Sir William Vavasour was the younger son of an important gentleman of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. He presumably had some military experience before 1640, when he was already a knight and commander of a regiment in the Scottish war. On the outbreak of civil war he was made a member of the Council of War and Lieutenant-Colonel of the royal Lifeguard, but this promising career was interrupted when he was captured at Edgehill. In April 1643, however, he escaped and arrived at Oxford to a hero’s welcome. This publicity added to his experience ensured him rapid employment; he was made a baronet and in June given the task of rebuilding Lord Herbert’s demoralised command.
Charles’s regard for Herbert and his family fortune was too great to permit the Lieutenant-General to be publicly disgraced. He retained his command, and Vavasour was given the rank of Colonel-General under him, with the understanding that the latter would do all the actual work. Charles did his best to provide an adequate legal framework for the task. The Commissioners of Array in the five counties were, as described, reconstituted as Committees `for the guarding the county’. To provide the nucleus of a new local army the Herefordshire commissioner Henry Lingen and the Monmouthshire commissioner Sir Trevor Williams were authorised to raise new foot regiments and Vavasour commissioned to raise his own regiments of horse and foot. To fill the vacuum left in Herefordshire by the capture of its local leaders Lingen was also elevated to High Sheriff.
In late June Vavasour settled down to work at Hereford, aided by Lingen and his fellow commissioner Sir Walter Pye, and within a month he had collected and armed 1 200 foot and over 200 horse. Despite this progress his relations with the commissioners in general had already been soured, over the vital question of finance. They had agreed local taxes for their counties, that for Hereford alone being £1, 200 per month, 8 of which a proportion was to be sent to a central fund to support the Colonel-General’s field army and the rest used to keep local garrisons. In his first month in command little more than £100 in all had come in to the central fund, and to keep his new army off free quarter Sir William relied upon Herbert’s famous fortune, which was at last showing signs of strain, and loans from Hereford citizens. In Glamorganshire at least this was clearly not the fault of the commissioners, who worked hard to raise money and speed men to Hereford. What had defeated them was the quagmire of local indifference in which they had to work. The local tax came in slowly, the sequestration of estates produced too little to redress the balance and even so prominent an individual as the Bishop of Llandaff, whose career was threatened by Parliament, defaulted upon the supplies charged upon him. Eventually the soldiers sent to Vavasour were, again, supported by private loans.
The Colonel-General decided that a victory was needed to restore the faith of the local population in the Royalist cause. A soft option seemed to be at hand in the shape of Brampton Bryan Castle, where Brilliana Harley was still obstinately in control. Siege was laid upon 26th July, although it proceeded slowly because Vavasour lacked the heavy cannon necessary to bombard the walls, as he had not the money to pay for their casting.
Within two weeks Sir William himself had departed, as Lord Herbert before him, for the much greater project of reducing Gloucester. The fall of Bristol on 23rd July had left the city completely isolated, with no powerful Parliamentarian strongholds nearer than Plymouth and Southampton. For long it had represented an appalling nuisance to the Royalists, endangering their links with Wales, pinning down the South Welsh army, destroying the Severn trade and preventing them from properly exploiting the riches of Gloucestershire. After the storming of Bristol its reduction would seem almost an anticlimax, but Charles took no chances. In early August he mobilised against Gloucester the biggest collection of troops he ever commanded in the field, comprising the entire royal field army plus most of the local soldiers of Worcestershire and of Vavasour’s command. The effect upon the citizens was unequivocal. In the words of Massey’s chaplain, they all turned `infidels’.Massey concurred with this, calculating that not one in ten of them was still `cordial’ to his cause. Yet his soldiers remained loyal, and he prepared, as he had in February, to do his duty.
The King relied upon starvation and mining to reduce the city, and gave to Vavasour’s army the role of closing up its western side. Sir William left Lingen with 700 men to carry on the siege of Brampton Bryan, and joined the King with 300 horse and 1 200 foot, mainly pikemen. Pye commanded the horse and the faithful Herbert Price helped lead the foot. This force was increased to 2 000 within a few days by the arrival of the Glamorganshire militia under its High Sheriff, Richard Bassett, whom Charles rewarded with a knighthood. To maintain Sir William’s army in the field required a constant flow of money, weapons and recruits from his counties which their commissioners were hard put to supply. In Glamorganshire an order of the Committee `for the guarding the county’ to its `western gentry’ to impress and arm eighty men from their hundreds met first with a plea to remit the order and then the reply that they could find only sixty suitable recruits, and even the loss of these weakened the local economy. Moreover only twelve could be armed, and these only with staves. The commissioners at Cardiff had to use their own family armouries to provide weapons. To provide money they tried desperately to hurry the collection of the county tax and improve the profits of sequestration, but remained perpetually short of the quantity needed. As Charles described the Glamorganshire commissioners as `a president to others in testifying their zeal’, their fellows in Vavasour’s command must have fared worse. Herbert certainly claimed later that his own fortune had been employed, yet again, to support Sir William’s army before Gloucester.
The siege of Gloucester has become part of the national epic. The story is well known of the terrific fight which Massey, with his 1 500 men, put up against Charles’s huge army all through August until Parliament, reeling from its defeats, took heart and determined to fight on. Less publicised, but equally heroic, was the resistance at Brampton Bryan, where Lingen besieged Lady Harley. Still lacking heavy guns, he adopted the futile tactic of trying to frighten the formidable Brilliana into surrender, so that almost as many messages were exchanged as shots. Both sieges were raised in early September by the appearance of the Parliamentarian army sent to relieve Gloucester. Charles retired, as said before, into Worcestershire, taking Vavasour’s army with him. Lingen retired to cover Hereford, harassed by parties which the triumphant Lady Harley sent out to beat up his quarters. The King sent a consignment of munitions to Hereford, and ordered the commissioners of south-east Wales to call up all local men and move this irregular force into Monmouthshire to protect their region. He himself waited to pounce upon the Parliamentarians as they re-emerged from Gloucester. A week later they did, dashing for London, and Charles’s army, including Vavasour’s troops, streamed off in pursuit.
This pursuit, and the campaign of 1643, culminated in the appalling and indecisive carnage of Newbury, in which Vavasour’s men suffered as badly as any others. To his army, returning exhausted to its native region in October, was given the task of bottling up Gloucester through the winter, in the hope that a blockade might slowly starve Massey out. There was a genuine possibility that this might occur; the Parliamentarians who had relieved the city had estimated that a further 1 000 foot and £8,000 would be needed to keep it through the winter and not till February was any such supply convoy ready to leave London.
Initially, however, there was a danger that Sir William’s command would itself be too demoralised after the recent fighting to make such an effort. He put 400 Welsh foot into Tewkesbury to fortify the town, but upon the first sally of the Gloucester garrison these mutinied and fled homeward. Herbert now retired altogether to the court, leaving Vavasour without his local prestige to bolster his own authority and refused any control over the Lieutenant-General’s own regiments, left at Raglan. The Glamorganshire commissioners found it necessary to cut the county tax from £1,000 to £800 per month in December, and by January the King had written several letters of castigation to them concerning their neglect of the payments due from them to support Vavasour’s army. The Colonel-General himself was completely hoodwinked by a false offer from one of Massey’s men to betray Gloucester. In his efforts to co-operate with what he believed to be the stratagem of the spurious traitor Vavasour marched around the city in January according to the directions of Massey himself, permitting the latter to take in supplies in safety and producing a rift between Sir William and local Royalists like Pye, to whom he could not confide the reasons behind his curious manoeuvring. At length Massey published the whole affair, and made his enemy a national laughing-stock, a blow from which Vavasour’s reputation never recovered.
Nevertheless, not all Sir William’s endeavours at this period were as fruitless. Lingen raised a horse troop to guard Herefordshire and Hereford was garrisoned with 700 foot. A new garrison was put into Goodrich Castle to strengthen the line of the Wye. In the Forest of Dean Vavasour acquired a powerful ally in Sir John Winter, a Catholic courtier whose proprietorship of the Forest had been withdrawn by Parliament just before the war. The King had not recognised the confiscation, and in September 1643 Winter finally fortified his mansion at Lydney in the Forest for the Royalists. Charles added Dean to Vavasour’s command, and authorised the settlement of a local tax there to support Winter’s newly-raised troops, who were stiffened with the loan of Herbert’s horse regiment. Sir John soon proved himself a master of the art of garrison warfare, and his raids upon the Gloucester area seriously reduced Massey’s mobility. In December Charles gave the commissioners of Vavasour’s command powers to press soldiers for his army, and two of them, Pye and Croft, raised new foot regiments. A Colonel Wroughton raised some horse. In the same month units of the royal Irish army, released by the truce described earlier, arrived at Bristol, and three were assigned, after much haggling, to Vavasour’s army. They consisted of about 100 horse and two foot regiments under Sir William St Leger and Nicholas Mynne, who had been Vavasour’s Lieutenant-Colonel in 1640. These men represented a real windfall, being veterans accustomed to hard service. They made a proper blockade of Gloucester possible.
On 1st February Vavasour mustered his whole army, about 2 600 strong, at Hereford and marched to Tewkesbury, equipped with a convoy of munitions from the Oxford magazine. There he left Pye’s foot and Wroughton’s horse to garrison the town. On the 2nd he continued westwards to Newent, and entrenched Mynne’s foot in that town and neighbouring mansions. He retained St Leger’s, Croft’s and Lingen’s foot and the Irish horse, reinforced by horse lent by Winter, as a mobile force and led it to operate between Gloucester and Warwick. Massey put detachments into four great houses in the Vale of Gloucester to preserve this rich area to feed the city. Though food continued to enter Gloucester, however, the encircling ring of Royalists ensured that money ran short, and Massey’s soldiers began to desert.
At the approach of the new campaigning season, the High Command made a considerable administrative effort to ensure that this situation continued into the summer. On 24th March Charles appointed Winter Commander-in-Chief of all Royalist forces in Dean, under Vavasour, and ordered the commissioners of Herefordshire and Monmouthshire to pay him £800 per month to add to the meagre tax which the Forest could supply. All Gloucestershire was added to Vavasour’s command, and he was given the task of blocking up Gloucester from the east as Winter would from the west. On 7th and 12th April the committee of Lords Commissioners appointed by Charles to supervise the needs of his Oxford base produced two reports upon measures to ensure the continuation of the blockade if Vavasour’s army were called away. Tewkesbury and Lord Chandos’s family castle of Sudeley were to be garrisoned by local recruits stiffened by a few of Vavasour’s existing soldiers. Chandos was to raise the men for Sudeley and another powerful local gentleman, Sir Humphrey Tracy, those for Tewkesbury. Chandos was already colonel of a horse regiment, and this was to be quartered in the northern Cotswolds with three new troops commissioned from local gentry to range the area between the two garrisons. All these soldiers were to be supported by the tax of the hundreds in which they were stationed, plus the proceeds of local sequestrations and a dole of £320 from the Oxford Treasury. In this manner it was hoped to release Vavasour’s field army from the blockade, replacing it with local men led by local gentry and paid by local money.
The defect of the scheme was that it was too late. All through March the High Command had infuriated Vavasour by issuing him with conflicting orders, in obedience to which he and his army indulged in much fruitless marching in the Costwolds. He was at least able to maintain the pressure on Gloucester, and block the way of Parliament’s convoy of supplies, which had by now reached Warwick and was awaiting an opening for its final dash. At the end of the month, however, the great Royalist defeat at Cheriton in Hampshire made Charles call Vavasour’s army into his own to protect Oxford. It became a permanent part of the royal field force. Its disappearance left the country between Warwick and Gloucester open, and the Parliamentarian convoy got through, followed by a regiment of horse, while the Lords Commissioners were making their reports. Sudeley was duly garrisoned and Chandos’s horse stationed nearby as the reports dictated, but it was a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse had bolted. Massey was now strong enough to take the offensive and in mid April he attacked Mynne at Newent. In this emergency Vavasour, though not his army, was sent back to the area. Massey’s assault had been repulsed, but Sir William nevertheless ordered Mynne to withdraw to Ross-on-Wye and fortify himself there to protect Herefordshire. The Colonel-General himself settled at Hereford to enact a grand scheme for a new local army and new campaigns.
In reality his command was already extinguished, destroyed by court politics. Since December it had become obvious to everybody that Lord Herbert had retired permanently from the local war, and sooner or later would be replaced as Lieutenant-General by a command prepared to do some fighting. A field of three candidates rapidly emerged; Chandos, Viscount Conway and Vavasour himself. Sir William was at several disadvantages in this contest, being of inferior birth, of tarnished reputation as a general and possessing powerful enemies. The most powerful of these was Herbert himself, whose enmity was engendered directly by his equivocal military position, whereby he commanded in theory and Vavasour in practice. The High Command found it expedient to send orders directly to Sir William, whereas Herbert, disregarding the realities of warfare, felt they ought to proceed through himself. The crisis came when the King ordered the Colonel-General to appoint one man to command his horse and the Lieutenant-General ordered him to appoint another. Vavasour naturally obeyed the royal order and Herbert never forgave him. Almost as inevitable was the enmity of Winter and Mynne, who criticised Sir William for misunderstanding the strategic situation and neglecting their needs, errors arising naturally from the size of the operation needed to contain Gloucester compared with the paucity of the Colonel-General’s resources. Against these Vavasour could muster the support of the Glamorganshire commissioners, who hated Herbert, and the powerful Tracy family in Gloucestershire, who presumably wished to assert their local independence against Chandos. In addition he possessed one trump card, the friendship of Prince Rupert.
Vavasour determined to utilise his advantages and negate his weaknesses by promoting a subtle scheme to obtain the overall command for Rupert himself, preserving his own power as Colonel-General intact as Rupert’s deputy. In the early months of 1644 he mobilised a lobby at court and in his counties to achieve this effect, to which Rupert consented. Half the plan was achieved, and Rupert replaced Herbert. The latter, however, laid down two conditions for his voluntary resignation. One was that his own home of Raglan Castle and the nearby fortress of Goodrich should remain under his personal command, supported by the local tax of the surrounding hundreds and outside the jurisdiction of his successor. The other was that Vavasour should be sacked. Both were granted, and Sir William never held another command. The King asked Rupert to appoint a new Colonel-General, remarking that Chandos seemed the most highly favoured candidate at court. Rupert respected military realities more than court opinion, and chose instead the most experienced soldier upon the spot, the newcomer and outsider Nicholas Mynne. The effect upon Chandos and Conway was dramatic; within two months both had abandoned the Royalist cause and surrendered to Parliament.
Vavasour’s command had lasted nearly a year. If he had not improved the overall strategic position of his counties he had at least left them better defended. The military developments in this period were minimal, however, compared with the political. Sir William had taken command as a glorified example of the expert adviser, as Sir Nicholas Byron had been in Warwickshire, subordinate to a local potentate and using local resources upon his behalf. Mynne took command as the deputy of a foreign-born professional soldier, using troops raised and trained elsewhere to defend an area from which the greater local leaders had retired and the lesser remained as subordinates.