The English Civil War in West Yorkshire
I was never taught much about the English Civil War, particularly in respect of the area where I was born and raised and where my ancestors came from…these were the towns of Halifax, Dewsbury, Mirfield, Thornhill, Ossett and Wakefield, which were to become the "Heavy Woollen District" of the West Riding. So, when I started to look at the detail of the Civil War as it was played out in West Yorkshire, I was shocked to see that the towns and villages where my ancestors lived were situated exactly between of the opposing forces, the Parliamentarians being mainly garrisoned in the west of the district and the Royalists in the east.
It is quite remarkable that the two places which feature most strongly in the early years of the war in West Yorkshire, were only 8 miles apart "as the crow flies", for it was at Bradford and Leeds where the main garrisons of the Parliamentarians and the Royalists were held. However, just before the war, the towns of Halifax, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield were dominated by the puritan Savile family of Howley Hall..and the puritans mostly favoured the Parliament. According to David Hey in his "Yorkshire from AD1000", most families were neutral in the summer of 1642 and many remained neutral throughout the war…but, where politics prevailed, it was not uncommon for family members to fight on opposite sides.
I didn't spend a lot of time wondering which side my ancestors were on. Mostly they were people of little wealth and would have been called to fight by the Knights and Gentry under whose influence they happened to fall. So, possibly there were extended family members mustered on both sides of the conflict. What a tragedy is civil war, where neighbours and families must fight neighbours and families, in this case because the King and the Parliament quarreled
In addition to the threat of battle, the inhabitants of the West Yorkshire towns also suffered a number of outbreaks of the plague, which carried off almost as many people as did the wars. In fact, it is quite possible that the spread of the plague was facilitated by a much higher occurrence of movement of goods and people between towns, as the soldiers moved from one location to another. See article on the plague. Between the plague, the effects of malnutrition since there were too few men available to tend crops, and deaths from direct involvement in the wars, 13% of the British population died during this period (compared to 3% in World War I).
During the civil war, Catholics also suffered at the hands of some Parliamentarian soldiers, who claimed to be fighting a crusade against Papists. In Parliamentary declarations, the House of Commons stated that Popery was a major issue and that it (Parliament) was acting ‘"to maintain and defend the true reformed Protestant religion against all Popery and Popish innovations"…consequently Catholics suffered more at the hands of the Parliamentarians than most other Royalists.
Once the wars ended, most people would try to return to their normal everyday lives…though resentments against Catholicism was to rumble on for centuries.
Most accounts describe the two sides that fought the English Civil Wars as the Royalist Cavaliers of Charles I of England versus the Parliamentarian Roundheads. The "spoiler" in this story is that it is common knowledge that the Parliamentarians ultimately won and that they executed the King.
Notable Royalists or "Cavaliers"
William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle (1592-1676), Commander of the Northern Counties
George Goring – George, Baron Goring (1608-1657), General of Horse
Notable Parliamentarians or "Roundheads"
Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax (1584-1648), Commander of the Yorkshire Forces, HQ at Hull and father of Sir Thomas Fairfax
Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), Second in Command of the Yorkshire Forces (later Commander of the New Model Army), HQ at Bradford
The Civil War or Wars can be divided into different phases which took place between 1642 and 1651.
This article describes the main events that took place in West Yorkshire between 1642 and 1644.
The catalyst for war was Parliament’s general frustration with the King'’s policies, especially in relation to the conflicts with Ireland and Scotland. Parliament’s ultimate aim was not to depose Charles I from the throne, but to oblige the King to abide by the policies that they preferred. But there was also a religious element. Charles was deeply religious, favouring the high Anglican form of worship, with much ritual, while many of his subjects, particularly in Scotland, wanted simpler forms. The King found himself in disagreement, on religious matters, with many leading members of the Commons. Charles had married a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, and this only made matters worse, as there were concerns about preferment towards catholic subjects. The French had insisted on a commitment to "remove all disabilities upon Roman Catholic subjects" and this had been secretly added to the marriage treaty.
Constant arguments with Parliament over many issues had led King Charles I to lock out Members of Parliament from 1629 to 1640 (known as the Eleven Years Tyranny).
In fact, Charles, as King, could do this under what was known as the Royal Prerogative. However, the King then took it upon himself to devise ways of raising the money that he needed to finance a war against Scotland, without Parliament's consent and, increasingly, Parliament challenged the King's "divine right" to govern as he wished.
The catalyst for the outbreak of the English Civil War between King Charles I and the Long Parliament (1640-1660]) was the question of control of an army to defeat the Irish Uprising of 1641. By 1642, the quarrel had escalated to the extent that the King left London on January 10th, and travelled north, where he established his court at York, the new de facto capital of England. There, he began consolidating support among his northern subjects.
Both the King and the Parliament set about raising men when and where they could, and both claimed legal justification. Parliament claimed to be justified by its own recent "Militia Ordinance", while the King claimed the traditional "Commissions of Array". The King rode to Nottingham, where he raised the royal standard against the Parliament on 22nd August 1642 and appointed the Earl (afterwards Marquis) of Newcastle, to be his general-in-chief in Yorkshire and the northern counties…with Sir William Savile of Thornhill Hall (near Dewsbury), as second in command.
Attempts to avoid war
At the start of the war, representatives of the clothiers of the West Riding woollen districts sent a petition to Charles I at York, strongly urging reconciliation with his Parliament. The Yorkshire gentry also tried to keep the conflict away from their county, by signing a neutrality treaty among themselves, agreeing to disband their troops, to muster no more and to keep the peace. The "Treaty of Neutrality" was signed on 29th September 1642 by Lord Ferdinando Fairfax for the Parliamentarians and Henry Belasyse (Bellasis) for the Royalists. They were the two Knights of the Shire who represented Yorkshire in Parliament and they were acting with the support and agreement of other gentlemen of the county. However, the treaty was disowned by Parliament on 4th October 1642.
Once war was inevitable, Royalist Sir William Savile (the nephew of the Parliamentarian Sir John Savile) quickly seized the West Riding towns of Leeds and Wakefield for the King, without opposition. Bradford and Halifax were held by the Parliament.
Bradford in the Great Civil War, 1640-1645.
Bradford, with Leeds, Halifax, Wakefield and the clothing district of the West Riding, took a very active and determined part in the civil war between Charles I and the Long Parliament, Bradford being the chief stronghold of that party, in the West Riding. None of those towns were then directly represented in Parliament, except as forming portions of the county constituency of Yorkshire; but they were already the chief places in the West Riding, and as such took a leading part in all public affairs. The Fairfaxes, the Lamberts, and other great parliamentary families of Yorkshire, several of which resided within a few miles of Bradford, were looked upon as the natural leaders of the people in that great contest, and led them to ultimate victory. At the beginning of the civil war, Sir Thomas Fairfax, the representative of a race of soldiers, and a man of dauntless courage and great military talent, assumed the command of the parliamentary party in the neighbourhood of Bradford ; whilst his father, Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax, was appointed Governor of the fortress of Hull, and was recognized as the Commander-in-chief for the Parliament, in all those parts of Yorkshire which upheld the authority of that assembly and resisted the demands of the King. Thus Hull was the headquarters of Lord Fairfax, and Bradford the head-quarters of Sir Thomas Fairfax.Yorkshire Past and Present, Edward and Thomas Baines; William Mackenzie, London (1871-77)
Sir Thomas Fairfax established a strong base at Bradford early in 1643 and he set about recruiting and training a Parliamentary army. He wrote to the Constables of the various towns to raise men. His letter to the Constable of Mirfield demanded:
"…all that be of able bodyes from the age of 16 to 60 to repair to Almondbury on Saturday, with all weapons they can procure and provisions for five days, to assist in driving out the Papist army."
By the autumn of 1642, the Parliamentarians were able to raid Royalist positions at will, from strongholds at Selby, Hull, Scarborough and the West Riding's cloth towns of Halifax and Bradford.
The towns of Bradford, and Halifax, with the surrounding villages, all took an active part in the civil war, and formed the chief strength of the Parliamentary party in the West Riding. On the 13th October 1642, the first blood in West Yorkshire was shed. The Parliamentarian, Sir John Savile, had gathered together his tenants and men from the Wakefield area. The small mostly unarmed force was marching to join Lord Fairfax at Bradford, when they were attacked by a Royalist force led by Sir Thomas Glentham. Sir John Savile was taken prisoner and three of his men were killed.
Royalist, Sir William Savile met with resistance when he attempted to storm Bradford on 18th December 1642. Reinforced by volunteers from the surrounding region, the citizens of Bradford drove back the Royalists and forced Savile to retreat to Leeds. Although Bradford was of little strategic value, it became a focal point for Parliamentarian support in the West Riding. Afterwards, Sir Thomas Fairfax made a daring night march through Royalist-held territory with a detachment from Selby to reinforce Bradford on 23rd December 1642.
Dividing his forces, Fairfax attacked Leeds from both sides of the River Aire, at three separate points, on 23rd January. The Royalists resisted fiercely for two hours, but were finally overwhelmed. Cut off from escape by the bridge, the Royalists were driven back to their HQ near the parish church. They eventually attempted to escape by swimming across the River Aire, and many of them succeeded in doing so, though some inevitably were drowned. Fairfax and his Parliamentarians occupied Leeds, taking 450 prisoners, two cannons and a store of weapons and ammunition.
Towards the end of March, Fairfax decided to re-inforce his garrison at Leeds with troops from Selby. On his way from Selby to Leeds, his troops were attacked by a vastly superior force of Royalists. Two hundred Parliamentarians were killed and eight hundred were taken prisoner. Fairfax himself and a few officers just managed to escape to Leeds, but this was a devastating defeat for the Parliament side.
In Sir Thomas Fairfax's words:
Summoning the country (calling in volunteers) we made a body of about 1200 or 1300 men with which we marched to Leeds and drew up within half cannon shot of their works…and sent in a trumpet with a summons to deliver up the town to me for the use of King and parliament. …they returned this answer..that they would defend the town as best they could…the business was hotly disputed for almost 2 hours…the enemy were beaten from their barricades…were forced open to the streets where horse and foot resolutely entering, the soldiers cast down their arms…the governor and chief officers swam the river and escaped…in all there were about 40 or 50 slain and a good store of ammunition taken which we had much want of.The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
The King sought reinforcements from troops stationed in Ireland while Parliament negotiated a religious and military alliance with the Covenanters (a Scottish Presbyterian movement that played an important part in the history of Scotland, and to a lesser extent that of England and Ireland).
Seacroft Moor, 30th March 1643
Towards the end of March 1643, Lord Ferdinando Fairfax decided to consolidate his forces at Leeds.
To cover his father's withdrawal from Selby, Sir Thomas Fairfax made an attack on the town of Tadcaster on 30th March. The Tadcaster Royalists fled to York at Fairfax's approach, and Fairfax took the opportunity to occupy the town and to destroy Tadcaster's defences.
The Earl of Newcastle reacted quickly and sent Lieutenant-General George Goring with twenty troops of horse and dragoons to the area. Fairfax's troops had reached Seacroft Moor on the outskirts of Leeds when Goring attacked them. The Parliamentarians were heavily outnumbered and outflanked by the Royalist cavalry.
Thomas Fairfax's infantry broke and fled almost immediately…200 Parliamentarians were killed and 800 were taken prisoner. Fairfax managed to rally a few officers to make a fighting withdrawal to the safety of Leeds. The defeat at Seacroft Moor was a serious early blow to the Yorkshire Parliamentarians and Sir Thomas Fairfax wrote afterwards:
…it troubled me much, the enemy being close upon us and a great plain to go over, so marching the foot in 2 divisions and the horse in the rear, the enemy followed about 2 musket shot from us…but yet made no attempt on us and thus we got well over this open country. But having again gotten to some little enclosures beyond which was another moor called Sea Croft Moor (much less than the first) here our men thinking themselves more secure were more careless in keeping order and while their officers were getting them out of the houses where they sought for drink (being an exceeding hot day) the enemy got… upon the moor. But when we had almost passed this plain also they… charged us both in flank and rear. The Countrymen (volunteers) …cast down their arms and fled and the foot soon after…some were slain and many taken prisoners. Few of our horse stood the charge. Some officers, with me, made our retreat with much difficulty…to Leeds. This was one of the greatest losses we ever received….I was sent to Bradford with 700 or 800 foot and 3 troops of horse. These two towns being all the garrisons we had. At Wakefield, 6 miles off, lay 3000 of the enemy…The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
Wakefield 20th-21st May 1643
Many of the prisoners taken at Seacroft Moor were local conscripts with wives and families. In order to attempt their release, Fairfax decided on a raid on Royalist-held Wakefield. The Wakefield garrison was believed to be around 800 strong. Fairfax gathered a force of about 1,500 horse and foot from garrisons at Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and Howley Hall (near Batley) , setting out at two in the morning of on 21st May 1643 to make a surprise night raid. They marched from Howley Hall via Ardsley, Lawns and Outwood, towards Stanley. However, the Royalists were ready and musketeers lined up on the outskirts of Wakefield. After two hours of fierce fighting, Fairfax led a cavalry charge through a gap in the defences and into the streets of Wakefield. Pushing too far ahead, Fairfax found himself almost alone in the market-place and surrounded by Royalist troops but he escaped by jumping his horse over a barricade to rejoin his own troops. By 9 am it was all over and Wakefield was in the hands of the Roundheads. Fairfax was astonished to find that the Wakefield garrison had consisted of 3,000 infantry and seven troops of horse as well as a huge store of ammunition not just the 800 men that they had expected.
In Fairfax's words:
So upon Whitsunday we came before the town, but they had notice of our coming and had …set about 500 musketeers to line the hedges about the town…after two hours…the foot forced open a barricade where I entered with my own troop….we charged through and routed…after a hot encounter, some were slaine…my men brought up a piece of ordnance and planted it in the churchyard against the body (of men) that stood in the market place who presently rendered themselves. All our men being got into the town, the streets were cleared. Many prisoners taken. …we saw our mistake now finding 3000 men in the town, not expecting half that number. We brought away 1400 prisoners …(and) we exchanged our men that were prisoners with these.The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
Adwalton Moor, 30 June 1643
The Earl of Newcastle, meanwhile, had resumed operations against the clothing towns of the West Riding, this time with success. The Royalist Army marched into the parish of Birstall (between Leeds and Bradford) and there followed the battle of Adwalton Moor. The Parliamentarians, together with the townsmen, put up strong opposition but were still too weak for Newcastle's larger forces and they were defeated, allowing the Royalists to secure most of Yorkshire for the King, including re-taking Leeds, which they held until the Scottish army advanced to the assistance of the Parliamentary party, in 1644. As the Royal army marched westwards they now took the town of Halifax after a short engagement at a place called the Bloody Field of Overton Bank.
After Adwalton, Sir Thomas Fairfax reported:
…when we were neare the place we intended, the enemy’s whole army was drawn up…we were to go up a hill to them which our forlorn hope gained by beating theirs into their main body which was drawn up half a mile further upon a place called Adderton (Adwalton) Moor…ten or twelve troops of horse charged us in the right wing. We kept the enclosure, placing our musketeers in the hedges in the moor…the enemy (thought) of retreating…one Colonel Skirton, a wild and desperate man, desired his general to let him charge once more with a stand of pikes with which he broke in upon our men …and they…lost ground… the enemy bringing on fresh troops ours…began to flee and so were soon routed. The horse also charged us again. We not knowing what was done in the left wing, our men maintained their ground till a command came for us to retreat having scarce any way now to do it, the enemy being almost round about us and our way to Bradford cut off. But there was a lane in he field we were in, which as a happy providence brought us off without any great loss…the earl of Newcastle presently laid siege to the town (Bradford). But before he had surrounded it I got in with those men I brought from Halifax. I found my father much troubled having neither a place of strength to defend…nor a garrison in Yorkshire to retreat to.The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
The Scottish Invasion
The Parliamentarians made a pact with the Scottish Covenanters. Scots, under the Earl of Leven, occupied Berwick-on-Tweed in September 1643 and, on 19th January 1644, Leven ordered his troops to cross the Tweed and advance south into England. Leven advanced cautiously southwards through Northumberland but encountered little opposition. Sir Thomas Glemham, the Royalist Governor of Newcastle, had insufficient forces to challenge the Covenanters. The Scots gradually pushed south towards Yorkshire, forcing the Earl of Newcastle to abandon his fight against the Parliamentarians in West Yorkshire, in order to move his troops north to oppose the Scottish invasion.
Bradford & Selby, Yorkshire, January-April 1643
As the Earl of Newcastle marched north, he left the remaining Yorkshire Royalists under the command of Colonel John Belasyse, the Governor of York. At Selby, Colonel Belasyse was reinforced by cavalry from Newark led by Major-General George Porter and together, they patrolled Yorkshire.
On 25th March, Belasyse and Porter attacked the Parliamentarian garrison at Bradford. The attack almost succeeded; after fighting off several fierce Royalist assaults, the Parliamentarians were running low on ammunition. In desperation, their commander, Lambert, attempted to break out of the town. The breakout took the Royalists by surprise and unexpectedly, the Parliamentarians destroyed Porter's cavalry. Lambert quickly reoccupied Bradford and resumed its defense while Belasyse, deprived of most of his cavalry, withdrew to Selby and Porter returned to Newark in disgrace.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man’. In the case of Bradford it should be ‘Cometh the hour, cometh the men’, as the ill-armed, and vastly outnumbered, citizens of the town had, beyond all reason, not only held the town, but sent their enemies scurrying back to Leeds in disorder.David Cooke, The Civil War in Yorkshire.
Fairfax said of the Bradford seige:
Bradford July 1643 …my father, having ordered me to stay (in Bradford) with 800 foot and 60 horse he intended that night for Leeds to secure it. Newcastle having spent 3 or 4 days in laying in his quarters about the town they brought down their cannon…the hills within half musket shot commanded all the town (Bradford) shot furiously upon us. Our little store was not above 25 or 30 barrels of powder at the beginning of the seige….we heard a great shooting of cannon and muskets. All ran presently to the works which the enemy was storming. Here for ¾ hour was very hot service but at length they retreated. They made a second attempt but were also beaten off. After this we had not above one barrel of powder and no match…so (we) resolved to draw off …before it was day…and to retreat to Leeds…. The foot ..was sent out through some narrow lanes…myself with some other officers went with the horse by an opener way…I must not forget to mention my wife who ran as great hazards with us in this retreat… before I had gone 40 paces (the day beginning to break) I saw them upon the hill above us being about 300 horse. I with some 12 more charged them…the rest of our horse being close behind, the enemy fell on them …taking most of them prisoners; among them my wife (the soldier behind whom she was riding being taken); I saw this disaster but could give no relief …I stayed till I saw there was no more in my power to do but to be made a prisoner with them. Then I retired to Leeds…not many days after the Earl of Newcastle sent my wife back again in his coach with some horse to guard her …The Yorkshire Parliamentarians now planned an assault against the Royalists at Selby. At Ferrybridge, near Wakefield, the two Fairfaxes, father and son, joined force with troops from Hull, Bradford and the Midlands. Their combined forces amounted to 1,500 cavalry and 1,800 foot soldiers. On 11th April, they attacked Selby from three sides at once, completely overwhelming Belasyse's Royalists. Most of the Royalist cavalry escaped, but about 1,600 foot soldiers were taken prisoner.The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
Beginning of the end – events beyond West Yorkshire
Whilst there were many skirmishes and battles in other parts of Yorkshire, and across the realm, this article has concentrated on the main events in the West Riding, but it is now appropriate to take a brief look at the important turning point of the Civil War. The Earl of Newcastle had now abandoned his campaign against the Scots invasion and withdrew to York to defend King Charles's capital, which was now under threat of attack from the forces of the Fairfaxes. The Earl of Leven pursued the Royalists with the Covenanter army. At Thormanby on 16th April, Leven and his Scottish Covenanters abandoned his pursuit of the Earl of Newcastle and marched via Boroughbridge to rendezvous with Lord Fairfax and the Yorkshire Parliamentarians at Wetherby.
The combined "Army of Both Kingdoms" now marched to besiege York, arriving on 22nd April 1644. Lord Fairfax and the "Eastern Association" surrounded and besieged the Earl of Newcastle and his forces. Prince Rupert (Royalist) marched across the Pennines to the relief of York in July 1644 and raised the siege. However, Rupert engaged the Allied armies in battle and was decisively defeated at Marston Moor, which broke the power of the northern Royalists. The Battle of Marston Moor, which took place in the evening of the 2nd July near Long Marston in North Yorkshire, is believed to have been the largest battle ever fought on English soil. After initial success, the tide of the battle turned and Prince Rupert was defeated in dramatic fashion. In just a couple of hours on Marston Moor, the the fate of York and control of the whole of the North was decided, the Royalist Northern Army was effectively destroyed, and Prince Rupert and the Royalist cavalry lost their reputation as an invincible force. The battle also made the name of Oliver Cromwell as great commander and showed how a well-equipped, trained and determined Parliamentarian army could win the war.
Soon after Prince Rupert came to relieve the town. We raised the seige and Hessay Moor being appointed the rendezvous the whole army drew thither; about a mile from where Prince Rupert lay, the river Ouse being between us which he, that night, passed over at Poppleton…being joined by the Earl of Newcastle’s forces made about 23,000 or 24,000, but we something more…(we resolved) to march away to Tadcaster which made the enemy advance the faster…the place was Marston Fields…here we drew up our army.The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
The Royalist Army was defeated and…
Prince Rupert returned into the south, the Earl of Newcastle went beyond the seas with many of his officers. York presently surrendered and the North was now wholly reduced by Parliament’s forces, except some Garrisons.The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax
The Parliamentarians were now divided about the conduct of the war. Some wished a reconciliation with the King, while the "Independants" desired a complete victory.
The Independants re-organised the army, forming the New Model Army, in 1645, which defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby, in Northamptonshire, on 14th June 1645. The Parliamentarians, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had 14,000 well trained troops and the King could only field 9,000 men – the Royalists lost 6 men for every one of their opponent's. This was the decisive battle between the Royalists and the New Model Army. Afterwards, the King was not able to muster another army strong enough to oppose the Parliamentarians in a major engagement.
After the surrender of York, only a few isolated Royalist strongholds remained in the north, including Pontefract Castle, and the main focus changed to the south and west of England.
However, the war dragged on for another year until, in May 1646, King Charles eventually surrendered to the Scottish Army at Newark. King Charles was taken captive and handed over to the Parliamentarians. Negotiations between the King and Parliament took place over the next three years, but eventually failed.
In spite of a vote being taken in Parliament on 5th December 1648, when the majority of MPs voted to continue negotiating with the King, Oliver Cromwell and the army opposed further talks and demanded action. In what was effectively a military coup, Cromwell's soldiers removed Members of Parliament who supported continuing talks with the King, by standing outside the House of Commons and arresting or intimidating them. Consequently, only half of the men nominated to the High Court of Justice to try the King actually attended its proceedings, some of whom claimed that undue pressure had been brought to bear from Cromwell.
The way was now paved to formally accuse King Charles of treason against England and of using his power in his own interest rather than that of his country…
…for accomplishment of such his designs, and for the protecting of himself and his adherents in his and their wicked practices, to the same ends hath traitorously and maliciously levied war against the present Parliament, and the people therein represented.
Charles refused to plead and quoted the Divine Right of Kings, insisting the trial was illegal. After three days, Charles was removed from the court and witness statements against him were taken in his absence. He was found guilty of treason and, on 26th January 1649, he was sentenced to death. Fifteen Yorkshire-men were among his judges.
On Tuesday 30th January 1649, King Charles was taken from St James' Palace to the scaffold, which had been erected at the Palace of Whitehall. At about 2 pm, he put his head on the block and it was severed "with one clean stroke". He was buried in private in the Henry VIII vault alongside the coffins of Henry VIII and his third wife, Jane Seymour, in St George's Chapel, Windsor Castle, on 9th February 1649.
The monarchy was now abolished and England was ruled under the "Commonwealth", with Cromwell as Lord Protector. He and his forces defeated all opposition. On his death in 1658, he was briefly succeeded by his son, Richard Crromwell. The monarchy was restored to Charles I's eldest son, Charles II, in 1660.
© Christine Widdall 2018