and 1,200 horse and so Lambert merely shadowed Hamilton, awaiting Cromwell’s arrival. Both Cromwell and Lambert expected Hamilton to march to the eastern side of the Pennines, to take the faster route south to relieve Pontefract then Colchester. As a result they stayed to the east, while Hamilton took a relatively slow march southwards on the western side of the Pennines, arriving at Hornby Castle, north of Lancaster, on 9 August. It was only then, at an argumentative council of war, that Hamilton finally committed to a continued march via Lancaster rather than to cross the Pennines.
By the time this decision was taken Cromwell was in position to join Lambert, having taken on supplies in the Midlands. On 9 August, Henry Lilburne, brother of John and Robert, turned Tynemouth Castle over to the royalists but died in its defence against Haselrig the following day. Cromwell and Lambert joined forces at Ripon, to create an army of 8,600 men, which set off across the Pennines. Hamilton probably had 10,000 men by this time, and was supported by Langdale’s 3,600 men and, potentially, troops from Ulster. But Cromwell was able to catch this larger army in the flank, with devastating effect. Hamilton had allowed his cavalry to advance sixteen miles beyond the main body of infantry, which was near Preston, when Cromwell’s forces arrived from the east on 17 August. The Engagers” army was north of the river Ribble, with the cavalry far to the south. Cromwell faced a choice of seeking battle on either bank, and chose the northern side, cutting off the retreat and separating the army from potential reinforcements. It was the more confident move, since if he had lost the march to the south would have been unopposed.
Cromwell’s approach was resisted by Langdale’s forces on Ribbleton Moor, and it took hard fighting to advance, by which time most of Hamilton’s infantry had crossed the Ribble to the south. This made the Ribble Bridge vital, and it was defended tenaciously, but by nightfall it had fallen to Cromwell. So had the wagon train, 4,000 arms and perhaps as many prisoners. Hamilton decided to head southwards to meet his cavalry as they came north under Middleton, but they took different roads and Middleton’s forces were turned back by Cromwell before they met the infantry. There followed a pursuit in which the Engagers” resistance was hampered by the loss of supplies at Preston, and by the fact that powder flasks had been soaked in heavy rain. It was a dispiriting retreat, in which they suffered heavy losses, ending in a last stand at Winwick, near Warrington. A thousand men died there, and 2,000 more were captured. William Baillie made what terms he could for the remaining infantry while Hamilton rode off with the remnants of the cavalry. Hamilton was later caught at Uttoxeter and Langdale in Northamptonshire.
This campaign was nothing less than a disaster for the Engagers. Cromwell and Lambert had lost fewer than a hundred men, although there were of course many wounded. In return they had crushed the armies of Langdale and Hamilton, taking nearly 10,000 prisoners. Those among the prisoners who had served voluntarily were bound for servile labour in the New World, and when there was no more demand there, for service under the republic in Venice. These victories confirmed Lambert’s rise: he had been given command of the northern forces in place of Poyntz the previous year and was increasingly well-known as a champion of a robust version of the army’s political programme. The defeat at Preston was also a fatal blow to the Prince of Wales’s plans, which had come to focus on a landing in the north in order to join forces with Hamilton. The death of that plan was a mortal blow to royalist hopes in general. The Prince of Wales, forced to sail up the Thames by mutinous sailors at the end of August, tried to engage Warwick but was separated by a storm. Shortage of supplies forced him to return to Holland on 3 September.
Colchester, isolated since mid-July, was by mid-August completely alone and the county of Essex, which had previously been spared the horrors of war, was now to experience them in full. The siege lasted eleven weeks and by the end conditions were appalling. Food quickly ran short and it was said that at the time of the surrender there were no cats or dogs and few horses left alive. Water supplies had been cut or spoiled and both sides had destroyed property by fire in order to deny cover to the enemy. There had been heavy bombardments, which had also caused extensive damage. Houses, property and livelihoods had been consumed. Desperate inhabitants, led by starving women, demanded surrender, but Norwich refused. Instead he sent the women and children out of the town, but the besiegers would not let them pass. Caught between the two armies they were eventually readmitted to the town. Contemporaries were shocked by conditions in the town after its fall.
How sad a spectacle it is to see goodly buildings, well-furnished houses, and whole streets, to be nothing but ruinous heaps of ashes, and both poor and rich brought almost to the same woeful state, to see such people scarce able to stand upon their legs,… to see poor and rich men, late of good quality, now equal to the meanest, toiling and sweating in carrying some mean bed or other away, or some inconsiderable household stuffs out of the burning, all of them with wailing weeping ghastly countenances and meagre thin faces, shifting and flying in distraction of mind they scarce know wither.
Another witness remarked on the ‘sad spectacle to see so many fair houses burnt to ashes and so many inhabitants made feeble and weak with living upon horseflesh and dogs, many glad to eat the draught and grains for preservation of life’. One comparison that came to mind was with Magdeburg, the town which suffered most notoriously in the Thirty Years War. Here, in Colchester, was a moment when England threatened to turn Germany.
The horrors inflicted on Colchester were within the laws of war, but only just, and both sides accused the other of a lack of decency. Fairfax, in refusing passage to the women and children, had denied their often-claimed right to special protection, but he did so in order to keep up pressure on Norwich to bring an end to an increasingly futile resistance. If Norwich thought their suffering was too great then he should accept the offer of a treaty to end the siege. The defenders were also accused of having used poisoned bullets and there were rumours of cannibalism. Norwich’s decision to hold the city was increasingly difficult to justify in military terms, and his refusal to surrender threatened to waste human lives. To the besieging parliamentarians it was this stubborn and unjustifiable denial of military realities that was the root cause of the enormities.
When capitulation came, the defenders could therefore hope for little sympathy. Their resistance had persisted well beyond the point dictated by common sense. They chose to surrender only under pressure of civilian rebellion and news of the defeat at Preston. Norwich made some show of being involved in a negotiation, but was forced to a humiliating capitulation on 27 August, ten days after Hamilton’s army had been crushed. All officers above the rank of captain surrendered at mercy rather than quarter – that is to say that their fate depended on the discretion of their captors and there were no guarantees. In this case, it meant ‘without certain assurance of quarter so as the Lord General may be free to put some immediately to the sword if he see cause’. Junior officers were offered quarter ‘for their lives’ – which guaranteed them freedom from physical harm, warm clothes and food. It was explained though that in this case this meant only that they would have ‘their skins whole, though stripped of all their outward apparel’. The only point of negotiation was whether the senior officers were to surrender to the mercy of Parliament and the Lord General or to the Lord General alone. The latter was preferred by the defenders since it meant that they remained subject to military rather than civil law. But it made little difference that this was granted since the codicil to the treaty added by Fairfax stated that he had summary power in the short term and that he could hand over the generality to the mercy of Parliament.
Thorough prosecution of the siege and unforgiving terms had the advantage of discouraging others – the logic of the laws of war in this case was that they discouraged unnecessary loss of life by making adventurous souls aware of the costs of their ambition, and of defeat. The royalists having plunged the country into renewed war, there was some justification for seeing these as appropriate responses. But Fairfax went further and actually executed two of the royalist commanders, reprieving a third at the last moment. Appropriately enough the officers had taken refuge at the King’s Head, from where Lucas, Sir George Lisle, Sir Bernard Gascoigne and Colonel Farr were summoned. Farr escaped but the others were condemned by a court martial. So too were Norwich and Capel, but their fate was left to Parliament to decide. Loughborough, the other senior officer, also escaped.
Lucas, Lisle and Gascoigne all faced immediate death, however, and despite their pleas that they needed more time to prepare to meet their end. Lucas was a senior officer, responsible for the royalist presence in Colchester in the first place. He was also, arguably, in breach of a previous parole – having surrendered before and received quarter on condition that he did not take up arms again. There were other post facto justifications too, and it may have been significant that he was a local man, brother of Sir John Lucas, who had been the principal target of the rioters in 1642. Lisle was a less clear-cut case, though. He was less senior, but was held responsible for orders to destroy many properties and was a close ally of Lucas. In reality, whatever the arguments in favour of these particular executions, these were in Fairfax’s words ‘Persons pitched upon for this example’. These lives were taken, Fairfax explained, ‘for some satisfaction to military justice, and in part of [sic] avenge for the innocent blood they have caused to be spilt, and the trouble, damage, and mischief they have brought upon the town’. Gascoigne was pardoned at the last minute, perhaps because he was Florentine, and it was feared that his death might lead to reprisals. Lisle and Lucas died, treated firmly and unsympathetically by Ireton.
These two were memorialized as martyrs, but not necessarily with strong justification.50 In October the parliamentary cause acquired its own martyr of dubious credentials. Pontefract and Scarborough had held out after the defeat of the other risings. Thomas Rainborough was sent north to help with the siege of Pontefract, despite the misgivings at Parliament and the hostility of the Yorkshire county committee, which did not want to find supplies for another 800 men. Based in Doncaster he dispersed his men in order to limit the burden, but this left him vulnerable. On 29 October a party of royalists from Doncaster surprised him in his bed – the guard, John Smith, had not reported for duty, owing either to illness (as he said) or to his being engaged in a local bawdy house (as a press report had it). Once captured Rainborough tried to escape, noting that he was held by only four men. One of his captors tried to drag him down, and Rainborough managed to grab a sword, his lieutenant grabbing a pistol. Rainborough was run through the throat but still resisted, receiving another wound in the body, this time a fatal one. His lieutenant also died. This was not, therefore, cold-blooded murder, but Rainborough was immortalized as a martyr, and the army lined up behind the demand for vengeance. Rainborough was given a hero’s burial in London – fifty or sixty coaches of women and men on horseback, numbering around 3,000, processed through the City, entering at Islington and then making their way via Smithfield, St Paul’s, Cheapside and out to Wapping, where he was buried alongside his father. A cannon salute from the Tower marked his interment.
Charles had turned an amalgam of discontents into a new war, resulting in more unnecessary deaths, and this helped to crystallize support for hardliners in the army. In late April, on his way to war, Cromwell attended a prayer meeting in Windsor. There he would have heard Goffe call again for justice on a king who would plunge his people into war once more. News of the death of Colonel Fleming in south Wales arrived on the third day of the meeting, and it was in this atmosphere of anger that ‘Charles Stuart, that man of blood’ was said to be liable to be called to account ‘for that blood he had shed and mischief he had done to his utmost against the lord’s cause and people in these poor nations’.
These were more radical arguments than those of 1642/3, but they did not represent a consensus. Radical political demands were divisive within the army, and these divisions were exacerbated by renewed Leveller agitation. In April attempts to elect agitators were launched, and renewed campaigning behind the Agreement of the People enjoyed some success in Rich’s regiment, but there is little evidence of success elsewhere, and it was headed off at a meeting in St Albans. The call for justice should not be read forwards as a settled desire to kill the King, and the constitutional radicalism implied by Goffe was not necessarily representative of the whole army. But Goffe’s views as stated in Windsor did reflect something of the mood in which this war was embarked upon – fearfully, and hesitantly, but also with a strong resentment at the profligacy with which the royalists were willing to spend human lives.
At Colchester later in the summer, the acrimony and recrimination brought England close to atrocities. That siege in particular suggested that at the end of the second civil war England was in danger of descent into the horrors experienced in Germany. Many in the army held Charles Stuart responsible for this, and the ‘murder of Rainborough’, having ignored God’s judgement in the first war and deliberately precipitated another one. Determination to avoid a third war might well come to justify harsh, and previously unthinkable, measures: individual cruelties might be seen as necessary to prevent cruelties of a more general and terrible kind.