Wednesday, 7 November 2012

When Civil War came to Leicester - Part 1

On May 7, 1645, the King and Prince Rupert, together with a huge band of men, marched northwards. Their aim was to regain control of the north of England in the English Civil War, a battle between the English Parliament and the Monarchy, and one which the King was heavily losing at this point.

But they had not travelled far when the news reached them that the Royalist capital, Oxford, was besieged by the Parliamentarian’s New Model Army, lead by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Anxious that Oxford should not fall and uncertain as to its resources, the King and Prince Rupert decided to abandon the march to the north in order to attack the Parliamentary stronghold of Leicester. The hope was to lure Fairfax and his army away from Oxford.

Why Leicester? Well, an attack on Leicester would have great strategic advantages for the King. The city is in the heart of the country with direct links to the Royalist towns of Newark and Ashby. Taking Leicester would create a Royalist stronghold in a growing Parliamentarian region and the King hoped that Fairfax would see this also. King Charles also had “certain intelligence” that the Committee of Leicester was weak and also that their military experience was lacking. Lord Loughborough, a supporter of the King, had also advised Prince Rupert in 1643 of the inadequacy of town’s defences, a situation that had not dramatically improved by 1645. The King’s information was correct.

Lord Loughborough knew this, and a few weeks prior to the siege of Leicester, he organised a plot to take the town by deception. But now with the full backing of the King, the Royalists would be able to exploit Leicester’s weaknesses to good effect. The King summoned his armies that were fighting in the West Country and in South Wales and he met them at Ashby de la Zouch on May 27. Here, he was joined by Lord Loughborough’s troops and 1,200 cavalry from Newark, which swelled the King’s army to more than 10,000 men. The King stayed the night at Ashby Castle before starting his journey towards Leicester the following day.

Prince Rupert played a pivotal part in the Seige of Leicester
The Royalist army was ready for battle and Leicester was about to feel the full wrath of an angry king who had much to prove in a war he was already clearly losing.

A town unprepared
Leicester Castle, of which the Medieval walls still survived, had been re-fortified during the Civil War and the area known as the Newarke, which was also encompassed by a medieval wall and gates was described as resembling a fort.

But the town of Leicester was not prepared for an attack of such magnitude. The rest of the town had already lost its medieval walls by the beginning of the 17th century, except for the town gates, so Leicester’s main line of defence consisted of earth banks, ditches and timber fences, which surrounded its three-mile perimeter. When Mr George Booth visited the town in April 1645, he recorded that the defences were in “weak condition”, an observation that he noted was “most obvious to the unobserving eye."

By late May, there had been some improvement to the town’s defences but there were still too few bulwarks to provide significant covering fire. Those that did exist were placed too far apart to have any significant effect. Many houses were also left standing in the suburbs surrounding the town, which should have been demolished. Some were in pistol range of the fortifications and would help any attacking forces attempting to enter Leicester. But the greatest need was artillery and although Parliament passed an order for some on May 15, it had not been implemented before the fateful day of May 29. As a result, the defenders had just nine pieces of ordnance in the town when it was attacked.

Everyone could see that Leicester was in a poor state. As a Parliamentarian newspaper reported in July 1644, “Leicester is in very grave danger”. The Committee of the town appealed to the adjacent counties for support, with messengers sent to Nottingham, Coventry, Derby and Northampton, as well as to Colonel Vermuyden and Colonel Rossiter of the New Model Army. By the time the Royalist armies had arrived, there was some assistance, but it was only the Scottish Army who answered the call for help, dispatching several hundred of their cavalry to Leicester. It appears that the neighbouring counties were all too fearful of the King’s vast army, and were looking to their own defences. The most effective recruiting came from inside the town itself. About 900 townsmen, aged between 16 and 60 who were able to bear arms, were enlisted to assist the 480 men in the Leicester garrison. It is also noted that only 150 men from the county came to defend the town. With such a small, largely amateur rabble of soldiers to defend the perimeter, Leicester didn’t stand a chance.

And if the Royalists were to break through the defences, the town was short of shovels and spades to repair any damage to the fortifications, and of gabions (earth and stone filled baskets) to protect the gunners and musketeers from incoming musket fire. But the top brass who were in charge of the soldiers were relatively experienced. Colonel Pye was a commander of the New Model Army, as was Colonel Grey. Leicester also had the assistance of Major Innes and his 200 horse from the Newport Pagnell garrison, who arrived in Leicester just before the Royalists. So, against the King’s army of 10,000, the Parliamentary strength in Leicester was in total a mere 2,000 men, split up under the command of Grey, Pye and Innes. Grey took the north and east side of the town whilst Pye and Innes commanded the Newarke side.

Playing for time
On the night of May 29, the Royalists were still travelling towards Leicester, burning down several windmills and one water mill on their journey. The next day at about 8 o’clock, Prince Rupert and his army pitched their tents towards the south side of the town, while the king took up his headquarters in the vicarage of Aylestone, about a mile distant on the south side of Leicester.

While the King lay in the vicarage, his troops, under constant cannon and musket fire from the defenders, raised a battery of “six great pieces” against the town on a “deep, large and strong dry ditch” known as the Raw Dykes. This ancient ground is the remains of a Roman aqueduct that still remains today close to the Walkers Stadium.

The Raw Dykes monument as seen today
At around 1 o’clock that day, Rupert fired two great cannon shots at the town before sending a trumpeter to request the surrender of Leicester. The Prince was not a patient man and after two hours of discussion by the Town Committee in the Mayor’s Parlour of the Guildhall, Rupert was still not given an answer, just a request for more time. The Committee asked permission to defer giving an answer until next morning and also requested the Royalists not to raise anymore batteries in the meantime. Whilst listening to this message, Rupert could plainly see from his lines the townspeople adding further fortifications to the Newarke wall. The Prince angrily sent the town’s messenger back, telling him that if he came again with such a message he would “lay him by the heels” (put him in the stocks).

The Leicester town committee were based at the Guildhall in Leicester
The Town Committee, again requesting more time, sent the same man back to Rupert. The messenger was not seen again. Rupert now sent his own messenger into the town, demanding an answer to his summons within a quarter of an hour or they would face the consequences. As the Committee bickered around the issue in the Guildhall, whistling noises from the direction of the Raw Dykes made the assembly turn towards the window.  The cannon balls started to drop around the Newarke wall. Their time had run out, Leicester was under attack.

The first assaults
It was at 3 o’clock on May 30 when the town was first assaulted. The Royalist battery was set up facing the stone wall of the Newarke which, because it had not been lined with earth, would not survive for long. The defenders retaliated with cannon and musket fire “as fast as they could charge and discharge” and they did have some success, putting at least one Royalist piece out of action with a direct hit. But by six o’clock that evening, a large breach had been made in the Newarke wall (on the north side of Mill Lane). As the firing continued, the defenders, including women and children from the town, worked desperately to try and repair the damage.

The Royalists now planned to storm the town. At midnight, upon firing six big guns, the assault began, with reports stating that Leicester was attacked in seven different places at once. The main bulk of the Royalist army stormed the breach at the Newarke while the remaining soldiers used scaling ladders to attack from the north and east.

The first wave of Royalists to try to gain entry at the Newarke met the town’s best cannon, which pummeled the approaching army, an attack which killed Royalist Colonel St George and many of his men, as well as the gunner himself. Sir Thomas Appleyard followed, battling through the defending fire with great strength and agility.  He became the first Royalist to enter the town that day. This wouldn’t last for long though – the army of Leicester forced him and his men out, and continued to do so in their following three attempts to break into the town. The Royalists faired a lot better in the northern and eastern parts of the town and after lengthy skirmishes and an unsuccessful first wave attack, the Royalists, with the help of some well-thrown hand grenades, managed to scale the defences and gain entry into Leicester.

The south wall of the Newarke
Once inside, they broke down the town gates, began filling in the defensive ditches and levelled the earthworks at several places. Rupert’s cavalry poured in, but the defenders continued to resist. Colonel Pye led a counter attack on the King’s men. Soldiers and townsmen stood side by side, unwilling to surrender themselves to the throne and literally fought street by street, house by house. After fierce hand-to-hand encounters, the besieged were forced to retreat, contesting their ground inch by inch until they made a last stand in the market square (close to the old market cross in Highcross Street) and St Martin’s churchyard. They finally threw down their weapons when faced with a charge of horses. If there had been more defending troops, the town could have withstood the siege for much longer and inflicted even greater losses on the Royalists, who suffered heavily in the attack on the Newarke.

Sacked and Pillaged
But now the real nastiness began. Even though Leicester had formally surrendered, skirmishes continued throughout the town. It is this resistance which drove the Royalists to use excessive violence against those remaining. It was not just the men that were attacked, but the women and children also, a bloody revenge for a town’s tenacious defence. One commanding Royalist commented that “they fired upon our men out of their windows, from the tops of houses, and threw tiles upon their heads. Finding one house better manned than ordinary, and many shots fired at us out of the windows, I caused my men to attack it, and resolved to make them an example for the rest; which they did. Breaking open the doors, they killed all they found there without distinction.”

Civil War re-enactment showing period dress and muskets
Leicester became a den of robbery, rape, wanton destruction, murder, pillage and outrage. Royalist soldiers who entered Leicester that day seized the contents of shops, as well as cannons, muskets, horses and gunpowder. Some of the town Committee were hanged while others were “cut to pieces.” The atrocities committed during the sacking of Leicester were extreme by the standards of the English Civil War and led to comparisons with the terrible sack of Magdeburg during the Thirty Years War.

Many prisoners were also taken and in addition a fine of £2,000 was laid on the town by the king. When. at the end of the Civil War, King Charles was put on trial, Leicester was mentioned as an example of his cruelty. A witness claimed that on the day of the storming, the King had ridden through the town in his bright armour and said of the atrocities: “I do not care if they cut them three times more, for they are mine enemies.” The King also saw the sacking of Leicester as a turning point. The monarch wrote in a letter to his wife: “I may without being too sanguine, affirm, that since this rebellion, my affairs were never in so hopeful a way.” Meanwhile, when the citizens of London petitioned the House of Commons, they referred to “the inexpressible loss of Leicester, and the barbarous cruelties practised there.”

The people called for the Parliamentarian army to be sent for the recapture of the town. Lord-General Fairfax was ordered to abandon the siege of Oxford and march his Parliamentarian army into the Midlands to engage the Royalists in battle.

So what happened next? Did the Parliamentarians fight back and regain Leicester? Find out in our next blog piece.

by Matthew Sibson


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