Archive for the ‘Worcester’ Tag

The ‘Other England’ of the Sixties: The Changing Faces of the West Midlands.   2 comments

003

The National Division – the ‘Two Englands’:

In 1964, the well-known Guardian correspondent, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured above), ‘ventured’ out of his metropolitan England, caught up in the cobweb of roads and rails around London, into the interior of England to see how the other three-quarters live. The Penguin Special he produced was the first of its kind since J.B. Priestley published his English Journey thirty years beforehand. Looking behind the Cotswold stone and the dereliction of the Black Country … the vaunted development schemes of Birmingham, he attempted to uncover England as it was in the 1960s – beauty, traffic, tradition, negroes, noise, and all.

One side of the debate about the migration debate, was the problem of the continued drift of the population to the industrial Midlands and South-east of England, foreseen in the Barlow Report of 1937. But there had never been such a fixation with the division of England into North and South on almost every count as there was in the sixties. Moorhouse argued that while two Englands did visibly exist in 1964, the demarcation was vague and misleading and that the ‘two Englands’ could be more precisely defined. The nine county boroughs with the highest mortality ratios in England were in the industrial North, and the ten with the lowest rates were south of a line drawn from the Severn estuary to the Thames estuary. Traditionally, the boundary between the Midlands and the North was drawn along the upper reaches of the Severn and then following the Trent from its source to the River Ouse on the Humber estuary. One observer commented that without financial intervention, it will not take a generation to complete the establishment of two nations, or, in contemporary language, two cultures, divided by a line from the Humber to the Wirral. 

What became clear in the early sixties was that all the generalised observations that were bandied about on the comparative wealth and health of England North and England South were based on the haziest possible conceptions of where they were. Commentators had got into the habit of talking about a generally poor North and a generally rich South, based on inadequate definitions of these areas. Two damaging consequences followed: the North was painted blacker than it was and the South whiter. Certainly, no-one who lived in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the North-East during the late fifties and early sixties could fail to be aware that these areas were gradually falling behind the national averages in many ways – in housing conditions, in mortality, in investment, and, above all, in employment. But many generalised assumptions were made about ‘the North’ based on the perpetuated, negative impression that it was almost wholly covered in the worst residue of the Industrial Revolution. This stereotype of an area of utter depression with no real future meant that financial investment was slow and grudging.

Scarcely less unfortunate in its side effects was the tacit assumption that all was well, in economic terms, with the South. The theory that this was a land flowing with milk and honey from end to end was not one that would find ready acceptance among the thousands of homeless people in London, or the unemployed of Norwich, where the rate of joblessness was above the national average. In fact, the highest rate was to be found not in the North-east, or on Merseyside, but in Cornwall. In March 1964, the national rate was 1.9 per cent, on Merseyside, it was 4.5 per cent, in the worst parts of the North-east at 8.8 per cent, and in Falmouth 10.8 per cent. Like London’s homeless, Falmouth’s unemployed tended to be overlooked. Unemployment in the North was a more striking problem than in the South because of the absolute numbers involved.

Between 1952 and 1960, the London region, with twenty-seven per cent of Great Britain’s population, acquired forty per cent of the new jobs created. Those who lived within the ‘golden circle’ of the Home Counties, within an hour’s journey of their workplace, were members of a giant migrant society which moved great distances both for work and for pleasure. Their allegiances were divided between their ‘dormitory’ town and the great city itself, and their feeling for ‘community’ in both places tended to be weaker than it was in places where the population did not have this split personality. It was one of the more remarkable things about London and its suburbs to anyone who had lived in other parts of the country, how many people there made scarcely any contact with their neighbours. Instead, their contacts were with people they met through work or pleasure who lived miles away, and so gatherings of ‘soulmates’ took place in a kind of no man’s land. Of course, this was very much a professional and middle-class way of life.

A very high proportion of those living within the ‘Golden Circle’ had never been anywhere in England north of Whipsnade or the Norfolk Broads. They took their holidays on the South Coast or in the West Country and then turned their attention to the Continent. After all, Paris was nearer than Cumberland, more urbane and metropolitan. This widespread inexperience of the North was strikingly illustrated by one of the Observer’s professional travel writers. In April 1964, after describing the playgrounds of Europe and beyond, she visited the English Lake District for the first time in her life. The message that came loud and clear out of London was that if anyone wished to be smart and up to date then these were the attitudes they must adopt, the values they must hold, the fashions they must follow. The old provincial community feeling – the instinctive regard, warmth, and understanding for someone from the other side of town or even region which gently pressed people to place themselves at the disposal of each other – was broken. Moorhouse commented on the parallel process at work in the South-east and the ‘Home Counties’:

Meanwhile we become implicated in the structure of the Golden Circle, with its ephemeral relationships, with its unparalleled amenities of one kind or another, with its own introspective regard for things. And such are the pressures of this new society that after a time, I think, we too look towards the other England and wonder how on earth it could be so provincial, so backward, so completely out of step with the times. And then we turn our backs on it like so many before us. That is the really alarming thing about this national division.

There was much talk of modernizing Britain in 1964, and the country had clearly reached a point at which its whole shape and appearance was going to be drastically altered within a decade or two. Quite apart from the fact that the facilities Britain had were inadequate for its needs at that time, there was also the future to think of. The population was going to run away with itself and there was nothing that could be done to stop it, short of war or natural disaster. The advent and availability of the contraceptive pill did have a moderating effect, but the population still advanced beyond fifty-five million towards the estimated seventy-two million by the year two thousand. In just over thirty years, the population was expected to grow by almost a third.

Various prophecies had been made about the appearance of England at the turn of the century, and none of them bore much resemblance to what it looked like in the mid-sixties. One suggestion was that, by the year two thousand, there might be thirty conurbations of one to three million living in areas of forty square miles. From Dover to Bristol, and from the Home Counties to Lancashire and Yorkshire, there would be more people living in metropolitan conditions than there were in the whole of Britain in 1964. Two-thirds of them would be confined to virtually unbroken conurbations. Peter Hall, in his book London 2,000, sketched a prototype for the ideal Fin-de-siecle new town. It had a population of 95,000 and was constructed so artfully that seventy thousand of its citizens could walk to the central shopping area within a quarter of an hour. What, asked Moorhouse was to become of the lovely country towns in such an age? The answer, as it has turned out, was that few people suggested that it would be beneficial to raze everything and start all over again, as was the case in Sheffield and, due to its war-time destruction, to Coventry. No one but a blind iconoclast would have suggested that places like Ludlow, Shrewsbury, Worcester, and all the smaller towns of the West Midlands deserved the same treatment.

The ‘rural’ West Midlands:

002

In the 1960s, the West Midlands was defined as the region between Bristol and Crewe going north and between Birmingham and the Welsh border from east to west. It therefore included the largely rural areas of Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Shropshire, whereas today it is thought of as comprising the main metropolitan areas of Coventry, Solihull, Birmingham, Sandwell and Wolverhampton. The latter two of these areas roughly correspond with what was, and still is, known as ‘the Black Country’, the industrial area stretching across southern Staffordshire. When Moorhouse wrote that there is no part of England lovelier than this he was not thinking of the Black Country, which he wrote about in a subsequent chapter together with Birmingham. Thus, what Nikolaus Pevsner wrote about Herefordshire, Moorhouse suggested, could be said to be true of the rest of the West Midlands as defined in the sixties:

There are not many counties of England of which it can be said that, wherever one goes, there will not be a mile which is visually unrewarding or painful.

Moorhouse added that there was certainly no other comparable stretch of country which had been more enhanced rather than spoiled by man. This was a man-made landscape which over the centuries has been broken in, tamed and softened in a way that some of the most attractive of Scotland, Wales and Ireland – the Highlands, Snowdonia, Connemara – have not. In the rural West Midlands are the Cotswolds, the Wye Valley, the Vale of Evesham, the Malverns, the Long Mynd, Wenlock Edge and the upper Severn Valley of Ironbridge and Coalbrookdale. In these areas there was a little industry, formed early in the Industrial Revolution but never developed; where Birmingham and the Black Country spilt over the Worcestershire boundary they did so because of pressure from their foundries and factories. Industry in these West Midlands was…

… more a matter of cider-making, hop-gathering, pear-picking and cattle-herding than anything they understand the word to mean in Birmingham and surrounding districts. Here the towns were built mostly to market farm products … We remember them best for their picturesque qualities: Worcester, with the prettiest county cricket ground in England; Shrewsbury, with probably the finest collection of half-timbered Tudor buildings; Hereford, because it is less industrialized than any place of its size; Cheltenham, for the elegance of its Promenade and parks; Ludlow, for its charming disorder beneath the castle; Gloucester, for its cathedral and especially for that staggering east window.

001

What made these cities and towns so iconic was not just their possession of a high proportion of buildings which are aesthetically pleasing or of considerable historical value, but that more often than not by their very disordered arrangement, their textures and their colouring, they actually enhance the landscapes in which they are set. Somehow the planners were pressured into preserving them either as the core or as the adjunct to the bright new towns of the future. Yet some of the most abysmal hovels in England continued to lie behind some of the prettiest facades (see the picture of Spon Street, Coventry, above). There were already thousands of examples of reclamation of country cottages and market townhouses without damage to the exterior or the context. But the example of Gloucester was not one to be followed. Everything that was obsolescent for practical purposes was knocked down to make way for the latest urban device when more thought would have shown that by careful adaptation and selective demolition the same practical result could be achieved. In 1964, there was a clear danger that many other Midland towns might fall into the same trap as Gloucester. Fortunately, it was not the last chance we had to look around and see things as they always seemed to have been. Coaching inns, Tudor gables, and Regency mansions have remained into the current century. The Georgian face of Worcester has survived the widening of the High Street and the erection of a shopping centre opposite the cathedral. Yet at the time Worcester seemed generally quite oblivious of what was happening to it. An overspill population of forty thousand rolled in from Birmingham, yet it had no overall plan for development. Unlike Coventry’s Donald Gibson, Worcester had no city architect to start thinking about one, and to ensure that what was being done in the centre of the city was properly co-ordinated.

Birmingham & The Black Country:

Above: The local government structure within North Worcestershire and South Staffordshire – Prior to the West Midlands Order 1965 reorganisation

Strictly speaking, the Black Country is a quadrilateral of towns whose four corners are Wolverhampton, Walsall, Stourbridge and Smethwick. Most of it lies in the South-western angle of Staffordshire but it has spread over into Worcestershire as well. Not far from the geographical centre of England, it fizzles out on two sides into some of England’s most unspoilt countryside. It is itself the heart of industrial England and has become England’s unloveliest and most completely spoiled parcel of land. It is crammed with boroughs which have traditional specialities of manufacture: locks at Willenhall, chains at Cradley, nails at Blackheath, springs at West Bromwich, enamels at Bilston, glass at Stourbridge, leathers at Walsall, and so on. As Moorhouse remarked,

These places are so close to each other that it is only by keeping an eye on the signs outside the post offices as you pass through the Black Country that you can be sure which town you are in. Together with the Potteries it is the only part of England I know that I would not at any price exchange for life in South Lancashire… Here there is nothing but endless vistas of ugliness in stone, brick, mortar, rusting iron, and waste earth. Look at the streets and the factories here, peer into the canals, sniff the air, and you can be sure that they weren’t kidding when they called this the Black Country.

Strictly speaking, Birmingham has never part of the Black Country, which lies just over the south-eastern boundary of the region at West Bromwich, Smethwick and Bearwood, where the old counties of Warwickshire and Worcestershire met. The boundary was literally at the end of the long back garden of our ‘manse’ in Edgbaston, the Baptist Church being in Bearwood. Yet in an economic rather than a geographical sense, Birmingham is at the centre of the Black Country. Like the towns spilling out from its northern suburbs it was built from the start upon industry, but whereas specialization was the general rule in the Black Country’s boroughs, Birmingham spread itself over an enormous variety of trades. The typical working-class Brummie was, as the folk-song had it, a Roving Jack of many a trade, of every trade, of all trades. More than any other city in Britain, including Manchester, by the mid-twentieth century Birmingham could claim to be the unrivalled workshop of the world. By the 1960s its reputation rested on its heavy engineering and its part in the growth of the car industry, but it was still the home of about 1,500 separate trades, making everything from pins to hundred-ton presses.

002 (2)

Birmingham was never as wholly bleak as the area to the north, though. Its southern suburbs became a dormitory for the middle and upper classes, almost devoid of factories, except for the Austin motor works at Longbridge and the Cadbury factory at Bournville which, like his predecessor J B Priestley, Geoffrey Moorhouse writes about at some length in his chapter on the Black Country.  I don’t intend to focus on it in this article. These suburbs were spacious and tree-lined, running eventually out into the Shakespeare country of the former Forest of Arden, along the Stratford Road. Birmingham was one of the very few places in England which lived up to its motto – in this case, ‘Forward’. It was certainly going forward in the mid-sixties. Nowhere else was there more excitement in the air, and no other major British city had identified its problems, tackled them and made more progress towards solving them than ‘the second city’. Not even in London was there so much adventure in what was being done.

Moorhouse suggested that you would have had to have gone to some of the Dutch and German cities to see something changing in shape and its approach to life as dramatically as Birmingham had been doing in the early sixties. If you entered the city by way of Snow Hill station and went along Colmore Row towards Victoria Square and the Town Hall nothing much seemed to be happening. But if you turned down New Street, at the bottom of the street you walked straight out of the nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth, or maybe even into the twenty-first. You could carry on into the Bull Ring, at that time the centre of the transformation, and stand with your back to St Martin’s Church. Looking up, the sky was cut across at one end by a great horizontal slab of concrete, embellished with a fierce symbolic Taurus in metal at one end. That was the then new Bull Ring market. Behind it was a cylindrical office block, ‘the Rotunda’, all glass with a concrete frame. No-one had ever thought of making one of these in England before. At ground level was an open market, its stalls sheltered by huge individual umbrellas in lollipop colours.

This was Birmingham moving ‘forward’. Out of sight, there were streets along which traffic could pass without being stopped by crossing pedestrians because someone had the bright idea that it was possible for people on foot to get from one side to the other by going under the main thoroughfare. A portable flyover was also set across a junction so that cars, buses and lorries could go up and down it like trippers on the Big Dipper. Birmingham had been moving forward in this fashion since 1957, the year I was born, and when I went to live there in the summer of 1965 much of the new city centre around St Martin’s in the Bull Ring had been completed. At the time, it was probably the most extensive programme of rebuilding and redevelopment to take place in any European city not already demolished by the war. Plymouth, Exeter and neighbouring Coventry had no alternative but to rebuild.

Birmingham had to start its own demolition before it could proceed to re-creation. It started with a new inner ring road, costing twenty-five million, followed by the Bull Ring development which cost five million out of a total cost of forty million for the city centre as a whole. This was followed by the Midlands Arts Centre and a new civic theatre, the Repertory.  Plans for New Street station were first drawn up in 1958, an underground construction at an estimated cost of twelve million. In all, the city council reckoned in 1964 that they would spend another fifty million on various projects in the centre and at Edgbaston, including the test cricket ground. Not all these schemes were to be funded from the public purse, but the freedom of civic spending was the envy of many other cities. Birmingham’s forward movement was impressive enough to attract the best architects of the day to produce plans there, whereas other provincial cities had their futures shaped by trusty local architects, whose worthiness was generally equalled only by their lack of imagination. 

The danger, however, was that all this central enterprise would distract the city from looking too closely at its unfulfilled needs. Life in Sparkbrook or Balsall Heath didn’t look nearly as prosperous as it did from St Martin’s. Birmingham could have done itself more good by concentrating more on its tatty central fringes, what became known in the seventies and eighties as its inner-city areas. Something like seventy thousand families were in need of new homes and since the war it had been building houses at a rate of no more than two to three thousand a year. This compared poorly with Manchester, otherwise a poor relation, which had been building four thousand a year over the same period. However, more than any other municipality in the country, Birmingham had been successive ministers of Housing and Local Government to force lodging-house landlords to register with their local authorities. In 1944, it was the only place in England to take advantage of an ephemeral Act of Parliament to acquire the five housing areas it then developed twenty years later. At Ladywood, Lee Bank, Highgate, Newton and Nechells Green 103,000 people lived in 32,000 slum houses; a mess sprawling over a thousand acres, only twenty-two acres of which were open land. More than ten thousand of these houses had been cleared by 1964, and it was estimated that by 1970 the total number of people living in these areas was expected to dwindle to fifty thousand, with their homes set in 220 acres of open ground.

The other tens of thousands of people who lived there were expected to have moved out to Worcester, Redditch and other places. The prospect of Birmingham’s excess population being deposited in large numbers on the surrounding countryside was not an attractive one for those who were on the receiving end of this migration. At the public enquiry into the proposals to establish a new town at Redditch, the National Farmers’ Union declared, with the imagery that pressure groups often resort when their interests are threatened, that the farmers were being sacrificed on the altar of Birmingham’s ‘overspill’, which was the latest password among the planners. Birmingham needed to clear its slums before it could start talking about itself with justification as the most go-ahead city in Europe. Yet it already, in the mid-sixties, felt much more affluent than the patchwork affair among more Northerly towns and cities. It had more in common with the Golden Circle of London and the Home Counties than any other part of England. In 1964, forty-seven per cent of its industrial firms reported increased production compared with the national average of twenty-five per cent. Above all, Birmingham felt as if everything it set itself to was geared to an overall plan and purpose, with no piecemeal efforts going to waste at a tangent. The people living in Birmingham in the mid-sixties had a feeling, rare in English life at that time, of being part of an exciting enterprise destined to succeed. As for the city itself, it was not prepared to yield pride of place to anyone on any matter, as a quick glance at the civic guide revealed:

Many of the world’s finest organists have joined with the City Organist in giving recitals on the Town Hall’s massive organ, admittedly one of the finest in the country.

Such off-hand immodesty neatly caught the tone of Birmingham in the sixties, and when all the projects were completed, it was a city to crow about and for schoolboys like me to sing in, whether in the choir stalls at St Martin’s in the Bull Ring at Christmas or in front of that massive organ in the Town Hall, together with thousands of other choristers from all over the city.

003

There was some ‘overspill’ of Birmingham’s bouncing vitality to be seen in the Black Country proper. The worthies of Wolverhampton had their own six million pound development plan on their plates, and in the town centre they had cleared a wide open space and started to build afresh. The city was especially proud of its football team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, which under its manager, Stan Cullis, had won the League Championship three times (also finishing as runners-up three times) and the FA Cup twice between 1949 and 1960. They had also played a number of European club teams in a series of floodlit mid-week games at their Molineux Stadium, beating the crack Hungarian Champions Honved, led by the legendary Ferenc Puskás, earning them the unofficial title of ‘Champions of the World’.  They drew with Honved 1-1 at Molineux in 1962 and lost 2-1 to them in Budapest in ’63, but in 1964 Stan Cullis suffered a long illness and after a disastrous start to the season Chairman John Ireland sacked him on 15 September 1964. The Wolves were then relegated at the end of the season, not returning to the top flight until 1967, when I began to go to ‘the Moli’ with my dad, who was originally from Bilston. Of course, their great rivals were their Black Country neighbours, West Bromwich Albion, known as ‘the baggies’. In the first home game of the season, attracting a crowd of 51,438, Wolves were winning until ‘Bomber’ Brown punched the ball into the Wolves net with only a couple of minutes to go. The referee didn’t spot the infringement, and the match ended in a 3-3 draw.

002

The Wolverhampton Coat of Arms and Motto (also worn by the football team).

In West Bromwich, they had come up with a seven million pound scheme for a pedestrian centre covering thirty-seven acres. Moorhouse felt that this was long overdue since no-one seemed to have spent a penny in the last century on the appearance of the place. He commented that whilst this was officially the most affluent place in the other England, with unemployment standing at just one per cent compared with the national average of 2.2, it was a curious unbalanced people who can satisfy itself indoors with its television set, washing machine, its hair dryer and modish lamp standard, and put up with West Bromwich as it looks from the outside. For West Bromwich, he wrote, you could substitute the name of any town in the Black Country and draw the same conclusion. Taking a bus from West Bromwich to Wolverhampton via Wednesbury and Bilston, he concluded that there is nothing to be seen which would induce anyone to go and live there unless he had to. I have to admit that, visiting my father’s brothers and sisters a few years later, I often wondered, and still do, as to what drew his parents there. My father worked as a draughtsman in the GKN works before the war, so perhaps his father did too. Wednesbury, where he had his first ministry as a young man, had a steep main street of market stalls, which gave it an almost rural air, reminding you that once there was open country running out of the bottom of the hill. Otherwise, Moorhouse’s description matches accurately my own childhood recollections:

Where the decrepit buildings of the Industrial Revolution peter out, bleak and gritty housing estates have been allowed to sprawl with here and there patches of waste ground full of broken glass, fractured brick, garbage and willowherb. The bus lurches through a maze of side streets whose corners are so sharp and narrow that it is surprising that it doesn’t finish up in somebody’s front parlour. … It is a picture of desolation, and no-one yet seems to have made a start in cleaning it up.

Certainly, for all the money that must have been made in these parts since industry moved in, precious little was spent on the needs of the local communities. Tipton was so bereft of civic facilities that the mayor had to entertain either in the local pub or the Territorial drill hall. As far as Moorhouse could tell, there was not a scrap of difference between Tipton, Coseley, Bilston and Willenhall, not a rusty piece of iron that you could insert between one boundary and the next. The only advantage that this gave them was that they were obviously all in the same boat together and that they might as well pool their resources and try to work out an overall plan. The Local Government Commission came to a similar conclusion in 1962, resulting in a reorganisation of the Black Country with the small towns being amalgamated into larger groupings or assimilated into the bigger places – Wolverhampton, Walsall, West Bromwich, Smethwick, and Dudley. These changes were not brought about without a fight, however, as civic jealousies were strong among the Black Country towns. The hearing of objections to the Commission’s plan lasted over five weeks and was the costliest in the history of British local government; some of the local authorities even threatened to sue the Minister of Housing and Local Government. With the consolidation of the Black Country, there was some hope that some of Birmingham’s ‘bright ideas’ might get transfused to its hinterland.

Immigration: The Case of Smethwick in 1964.

The Black Country outside Birmingham may have appeared to have been standing still for a century or more, but by looking at its population it was possible to see that an enormous change had come over it in the late fifties and early sixties. The pallid, indigenous people had been joined by more colourful folk from the West Indies, India and Pakistan. In some cases, the women from the subcontinent could not speak English at all, but they had already made their mark on Black Country society, queuing for chickens on Wolverhampton market on Saturday mornings. The public transport system across Birmingham and the Black Country would certainly have ground to a halt had the immigrant labour which supplied it been withdrawn. Several cinemas had been saved from closing by showing Indian and Pakistani movies, and a Nonconformist Chapel had been transformed into a Sikh Gurdwara. The whole area was ‘peppered’ with Indian and Pakistani restaurants. Several years before the national press discovered the West Indian cricket supporters at Lord’s in 1963, they were already plainly visible and vocal at Edgbaston Cricket Ground.

The overseas immigrants had been coming into Birmingham and the Black Country in a steady trickle since the end of the war for the same reason that the region attracted migrants from all over the British Isles since the mid-twenties: comparatively high wages and full, stable, employment. The trickle became a torrent in the months before the Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was enacted in 1962. By 1964, the region had one of the biggest concentrations of immigrants in the country. Their integration into the communities of Birmingham and the Black Country had proceeded without the violent reaction which led to the race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958. But tensions had been building up in the region as they had in every mixed community in Britain. One of the first open antagonisms took place in Birmingham in 1954 over the employment of coloured migrants as drivers and conductors on the local buses. After that, little was heard of racial pressures until the end of 1963, when events in Smethwick began to make national headlines. The situation there became typical in its effects on traditional allegiances, and in its ripeness for exploitation, of that in every town in England with a mixed community.

007

With a population of seventy thousand, Smethwick contained an immigrant community variously estimated at between five and seven thousand. It was claimed that this is proportionately greater than in any other county borough in England. The settlement of these people in Smethwick had not been the slow process over a long period that Liverpool, Cardiff and other seaports had experienced and which had allowed time for adjustments to be made gradually. It had happened at a rush, mainly at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. In such circumstances, the host communities learnt to behave better, but it was always likely that a deeply rooted white population would regard with suspicion the arrival of an itinerant coloured people on its home ground, and that friction would result. In Smethwick, the friction followed a familiar pattern. Most pubs in the town barred coloured people from their lounge bars. Some barbers refused to cut their hair. When a Pakistani family were allocated a new council flat after slum clearance in 1961, sixty-four of their white neighbours staged a rent strike and eventually succeeded in driving them out of, ironically enough, ‘Christ Street’.

017

Looking for lodgings on Gillett Road, west Birmingham, 1955.

Most of the usual white prejudices were keenly displayed in Smethwick, the reasons offered for hostility to the migrants being that they made too much noise, that they did not tend to their gardens with the customary English care, that they left their children unattended too long, and that their children were delaying the progress of white pupils in the schools. The correspondence columns of the local weekly newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone, have provided a platform for the airing of these prejudices, as a letter quoted by a correspondent of The Times on 9 March 1964 shows:

With the advent of the pseudo-socialists’ ‘coloured friends’, the incidence of T.B. in the area has risen to become one of the highest in the country. Can it be denied that the foul practice of spitting in public is a contributory factor? Why waste the ratepayers’ money printing notices in five different languages? People who behave worse than animals will not in the least be deterred by them.

At the time, no-one seems to know who originated the slogan: If you want a Nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour, which was circulating in Smethwick before the 1963 municipal elections. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan but Colin Jordan, leader of the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that his members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign; Jordan’s group in the past had also campaigned on other slogans, such as: Don’t vote – a vote for Tory, Labour or Liberal is a vote for more Blacks! Griffiths denied that the slogan was racist, saying that:

I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.

— quoted in The Times (9 March 1964).

007

The specific issue which the Labour and Conservatives debated across the Smethwick council chamber was how best to integrate immigrant children in the borough’s schools. Many of them had very little English when they arrived in Smethwick. The Conservatives wanted to segregate them from normal lessons; Labour took the view that they should be taught in separate groups for English only and that the level of integration otherwise should be left to the discretion of the individual schools. But the party division soon got far deeper as the housing shortage in Smethwick, as great as anywhere in the Black Country, exacerbated race relations. The Conservatives said that if they controlled the council they would not necessarily re-house a householder on taking over his property for slum clearance unless he had lived in the town for ten years or more. While the local Labour party deprecated attempts to make immigration a political issue, the Conservatives actively encouraged them. Councillor Peter Griffiths, the local Tory leader had actively supported the Christ Street rent strike.

At the municipal elections in 1963, the Conservatives fared disastrously over the country in general, gaining no more than five seats. Three of these were in Smethwick. In the elections for aldermen of 1964, the Conservatives gained control of the council, the ‘prize’ for having been consistently critical of the immigrant community in the area. The Smethwick constituency had been held by Labour since 1945, for most of that time by Patrick Gordon Walker, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. His majorities at successive general elections had dwindled from 9,727 in 1951 to 6,495 in 1955 to 3,544 in 1959. This declining majority could not, obviously, be solely attributed to Labour’s policy on immigration, either nationally or locally. It reflected a national trend since 1951, a preference for Tory economic management. But the drop in 1959 seemed to be in part, at least, a reaction to local issues. Moorhouse, writing in mid-1964, just before the general election, found few people who would bet on Gordon Walker being returned to Westminster, however successful Labour might be in the country as a whole. His opponent in the election was Councillor Griffiths, who was so convinced of the outcome by the end of 1963 that he had already fixed himself up with a flat in London. Moorhouse wrote:

If he does become Smethwick’s next MP it will not simply be because he has attracted the floating voter to his cause. It will also be because many people who have regarded themselves as socialist through thick and thin have decided that when socialism demands the application of its principles for the benefit of a coloured migrant population as well as for themselves it is high time to look for another political creed which is personally more convenient.   

There had been resignations from the party, and a former Labour councillor was already running a club which catered only for ‘Europeans’. The Labour Club itself (not directly connected to the constituency party) had not, by the end of 1963, admitted a single coloured member. Smethwick in 1964 was not, he commented, a place of which many of its inhabitants could be proud, regardless of how they voted. That could be extended to ‘any of us’, he wrote:

We who live in areas where coloured people have not yet settled dare not say that what is happening in Smethwick today could not happen in our slice of England, too. For the issue is not a simple and straightforward one. There must be many men of tender social conscience who complain bitterly about the noise being imposed on them by road and air traffic while sweeping aside as intolerant the claims others about the noise imposed on them by West Indian neighbours, without ever seeing that there is an inconsistency in their attitude. It is not much different from the inconsistency of the English parent who demands the segregation of coloured pupils whose incapacities may indeed be retarding his child’s school progress but who fails to acknowledge the fact that in the same class there are probably a number of white children having a similar effect. One issue put up by Smethwick (and the other places where social problems have already arisen) does, however, seem to be clear. The fact is that these people are here and, to put it at the lowest level of self-interest, we have got to live amicably with them if we do not want a repetition of Notting Hill and Nottingham, if we do not want a coloured ghetto steadily growing in both size and resentment. …

Smethwick is our window on the world from which we can look out and see the street sleepers of Calcutta, the shanty towns of Trinidad, the empty bellies of Bombay. And what do we make of it? Somebody at once comes up and sticks a notice in it. ‘If you want a Nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’   

Smethwick Town Council

The 1964 general election had involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party; which had resulted in the party gaining a narrow five-seat majority. However, in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker. Griffiths did, however, poll 436 votes less in 1964 than when he stood unsuccessfully for the Smethwick constituency in 1959. He was declared “a parliamentary leper” by Harold Wilson, the new Labour Prime Minister (below).

001 (2)

Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. The election result led to a visit by Malcolm X to Smethwick to show solidarity with the black and Asian communities. Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick was “no accident”; the Conservative-run council attempted to put in place an official policy of racial segregation in Smethwick’s housing allocation, with houses on Marshall Street in Smethwick being let only to white British residents. Malcolm X claimed that the Black minorities were being treated like the Jews under Hitler. Later in 1964, a delegation of white residents successfully petitioned the Conservative council to compulsorily purchase vacant houses in order to prevent non-whites from buying the houses. This, however, was prevented by Labour housing minister Richard Crossman, who refused to allow the council to borrow the money in order to enact their policy. Nine days after he visited Marshall Street, Malcolm X was shot dead in New York. The Labour Party regained the seat at the 1966 general election when Andrew Faulds became the new Member of Parliament.

The actions taken in Smethwick in 1964 have been described as ugly Tory racism which killed rational debate about immigration. However, colour bars were then common, preventing non-whites from using facilities. As already noted, The Labour Club in Smethwick effectively operated one, as, more overtly did the local Sandwell Youth Club, which was run by one of the town’s Labour councillors. Moorhouse pointed out that had the community been on the economic rocks, it might have been possible to make out a case for controls on immigration. Had there been a high rate of unemployment, where the standard of living was already impoverished, there might have been a case for keeping migrants at bay so as to prevent competition for insufficient jobs becoming greater and the general sense of depression from deepening. But that was not the case in west Birmingham and the Black Country in 1964, or for at least another decade. It may have been as ugly as sin to look at, at least in parts, but outside the Golden Circle around London, there was no wealthier area in England and no place more economically stable. When the Birmingham busmen had objected to coloured colleagues a decade earlier, it was not because these would be taking jobs which might otherwise have gone to ‘Brummies’ but because it was feared they might have an effect on wages which a shortage of labour had maintained at an artificial level. These were real fears that had led to prejudice against previous immigrants to the region, most notably from Wales in the thirties and Ireland in the forties. At root, this was not a problem about colour per se, though there were cultural stereotypes at play, as there were previously and as we have seen there were in the early sixties. It was essentially about wages. This is how Anthony Richmond summarised it in his book The Colour Problem:

The main objections to the employment of coloured colonials appeared to come from the trade unions, but less on the grounds of colour than because, if the number of drivers and conductors was brought up to full establishment by employing colonials, their opportunities for earning considerable sums as overtime would be reduced.

fearful social sickness?

Smethwick’s problems in 1964 sprung from the same root, if not over wages, then over rents, with tenants fearing that competition for housing would drive these upwards, and quickly. According to Moorhouse, this was part of a fearful social sickness affecting the Midlands as a whole which seemed to be compounded of a desire to make money fast while the going was good, a willingness to go to any lengths to achieve this. For the first time in the industrial history of the West Midlands, it was possible for the working classes to reach their target of acquiring a surplus through full employment. This left no space or energy for any other considerations. It was an attitude of mind which had been copied from those higher up the social scale in industry and was most in evidence in the car factories. There men were earning over twenty pounds and sometimes thirty pounds a week on the production lines, putting them up among the highest-paid manual labourers in the land. The Coventry Evening Telegraph made it clear what it thought of car workers striking for higher pay in 1956 by juxtaposing the two photographs below:

001

Wages in Coventry motor firms were undoubtedly higher than elsewhere during the fifties and sixties, but the caricature of the ‘greedy car worker’ was somewhat misleading, both in Coventry and the West Midlands more generally, as economic historians have pointed out. I have written about these observations in other articles on this site. Nevertheless, Moorhouse identified, that emerging from the works around Birmingham was…

A new race of artisans… which makes cars and the bits and pieces that go into cars. An increasing number live in mass-produced semi-detached houses with fitted carpets and all the latest domestic gadgets, mostly acquired on hire purchase. They take their wives out to dinner in the poshest hotels in the district rather than for a drink in the local pubs as their fathers did. They spend weekends in country in their own cars, and holidays touring the Continent. In some cases they even dabble on the stock exchange and think of buying plots of land in the Bahamas against the day of retirement. And why ever not, if they can afford it? There seems to be no good reason why such things should be synonymous with only with a front seat on the board and a back seat in the Rolls. But the price they pay for this taste of affluence is, it seems to me, a form of sweated labour. They spend their days doing a repetitive job alongside a conveyor belt, the most deadly dull thing imaginable. Their wages are high because they work ridiculous extra stints in overtime. When they get home, some of them say, they are fit for nothing but flopping down in front of the television set or a supine contemplation of their other riches. They are so worn out by this headlong pursuit of wealth that they cannot even enjoy normal family activity. How can a feeling for community expect to survive in such a climate? How can anyone be surprised that in such a single-minded environment, with everything geared to acquisitive purpose, there appears to be little contentment but plenty of hostility for anything likely to hinder the chase?

But Moorhouse presents no evidence to suggest that immigrant workers either hindered – or threatened to hinder – this ‘chase’ for ever- greater affluence among the indigenous population. We do know that in Coventry, the Caribbean and Asian immigrants were excluded from high-paying engineering jobs. Even on the less well-paid buses, the unions operated a colour bar more or less openly until 1960 when Morris Minta, a Jamaican, became the first coloured busman in Coventry. The only inroads they made into engineering were in the lowest-paid and dirtiest end of the trade, particularly the foundries, of which there were many in Smethwick and the Black Country. Even there they were they were confined to the lowliest jobs by a tacit consensus of management and workers. As early as 1951, the management of Sterling Metals in Coventry, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was their main desire to recruit white labour and agreed to keep black and white gangs segregated. The white labourers were given guarantees against the upgrading of Indians. At the ‘paternalistic’ Alfred Herbert’s works in 1953, the AEU Chief Steward threatened strike action if Indians were upgraded from labourers to machines and management gave them informal assurances that this would not happen.

Trade union officials began to be more critical of such attitudes as time went on, but they rarely took a firm stand against them. Overt discrimination within the workplace was comparatively rare, however, especially since most black workers never got inside the factory gates. Most significant engineering employers had long-since stopped recruiting at the gates anyway. Modern recruitment practices at the major firms were a sufficient barrier in themselves, since hiring through union offices gave advantages to local, skilled engineering workers. Informal networks of friends, relatives and personal links with foremen remained, as it had been for Welsh workers in the thirties, the other main mode of hiring. These methods kept out the new Commonwealth immigrants, who lacked access to channels of information and influence, especially as they were usually barred from pubs and clubs in any case. These practices were common throughout the industrial West Midlands. The engineering workers of the West Midlands had their hierarchies and, while many were changing districts, occupations and factories all the time, the newly arrived immigrants were at the bottom of the tree and unlikely to topple it, or undermine the fruits it provided for those near the top.

Therefore, the case of Smethwick in 1964 cannot easily be explained by reference to economic factors, though we know that the social and cultural factors surrounding the issues of housing and education did play significant roles. The main factor underpinning the 1964 Election result would appear to be political, that it was still acceptable, at that time and among local politicians of both main parties, together with public and trade union officials, for racial discrimination and segregation to be seen as instruments of public policy in response to mass immigration. In this, Smethwick was not that different from other towns and cities throughout the West Midlands, if not from those elsewhere in England. And it would take a long time for such social and industrial hierarchies to be worn down through local and national government intervention which went ahead of, and sometimes cut across the ‘privileged’ grain of indigenous populations. Smethwick represented a turning point in this process; four years later Wolverhampton and Birmingham would become the fulcrum in the fight against organised racialism. I have written about these events elsewhere on this site, especially about the ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made by Wolverhampton MP, Enoch Powell.

Sources:

Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Shipley (2003), Wolves Against The World: European Nights, 1953-1980. Stroud: Tempus Publishing.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1980), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press, University of Warwick.

‘The March of Wales’ – Border Country: A Historical Walk in the Black Mountains, following Offa’s Dyke. Part two.   Leave a comment

‘Smash & Grab!’ – The Norman Conquest of Wales:  

012

The Norman Conquest of Wales, unlike that of England, was piecemeal, but that served only to expose and intensify Welsh disunity. The invasion was not conducted by the King, or as a religious crusade, but as a piece of private enterprise on the part of the Norman barons, with the King’s agreement. They advanced by the easier valley routes and using the old Roman roads, conducting ‘smash and grab’ campaigns from their newly acquired estates in the Borderlands, which they later gave the French name ‘March’. A little further east William established three great strategic centres, from which the Normans could advance into this area. From Hereford, important in Offa’s time, but re-established in 1066 and based on the cathedral settlement, went William FitzOsbern, establishing Border castles at Wigmore, Clifford and Ewyas Harold, at Chepstow and later at Caerleon. From Shrewsbury, dating from the time of Aethelfleda, Queen of Mercia, re-established in 1071, Roger de Montgomery proved a constant threat in the middle Border to Powys. From William’s third strategic centre at Chester, rebuilt in 1071 on the site of the Roman Deva, Hugh d’Avranches opened a route into North Wales, enabling Robert of Rhuddlan to press forward to gain lands of his own and establish his castle a Rhuddlan.

005

The three earls were given widespread powers within their earldoms, untrammelled by the king, but what, if any, instructions they were given with regard to military adventures in Wales is not known; it seems likely, however, that they were advised that they could annex lands in Wales on their own account, but must not involve King William whose primary interests lay elsewhere. In the early twelfth century Henry I, in what is probably an example of the kind of licence that King William granted explicitly or implicitly to his border earls, authorised one of his barons to conquer part of Wales:

King Henry sent a messenger to Gilbert FitzRichard, who was a mighty, powerful man and a friend of the king, and eminent in his deeds. And he came forthwith to the king. And the king said to him: “Thou wert always asking me a portion of Wales. Now I will give thee the land of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn. Go and take possession of it.” And he accepted it gladly from the king. And he gathered a host and came to Ceredigion and took possession of it and made two castles in it.

Certainly the earls rapidly and individually moved aggressively against the eastern districts of Wales, with Earl Roger also launching raids deep into the interior. He became the major figure in the central sector of the Anglo-Welsh borderlands after FitzOsbern was killed in battle in Flanders in 1071. He was one of King William’s trusted lieutenants whom he had created Earl of Shrewsbury by 1074. Ralph Mortimer was his ‘vassal’, having come to England with the Conqueror. By 1086, Ralph was firmly established as a tenant-in-chief, possibly through his association with William FitzOsbern as Earl of Hereford. The Wigmore chronicler records that Mortimer distinguished himself in suppressing the rebellion of the Saxon magnate, Edric the Wild, who had taken up arms against the Normans in Herefordshire and Shropshire, having allied himself with two Welsh princes. The rebels had threatened Hereford and burned Shrewsbury as the revolt spread into Staffordshire and Cheshire. The significance of this rebellion can by judged from King William’s decision to temporarily abandon personal control of his campaign in the north of England to deal with the rising, doing so with the same ruthlessness with which he then ‘harried’ Yorkshire. It is likely that Ralph had come to the king’s notice during this short campaign and by 1086 he held estates which once belonged to Edric. He had also been one of the lords who had put down the rebellion of FitzOsbern’s son, Roger, in 1075. Ralph received a number of the estates that Roger forfeited. As the Earl of Shrewsbury’s kinsman and steward or seneschal, he was allied to one of the most powerful barons in the kingdom and was his right-hand man, holding his Shropshire lands through this service. The Domesday Book records that he held lands and property in twelve English counties, mainly in Herefordshire and Shropshire, with several manors waste in the Welsh March.

Thus began the piecemeal, private enterprise, ‘internal colonisation’ of Wales. The king’s solution to the problem of the Welsh frontier worked whilst his appointees were men with whom he had a personal bond and affinity; but when the earldoms with all their prerogatives passed to their successors by inheritance, there would be distinct dangers for the Crown, as was made evident in Roger FitzOsbern’s rebellion. Wales was very different from England in politics as well as in geography. Although its inhabitants acknowledged a common Welsh identity, it was a country of many sovereign states with mountainous terrain governing their borders and hindering relationships with their neighbours. These petty principalities, perhaps as many as eighteen in number in the eleventh century, were often at each others’ throats, as Giraldus Cambrensis, Gerallt Cymro, described:

This nation is, above all others, addicted to the digging up of boundary ditches, removing the limits, transgressing landmarks, and extending their territory by every possible means. So great is their disposition towards this common violence … hence arise suits and contentions, murders and conflagrations, and frequent fratricides.

A source of perennial political weakness were the rules of inheritance where land was divided equally between all the sons which militated against any constitutional centralisation. A politically fractured Wales made it much easier for the marcher lords to conquer the country piece by piece and conduct a policy of divide and rule; on the other hand, the usual lack of a Welsh national leader made it more difficult to conduct diplomatic negotiations. To what extent individual conquests in Wales were actually licensed is not clear, but many were probably not expressly authorised by the king. From time to time during the Middle Ages, however, a Welsh prince was able to win control over other principalities, form alliances and exert capable leadership over large tracts of Wales; the Welsh would then prove formidable adversaries to the marcher lords. Such Welsh unity was, however, fleeting; it did not long survive the departure of a national leader and the principalities soon reverted to their customary political isolation and division. When there were leaders such as Rhys ap Gruffydd in the twelfth century and Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and Llywelyn ap Gruffydd in the thirteenth, an uneasy modus vivendi between the Welsh and the English would be established after military successes had enabled the Welsh to recover some, and on occasion almost all, of their lands.

If ‘independent Wales’ was politically fragmented, so in one sense was the March. The lords may have, on the surface, presented a coherent power bloc, but the pattern of lordship and power in the March, with the marchers’ individual political agendas and rivalries, would often change. Death and the lack of a direct male heir, or line of heirs, marriage, wardship and the creation of new lordships by the king, as well as forfeiture of them to him, all influenced the development of the March. From a crude beginning, the Norman lordships of the March grew into a complex and multi-ethnic society and a power in their own right. The lords succeeded the Welsh princes in owing little beyond allegiance to the English Crown; they were often decisive in the politics of England and Normandy. As Gwyn Williams (1985) pointed out, their relationship between invaders and invaded, a simple one at first, soon became more complex …

… Very rapidly they became hopelessly enmeshed with the Welsh in marriage, lifestyle, temporary alliance. A new and hybrid culture grew up in the March with quite astonishing speed. Plenty of marchers over time were cymricized … several became more Welsh than the Welsh. … The formation of so peculiar and potent a society was the direct result of Welsh survival and recovery. At first, nothing could stop the Normans … The first smash and grab thrusts from Chester, Shrewsbury and Hereford overran the north and penetrated deeply into the south-west. … the robber barons swarmed all over Wales. 

Marcher Lords, Welsh Princes and Court Poets:

008

Above: The Lordships of the Mortimers in Wales in 1282

It was from their lands in the March of Wales that the Mortimers exercised their power and influence in England. Holding lands in Wales as marcher lords they were members of a select group of barons owing allegiance as tenants-in-chief to the king but ruling their lordships with a degree of independence unobtainable by the Anglo-Norman aristocracy in England. Nevertheless, William I did make arrangements for the defence of the frontier, indeterminate as it was, and for the introduction of Norman administration into the English borderlands, a remote area where his representatives would have to have more freedom of action than in elsewhere in the kingdom. The Norman system of castle, manor and borough was dominant in the lowland areas where the Norman advance had been most effective. Weekly markets and yearly or twice-yearly fairs were now a feature of life where country folk could trade. The areas administered in this way constituted ‘the Englishries’. In contrast, in ‘the Welshries’, the more hilly areas, the Welsh by and large retained their own way of life based on the Law of Hywel Dda, but paid tribute to the Norman lord.

Many of the large number of castles that had been built up and down the March were therefore fortified centres of government, each lordship having one main castle and usually other castles the centres of sub-lordships. At first the castles were of the simple motte and bailey type; but, under increased Welsh attacks, were soon strengthened. On each lordship the lord developed certain lands paying in money or kind for their homestead and share of the plots. During the Conqueror’s reign, the Normans had made significant inroads to southern and northern Wales, but in central Wales the raids mounted by Earl Roger of Shrewsbury had not been followed up by more permanent occupation, probably because considerable military resources were needed to deal with a resurgent Powys under Gruffydd ap Cynan. No doubt, Ralph Mortimer was involved in these earlier raids. Unlike the Saxons or the Vikings, the Norman method was not simply to destroy Welsh houses; they marched to a point well inside Welsh territory and built a fortress, from which they proceeded to reduce the surrounding countryside to submission, including any local lords who might object. By the end of the eleventh century, the Welsh Border had undergone unprecedented political change. The Normans of the March who had gained their lands by private conquest ruled virtually autonomously. In these lands the king had little right to interfere. The origins of this constitutional anomaly lay in the Conqueror’s arrangements for the settlement and defence of the Anglo-Welsh frontier.

018

The last decade of the eleventh century, however, saw a much more aggressive attitude towards Wales on the part of the Norman lords with lands in the Borders when a Welsh chronicler related with some exaggeration that the French seized all the lands of the Britons. Earl Roger pushed far into Ceredigion and then into Dyfed to set up what would become the lordship of Pembroke. Meanwhile, there was a free-for-all along the Anglo-Welsh frontier; the Welsh cantref (‘hundred’) of Maelienydd, adjoining the Mortimer estates of Herefordshire and Shropshire, offered a natural target for Ralph Mortimer to annex more territory for himself, probably in the early 1090’s when other border lords were acquiring Brycheiniog (Brecon), Buellt (Builth) and Elfael. Maelienydd had once been part of the kingdom of Powys but, after the collapse of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn’s ’empire’ when he was killed in 1063, it seems to have been ruled by local chieftains. It was an upland region with little scope for economic exploitation by its new lords, but by this relatively unrewarding conquest Ralph had made clear his determination that the Mortimers were not to be left out of the Border barons’ race to carve out for themselves territories and spheres of influence in Wales. Even though Maelienydd was the central lordship in Wales for the Mortimers, their control was to remain precarious  with it reverting to Welsh rule on a number of occasions before the final collapse of the fight for Welsh independence in the last quarter of the thirteenth-century. It is likely that Ralph built the castle at Cymaron to secure control of his new lands; this castle, on the site of the cantref’s old Welsh llys (court), became the major fortress of the lordship until it was replaced in the thirteenth century by Cefnllys; it did, however, remain the centre of Maelienydd’s judicature.

009

Maelienydd seems to have been Ralph Mortimer’s only significant acquisition of territory in Wales, but his hold on it remained tenuous. In general, the Norman inroads into Wales at the end of the eleventh century met with setbacks. A widespread uprising broke out in 1094 and in many districts, including Maelienydd, the Welsh regained temporary control of their lands. The lords were unable to cope with the crisis and the king had to come to their rescue, a pattern which would be repeated on a number of occasions over the following centuries. In his When Was Wales? Gwyn Williams added colour to this chronicle:

The shattered dynasties … with their backs to an Irish wall, using their own weapons and stealing the Normans’, fought back. They beat the bandits out of the west, only to bring the power of the English king down on their heads. Henry I rolled his power into Wales over Welsh kings and Norman lords alike.

Ralph Mortimer had kept his distance from the rebellion of Robert, the third Earl of Shrewsbury and other barons in 1102, which was an unsuccessful conspiracy to replace Henry I with Duke Robert on the English throne. King Henry confiscated Shrewsbury and took the Montgomery lands in the west, making Carmarthen the first royal lordship in Wales. He imported Flemings and planted them in southern Dyfed where they transformed its agrarian economy, making it ‘the Little-England-Beyond-Wales’ that it is known as today, pushing the Welsh north of a line known as the landsker which still remains a cultural boundary. But that relates more to the other, original long-distance footpath, the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path. Nevertheless, it demonstrates how, by the early twelfth century, the Normans had re-established control over Wales as a whole, other than the remoter parts of the north-west,  even if their hold was to remain tenuous until the end of the next century.

Ralph Mortimer remained a key figure in this consolidation, benefiting from the Earl of Shrewsbury’s disgrace, since the king’s decision not to appoint a successor to the powerful magnate had removed one of the contestants for power along the Welsh border and into central Wales. But in the following early decades of the twelfth century, his attention and resources were increasingly drawn away from his lands on the Anglo-Welsh Border to events in Normandy and the quarrels between the kings of England on the one hand and the dukes of Normandy on the other. For some time, Normandy remained as important as England or Wales to the Norman aristocracy, but the descendants of the first generation of barons in these countries were to become increasingly ambivalent in their attitude to the Duchy, until in 1204 they were forced to choose between their lands at home and those acquired by conquest across the Channel.

011

But although Mortimer’s affairs both there and in England, as a loyal supporter of Henry I, would have been expected to prosper, there is no evidence of this in court rolls or chronicles during the twenty-five years from 1115 to 1140, perhaps suggesting that, on the contrary, he and/or his successor fell foul of King Henry and that the Mortimer lands were confiscated by the Crown. The only record is of a marriage alliance between Ralph’s daughter to William the Conqueror’s nephew Stephen, who had been implicated in the 1095 revolt as a possible replacement for William II and had also been involved in unsuccessful baronial revolts in Normandy which had been supported by Louis VI of France. Another record suggests that Ralph died in c. 1115, and that his son Hugh eventually received his inheritance of the Mortimer lands in Normandy, England and Wales. By the 1130s, they had added Maelienydd had fallen to their Welsh lands. But in 1135 Henry I died without a male heir and England descended into civil war between the supporters of Stephen of Blois and Matilda, Henry’s daughter. Once more the attention of the marcher lords were drawn away from Wales, and the Welsh princes seized their chance. Owain Gwynedd, son of Gruffydd ap Cynan, rebuilt Gwynedd into a power, driving it across north Wales to the Dee. He also thrust south into Ceredigion. Powys, in full revival and trying to recreate its ancient principality, was confronted with a new and permanent menace. In Deheubarth, the prince’s sons fought the Normans and each other for their inheritance, and Rhys ap Gruffydd began to establish himself.

The Normans took only five years to conquer England; it took them over two hundred years more for them to subdue and subjugate Wales. For the first 150 years it was subjected to periodic attack and colonisation by the marcher lords. It was beyond the military capacity of the Anglo-Normans, so often preoccupied, as they were, with events elsewhere, to mount a full-scale conquest of the interior. In 1154, the English civil war came to an end with the accession of Henry II, son of Matilda’s match with the Duke of Anjou who had also become Holy Roman Emperor. He established the Angevin Empire, and in two big land-and-sea campaigns brought the Welsh resurgence to a halt. Owain pulled back to the west of the River Conwy, while Rhys was hemmed-in, in his traditional base of Dinefwr (Dynevor). From here, he was able to launch raids against the marcher lords, and these transformed into all-out war when Gwynedd joined in. Clearly, the native Welsh, neither princes nor people, had yet accepted the Anglo-Normans as their masters, however. In 1163, during his first big military expedition into south Wales, one old Welshman of Pencader was asked by Henry II if he thought of his chances of victory, and whether his countrymen could resist his military might. He was, after all, ruler of the European empire of the Angevins as well as king of England. The old man had joined the king’s army against his own people because of their evil way of life, but his reply still amounted to a declaration of independence:

This nation, O King, may often be weakened and in great part destroyed by the power of yourself and of others, but many a time, as it deserves, it will rise triumphant. But never will it be destroyed by the wrath of man, unless the wrath of God be added. Whatever else may come to pass, I do not think that on the Day of Direst Judgement any race other than the Welsh, or any other language, will give answer to the Supreme Judge of all for this small corner of the earth.  

Henry, distracted by the Becket controversy, eventually responded by mobilising a massive expedition in 1165 to destroy all Welshmen. His attempt at genocide collapsed humiliatingly in the Berwyn Mountains in the face of bad weather, bad logistics and good guerilla tactics by the Welsh. Owain Gwynedd again cut loose to the Dee while Rhys took Ceredigion, Ystrad Tywi and much of Dyfed. Powys, threatened with renewed extinction, rallied to the English crown. But by 1170 Owain was dead and his sons began a ‘traditional’ fratricidal war for his inheritance. Henry offered a settlement, formally confirming Rhys in his lordships and making him Justiciar of South Wales. All Welsh rulers took oaths of fealty and homage to the king. By the end of the twelfth century, the frontier which had emerged over two generations or more had been settled.

The old kingdom of Morgannwg-Gwent was replaced by the shires of Glamorgan and Monmouth, two of the strongest bastions of Anglo-Norman power in Wales. In the end, Powys was split into two, Powys Wenwynwyn in the south usually supporting the English crown, while the northern Powys Fadog tended to side with Gwynedd. A core of the old principality of Deheubarth had been re-established, but it was ringed by marcher lordships with a strong base at Pembroke and royal estates around Carmarthen. Much of the south and east seemed to be under almost permanent alien control. Only Gwynedd had ultimately emerged as fully independent. Under Owain’s ultimate successors it grew into a major force, the strongest power in ‘Welsh Wales’ at the time. It was able to combine its natural mountain barrier and its Anglesey granary with its newly learned modes of feudal warfare. Its laws were based on those of Hywel Dda. There was a temporary Welsh overlord in ‘The Lord Rhys of Dinefwr’, Yr Arglwydd Rhys, but Gwynedd had its ‘prince’, an imprecise term which could be charged with constitutional significance. To the south and east, taking in most of the best land and expropriating much of its wealth, there was an arc of marcher lordships owned by the Montgomery, Mortimer, Bohun and the Clare families. Their lands stretched deep into mid-Wales and along the rich and open south coast. As Gwyn Williams commented, …

There was a permanently disputed shadow zone and endless border raiding, but there was also a fine mesh of intermarriage and fluctuating tactical alliances. The beautiful princess Nest of Deheubarth could play the role of a Helen of Troy, precipitating wars over her person.

During this period, the native Welsh were admitted to much of the rapidly developing learning of Europe; there were works on medicine and science in the Welsh language. In a revival arising directly from the struggle for independence, the bardic order was reorganised. Bardic schools were arduous and apprenticeships in the strict metres were long. Gruffydd ap Cynan was credited with the initial impetus, and he was, possibly, the first to systematise the eisteddfodau under the Maiestawd Dehau (‘the Majesty of the South’), The Lord Rhys, Justiciar of the King, who exercised some shadowy, theoretical authority over every lord in Wales, whether Welsh or Norman, and whose eminence endowed the Welsh language and its poetry with prestige. This was the age of the gogynfeirdd, the court poets, when every court and many a sub-court had its official pencerdd, the master-poet who sat next to the prince’s heir in hall, and its bardd teulu, the household poet. The poets had official functions and were the remembrancers to dynasties and their people. They evolved a complex, difficult and powerful tradition which, in the thirteenth century, involved a renaissance influence; princes like Owain Cyfeiliog were themselves poets. Most, like the great Cynddelw in the twelfth century, saw themselves as being in the service of a mission, rather than a simply the servants of a particular prince. Norman lords also succumbed to the charms of the court poets, harpists and singers. Giraldus Cambrensis made a special note of the harmonies he heard:

… when a choir gathers to sing, which happens often in this country, you will hear as many different parts and voices as there are performers, all joining together in the end to produce a single organic harmony and melody in the soft sweetness of the B-flat…

However, this was a period of temporary truce rather than permanent peace, and in the face of Welsh resistance and counter-attack, the marcher lords’ conquests were far from secure; their lands increased and decreased in area. Nevertheless, by 1200 much of eastern, southern and south-western Wales was under Anglo-Norman control. As the twelfth century progressed, there had also been a continuing and accelerated opening up of the land along the Border, many of the great woodland areas being cleared to make way for agriculture, and to provide timber for housing, fuel and ships. In addition, these subsequent decades saw the growth of townships around the Norman castles. Today the Border contains a fascinating variety of towns, while a number of the motte and bailey castles are now no more than mounds, like Nantcribbau near Montgomery. At White Castle, a township never developed at all, while at Grosmont the beginnings of a town are clear. Monmouth is a township which grew into a market town, while Oswestry grew into an important sub-regional centre. It was during this period the parts of Wales under Anglo-Norman control came to be known as marchia Wallie, the March of Wales, whilst ‘independent Wales’ governed by its native rulers was known as Wallia or pura Wallia. With the ebb and flow of conquest and the periodic recovery of lands by the Welsh, the boundaries of the March were constantly changing; the medieval ‘March’ as a geographical term, therefore, had a very different meaning from the early modern ‘March’ which Tudor government used to describe the Anglo-Welsh border counties.

The Fate of Princely Wales & Plantagenet Hegemony:

Within a few years of the beginning of the thirteenth century, Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (‘the Great’), Prince of Gwynedd, had united all the Welsh princes under his overlordship and was also supported by the English barons against King John. With the help of his allies, he had recovered much of the March for the Welsh, including the Mortimer lordships of Maelienydd and Gwerthrynion. In 1234, the ‘Treaty of the Middle’ brought about an uneasy peace between Henry III, the marcher lords and Llywelyn. His triumphs, and those of his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, further inspired the renaissance of Welsh poetry, which did much to keep alive the desire for independence. However, on the death of the ‘Great’ Welsh Prince in April 1240, the king refused to recognise the rights of his heir, Dafydd (David), to his father’s conquests. Instead, Henry appears to have encouraged the marcher lords to recover ‘their’ lost lands by ordering the sheriff of Herefordshire to transfer possession of Maelienydd to Ralph (II) Mortimer. During the following summer of 1241, Ralph recovered the lordship by force and agreed a truce with the local Welsh lords. Earlier that year, however, they had met Henry III at Worcester, formally submitting to his kingship. In return, he had endorsed their right to resume hostilities with Ralph Mortimer after their truce had expired. In other words, it was not the king’s business to involve himself in disputes between the Welsh lords and the marcher lords.

014

Fifty years later, Edward I did intervene decisively in the March, determined to demonstrate that affairs there were his business and that he was the overlord of the marcher lords. In 1267, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd had been recognised as Prince of Wales by Henry III (that is, overlord of the native princedoms beyond the March), but Llewelyn proved reluctant to fulfil his side of the bargain and accept, in turn, the feudal overlordship of the Plantagenets over the whole of England and Wales. Llewelyn had taken advantage of Henry’s problems with his English barons, which culminated in civil war in 1264-5, to expand his territories both at the rival Welsh princes and the English marcher barons: his success made him overconfident, however, and needlessly provocative. In the Statute of Westminster of 1275, Edward declared that he would do right by the March, and anywhere else where his writ did not run, seeking fairness and justice for all complainants. Meanwhile, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, who had inherited his grandfather’s Principality of Gwynedd, and had been an ally of the English rebel Simon de Montfort, refused to pay homage to Edward I. In 1277, determined to subdue Llywelyn and bring him to heel, Edward proceeded by land via Chester, Flint and Rhuddlan, and sent a fleet to cut off food supplies from Anglesey, so that the Welsh prince was forced to accept a negotiated peace. The terms were harsh for the Welsh prince: he was forced to surrender the area known as ‘the four cantrefs’ between Chester and the River Conwy, which Edward then used to create a new series of powerful marcher lordships. Edward also imposed a potentially crippling war indemnity of fifty thousand pounds. It is hard to see how Gwynedd could ever have raised such a sum, but the waiving of the demand was a means by which Edward demonstrated the control he now had over Llywelyn.

004

It was Edward I’s single-minded concentration of the kingdom’s resources and his shrewd use of his armies and his navy (to supply them) that brought Welsh independence to an end in 1282 after a second rebellion was suppressed. Llewelyn’s brother Dafydd launched a revolt against the English from his lands in Gwynedd. Ironically, he had been an ally of the English crown but felt aggrieved at the lack of reward for his former services by Edward. Dafydd’s rebellion forced Llewelyn’s hand; instead of crushing the rebellion, he joined it. Edward’s response was to launch a full-scale war of conquest. Proceeding along the north Wales coast as he had done five years before, but now through what was friendly territory, his forces took Anglesey and pushed Llywelyn back into the fastnesses of Snowdonia. Llywelyn then attempted to move south, but was ambushed at Irfon Bridge near Builth, and killed. His brother, Dafydd, was eventually captured by Edward’s forces, possibly through treachery, in June 1283, and hideously executed at Shrewsbury. All of Dafydd and Llywelyn’s lands in Gwynedd were confiscated by the English Crown.

Independent Gwynedd was obliterated along with all insignia and other symbols which might be used to revive the cause. Chief among these were the courtly poets, whose martyrdom was later recorded by the Hungarian poet János Arány to serve as a parable of resistance to another Empire after the ‘heroic’ uprising and war of independence of 1848-49. Arány’s poem, Walesi Bardok (‘The Bards of Wales’; see the link below) is learnt and recited today by every school child in Hungary. It is also available in an English translation. Gwyn Williams wrote of how, with the fall of the house of Aberffraw, the epoch of the Wales of the Princes came to an end:

The Welsh passed under the nakedly colonial rule of an even more arrogant, and self-consciously alien, imperialism. Many historians, aware that the feudal principalities and princes have elsewhere made nations, have largely accepted the verdict of nineteenth-century Welsh nationalism and identified the hose of Aberffraw as the lost and legitimate dynasty of Wales. Llywelyn ap Gruffydd has become Llywelyn the Last. In fact, Wales of the Princes had to die before a Welsh nation could be born. That Welsh nation made itself out of the very tissue of contradictions which was the colonialism which choked it.

The Plantagenet hold on Wales, now extending over the north and west of the country, was accompanied by a second great phase of castle building. Edward rebuilt the castles at Caernarfon, Flint and Rhuddlan and built new concentric ones at Harlech, Conwy, Beaumaris and Criccieth, to overawe the Welsh, standing both as bastions and as symbols of Plantagenet rule. Important market towns grew up around the new castles. But the military occupation of the north-west was also followed up by a constitutional settlement, imposed and established by the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan. By this, the former principality was placed under the direct jurisdiction of the English crown and Anglo-Norman law. Both Gwynedd and Deheubarth were divided into shires, like in England, and English courts of justice were introduced. Further revolts, in 1287 and 1294 were ruthlessly suppressed, and in 1295 the Earl of Warwick defeated the North Welsh rebel leader, Madog ap Llewelyn, at Maes Madog, in an engagement which presaged the tactical use of ‘mixed formations’ of archers and dismounted men-at-arms in the Hundred Years War.

The king then undertook a great circular progress through Wales to reinforce his authority. Although there was no drastic change in the customs of the people, and the tribal and clan groupings still existed, these slowly broke down over the following centuries. In 1301 Edward granted all the English Crown lands in Wales to his eldest son, ‘Edward of Carnarvon’, now called the Prince of Wales in what some have presented as an attempt to appease the Welsh people. In reality, however, it was a powerful reminder that the days of the native princes were over. Half of Wales became a unified Principality, to be ruled directly through statute by the English king. Gradually, too, there was a resulting decline in the power of the Marcher lordships. The king, concerned at their level of autonomy, had now acquired his own Welsh lands.

002

The March of Wales in the Later Middle Ages:

Nevertheless, the forty or so marcher lordships, comprising the other half of the country, were left intact and remained in existence until 1536. Throughout the fourteenth century, strong undercurrents of discontent needed only the emergence of a strong leader to unite Wales in rebellion. Exactly how the marcher lords acquired and were able to hold on to their special constitutional status in Wales has been the subject of continual debate. It is argued on the one hand that they simply acquired the regal powers of the Welsh princes they dispossessed. The basic units of Welsh territory and administration within the gwlad (the territory of a single prince) were the cantrefi consisting of two or more cymydau which can be loosely equated to the English Hundreds. By annexing a relatively small cantref or cymyd, with its llys or administrative court, an invading lord stepped into the shoes of the local Welsh prince or lord, just as if one Welsh prince had defeated another and annexed his territory. On the other hand, the lords’ powers were openly or tacitly granted by the king as rewards for carrying out their conquests on the Crown’s behalf. The March of Wales was not, however, a homogeneous region, subject to a uniform style of conquest and administration. It was through a diversity of circumstances that the lords of the March won the prerogatives which were later collected into a set of privileges recognised by thirteenth-century lawyers.

After his conquest of Wales and the partition of the country into Crown lands and the March, Edward, with his passion for law and order, would have considered the divided administration of the country, the relative independence of the rulers of much of it and its fragmented judicial system as an anathema; but the marchers with their jealously guarded immunities were difficult to dislodge, and although Edward flexed his muscles towards them, he seems to have accepted the political reality of the March, provided his authority as monarch was recognised.  Whilst the king acknowledged that his writ did not run in the March, in the last resort he reserved his authority over the Lords Marcher as tenants-in-chief, especially in the case of disputed titles to lordships. In 1290, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and lord of Glamorgan and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and lord of Brecon were at loggerheads, mainly over a disputed debt. In 1291 the two earls were summoned in their capacities as lords of the March and arraigned before the king and council at Abergavenny, and the following January before parliament at Westminster. Gilbert de Clare was found guilty of waging war after the king’s injunction and Humphrey de Bohun of defying the king by claiming that he was entitled to act in the March of Wales in a way he could not do in England. The two lords were sentenced to imprisonment and forfeiture of their marcher lordships during their lifetimes; but the king soon relented and commuted their sentences to fines, which they seem never to have paid.

King Edward’s masterful management of this affair and the severe penalties meted out to two prominent marcher lords must have had a traumatic effect on their peers. What the lords had considered to be prerogatives, the king and his council now considered to be privileges, and the extent to which the king could interfere constitutionally in the affairs of the March was to prove a running sore between strong and ambitious kings and the marchers. The cherished symbol of their status, the right to wage war, had been abolished by a royal proclamation. Edward I’s intervention of 1291-92 constituted a precedent and a turning point in the standing of the marcher lords, especially as he had demonstrated that he had even been prepared to humiliate the two lords. In the same year, 1292, he persuaded the marcher lords to pay a tax on their lands in Wales as a contribution towards a subsidy granted to him by parliament two years previously. On one occasion, the king confiscated Wigmore Castle when Edmund Mortimer executed an inhabitant of the royal lordship of Montgomery, thereby encroaching on the king’s rights, and Edmund was only able to recover it after payment of a fine of a hundred marks and providing a straw effigy of the man to be hung on the gallows in the town of Montgomery. In 1297, the men of the Mortimer lordship of Maelienydd submitted a list of grievances to the king who seems to have induced Edmund to grant the men of the lordship charters of their liberties, another example of royal interference in the administration of the March.

004

The position was further complicated by the fact that the marcher lords also held lands in England by normal feudal tenure; by the end of Edward’s reign in 1307, seven out of ten of them. A specific instance of the marchers’ autonomy related to castle-building; the earls of Hereford would have had, at least in theory, to obtain a licence to build a castle in Herefordshire, but in their marcher lordship of Brecon, they could have built one without reference to the Crown. The marcher lordships were to exist for more than another two centuries but their constitutional status would never again be as secure as it had been before the reign of Edward I. Furthermore, the conquest of Gwynedd and the de facto unification of England and Wales had rendered obsolete the justification for the very existence of the marcher lordships, namely the suppression of any threat to England. Although the marchers were conspicuously involved in the civil strife of Edward II’s reign, during the rest of the fourteenth century they were, by and large, left to their own devices at home. Edward III needed the support of his barons, many of whom held lands in the March of Wales, during the Hundred Years War with France, especially since it was from their domains that many of the Welsh archers and spearmen were recruited for the king’s armies. In 1354, when there was a possibility of a French invasion of Wales, Edward emphasised that the loyalties of the marchers must be to the Crown. The March of Wales and the borderlands were still viewed with suspicion; they remained territories in which it was difficult to exercise royal supervision and for the Crown to intervene militarily. Throughout the Middle Ages, the marcher lordships were a refuge for rebellious barons, criminals and anyone else who wanted to ‘disappear’.

The English exploitation of Wales and exporting of its wealth, particularly by the late fourteenth century, was a primary cause of intermittent national and regional rebellions. In 1387, eleven archers escorted a convoy of treasure worth close on a million pounds in today’s money from Wigmore to London, which had presumably been ‘milked’ from Wales. A particular cause of Welsh resentment was the status and privileges of the boroughs ‘planted’ in Wales, which often extended miles beyond the town’s actual boundaries. Newtown was a case in point, established by Roger Mortimer (III) in the 1270s, which, with its commercial advantages from which he would benefit, supplanted a nearby Welsh town.

017

Much has been written for and against Owain Glyndwr, who appeared as the leader of the Welsh in 1400. I have also written an article about him, published on this site (see the links below). That the catalyst for the national revolt was a boundary dispute between Glyndwr and Lord Grey of Ruthin demonstrates the importance of marking borders along what was now ‘the March’. It left behind widespread destruction on both sides and a country broken by demands for lost revenues. Glyndwr was strongly backed by ‘English’ elements, including Edmund Mortimer, who married Catherine Glyndwr. Many others were hostile to Henry IV’s usurpation of the throne from Richard II. The very public failure of the marchers to contain the Glyndwr rebellion inevitably called into question their continuing utility as a group and reinforced calls for reform of the administration of the March. This demand faltered in the face of England’s preoccupation with the renewal of the French Wars in 1415.

001

Rebellion would be followed by repression and by ‘ethnic cleansing’ which was particularly severe in both the Principality and the March after the suppression of Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. Glyndwr himself disappeared into Herefordshire’s Golden Valley (perhaps to his son-in-law’s manor at Monnington Straddel), so-called because the Anglo-Normans confused the Welsh word for water, dwr, giving its name to the River Dore, with the French word d’or. This misunderstanding was perhaps symptomatic of the continued disjunction between the Cambrian and Anglo-Norman cultures. Welsh hatred re-focused on the marcher lords as the mistrusted agents of English rule. Like Arthur, Glyndwr could not die and Henry V, born in Monmouth, would have had no desire to make a Welsh martyr of him. In 1415, he was to need his men of Monmouth, skilled bowmen, on the field at Agincourt. The outlaw prince was left to live out his days in seclusion, too proud to accept Henry’s twice-offered pardon, but his remaining son was taken into the king’s own service. Arthur would come again in the form of the grandson of Owen Tudor.

(to be continued…)

Posted July 1, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Britain, British history, Britons, Castles, Celtic, Celts, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, clannishness, Colonisation, Conquest, Dark Ages, English Language, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Footpaths, Genocide, guerilla warfare, Humanities, Hungarian History, Hungary, Imperialism, Integration, Ireland, Linguistics, Literature, Mercia, Midlands, Narrative, Nationality, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Remembrance, Renaissance, Saxons, Statehood, Suffolk, Uncategorized, Wales, War Crimes, Warfare, West Midlands

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘God’s Englishmen’: The Midland and East Anglian Gentry in the English Revolution, 1619-89: part two.   3 comments

ImageBefore the Civil War, the Gullivers had become successful traders and respectable aldermen of Banbury, owning shops and public houses in the town and a brewery as far away as Aylesbury. As Protestant Nonconformists, or Dissenters, possibly Quakers, many of them were also excluded from higher occupations, especially public office, though some found an alternative outlet in becoming soldiers (and later officers) in Cromwell’s Army. Others had been thriving as yoeman farmers in the outlying Banburyshire parishes, but had now fallen on hard times, like Edward Gulliver, who was born in Banbury in 1590, and married Mary Hawes in Cropredy in 1620. They settled in the nearby village of Noke, where they raised a large family before Edward died in 1647.

Jonathan Swift made later reference to the family and their tombs in the graveyard of St Mary’s, Banbury, of which there were many, but only three remain:

ImageIn his Preface to the First Edition of his famous Gulliver’s Travels, 1726, Swift remarks ‘I have observed in the Church Yard at Banbury several tombs and monuments of the Gullivers. The original tombstones no longer exist, but a later one bearing this old Banbury name lies near to this plaque.

Swift was related to the Dryden family of Canon’s Ashby in Northamptonshire. His grandmother was Elizabeth Dryden, aunt of the poet laureate, John Dryden, born near Oundle. She married Thomas Swift and they had two children, Jonathan and Thomas, the elder being the father of the author of Gulliver’s Travels. John Dryden was also a cousin of Sir Gilbert Pickering, MP, and Col. John Pickering, also of Canon’s Ashby, as detailed already.

Viscount Saye and Sele (left), William Fiennes, was also related to these Northamptonshire gentry. He had been was one of the county’s leading activists against Charles I, raising troops for the first battle at Edgehill. Cavalier troops besieged and occupied his fourteenth-century moated manor house, Broughton Castle, for a time, but were fought to a standstill on Cropredy Bridge in June 1644. They later wreaked their revenge on the puritan population of the countryside by burning down the manor house at Wormleighton. Due to this act of vengeance and attrition,the village never recovered its former status. By contrast, Noke was loyal to the King, since it had an association with Oxford going back to the plagues, when the Colleges were allowed to quarter their dons there. Oxford became Charles I’s headquarters in the Civil War, and troops were stationed in some of the villages nearby, including Noke. The village saw action in the form of raids by Parliamentarians. In one of these, horses were taken and two soldiers were killed, being buried in the churchyard. The divisions among south Midland families and villages can be detected by the records that remain of these events, in both Cavalier and Rounhead versions!

010

034

At the end of 1643, a Midland Association of the counties of Leicester, Rutland, Nottingham, Derby, Northampton, ‘Banbury’ and Buckingham and  had ben formed. The Eastern Association consisted of the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridge and the Isle of Ely, Huntingdon (Cromwell’s home county), Hertfords and Lincoln  . Together, the two associations controlled most of the Midlands from Banbury into East Anglia as far as the coastal ports. Individual regiments were raised in specific parts of East Anglia, because Manchester believed that he could maintain esprit de corps by drafting men from each county to keep up the regiment for that county. These principles were generally maintained even after the regiments were incorporated into the New Model Army in 1645. However, Cromwell realised that centralised control and regional administration were not enough. A standing army would need discipline, regular pay and commitment to Parliament’s cause. In an oft-quoted letter dated 29 August 1643, Cromwell outlined his criteria for selecting officers:

I would rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows…

030

007

In John Pickering he found such a man to command a regiment, and in Pickering’s regiment there were many other russet-coated captains who also fitted this description. Most of the payments to the regiment came from the County committees of Norfolk and Suffolk. In April 1645, just before its transfer into the New Model, former soldiers of Pickering’s regiment caused some disturbances in Suffolk:

By some old soldiers returned home, we have sent down to you Major Jubbes and Captain Axtell, two officers of Col. Pickering’s regiment, to receive such soldiers as formerly belonged to that regiment… If any other soldiers will come along with them and serve in that regiment these officers will take charge of them.

031From this it can be concluded that Pickering’s regiment was probably recruited mainly in Suffolk, with some men joining from Norfolk, possibly from villages along the boundary between the two counties. These men were largely pressed into service, compared with those from towns and larger villages, undoubtedly a factor in the high rates of desertion in 1644. On the other hand, after August 1643, as part of the reorganisation of the Association, under Cromwell’s influence, commanders and officers for the regiments, like Jubbes and Axtell, were chosen primarily for their military abilities, their godliness, discipline and devotion to the parliamentarian cause. They were no longer drawn from the ranks of the local gentry of the county in which the regiment was recruited. Instead, the officers either came up through promotion in the Association regiments, or from other parliamentarian Associations. Much of the responsibility for the military command in the field fell upon the Lieutenant Colonel, in this case, John Hewson. He had more than a year’s experience as a company commander before he took up his command as second-in-command in Pickering’s regiment. Before the war, he had been a shoemaker, selling to the Massachusetts Company, but getting little by trade, he in the beginning of the grand rebellion, went out as a captain upon the account of the blessed cause. Having served in the Earl of Essex’s regiment from late 1642, he joined Pickering’s in late March of 1644.

John Jubbes’ family lived in Norwich. He had joined the Eastern Association army as a Captain of foot in Col. Sir Miles Hubbard’s regiment at its formation, in April 1643. Jubbes had, in his own words, joined the army because he had been long deeply sensible of the many grievous Incroachments and Usurpations exercised over the People of this Nation. After seeing action in the engagements of the Association in 1643, Jubbes took up a commission as Major with Pickering’s regiment in March 1644, taking responsibility for the regiment’s finances. He had already raised money in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex on Manchester’s orders. However, in a letter dated December 1643, Thomas Windham wrote:

My personal estate I have given up at two thousand pounds, which is more than I know I am worth, my estate in lands to the uppermost, during my father’s life. The oppression practised by Jubs and his associates is very odious, their fury in churches detestable.

The historian, Ketton-Cremer, has argued that,

Lt. Col. John Jubbes, who expressed violently anti-monarchical sentiments at the critical Army Council of 1st November 1647… was just the kind of man to display detestable fury in churches.

038He has described this as random iconoclasm, carried out by local puritan extremists or detachments of unruly troops. However, this is far from the truth. The Solemn League and Covenant signed between Parliament and the Scots required the reformation of religion in England and Ireland in doctrine, discipline and government. In other words, a Presbyterian form of church government was to be adopted. In August 1643 an ordinance was passed by Parliament for the utter demolishing, removing and taking away of all monuments of superstition and idolatry, and the following December a systematic implementation was ordered. This raised the opposition of many puritan parliamentarians, such as Windham. However, he had also been accused of undervaluing his estate when a levy was made in 1643 to raise money for the war, and it is this context that we need to understand his accusations against Jubbes, who was certainly not an unruly trooper. Neither was Daniel Axtell, Pickering’s first captain, who was a Baptist by background, one of a number in the regiment, and in the New Model Army, who rose from humble origins to positions of influence purely through ability and commitment to the parliamentarian cause.

023In the civil war, one of the great Puritan writers came to serve as Rector of Lavenham. William Gurnell, though lacking priest’s orders, was appointed by the Puritan lord of the manor and County Sheriff, Sir Symonds D’Ewes, an action sanctioned by parliament in 1644. During his thirty-three year incumbency he wrote one of the most famous Puritan devotional works, The Christian in Complete Armour, dedicated to my dearly beloved friends and neighbours, the inhabitants of Lavenham. However, the growth of fanatical millenarianism during the wars alarmed many moderate puritans within the Church. It was one thing to want to purify religion of superstitions and popish relics; it was quite another to show a total disrespect for churches, as did soldiers who used them for stables and fired muskets at ancient windows and monuments.

Two Suffolk men, William Dowsing of Laxfield and Matthew Hopkins of Great Wenham, became renowned for their fanaticism. Dowsing rose from obscurity when in August 1643 Parliament decreed that altars, candlesticks, pictures and images were to be removed from churches. Dowsing immediately came forward as one prepared, for the zeal of the Lord, to undertake this task and was appointed to the post of Parliamentary Visitor by the General of the Eastern Association. After creating havoc in Cambridgeshire he turned to his own county. Between January and October 1644 he toured Suffolk with a troop of soldiers. He smashed stained glass windows, defaced bench ends and carved fonts, broke down crucifixes, tore up brasses and obliterated inscriptions. In his disastrous rampage he visited a hundred and fifty churches, virtually at random, and carefully noted down in a journal the work of destruction. At Clare,

We broke down a thousand pictures superstitious. I broke down two hundred; three of God the Father and three of Christ and the Holy Lamb, and three of the Holy Ghost like a dove with wings; and the twelve Apostles were carved in wood, on the top of the roof, which we gave order to take down; and twenty cherubims to be taken down; and the sun and moon in the east window, by the King’s arms to be taken down.

Some parishes welcomed Dowsing and co-operated with him, but others, such as Ufford, put up a show of resistance, locked the church and tried to keep the desecrators at bay. Many churchwardens, even if sympathetic to Dowsing, resented having to pay the standard charge of 6s. 8d. for his visitation.

Matthew Hopkins was a far more sinister figure. As the Witch-Finder General, he could only thrive in a troubled time where in every community people were divided against each other, where loyalties clashed and where calamities were put down to supernatural agencies, where dislocations of the patterns of everyday life had driven many to the brink of mental breakdown, and where the exponents of an introspective religion held sway. Hopkins became famous after he supposedly uncovered a witches’ coven near Manningtree. He was asked to examine men and women, usually the latter, suspected of having familiar spirits. For three years he toured Suffolk and neighbouring counties applying his tests and supervising the resulting 106 executions in Suffolk alone.

The supposed witches were stripped, stuck with pins, denied food and rest, and made to walk until their feet were cut and blistered. If they still didn’t confess, they were swum, having their thumbs and toes tied together and then being dragged through the local pond in a sheet. If they sank, they were innocent, but probably drowned anyway. If they floated, they were in league with the devil. As a contemporary complained,

Every old woman, with a wrinkled face, a furrowed brow, a hairy lip, a gobber tooth, a squint eye, a squeaking voice, or a scolding tongue, having a ragged coat on her back, a skull-cap on her head, a spindle in her hand, and a dog or cat by her side, is not only suspected, but pronounced for a witch.

Eventually, poetic justice caught up with the Witchfinder-General, who was, himself, tried for witchcraft in 1647 and hung.

The placing of the county on a military footing was another cause of discontent. Soldiers were billeted on townspeople without payment. They took provisions from these homes, from local shops and ransacked the houses of the gentry for arms and plate. A visit of one Parliamentary troop at Somerleyton House in 1642 cost Sir John Wentworth forty-four pounds in various appropriations plus a hundred and sixty pounds of gold. The local militias were expected to train every week and provide their own equipment and the county as a whole had to pay 1,250 pounds for the maintenance of the army. All this the people were expected to suffer gladly for the sake of their own defence.

035After their victory at Marston Moor in the summer of 1644, in which the Association army was hard hit, being reduced from fourteen thousand men to about six thousand, the remaining troops were quatered in several towns in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire during the winter of 1644-5. These garrisons, just beyond the Association’s borders, were facing the royalist capital at Oxford. At this time the conflict between those who believed that the war could be won and those, like Manchester, who did not want to defeat the King, ultimately led to the success of the parliamentarian cause. The success of Independents in the Association armies enabled the creation of a new standing army committed to outright victory. In January 1645 the Committee of Both Kingdoms recommended the formation of a new army of twenty-two thousand men, to be supported by a levy of six thousand pounds a month on those districts controlled by Parliament. This New Model Army, established in April, was placed under the overall command of Sir Thomas Fairfax with Philip Skippon as Sergeant Major General. Cromwell was nominated as Lieutenant General of the Horse on the eve of the Battle of Naseby, and did not become Commander-in-Chief until June 1650.

The New Model was formed from the existing units of the armies of Essex, Manchester and Waller, but these had been so seriously depleted by the campaigns of 1644 that they could supply only seven thousand of the required fourteen thousand infantry alone. Therefore, new regiments had to be created, under committed officers like Pickering and Montague. Nevertheless, when the list of officers for the New Model was debated in parliament, Pickering, that fanatical Independent, had his name struck out by the Lords, along with that of Montague and others. They went further than this by striking out the whole of the most radical regiment from the forces of parliament, since Manchester was determined to purge his personal enemies from the New Model. However, under pressure from the Commons, Fairfax’s original list was eventually passed by just one vote and Pickering’s became the twelfth regiment of the New Model Army.

Each regiment of foot had a nominal strength of twelve hundred men, and there were eleven cavalry regiments, each of six hundred. In addition, there were ten companies of dragoons, each of a hundred men. Of these, nine of the regiments of horse and four of the infantry came from the Eastern Association, a total of 3,578 men. However, many of the foot regiments, including Pickering’s, were seriously under strength, and had to impress men from the areas through which the army marched. Several thousand men were conscripted into the New Model at this time, nearly all of them impressed, untrained, raw recruits. When the New Model set forth on its first campaign it was still four thousand men short, but did begin to look like an instrument that, by its professionalism, courage and discipline, would bring Parliament victory.

Pickering took up his new command at Abingdon, where his regiment still waited in winter quarters. The administrative system of the Association had been unable to raise adequate resources to cover the cost of maintaining the regiment over the previous ten months, a sum of more than four and a half thousand pounds. As a result, the pay to the regiment had fallen into arrears. These problems did not improve, even after transfer to the New Model. For forty-two days in April and May 1645 the regiment was without any pay, undoubtedly a factor in the mutiny of April that occurred when Colonel Pickering preached a sermon to his troops, following the confirmation of his command of the regiment. However, according to a royalist broadsheet, it was Pickering’s condemnation of Presbyterianism which some of the men most objected to, having joined from other regiment less Independent in religious character. Parliament instructed Fairfax that preaching in the army in future was only to be in the ministry of authorised chaplains, and Henry Pinnell was appointed to the regiment. He was an Independent, but also politically moderate, in favour of the Army reaching an agreement with the King. Nevertheless, Pickering continued to be admired for his views by most in the regiment, as well as the townspeople of Newport Pagnall.
On 1st May 1645, Fairfax’s army marched into the west, leaving Cromwell and the four former Eastern Association regiments to join him later around Oxford when the new recruits were fully trained. Cromwell himself was already involved in an attempt to clear several smaller garrisons around Oxford, including Bletchington House and Faringdon Castle, which was then in Berkshire. Pickering’s regiment was sent from Abingdon to Faringdon, where Captain Jenkins was killed, along with fourteen others. It numbered around five to six hundred by this time. The attack was abortive, for even with infantry Cromwell did not have the means for a decisive assault, and the garrison remained in royalist hands until June 1646.
021On 14th May, Fairfax began to lay siege to Oxford and Pickering was with the army at Southam in Warwickshire in late May. Hewson was in carrying arms and surgeons’ equipment to the siege of Oxford.   Following the fall of Leicester to the royalist army on 31st May, Cromwell was dispatched to secure Ely. Pickering’s, however, remained with Fairfax, marching from Oxford on 5th June, and then following the King’s Army, which was retreating from Daventry on 13th June,   reaching Market Harborough, where that night Charles decided to turn and engage the New Model.

006The royalists marched south on the morning of the 14th June and the two armies met at Naseby in Northamptonshire. Pickering’s were positioned at the centre of the parliamentarian front line. Here, the Royalist infantry began the battle well, and forced the Parliamentary regiments back, concentrating their attack against their left and centre, in support of Prince Rupert’s successful cavalry charge, which caused Ireton’s cavalry to veer to the right. Rupert charged into Ireton’s left, and then began to cut and thrust with sword. He forced his way through, and was then in a position to re-group: instead, he decided to press on, but achieved little, and though anxious not to repeat his mistake at Edgehill, was still absent from the battlefield for some time. This was, again, disastrous for his side. Cromwell launched a tremendous cavalry charge on the right, smashing into Langdale’s cavalry, slowed by difficult ground on the royalist left. As Astley’s foot stormed their way up Red Hill Ridge, they came under attack from Ireton’s recovering cavalry, supported by a mounted charge from Okey’s dragoons. As Astley’s troops reached Skippon’s foot, they not only met spirited resistance from the Parliamentary infantry, but also received a terrible blow on the other flank from Cromwell’s cavalry.

027 By the time Rupert returned to the field, his horses blown, he could only watch as Astley’s infantry were wiped out completely, four thousand of them, either killed or captured. Total Royalist losses were a thousand, with four-and-a-half thousand captured. With the King and Rupert having already left the field, the remaining Royalist infantry also tried to leave the field, with only Langdale’s cavalry fighting on.

This was the most decisive battle of the first civil war and Charles should never have fought it. He lost his infantry, his baggage train, his artillery, his private papers and, effectively, his throne. Outnumbered two to one, fourteen thousand to seven, short of cavalry and artillery, the Royalist had severely underestimated their opponents, raw recruits as many of them were, and paid dearly for it. Although initially forced to retreat by the assault on their centre and left, Pickering’s and Montague’s had done so lyke men, in good order. While Skippon’s more hardened troops had held the centre, they fell into the Reserves with their Colours, choosing there to fight and die, than to quit the ground they stood on. Together with the Reserves, Pickering’s and Montague’s remaining men had then rallied and moved forward to join Skippon’s, who were being steadily pushed back by the Royalist advance. The Roundhead charge did little to ease the pressure, especially when Ireton himself was wounded and taken prisoner. It was only after the rally of Pickering’s and Montague’s regiments, together with the calling up of the reserve, that the Parliamentarian infantry centre’s greatly superior numbers began to tell.

012So it was that Pickering’s took part in the final destruction of the Royalist infantry, deciding the outcome of the Battle of Naseby and the first Civil War. Captain Tomkins was killed, and estimates at the time put the Parliamentarian losses at between fifty and a hundred. A further fifty of Pickering’s men were seriously wounded, four dying later from their wounds. Two hundred more from the other infantry regiments were also seriously wounded.

The New Model then marched on to Leicester, which refused to yield, and Newark, where the Royalists surrendered on the 18th. After taking Leicester on their return, the New Model then secured Warwickshire and Gloucestershire before moving against the Royalist strongholds in the West Country. Following a further victory at Langport on 10th July, Bristol fell on 10th September, and Devizes a fortnight later. Laycock followed a few days later, followed by Winchester on 5th October. There was then a long siege of Basing House in Hampshire, which finally fell in mid-October, then Longford near Salisbury, leaving only Corfe Castle as the only remaining substantial Royalist garrison left between London and Exeter. Troops were needed to reinforce both the garrison at Abingdon and those besieging Exeter, so it wasn’t until March 1646 that the castle finally fell.

The Parliamentarian forces then comprehensively slighted it, so that the Cavaliers could not use it again. Pickering’s regiment played a role in most, if not all, of these sieges, though it had moved on to Ottery St Mary in the winter of 1645-6, a small market town ten miles from Exeter. Pickering himself arrived ahead of his regiment, on 12th November, as his legal expertise was needed in securing the surrender of the city.

033During the Civil War there were probably more soldiers who died of disease than on the battlefield. Plague had been rife in and around Bristol when it had been captured in September, but the Parliamentary troops had escaped its ravages. However, they then fell prey to influenza, probably brought with them from the city, though it had taken a month for it to take hold among their ranks. The foot, quartered in Ottery St Mary, were the worst hit, with as many as nine soldiers and townspeople dying on a daily basis. Many soldiers were already weak from lack of good supplies and arrears of pay. Pickering himself fell ill on 24th November 1645, just before his thirtieth birthday:

Col. Pickering, that pious, active Gentleman, that lived so much to God, and his Country and divers other Officers, dyed of the New disease in that place; Six of the generals own family were sick of it at one time, and throughout the foot regiments half the souldiers…

The whereabouts of the Colonel’s burial is unknown, but it is likely that he would have been buried in Lyme Regis, in accordance with the wishes of his elder brother and MP, Sir Gilbert Pickering, as well as those of Cromwell and Fairfax. These are recorded in a letter from Cromwell to Colonel Creely, the commander of the nearest parliamentary garrison written from Tiverton on 10th December. Major Jubbes, of Norwich, took responsibility for the arrangements. The high esteem in which many parliamentarians held Pickering can be seen in the various obituaries in the newsheets of the time. One of them is accompanied by a eulogy, far less eloquent than his cousin, John Dryden, later poet laureate, might have produced, but he was only fourteen at that time:

… Black Autumn fruits to cinders turne;

Birds cease to sing, our joy is fled,

‘Cause glorious Pickering is dead,

Let time contract the Earth and Skie,

To recommend thy memorie

To future ages…

Sprigge devotes a whole poem to a poem on his death, which he entitled Iohannes Pickering: In God I Reckon Happiness. By comparison, Dryden’s first published work, in 1659, was also to be a eulogy, A Poem upon the death of his late Highness, Oliver, Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland. As a close associate of Cromwell within the Eastern Association, John Pickering was in an ideal position to establish a regiment that mirrored his own religious and political views. It was, after all, not just the Colonel, but also the whole regiment that drew criticism from the Presbyterians in Parliament. It was his deep religious conviction, some said fanaticism, which gave him strength, courage and commitment both in combat and negotiation. In these virtues, he was typical of the men who brought about the revolution in liberties of conscience, which was a distinctive element in the civil wars of the middle to late seventeenth century. Like Cromwell, he saw himself as one of God’s Englishmen.

037

After Pickering’s death, his Lieutenant Colonel, John Hewson took command of the regiment, and his advancement heralded the increasing authoritarianism of the revolution as the country moved towards a form of military dictatorship. In May 1647 the Presbyterian Parliament attempted to break up the military power-base of Independency, requiring the New Model Army regiments either to disband or to volunteer for the campaign in Ireland. Hewson’s regiment refused, as did others. Lieutenant Colonel Jubbes, the Norwich Baptist, together with Major Axtell and two other agitators prepared a statement of the regiment’s grievances. In June, as political debate developed and intensified in the army, some of the regiment were already committed to the Leveller cause. Two of the six authors of A Letter from the Army to the honest Seamen of England, of 21st June 1647, were from Hewson’s. They were Captains Brayfield and Carter. A third, Azuriah Husbands, had been a Captain in the regiment, and some of its ordinary soldiers also signed it.

John Jubbes, in his statement at the Putney debates on 1st November 1647, called for political reforms extending well beyond mere army grievances. Jubbes took a conciliatory position between the Independents and the Levellers, seeking even to bring the more libertarian Presbyterians into an agreement. The same position was taken by the regiment’s chaplain, Henry Pinnell, who had published his own proposals, which while radical in general nature, included a reconciliation with the King. For Jubbes, as for many who later became Quakers, the war had encouraged pacifist views in him. He came to see the real conflict as being between the slavery of the sword and the Peace of Christ. In April 1648, having lost the argument in the regiment, as it had been lost at Putney in the army as a whole; Jubbes laid down his sword and picked up his pen. He was disillusioned with the course the revolution was taking, believing that the cause of liberty of conscience was being sacrificed to that of the authority of the Grandees of the New Model. He became associated with a sect of religious radicals with millenarian ideas, confidently looking forward to the imminent personal reign of Christ on earth, following His second coming.

In attitude and ideas, Hewson differed markedly from both Pickering and Jubbes. Although, like Cromwell, an Independent, he had expressed a typically authoritarian view about the Levellers in the army, suggesting that military tribunals rather than civil courts should deal them with. We can hang twenty before they will hang one, he pointed out. For him, as for Cromwell and Ireton, whatever the political merits of the Levellers’ case, which they had listened to patiently and responded to sympathetically within the Army Council at Putney Church, they could not be allowed to undermine military discipline through constant arguing and petitioning. It is in this context that we need to understand both Hewson’s remark and Cromwell’s later statement to one of his Colonels, you have no other way to deal with these men but to break them or they will break you… Daniel Axtell, another fierce Independent, replaced Jubbes as Lieutenant Colonel, while John Carter became Major, despite his Leveller sympathies.   The regiment was involved in Pride’s Purge of the Presbyterian MPs in Parliament in December 1648, during the Second Civil War.

The harsh new laws of the Presbyterian Long Parliament had also transformed the sympathies of many ordinary people in the country. In Suffolk in 1648 there was a serious riot in Bury St Edmund’s when the authorities tried to prevent the hoisting of a maypole. The local arsenal was seized and people rushed through the streets shouting, For God and King Charles! The outburst was contained, but there were also similar risings in Aldeburgh and Lowestoft. Suffolk was growing tired of war, of religious conflict and of political maneuverings between the Army and Parliament. None of these made any difference to the problems of the cloth industry, which was still declining, or to the harbours of the East Anglian ports, which were still silting up. There were still thousands of people living at bare subsistence level in thatched, rat-infested hovels.

In the second war, which ended with the surrender of the royalist troops at Colchester, Hewson’s had faced the Kentish royalists and bore the brunt of the fighting at the storming of Maidstone. Fairfax wrote, I cannot but take notice of the valour and resolution of Col. Hewson, whose Regiment had the hardest task. Major Carter was injured and Captain Price, a deserving and faithfull Officer, was killed. The regiment had gone on to suppress the rising in Kent, recapturing the castles at Deal, Walmer and Sandown. Hewson was a judge at the King’s trial in January 1649, also signing the death warrant, while Axtell commanded the guard at the king’s execution. In April 1649 Hewson’s were chosen, by lot, to go to Ireland with three existing and six new regiments. While in Ireland, they took part in many of the major actions and the most notorious, particularly at Drogheda, where they were at the centre of the atrocities against the royalist troops who refused to surrender.

Hewson later became Governor of Dublin, member of the Council of State and an MP. He was knighted by Cromwell and described after the Restoration as an arch-radical and religious zealot. However, he did not approve of what he called the usurpation of the General and opposed Cromwell from within the Protectorate, at some personal risk. By the end of the interregnum, the regiment was commanded by John Streeter, undoubtedly the same soldier who drew the battlefield of Naseby (above). It took part in the last land action of the Commonwealth, finding itself fighting against its original first captain and later Lieutenant Colonel, Daniel Axtell. He had joined Major-General Lambert in an attempt to reimpose military government. On 22nd April 1660 Lambert’s forces were confronted and routed at Daventry in Northamptonshire, close to the battlefields of Edgehill and Naseby. Axtell escaped, but was later captured and eventually executed by Charles II’s government, as a regicide. At the Restoration, Hewson fled to the continent where he died in Amsterdam in 1662. The regiment which was raised in 1643, and first served in East Anglia as a major force in the Eastern Association in April 1644, was not disbanded until October 1660, and even then four of its companies being sent to form the garrison at Hull. By then, it had served longer than any other Parliamentarian regiment.

016

John Pickering’s elder brother, lord of the manor and baronet, Sir Gilbert Pickering, had been elected as an MP for Northamptonshire to the Short Parliament of 1640. He raised, though he did not command, a dragoon regiment in eastern Northamptonshire. He was appointed commissioner and judge in the trial of Charles Stuart, though wisely attended only two sittings, and did not sign the death warrant. During the Commonwealth he rose to a position of considerable national influence, as a member of the Council of State and as a Commissioner in various posts. Finally in 1655 he was appointed Lord Chamberlain to the Lord Protector. It was only due to the intervention of his brother-in-law, Edward Montague, Earl of Sandwich, that Gilbert obtained a pardon from Charles II.

Gilbert Pickering was described after the Restoration as first a Presbyterian, then an Independent, then a Brownist, and afterwards an Anabaptist. Although coming from his enemies, this statement does perhaps describe the process of radicalisation that many of his class went through in the thirty years of conflict in the reign of Charles I and in the interregnum. The Pickering family had long been known for their strong Puritan beliefs, reflecting the strength of these views in eastern Northamptonshire, which had developed rapidly and become strongly entrenched in the Peterborough diocese during the second half of the sixteenth century, as elsewhere in the southeast Midlands and East Anglia. Robert Browne, whose Brownism developed into the Independent form of puritanism that in turn led to Congregationalism, was Rector of Thorpe Achurch, only three miles north of Titchmarsh, from 1591 to 1630. The Pickerings were therefore very close to one of the main centres of Puritan Dissent, forced out of the Church of England during the 1630s by Archbishop Laud and his supporters, and into the manor houses of sympathetic families like the Pickerings and then across the countryside and market towns until it found its way into the regiments of the Eastern Association and the New Model Army. Therefore, the history of the Pickering family and their relatives also describes and explains the history of much of the Midlands and East Anglia during the seventeenth century.

023However, the rather disparaging view of him as a Committee man responsible for sequestration was quite unfair, as was the attempt to paint him as a most furious, fiery, implacable man… the principal agent in casting out most of the learned clergy. This assessment comes from the papers of Jeremiah Stevens, Rector of Quinton and Wootton in Northants, who was sequestered in 1644. In 1656, a very different temperament from the conciliatory role undertaken by the MP and Lord Chamberlain in the parliamentary proceedings undertaken against James Nayler, the Quaker, who stood accused of blasphemy. Nayler, a farmer from Yorkshire, had fought for Parliament at the Battle of Dunbar in the second civil war, in September 1650, where his preaching was remembered long after by those who heard it, both ordinary soldiers and officers alike, as well as by the country folk:

 013After the Battle of Dunbar, as I was riding in Scotland at the head of my troop, I observed at some distance from the road a crowd of people, and one higher than the rest. Upon which I sent one of my men to see and bring me word what was the meaning of this gathering. Seeing him ride up and stay there without returning according to my order, I sent a second, who stayed in like manner, and then I determined to go myself. When I came thither, I found it was James Nayler preaching to the people, but with such power and reaching energy as I had not till then been witness of. I could not help staying there a little, though I was afraid to stay, for I was made a Quaker, being forced to tremble at the sight of myself. I was struck with more terror before the preaching of James Nayler than I was before the Battle of Dunbar, when we had nothing else to expect but to fall prey to the swords of our enemies…

015

However, James Nayler’s six years of missionary journeys, of eloquent and victorious evangelism, of loyal co-operation with colleagues, were all forgotten when he appeared before Parliament in 1656 accused of horrid blasphemy and of being a grand imposter and seducer of the people. He is still remembered for the six months of his disgrace, and as the fallen apostle of Quakerism, while his contemporary George Fox is seen as its chief Founder. Nayler was born in 1618, in a village two miles from Wakefield in Yorkshire, where he married and lived from 1639. After having three children there, he joined the parliamentary army in 1643, serving in Fairfax’s regiment, before becoming Quartermaster in Lambert’s Regiment of Horse, a position which he held until the decisive Battle of Worcester in 1651, after which Charles II (only of Scotland at that time) fled to France. After that conclusive battle, there was no longer any need for an army in the field. According to Cromwell, Lambert’s Horse bore the brunt of the battle, the best of the Enemy’s Horse being broken through and through in less than an hour’s dispute.

010

As Quartermaster, it would have been Nayler’s task to feed the ten thousand who were taken prisoner, especially the Scots. The half who were English were sent home due to the impossibility of providing for them. At his trial, Major-General Lambert gave testimony that he was a very useful person – we parted from him with great regret. He was a man of unblameable life and conversation. Lambert’s statement bears out Nayler’s own testimony to his judges that I was never taxed for any mutiny or any other thing while I served the Parliament.

 

In 1651 Nayler returned to his family in broken health, both physical and mental. A victim of consumption, he settled on a small farm near Wakefield. Lambert recalled that he became a member of a very sweet society of an Independent Church.

Although Presbyterianism had been established in England by ordinance in 1648, at the end of the second civil war, it was by no means popular and had not filled the place of the Church of England. Many parish ministers were relatively free to belong to different denominations, and/or to follow the promptings of their congregations. After a meeting with George Fox, Nayler decided to leave home to follow his calling as an evangelist, though he found it very difficult to leave his wife and children again, having just returned after nine years. His ministry took Nayler to the West Country where, while not in prison, he gathered a large number of followers around him. However, he came into conflict with Fox and, when his attempts to effect a reconciliation were rebuffed, he became deeply depressed to the point of appearing morose.

024It was in a deeply contemplative state that he set off for Bristol, in the middle of October 1656, from Glastonbury, in the pouring rain, with a small procession of Friends. He was riding a horse and on either side a woman led his horse by the bridle, walking knee-deep in the mud, when they could have walked along the sides of the ancient bridleway. Passers-by found the sight utterly bizarre, even before the company reached Bristol. As they reached the Radcliffe Gate of the City, the procession began shouting and singing a psalm, Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Israel, removing their wet cloaks and throwing them in front of the horse, with Nayler still being led on it, as if in a transe. Between two and three in the afternoon they passed the High Cross, where it seemed as if the whole city had turned out to see the strange spectacle. After arriving at their inn, the Magistrates sent an escort for them and they were brought, still singing, to the Guildhall for examination.

After a brief, preliminary examination, they were imprisoned, despite Nayler possession of a pass from Cromwell himself. At the second examination, it became clear that, whatever interpretation his followers placed on their actions, he regarded himself simply as a symbol of Christ and the triumphal entry simply a sign of his second coming.

008

However, two of the women in his congregation claimed that Nayler was indeed Jesus, one claiming that Nayler had raised her to life after she had been dead for two days. Under these circumstances, the Bench had no alternative but to send the group back to jail. The Bristol Magistrates then wrote to their MP. The second Parliament of the Protectorate had been sitting for only a month when this MP presented his report from the magistrates of his constituency. The case which came before them for judgement was so serious, so pregnant with consequences for both Church and State, that they felt incompetent to deal with it. The basis of it was that on the 14th October, a parody of the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem had been enacted in Bristol, not from any spirit of mockery, but in the steadfast belief of those present that a second Messiah had appeared in England. Letters found upon the chief prisoner gave further evidence of this blasphemous delusion, and, since a pass from the Lord Protector himself was among these letters, the magistrates had decided to keep him and his companions in custody until they could ascertain the pleasure of Parliament. The House had now decided to undertake the third examination themselves and then to sentence the prisoners.

019

Meanwhile, the entry into Bristol had become a nine days’ wonder, and the talk not only of London, but of every corner of the country into which Quakerism had penetrated. Nayler appeared before a Parliamentary Committee, and answered their questions clearly and to their satisfaction. With nothing further to examine, on 5th December the Committee made its report to the House. In spite of its careful purging, this second and last Parliament of Cromwell’s Protectorate was composed of many warring and irreconcilable elements, upon which the prisoner acted as a touch stone. His most vocal prosecutor was Sir George Downing, who gave his name to Downing Street. Four years later he was to make his peace with the new king by betraying his Parliamentary associates, including Sir Gilbert Pickering. Downing and the Extremists were opposed by the Merciful Party, including Pickering, Desborough and Lambert, Nayler’s old commanding officer, who gave his character reference, adding that the trial was very much sorrow of my heart. Major-General Desborough, in command of the Western counties, had come into contact with the best side of Quakerism, had witnessed Fox’s heroic temper in Launceston prison. Desborough used all his influence to moderate the harsh temper of the House. He argued that it should be handed over to the lawyers, to whose province it rightly belonged. However, the temper of the House was already one of heated debate, since Nayler was already present to hear the Committee’s report, and the Major-General’s advice was largely ignored. Westminster Hall had been the setting for the dramatic trial of Charles I, almost exactly eight years previously, and many of those sitting in judgement on Nayler had been present when the King had faced his avenging subjects. Perhaps some felt that they could now balance the scales of extreme justice, and even avenge the royal martyr, even if they dared not speak openly of this, even in Parliament.

017

Nayler did not present himself, in Carlyle’s later description, as a mad Quaker, and again emphasised that his act had been purely symbolic of Christ’s second coming, which had not yet been fulfilled. However, either through ignorance or obdurance, Downing and others maintained their aggressivity towards Nayler and his beliefs. Other more gentle voices were raised on the prisoner’s behalf, especially by those who, through personal acquaintance with the Quakers, had studied and discussed with them their doctrine of the Inner Light. Among them was that of Sir Gilbert Pickering, who defended himself and the merciful party as having the same zeal for God, yet haply they may not have the same appetite to give sentence in these things, without special tenderness respecting the sad consequences. This view came close to that of the Lord Protector, whose impatience with this Parliament over this case was based on his view that it should uphold a spirit of toleration in the country by providing for liberty of conscience for the tender-hearted, even when they were in error. However, at dinner that night with the diarist Burton, Richard Cromwell was clear that Nayler ought to die. However, Nayler’s punishment was a matter for the House to decide, not the Lord Protector or his son, soon to inherit the title.

When Parliament met to impose punishment, Sir Gilbert Pickering interposed again with a plea for hard labour and imprisonment, as he had learnt from a very sober man of that sect that Nayler was bewitched, really bewitched, and his words were not to be heeded. Imprisonment would be a charity in keeping him from that party that bewitched him. It was resolved by a narrow majority of 96 to 82 votes that the prisoner’s life should be spared. On December 17th, after further debate, they came to the following resolution:

That James Nayler be set upon the pillory… in the Palace-Yard, Westminster, during the space of two hours, on Thursday next, and be whipped by the hangman through the streets, from Westminster to the Old Exchange, London: and there likewise be set upon the pillory… for the space of two hours… on Saturday next, in each place wearing a paper bearing the inscription of his crimes; and that at the Old Exchange his tongue be bored through with a hot iron and that there also be stigmatised in the forehead the letter B; and that he be afterwards sent to Bristol and be conveyed into and through the said city on horseback, with his face backward; and there also publicly whipped the next market day… and that from thence he be committed to prison in Bridewell, London, and there restrained from the society of all people, and there to labour hard, till he be released by Parliament; and during that time be debarred the use of pen, ink, and paper, and shall have no relief but what he earns by daily labour.

026

On May 26th 1657, Sir Gilbert Pickering brought Nayler’s case again before the House. The Protector had been informed of Nayler’s poor state of health, and it was at his recommendation that Parliament was now asked to provide a keeper or nurse to wait upon him. Fearful of showing too much sympathy for the prisoner, Sir Gilbert recalled him as that reckless person Nayler. However, he was quite unable to preserve this air of detachment when Cromwell’s proposal met opposition. If you care not for him, he continued angrily, so as to let him have a keeper, he will die in your hands. Whether it was Cromwell’s wish or Pickering’s indignation which inclined the House to this unaccustomed show of humanity, there was no opposition to the proposal when put to the vote, and it was carried, with the suggestion that the Keeper should be a Quaker, that he might not infect others with the plague. It was then stated that his Highness further desired a minister to be sent to Nayler, for the truth is, he is very weak.

This was also agreed to. William Tomlinson, his devoted Friend throughout his punishment in London, became his Keeper, and the Governer also appointed a female nurse, Joane Pollard, to minister to his medical needs, alongside the Matron of Bridewell Hospital. Cromwell and Pickering had combined to soften the hearts of both Parliament and the prison governers. The brave, humanitarian action of Pickering in particular, seems at odds with the description of him after the Restoration. Perhaps it was his determination to oppose the hard-line attitude of Downing’s party, together with his earlier action against Laudian ministers in his county, which resulted in him being branded as a fanatical hothead by his enemies after the Restoration, but it is difficult to imagine that the sympathies he showed towards Nayler would not have also led him to be tolerant of protestant believers and ministers of a less Independent persuasion than his own. He may have been a Committee Man, and passionate about his Independency in faith and politics, but he also showed that that meant he was determined to support Cromwell’s view that liberty of conscience should extend to Presbyterians and tender-hearted sectaries alike.

007

The youngest son, Edward Pickering, was born in 1618. He was also educated as a lawyer, at Lincoln’s Inn, but played no significant role in the war. ‘Ned’, as his friends affectionately knew him, was a companion of Samuel Pepys and is frequently described in Pepys’ Diary. Apparently, Ned did not maintain the same Nonconformist religious beliefs and practices as his brothers after the Restoration, and was less of an Independent in political views too. Probably influenced by Edward Montague, he travelled to the continent in 1660 to swear allegiance to Charles II before his return to England. Even after the Restoration, as late as the 1670s, Lady Pickering was still holding Congregationalist meetings in the manor house at Titchmarsh. However, though the Pickerings may have continued to hold to their puritan beliefs, they did not support the social levelling supported by John Lilburne and others.

041

Neither were they averse to indulging in the finer aspects of courtly life in London, as Samuel Pepys (above) records for the 29th October 1660, The Lord Mayor’s Day. This was an occasion for quite a gathering of friends and family, including the wife of Edward Montague, Lady Sandwich, her children, and Lady Pickering, wife of Sir Gilbert and Montague’s sister. They went shopping for draperies in St Paul’s and Cheapside, where they found an ideal vantage point on the quayside to watch the parades and pageants with a company of fine ladies. The gentlemen continued to enjoy their sports. Eight years later, on 11th December, Pepys and his clerk and life-long friend Hewer met up with Ned Pickering in Smithfield to watch horse-riding, observing all the afternoon… the knaveries and tricks of jockys. However, Pepys had to be careful in meeting the jockys, especially one whose wife he desired but dare not see, for my vow to my wife. He came away with his friends having done nothing except concluded upon giving fifty pounds for a fine pair of black horses.

043

The Pickerings were very much in the same mould as their Fenland neighbours, the Cromwells, prepared to challenge the religious and political order, but staunchly conservative with regard to the social order, and with an eye to property when determining who should have the right to decide on the government of the day. Although given the title God’s Englishman by Christopher Hill in his biography, Oliver Cromwell was, in fact, the grandson of a third-generation Welshman named Richard Williams, whose grandfather was said to have accompanied Henry Tudor to London in 1485. He settled in Putney and married his son, Morgan, to the daughter of the local blacksmith, Walter Cromwell. Walter’s brother was Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s great Chancellor, the hammer of the monks. In tribute, Morgan Williams’ son Richard decided to use his mother’s family name and became a firm supporter of the Reformation. Oliver’s mother was Elizabeth Steward, whose great-uncle was the last Prior of the Abbey of Ely and also became the first Protestant Dean of the Cathedral. He was Elizabeth Steward’s great-uncle, and was persuaded to throw in his lot with the Reformation by Sir Richard Cromwell. Oliver’s maternal grandfather and uncle continued to farm the manors of Ely Cathedral.*

As a result of their dissolution, Sir Richard Cromwell acquired the lands of three abbeys, two priories and the nunnery of Hinchingbrooke. He married the daughter of a Lord Mayor of London, as did his son, Sir Henry, who also represented his county in the House of Commons and was four times sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. His son, Sir Oliver, who also became an MP and a high sheriff, was the uncle of Oliver Cromwell. Old Sir Oliver spent much of the family fortune in entertaining King James V of Scotland on his royal progress to being crowned James I in 1603. Like Sir John Harington of Coombe Abbey in Warwickshire, he got little in return for providing such lavish hospitality to the Stuart family. He had to sell the great house to the Montague family. Like John Pickering, Oliver Cromwell’s father Robert was a second son, and therefore received little of Sir Oliver’s patrimony anyway. So, Oliver was born into a comparatively modest house in Huntingdon, which had been part of the St. John’s Hospital. Later, Oliver was to inherit some of the church manors of the Dean and Chapter of Ely. Like John Pickering, he would have grown up conscious of being a poor relation. However, he was related to most of the powerful gentry families of East Anglia and the Midlands, including the Knightleys and the Fiennes, into which the Golafre family had married in early Tudor times. These cousinly connections, together with the puritan education many of the sons of the gentry received in Cambridge, were what enabled a growing network of the Country opposition to Charles’ rule to emerge in the 1630s and, in parliament, in the 1640s. When Oliver took up his seat in the House of Commons in 1628, he was one of ten cousins there.

018

025

Looking back, historians have tended to see the breach with the Levellers at Burford in 1649 as the turning point of the Revolution. But for Oliver, 1653 was undoubtedly the high point. After the failure of the Barebones Parliament, his high hopes of uniting God’s Englishmen in government had gone. He now saw himself as a constable whose task was to prevent Englishmen from flying at each other’s throats. He was forced back on the support of an Army purged of radicals, an Army which in the last resort had to be paid by taxes collected from the propertied classes, the natural rulers of the countryside. So, by 1653 the Revolution was effectively over and the Lord Protector, General Cromwell was the saviour of propertied society. The radicals had been driven from Westminster, the City and the Army in 1653, and the trading monopolies were still in control of the mercantile economy. The conservative generals, including Lambert, Montague and Desborough, formed Cromwell’s Council, together with the baronets, including Sir Gilbert Pickering. Other advisers included Nathanial Fiennes, son of Lord Saye and Sele. Cromwell’s plans for unity were no longer restricted to the Independent party, whose leader he had been: He saw his task now as being to unite the nation. To the radicals Oliver was now, finally its lost leader. Lilburne, Wildman, Sexby and other remaining Levellers turned to negotiations with the royalists, rather than acceptance of the new régime. Baptists, Quakers and Congregationalists never forgave him for reneging on promises to abolish tithes.

The Welsh Fifth Monarchist, Vavasour Powell greeted the Protectorate by asking his congregation whether the Lord would have Oliver Cromwell or Jesus Christ to reign over us?

However, the actual composition of Cromwell’s council, no less than the powers given to it and to the parliament by The Instrument, drafted by General Lambert, make it difficult to characterise the Protectorate as a military dictatorship, as it so often has been. Ten of the eighteen members were, in fact, civilians, and only Lambert, Fleetwood, Skippon and Desborough were members of the field army. Montague had last commanded a regiment in 1645, and the three others, although having some military duties, were administrators rather than soldiers. A simple head count, however, can be misleading, since civilians like Sir Gilbert Pickering often supported the military members, while Colonel Montague, later General at Sea, tended to oppose it. The council contained men of diverse and independent views, including Sir Gilbert Pickering, and was unlikely to act collectively as a rubber stamp to dictatorship, and nor did it.

Cromwell certainly wielded immense personal authority, and he would never have become Lord Protector had he not been Lord General. But he had a genuine aversion to dictatorial power, and the constitution was genuinely designed to prevent this. The army party reached its peaks of influence when Cromwell accepted the Instrument of Government and during the rule of the major-generals, but he signalled his disillusionment with it in a speech that he made to the hundred officers in February 1657. Thereafter, the exclusion of Lambert shifted the balance decisively against the military faction, and the trouble that the grandees made for Richard Cromwell in the spring of 1659 does not testify to their continuing ascendancy, but rather to the desperation of defeated men.

After the dissolution of the Long Parliament in March 1660, the Royalist historian Clarendon records that the council of state did many prudent actions, the most important of which was the reform of the navy, which was full of sectaries and under the government of those who of all men were declared the most republican. The fleet was under the command of Vice-Admiral Lawson, an excellent seaman, but then a notorious Anabaptist; who had filled the fleet with officers and mariners of the same principles. Nevertheless, the Rump Parliament owed its restoration to his successful siege of the City, so he stood high in reputation with all that party and they were therefore unable to remove him from power. Instead, they decided to eclipse him, that he should not have it so absolutely in his power to control them. So, they called up Sir Edward Montague, who had retired to his own house in Cambridgeshire, under a cloud, and made him joint-admiral. Montague accepted the commission on the conditions that he alone would have charge of recruiting new officers and men for the ships to be added to the fleet, and that he would have oversight of the rest, reforming them as he saw necessary. He sent a secret message to the king in exile, asking for his approval, before finally accepting the office and returning to London, where he immediately set to work in putting the fleet in so good order that he might comfortably serve in it. Clarendon goes on to praise Montague by asserting that there was no good man who betook himself to his majesty’s service with more generosity than this gentleman.

036

Montague was from a noble family, which was a rival of the Cromwell family, having bought the House at Hinchingbrooke from Oliver’s grandfather, who had impoverished his family by the lavish hospitality he had shown to James I. However, Oliver and Edward became firm allies from the early years of the First Civil War, perhaps because the former was always destined to be a poor relation, as the son of a second son, but inherited his uncle’s lands in the Chapter of Ely anyway when he died childless. Clarendon records that the Montague family was too much addicted to innovations in religion, though Edward went against his father in opposing Charles I, since Sir Sidney had been a long-serving courtier and never could be prevailed upon to swerve from his allegiance to the crown, taking great care to restrain his only son within those limits. However, being young, and more out of his father’s control by being married into a family which, at that time, also trod away, he was so far wrought upon by the caresses of Cromwell, that, out of pure affection to him, he was persuaded to take command in the army when it was new modelled under Fairfax, and when he was little more than twenty years of age.

Montague served in the army, as Colonel of his regiment, until the end of the war, with the reputation of a very stout and sober young man, who … passionately adhered to Cromwell. The Lord-General took him into his closest confidence and sent him on several expeditions by sea, in sole command, which were very successful for both the Commonwealth and Edward’s career in it.

011Although perceived as devoted to Cromwell’s interests, he showed no acrimony towards any who had served Charles I, and was so much in love with monarchy that he was one of those who most desired and advised Cromwell to accept and assume that title, when it was offered to him by his parliament. Soon after the Convention Parliament decided to send the fleet to fetch Charles II from the Dutch United Provinces, the King had only been in the Hague for a few days when he heard that the English fleet was in sight of the port of Scheveningen. Shortly after that, an officer was sent by Admiral Montague to ask the King for orders. The Duke of York went on board the fleet to take possession of his command as High Admiral, where he was received by all the officers and seamen, with all possible duty and submission. He spent the whole day on board, receiving details of the state of the fleet, returning to the King that night, with the information. Montague therefore played a major part in ensuring the smooth transition of power to the Stuart restoration. Still in his thirties, he was to receive rich rewards for this throughout the reign of Charles II. Neither did he abandon his old friends and allies, ensuring that they too received royal pardon and patronage, provided that they had played no part in the regicide.

Of course, Oliver Cromwell himself could not be pardoned for the act which he himself had regarded as a cruel necessity. Although he was beyond temporal punishment, his bones were not allowed to rest in peace. In 1661 the Protector’s body was dug up, hung at Tyburn, decapitated and buried at the foot of the gallows. The head was stuck on a pole outside Westminster Hall and left to rot. It eventually came into the possession of a Suffolk family, a descendant of which, Canon Wilkinson of Woodbridge, arranged with the fellows of Cromwell’s old college at Cambridge, Sydney Sussex, that it should be given a decent burial within the precincts, in 1960.

What May Day may mean to the many…   11 comments

Image

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station ...

Statue of John Betjeman at St Pancras station in London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marx Memorial Library

Marx Memorial Library (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Clerkenwell Green

Clerkenwell Green (Photo credit: Fin Fahey)

 

In June 1976, John Betjeman, the Queen’s celebrated ‘poet laureate’ and saviour of St Pancras Station, now restored in all its glory, penned a foreword to a collection of Walter Crane‘s Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. ‘Clerkenwell’, he wrote, ‘is one of the best preserved of the inner villages of London and the nearest village to it. It has a Green and its church on a hillock above the Green. Several hoses survive of those which surrounded it, a remarkable haven of peace amid the roar of public transport and heavy lorries.’ In the early sixties, it looked as if these buildings would be destroyed, which would have taken away the village character of Clerkenwell. Betjeman was among a number of local residents who had appealed to what was then the Greater London Council. No. 37A Clerkenwell Green, the building housing the Marx Memorial Library, was not outstanding in architectural terms, but ‘its value to the townscape was great’. The GLC therefore agreed to preserve it on these grounds, at a time when few people understood the importance of minor buildings to the more major ones alongside them.

Walter Crane, 1886
Walter Crane, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These cartoons, of which the one above is an example, were printed for Walter Crane by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at 37A Clerkenwell Green. ‘They are of interest as period pieces when high-minded socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris,’ wrote Betjeman. Walter Crane (1845-1916), was first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild and an ardent Guild-Socialist. He was no William Blake, but a brilliant decorative artist, born in Chester, where his father was a fairly successful local artist. The family moved to Torquay in Devon where Walter was educated cheaply but privately. After moving again to Shepherd’s Bush, London, Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. Betjeman added:

A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all.

He tried his hand at poetry as well as decorative art, writing a poem to accompany the cartoon above which was printed in the journal, ‘Justice’ in 1894. Here are the final verses:

Stand fast, then, Oh workers, your ground,

Together pull, strong and united:

Link your hand like a chain the world round,

If you will that your hopes be requited.

When the World’s Workers, sisters and brothers,

Shall build, in the new coming years,

A fair house of life – not for others,

For the earth and its fulness is theirs.

May Day 2008 024
May Day 2008 024 (Photo credit: Perosha)

Although May Day became associated with International Labour towards the end of the nineteenth century, its origins as a ‘people’s festival’ go back as far as early Roman times (at least). The goddess Maia, mother of Mercury, had sacrifices made in her honour on the first day of her month, accompanied by considerable merry-making. The Maypole celebrations are linked to the qualities of pagan tree spirits and tree worship. In Medieval and Tudor England, May Day was a great public holiday when most villages arranged processions, with everyone carrying green boughs (branches) of sycamore and hawthorn. The most important place in the procession was given to a young tree, 12 to 15 feet (3.6 to 4.6 metres) high, decorated with rings, or ‘garlands’, of flowers and ribbons. The tree was stripped of its branches, except for the one at the very top, whose leaves would be left to show the signs of new life at the beginning of summer. Sometimes the tree was completely stripped so the top could be decorated by attaching garlands in the shape of crowns or floral globes.  In some villages the decoration took the form of two intersecting circles of garlands or flowers, similar to some modern Christmas decorations, bound with ribbons which spiralled down the tree.  Sometimes dolls were attached to the top of the tree, originally representing Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers. More recently, these were changed into representations of Mary, mother of Jesus, with May being recognised as the month of Mary, sometimes also used as a short-form of the name.

While the Maypole was the centre of attention on this day, the fun and games which accompanied it were disapproved of by many churchmen. One of them claimed that…

All the young men and maids, old men and wives, run gadding over night to the woods, groves and hills, where they spend all the night in pleasant pastimes. In the morning they return bringing with them birch and branches of trees, to deck their assemblies. There is a great Lord over their pastimes, namely Satan, Prince of Hell. The chiefest jewel they bring is their Maypole. They have twentie or fortie oxen, every one having a sweet nosegay of flowers on the tip of his horns, and these oxen drag the Maypole (this stinking idol, rather) which is covered with flowers and herbs, bound round with string from top to bottom and painted with variable colours.

Henry VIII was, as you might well think, very fond of Maying, and went early one morning with Catherine of Aragon, from Greenwich to Shooters Hill and watched a company of yeomen dressed in green with their chief, Robin Hood, a character representing Old England.  He then stayed on to watch their archery contest. May Day was certainly an energetic festival, starting the previous evening, going through the night, with dancing and games through the day and ending with evening bonfires, known in some places as ‘Beltane’ fires, being the name given by the Celts to their fire festival. This reveals the continuity of Celtic Druidic traditions into Saxon and Medieval England.

However, the Puritans in the Stuart Church frowned upon these activities and were annoyed when James I continued to allow the setting up of Maypoles. When in power in the Long Parliament under Charles I and Cromwell they carefully controlled the celebration of both May Day and Christmas Day. Both were thought to encourage too much physical pleasure of one kind or another! However, they had difficulty in removing some Maypoles, which were fixed permanently in place. Some were as tall as church towers, painted in spiral bands like vertical barbers’ poles, dressed with garlands of flowers, ribbons and flags on May Day. One church, built in the shadow of a giant pole, was called St Andrew Undershaft, the shaft being the Maypole.

With the Restoration of the Stuarts the Maypoles stood erect all over ‘Merrie England’  once again. Samuel Pepys wrote in his Diary that the first May Day in the reign of Charles II was ‘the happiest May Day that hath been many a year in England.’  A great Maypole, 130 feet (40m) high, was set up in The Strand. It was so vast that, made in two parts, it was floated along the river to where Scotland Yard now stands and carried in procession along Whitehall, accompanied by bands and huge crowds of people. It took twelve seamen four hours to get it up, using their block and tackle. However, this great erection in London to some extent obscured the general shrinkage in the significance of May Day, as it was replaced in popular observance by Oak Apple Day, May 29th, the restored King’s birthday as well as the date of his return to the throne. The name given to this day refers to the incident at Boscobel House when Charles, after his defeat at Worcester, hid in the branches of an oak tree while Cromwell’s soldiers searched the House and grounds for him, unsuccessfully. He was then able to ‘go on his travels’ via Wales and Bristol to the continent, so for some time sprigs of oak were worn to commemorate both his escape and safe return to the throne. By the 18th Century, the festival had largely disappeared, and in 1717 the highest permanent Maypole was removed to Wanstead Park in Essex, where Sir Isaac Newton used it to support the  most powerful telescope in the world.

However, with the establishment of universal elementary education by the beginning of the twentieth century, Maypole dancing gained in popularity once more, partly due to the revival of interest in folk songs and tunes. In Primary Schools, intricate dances developed using the coloured ribbons in patterns formed by the steps of the dancers, round and about each other. New life was also given to the festival by the writers Tennyson, Morris and Ruskin, who made it into a children’s day, with the crowning of a May Queen, symbolising Mary, whose month it is. Morris also helped to establish it as Labour Day through the 1889 Congress of the Second International of socialist societies and trade unions. In the industrial north of England and industrial south Wales, it became once more a day of fairs, brass-band music, processions and dancing, a ‘gala’ day, with an occasional speech by a distinguished leading Labour figure. It became a public bank holiday in Britain, as on the continent, and remains so, though not without its partisan and puritan detractors, especially since the all-but-complete demise of heavy industry, and, in particular, the wholesale destruction of mining communities in the wake of the pit closures and miners’ strikes of the 1980’s. Walter Crane’s Song for Labour Day concludes with a positive message which is no less relevant for the twenty-first century than it was for the twentieth:

Rejoice, then, weary-hearted mothers

 That your little ones shall see

Brighter Days – O men and brothers –

When Life and Labour ye set free!

Sound upon the pipe and tabor!

Blow the trumpet, beat the drum!

Leave your toil, ye sons of Labour!

Come a-maying, toilers, come!

However, Crane makes it clear in his third verse that this is not a march into any kind of  ‘class war’:

March they not in shining warfare,

No sword they bear, or flashing blade;

But the pruning-hook and ploughshare,

But the worn wealth-winner’s spade.

‘Dissent and Unionism was their only crime’

This February 1876 photograph illustrates how far The Labour Movement in Britain has come through peaceful protest and parliamentary reform in the space of two life-times, or four generations.  Mr W. Durham had dared to stand up to the tyranny of the local ‘squire’, or land-owner, G. H. W. Heneage and his relative, C. W. Heneage, who between them owned most of the village of Cherhill in Wiltshire. The result was the eviction of Durham and his family from the cottage where they had lived for twenty-eight years. In the picture are the two items among their few possessions which illustrate their independence, which so infuriated the feudal Heneages: a collecting box for the Wesleyan Missionary Society and a framed poster of Joseph Arch, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and Methodist preacher from Warwickshire.

The full story of behind this picture makes painful reading for those who want to paint an idyllic picture of the lost world of ‘Merrie England’. The paternal squire and his wife ran a coal and clothing club, adding a little of his own money to the regular contributions of his farm labourers. For the privilege of receiving the benefits of this, the farm labourers’ wives had their clothing inspected by Mrs Heneage in her drawing-room and received a ‘scolding’ if they dared to purchase any garment ‘beyond their station in life’. Each woman was also asked ‘is your husband in the union?’ If they said ‘yes’, they were not allowed to belong to the club! She also interfered in proposed marriages within the parish, and any girl who ‘transgressed’ was driven out of ‘hearth and home’ as if she were part of some Victorian melodrama.

When a new tenancy agreement was issued to the Heneage labourers in 1875, two trade unionists, one of whom was Durham and the other a small tradesman and a Liberal, were given notice to quit. Durham was not only independent, but also a man of integrity, known as a sober and industrious worker. However, not only was he a unionist, but as a Wesleyan ‘dissenter’, neither did he support the established Church, and these ‘heresies’ were not to be tolerated. After a court order was obtained by Heneage, the entire family, comprising Mr and Mrs Durham, their two sons, who had also joined the union, and their twelve-year-old daughter were evicted by the police, their ‘goods and chattels’ being dumped in the field outside. The girl was also forbidden to attend the village school by the parish priest, since the school was controlled by the Church of England.

The week following the eviction, a public protest meeting was held near the village in a field loaned by a more sympathetic small-holder. The meeting, supported by the NALU and The English Labourer, was attended by a thousand farm workers, despite pouring rain and the threat of retribution. They sang When Arch Beneath the Wellesbourne Tree chorus:

Though rich and great our cause may bare,

We care not for their frown,

The strongest are not strong enough,

To keep the labourer down.

 NALU had been formed in 1872 by Joseph Arch, the son of a Warwickshire shepherd, and had 58,000 members by 1875, organised in 38 districts. Opposition from the gentry and the farmers was fierce and the agricultural workers scattered in small villages were vulnerable to the absolute power of a hostile squirearchy, as in Cherhill. The union responded quickly to the eviction by commissioning a ‘first rate photographer’ to record the aftermath of the eviction. Tripod and plate camera were rushed by horse and trap  from Salisbury to the village and the family were posed with their possessions by the hedgerow in front of their former home. Copies of the photographs were then sold with the proceeds going directly to the victimized family.

The story of the eviction is a tale of tyranny in ‘England’s green and pleasant land’, of feudal power and the refusal of one agricultural labourer to bow to the will of a vindictive squire. The first May Day march in London, held in 1890, seems to have passed unrecorded by the camera, but this photograph represents something of the lives and circumstances of those who built the labour movement, our great-grandfathers who were on the march with Arch through the Warwickshire and Banburyshire villages, listening to the Methodist lay-preacher beneath the Wellesbourne tree and out in the muddy fields of Wiltshire in winter, fighting on immediate issues, yet never losing sight of Blake’s vision of a new Jerusalem. Similar battles between ‘Squire’ and ‘tenant’, between ‘Church’ and ‘Chapel’, caused long-lasting division and bitterness in many villages throughout England and Wales long into the twentieth century, with squires and rectors seeking to impose a monopoly of social and political control on landless labourers, artisans and tradesmen, by using the power of the courts and the police to evict. If this was a class war, it was not one instigated by the labourers themselves, who merely sought protection from trades-unions from these relentless intrusions and pressures in every part of their already impoverished lives.

No wonder rural communities revived ancient traditions on May Day, to emphasise a sense of common ’cause’ amid all the conflict in the countryside. The activity of ‘well-dressing’ is a popular May morning tradition in some towns and villages in England and Wales. Bright, elaborate pictures are placed at the top of wells on May morning and a little thanksgiving service is held. The pictures, of religious subjects, are made from flower petals, mosses, lichen and berries stuck in wet clay. In grains of rice above the picture are written the words, ‘Praise the Lord’.

Perhaps the most famous, unifying May Day ceremony of all, however, is the one movingly captured in the film Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins playing C S Lewis and Debra Winger his American wife, Joy. This is the singing of carols and madrigals, from the top of Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which takes place on May morning at 6 a.m. every year, a medieval tradition broken only for five years between 1977 and 82, while stonework was being restored. Many all-night parties are held by the students who end up in ‘the High’ just before dawn, with champagne being poured liberally. Groups in formal dinner clothes mingle with those in bizarre fancy dress in a crowd which can number 15,000. They first hear the clock strike six and then the magnificent singing of ‘Te Deum patrem colimus’, followed by the far less reverent  madrigal  ‘now is the month of maying, while merry lads are playing…each with his bonny lass, all on the greeny grass’. The listeners remain silent during these, but as soon as the madrigal ends, a riot of activity begins. Groups of Morris dancers attract spectators in all parts of the town. Musicians, offering a wide variety of styles, set up on stone steps and other platforms, so that the onlooker can choose anything from pop to Purcell. Meanwhile, the bells in every part of the city ring out. In Cowley, children bring bunches of flowers to church. In The Oxford Book of Carols there are several May songs, including ‘the Furry Day Carol’, sung as part of the annual procession, or ‘Furry Dance’ through the streets of Helston in Cornwall:

 

Remember us poor Mayers all!

And thus do we begin – a

To lead our lives in righteousness

Or else we die in sin – a.

%d bloggers like this: