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THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR AND MIDDLETON CHENEY 

‘You would think it strange if I should tell you there was a time in England when brothers killed brothers, cousins  cousins, and friends their friends.’

- so wrote Sir John Oglander, a Royalist in the Isle of Wight. He captures in a sentence the agony of civil war as the sword divides families, friends and neighbourhoods.

The English Civil War

CHARLES I lacked all the qualities of a strong ruler. He had been brought up in the shadow of his brilliant elder brother Henry, who had died unexpectedly of typhoid in 1612. Charles walked with a slight limp and spoke with a bad stammer. He was not very intelligent and couldn’t see that England was changing. He believed that he was God’s representative on earth and anyone who dared to disagree with him was automatically in the wrong.

In 1629 there was a stormy session of Parliament. When  the Speaker attempted to put an end to the proceedings he was held down in his chair as Sir John Eliot read out, ‘The Three Resolutions’ vigorously condemning the King’s religious policy and also his customs levies. These resolutions were duly passed by the House of Commons. As a result Charles dissolved Parliament which did not meet again for eleven years.

Charles’ greatest difficulty in ruling alone was raising sufficient money to run the country. Merchants refused to pay customs Tunnage and Poundage (i.e. customs duty on wine and other commodities) and there was widespread resistance to forced loans. In order to collect in a legal manner, the King revived long-forgotten laws as a means to fill his coffers. SHIP MONEY – a charge on coastal towns to supply ships for the King’s fleet, was now levied on all inland counties. Another old law, whereby a person holding land worth £40 or more had to serve the King as a Knight was revived. Charles fined various land-owners for not fulfilling this duty.

The final break with parliament came with the struggle to control the militia. Charles, who had caused great offence by appointing so many Roman Catholics as officers, refused to surrender these appointments. Parliament responded with a law assuming the right to dismiss these officers on its own account. Charles’ reaction on the 22nd August 1642, was to raise his standard in Nottingham.

The Civil War had begun…

Middleton Cheney & The English Civil War

Although Naseby was the only major battle fought within Northamptonshire during the Civil War, the county was never completely free from fighting. Skirmishes and minor conflicts between the opposing forces occurred regularly throughout the period.

From the outset the county sympathies were predominantly with the Parliament – as the Royalist forces soon found out. The King decided to send three troops of horse - about 300 men - under the command of Sir John Byron (the poet’s ancestor), from Nottingham to the Royalist centre of Oxford. Byron’s men carried a large sum of money and other valuables which were intended for the launch of the Royalist effort in the south. At this stage the military initiative was with the King and there were hopes of a speedy victory. The parliamentary cause would receive a substantial boost, however, if the money in Byron’s care failed to reach its destination.

The people of Brackley and the surrounding villages, including men from Middleton Cheney performed a task of immense value to parliament. Perhaps they even prevented the war from becoming a Royalist walk-over.

Byron’s route took him through Brackley, where he arrived on the evening of 28th August. He did not anticipate any problem and stopped to enable his men and horses to rest and take refreshment. As supper was prepared, however, Byron was attacked by a force of some five hundred locals wielding pikes, bills and pitchforks – the numbers are large enough to suggest a planned ambush. The alarm was raised, and Byron and about half his men made their escape towards Oxford. The others were caught unprepared and routed. The booty was enormous –

‘about 60 horse: two hatfuls of gold: about 2000 pounds in silver: a trumpet: a box with great riches and wealth: a packet of rich cloathes of sir John Byron’s worth 200 pounds: about fourteen or fifteen pairs of pistols: a sumpter horse (i.e. pack-horse carrying goods) of sir John Byron’s: very rich: and betwixt 60 or 70 men. The value of all the gold, money and apparel could not be worth less than 6 or 8000 pounds.’

 

But the local men’s enthusiasm for Parliament did not extend to a readiness to hand over the plunder! –

‘Whatsoever any particular man hath tooke, he hath it to himselfe, insomuch that many of the country have gotten them horses and ride home on them.’ (1)

Almost a year later, on the 6th May 1643 the governor of Banbury garrison – James Compton, 3rd Earl of Northampton, received information concerning a large body of Parliamentary soldiers at Culworth, who were preparing to attack Banbury. The Earl drew out his forces towards Bodicote where he discovered the parliament troops on the opposite side of the River Cherwell. There were about seven hundred infantry (pikemen and musketeers) and five troops of cavalry (troop = about 60 horses). The Earl sent a detachment commanded by a Captain Trist to face them and keep them in action, whilst he advanced with approximately ten to twelve troops of cavalry. Later he found the enemy in close formation in the ‘Town Field’ of Middleton Cheney (near to the present day Moors Drive) where they made a stand – firing their brass cannon and volleys of musket shot in a co-ordinated movement. The Earl then charged them from the front, with Captain Trist on his left wing and Sergeant Major Daniel on his right and routed them. In order to avoid former mistakes by too rashly pursuing the fugitive cavalry, the Earl immediately followed up by charging their infantry – completely defeating them.

After the skirmish the following letter (now in the British Library) was sent to Prince Rupert -

May it please your Highness,

I have received a command from my Lord of Northampton to have waited on your Highness if you were in town, if elsewhere to dispatch one presently to attend your Highness with an account of his yesterday's action; there came towards Banbury from Northampton four troops of horse, six or seven hundred foot, one piece of cannon of six pound bullet, all which came within half a mile of the town of Banbury.

My Lord having only thirteen troops of horse with him, resolved to charge them, in which it hath pleased God that my Lord hath taken three hundred prisoners, killed above a hundred in the place [Middleton Cheney], wounded most of the rest, took the cannon, all the ammunition, as many arms gathered up as four carts could bring, all which is in Banbury; all the foot officers take or slain, but the horse as usually, made haste away, yet many of them came short home: my Lord lost not of all his company above three men, so, humbly taking leave, I rest, Sir

Your Highness's most humble servant.

Philip Willoughby

Oxford 7th May 1643
7 o'clock in the morning  

However, a rebel (parliamentary) account claimed that three shots from their drake (small cannon) killed 30 Royalists and unhorsed the young Earl of Northampton. It was also alleged that most of the rebel prisoners were "shrewdly hurt, the young Earl that day sacrificing to the memory of his father".

(James Compton’s father was 2nd Earl of Northampton - Earl Spencer Compton. He had been a lifelong friend of the Royal Family and was a veteran of the Thirty Years War in Europe, fighting at Vlotho and Breda.

He commanded the horse regiment with distinction as part of the Oxford field army, until his death in action at Hopton Heath near Stafford on 19th March 1643. After his horse fell among rabbit warrens he was stranded amongst Parliamentarian soldiers. He laid into them with his pole-axe, killing several of them before his helmet was struck from his head by a musket butt. Offered "quarter" by them, he is quoted as saying "I scorn to take quarter from such base rogues and rebells as yourselves!" At that point his head was cleaved by a halberd).

What is certain is that 46 rebels were buried at Middleton Cheney church on Sunday 7th May 1643 and this is entered in our parish register. Further casualties were buried at Farthinghoe. In addition the victory persuaded local gentry to supply the Banbury Garrison with two troops of horse and 200 dragoons, just three days later. 

It is recorded that 217 Parliamentarians were killed and 300 taken prisoner – along with their brass cannon, 400 muskets, 150 pikes and almost 500 swords. The Royalists are said to have lost only 3 men – “Nor had any officer so much as wounded except Major Daniel slightly, in the leg.” (2)

In local folklore it has been observed that the north side of the church was considered an unlucky and unfortunate site and this area was reserved the burial of criminals and paupers. Military executions during the Civil War took place on the north side of some churches.(3)  Some years ago elderly village residents remembered that that there was a cross-shaped rose bed in this area of our churchyard which marked the graves of the unfortunate Roundheads. It was firmly believed that the World War 1 memorial was erected on this site. Fact or Fiction? -  Reader decide…

Len Jerrams, a village resident born in 1910, told the story that - a cannon ball, weighing about 14 pounds was kept plain oak chest in the vestry at All Saints Church with the following inscription on it ‘ This shot was dug up at Middleton Cheney, a relic of the battle of the Moors in May 1643, during the Civil War.’ Len also remembered that when he was working with his father, taking down a wall for repair in an old shop (located in Royal Oak Lane near Main Road),–

 “…I found a sword. It was rusty but it had a long blade and the remains of a handle which was ornamented. Undoubtedly it was a strong elegant piece. I took it home and it was kept on a ledge in our outer wash house for many years. Unfortunately it was forgotten with the passing of time and mislaid when we vacated the old house”. (4)

Could this sword have been hidden in haste after the Brackley ambush in 1642, or was it discovered after the clash of  Royalist and Parliamentary troops in Middleton Cheney in 1643?

A year after the local skirmish, Middleton was mentioned again, in this account of the King’s movements after the battle of Cropredy Bridge in 1644:

“Monday morning [st July] about four of the clock, his Majesty, with all his army, drums beating, colours flying and trumpets sounding, marched through Middleton Cheney, from thence to Farthinghoe and Aynho on the hill.”

Local legend has it that King Charles I rested near Middleton after the battle of Cropredy Bridge hence the name of the road located near the Northampton Road, ‘Kings Stile.’

As the Civil War took place around them villagers in our area would certainly have suffered from billeting, pillaging for food, and commandeering of horses and oxen. The latter would have been especially damaging because of its disruption of agricultural work. As contingents from the opposing sides marched back and forth in the area, few would have escaped untouched. The Royalist army was quartered on villages between Banbury and Brackley for much of the time between 1643 and 1645, whilst the Parliamentarian army was besieging Banbury. Each army relied on the nearby villages for provisions; for some of these they were paid and the rest they took by force. (5)

Most of the ministers who had replaced the Church of England priests during these troubled times were Presbyterians and regarded the execution of Charles I with horror. The rector of Middleton Cheney, John Cave was no exception and he was one of the local signatories in a protest against the King’s trial. The short pamphlet is entitled, -

‘”The Humble Advice and Earnest Desires of certain well-affected MINISTERS, lecturers of Banbury in the County of OXON, and of Brackly in the County of Northampton, to his Excellency, THOMAS Lord FAIRFAX, General of the Forces raised by the Authority of PARLIAMENT: and to the General council of WARRE: Presented January 25, 1649, by two of the subscribers.”

The local ministers went on to thankfully acknowledge their debt to the Parliamentary Armies which had brought them ‘in a fair way of being restored to a long desired enjoyment of our Religion and the Estates in freedom’. Yet the trial and possible execution of the King was a different matter. The Ministers declared that they were constrained to speak out because of ‘our own Station Watchtower and give warning either of approaching sin or ruine to the Natione.’  they could not ‘sit down in silence’ without ‘wounding our own consciences, and betraying the trust reposed in us’. They attacked the trial of the king on Scriptural, Historical, Legal and Moral grounds. But their arguments were not strong enough to save the life of Charles I, he was tried by a Puritan-controlled court, convicted of treason and beheaded on Tuesday 30th January 1649.

The Civil War has been described as the greatest tragedy of English history. For many of the people involved, whether by choice or accident – and almost everyone was involved to some extent – the issues which divided the two sides may have been clear enough, but the choice between them was always agonising. The outcome of Cromwell’s eventual victory was a period of absolute rule quite as arbitrary as anything that had gone before; and in the meantime a hundred thousand people were dead.

FOOTNOTE

In fact there were three Civil Wars: the first from 1642 to 1646 ended with the surrender of Charles I to the Scots and his imprisonment on the Isle of Wight: the second Civil War in 1648, leading to the trial and execution of the King, and finally during 1649-51 Charles II’s attempt to regain his father’s throne which ended with defeat at Worcester.

Banbury was held by Parliamentary forces during the first weeks of the Civil War, but fell to the Earl of Northampton on 29th October 1642; town and castle served as a Royalist base for the rest of the war. Parliamentary troops under John Fiennes overran the town in August 1644 but, despite a three month siege were unable to take the castle – the Parliamentarians established their HQ in St. Mary’s Church and their battery in the churchyard – and were driven off by the Earl of Northampton on 26th October. Col. Walley captured the town without difficulty in January 1646 but his initial assault on the castle was fiercely repulsed and the 3,000 Parliamentarians settled down for a long siege. Sir William Compton and his 400-strong garrison surrendered five months later, on 8th May. The large, double bailey castle was slighted after the war and today nothing survives except a section of the moat and fragments of curtain wall. Medieval St Mary’s Church has disappeared and the present building dates from 1800. Banbury museum contains many relics from the Civil War in the area (6)

1. The Book of Brackley by John Clarke (publisher Barracuda Books) 1987

2. Edgehill and Beyond – The People’s War in the South Midlands 1642-45 by Philip Tennant (publisher -   Alan Sutton) 1992

3. The Folklore of Warwickshire by R. Palmer (publisher Batsford) 1976

4. A Brief History of Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire with Childhood Memories by Leonard W. Jerrams  1984

5.Charlton And Newbottle; The History of Two Villages. Editor P D G Hayter (publisher The  Charlton and Newbottle History Society) 2000

6. The Cromwellian Gazetteer; An illustrated Guide to Britain in the Civil War and Commonwealth by Peter Gaunt (publisher Wrens Park) 1987

also

Northamptonshire by Tony Ireson (publisher Robert Hale Ltd.) 1964  

Civil Strife in the Midlands 1642-1651 by R.E. Sherwood (publisher Phillimore ) 1974

researched by Nancy Long

(Voluntary Village Archivist – Middleton Cheney Parish Council)

THE PIKE – had two main roles on the battlefield; to protect the musketeers from charging cavalry, and to defeat the other infantry at ‘push of pike.’ Pikes varied in length from 15 - 18 feet (4.5 - 6m), were usually made of ash and were steel-tipped. they were heavy, unwieldy but cheap. Pikemen needed to be strong men, and when massed in blocks they were fearsome fighters. On the battlefield, imagine two blocks of men clashing with pikes charged. the impact is crushing and the rear ranks drive forward pushing their comrades through the opposition.

THE MUSKETEERS – provided the firepower in Civil War battlefields. Normally sent forward to start the engagement, musketeers could deliver a hugh amount of lead shot at the enemy, causing casualties and breaking morale. Deployed in mass formations, musketeers could either fire in small groups (by rank or file) to maintain a steady rate of fire at the enemy or by massed salvo (firing altogether) to deliver a devastating volley. The standard musket was a matchlock. It was fired by bringing the glowing end of a length of slow-match-cord into contact with powder in a flash-pan which in turn ignited the charge in the barrel. The musket ball was about the size of a marble and was effective up to about 100 metres. It was a simple system, and reliable as long as its constituents were dry – if either your powder or match became damp it was useless. A skilled musketeer could reload in under a minute, but if there was no time to do that the weapon was reversed and used as a club.

OFFICERS – each regiment had its own officers, drummers and colours. They came from the established landed gentry but with the formation of the New Model Army in 1645 Oliver Cromwell sought to replace less competent officers with men promoted on ability and skill in warfare.

DRUMMERS – were a significant part of the regiment. Their main function was to beat the few basic orders on the field of battle – such as advance, retreat and reform on the colour – which would not otherwise be heard above the noise of the battle. They also beat while on the march to keep everyone at the same pace (marching in step would not become common in the English army for another sixty years). They were better educated and better paid than ordinary foot soldiers and they were always men – ‘drummer boys’ only became a feature in the next century.

THE TRAYNE (ARTILLERY) – refers to the heavier field pieces (4 – 17 pound shot) and the heavy cannon (up to 64 pound shot) of the siege batteries. On the battlefield the guns would form a battery at a chosen position where they could harass the opposing army but be defendable from cavalry attack. They would try to force the cavalry further back, cannon balls fired from half a mile away still travelling at 400 miles per hour could do a lot of damage both physically and to the morale of green troops.

THE HORSE – Cavalry played a vitally important role in 17th Century warfare as, correctly deployed, it was the tactical strike weapon of the age and indeed, remained so, right up until the end of the Victorian era. Generals in the Civil War (most notably Prince Rupert and Oliver Cromwell) fully appreciated the awful devastation that could be wreaked among the Foot by fast moving, flexible and well directed cavalry advances, full on charges and more subtle flanking manoeuvres.  The trooper’s horse was medium sized, nimble and ‘sad’ coloured, that is – black or brown so as to be hard to see in poor light. All cavalry men used long, straight swords were primarily slashing rather than jabbing weapons. In addition, many troopers would carry other weaponry, such as a brace of pistols, a carbine, or a poleaxe.

THE BAGGAGE TRAIN – Armies of the period, and for centuries before and long after, would be accompanied by not only those needed to support an army on the move – sutlers to provide food, barber-surgeons to tend the wounded, traders, blacksmiths – but also many of the soldiers’ wives and children.

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