The English Civil War was a series of conflicts over who would govern England. On the frontline between the two sides, Northamptonshire played an important role in the First English Civil War from 1642 to 1646.
Charles I became King of England, Scotland, and Ireland in 1625. He was an unpopular ruler because of his religious policies, increased taxes, and disregard for Parliament. Over many years, these issues led to the English Civil War.
Charles was married to a Roman Catholic and his own form of Christianity was close to Catholicism. After centuries of religious division and violence, Catholics were disliked and mistrusted. People worried about a Catholic conspiracy.
He also pursued costly and disastrous foreign wars, which Parliament were reluctant to pay for. As a result, he raised money by selling off royal forests and imposing fines. He also reintroduced the hated ‘ship money’ tax without asking Parliament.
Charles believed that he had been chosen by God and did not need to answer to anyone. Many Members of Parliament (MPs) disagreed. After the issuing of Magna Carta and the Barons Wars, Parliament was meant to have more power. However, Charles had so many arguments with Parliament that from 1629 to 1640, he tried to rule without it.
However, when rebellions took place in Scotland, Charles needed to raise a larger army and needed Parliament to increase taxes. As Scottish troops crossed the border, he was forced to agree to Parliament’s demands, including the execution of his closest advisor.
In January 1642, alarmed at the ongoing demands, Charles took 400 troops to Westminster and demanded the arrest of five MPs. The MPs escaped, but this gave Parliament a reason to take control of the army. Charles fled northwards and began gathering his own army. In August 1642, he raised his flag at Nottingham – an official declaration of war.
Many Northamptonshire nobles, such the Brudenells and the Washingtons, left their country houses to fight for the King. Spencer Compton, the 2nd Earl of Northampton, became a Royalist general.
The Royalists (also known as the ‘Cavaliers’) was the name given to the King's supporters. They made Oxford their base, but they had garrisons in Northamptonshire. Towcester was a major garrison from late 1643 to early 1644, defended with guns placed on Bury Mount. Charles' nephew, Prince Rupert, led the Royalist army. They spent the winter in Towcester, looting the local area and demanding payments.
On the other side, Northampton repaired its walls, armed its residents, and declared support for Parliament. The Parliamentarians (also known as the ‘Roundheads’) was the name given to Parliament's supporters. They gathered their army at Northampton and the town became one of the strongest garrisons in the region. After the Parliamentarians captured Rockingham Castle in March 1643, they strengthened its defences and made it another garrison. There was also a minor garrison at a fortified house in Thorpe Mandeville.
There were numerous skirmishes in Northamptonshire, which lay on the frontline between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. In August 1642, 500 locals with pitchforks attacked Royalist soldiers staying overnight in Brackley. The villagers took money and valuables that were destined to help the Royalists in the south. In May 1643, the Parliamentarians suffered a large defeat in a skirmish outside of Middleton Cheney. The Royalists reported that they had killed over 200 soldiers and taken over 300 prisoner. During the same month, there were also raids on Wellingborough, Kettering, and Weedon Lois.
One of the larger skirmishes took place in Grafton Regis. In December 1643, the Parliamentarians laid siege to Grafton House, which had been fortified by the Royalists. The siege only lasted a few days as the Parliamentarians overwhelmed the Royalists, captured the house, and set it on fire. The house’s owner, Lady Crane, complained that she lost money, furniture, and animals worth £5,000 during the attack. Over 600 musket balls have been found on the site.
Overall, the Royalists were successful early on in the war, winning battles and taking towns. However, they were not able to capture London and the tide began to turn after the Parliamentarians made an alliance with Scotland. In 1644, Parliament reorganised its forces into a single army, the New Model Army. Sir Thomas Fairfax became its new commander-in-chief, with Oliver Cromwell in charge of the cavalry. Their first proper engagement was at the Battle of Naseby.
The Battle of Naseby
In 1645, after seizing Leicester, the Royalists were unsure of what strategy to pursue and divided their army. Most of the Royalist army marched south before stopping in Daventry to raid local farms and villages for supplies. Charles stayed at the Wheatsheaf Hotel while his army took up a position on Borough Hill.
Meanwhile, the Parliamentarians also advanced close to Daventry. The Royalists were outnumbered. Realising that they could not get away, they prepared to face the New Model Army. Sir Edward Walker, the King's Secretary for War, explained:
...that Night an Allarum [alarm] was given, that Fairfax with his Army was quartered within six miles of us. This altered our design, and a Council being presently called, resolutions were taken to fight; and rather to march back and seek him out, than to be sought or pursued.
The Battle of Naseby took place on 14th June 1645. The New Model Army moved from a strong position to more neutral ground in order to tempt the Royalists to attack. Prince Rupert led the Royalist army after them, misreading the strength of his enemy.
The Parliamentarians inflicted a huge defeat on the Royalists. Over 1000 Royalists were killed and another 5000 taken prisoner. It was the decisive battle of the First English Civil War. Charles lost nearly all his infantry, artillery, and supply wagons, and was never able to replace them. Although the conflict continued for another year, the Royalists had no hope of victory.
The end of civil war
After the Battle of Naseby, Charles fled north and the New Model Army retook Leicester and other towns. In May 1646, Charles surrendered, ending the First English Civil War. He was held prisoner in several places, including Holdenby House. At Holdenby, Charles was allowed to enjoy the gardens, play chess, and play bowls at nearby country houses, such as Boughton House.
However, civil war kept resurging as Charles and his son, Charles II, tried to reclaim the throne. Whilst a prisoner, Charles tried to negotiate with his enemies and played them off against each other. Angry at his actions, Parliament had Charles put on trial for high treason. He was found guilty and executed in London.
After the Charles' execution, Parliament abolished the monarchy. In 1649, it declared England a republic called ‘the Commonwealth’, with Oliver Cromwell head of state. The new political system did not survive Cromwell’s death in 1858, however, and the monarchy was restored two years later.
Despite the restoration of the monarchy, the political system had changed forever. The monarchy could now only rule with Parliament’s consent. The English Civil War had laid the foundation of the constitutional monarchy system in Britain.