Coventry during the civil wars

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By Wayne Nelmes


Wenceslas Hollar's panoramic "prospects"(1649) and Nehemiah Whartons description of a ‘City environed with a wall co-equal, if not exceedinge, that of London for breadth and height; the compass of it is near three miles of free stone’, all portray a City which still had not changed much since the height of its prosperity during the late Medieval period, when it was the fourth most important city in England after London, York and Bristol.

City’s fortunes by the 17th Century had declined considerably, since its Medieval heyday. The City’s reputation for producing the finest Blue cloth, both here and abroad, was not enough to save it from cheaper and somewhat inferior imports. Another major factor in its decline was the fact that the City was a Monastic one. Whilst its inhabitants were weary of it by the dissolution. They did not foresee the loss of revenue gained from the many pilgrims who visited the various monasteries and priories within its walls. Henry VIII's Vice General, Thomas Cromwell, had reduced most of these to rubble and many of its inhabitants left the once prosperous city.


Even before Charles became King (1612) he was at odds with the City in a row over rental from former priory land. This was settled in court. Not in the future King’s favour. King Charles I further aggravated the city, as elsewhere, by trying to raise forced loans, without Parliamentary consent, to pay for a Scottish war. Those who did not pay were committed to prison for not paying the King’s commissioners. When the King taxed inland cities and towns for Ship Money to pay for the Royal fleet, many in Coventry refused to pay. In 1637, only £65 5s 4d was raised. In 1639 the King wanted £500. This was reduced to £266 13s 4d after a letter was sent, pleading for His Highness to reconsider.

The City had a reputation throughout the ages, for being radical, especially in religious matters. Previously the Lollards found much sympathy in the city. Now, since the 16th century, Puritanism was finding favour with the inhabitants. The King’s policies both financial and religious, had made the people less than co-operative to his demands and ultimately decided where their loyalties were to lie for the coming War.


When William Prynne, the puritan lawyer, came through Coventry on his way to London to face charges of seditious writings in his Histriomastix, he found much sympathy and support in the city. After his sentence, he was escorted back home from London by his Coventry friends. Minus his ears. Archbishop Laud summoned the Mayor to London to answer for the city’s show of support for Prynne and the city was duly fined £200 by the Privy Council.


On the eve of war, the city gathered its arms, (some of which were recently purchased in the capital, to replace some of the antiquated arms the city had in its possession), prepared the wall for a more modern war and hung chains about the city to obstruct large groups of horsemen. Men of standing were chosen as watchmen to stand guard at the main gates around the city. Then they waited.

As society broke down and divided into those who would support the King and those who would not, Coventry found itself part of a bigger, regional picture. The Midlands and beyond were to be fought over and commanded by Spencer Compton, The Earl of Northampton for the King and Lord Brooke for Parliament. The Earl did try to raise troops from Coventry, but 400 men from Birmingham arrived to bolster the Parliamentarian cause in the City and the Earl fled for his life.

Charles wrote to the city demanding its subjugation. The message was delivered by the King’s Herald, Sir William Dugdale. In an act of careful diplomacy, the King was told he was more than welcome to enter the city, but with no more than 200 Cavaliers. King Charles was not a man to be dictated to and decided to take the city by force. The Earl's men bombarded the city walls from Saturday to Monday, but to no avail. When the wall was breached the townsfolk stopped up the gaps with carts, timber and much force. Reports suggest than 70 Royalists were killed and only one inhabitant of the city.

After hearing of a large force drawing near under the command of Lord Brooke and Col. Hampden, the Earl decided to cease besieging the City and to withdraw to join the King and the main Royalist army on its way to Nottingham, where the King was to raise his standard and thus officially begin the Civil War. For the city of Coventry and its people, the war had already begun before the standard was raised.


Now that the Civil War had officially started, Coventry was placed under military rule with the expectation of another siege at any moment. Lord Brooke, a staunch Parliamentarian from the outset of the war, threatened any malignant within the City with martial law. The Earl of Northampton was thrown out of office as City Recorder and none other than Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex and Parliamentarian General, was sworn in as his replacement.

He quickly set about strengthening the city garrison with more men and cannon. The city held 4,000 troops and formed its own citizen's militia. Known Royalists were locked up, had their properties confiscated or fled the city. Security was stepped up and people coming and going through the main gates around the city wall, were stopped and searched. Sometimes in a ‘barberous (sic) and rude manner’.


The King’s Nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, was harrying the county at this time and on 14th October 1642, a letter was delivered to the city asking the council to hand it over to the King. They declined because of the ‘inhuman acts of the Cavaliers, how they had ransacked, pillaged and took away, by force, all that they could lay their hands upon’. The city was therefore ‘forced to denye his Majesty's desires!’.

Rupert attacked the city with his horse, but was repelled by ‘26 pieces of cannon waiting to play on him’. He rejoined the King's Army which, in a few days, would fight a bit further to the South, at Edgehill. Royalist prisoners from this inconclusive but bloody battle, were left in the city with 18 wagon loads of provisions for them.


In 1643, Lord Brooke passed through the city on his way to Lichfield where he would be shot in the face and killed while trying to get to and destroy its Cathedral. This was a serious blow to the Parliamentarian cause. To add to this, Prince Rupert had attacked Birmingham, then a small town centred around Digbeth and Deritend, putting many to the sword, burning down houses whilst shouting ‘Where's your Coventry now? Where's your God Brooke now? You may see how God fights against you!’.

The preservation of Coventry's medieval wall was paying dividends. Birmingham and Leicester would suffer terrible atrocities at the hands of Prince Rupert for not having such protection. The inhabitants of Birmingham had expected help from the Garrison at Coventry, but for whatever reason, it did not come.


Lord Brooke’s replacement was Basil Fielding, Earl of Denbigh. During the Winter of 1643-4 he wintered his troops in the city which caused disorder and continual brawling. Coventry was becoming overcrowded with soldiers and refugees seeking sanctuary and safety within its walls. Food was running short and Aldermen in the city were ordered to expel undesirables, including ‘single women that work at their own hands and separatists that come not to Church’.

Puritanism held sway in the city from 1642 after much Laudist persecution. Anglican ways were swept aside. A number of Presbyterians took refuge in the city including the celebrated Richard Baxter who was later to become Chaplain to Cromwell’s own regiment. He spent two happy years in Coventry. Religion in the City was the same as elsewhere, a mixture of Independents, Anabaptists, Presbyterians and less tolerable ‘sectaries and dividers’ such as Ranters, who were completely put down. When Baxter joined Cromwell’s Regiment he noted how the views if the city’s people differed from those of the Ironsides. The citizens seem to have been far less radical, even behind the times compared to Cromwell’s troops, whose intention was to subvert both Church and State. Baxter was very uncomfortable with this ideology and preferred to be in Coventry and not with an ‘Army so contrary to my judgement’.


Cromwell was in Coventry writing a letter dated 18 May 1645 to Fairfax and Brereton, urging them to ‘join up with the Scots and attack the King’. This was done and another letter was sent ‘Then I know not why we might (not) be in as hopeful a posture as ever we were, having the Kings Army between us, with the blessing of God to bring him into great straights’. Leicester fell and Coventry was on full alert expecting another siege. Luckily, (for Coventry) the King, was as Cromwell put it, ‘brought to great straights’ by the glorious New Model Army at Naseby following a plan conceived by Cromwell in Coventry.

After the defeat of the King’s Army at Naseby, the city stood down. The King had fled westwards and Coventry tried to return to some sort of normality. Cromwell visited the city twice more in this period.


In 1646, 11 regiments of Scots encamped just outside the City and provisions were sent out to them. They stayed put for almost a year and only decided to move north when part of their wages were paid. Their presence would have put a great strain on the townsfolk yet all that is recorded is that the Scots Army received 100 barrels of powder with match and ball from the city armouries. There is no mention of food, drink, etc for men or for horses.

William Jesson M.P. expressed a desire to Parliament, to disband the garrison in the city and to slight the recent fortifications. A majority of 12 voted in favour of this, but the Committee of Coventry was not so sure and petitioned against this measure. Parliament agreed to continue the garrison with only 200 men. The remainder were sent to Ireland.


In 1648, Royalist uprisings in Kent and Wales were put down by Fairfax and Cromwell. The committee was wise to petition and keep some sort of garrison within its walls. After the defeat of the Royalist/Scots army at Preston, hundreds of Scottish prisoners were taken. They were brought back to Coventry and imprisoned about the city. This gave rise to one of the theories for the phrase ‘sent to Coventry’. Townsfolk snubbed the prisoners as they were exercised in the street.


In 1649 Kings Charles I, traitor, tyrant, man of blood was tried and executed. One of his judges and a signatory on his death warrant was a Colonel William Purefoy. He played a prominent role in the trial of the King. He attended all but one sitting saying ‘I bless God that I have lived to see the ruin of the Monarchy, and also that I have been instrumental in upsetting it, for I do here acknowledge that such was my design ever since I was at Geneva, thirty years ago’. Colonel Purefoy was made city recorder in October 1651 and declared that his fee should be spent on repairing the windows, broken by Scottish Prisoners, of St John’s Church. He became Lord of the Admiralty under the Commonwealth and was pursued across Europe, in the hunt for regicides after the Restoration.


News reached the city that Prince Charles had led another Scottish army, heading south, into England. Coventry was re-fortified and a regiment of foote was raised to defend it. On the 25th August Cromwell arrived in the city, followed by forces under Lambert and Harrison. Hearing of a massive Parliamentarian army at Coventry, Charles veered away from the City, west, towards Worcester where the war finally came to an end with the Royalists beaten again, by the New Model Army.


Charles never forgot the city's role during those years. When he was restored he ordered the city's medieval wall be pulled down. He was never going to be kept out, like his father before him.