by Scot Reeves
May you live in interesting times
Although in the 1640s Malmesbury people had never heard of this Chinese curse they certainly lived in interesting times.
They saw two battles and countless skirmishes in less than two years. They had to feed, pay and house both the parliamentary and the king’s soldiers for most of the time from 1642 to 1646. When the town was not occupied by an army they were subject to taxing raids by both the Roundheads and the Cavaliers.
Malmesbury was clearly for the parliamentary cause. They elected two M.P.s who backed the parliamentary leaders’ grievances with the king and supported the taking up of arms against the king’s forces.
Pre war rebellions
The old feudal system, where people were tied to the land and the Lord of the Manor, was breaking up. 100 years earlier the abbey’s not inconsiderable land was taken by Henry the 8th and sold to William Stumpe a local rich mill owner. People wanted land to farm to protect them against the recession in the woollen industry and the rising cost of food. They saw the king and his agents, like Archbishop Laud, frustrating their need to own land. In addition many people feared that the king was seeking to go back to the times before the reformation, turn the Church of England into a Catholic Church and was in league with the old powers of Roman Catholic Europe.
There was a land dispute in Malmesbury around 1610 when a leading Malmesbury citizen, with the agreement of the old Corporation, enclosed part of the common. But when he and his workers tried to farm the land angry Malmesbury people who were led by a blacksmith and a baker proceeded to take down the fences, hedges, gates and styles to return the land to the common. A Malmesbury glover complained on behalf of many Malmesbury people
“that some of the richer sort have lately secured the heath with ditches and hedges to their own private use.” “The enclosers ploughed up the common that they leased from the new and exclusive town Government.”
But the intense action against enclosing common land for private farms took place in Braydon Forest from 1631 to 1635. This was a virtual uprising against the king dividing the forest into individual farms and then selling and leasing the land.
The Royal Forest of Braydon covered a vast area in North Wiltshire. The forest ran from Cricklade in the east to the eastern suburbs of Malmesbury. All used it to keep their Sheep, Cattle and Pigs. This was a useful additional income in good times but in bad times it became a vital protection from poverty and destitution. In the 1620s there was high inflation with the price of bread reaching an all time high in 1631; in addition the woollen mills were suffering from a severe recession. Yet this was the time that King Charles chose to take Braydon Forest from the people. They naturally resented having to pay for land that they previously, by ancient custom, had free use off.
They assembled in large groups to take down the new fences to return the land to the common so all could use it again. The authorities were unable, or in some cases unwilling to stop this. In one instance when men sent by the king and the Sheriff tried to intervene they were met by 1,000 armed men who abused and shot at them.
This was a popular uprising led by small puritan tradesmen and farmers against the Royal Government that lasted from 1631 to 1635. Puritans took their sense of justice, law and authority not from Lords, Priests or indeed the king but from their own reading and interpretation of the bible. They were to become the bedrock of popular support for the parliamentary cause in its war against the king 10 years later.
In 1641 over 80 Malmesbury men on hearing that an old “Catholic” parade was taking place from the Tetbury parish Church on a Sunday marched to Long Newnton and beat the people taking part in the parade with sticks. Having smashed the “papist” parade they marched back to Malmesbury.
The enemy within
The dispute between parliament and the King erupted into armed conflict in the summer of 1642. London sided with Parliament and the King set up a rival capital at Oxford. All of the Wiltshire towns sided parliament Devon and Cornwall raised a strong army in support of the king. Prince Rupert the King’s Nephew attacked Marlborough and was driven off with the aid of the local unarmed Town’s people.
Parliament decided to put Edward Baynton and Edward Hungerford at the head of its Wiltshire troops. Baynton was put in charge of Malmesbury and Devizes; the two towns most at threat from any Royalist attack, While Hungerford based himself in Cirencester. Baynton withdrew all his soldiers from Malmesbury to Devizes. Malmesbury citizens were disturbed by this as the town was now undefended and an easy prize for the Royalist forces from Oxford. They, therefore, asked Hungerford to establish a garrison in the town. Edward Hungerford accepted and marched from Cirencester to Malmesbury. Baynton responded by sending Lieutenant Edward Eyre with 120 dragoons apparently to help defend the town.
The reality of Eyre’s mission became all to clear for on the very night of his arrival in Malmesbury he burst into Hungerford’s bedroom with some of his dragoons and took him prisoner. Baynton then returned to Malmesbury to take command of the town’s defences. When the news of these strange events reached Cirencester Hungerford’s soldiers immediately went to Malmesbury and during the night broke into Baynton’s and Eyres quarters and after a skirmish captured them. All this happened within a few short days in the middle of January 1643. We know that one soldier was killed in this bout of craziness and he was buried in Malmesbury Abbey. The burial record states “unknown soldier who was shot at the bringing in of Baynton, being one of Hungerford troopers.”
Malmesbury citizens must have been completely bewildered by all of this. In a few short days the town’s situation changed from having no parliamentary forces to protect them to two parliamentary armies shooting at each other in the middle of Malmesbury.
Parliament in London had a brief investigation into these strange events and appointed Hungerford as the officer in charge of all their forces in Wiltshire. Within 2 months he repaid their confidence in him by abandoning Malmesbury not once but twice to enemy forces.
After a fierce battle on February the 2nd Cirencester fell to royalist forces. On hearing this news Hungerford abandoned Malmesbury but he did leave a Major Traill and 6 soldiers to welcome the Royalists. Malmesbury was immediately occupied by 400 Royalist troops under the command of Colonel Herbert Lunsford.
Parliament then appointed William Waller to be in charge of all their forces in the South West. His first task was to secure Bristol he then turned his attention to Malmesbury. Edward Hungerford had a large house and no doubt land at Rowden. The Royalists rode out to seize his property. Waller heard of this and sent 100 horsemen, under the command of Burghell, to protect Hungerford’s House. They chased the royalists to Sherston and on the 20th of March attacked the royalists there capturing and killing 25 and dispersing the rest. With the threat of Waller’s Army the Royalist garrison at Malmesbury and Cirencester wrote desperate letters asking the King to send more soldiers and arms. But no help came and the last letter said, in effect, do not bother now for it is far too late.
The Cirencester Royalist Garrison commander on receiving a letter from the Governor of Malmesbury on their dire situation wrote to Prince Rupert, who was in charge of the King’s armed Forces, begging for troops. The last paragraph of his letter says
“See that the enemy is stirring this way, my request to your Highness is that you would be pleased to send some regiment that is armed, and I doubt not that we should be able to withstand any opposition they should dare to make. So with my humble service to your Highness I rest.”
But no help was sent to protect these royalist Garrisons.
Waller attacked Malmesbury with 7,000 soldiers on March the 21st. They marched down what is now Tetbury Hill, across the bridge, along Gloucester Road past St Mary’s Church and the Three Cups pub turning left into Abbey Row where they were halted by the Bar. This was made of wood some 14 feet long with iron spikes. The Royalist commander positioned most of his men with muskets behind this barrier. After an exchange of firing lasting nearly half an hour Waller withdrew leaving 12 of his men dead and wounded at the bar.
Waller next attacked that night under the cover of darkness but not silently: This is the account given by Waller in a letter to Lord Essex the commander of all the parliamentary forces.
“I caused all the drums to beat and trumpets to sound, drawing both horse and foot into the streets: as in preparation to an assault which gave the enemy much apprehension that they immediately sent out a drum and craved a parley.”
This infernal din clearly terrified the royalist troops into surrendering but one wonders what effect it had on Malmesbury residents. At 8 a.m. on the 22 of March 1643 Waller’s troops marched unopposed into Malmesbury taking 300 royalist soldiers prisoner including their hated commander Colonel Lunsford and securing the town for parliament. But they never held it for long. After sending the prisoners to Bristol Waller handed over the security of Malmesbury to Hungerford leaving him with a company of dragoons to supplement Hungerford’s own regiment.
What happened next was astonishing for it amounted to the height of cowardice, if not betrayal. At least Waller thought so and who could blame him of thinking so. Waller wrote a letter about Hungerford’s actions just a few days later to Essex and Parliament. For within 48 hours of the battle all Hungerford’s troops had left Malmesbury and he himself had fled to Bath.
As Waller wrote to Essex and Parliament
“We left him (Hungerford) not without commanders; he had two sergeant majors able men and companies of his own regiment, and a company of Dragoons with ammunition and two hundred muskets to put into the countrymens’ hands that offered them selves very freely. We conceived that Sir Edward Hungerford’s power in the county with that strength, would easily have defended the place; but for reasons best known to himself he quited it.”
What the local people thought of all of this is not recorded but they must have been very bemused. They were for parliament; Waller thought that 200 of them were more than willing to fight for the cause and against the king’s forces. On the 25th of March the town was reoccupied by royalist troops and a Colonel Bampfylde made its governor. Far from Hungerford’s men deserting him, and the garrison having no weapons or ammunition, as Hungerford maintained, the Royalists took 400 prisoners and found 8 guns and a large quantity of ammunition that Hungerford had left behind when he ran away to Bath.
Meanwhile Lord Essex, who was in charge of all the parliamentary troops, decided to do something with his Army. On April the 15th he marched to Reading, a royalist stronghold not far from Oxford the King’s capital, and began a siege. This caused the king to withdraw all of his troops from Malmesbury so they could help defend Reading. Malmesbury people again had control of their town but not for long for they were soon to have yet more troops “protecting the town”.
In May another Parliamentary Garrison was established in the town with Colonel Thomas Nicholas Devereux in charge of the troops.
The King visits Malmesbury
The Royalists having had a significant victory over Waller in Devizes on July the 14th were emboldened to send enough troops to capture Bristol. This being a major port was vital to the King’s cause but the main Road from Oxford to Bristol ran through Malmesbury. So it had to be captured and on the 21st of July it was. There was a brief skirmish but the guards were easily overpowered with some of Parliament’s troops killed, others taken prisoner and yet others managed to escape in the general mayhem.
Two days later after a fierce, prolonged battle the King’s forces captured Bristol. Charles the 1st when he heard that he now had Malmesbury and Bristol in his hands he hastened to Bristol via Malmesbury. King Charles wrote the following letter to Prince Rupert on the 31st of July, congratulating him on his victory. The letter also informed him that he intended to be in Malmesbury the next day: And
“Send a troop of horse to attend me. The Mayor and corporation of Malmesbury have deserved so ill of me that I will be neither be reasoned by them nor admit them into my company until this matter is settled.”
There is no information on how he settled accounts with these leading Malmesbury citizens. But he never stayed long in Malmesbury as his diary states:
“Aug 1 From Oxford to Farringdon, dinner Malmesbury, supper and bed. Aug 2 To Bristol.”
The Royalists appointed William Howard, the Charlton manor owner, to be the Governor of Malmesbury.
The King held Malmesbury until May 1644 when Col Edward Massey captured the town for Parliament. Massey was the Governor of Gloucester all through the civil war. First he took Beverston Castle just outside Tetbury then moved against Malmesbury.
He wrote to Howard ordering him to surrender, the letter reads like this:
“You are hereby summoned, that you, within one halfe hour after the coming of this into your hands, surrender the same with all arms, ammunition, provisions and other things of service and use whatsoever, Colonel Massie governour of Gloucester for the use of the king and his parliament, now sitting in Westminster.”
The first Paragraph of Howard’s reply reads:
“I have received your summons and without any unsavoury language do return you this answer: That we will maintain this town for the king and Parliament now sitting at Oxford’ on defence of those rights which that pretended parliament now sitting at Westminster have abused and robbed the nation of.”
Massey marched down with his whole army from Tetbury. Marching through Westport the outskirts of the town were soon captured but after a counter attack by the Royalist forces from Abbey Row Massey assembled his entire army at the Bar and began the attack in earnest. Howard’s troops soon fled and many were taken including the Howard’s. There were 12 officers and many soldiers taken prisoner with others escaping by running through the river.
Malmesbury was back in Parliament’s hands. No doubt to the relief of the townspeople. More to their relief was that this time parliament was determined to, and did, hold it for the rest of the war.
Massey appointed Col Nicolas Devereux to be the commander of the Garrison and he remained in post until the garrison was disbanded in the late summer of 1646. Indeed it was the last garrison town in Wiltshire.
But before then the war raged round Malmesbury, sometimes parliament was in the ascendancy at other times the King. The royalists captured Chippenham in February 1645 and its defenders never stopped running until they reached the safe protection of Malmesbury guns. But the question of who would pay the cost of maintaining the troops had to be solved if the soldiers were not forced to resort to plunder and pillage. A system was soon established for taxing and collecting the taxes from all the nearby villages and towns. Malmesbury paid in kind as they housed and fed the troops. All supplies and services that were bought by the officers from local people were fairly paid for and recorded.
King’s letters taken
Until 1646 Bristol was still in the kings hands and Malmesbury being on the main road from Oxford to Bristol acted as a checkpoint for all the traffic going to and indeed from Oxford. Bristol was now the only port controlled by the king.
A group of soldiers patrolling an area just off the main road intercepted important messengers from the king. Including a letter to his wife, who was in Europe at the time, urging her to obtain troops and arms for his armed forces that were on the verge of losing the war. It also suggested that a deal could be made with Lord Essex. This letter was sent to Massey at Cirencester and then on to Parliament. That very night a John Cartwright was having dinner with Col Devereux when he was shown a copy of the letter. He thought it to be so crucial to parliament’s cause that he had the letter sent immediately to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Malmesbury citizens submitted two petitions on the lack of protection they received from the garrison. One probably in 1643 and the other in 1645. They pointed out that they gladly paid in cash and goods for the upkeep of the garrison but the solders were lazy and drunk a lot of the time. The garrison they said was not able to protect their property and land from royalist taxing raids.
At the end of 1646 Oxford was taken by Parliament, the king was captured and so the Civil War came to an end.