This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine.
Trundling through Dorset on the train, I spot the tumbled ruins of Sherborne Old Castle rising above lush summer pastures. It’s a reminder that, although this beautiful corner of rural England seems so peaceful now, it was once the scene of violent conflict between supporters of Charles I and advocates of his enemies in parliament.
I’m on my way to visit the bustling market town of Sherborne – a destination I’ve chosen because its experiences during the Civil War of 1642–46 provide a vivid illustration of the way the conflict between royalists and parliamentarians, or Cavaliers and Roundheads, as they were popularly known, impinged on provincial life.
The war had deep roots, going back at least as far as Charles I’s accession in 1625. The king’s policies had alienated many of his subjects, and some, especially the more ardent Protestants, or ‘Puritans’, feared the existence of a sinister royal plot to restore the Catholic faith and abolish people’s liberties. In 1640–41 the king’s critics in parliament seized the political initiative and began to wrest more and more power from the crown. Although Charles I did his best to fight back, in early 1642 he was forced to abandon London to his enemies.
Determined to reassert his authority, Charles appealed directly to the people of England and Wales to support him in his quarrel with parliament – and in Sherborne he would soon find many enthusiastic supporters. On the eve of the Civil War, Sherborne was one of the largest towns in Dorset and was dominated then, as it still is today, by the splendid abbey church and the medieval castle, now ruinous, which stands just outside the town. The castle belonged to the Digby family, whose family seat still lies nearby and whose stamp on the town remains visible as I stroll up Digby Road from the station. George, Lord Digby, was one of the king’s closest advisors, and even before the war began, parliament’s supporters had begun to regard Sherborne as a hotbed of opposition. One parliamentary pamphleteer warned his readers of what he termed “a treacherous plot intended against this kingdom, by Lord Digby and his assistants at Sherborne in… Dorset”.
While nothing had come of this alleged plot, members of the Digby family continued to work on the king’s behalf. When Charles I sent a group of royalist gentlemen into the West Country during the summer of 1642, with orders to rally the local population to his cause, they quickly established their headquarters at Sherborne. They found a ready welcome in the town, where religious and cultural conservatism had produced a vociferous brand of popular royalism. Sherborne became, in the words of one outraged parliamentarian, “the first western nest” of the king’s supporters: the “cradle of Cavalierism” in the west of England.
Determined to eject the royalists from Sherborne, the local parliamentarian gentry raised an army of 7,000 men with which they marched against the town. The Roundhead soldiers were green and untried, however, and, when they came under fire from the royalist activists and the inhabitants – who had erected barricades at the approaches to the town – hundreds bolted, leaving their commanders with no option but to withdraw. The Cavaliers had won the first round, but fresh parliamentarian forces were soon massing against them; the royalists were eventually forced to abandon Sherborne.
Next year, the standard of royalist revolt was raised in Sherborne for a second time, when the parliamentarians were warned that royalist sympathisers were plotting “to secure Sherborne Castle”. A party of Roundhead cavalrymen were sent to prevent this, but as they rode into the market-place at the centre of Sherborne at dusk, they were ambushed by townsmen, who, as one of the Roundhead officers later bitterly reported, “gave fire out of all the windows upon us, and came running out of every door with muskets and great bills [ie edged weapons], [shouting] one to another ‘Kill the parliament dogs!’”. The parliamentarians suffered many casualties in the fight and when they managed to regain control of Sherborne a few days later they pillaged the entire town as a punishment for the inhabitants’ “treachery”. Fortunately for the townsfolk, Sherborne was soon back in the king’s hands, as the tide of war swung temporarily his way.
In 1644 the castle was refortified by the royalists and, exploring its ruins perched on a low hill to the east of the town, I’m impressed by the structure’s monumental strength. In the end, it took the entire weight of parliament’s famous New Model Army to recapture Sherborne Castle after a two-week siege in August 1645. By this time the royalist cause was failing fast, and in
1646 the Civil War came to an end.
Parliament’s military victory was to have momentous consequences, for in January 1649 the captive Charles I, whose intransigence had thoroughly exasperated Oliver Cromwell and officers of the New Model Army, was put on trial for his life, found guilty and publicly executed.
Eleven years of Republican rule followed, but in 1660 the ‘martyr king’s’ son
returned to England to become Charles II and monarchy was restored.
At Sherborne, the townsfolk’s delight knew no bounds. According to an eyewitness, at the proclaiming of Charles II at Sherborne on 14 May 1660, such vast crowds of men, women and children turned out to celebrate the event “that thousands of people… were constrained to stay in the fields [outside the town] for want of room to receive them.
“The very earth did seem to quake”, the witness declared, “and the air to tremble at the mighty… shouts”, while the town conduit, or fountain, flowed with claret wine.
Meanwhile, a local royalist commended “the people of Sherborne for their hearty and constant loyalty to the king, and told them that, as they were some of the first people in England that appeared in arms for the defence of King Charles the First, so now it did rejoice his heart to see how studious they were to transcend all other places in the expression of their joy for the restoring of King Charles the Second”.
The wheel had turned full circle, in other words, and, as I walk back to the station, my visit to Sherborne at an end, I can’t help suspecting that faint echoes of that massive 17th-century street-party, surely the greatest that the town has ever seen, must still resonate through its courts and back-alleys today. In Sherborne, as in so many other places throughout England and Wales, the memories of the Civil War lie only just beneath the surface.
The Civil War: five more places to explore
Here, on 22 August 1642, Charles I formally raised his royal flag, or standard, and summoned his loyal subjects to assist him against those whom he denounced as the “traitors” in parliament. The raising of the king’s standard is often regarded as the official start of the Civil War, though in fact fighting had already broken out in several parts of the country well before this time. The castle is now in the care of Nottingham city council and is regularly open to visitors.
Marston Moor, near York
The greatest battle of the Civil War was fought here on 2 July 1644, when the king’s northern army of some 18,000 men, commanded by his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, was trounced by a much larger force of parliamentarians and Scots. Rupert fled the field, leaving thousands of royalists dead behind. A monument and several interpretation panels can be found on the public road that crosses the centre of the battlefield.
Lostwithiel Bridge, Cornwall
Although the royalists suffered disaster in the north in 1644, Charles I redressed the balance in the south by cornering parliament’s main field army in pro-royalist Cornwall and capturing many thousands of Roundheads. They were disarmed and given permission to return east, but as they trudged across Lostwithiel Bridge (pictured above), they and their female camp-followers were set upon by ‘Cornish dames’, who stripped many to the skin and threw some into the waters below. The bridge, one of the oldest in Cornwall, is still in use.
The battle here on 14 June 1645 saw the main royalist field army, under Charles I, effectively destroyed by parliament’s New Model Army, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. From that moment, royalist military defeat was assured. The massacre of the king’s female camp-followers in nearby Farndon Field in the aftermath of the battle was, in part, an act of revenge by parliamentarian soldiers for the treatment meted out to their own camp-followers at Lostwithiel the year before. The site is now dissected by roads but information panels have been erected at key points by Naseby Battlefield Project.
Raglan Castle, Gwent
The mighty fortress-home of the Somerset family, Raglan Castle was a key royalist position in south Wales. Garrisoned for the king at the very beginning of the war, Raglan remained central to his cause thereafter; indeed it was to Raglan that Charles I initially fled after his defeat at Naseby. Like Sherborne Castle, Raglan proved unable to withstand the powerful artillery of the New Model Army and was eventually captured in 1646. Raglan’s shattered walls still pay eloquent testimony to the thoroughness with which it was subsequently ‘slighted’ by the victorious parliamentarians. The castle is open to visitors throughout the year.
Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton and author of The Black Legend of Prince Rupert’s Dog: Witchcraft and Propaganda During the English Civil War (University of Exeter Press, 2011)