The Stuart kings like James I, Charles I, and James II were all
just as convinced as their Tudor predecessors of their right to
rule as they chose. The rising middle class contested this 'divine
right of kings', so Charles I lost his head and James II his crown.
During six years of intermittent strife, more suffering and loss
were caused by troops of both sides than by battles. There were
few setpiece engagements between Edge Hill in 1642 and Naseby '45.
Campaign marches by the King and his nephews and by Parliamentary
forces, numberless small skirmishes, ambushes, running fights, filled
the war years, with many sieges of walled towns and assaults upon
strongholds. The Midlands was a battle zone between the Royalist
west and the Parliamentary east. Worcestershire was for the king,
Warwickshire against. There were no fixed lines. Landowners, nobility
and gentry, decided which side their manors should support. This
was not a war between autocracy and democracy, but between rival
claimants to sovereignty. It is easy to say that the Roundheads
were 'right but repulsive' and the Cavaliers 'wrong but romantic'
: the issues were less clear-cut, became even less so, and both
sides were equally guilty of war crimes. Towns, villages, and the
countryside were pillaged and destroyed. Billeting, levies, conscription,
foraging and plundering were imposed upon supporting and opposing
communities with impartial severity. Most people had little love
for either faction.
The first recorded skirmish occurred in August 1642. Three Royalist
troops of cavalry, retreating from Kenilworth Castle to join Charles
at Nottingham, were pursued by irregulars from Coventry. They chose
their moment to turn and engage, routing the Parliamentary force.
In October of that year Charles moved south with his army, lodging
overnight with Sir Thomas Holte in his magnificent newly-completed
mansion at Aston (Hall). Next day the king reviewed the motley forces
of 'the gentry of Staffordshire and Warwickshire'.
As the royal army passed through Birmingham, a stronghold of Puritanism,
there was some looting from citizens ; Charles had two captains
hanged for this, to show his lack of animosity towards the town.
The citizens were not won over, and when the king's baggage train
entered the manor it was captured and sent to Warwick. Both sides
were arming with all speed, and Birmingham weapons were ordered
in quantity. But though Parliament was supplied with 15,000 sword
blades, none went to Charles.
He moved on to Coventry and demanded admission to the walled city.
The citizens agreed to admit him and his retinue but not his army.
At this time and later, Parliamentary supporters maintained the
fiction that they were not fighting their sovereign but only his
advisors: indeed an oath of allegiance to Charles had to be taken
by recruits to his opponents' armies.
The king retired without engagement, and Coventry was thenceforward
the Parliamentary headquarters in the Midlands, as Oxford was to
be the Royalist base.
St. John's Church in Coventry was to be the hostel for 'malignant'
prisoners : permitted freedom within the walls, they were ostracised
by the townsfolk - whence the expression 'sent to Coventry'.
On October 17th, Prince Rupert's troops were at ease on Kings Norton
green when they were surprised by Willoughby's men. 'A great and
cruel battle' ensued, according to the lying broadsheets which both
sides published through out the war. Another clash took place next
day at Hawkesley Farm nearby. When Queen Henrietta Maria brought
a convoy of arms and supplies south later, she stayed at the manor
house in Kings Norton. On October 23rd 'a blundering together of
armies' happened at Edge Hill in south Warwickshire. Both sides
claimed victory in an inconclusive engagement.
During the first year all the Warwickshire strongholds were in
Parliamentary hands except Tamworth Castle. Royalist garrisons held
Dudley and Hartlebury Castles, Tamworth and Tutbury, Wolverhampton
and Burton, and Lichfield Close.
In March of 1643 Prince Rupert was sent to Birmingham. He sent
his quartermasters ahead to demand billets. His promise of no reprisals
for past misdeeds could not be trusted : he was known as 'Prince
Robber, Duke of Plunderland', and his German dragoons were notorious
for their excesses. So the officers were turned away and the townsfolk
prepared to defend their homes. There were only 200 muskets, and
Birmingham was totally without defences, a large sprawling village.
The only hope might be to hold up Rupert long enough to persuade
him to bypass the place and hurry on to Lichfield. Below the great
gorge where several highways met, in Deritend High Street, barricades
were erected to prevent approach to the Rea ford. Because the dragoons
could not attack in strength, two charges were broken. Rupert established
his headquarters in the inn on Kemp's Hill, and ordered that the
barricade be outflanked. The dragoons rode down through the meadows
behind the houses, forded the Rea which must have been low, and
burst through minor defences in Lower Mill Street. Led by the Earl
of Denbigh, 'singing as he rode', they stormed up Digbeth 'like
so many bedlams, hacking and hewing all they met'. The defenders
deserted their barricades and fled : the Battle of Birmingham was
over, but the town's anguish had not yet begun.
In Corn Cheaping above the church a Parliamentary troop was at
readiness : seeing the battle already lost the commander, Captain
Thomas Graves of Moseley (for the King), ordered a retreat at the
gallop. Hotly pursued by Denbigh, they rode up New Street and then
along Dudley Road. On Cape Hill 'between two woods' the Parliamentary
troops turned suddenly about and engaged the strung-out Royalists.
Denbigh was mortally wounded, his men were routed. With them was
Robert Porter, whose Rea watermills had been making weapons for
Parliament: next day 'malignants' in Birmingham destroyed his Town
Mill in revenge for his support of the king.
Rupert was enraged when he learnt of the death of his favourite
officer : his men were given freedom to injure, rape, kill, and
plunder during a night of terror. Before moving on he had the upper
Eighty houses, a third of the town, were destroyed. A song still
sung locally into the mid-C 19th, probably written long after the
disaster, is 'The Armourer's Widow'.
'When Rupert came to Birmingham,
We were in sorry plight.
Our blood God's earth did stain every day,
Our homes in blazing ruins lay,
And stained the sky at night.
With matchlock and with culverin,
With cavalier and drake,
He shot our sons and fathers down,
And hell on earth did make.
Our children's cries, our widows' prayers,
Ascended with the flame,
And called down the wrath divine
Upon the Royal murderer's line,
And brought his kin to shame'.
The sack of 1643 was not the last of Birmingham's troubles. Rupert
and his brother Maurice were both in the town later, taking all
the cattle and sheep they could round up. In '44 men from the Dudley
Castle garrison plundered unhindered, as did another Royalist force
later. Birmingham survived only because the demand for its warlike
wares was maintained throughout the war.
After Rupert's first attack, the anger of the townsfolk was vented
upon Sir Thomas Holte, chief magistrate of the district. On Boxing
Day 1643 a force of irregular troops and citizens launched an assault
on his home at Aston Hall. Forewarned, Holte had borrowed forty
musketeers from Dudley, but the issue was never in doubt. The Hall
had no moat or stout walls, having been built for show not defence.
During a three-day siege and the repulse of several attacks, erratic
cannon pounded at the south end of the house, reducing it to ruin.
Holte was then forced to surrender : he was imprisoned and the Hall
was pillaged. When it was restored a splintered newel-post was left
as a reminder of Holte's sacrifices for his king - it is there to
The war continued with both sides assaulting each other's strongholds
but there was increasing opposition from all sides. 'If they could
have peace, they care not what side had the better'. Many of the
troops were pressed men and unpaid, they 'had not much mind to fight,
but were glad to take any occasion to make haste home to their cows'.
In some shires townsmen and farmers banded together as 'Clubmen'
to resist further theft and damage. They were ruthlessly suppressed
by the Prince. The Royalists were becoming increasingly desperate
: they were now opposed by the New Model Army, 21,000 Puritan volunteers
whose oath was to Parliament, trained like Cromwell's 'Ironsides'.
Rupert was reduced to destroying the houses of the king's supporters
like the Lytteltons of Frankley, to prevent their use by the enemy.
Two such places were taken over near Birmingham in '44. Thomas Fox,
Colonel of Irregulars, turned the Catholic Middlemores out of Edgbaston
Hall. This commanded the highways from west and southwest. From
it Fox made daring raids, notably capturing Bewdley.
His defences, including moat and fishponds with the desecrated
church as a strongpoint, were so good that a force sent against
him retired without attacking.
More Royalist garrisons surrendered in '45 and early '46. They
included Stokesay Castle in Salop and then Dudley. The castle had
been garrisoned by Colonel Leveson throughout the war and never
seriously assaulted. It was given up without bloodshed, and slighted
the following year. Hartlebury, Ludlow, Worcester, and Lichfield
were still royal. His last armies defeated, Charles ordered surrender.
In 1648 the Second Civil War began with the Scots invading England
in the name of Charles II. Having passed through Birmingham, with
yet more loss to the people, the Scots infantry were destroyed at
Warwick. Two years later Charles marched south from Scotland. After
losing several engagements he was besieged in Worcester : in a clever
attack Cromwell utterly defeated him, and he was hunted through
the Midlands, hiding in an oak at Boscobel and a priest's hole at
Moseley Old Hall near Wolverhampton, before escaping southward and
eventually to France.
Parliament ordered the destruction of all Royalist castles so that
they could never again be used as 'malignant strongholds'. The great
keep of Kenilworth was mined and the huge lake drained. Warwick
Castle had been held for Parliament by the family of Lord Brooke
and so was not slighted. The restorations of Fulk Greville from
1604 provided a home for the Brookes, Earls of Warwick, until recently.
Aston Hall was finely rebuilt for the Holtes, who lived there until
1818. Edgbaston Hall was pulled down in the 'Glorious Revolution'
of 1668 : the present Hall was built by Sir Richard Gough of Perry
Hall in 1718.
1626 Plague - also in 1631, 1637, 1654, 1665 (Great Plague). Due
to lack of sanitation and hygiene. Serious fire about this time
destroyed much decayed thatch and timber building. Loss of trade.