Wales in the Civil War: the last refuge of monarchy
In the 1640s, Britain tore itself apart in a series of civil wars. The role of largely royalist Wales in these conflicts is often understated, argues Lloyd Bowen
This article was first published in the November 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine
Behind the beleaguered defences of Chepstow Castle in south-east Wales, a man of “gigantic stature and strength” stands near his standard. The standard depicts an arm holding a sword emerging from a cloud and has a Welsh inscription: “Oes dalla hwn/Gwaerpen crwn,” or, “If this holds/Woe to the roundheads.” The castle walls are breached and a ferocious assault descends on the stalwart garrison. The huge man is killed, his standard falls and the garrison capitulates.
The date is 25 May 1648 and these are the last moments of Sir Nicholas Kemeys, commander of the royalist forces at Chepstow and a gentleman who raised Welsh troops for the king at the first major battle of the civil wars six years earlier. For him, as for the rest of Wales, 1648 is the endgame, where the flame of war against parliament gutters and fails before the might of Cromwell’s New Model Army.
This last stand is emblematic of a neglected aspect of the ‘English’ Civil Wars – its Welsh dimension. Kemeys’ early support for Charles I’s cause and his sacrifice defending it at the very end of royalist resistance are symbolic of his countrymen’s ardent royalism. That his standard carried a Welsh inscription also alerts us to the cultural difference that set this corner of the kingdom apart in its fervent support for the king. This fervour earned Wales the title “nursery of the king’s infantry”.
The civil wars of the 1640s pitted the armies of the Long Parliament against those of Charles I in a bloody and destructive contest. The issues were complex, but essentially revolved around mutual distrust, and a dispute over the location and nature of authority in church and state. These conflicts have fascinated historians from the moment they ended, and their interpretation and meaning have been fiercely contested.
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Such divisions are partly reflected in the names given to the conflict. It was (and is) popularly called the English Civil War, but a recent trend towards considering its wider contexts has encouraged some to brand it the War of the Three Kingdoms, a title that more explicitly reflects events in Scotland and Ireland. Although this is a positive development in bringing the other constituents of Britain’s ‘multiple monarchy’ more directly into the narrative, such a perspective leaves little space for the story of Wales in the 1640s. This helps explain why Wales fails to make it into the indexes of many Civil War books to this day.
The breakdown in relations between King Charles I and his parliament was as pressing an issue in Wales as it was in England. Despite the language barrier between the two countries, political gossip and debate about the key points at issue circulated freely in Wales. Several commentators noted Wales’s precocious support for Charles I and hostility to parliament. For example, in May 1642 the Venetian ambassador reported that “the people of the province of Wales have offered the king their services beseeching him to go and live in that corner of the kingdom”. A week later the diplomat described how “in the province of Wales the devotion of the people [to the king] is constantly receiving fresh confirmation”.
How do we explain such loyalty? Partly it seems to have arisen from a Welsh culture that venerated Charles I as being descended from a line of ancient British kings, but this was Britishness with a distinctive Welsh flavour. The Welsh saw themselves as the ‘true Britons’, heirs of the ancient inhabitants of the island, and their loyalty to monarchy was cemented by the accession of the Tudors, who were cast as native princes of Wales and rulers of Welsh stock. The Stuarts took over this mantle of British kingship with little disruption.
A striking illustration of this kind of Welsh monarchism was seen when the Prince of Wales, the future Charles II, toured the Anglo-Welsh border in 1642. At a feast at Raglan Castle, home of the enormously wealthy Earl of Worcester, Charles was treated to an entertainment shot through with Welsh pride in their loyalty and British heritage. The prince was assured that: “It is the glory of the Britaines that we are the true remaining and only one people of this land, and we have alwayes been true in our affections to our king and countrey… We know no sun that can with the influence of royall beames cherish and warme our true British hearts, but the sun of our gracious sovereigne… In what true and ancient Britaines may serve you, you may command us to our uttermost strength, our lives and fortunes to be ready to assist you.”
Welsh royalism was bolstered by a particularly Welsh conception of the reformed church, which sat very uneasily with the reforming noises coming out of the parliamentary-Puritan phalanx. The Puritan emphasis on religious reform, which drove a good deal of the opposition to Charles I in England and Scotland, had little resonance in Wales. Here the Reformation had been a project intimately connected to Welsh cultural ideals: the Bible and Book of Common Prayer were translated into Welsh under Elizabeth I, while Protestantism had been interpreted as the recovery of the pristine original faith of the Britons, forefathers of the Welsh. As a result, the Welsh take on theology and church government seems to have been conservative and respectful of the monarch’s pre-eminence.
Pride and fidelity
Only one of Wales’s 27 representatives in the Long Parliament can be identified as a supporter of Puritan reform. Rather more representative of the country’s religious attitudes was a petition presented to the Commons on 5 March 1642. It was claimed that 30,000 people from the six counties of north Wales endorsed the petition, individuals who asserted their position to be “the unanimous and undivided request and vote of this whole country”.
The petition argued strongly against the Puritan proposal to abolish government by bishops in the church (episcopacy). The Welsh conformists maintained that the “mere report” of such alterations had caused them unease. The petitioners stressed the ‘British’ dimension of episcopacy and articulated a particular sense of Welsh pride and fidelity in the church. The petition was surmounted with three feathers and the legend ‘Ich Dien’, ‘I serve’ – the emblem of the Prince of Wales, whose initials were also included – further underscoring a proclamation of a distinctive Welshness.
The document helps illustrate how Charles’s clear commitment to resisting religious reform and defending the status quo in the church encouraged Welsh support for his cause. These sentiments were to the fore in a Welsh praise poem offered to a north Walian colonel during the civil wars, who was said to be fighting for the king in order to protect Wales from injustice, and to defend his country and the true faith.
These positive impulses to support the king in Wales were fortified by a form of negative campaigning associated with the nascent parliamentary coalition, when a series of satirical pamphlets about the Welsh emerged from London presses between late 1641 and early 1643. These drew on established stereotypes to ridicule and vilify the Welsh as ignorant, duplicitous and misguided.
Another petition to parliament suggests how such publications influenced political opinion in Wales. The petition was presented on 12 February 1642 in the name of “many hundred thousands within the thirteene shires of Wales”. It reflected on the disturbing trend towards deriding the Welsh, and described how they were “disrespected and shamefully derided with ludibrious contempt more than any other countrey whatsoever”.
The petition demanded the suppression of “this epidemicall derision of us,” which was seen as “nothing else but a scorning detestation to our known fidelity”. The fidelity in question was clearly Welsh affection for the king rather than parliament.
It is difficult to assess the degree to which such evidence reflects the political sympathies of the ordinary man or woman in Wales. However, contemporaries agreed that most of Wales was passionately pro-royalist from early in the political and military conflict. An exception lay in parts of Pembrokeshire, where the population showed some inclination to supporting parliament.
Perhaps ethnicity and language had something to do with political allegiances here. Certainly, contemporaries were sometimes reluctant to see Pembrokeshire as truly part of Wales, in no small measure because it was not royalist. One author from the county wrote in 1646 that: “It was… commonly spoken by the best sort of gentlemen that the Welsh were the true Brittaines, and his Majestyes best and only orthodox subjects, and Pembrookshire for the most part Saxons and bastards.”
Prominent Welsh gentlemen, such as Sir Nicholas Kemeys, were active in raising troops for the army that fought for the king at the battle of Edgehill in October 1642. Some 10,000 individuals – perhaps five per cent of the male Welsh population – had joined the king’s forces by the end of the year. Initially, their fighting was mostly done outside Wales.
However, as parliament gained the upper hand militarily in England, so the war increasingly penetrated into royalist Wales, often in the form of sieges of the many castles dotting its landscape. Notable here was the campaign of a rare beast, a Welsh parliamentarian general, Sir Thomas Myddelton, who established a parliamentary enclave with an invasion of mid-Wales in 1644–45. The royalist cause collapsed in England and Wales in 1645–46, and it was in Wales that the final redoubt of royalism was to be found – the garrison at Harlech being the last in Charles’s southern kingdom to surrender, on 16 March 1647.
Given the commitment the Welsh showed to their king during the conflict, it is perhaps unsurprising that Wales was one of the key flash points of the so-called Second Civil War of 1648. Pro-royalist risings occurred in both north and south Wales, and Kemeys’ death was part of this last throw of the royalist dice in Wales.
Contemporaries recognised the country’s allegiance to the king, and one royalist newspaper at the time observed that: “Loyalty run[s] so in a bloud amongst the Welsh that it will be in vaine [for parliament] to attempt this last refuge of monarchy, which Providence seemes to have given in earnest for the restitution of the whole.”
This was a wishful fantasy rather than practical politics, however, and the New Model Army crushed the 1648 risings. The rebellious Welsh forces suffered a devastating defeat at the battle of St Fagans in Glamorgan, an engagement involving around 11,000 men. Cromwell helped suppress the last remnants of resistance at Pembroke Castle, ruminating on how the Welsh were but a “seduced, ignorant people”.
Cromwell was referring to an ignorance of a particular kind – a lack of knowledge about the word of God and the true reformed message. To remedy the ingrained royalism of the Welsh, parliamentary propagandists argued that a radical form of religious re-education and reformation had to be undertaken in Wales.
Cromwell himself was sympathetic to these calls and he supported a state-sponsored initiative to bring this about: the Commission for the Propagation of the Gospel in Wales, which was established in February 1650. Although it survived only to 1653, the commission empowered enclaves of Puritanism in Wales, and helped establish durable communities of religious nonconformity and political radicalism. These survived beyond the Restoration and would come to be seen as the foundation of a dissenting tradition so important in the history of modern Wales.
But such dissenters remained the exception rather than the rule and the restoration of Charles II in 1660 was a time of rejoicing in Wales. This was in part because it was believed he would restore the “Antient Brittish church… to her primitive splendor,” but also because he was acknowledged as having descended from King Cadwaladr, the last king of the ancient Britons.
This sense of legitimacy deriving from British blood was important in motivating the Welsh to support Charles I, and it also saw them triumphing in the return of his son, the man who “brought the bones of Cadwaladr home”.
Fortified flash points
When the Civil War came to Wales in the 1640s, much of the fighting was centred around the country’s many castles. Here are just a few of them…
A gateway to mid-Wales, Montgomery Castle was held nominally for the king by the writer, diplomat and philosopher Edward, Baron Herbert of Cherbury. Its fall to Sir Thomas Myddelton in September 1644 paved the way for the parliamentarian defeat of mid and north Wales. Herbert surrendered the castle upon condition that the troops would not touch his precious library.
This was one of the few places in Wales to declare for parliament during the First Civil War under its merchant mayor, John Poyer. Royalists besieged the castle on several occasions but it never fell. Poyer, disgruntled with his treatment at the hands of the victorious parliament, rose against his former allies in 1648. He surrendered to Cromwell’s forces on 11 July 1648. Poyer was one of three rebels sentenced to death, but it was ruled that only one should die. A child picked the name of the unlucky individual: Poyer. He was shot at Covent Garden on 25 April 1649.
Raglan was home of the powerful royalist supporter, Henry, 5th Earl of Worcester. It was garrisoned early for the king, and parliamentary propaganda claimed columns of Roman Catholic soldiers were hidden in vaults underneath it. Charles I stayed here for several weeks in 1645. In a symbolic gesture of revenge, the parliamentarians demolished part of the great keep following the castle’s capitulation in 1646. The scars of that retribution are still plainly visible today.
This is the site of the largest pitched battle on Welsh soil during the civil wars. The former parliamentarian, Rowland Laugharne, led around 8,000 royalist rebels. Parliament’s much smaller but better trained force of around 3,000 men was arrayed behind Colonel Thomas Horton. The outcome was a crushing defeat for the royalists and the effective collapse of their cause in south Wales. St Fagans is now the site of the Welsh National History Museum.
Dr Lloyd Bowen is a senior lecturer in early modern and Welsh history at Cardiff University
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