Devon and the English Civil War

Devon and the English Civil War

FOR SOME OF US, THE ENGLISH CIVIL WAR HAS NEVER ENDED: today’s splendid re-enactment societies like The Sealed Knot for example attract huge crowds throughout the summer months as they continue to play-out the bloody battles and skirmishes that once split our nation in two.

Charles I, Black Tom Fairfax and Oliver CromwellIf so much of our contemporary story-telling is to be believed, the flamboyant long-haired ‘Cavaliers’ are most often portrayed as the good guys, whilst the kill-joy close-cropped ‘Roundheads’ take the role of the not-so-good.

But both names were coined by the protagonists themselves to insult each other, so more properly we were all of us in those days either Royalists or Parliamentarians, whether we liked it or not.

King Charles ‘lost’ of course, both the war and his head and Oliver Cromwell ‘won’ but it was only for a few short years (1642-1651). With the Restoration of the Monarchy – and the re-introduction of general merriment and bon homie – revenge was swift. Cromwell’s corpse – three years in its grave – was first dug-up, then strung-up before finally having its head put on a spike outside Westminster Hall where it remained until 1685*.

Civil War image by Rusty Aldwinckle

So which side was Devon on?

The answer is not a simple one. Seventeenth century Devon country folk were, for the most part, poor and uneducated and were told by their landlords which side they were to support and ultimately to fight for.

By contrast there are many instances within the ranks of the more well-to-do where one son was sent to fight for the King, the other for Parliament: hedging one’s bets is nothing new.

In simple terms, most of Devon could have done without it but all of Devon found itself embroiled in the dark struggles of  what turned out to be three English Civil Wars that claimed the lives of more than 85.000 in armed conflicts and 100,000 more from war related diseases: this from a population of some five million.

It is a matter of record that a young shepherd and his flock inadvertently strayed into the preparations for a battle in 1644 – a full two years into the conflict – had to have it explained to him that the King and Parliament were at war. “Whassat?” enquired the good swain, “As them two fallen out then?”

North Devon was the first part of the county to feel the effects of the war with bloody skirmishes and sieges at Ilfracombe and Barnstaple but there is hardly a community of any size, town or village in Devon that does not have its tales of confrontation and hardship.

Cromwell, in charge of the New Model Army’s cavalry and General Sir Thomas Fairfax, its supreme commander, came into Ottery St. Mary in East Devon, took over the town and stabled their horses inside the church.

The town’s great house, Chanters, was their base and in its dining room there is a panel recording, “In this room Oliver Cromwell in the fall of the year 1645 convened the people of the town and neighbourhood and demanded of them men and money for the Civil War. Here also on October 29th Members of Parliament on behalf of both houses presented Sir Thomas Fairfax with a fair jewel and hung it about his neck in honour of his skill and valour at Naseby fight.’”

Meanwhile, outside, one of Cromwell’s bored cavalrymen whiled away the afternoon by taking pot shots at the remarkable weather vane that still tops the parish church. Called the ‘Trumpeting Cock’ by the long- suffering people of the town it is hollow and fitted with a two-note whistle that ‘crowed’ in the wind. The bullet holes were patched up during a restoration in the 1970s when the church took pity on the town and silenced the brazen fowl once and for all.

Naseby had been decisive in the fortunes of the King. He lost most of his veteran infantry and officers, all of his artillery and stores. But worse still, in the captured baggage train Fairfax’s troops found his personal papers revealing his attempts to draw Irish Catholics and foreign mercenaries into the war.

The Queen in flight

As the war raged to and fro across England and with towns and villages often changing allegiances depending on the arrival of the latest occupying force, Charles’s queen, Henrietta Maria, heavily pregnant with her ninth child,  left the Royalist’s capital of Oxford and fled to the West Country, intending to escape to France from Falmouth – Plymouth having already declared for Parliament.

She got as far as Exeter, a city then in Royalist hands following siege upon seige, arriving on 1st May 1644 and stayed at Bedford House, close to the city centre, where, aged 35, on 16th June 1644, she gave birth to Princess Henrietta Anne.

At this time the Parliamentary forces led by the Earl of Essex were yet again threatening the west and planned to attack Exeter and hold the Queen to ransom as a bargaining chip in the King’s surrender.

Although she had had a difficult labour and the baby was poorly, the poor woman hurried on again, this time  to Cornwall and thence to France leaving her new baby in the care of Lady Dalkeith who saw to it that the sickly infant was baptised in ‘the new font’ in the Cathedral, on 21 July 1644.

King Charles and his army arrived in Exeter and saw his still surviving baby daughter for the first and only time on 26 July 1644 before moving quickly into Cornwall where he defeated the Parliamentary forces of the Earl of Essex at Lostwithiel.

But the war continued to ebb and flow as the opposing forces battled for supremacy in the west until Parliament gradually gained the upper hand.

Exeter under siege

Whilst Royalist Exeter was still under siege, this time by Fairfax and Cromwell, 10.000 Parliamentarians broke away from the siege and marched north to Torrington where the Royalists had barricaded the town – and as fate would have it – had stored 80 barrels of gunpowder in the church.

The Church in Torrington

Torrington Church

The battle began in pouring rain and total darkness on the bitterly cold night of 16th February, 1646: It was to be not only the last battle in the west, it was also the last to be fought on English soil.

As Fairfax waited for dawn to break Cromwell arrived with his cavalry and advanced on the barricades at the edge of the town to test their strengths by firing blindly into them. All hell broke loose.

Some 17,000 men and horses fought in the freezing downpour, street by street – with the townsfolk watching the bloodshed below them from upstairs windows. After the exchange of fire there was little time or space to re-load as pikemen rushed against pikemen and musket butts were used as clubs in the hand-to-hand fighting along the narrow streets and alleyways until, by some mischance and nobody knows how, the powder stacked in the church exploded, taking the roof off the building and killing more than 200 men from both sides.

The Royalists scattered towards Cornwall: it was the beginning of the end of resistance by their forces in the west and led eventually to the capture and execution of the King. Dartmouth and Exeter surrendered to the New Model Army in April 1646.

‘Black Tom’ and the Princess

One of Fairfax’s first actions in the city was to issue an order whereby the young Princess Henrietta Anne, now aged three, was given written safe conduct to travel to London together with the loyal Lady Dalkeith and her small household. Once out of sight of their escort at the Devon border however, the good lady headed for Dover and then to France where she reunited the little girl with her mother. Did Fairfax connive at this deviation from the route?

Lord Thomas Fairfax or ‘Black Tom’ as he was known to both sides was an honourable man on and off the battlefield. He opposed the execution of the king and as a consequence was pardoned by Charles II at the Restoration whilst many, many others were not.

*Which brings us almost full circle and the mention again of the remains of the Lord Protector of England, Scotland and Ireland’s body being exhumed – on 30 January 1661, the 12th anniversary of the execution of Charles I – to be subjected to a posthumous execution.

At least that is what the Royalists thought they had done.

It had been buried in Westminster Abbey, amid great pomp and ceremony, alongside the body of his daughter, Elizabeth, who had died earlier. (Her tomb remained undisturbed.)

But was it really Cromwell’s body? It is thought by some that his family, friends and followers who could see what was coming had already removed the body and reburied it several times to cheat the vengeful Royalists of their grisly goal. Cambridgeshire,  London, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire are all places that have been suggested – whilst that head itself, when it was finally lifted from its spike outside Westminster Hall, finished up beneath the floor of the antechapel at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. But whose head, warts and all?


The vacated Cromwell vault in Westminster Abbey was later used as a burial place for eleven of Charles II’s twelve illegitimate descendants – his illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth is buried – minus his head – beneath the chapel floor in the Tower of London, having been beheaded publicly for treason on 15 July 1685, and his head displayed on a spike, not outside Westminster this time but on London Bridge.


MANY THANKS to Rusty Aldwinckle for the use of the excellent photos in this piece.  Details of where to see future re-enactments by The Sealed Knot in the 2018 season can be found at:

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Writer, author, script and sketch-writer, cartoonist, public speaker, Visitor Engagement Volunteer (National Trust) and would-be ukelele virtuoso.