THE CIVIL WAR IN SOMERSET

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The two principal causes of the Civil War were problems of taxation and religion. The first involved King Charles I's attempts to impose taxation without the consent of Parliament; the second, the efforts to impose changes in the forms of worship within the Anglican Church. To carry out his policy the king was dependent on the collaboration of landowners in the counties, who served the Crown in turn as unpaid lord lieutenant, deputy lieutenant, sheriff and justice of the peace. The breakdown of this collaboration within the county administration, and the resistance in Parliament to the king's demands, led finally to war. Yet this was what most people wished to avoid, and many remained as neutral and as uncommitted as they possibly could.

Somerset had resisted the king's demands for Ship money in 1634 when the county was asked to pay 8990, towards which Taunton was to contribute 100, Bath and Bridgwater 70 each, Minehead and Wells 60 each, Axbridge 30, Ilchester, Langport and Yeovil 20 each. Resistance came from the towns and from some country gentlemen. Petitions were sent to Parliament and the sheriff found difficulty in collecting the money. In 1636 he had to report a deficit of 1425. In 1640, even after a reduced demand, only 300 had been collected by September, an indication of the growing opposition to the king. In religious affairs, too, the example of the churchwardens of Beckington demonstrated the strong Puritan feeling in the county against Archbishop Laud's attempts to restore Anglican ceremonial. They refused to move the communion table 'altarwise'. Yet, in spite of all this, when the war began in 1642, the county on the whole appeared to be Royalist. Most of the landowners and country gentlemen together with most of the country people living on their estates, were for the king. It was in the towns, Bath, Bridgwater, Frome, Minehead and Taunton, that the traders and the workers in the woollen cloth industry were for the most part strongly Puritan and supported Parliament.

The immediate cause of the war lay mainly in the struggle for control of the militia. In March 1642, when Parliament passed the Militia Ordinance and claimed for it the full force of law though it lacked the king's consent, there was little further hope of a peaceful settlement. To meet the threat the king issued the Commissions of Array directing the trained bands to rally round the officers bearing the king's commission. On July 9th Parliament ordered Colonel Popham to call out the Somerset militia; and six days later the Marquis of Hertford, as General of the forces of the six western counties, came to Bath, strongly supported by many of the leading gentlemen of Somerset, to put into effect the king's commission of array and gather more men and arms to put down the rebels. Public support for Parliament was so obvious in Bath that Hertford moved on to Wells which was unquestionably Royalist. While the Royalists attempted to recruit support, the Parliamentary committee met only six miles to the east at Shepton Mallet. Early in August 1642, the first skirmish of the war in Somerset took place, when a small Royalist force of about 80 horse moving from Wells towards Burrow Bridge to bar the crossing of the Parrett, met and defeated a body of Parliamentary recruits of more than 600 men at Marshall's Elm, near Street. Seven Parliamentarians were killed on the spot, and eighteen died later from wounds. So the first blood had been shed in this part of the country, and from then on it was open war between Royalist and Parliament in the West.

It is not possible here to give the names of all those who played important parts in leadership on both sides during the war, but three Members of Parliament from Somerset rose to positions of national importance at this time. The most famous of these, John Pym, was born at Brymore, near Cannington, and as M.P. for Tavistock led the opposition in Parliament and in the nation to the king's demands. As one of the five members whom the king attempted to arrest, he typified the determination of many to resist by force when constitutional methods had failed. The second was Sir Ralph Hopton of Witham, a man of exceptional character and personality, who had served as an officer in European wars. As M.P. for Wells he had at the outset been strong in opposition to the king; but by 1642 he decided that his loyalty to the king must come first, and for a short time was imprisoned in the Tower by order of Parliament. As an experienced commander, second only in skill and leadership to Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice, he proved a great asset to the Royalist forces in the war. The third, Robert Blake, a Bridgwater man of whose early life little is known except that he served briefly as M.P. for his native town in the Short Parliament, rose to fame through his natural gifts of leadership developed early in the war. His success was as local commander defending Bristol, Lyme Regis and Taunton, and later he won distinction as admiral and general-at-sea during the period of the Commonwealth.

Despite their early success, the Royalists found themselves in difficulty with desertions depleting their ranks. Hertford retreated by way of Glastonbury and Somerton to the castle at Sherborne in Dorset where he remained for six weeks. Meanwhile the Earl of Bedford, who had been appointed Lord Lieutenant of Somerset by Parliament, had been sent with troops to assist their supporters in the county. He went first to Wells where he found Royalist sympathy stronger than he expected, and then on August 25 moved quickly on to besiege Hertford in Sherborne Castle. Unable to achieve any success there, he retired towards Yeovil where on September 8 he was attacked by Hopton at Babylon Hill. Both sides suffered losses, but Hertford decided to leave Sherborne and cross Somerset to Minehead where with some of the Royalist leaders he was able to escape by coal-boats to Glamorgan. Hopton marched with the remainder of his forces into Cornwall. Bedford, only a few miles away in pursuit, felt that he had extinguished any hope of raising a Royalist army in Somerset. Taunton, Bridgwater and Dunster were strongholds in Parliamentary hands, while money and arms were collected to support the cause.


Map of The Civil War in Somerset

The winter of 1642-3 saw little military activity in Somerset. Bedford had left the county with his forces to join with Essex in the Midlands; but Hopton was achieving great successes in Cornwall and Devon for the king, and in June 1643 had advanced into Somerset to meet Hertford and Prince Maurice at Chard. This formidable army, with nine regiments of horse and nine of foot, marched on Taunton which surrendered without a fight, to be followed quickly by Bridgwater and Dunster. But looting and lack of discipline among the Royalist troops greatly weakened any support they might have won. Sir William Wailer had moved into Bath, after his victories in Monmouth and Wales, to join with the local Parliamentary forces, who were suffering from desertions. WaIler, whose military experience and ability were similar to Hopton's (they had indeed been good friends until this time) was preparing to prevent the further progress of the Royalist army. The first encounter was at Chewton in the Mendip hills, where the Parliamentarians were routed. After a delay of about twelve days, the Royalists decided to advance on Bath by way of Frome and Bradford-on-Avon. On July 5 preliminary fighting between the advance guards brought the armies face to face on Lansdown Hill, five miles to the north of Bath. Wailer had prepared breastworks and set up his artillery in what appeared to be an impregnable position, but the ferocity of the Royalist attacks and the courage of the Cornish infantry forced the Parliamentarians to retreat to Bath, leaving 350 arms and 10 barrels of gunpowder behind them. Both sides had suffered severely, but the Royalists could claim the victory. Later at Roundway Down in Wiltshire their success was confirmed in 'the most sweeping victory the Royalists ever won . Reinforced from Oxford, the Royalists attacked and captured Bristol, but their losses in commanders and men were heavy. Prince Maurice, with what remained of the western army, marched across Somerset and laid siege to Exeter which surrendered on September 4th. The western counties, with the exception of Lyme, Plymouth and Wardour Castle, were from this date held by the king.

In the summer of 1644 the Earl of Essex, in spite of instructions to the contrary from the House of Commons, decided to attempt the reconquest of the west. Having raised the siege of Lyme on June 15 and gained the consent of the Commons, he pushed on by way of Tiverton to Tavistock, and into Cornwall. The king set out from Evesham with a force which he hoped to reinforce with recruits from Somerset, to crush him. Though the country people came out to cheer the king as he passed through Wells, Bruton, lIchester and Chard, few joined his ranks. Their hopes had been raised by Blake, who with the garrison from Lyme, had taken over and fortified Taunton, after persuading the Royalist commander to leave and hand over the town. Essex was defeated at Lostwithiel, but some of his men escaped to Somerset and Taunton, where, though isolated, the stronghold threatened Royalist communications and supply, and gave evidence of continued resistance to the king. As he passed through the south of the county, where he was joined by Prince Rupert, the king sent a detachment of troops to besiege Taunton. At the same time he received a petition from his subjects in Somerset, who had suffered from the requisitions of both sides for money, provisions and clothing, asking permission to petition Parliament for peace. The king agreed but the petition had no effect and the war continued.

The siege of Taunton, which lasted for nearly three months, brought to the foreground the jealousies and differences between the Parliamentary commanders. The relieving force under Colonel Holborne found that the Royalists had retired to Bridgwater without making any show of resistance. He reinforced the garrison, realising the danger of further Royalist attacks. The remodelling of the Parliamentary army was followed by the formation of a Royalist associated army of Somerset, Devon, Cornwall and Dorset, with the Prince of Wales as captain general under the King. This force was to be centred on Bristol, with Hopton as chief of staff, and one of its first objects was to retake Taunton. The siege began early in April, 1645, but, though the town was badly damaged, the castle held out until relieved on May 11th by a force under Colonel Weldon sent ahead from Fairfax's army in Dorset. This army then left the west to join Cromwell and defeat the Royalists at Naseby, but its withdrawal relieved pressure on the Royalists in Somerset, who, under the command of Goring, once more besieged Taunton. The return of Fairfax to the west forced Goring to raise the siege and advance towards Langport, where on July 9th he drew up his army in a strong position to await attack. The Parliamentarians were irresistible and routed the royal army. They then pressed on towards Bridgwater, still held by the Royalists. On the way, at Middlezoy, Fairfax met the Somerset Clubmen, local farmers and yeomen, who were sickened with the plundering and the 'pressing' of men into either army, and now wanted peace above all else. Fairfax could spare little time for them but promised that, if they agreed not to help the Royalists, he would pay for all the supplies he needed and ensure that his troops committed no offences against the local population.

Bridgwater was strongly defended and protected by the river Parrett, which also filled the deep ditch around the town at every tide. Several days were occupied in working out the plan of attack which was to involve advances from both east and west, using bundles of faggots to cross the moats. The resistance was energetic and effective, but on July 23 damage by fire forced the submission of the defenders, who included many Somerset royalist leaders. Fairfax now proceeded towards Bath which was still held for the king. After an attack on the bridge to the south of the city, the defenders surrendered but were allowed to depart to Bristol, though all arms and ammunition were left behind, The next move was against Bristol. In the meantime two regiments had been sent to take Nunney Castle, and news of its fall was brought to the main body before Bristol on August 21st. Bristol surrendered on September 11th, 1645, and a few days later Farleigh Castle was also captured. Early in November a force under Blake was sent to reduce Dunster Castle, the only place holding out for the king in the county. The garrison, under Colonel Windham, withstood all attacks. Blake tried to storm the castle, using mines to make a breach in the walls, but failed to effect an entry. A little later, a relieving party sent by Hopton succeeded in supplying the garrison with gunpowder and food. Fairfax's successes in the west made relief impossible and, when Windham heard of the fall of Exeter and Barnstaple, he surrendered on April 19th, 1646, after a siege of 160 days. This ended the fighting in Somerset. The king's last hopes had rested on the Royalists in the west, and now they were dashed to the ground. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1648 plans seem to have been prepared for a rising in the county. They became known to Parliament, and a force of 2000 foot was ordered to be quartered in Dunster and Bridgwater. The execution of the king in 1649 brought a strong royalist reaction in Somerset, and the Council of State ordered more troops to be sent there, but there was no open opposition. The young king Charles II, escaping after the battle of Worcester, found willing helpers on his way through the county. He stayed first at Abbots Leigh, with Sir George Norton; then at Castle Cary, with Edward Kyrton, steward to the Marquis of Hertford; and finally, for 19 days, with the Wyndhams at Trent, now in Dorset. He was guided out of the county by Colonel Phelips of Montacute, and embarked for France at Shoreham in Sussex.

The Civil War was far from being total war as that term is understood in modern, times, and it is difficult to assess how greatly it affected the lives of the ordinary people of Somerset. When towns were besieged, there was horror and tragedy, and when armies marched through the county it was difficult, if not impossible, to resist their demands for provisions. Nevertheless, a great deal of the time was free from the immediate impact of war, and the daily round of work in the home and workshop or on the farm had to continue. The records of Quarter Sessions were lost 'during the late combustions of warr in theis parts', and only after 1646 can references be found to appeals for assistance from maimed soldiers and widows of those slain in the Parliament's service, to bridges and roads damaged or destroyed in the fighting, and to churches and houses destroyed during sieges. As disastrous as the war were the outbreaks of 'contagious sickness, plague and pestilence' recorded for the years immediately following. At East Coker, 70 people died in 1645; at Wiveliscombe, 468 people died between October 1645 and August 1646; and at Yeovil in 1647, 'manie hundred soules died, and the sickness growing soe daungerous that noe living would undertake to bury the deade infected bodies'. As constant a danger as plague was the threat of famine, when, on the average, every fourth harvest fell below requirements. At Wells Sessions in 1646-7 the high price of corn was considered as being 'to the great detriment of the poor in this time of dearth and scarcity', and the cause of the thefts of fowls, sheep and deer. The High Sheriff, John Buckland, in a letter to his predecessor in office in 1648, referred to the 'time full of danger and hazard' that had just passed. Yet famine and plague were continuing dangers, more personal and more serious to the great majority than the temporary, though tragic, upheavals of the Civil War.


Sketch of Nunney Castle