War, 1642–1646


Armed Negotiation

The Battle of Edgehill and Its Aftermath

In September 1642, as the King moved westwards from Nottingham in search of support, he was shadowed by the Earl of Essex. Both sides had an eye on Worcester. Sir John Byron was heading there with a large amount of plate from Oxford, intended to finance the King’s war effort – a parallel to the operation foiled by Cromwell in Cambridge in August – and Prince Rupert was sent to secure the city for the King. On arrival Rupert concluded that it could not be defended and by the time that Essex had sent Colonel John Brown ahead to scout the approaches to the city, the royalists were already withdrawing. Rupert posted 1,000 dragoons at Powick Bridge to cover their rear, however, and it was this force that Brown stumbled into on 23 September. Surprised by the encounter, Brown nonetheless ignored the advice of more cautious men, and rushed into an engagement. So hasty was he, in fact, that it was said that resting royalists did not have time to put on their armour. But the surprise did not help Brown – his men were caught in a defile, and met with a counter-charge, and a rout ensued. The psychological impact of this defeat was considerable, enhancing Rupert’s reputation and inducing caution in Essex. However, since the royalists had withdrawn, Essex was able to enter Worcester on 24 September and so both sides were able to claim victory. Once in Worcester, or at least so it was later claimed, the parliamentary troops defiled the cathedral.1

Although there had been clashes and skirmishes over the previous summer, this was the first encounter between elements of the field armies – by most reckonings the first battle of the war. Much worse was to come, of course. On 12 October the King felt able to leave Shrewsbury and seek an engagement with the parliamentary army. Avoiding what had become parliamentary strongholds such as Warwick and Coventry the King moved towards London as fast as possible. On 22 October his troops were quartered in Edgecott, north of Banbury, when he was informed that Essex had moved close to intercepting him, lying only seven miles away at Kineton. The King saw the opportunity to strike a significant blow, and so it was that battle was sought at Edgehill.2

Prior to 1639 England had enjoyed a long peace. Expeditions to Cadiz, the Île de Ré and Germany in the 1620s had been both unimpressive and the sum total of England’s official involvement in European war. Writing in the 1630s with their eyes on continental Europe, and in the 1640s with their eyes on England in the throes of civil war, many people thought of this period before the Bishops” Wars as England’s halcyon days. While from these two viewpoints that is a reasonable opinion, it should not be taken as evidence that England was a completely demilitarized society prior to the Bishops” Wars, or that there was no military experience in the English armies of 1642.3

Military knowledge arrived in England by a variety of routes. Significant numbers of Englishmen had experience of service as volunteers in the European wars, among them a number of significant commanders on both sides: Essex, Hopton, Waller, Sir Thomas Fairfax, Astley, James King (Newcastle’s chief of staff), Ruthven, Lindsey and Prince Rupert to name only a few who figure in this chapter.4 We know more about the Scottish volunteers in those wars, but it seems that, in addition to those in royal armies and navies, an average of 3,000 Englishmen were in Dutch or French Protestant service each year between 1562 and 1642.5 Some of that direct personal experience of warfare had been passed on during the 1630s to the Trained Bands. The appointment of muster masters with military experience, and of the Low Countries captains, was a minor, but nonetheless significant, attempt to update the expertise of the English military. Those who had served also passed on their experience, both about techniques and about their experience of warfare, through personal testimony. The fledgling news industry, permitted to publish foreign news during the 1620s and ”30s, reported military affairs on the continent. This, and the oral networks with which it intersected, spread awareness of war and its costs to many English people. Maimed soldiers, and swaggering veterans, were familiar stereotypes during the 1630s. The escalating conflict and changing military tactics spawned an impressive technical literature and this too was current in England. This was of significance not just to armchair generals, but to aspiring combatants too: Edward Harley, evidently anticipating the onset of war in March 1642, paid a bookseller’s bill in which at least one third of his thirty purchases were directly concerned with military matters. This no doubt informed his transformation from scholar at Lincoln’s Inn to colonel in the parliamentary armies. Obviously, such technical advice was available to many others.6

Although the crown had complained about the Trained Bands for much of the three generations prior to 1640, they did nonetheless provide a basis for military mobilization. Some, particularly those in London, were significant forces, well-armed and regularly drilled. Despite local apathy, or hostility, energetic lieutenants had in some places managed to foster a degree of military training. In Great Yarmouth in 1638, and in London the following year, there had been military exercises which gave a taste of what was to come. Of course, the Trained Bands were less than perfectly armed and drilled, had no experience of actual combat and had been the object of governmental concern for years, even generations. Nonetheless, in 1642 they provided a useful stock of arms, and some useful military skills. The King, on his progress from York to Shrewsbury, had tried to muster the bands, or take their arms, and the London Trained Bands provided the core of Essex’s army.7

Warfare did not come to Englishmen from a clear blue sky, therefore. There was a limited but still significant pool of direct experience, evident in the command of both sides, and a wider pool of second-hand, drilled or theoretical knowledge. This extended to the rank and file, in the form of experience in the Trained Bands. It was some time before these rudiments were transformed into armies to impress the major European powers, but the thousands of men gathered between Kineton and Edgehill in October 1642 were not completely unprepared for what was about to happen. However, although there was enough expertise available to hold a proper battle, the experience that followed was undoubtedly shocking for many participants and observers.

Edgehill presents a steep scarp face to the plain below, reaching 1:4 in places, and it was below this commanding promontory that Charles’s army took up position to confront the parliamentary army.8 Essex was apparently surprised by the news that battle was about to be joined – he was on his way to church at 8 a.m. on the morning of 23 October when intelligence was brought to him of Charles’s movements. The standard battle formation in the seventeenth century was for infantry to line up in the centre, flanked on either side by cavalry regiments, and this the royalists did at the foot of the hill. But this precipitated the first of many quarrels in the royalist command. The King’s general, Lindsey, favoured ranging his infantry according to Dutch practice, a preference which reflected his own experience of service under Maurice of Nassau. Prince Rupert, although only a cavalry commander, had been granted a commission which meant that he took orders directly from the King, not the general. He favoured the more complex Swedish infantry formation, which had been very successful under the command of Gustavus Adolphus. Others present had experience of these questions – Ruthven, who had served with Gustavus, and Astley, who had served with Maurice. If this exchange reveals a relatively informed expertise among the command it also reveals the problems of command structure which bedevilled both war efforts, but particularly that of the royalists. Lindsey, having lost the argument, told the King that he would prefer to serve as a colonel facing Essex, since the King did not trust him as his general. This he did, and he received a fatal wound in the ensuing battle.

Essex would have preferred to wait for reinforcements, which were known to be on their way, but could not avoid battle with the royal forces in such close proximity. The parliamentary force was, accordingly, drawn up with infantry in the centre, cavalry and dragoons on either side and, crucially as it turned out, two regiments of cavalry in the rear. They were perhaps caught on the hop, trying to move to reinforce the cavalry facing Rupert but failing to make the manoeuvre before battle was joined. In any case, the battle opened with exchanges of artillery fire which lasted an hour, but did little damage. It was Rupert, commanding the cavalry on the royalists” right wing, who initiated the real fighting, when he led a devastating charge against the parliamentarian cavalry. At almost the same time Wilmot, on the other royalist flank, led a similarly successful charge, and a second wave of royalist cavalry charges joined the pursuit of the fleeing parliamentarians.

This pursuit was unfortunate, and a sign of inexperience. A royalist victory would have been much more likely had the cavalry regrouped and supported an assault on the parliamentarian infantry. As it was, with the royalist cavalry in exultant pursuit of the parliamentarians through Kineton, Astley was left to lead the royalist infantry forward without cavalry support. The second line of cavalry had disobeyed an order from Rupert not to quit the field, perhaps confused by the shape of the battle, and something similar seems to have happened on the other wing, where it was not immediately clear that the parliamentary cavalry had indeed been scattered.


The battle of Edgehill

With the cavalry gone, the infantry battle came to a grim ‘push of pike’. As the infantry closed they faced each other at close range, firing volleys, until hand-to-hand combat was joined. Safety depended on mastering fear and maintaining the ranks, which could also withstand a cavalry charge, since horses would turn away from a solid rank of men. Among these raw recruits, however, that discipline was not easy to maintain and Nathaniel Fiennes remembered many years later the sight of four regiments fleeing their colours without a fight in the face of an intimidating cavalry charge.9 As the two bodies of infantry closed with one another the parliamentarian cavalry regiments that had been held in reserve were able to advance through the gaps in the parliamentary infantry formations and inflict heavy losses on the royalist infantry. These were terrifying moments for foot soldiers, what all the drill was designed to avoid, when they enjoyed little protection:

when the horsemen fall in amongst the infantry and cruelly hack them; the poor soldiers the while sheltering their heads with their arms, sometime with the one, then the other, until they be both most cruelly mangled: and yet the head fares little better the while for their defence, many of them not escaping with less than two or three wounds through the skull into the membranes, and often into the brain.

But flight was hardly an attractive option either if the enemy pursued, ‘his hinder parts meet with great wounds as over the thighs, back, shoulders and neck’.10 If Rupert had not belatedly succeeded in rallying some of his cavalry and returning to the field, the parliamentarian cavalry might themselves have secured an outright victory for their army.

When night fell, however, the two sides had fought themselves to a standstill. They slept in the field and overnight there was a sharp frost. Sir Adrian Scrope was among those seriously wounded. Left for dead and stripped, he spent the night among the fallen. It was common throughout the war for the fallen to be stripped, so that in the morning the field was covered with naked corpses. Waking in the morning he pulled a corpse on top of himself for warmth, and survived. William Harvey, the great anatomist and physiologist, to whom we owe this story, noted that the cold had probably saved Scrope’s life by slowing his bleeding.11 Harvey himself had left London with Charles and at Edgehill was given care of the Prince and the Duke of York (it was the later recollections of the latter that furnish us with important details about the battle). Taking cover behind a bush, he took out a book and read ‘but he had not read very long before a bullet of a great gun grazed on the ground near him, which made him remove his station’.12

Harvey was probably not the only one to receive a rapid education at Edgehill. The King, shocked by the sight of sixty corpses piled up where the royal standard had flown, huddled over a small fire through the night, unable to sleep because of the moans and cries of the wounded. At Edgehill as elsewhere, the proportion of wounded to dead was higher among officers, probably because they received medical help more promptly. When the two sides faced each other the following morning it was clear that many men had been less fortunate than Sir Adrian Scrope: according to one account ‘the field was covered with the dead, yet no-one could tell to what party they belonged’. Cold and hungry, many witnesses seem to have experienced a kind of lethargy, a numbness that made further action difficult. Sir William Le Neve, sent by the King to demand surrender, was rebuffed, but he reported ‘trouble and disorder’ on the faces of Essex and other senior officers.13 Soldiers had not eaten for a day, and the horses were also probably unwatered.14 There was little willingness or capacity on either side to renew the engagement.15 Among the dead was Sir Edmund Verney, committed to the cause against his political judgement, but in gratitude for the patronage he had enjoyed from the King. He died carrying the standard in the royal lifeguard, apparently having killed two men with his own hands, including the man who killed his own loyal servant. He had broken the point of the standard at push of pike. One story had it that the parliamentarian soldiers had to cut his hand off in order to take the standard, and that he was also wearing a small ring with a miniature portrait of the King.16

About 1,500 men had died, evenly divided between the two sides, and the battle is usually reckoned a draw. But the royalists emerged with a clear advantage since the road to London was now open. Essex had withdrawn northwards to Warwick, allowing the King to move south, securing first Banbury and then Oxford. A rapid advance might have taken him straight to London, with enormous political dividends, but he hesitated, resisting the suggestion that a flying column of 3,000 men be despatched to arrive in London in advance of the regrouped parliamentary forces. This fateful decision may have been taken on the morning after, to allow time to bury the dead, treat the wounded and to take stock, but it seems more likely that the discussion took place some days later. Either way, and although there was perhaps a clear chance to capture London, it is probably an exaggeration to say that it was Charles’s chance to win the war, at least if that is taken to mean his chance to impose his own terms for a settlement. Certainly, a decisive victory at Edgehill, if it had been achieved, would not in itself have ended the war: it is very unlikely that resistance elsewhere would have ceased, or that the Scots would have stood by while the royalists imposed terms on Parliament.17

In London, news of the battle, and the face-to-face meeting with the horrors of war, affected the political will to fight, partly because reporting was so confused. Three days prior to the battle Stephen Charlton recorded in a private letter reports of a great battle in which, some said, Charles had been captured, and Rupert and Essex (according to varying reports) had been killed. In fact, of course, there had been no battle at all, but Charlton spent an entire morning at Westminster trying to find out more. It was symptomatic of an atmosphere of fevered speculation, of a massive appetite for news which was fed by rumour and flying report. On the day of Edgehill the people of Alveston heard the cannon and, a short while later, saw terrified parliamentarian deserters streaming through the village. Royalist deserters arrived in Oxford the next day, with exaggerated stories of defeat told to excuse their own flight. Two days after the battle villagers of Alveston were able to visit the field to see for themselves and the same day parliamentarian scouts arrived in Oxford, broadcasting news of a crushing parliamentary victory. The reporting in London was understandably confused. Two days after the battle a hurriedly produced pamphlet reproduced a letter from ‘a gentleman of quality’. It claimed a total parliamentarian victory and the capture of Rupert. Two more pamphlets that were no more accurate appeared over the next two days and it was only six days after the battle that firmer news was available in print: a group of parliamentary officers, including Denzil Holles, published their account of the battle. On 2 November a royalist rival was available, smuggled from Oxford.18 In the meantime, it seems safe to assume, rumour was rife.

Chastened, the Commons agreed with the Lords on 2 November to reopen peace negotiations and Sir John Evelyn and other parliamentary commissioners caught up with the King at Reading. Evelyn was refused access, however, on the grounds that he stood charged of treason, and the royalist advance continued. Rupert stormed Brentford, ten miles west of London, on 12 November, allowing his troops to sack it. Sir Thomas May was later to say that this was the date on which the word ‘plunder’ entered the English language. In fact the word was known during the 1630s from reports of the wars in Germany: it was the experience rather than the word that England was now learning. Brentford made clear what to expect from triumphant troops under Rupert’s command. Although Essex had by this time returned to London, the political and military momentum was with the King. On the day before Brentford was sacked the King had agreed in principle to peace negotiations, and suggested Windsor as a venue, but the military option still clearly appealed as his army advanced on London.19

On 13 November the royalist army faced London’s citizenry at Turnham Green. Six thousand men of the Trained Bands had mustered at Chelsea Fields the previous day. At Turnham Green the ranks of London’s defenders had swollen to 24,000, comprising members of the Trained Bands of Hertfordshire, Essex and Surrey, as well as willing apprentices and Essex’s army. Supported by enthusiastic camp followers and with much superior numbers, this people’s army successfully outfaced the royalist forces. Essex’s guns fired a few shots but there was no substantial engagement before the royalists withdrew. This non-battle was in some ways as important as the actual battle at Edgehill. The King returned to winter quarters in Oxford on 23 November.20

Military campaigning was an adjunct to, rather than an alternative to, negotiation. In some places the formation of parties did not really take place until 1643 as an early settlement was sought.21 Peace proposals were more or less continuously in the air, and fighting was undertaken with an eye on the eventual peace. On both sides a significant body of opinion was reluctant to pursue an outright victory for this reason – it would make an honourable peace more difficult to achieve. In fact negotiation had continued almost until the last minute. On 25 August, only three days after raising his standard, Charles sent peace commissioners to Parliament, but they received a very frosty reception. It is hard not to believe that Charles’s approach, and its firm rebuff, reflected a mutual awareness of the disappointing state of the King’s military preparations at that point. Parliament demanded the withdrawal of treason charges and that Charles should take down his standard. These terms were, of course, unacceptable, and the incivility with which the King’s commissioners had been received reflected a fair degree of confidence at Westminster.22 On 5 September, Falkland was sent to Westminster again to canvass peace and holding out the hope of a ‘thorough reformation in religion’, but the approach was once again rebuffed. This seems to have reflected the distrust of Charles among those who remained at Westminster. In its public response Parliament called for the withdrawal of the King’s protection from all those who might subsequently be prosecuted as delinquents, and that his protection be extended to all those who had stood firm to Parliament’s cause. This amounted, more or less, to a public statement that Parliament represented the nation and that Charles’s party was composed of delinquents and traitors.23

How these approaches had been received, and the improvement of the royalists” military position, seems to have strengthened the hand of hardliners of the royalist camp. Henrietta Maria was particularly influential as an advocate of this hard line, and thought that the message of 25 August had threatened to ruin Charles altogether.24 Parliament’s rebuff may also have been a factor in the King’s increasingly successful recruiting drive.25 In any case, by late September, Parliament had become the suitor receiving rebuffs. On 26 September, shortly after the first and disappointing encounter at Powick Bridge, Essex wrote to the Earl of Dorset asking what kind of approach might be acceptable. The response, although receptive in principle to an approach, presented the same stumbling block – the King would not receive anyone who stood charged with treason. By 20 October, Parliament had become convinced of the futility of this initiative and it was declared dead, only three days before Edgehill.26 Pym took this moment, of the dropping of a peace initiative, to launch a proposal for an oath of association, apparently seeking to cement the coalition now that further fighting was inevitable.27

These to-ings and fro-ings have a pattern which persisted for much of the war. The Earl of Essex had delayed his departure from London in early September as he sought the title Lord High Constable of England. This was not (or not only) a personal vanity – what he wanted was the power to negotiate with the King independently of parliamentary control.28 The desire to unite military command with negotiating power offers further demonstration that for many participants the main purpose of the fighting was to negotiate from a position of strength. Throughout the conflict, negotiations took place in the light of calculations about military strength – the actual position and course of the war, and the prospect of outside help. In the autumn of 1642 both these calculations played well to royalist hardliners, as Henrietta Maria’s efforts on the continent seemed to offer a further strengthening of their military position. Her reception in Holland had been disappointing, but in late November she was offered money, and there were soon hopes of help from Denmark and even France. She was also trying to recall English soldiers from service in the continental armies, although it is not clear how many returning soldiers fought for Parliament rather than the King. It is certainly true that Parliament was already currying favour with the Covenanters, offering the abolition of episcopacy in response to the General Assembly’s declared view that unity of religion in the two kingdoms was the best way forward. These undertakings about the future of the English church in the event of a parliamentarian victory further strengthened the resolve of royalists in refusing to deal.29

Over the winter of 1642–3 there was little in the military fortunes of the war, or the diplomatic position, to shift the weight of royalist opinion. Powick Bridge and Edgehill did wonders for royalist morale and, although Turnham Green had raised parliamentary spirits, the fortunes of the field armies had not bolstered their negotiating position. Neither, on the whole, had the numerous regional campaigns. In the autumn of 1642 the royalist forces from Cornwall crossed the Tamar and put pressure on Plymouth. Privateers raised in Cornwall successfully evaded Warwick’s ships and the situation was sufficiently serious by December that the Committee of Safety turned its attention away from the defence of London to the situation in the south-west. Although the royalists did not succeed in taking Plymouth they did summon (that is, demand the surrender of) Exeter on 30 December and stormed Topsham, cutting the city off from the sea, before they were forced to pull back, having over-extended themselves.30

In the north, Newcastle advanced successfully in December, taking York on 1 December, engaging Fairfax at Tadcaster on 6 December and forcing his retreat to Selby the following day. By establishing his position at Pontefract, Newcastle cut communications between what had emerged as important parliamentary bases in the West Riding cloth towns and the strategically crucial port of Hull. The capture of Newark secured communications with Oxford. However, royalist victories for Saville at Leeds and Wakefield were not followed up: Bradford and Halifax resisted successfully and both Leeds and Wakefield were retaken. Nonetheless, the parliamentary hold on Yorkshire was weakened through the autumn and winter, and neighbouring parliamentary commanders – Gell in Derbyshire and Irby in Lincolnshire – were unwilling to help. The capture of Nantwich by Sir William Brereton served to make the military position in the north appear more balanced, but it was really the royalists who had more to be pleased about. Although Newcastle could not easily move south, given the sustained strength of Parliament’s forces in the West Riding and at Hull, his was the better position.31

In Oxford the King’s position was consolidated by the establishment of garrisons at Banbury and Brill. The parliamentary forces had abandoned Worcester on 5 November, and on 5 December Marlborough was stormed (and ruthlessly plundered). As the Earl of Stamford marched to the south-west to support resistance to Hopton, Gloucestershire was left weakened and the Earl of Hertford advanced through the gap with his Welsh regiments to Oxford, taking Cirencester at the second attempt on 2 February. By early December, Charles was also in a strong position internationally: the Danish court had given encouraging signs of support and the death of Richelieu and the succession of Mazarin as chief minister in France seemed to offer the prospect of French support too.32

Through the autumn and winter, therefore, the King’s military position had become clear: his base in Oxford was consolidated and Cornwall and Wales were in the hands of his supporters. The Earl of Newcastle had established a strong position in the north. His three forces were, however, separated by significant parliamentary forces: Hopton’s advance was blocked in Devon and by Bristol and Gloucester; Newcastle was hampered by Brereton, the West Riding and Hull. Parliament’s power base was also clear: London and its resources were the foundation on which Parliament’s position was established, Sir William Waller had established a powerful position in the southern counties and Parliament had secure control over the south-east.33 Overall, the King’s position was not bad, which meant that his opponents” position was not good (see Map 2).

The rebuff received by Sir John Evelyn at Reading in early November was of a piece with the military action at Brentford and the attitude displayed afterwards: it reflected the growing confidence on the royalist side. On 6 December, John Lilburne, a prisoner from the fighting at Brentford, was charged with treason. Sentenced to death he was only saved by a declaration of the Houses that, if he were hanged, the same punishment would be meted out to all prisoners that fell into parliamentary hands.34 Little had happened since August to dispirit the royalists, or to convince them that they might have to pay a price for high-handedness after the war, although fear of reprisal clearly continued to serve as a restraint.

Parliament, on the other hand, faced more difficulties in stiffening the sinews of its coalition. By November there were two positions emerging in parliamentary ranks as to what would be a sufficient settlement. A number of members, prominent among them Denzil Holles, were horrified by the potential costs of war, as revealed at Edgehill and, in Holles’s case at least, Brentford. Holles had an honourable record as a parliamentary defender of law and religion, and his views were close to Pym’s. He was a much less effective speaker, often referred to as intemperate, but he had also been in at least as much trouble. In 1629 he had helped to hold the Speaker down in his chair to prevent him dissolving Parliament until some final business was rushed through, and had read a paper which denounced Arminianism and unparliamentary customs duties as treasonous. He was arrested, released and finally tried in 1630, living under a whopping bail for the rest of the decade. Given his record it is little surprise that he was prominent in supporting Pym’s programme, including a proper revenue settlement, although he actively worked to save Strafford’s life, presumably because he was his brother-in-law. On two other issues, he tended to caution – in early April 1641 he had spoken about the threat of mechanic preachers and in late 1642 he had direct experience of the trauma of war. Given a military command in the West Country he was present at the parliamentary defeat at Sherborne Castle, where more than half his men were lost. He returned to London, where he recruited his regiment back to strength in time to join Essex at Edgehill, where he was praised for his role. But at Brentford his regiment was surprised. Holles was not there, but one third of his men were killed, and the others captured. According to D’Ewes, writing in late November, he ‘was much cooled in his fierceness by the great slaughter made in his regiment at Brentford’.35 In order to achieve a settlement Holles was willing to see concessions to Charles on the control of civil government, so long as religion was made safe. Throughout the spring of 1643, and the rest of the 1640s, he was a supporter of settlement whenever a formal peace seemed to be possible.

A harder line was taken by others, prominent among them Pym, who thought no settlement was safe without constraints on the King’s freedom to choose officers of state. In his view the King was in the hands of military hardliners, and no peace could succeed while their counsels prevailed.36 Henrietta Maria’s apparent success in raising money for Charles provided the context for the first Assessment Ordinance on 29 November, which imposed a tax by the authority of an ordinance. It was the first of many and, in fact, the form of the tax became the basis for direct taxation for the following 140 years.37 It was also far heavier than ship money and arguably even less legally justifiable, resting as it did on an ordinance. Three days earlier, the Commons had heard a suggestion that a strict league should be entered into with the Dutch republic, an initiative which presumably grew out of the same apprehension.38 On 15 December the counties of Leicester, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, Rutland, Northampton, Buckingham and Bedford were combined in a single Midland Association – an attempt to bolster the war effort by giving it a basis larger than a single county. On 20 December the Eastern Association was formed and, on 31 December, Warwickshire and Staffordshire were associated under the command of Lord Brooke.39 These measures, necessary to secure a stronger bargaining position, were in themselves problematic, both locally and nationally. Pushing ahead with the war effort created new pressures for peace, and reinforced many of the existing ones.

London was also divided between those keen to prosecute the war and those keen to secure an early peace. Although a deputation from the City had approached Parliament on 13 November petitioning against any accommodation40 and made a loan, there was by now a powerful peace movement in London which produced petitions for accommodation through December and January. Throughout the war, in fact, there was a popular royalism in London, drawing on resistance to godly reformation, the financial demands of the parliamentary war effort and loyalty to the monarch. The extent of this can be gauged from the known support offered to the royalists from London and the prosecutions for words spoken against the parliamentary cause. On 8 December a crowd gathered at Haberdashers” Hall, site of the meeting of the Committee of Both Houses for the Advance of Money: originally responsible for raising supplies for the army it had oversight of the imposition of penal taxation on neutrals or passive royalists who had failed to lend money or supplies voluntarily. It was one of the nerve centres of the war effort, in other words, and active parliamentarians present that day were jostled. Four days later a meeting of the City’s Common Council was disrupted by a large crowd. They were identified as royalists by their opponents, but what they demanded was peace: when someone shouted ‘Peace and truth’ someone else immediately replied ‘Hang truth! We want peace at any price’. There was violence outside, prompted by the arrival of soldiers going about other business, and petitioners were openly threatening to pursue more violent courses if their demands were not met. Pressure was maintained through the rest of the month, and peace petitions were presented on 17, 19 and 22 December. They drew on the ranks of prosperous and middling tradesmen, and men of relatively conservative religious views can be identified as prominent among them. They seem to have identified the Lords rather than the Commons as their most sympathetic audience.41 The threat of disorder may have lain behind the closing of the theatres in September and the ban on bear-baiting on 12 December.42 In early January a further escalation took place, when a large number of apprentices gathered in Covent Garden to call for peace, threatening to plunder houses there. Their petition claimed 20,000 signatures (probably an exaggeration), but it was agreed that it could be presented only by a delegation of twenty.43

Maintaining the war effort in Parliament and London was a political problem, just as it was for the King in Oxford and the royalist heartlands. The seriousness of the problem entered the calculations of each side about the military strength of their enemy’s position. Two days before the apprentices” peace petition was presented Edgehill was in the news again. On 1 January, between 3 and 4 p.m., ghostly apparitions appeared there that seemed to point to God’s desire for peace. ‘[F]earful and strange apparitions of spirits as sounds of drums, trumpets, with the discharging of cannons, muskets, carbines, petronels’ caused ‘terror and amazement of all the fearful hearers and beholders’. Four days later people in Kineton heard ‘the doleful and hideous groans of dying men… crying revenge and some again to ease them of their pain by friendly killing them’. Trembling in their beds, they heard what appeared to be the beginning of an assault, which sent many to hide in corners or under their bedclothes. Those brave enough to look out of their windows saw horsemen riding against one another before vanishing. The following night a strong watch was set and many people witnessed a full-scale battle, which began at midnight and ended ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ at daybreak.

These events were reported to the King by Samuel Marshall, the minister of Kineton, and Charles sent six men from Oxford to investigate. Having stayed several days they saw and heard these phenomena for themselves and were able to identify a number of the apparitions, including Sir Edmund Verney. Robert Ellit, who claimed to be an eyewitness to these events, had a pamphlet published, as did Thomas Jackson, whose pamphlet rehearsed essentially the same story, with more detail, and was certified not only by Marshall but also by William Wood, JP.44 Sky battles such as this were an unusual but not unknown phenomenon, and were widely regarded as having a contemporary political meaning. They could be seen as a kind of ‘special providence’, a direct message from God, and certainly belong with a wider interest in such wonders: these years seem to have been good ones for such wonder pamphlets.45

That such phenomena meant something was obvious, but it was less clear what they meant, and authors were characteristically wary about interpreting them very directly. The New Yeares wonder was cautious but did note a fairly limited meaning: some learned observers suggested that a search be made for unburied carcasses, which, being duly done, revealed that there were indeed some.46 A great vvonder was bolder. Historical precedent suggested that such diabolic visitations ‘appear either in premonstrance of God’s Judgements, or as fatal ambassadors to declare the message of mortality and destruction to offending nations’. Following such signs God afflicted Germany and other places ‘with the horror of a civil and foreign wars’.47 The fact that this apparition appeared at Christmas-time suggested that ‘the saviour of the world who died to save mankind, had been angry that so much Christian blood was there spilt’. But here, of course, interpretations might differ as to the fault, or even the response that was required. Ellit concluded that it was the significance of the New Year that really counted: ‘the hopeful and believing Christian to put on new obedience unto heaven, and begin with the New Year, a newness of life and conversation’.48 Both authors concluded that these terrifying apparitions should induce men to seek peace, but Jackson seemed to place the onus for this on the royalists. It was at Edgehill, he rather controversially claimed, that Essex had ‘obtained a glorious victory over the cavaliers’:49 surely such an interpretation suggested a view about whom God might be speaking to. But his conclusion was more neutral: ‘What this does portend, God only knows, and time perhaps will discover; but doubtlessly it is a sign of his wrath against this land, for these civil wars, which He in his good time finish, and send a sudden peace between his Majesty and Parliament’.50 But what, specifically, was the cause of His anger, and against whom was it directed?

These pamphlets saw in the horrors of Edgehill an argument for a speedy peace, and that probably resonated with many people both at the centres of power in Westminster and Oxford, and in the country at large. January saw many petitions for peace or accommodation, and a ‘pleasant dialogue… suitable to the times’ called Peace, and No Peace.51 Open warfare had changed the terms of political debate, and choices made in the tense summer of 1642 might well now seem misjudged; and continued warfare did not seem to be favouring the parliamentary cause either.

On the other hand, pressure for peace raised the spectre of a capitulation, moreover a capitulation to someone who was not trustworthy. Two pamphlets from this period, Plaine English and An Answer to Mis’Led Dr Ferne, gave intellectual support to a stronger parliamentarian line. This is, of course, only a minor part of the press output in these months, but the arguments are significant, and part of a wider pamphlet exchange. Plaine English was sufficiently provocative to produce explicit responses and Richard Baxter, the Shropshire Puritan, religious writer and active parliamentarian, was to claim it marked the death of constitutionalism.52 The fear that Parliament would conclude a weak peace prompted a profoundly radical response.

During the previous autumn a number of pamphlets had considered the right of a parliament to depose a king. An Answer took a strong line on this question, arguing that the authority of all kings was essentially elective, deriving from a view that the authority of the most numerous opinion should prevail. A similar argument was preached before the Lord Mayor in March 1643, the same month that Prynne, one of the three Puritan martyrs of the Personal Rule, published a pamphlet rehearsing numerous historical precedents for deposition. Henry Marten, who had apparently favoured deposition as early as 1641, was imprisoned in August 1643 for supporting such views, but his was clearly not a completely isolated case. Prynne had by that time published the fourth part of The Soveraigne power of Parliaments and Kingdomes, which translated the key arguments of the notorious Vindiciae, contra tyrannos in favour of tyrannicide.53

Implied in this power of deposition was a renunciation of the idea of constitutional balance which had characterized the Answer to the XIX Propositions. In December 1642 the Discourse between a Resolved and Doubtful Englishman had said this explicitly – necessity allowed Parliament to set aside constitutional and legal precedent and the King had no power to reject legislation. This truth about where power lay had been revealed only slowly and that had made it more palatable: ‘that necessity might make the people know that that power was just and reasonable, as fearing the people’s weakness could not digest these strong and sinewy truths, whereunto their stomachs had not of long time been accustomed’. Such truth was all that made us ‘firm, and resolute, and true Englishmen’, however. The Privileges of the Commons had argued, in December 1642, that the Commons was superior to the Lords and in the following March The Priviledges of Parliament argued that the Houses could impose legislation on a dissenting monarch.54

Such claims were difficult to justify on the basis of precedent and rested instead on a radical view of the basis of political authority. They were suggesting in effect that the ancient constitution – the complex of rights and liberties enshrined in the common law and customs of the kingdom – should give way before parliamentary sovereignty. As the author of Touching the Fundamental Laws put it in February, the ultimate authority was not Parliament but that ‘universal and popular authority, that is in the body of the people, and which (for the public good, and preservation) is above every man and all laws’. It was here that Plaine English made its distinctive claim – that the people could renounce the authority of parliaments too, if that body threatened to betray their interests. In the immediate circumstances of January 1643, this threat lay with the dominance of proponents of an easy peace in Parliament, and the absence on business of the more resolute members. The danger was that Parliament ‘out of an intolerable weariness of this present condition, and fear of the event [outcome], agree to the making up of an unsafe unsatisfying accommodation’. War weariness, and fear of the outcome, threatened a betrayal of the cause and of the sacrifices already made which was here being countered by the assertion of political fundamentals.

Jeremiah Burroughs had made a similar argument in December 1642 in response to a direct challenge by Henry Ferne, the royalist propagandist. Ferne had asked: ‘But if Parliaments should degenerate and grow tyrannical, what means of safety could there be for such a State’. What he seems to have hoped would make the claim for parliamentary sovereignty look ridiculous actually prompted a more revolutionary argument.55

Burroughs’s argument rested in part on English freedoms, which distinguished free men from slaves:

There is no country in the world where country men, such as we call the yeomanry, yea and their farmers and workmen under them, do live in that fashion and freedom as they do in England; in all other places they are slaves in comparison, their lives are so miserable as they are not worth the enjoying, they have no influence at all into the government they are under, nothing to do in the making of laws, or any way consenting to them, but must receive them from others, according to their pleasure; but in Englandevery freeholder has an influence into the making and consenting every law he is under, and enjoys his own with as true a title as the nobleman enjoys whatsoever is his.56

Here, perhaps, is an echo of the neo-Roman ideas of freedom expressed the previous summer, now cast as a potential source of resistance to Parliament.57 But there was also an Old Testament view of justice – that the shedding of innocent blood required expiation in order to avoid God’s fury. Bowles put this argument too, in Plaine English:

how can the land by this accommodation be cleansed from blood, that crying sin, which has been contracted by this quarrel… God will not prosper an accommodation without the execution of justice upon these bloodthirsty men… If the people, especially the parliament does not their utmost to wash their hands, and cleanse the land from this innocent and precious blood that has been shed; I fear that blood… will be avenged upon them, which they will believe, when they see their accommodation turned into an assassination.58

This hard line depended for its appeal on a conviction that Parliament was in defensive arms and that Charles could not be trusted – the latter point though was difficult to express or justify in respectable circles. This, and his improving military position, gave the King little incentive to deal with the hardliners, and the open expression of this more radical position was probably more useful in stiffening royalist than parliamentarian resolve. These pamphlets reflected a developing radicalism on the parliamentarian side which was an embarrassment to mainstream parliamentarians and a gift to royalist propagandists.

Arguments about the basis of political authority were of great significance for the future but were not very prominent in the peace proposals which were eventually sent to the King at Oxford in early February. Parliament’s discussion of the propositions for peace through the winter of 1642–3 took place against a complicated but generally deteriorating military position, and complex responses to this new political world. Drafting lasted for several weeks, from late December onwards, in the light of pressure from London crowds. Propositions drawn up in the Lords on 20 December were considered by the Commons two days later. These initiatives were given final form in the propositions presented to the King at Oxford on 1 February. They called for the disbandment of the royal army, the settlement of the church and militia on the advice of Parliament, parliamentary power to make a number of judicial appointments, and pardon and restitution for parliamentarians facing charges or who had been deprived of office. The King’s rejection of these proposals was almost instantaneous. His public tone was sorrowful, but in a private letter he wrote candidly that he thought ‘no less power than he who made the world can draw peace out of these articles’. A victory for Prince Rupert at Cirencester on 2 February further convinced Secretary Nicholas that the parliamentary commissioners would have to settle for less.59

Doomed from the start, negotiations nonetheless continued through February and March. Charles responded with six demands of his own, including restoration of his revenues, towns, forts and ships, and a cessation as a prelude to negotiation. Formally speaking, therefore, the discussion never got to point one of Parliament’s demands – that the royal army disband as a prelude to treaty. The prospects for peace were not promising and (perhaps because) the weight of military advantage was clearly with the King. By late March, Parliament was willing to negotiate its first two demands without a cessation but nothing much in the military situation encouraged flexibility on the King’s part, and the tensions within the parliamentary coalition can only have encouraged him too. By mid-April the negotiations seemed to Parliament to be pointless and the commissioners were withdrawn. Both Whitelocke and Clarendon felt that hardline royalist counsels had prevented progress, although Clarendon felt that this reflected the King’s natural preferences too, whereas Whitelocke felt that the King might have been inclined to conclude a peace.60 In any case, the war had been continuing around the country, and was sure now to last for at least one more campaigning season.

The City authorities, informed by discontent within the City, had sent a peace petition to the King on 2 January 1643. Charles’s reply to the City, received on 13 January, had given little ground. He was clearly no longer averse to publicity, however, seeking to have his answer read at the City Companies. This was presumably a more or less direct appeal to wavering opinion in London. When Charles’s response to the City’s peace petition was read out at the Guildhall, it was clear to Pym (who was present) and others that the King’s commitment to peace was questionable.61 It was this view that eventually won out in the spring of 1643. An easy peace might simply allow Charles the freedom to renege on all the commitments extracted from him. It was this issue, in March, which seems to have cut the ground from under the feet of the proponents of peace in Parliament.

The failure of the Oxford propositions could only mean that the war would escalate in the coming year. The march of Prince Rupert on Bristol in early March sent a clear message, as did the publication of an intercepted letter from Charles I to Henrietta Maria in which he acknowledged the lack of serious intent behind his participation in negotiations. By the spring, those in both Oxford and London who had been hoping and working for peace were despondent.62 The coming year saw successful efforts at administrative and political escalation on the parliamentary side.

In the meantime the influence of ‘peace party’ arguments in the Commons had persisted throughout the Oxford treaty negotiations. By the spring of 1643 this produced little by way of realistic hopes for settlement and drove some writers to think out loud about what to do if Parliament let them down in their fight against tyranny. Secular radicalism, in other words, was in the air, informed by classical and humanist political thought. Motivated by mistrust of the King and fear for the future of the true religion their intention was to break an impasse in constitutional thinking.63Politics were being transformed by war: the reasons for fighting in the autumn of 1642 might no longer seem sufficient in the spring of 1643; the cause being defended might also seem to have been changed. Escalation of the military conflict seems to have posed new difficulties in deciding political allegiances. War was fought in the light of, and as a means to affect, these political choices.

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