PLEASE NOTE: This page is a very article extracted from the book which I am writing, which is in the archives of the Stephen B. Cox Trust. In due course it will be published.
For full outline of the Contents (Chapter and Appendices headings) please see Notes at the bottom of this page.
The English Civil War raged across several parts of England from 1642 (when King Charles I left London and raised his standard at Nottingham, later to make his royal headquarters at Oxford), until 1649 when he was executed by Parliament under the influence of Cromwell and the New Model Army for high treason. The seeds of that conflict might be said to have been sown by Henry VIII when he declared that he was appointed by god and had a sacred contract direct with his people. A theme followed by subsequent monarchs, which came to be known as "the divine right to rule"- though rather more diplomatically and judiciously by Elizabeth I (1558-1603). Under the first two Stuart kings the theme would re-emerge and coupled with the rising tide of Puritanism and more zealous Protestantism (which had been suppressed by Henry as a threat to his imperial governance of the Church) and the growing power and influence of the merchant classes, it was only a matter of time before a head-on clash of power would erupt. Which it did in 1642.
In those seven years of strife the balance of power swayed to and fro and initially was in the favour of the King. Parliament tending to show itself inept. It was not until later when the New Model Army was developed and led by Cromwell that the Parliamentary side gained the upper hand and eventually brought an end to the War- despite Charles bringing support from Scotland and Ireland into the War.
Technically of course this was the third civil war- the other two being the one of the Early Middle Ages between the Empress Matilda (daughter of King Henry I) and King Stephen (son of William Conqueror's daughter Adela). Silchester just outside of Reading featured in this war. The second civil war as such was the one of the later Middle Ages termed the Wars of the Roses, between the rival Plantagenet claimants to the throne the Duke of Lancaster and Duke of York..
The question of loyalty and affiliation then, as now, was a painful- and often expensive one.
A Nation Divided
The question of loyalty and affiliation was uppermost in those days. When we hear that a town held out for Parliament or for the King we are not to assume that everyone in that town was of one persuasion. The same goes for swathes of country which officially had allegiance to one side or the other. The fact is that Civil War means strife between families, communities, towns and the whole country. Neighbour can be set against neighbour, brother against brother.
The war broke out in August 1642 and the following month Richard Deane brought two men suspected of being Catholic priests before the Mayor of Reading. They were ordered to take the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance.
Parliamentary spies inside the town kept notes on the supposed Catholic aristocratic cliques in the town and neighbouring areas. They reported that various dignitaries dined together both within and without the town: the Governor of Reading was Sir Arthur Aston, a Catholic professional soldier. And that he regularly with the local Catholics Sir Charles Blount of Mapledurham and Anthony Englefield of Whiteknights and the Earl of Craven. Presumably such information was to be used for dispensation of religious justice after the War. It is an example of how the country was being torn apart.
Some leading reading families like the Knollys were supporters of Parliament, whilst others such as Aston, the Blounts, Englefields and Cravens were for the King. The Vachells and Blagraves had family members in both camps. Tanfield Vachell, the County Sheriff, was a cousin of both Oliver Cromwell and John Hampden and a firm Parliamentarian and consistently refused to issue the King’s proclamations. If we see how the local leading families were divided we have only to imagine how the common folk were divided. Or as so often the common folk cared little for the general politics of the day and were forced into decision making by their debts or employment or obligatory allegiance to a particular notable and thus inadvertently to one side or the other.
Reading Enters The War
The inclusion of the town of Reading in the Civil War came very early in the War. King Charles, who had based his royal headquarters at Oxford, realised that his position could not be safe unless Reading was under his control, effectively blocking Parliamentary forces from either attacking him from the south or gaining control of the rest of the south and west of England via that route.Reading controlled the crossings over the River Thames, the roads west, and the route north through the gap in the Chiltern Hills.
Having left London on 3rd. November, he sent a stern order to the Mayor and Aldermen of Reading that they should make the bridge over the Thames at Caversham strong enough for the passage of his army by eight o'clock on the next morning. On November 4th, he crossed the bridge and led his troops into Reading. Three days earlier the officer who had held Reading with a small garrison for the Parliament had fled. There upon the King halted at Reading a good part of the month of November. It was said that he forced all the tailors there to work hard in order to make, for his army, a thousand suits of clothes. However the King was checked on his advance on London and, on November 28th, he retreated to Oxford, which henceforth became the Royalist headquarters for the duration of the War.
A Note On Siege Warfare
Siege warfare was actually a far cry from the romantic image we have of soldiers gallantly storming castle. Siege warfare was what we would today call “total war”. Firstly during the actual siege both military and civilian locations and personnel were the targets- though the former were preferred since it could more quickly weaken the enemy and end the siege.
Next, the townspeople were responsible financially for maintenance of the costs of the siege (unless underwritten by the King or whosoever they “held out for”), this meant extra taxes, it meant billeting soldiers in your house and feeding them, and it meant anyone able bodied being required to aid in the military defence of the town.
Finally there was the question of safe passage and/or surrender. At the commencement of a siege the attacking commander would offer terms of surrender to the defenders. If they accepted then the town was spared and so to were its inhabitants and their possessions and the military garrison. However if they did not accept this offer then they were fair game. This meant that if the attackers were victorious then houses could be looted, burnt or confiscated; women raped; men murdered; livestock, food, ordnance, provisions and anything useful appropriated, and all town artefacts and wealth seized. Town walls could be knocked down and military leaders, town worthies and notables summarily executed for defiance. It was usual for the victorious army to go on a drunken lawless rampage for several days before a commander decided that they had had their reward and were now needed to fight again. It is in this context we need to read so-called “slaughter”: what we would call slaughter and genocide today was merely the logical and accepted (though unwelcome and much feared) outcome of warfare then. It was an unusual commander indeed who would forbid his troops the after campaign frenzy, or even restrain it.
Occasionally a gallant successful besieging commander would offer honourable terms at an advanced stage of a siege to both quicken the military campaign elsewhere, and secure useful provisions and armaments from the town. This was usual a fair settlement and honoured.
Before the commencement of hostilities, Essex sent a stern message to Aston, the Governor, bidding him surrender. Aston retorted that either he would hold the town for the King or he would starve and die in it. The townspeople of Reading had not long to await the response of Essex to that rebuff.
The Scene is Set
The King required Reading to be made safe against any Parliamentary attack. Consequently the town was ton converted into a fortress. The Free School became a magazine of arms. Soldiers were quartered in John Kendrick's house of industry in Minster Street, at the Friary, at the Royal stables in the old Hospital of St. John and in Thomas Harrison's barn on Whitley Hill. Meanwhile all passage to and from the town was strictly guarded. Nearly 3,000 soldiers were quartered upon 5,000 inhabitants, most an easy task. The citizens of Reading were to know the price of Civil War in the coming months.
Reading had good cause to brace itself London: the power base of the Parliamentary forces, was a mere 42 miles and their most adept commander at the time, the Earl of Essex was moving their way. On 13th April 1643, at the head of his army he left Windsor, his avowed intention being upon wresting Reading from the Royalists. The King had been right, for this attack was to be the opening gambit in a direct assault on the King’s main base at Oxford.
The Earl was a staunch old solder whom his men had nicknamed "Old Robin," . His forces comprised som 16,000 foot soldiers, 3,000 horse and a train of siege guns. With him also were Philip Skippon, a veteran who had fought in the Low Countries, and the famous John Hampden (1595-1643) at the head of his Buckinghamshire Greencoats.
Thus the scene was set for The Siege of Reading. It was the first siege of the Civil War.
The Assault on Reading
Essex needed to come between Reading and the King, so he approached the town from the west and seized Caversham Bridge, which thus made it hard for Reading to be relieved by the King from Oxford.
From there he also secured the siege from the west and took the Southcote area. He set up his siege headquarters there at the old moated manor house of Sir John Blagrave. During the night of April 15th, his soldiers threw up their batteries and, early on the following Sunday, April 16th, the guns of the Parliamentary army opened fire upon the town. It was a Sabbath that Reading was hardly ever to forget!
On the second day of the siege Essex sent some of his forces to attack Mapledurham House, which had been fortified by the Royalists. The Parliamentary forces breached the defences and pillaged the house. However, it is unlikely that they found much worth taking. Sir Charles Blount was an extravagant man who, eight years previously, had been forced to sell his household goods to pay his debts. Mapledurham was sequestrated by Parliament and Sir Charles Blount later died during the siege of Oxford.
The Governor of Reading was Sir Arthur Aston, a Catholic professional soldier. Parliamentary spies reported that he regularly dined with the local Catholics Sir Charles Blount of Mapledurham and Anthony Englefield of Whiteknights.
Day after day the cannons of Essex thundered down upon the town. The bombardment also destroyed the steeple of Caversham Church, upon which Aston had mounted a cannon. Then he managed to raise the drawbridge at Caversham Bridge and, little by little, he pushed forward his men until there were within musket-shot of the garrison on the west and south-west.
The fortifications were quite a way out from what was then the centre of the town, and somewhat o what we term Redlands today.Aston seems to have had about 3,000 men. In cannon, he was much less strong than Essex. But he had plenty of food and he had well fortified the town. The "main bulwarks" were in the shape of a four-sided figure. They can be outlined as follows:
In the NORTH: the fortifications commenced the Friary (Grey Friars Church), and thence a line of the line of ramparts ran to the north-east corner of the Abbey enclosure.
EAST: Thence they turned southward and, following roughly the line of the modern Sidmouth Street, they crossed the London Road.
SOUTH: from there they turned westward and advanced about half-way up the ascent of the present Kendrick Road.
WEST:The meadows between Katesgrove Hill and Castle Hill were flooded, so that none could cross them or break in that way.
At the top of Castle Hill, the earthworks began again and, from there, they passed in a straight line back to the Friary.
In addition to this long line of encircling ramparts there were a number of separate forts. There was a fort on Caversham Hill, one on Whitley Hill and one on Castle Hill, and at points along the ramparts, especially where roads entered the town, there were smaller redoubts and forts. It is said that the earthworks were in some places strengthened by wooden palisades and by the woolpacks of the clothiers.
Christopher Milton, the younger son of the playwright John Milton, was a Royalist living in Reading during the siege. He later converted to Catholicism.
Aside from the usual privations and dangers facing both siegers and besieged alike there was also the problem of disease. Sanitation for both was incredibly poor, as was water supply and condition of food. Coupled with close living conditions (as we have seen Reading town s population was swollen from its normal 5000 to 8000 an equivalent today of an extra 100,000+ people suddenly having to be fed and housed!)
It was not long before both sides felt the result of a scourge- typhus. It spread rapidly and although Reading town suffered from its scythe (between May and August 1643, 250 citizens died from the disease, approximately a 5% death rate) the main victim was the Parliamentary army.
In those days armies seldom had any provision for accommodation when besieging, they slept under hedges or out in the open. If it rained they simply got wet. All sorts of ailments thus accompanied a besieging army. As for food they foraged for what they could in the surrounding countryside or ransacked villages or farmsteads, unless the commander had organised effective supplies. The ordinary soldier had no waterproofs or change of clothes, just what they stood up in.
Typhus first appeared in Europe around about the 1500’s and became known as camp disease because it so flourished in army camps battlefields and prison.
The Parliamentary army was sorely affected and lost about 3000 men out of a total of 19000- a mortality rate of nigh on 16%. Staggering losses. There was no cure, no effective medical treatment, no hospitals, field or otherwise, people simply hoped they would somehow be immune, or fled (and thereby spread the disease) or waited until the disease burnt itself out- which it did in the autumn.
The other alternative was to desert- which was a frequent occurrence. Especially as King Charles had offered a bribe to any Parliamentarian who deserted.
Given the conditions outlined above it was small wonder that apart from probably not having been paid as promised, the victorious soldiers who entered a defeated town were a pretty malcontent, menacing and marauding horde.
Aston had asked for help and the King was aware of the need to relieve the siege to keep his headquarters at Oxford safe from a southern attack by Parliamentary forces. On April 18th, a force of Royalists was observed to the north up on the Oxfordshire hills. The Royalist officer who led them decided that he could press home a relief operation by entering the town by Caversham Bridge- his only real option. He therefore strategically moved on to Sonning (which would have been the area rather the village). From here h was able to arrange to send 600 musketeers and a supply of ammunition long the Thames by boats.
However, this was the last loophole, which Essex quickly blocked up and by 19th. April Reading was totally cut off and beset on all sides. On the same day, Sir Arthur Aston was wounded and at first thought dead. However, he was injured and rendered unconscious in the head by a splinter of brick thrown up by a cannon-ball. The leadership of the defence was thereafter taken over Colonel Richard Fielding. It is also said that Parliamentary cannon battered to pieces the steeple of St. Giles's Church.
Then on 22nd,. April a messenger from Oxford managed to bravely slip through the besiegers' lines, by swimming across the Thames to convey the much welcome news that Royalist relief forces would soon be at hand. Unfortunately the brave efforts of this plucky fellow was rendered useless for he was caught by Essex’ men on his return and so the element of surprise attack was lost and Essex was prepared.
The King could now see that h was in grave danger of losing Reading and so summoned from Lichfield his nephew- the popular and dashing commander of cavalry Prince Rupert of the Rhine. On 24th. April Rupert joined the King, who was already on his way to Reading.
Now occurred one of those curiosities of war. On the very day that the King drew near, and he began his assault on the Parliamentary forces, before lie began his assault on the forces of Essex, the Royalist commander in Reading- Fielding- thinking that all was lost hung out a white flag and agreed to negotiate surrender. The almost simultaneously, a force of Royalist musketeers, a thousand strong, burst upon the Parliamentary guard at Caversham Bridge. Charles and Rupert led the charge as they dashed upon the bridge. From the hill above, their guns supported their attack. At first the suddenness of the assault (and no doubt aided by the apparent surrender of the town) they seemed likely to prevail and enter the town and break open the Parliamentary lines. However, the narrowness of the bridge meant the lines were closely packed and thus an easy target, whilst at the same time they had no space to move.
It would have been the time for Fielding’s men forces to come out and support the relief assault and thus and catch the Parliamentary forces between his and the King’s force.
But the King knew nothing of the flag of truce and held on in vain. But he was to be bitterly disappointed. Thus it was that the Royalists failed to force their way across the bridge. Additionally a sudden storm of hail and rain, breaking the April skies, beat in their faces and completed their discomfiture. They were obliged to withdraw up the hill, hotly pressed by the victorious Roundheads, leaving many dead and wounded behind them. The King himself went to Caversham House. Later in the day, he heard of the surrender. Reluctantly, he agreed to it. Next day, he crossed the hills to Nettlebed.
The fate of Reading was effectively sealed.
On the 26th. April the articles of surrender were signed. Then early on the 27th, the trumpets blew and the Royalist garrison in Reading was mustered to march out with the honours of war, as was agreed under the generous terms provisioned by Lord Essex. At ten o'clock that morning a long procession began to move towards the old Oxford Road, which then left the town at the Friary. First, in a litter borne by horses and covered with red hangings, came the wounded Governor, Sir Arthur Aston. Then came wagons with the sick and wounded. After them, came four cannon, dragged by teams of horses. Lastly, marched the main body of the soldiers. With colours aloft and lighted match, with. drums beating and trumpets sounding, horse and foot passed through the ramparts and took the road by Caversham Bridge to Oxford.
No prisoners were taken and no confiscations made of ordnance or personal weaponry or possessions.
Colonel Richard Fielding was later court martialled at Oxford and charged with treason because of his surrender. He was sentenced to death. However, he was reprieved at the last minute thanks to the intercession of the Prince of Wales (later King Charles II) at the prompting Prince Rupert spoke up for him.
Sir Arthur Aston became Sergeant-Major General of Horse to Prince Rupert. He fought at the Storming of Bristol and the First Battle of Newbury. He became Governor of Oxford in late 1643 and again made himself unpopular, until he lost a leg as a result of a fall from a horse in September 1644 and was relieved as Governor. The King granted him a large pension of £1,000 per year and he was replaced as governor by Sir Henry Gage. Although Aston made every effort to discredit Gage and undermine his authority, he was not re-appointed to the governorship when Gage was killed during a skirmish in January 1645.He received a large pension from the King, but He did not hold any appointments in England during the rest of the Civil War.owever, in 1648, he joined the Earl of Ormonde who had recently been made Commander-in-Chief of the Irish Confederates and other Royalist forces in Ireland. Aston was made governor of the vital port of Drogheda. In 1649, Oliver Cromwell's forces attacked the town in Siege of Drogheda , one of the most vicious episodes of what was also known as The Wars of the Three Kingdoms. When the town was stormed, the garrison and many civilians were massacred by the victorious Parliamentarian soldiers. Aston agreed to surrender after a parley on the bridge but Cromwell's officers were ordered to put the entire town to the sword. It is widely believed that the Parliamentarian soldiers killed Aston by dashing his brains out with his own wooden leg, which they believed to conceal gold coins.
As was usual in those days a certain amount of lawlessness and carnage erupted which lasted for two days. Disgraceful though they were they were relatively mild by the standards of the time. At Friars' Corner, the soldiers of Essex stood ranked ready to enter the captured town. From Jeers and insults towards their beaten foes, they proceeded to violence. Wagons were plundered, weapons were snatched away and riotous scenes followed the entrance of the victors to the town. Houses were sacked, taverns were broken open and, soon, drunkenness was added to the tumult. Not until after two days did discipline return.
Francis Plowden (brother of Edmund Plowden II), his family and their servants had taken refuge in Reading. When the town fell they tried to escape back to Shiplake. Their coach, carrying valuables and £500 in cash (= £100,000+ today) was ambushed by Parliamentary forces who stole everything except their clothes. The Plowdens spent the rest of the war in comparative safety at Oxford.
On Sunday, April 30th, the Puritan earnestness regained its sway. Morning, noon and night, the churches were crowded. But the Cavaliers never forgave the breach of faith shown by the soldiers of Essex.
Reading remained in the hands of the Parliamentarians until the end of September 1643. It changed hands more than once, but in May 1644 a Parliamentary army approached, the Royalist garrison fled without a fight, and the town passed permanently into the keeping of the victorious Parliament.
NOTES: This item is a short article extracted from the book I am writing which is held in the Stephen B. Cox Trust archives. (note also that each of the subjects above is also a short version of the relevant chapters)
The additional CHAPTERS are
Reading in the Early 17th.Century
The Religious and Political Divide
Reading's Strategic Position
The Pre-Siege Occupations of 1642-3
How Other Siege Cities Fared
Composition of 17th. Century Armies
Reading Enters The War
Essex and Aston as Commanders
The Court Martial of Fielding
The APPENDICES are