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God’s Englishmen: Midland and East Anglian Gentry in the English Revolution, 1619-89: Part One.   Leave a comment

God’s Englishmen: Midland and East Anglian Gentry in the English Revolution, 1619-89

In the middle years of the seventeenth century, England’s heritage and history became potent political forces as the spokesmen on both sides before and during the Civil Wars drew on the various interpretations of the past furnished by antiquarians and legal historians.

004Poets and writers began to make inner journeys, or pilgrimages, to find a more primitive form of their faith. My mind to me a kingdom is, wrote Sir Edward Dyer: the means of escape from political and religious strife through the cultivation of the inner life, which often found its expression through the art of poetry. It is due to their poetry that the places where these poets lived have gained their special associations: George Herbert at Bemerton outside Salisbury; Thomas Traherne reliving his childhood visions in great verse and prose at Hereford and Teddington. The place which contains in its seclusion much of the spirit of this inward-seeking urge is Little Gidding in Cambridgeshire, where still stands the church associated with the Protestant nunnery, the community centred on his family set up by Nicholas Ferrar in 1625 and which survived for twenty years after Ferrar’s death in 1637 in spite of its despoilment by Parliamentarian soldiers in revenge for the family giving shelter to the fugitive Charles I. Nicholas Ferrar’s tomb still stands outside the church, and the furnishings within it are much the same as they were in the days of the community. T S Eliot gave its name a wider currency in his Four Quartets, as a place where the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

Little Gidding is a shrine of the Anglican tradition, but there are also many places connected with the tradition and era of protestant dissent. The most atmospheric of these are the old Baptist and Congregationalist chapels and the Quaker meeting-houses, such as the one at Jordans in Buckinghamshire. It stands amongst orchards close to a barn said to be built from the timbers of the Mayflower in which the Pilgrim Fathers sailed. It was built towards the end of the era, in 1688, by William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, who lies in the graveyard outside. It is a simple building with transomed leaded windows, the interior singing with silence and peace, following more than half a century of religious warfare.

However, these conflicts were not simply about religion and culture, but also about politics and economics. The County of Suffolk had faced a number of economic disasters throughout Elizabethan and Jacobean times, some of them caused by natural events over which its people had no control. Its ports were silted up and closed by the effects of coastal erosion, or blockaded and attacked by Flemish pirates. Despite frequent pleas, the government refused to help build adequate sea defences, or to deal with the privateers in the North Sea. The last major disaster to strike the Suffolk coast was the rapid decline of the shipbuilding industry. Until about 1638, fine ships were built at Ipswich and other Suffolk yards, like Woodbridge. However, by that time not only was timber becoming scarce and expensive, but the London dockyards were growing, so that Henry Johnson, an Aldeburgh shipbuilder, left his own declining port to found the Blackwall Yard on the Thames. The venture made him a fortune and encouraged those with a similar spirit of adventure and enterprise, but it also served to herald the end of the Suffolk shipbuilding industry.

What had angered and alienated the men of the East Anglian coast was that, while the government had done virtually nothing to help them through their difficulties, it had frequently demanded, since the time of the Spanish Armada, contributions of men, money and ships towards royal naval expeditions and towards the defence of the realm when disastrous Stuart policies plunged it into senseless war. The justices had reported to the Privy Council on many occasions that the levies could not be met, and ports petitioned unsuccessfully for payment for ships donated to the national cause.

002After 1619 this local ill feeling centred on one man, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, royal favourite, Lord High Admiral and virtual ruler of England. He epitomised for many provincial Englishmen exactly what was wrong with their country, the growing gulf between the Court and the Country, which was threatening to engulf it. Many men had cause to hate this smooth, handsome, incompetent courtier on whom both James and his son doted, but none more so than John Felton of Pentlow, near Sudbury. A soldier who had lost his left hand in serving his country, his repeated pleas for promotion were ignored. At last he obtained an interview with the great lord and explained that without a commission he could not make a living. To this, Buckingham responded, if you cannot live you will have to hang. Felton decided that, if he had to hang, he may as well take out his revenge on Buckingham in order to do so. In August 1628 he went to Buckingham’s rooms in Portsmouth armed with a cheap knife and struck the Duke down, in front of his admirers and petitioners. Felton rapidly became a national hero and went to the gallows as a martyr for his over-burdened fellow-countrymen.

Buckingham’s assassination is often listed by historians as one of the key events setting England on course for its Great Rebellion, as it was described by the Earl of Clarendon in his memoirs, published in three volumes from 1702. In his History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars, Clarendon shows how Charles I’s public reaction to the murder affected his relationship with his Court:

The Duke was murdered while supervising the fitting-out of the fleet at Portsmouth. The Court was too near Portsmouth, and too many courtiers upon the place, to leave this murder (so wonderful in the nature and circumstances, the like whereof had not been known in England in many ages) long concealed from the king. His majesty was at the public prayers in the church, when Sir John Hippesley came into the room, with a troubled countenance, and, without any pause in respect of the exercise they were performing, went directly to the king, and whispered in his ear what had fallen out. His majesty continued unmoved, and without the least change in his countenance, till prayers were ended; when he suddenly departed to his chamber, and threw himself upon his bed, lamenting with much passion, and with abundance of tears, the loss he had of an excellent servant, and the horrid manner in which he had been deprived of him; and he continued in this melancholic and discomposure of mind many days.

Yet the manner of his receiving the news in public, when it was first brought to him in the presence of so many (who knew or saw nothing of the passion he expressed upon his retreat), made many men to believe that the accident was not very ungrateful; at least, that it was very indifferent to him; as being rid of a servant very ungracious to the people, and the prejudice to whose person exceedingly obstructed all overtures made in parliament for his service.

And, upon this observation, persons of all conditions took great license in speaking of the person of the duke, and dissecting all his infirmities, believing they should not thereby incur any displeasure of the king. In which they took very ill measures; for from that time almost to the time of his own death, the king admitted very few into any degree of trust, who had ever discovered themselves to be enemies to the duke, or against whom he had ever manifested a notable prejudice. And sure never any prince manifested a more lively regret for the loss of a servant, than his majesty did for this great man…

In this passage, Clarendon shows how the murder of Buckingham, together with Charles I’s very different public and private reactions to it, were a symptom rather than a cause of the wider discontent both within and between Court and Country. At the heart of the matter in Suffolk was the Stuart attack on the religion espoused by the leading members of the community. Puritanism was powerful in Suffolk because it was an expression of many of the qualities shared by Suffolk men and women; fierce independence, simplicity, dislike of fripperies and pomp, appreciation of the business virtues of common sense and honesty, mistrust of mysticism. In 1604 new canon laws were issued which enforced the use of the existing Prayer Book with all rituals and ceremonies involved in it. Armed with these, militant bishops carried out sporadic attacks on Puritan clergy. Some of these clergy resigned their livings in order to be appointed to lectureships by powerful patrons. Others conformed outwardly but continued to preach Calvinistic doctrines. Persecution only increased their influence and their independence.

Some formidable men occupied Suffolk pulpits in those days. Their figurehead was Samuel Ward, town preacher of Ipswich from 1603 to 1635. Forthright yet wise, Ward was widely respected and his sermons at St Mary le Tower (see photos) attracted large congregations. He was also a familiar figure in Cambridge and London pulpits. Ward was a gifted artist and his political caricatures won him many admirers and not a few enemies. He even spent a few days in prison for lampooning Spanish dignitaries. He published several tracts and sermons, which similarly offended the establishment. In 1623 the King wrote personally to the Ipswich Corporation asking for Ward’s suspension from office, a request that the city fathers politely declined.

Another of Suffolk’s famous puritans was lord of the manor of Groton, John Winthrop, descended from a long line of Lavenham clothiers, and a practising lawyer. His conscience would not allow him to enjoy his patrimonial estates, and in June 1628 he met with other like-minded fellows in Cambridge, and they decided to follow the example of the Pilgrim Fathers. Winthrop was elected their leader and, less than two years later, he led a fleet of emigrés out of Southampton. They founded the colony of Massachusetts of which Winthrop was the first Governor.

003However, many more puritans were determined to stay put in England, and it was William Laud’s appointment first as Charles I’s controller of ecclesiastic affairs and then as Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1633, that precipitated the religious and constitutional crisis which turned into the civil wars in both kingdoms, Scotland and England. He was determined to enforce conformity by every possible means, even using paid informers, as well as muzzling the press and prosecuting Puritan clergy in the courts. His treatment of the puritan propagandist Alexander Leighton in 1630 appalled the whole nation. Convicted in Star Chamber, Leighton was fined ten thousand pounds, and was sentenced to have both ears cut off, both nostrils slit and his face branded, then to be whipped, pilloried and imprisoned for life.

Given the cruel and vindictive nature of Laud’s persecution of the puritans, it is hardly surprising that so many of them planned to emigrate to America. Led by Dr Dalton of Woolverstone, a further group of would-be pilgrims sought the advice of their patriarch, Samuel Ward, who saw no dishonour in the younger members fleeing persecution to set up a holy commonwealth in the New World but that those too old for such adventures should remain to resist their tormentors. In 1633, six hundred Suffolk men and women sailed from Ipswich and settled in Massachusetts in a place they named after their hometown. Two years later, Samuel Ward had his prophecy fulfilled when he was finally dismissed from office and imprisoned. After his release, he fled to Holland for a time, but returned to die in Ipswich and to be buried in the church he had so faithfully served. His memorial is a fitting, if strangely worded, testimony to so determined a Christian witness:

Watch Ward! Yet a little while,

And He that shall come will come.

These were indeed years of crisis in which Suffolk people needed to be watchful, and they bred an even more radical form of Puritanism; millenarianism, the belief that the second coming of Christ was imminent. There were signs all around as the 1640s began. Ruined by decades of economic distress and royal taxation, Suffolkers were unable to meet the unremitting demands of the Stuart government. The Sheriff, Sir Symonds D’Ewes, was required to collect eight thousand pounds in ship money, but succeeded in collecting only two hundred.

In the same year, 1640, six hundred soldiers, levied at Bungay for the Scottish war, mutinied and besieged their deputy-lieutenants in one of the town inns. In Ipswich a set of the new canon laws was nailed to the pillory and sixteen thousand poor people assembled for a march on London to petition Parliament for the redress of grievances. The following year, the County’s royal commissioners, Sir Lionel Tollemarche and Sir Thomas Jermyn, did not even attempt to muster the County militia.

As soon as the breach between King and Parliament opened up, Suffolk was secured for the latter. The Parliamentary forces took charge of the powder magazine at Bury and the Landguard fort at Ipswich. Where necessary, officials were appointed whose loyalty to Parliament was assured. In December 1642 the Eastern Association was formed by a parliamentary ordinance, a union of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, for mutual defence and the provision of men and money for the war effort. Through it, East Anglia became the power-base of the Roundhead cause, effectively closing the east coast to Royalist sympathisers. There were some Cavaliers in the county, but they were mostly isolated and powerless to help King Charles. A few of them made a half-hearted attempt to hold onto Lowestoft in March 1643, but they were soon overpowered.

The ordinance that created the Eastern Association created a number of regional associations of counties, but these were generally ineffective. The Eastern Association, however, more than fulfilled its objectives. The Association was first placed under the command of Lord Grey of Warke. He was relieved of command in mid-July 1643, for failing to prosecute the war with sufficient vigour, and was replaced by Edward Montague, Earl of Manchester. This was a time of major setbacks for the parliamentarian cause, with the defeat of the Earl of Essex’s army and the loss of Bristol. The strengthening and reorganisation of the Eastern Association was desperately needed.

In autumn 1642, John Pickering was already working on military matters in Cambridgeshire. Pickering was born into a puritan family of Northamptonshire gentry in 1615. The second son to John Pickering (III) of Titchmarsh, he fitted the poet John Milton’s description of the typical Independent gentlemen very well:

Men of better conditions of life, of families not disgraced if not ennobled, of fortunes either ample or moderate… prepared, not only to debate, but to fight; not only to argue in the senate, but to engage the enemy in the field.

He had matriculated as a Commoner of St Catherine’s College, Cambridge in 1631, a puritan institution whose fellows included John Arrowsmith, William Strong, Thomas Goodwin, who later became chaplain to the Council of State and a favourite of Oliver Cromwell, and John Knowles, who emigrated to New England but returned to England in 1651, when it was reckoned that no less than forty-seven of his former pupils were either Members of Parliament or of the Assembly of Divines. John’s intense puritan views can be clearly seen from his obituary which says that instead of drinking, swearing, roaring, carding dicing and drabbing, he spent that little time he had to spare in the study of the scriptures… He followed his brother Gilbert to Gray’s Inn in London in October 1634, to train as a lawyer. This Inn of Court was the most popular with families from the Midlands and East Anglia. Of those that went on, like Gilbert Pickering, to become MPs, twice as many supported Parliament as did the King. However, as second son, John was left very little land by his father, just a few closes in Titchmarsh, Molesworth and Bythorn. He therefore had no alternative but to seek a profession.

By December 1641, during the Scottish war, he had taken up work for Parliament, engaged in diplomatic work, carrying messages to its committee in Scotland. As Sprigge recorded following Pickering’s death, he had done the kingdome great service, by riding between England and Scotland before these troubles. In 1642, as civil war in England loomed over events, he was working for the Lords. He was dispatched to apprehend the keeper of the Royal Seal, who had secretly escaped from London to take the seal to the King. In October, he was sent by the Deputy Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire on a two-week reconnaissance of the enemy’s advance. Between November 1642 and February 1643 John continued to work for Parliament in Scotland, passing on details of events in the Scottish Privy Council. This was during the early stages of the negotiations that led to the Scots’ forces intervention into the war on the side of the English Parliament.

John was undoubtedly well-known to the Earl of Manchester through his brother Gilbert’s marriage into the Montague family. Like John, Manchester had been educated at Cambridge, and may have been instrumental in John’s employment in the service of Parliament. If this were the case, it is therefore hardly surprising that John was appointed, in August 1643, as Comissary General of the Musters for the Eastern Association. The Muster Master received orders, made a general muster list of the whole army before it marched, making reviews when required, and keeping a record of alterations between each muster, including those killed, sick, run away or discharged. In this post Pickering was involved in the setting up of the twenty Eastern Association regiments required under the parliamentary ordinance of 1643. This work carried on throughout the following autumn and winter and until the end of April, 1644.

On the 13th August 1643, the important East Anglian port of King’s Lynn declared against Parliament, in anticipation of the advance of the Earl of Newcastle’s royalist army into Norfolk. The newly raised Association forces were rushed north to lay siege to the town. After some weeks Manchester offered the port the opportunity to surrender, before they launched their final assault. John Pickering was one of eight commanders who met with their royalist counterparts, at Gaywood, several miles to the east, to negotiate the treaty of surrender. The debate went on for twenty-four hours, but was successfully concluded, and the surrender took place on 15th September. The following autumn, Manchester’s forces went on to defeat the royalist forces, still advancing from the north, at Winceby in Lincolnshire. At some time following the siege of King’s Lynn, late in 1643 or early 1644, Pickering received a commission as Colonel of a regiment of dragoons, possibly the one that his brother, Sir Gilbert Pickering, had raised. Dragoons rode to battle, but fought on foot with matchlock muskets and pistols. By January 1644 he was recorded as Colonel Pickering, when he carried a message for the Earl of Manchester to the House of Lords.

Pickering’s dragoons were an Eastern Association regiment, perhaps from Essex where most of The Eastern Association’s dragoons were raised. His transfer to the command of a regiment may have been through the influence of Oliver Cromwell, whose strategy for the development of the Association army was to recruit and promote dedicated men with strong puritan beliefs who were dedicated to the defeat of the King. Cromwell was already challenging the Earl of Manchester over both military and religious matters. It was through the commissioning of men like Pickering that he hoped to strengthen his position both in parliament and the army.

Pickering saw his first action as commander in March 1644, at the storming of Hillesden House, the fortified manor of Sir Alexander Denton, a royalist garrison. The royalists had advanced with the fortifying of Newport Pagnall in October 1643, posing a dual threat to London and the Eastern Association. The London Trained Bands, under Major General Skippon, were sent to retrieve the situation. Supported by local forces, they recovered Newport, and followed this up by successfully storming the royalist garrison at Grafton Regis in Northamptonshire. The royalists then abandoned their nearby garrison at Towcester, and the East Midlands was secured under the control of local forces supported by the Eastern Association. At the storming of Hillesden House, where the retreating royalist troops dug in, Pickering emerged as second-in-command to Cromwell. During the siege, a musket ball injured him under his chin, though not seriously.

Three weeks later, on 25th March, he was sufficiently recovered to take up his command of a new regiment of foot. In April 1644, his regiment of dragoons, which had taken part in the action at Hillesden, were disbanded. This may have been due to their indiscipline in firing their muskets at the church, instead of at the House itself. They were described as a rude multitude, most of them pressed into service. The Association dragoons were then reduced into a single regiment under John Lilburne. Pickering’s new infantry regiment comprised ten companies, whose commanders took up their commissions between the 13th March and the 4th April. In the succeeding weeks, the companies were built up, though most never reached their full complement. It mustered in Cambridge in early April, together with most of the rest of the Association’s army, though there were further musters at Gainsborough, Doncaster and St Albans over the next six months. Pickering’s Regiment totalled 738 men.

It is highly likely that Pickering’s Regiment were equipped with red, or russet coats from the outset. This was becoming the standard issue for the Eastern Association regiments by 1644. The reasons for this are contained in a strongly worded dispatch from Cromwell to one of his commanders whose regiment had just been issued with the new coats:

… your troops refuse the new coats. Say this: Wear them, or go home. I stand no more nonsense from any one. It is a needful thing that we be as one in colour; much ill having been from diversity of clothes, to slaying of friends by friends…


By the time Pickering’s troops were incorporated into the New Model Army a year later, red coats lined with blue were becoming the norm. Though Pickering himself came from Northamptonshire, that county was not the recruiting ground for his regiment. Northamptonshire was part of the Midland Association, under the command of Lord Saye and Sale, who lived at Broughton Castle, near Banbury. The Knightley family had previously married into the Staffordshire branch of the Golafre (Gulliver) family, moving to Fawsley Hall in Northamptonshire, and then marrying into the Fiennes of Broughton Castle near Banbury. The Fiennes Family gained more prestige and titles, and their decision to side with Parliament, gave Banbury an importance both as a strategic centre in civil wars, given its position between Oxford and Warwick. The Battle of Edgcote of 1469 had been one of the key turning points in the Wars of the Roses, involving Warwick the kingmaker and possibly Edward IV himself. The Battle of Edgehill, just south of nearby Kineton, was the first major battle of the English Civil War. There is a well-known local rhyme, which refers to one of these battles, has been passed down in the Gulliver family:

If Fenny Compton you can see, the King of England you shall be.


009It was supposed to have been said by a local wise woman to one of the rival claimants to the throne or to Charles I, as they halted near the Rollright Stones, The alternating hills and marshes of Banburyshire created local weather conditions, involving sudden mists, creating eerie conditions for superstitious soldiers and varying visibility for fighting battles. The gradual drainage of the land during the agricultural revolution also lowered the levels, so that local stories of battlefield ghosts refer to soldiers appearing to fight each other in the air!

005The usual verdict on the Battle of Edgehill, fought on 23rd October 1642, is that it was a draw. Prince Rupert’s Cavaliers, not for the last time, made a brilliant cavalry charge, shattering the Roundhead left flank. Many of them veteran professional soldiers from the Thirty Years’ War, where they had fought to restore his mother Elizabeth, King Charles’ sister, to the throne of Bohemia. By contrast, the Roundhead cavalry was untried and untested, and the infantry largely untrained.

However, Rupert’s troopers literally got carried away with their success and, thinking that the battle and perhaps even the war was won, they swept past Kineton and on towards Warwick. However, after two miles they were met some Roundhead reserves, commanded by a Captain Cromwell, who blocked Rupert’s advance. When the Prince eventually rejoined the King’s army on the field, dusk was falling and the infantry had pushed each other to a standstill.

Rupert has often been severely criticised for allowing his cavalry to ride right off the field in an impetuous charge, but restraining a powerful charge requires superhuman powers, and cavalry on both sides was not used effectively on either side until much later in the conflict, under Cromwell and Ireton. Charles finished the day closer to London than the Parliamentarians, which enabled him to make Oxford his headquarters, so the Royalists came away with an overall advantage, holding the ridge of land marking the Banburyshire border, while Essex was forced to withdraw to Warwick leaving many of this guns on the field. Cromwell was disgusted with the quality of some of the Roundhead infantry, describing them as old decayed tapsters and serving-men, but they stood and fought in the centre, and it was here that the war was later to be won for Parliament.

Whatever advantage Charles had gained in the Midlands, since without London and its money and materials, he stood little chance of winning the war. He spent the night on the battlefield at King’s Ley Barn, thinking that with its reinforcements from Warwick, Parliament might return to renew the struggle the next day. When they did not, he failed to take advantage of the open road to London that lay before him. They took Banbury with little difficulty on 27th October before moving on to Oxford, lingering there, while Essex went round to the east. On 4th November Charles reached Reading, but did not press on, so that while the Parliamentary Army approached the capital from Woburn, arriving in the city on the 8th, Charles’ troops did not reach the outlying western boroughs until the 13th. By then, they found their way blocked by a new army, twenty-four thousand strong, including six thousand well-armed members of the City Trained Bands at Turnham Green. There were another three thousand Roundheads guarding the Thames Bridge at Kingston. Charles retired to Reading, losing his best chance of wresting control of the capital, or at least the middle reaches of the Thames, from Parliament. Although he had secured Oxford, as both sides quartered their troops for the winter, he knew he would have to marshal his resources for a long war.

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