Skip to main content area
Main Content Area

Herefordshire takes sides in the English Civil War

How did people choose which side to support? Which issues proved to be decisive for them personally? Was it the freedom to practise religion in a non-conformist way or strongly held views concerning the unity of the church (which involved stamping out all dissent)? Were people afraid that King Charles would bring back Catholicism? Or were they swayed by political arguments? Perhaps they felt a deep personal sense of loyalty to their king, or did they just hate paying his taxes?

Religious idealism on the one hand and bigotry and fanaticism on the other characterised this period. Religion and politics went hand-in-hand. Fanatics could be found in both camps and some people's views became more entrenched the longer the conflict lasted. Compromise was not a popular word during the Civil War, although some people did change sides and it seems clear that some chose their allegiance according to what they thought would be the best outcome for them personally. It is important to remember that at the beginning of the war, both sides had good reason to think they would win in the end.

For some people, especially those of the new merchant class, economic freedoms and taxation issues proved important. To a large extent class also played a role in that the larger proportion of the upper middle class and gentry supported the Royalist cause.

Geography too played its part. The large cities were by and large Parliamentarian whereas rural areas tended to support the Royalist camp. The wealthier south and south-east of England supported Parliament, as did Scotland, although for perhaps different reasons. Herefordshire, Wales and Shropshire were mainly Royalist, with Gloucester being the only Parliamentarian stronghold at the beginning of the conflict in Herefordshire's neighbouring counties.

Nevertheless, many ordinary people actually never took sides. They either supported the party their local lord supported or the side which marched into their area first. Ordinary people were forced to fight for whichever army first arrived in their hometown. They also had to provide food and shelter for passing soldiers and to pay taxes to fund the army. Many ordinary people just wanted the war to stay as far away from them as possible. If you left home in the hope that you could avoid fighting or paying subsidies for the army of either side, your home or business was burned to the ground (this is what happened to Wilton Castle). No one could escape the effects of this war.

Unlike a war against a foreign enemy, the Civil War pitched neighbours against neighbours - as for example, the Harleys against the Crofts in the north-west corner of Herefordshire; or even two branches of the same family - for instance, the Scudamores of Holme Lacy against the Scudamores of Kentchurch Court. In some cases the war split the family, as for example the Hopton family from Canon Frome, where one son fought for the Cavaliers while his brother fought for the Roundheads. Cynics would say that this was a decision taken deliberately to ensure that the estate would remain in the family regardless of the eventual outcome.

Which side did Herefordians take?

In the largely conservative county of Herefordshire, where there was a long tradition of loyalty to King and Church, the bishop and his priests had some influence over people's opinions. Bishop George Coke (1636-46), whilst not an active supporter of Laud's radical reforms, still supported the King. In December 1641 he was impeached (tried on a charge of wrongdoing) by the House of Commons, along with eleven other bishops. By expelling the bishops, parliament had hoped to weaken the Royalist party in the House of Lords. The religious question of whether to retain or to abolish bishops was widely debated in Herefordshire. James Kyrle was keen on abolishing bishops, but none of his fellow JPs (justices of the peace or magistrates) in Herefordshire would sign a petition. In response, two priests circulated a petition in support of bishops at the Hereford Quarter Sessions in January 1642, and all but James Kyrle and Edward Broughton signed. Viscount Scudamore is said to have been the first to sign.

The most influential people were members of the local gentry, many of whom were moderate in their political outlook. In fact one man, Sir John Kyrle of Much Marcle, changed sides three times! The majority of landowners were Royalist in inclination, however, Charles's fundraising schemes tested their loyalty to the limit. In 1635 the county had been assessed for a quota of £ 4,000 for the much hated ship money, a sum the gentry was expected to collect annually in a county which recently had experienced the failure of harvests and outbreaks of plague. (Ross-on-Wye and the surrounding area were particularly hard hit by an outbreak of plague in 1637. A 14th century cross was re-erected in the churchyard to commemorate 315 burials. A new inscription was put on the cross base: "Libera nos Domine" (Latin for "free us, oh lord") (see the HER record numbers 17443 and 4083 for more information).)

But even in 1636 it had been a difficult task for Roger Vaughan, sheriff for Herefordshire, to collect the ship money which for that year was assessed at £3,501 9s 4d:

"...I have here inclosed sent your Lordships a true Certificate of the several sums set upon each parish in general within this county of Hereford, for the Shipping Money; the which, as I find it a heavy service, so I can do no less than inform your Lordships, that so great a sum in so small and so poor a shire cannot be raised but with much difficulty."

Speaking of Hereford, he continues, "...there are not in this kingdom a greater number of poor people, having no commodity amongst us for the raising of money, but some small quantities of fine wooles, which is now decayed for divers years past, but the importation and use (as is conceived) of Spanish wooles into this kingdom."

As you can see, Herefordshire was dogged by economic problems. Wool merchants and sheep farmers complained about the importation of Spanish wool, which crippled the local wool industry. Another problem was the existence of illegal weirs in the river Wye, which hindered navigation of barges up the river to Hereford and thereby affected trade. The iron industry too came in for criticism when a presentment to the Grand Jury was drawn up in 1640. Iron mills used large quantities of wood, thereby creating a scarcity of wood for fuel etc. around the perimeter of Hereford. As a result the price of wood rocketed and added to the burdens of an already poor population:

"We doe alsoe finde and present that the iron Mills in gen'all within this County have byne a gen'all distruccon of Trees, Tymber and Coppice wood some of which beinge within five Miles of the Cittie of Herh., in soe much that the said Cittie is already in greate want and scarcity of wood, and by reason thereof, the prices of Wood is soe Inhaunced, that if it should Contynue, it would tend to the great impoverishinge of the Inhabitants of the said Citty and many places adjacent to the same."

In these economic concerns the gentry were united, as we can see from this presentment. The election for members to the Parliament in 1640, however, shows that in political matters the county was divided. Almost the same number of MPs was elected for the Royalist party as for the Parliamentarian faction. Of the Royalists, Fitzwilliam Coningsby of Hampton Court was chosen to represent the county. Richard Seaborne was the Royalist representative for Hereford City, and Walter Kyrle represented Leominster. For the Parliamentarians, Robert Harley of Brampton Bryan was the second MP to represent the county, Richard Weaver was the Parliamentarian representative for Hereford and Samson Eure was the Parliamentarian from Leominster. Weobley was staunchly conservative and returned two Royalist MPs.

In the build-up to the first Civil War pressure to declare one's allegiance was exerted by both sides. Huge pressure was put on individuals to support one side or the other even before fighting began.

In May 1641 the House of Commons issued a "Protestation", a document expressing opposition to "Popish Innovations" and support for the rights and privileges of Parliament, which was to be signed by all persons aged 18 years and over throughout the country. Many members of the gentry in Herefordshire were incensed and drew up their own "Protestation", which in turn they expected everyone in the county to sign. A list of all those refusing to sign was to be collected for Sir William Bellendene, the general commissioner. It is easy to imagine that pressure exerted at a local level, by one's own landlord or employer, would be more intimidating than a proclamation drawn up by some far away Parliamentarians.

The Herefordshire Protestation

I, .............(name), being hereunto required doe willingly and in the presence of Almighty God solemnely vow and protest as followeth:

1. That I believe noe power of pope or parliament can depose the soveraigne Lo. K. Charles, or absolve mee from my naturall allegiance and obedience unto his royall person and successors.
2. That the two Howses of Parliament without the king's consent, hath noe authority to make lawes, or to bind or oblige the subject by their ordinances.
3. Wherefore I beleeve that the Earls of Essex and Manchester, Sir Tho. Fairfax, Sir Will. Waller, Col. Massie, together with all such as already have or hereafter shall take up armes by authority and commission of the members of parliament of Westminster, pretendige to fight for Kinge and parliament, doe thereby become actuall rebells, and all such ought with their adherents and partakers to be prosecuted and brought to condigne punishment.
4. That myselfe will never beare armes in their quarrell; but if I shal be thereunto called, will assist my soveraigne and his armyes in the defence of his royall person, crowne, and dignity, against all contrary forces, unto the uttermost of my skill and power, and with the hazard of my life and fortunes.
5. That I will not discover the secretts of his Majestyes armyes to the rebelle, nor hold any correspondence or intelligence with them. And all designes of theirs against our soveraignes armyes, or for surprizeinge or delivering uppe the cittyes of Worcester or Hereford, or of any other his Majestyes forts, I shall truly discover to whom it shall concern, so soon as ever it comes unto my knowledge.
6. That his Majesties takeinge up of armes for the causes by himselfe so oft declared in print is just and necessary.
... and with regard to the "Parliamentary Protestation":
8. I detest from my heart that seditious and trayterous late invented nationall covenant, and I promise never to take it.
All these particular articles I vow and promise sincerely to observe without equivocation or mentall reservation
So help me God.

This document shows that Royalist support ran deep in Herefordshire, yet we also know that many men from the city of Hereford joined the Parliamentarian army and opened the gates to them at the beginning of the war. (see the section The War Arrives in Hereford).

Sometimes it is easier to judge from subsequent events how broad the support for the Royalist cause was in the county. To what extent did the Parliamentarians under Colonel Birch have trouble holding and administering the county after the defeat of the King's army? According to Jaqueline Eales, there were many shades of commitment: "The permanence of parliamentarian influence in Herefordshire after December 1645 raises questions about the real strength of royalist feeling in the county during the earlier stages of the war".

Moderates from both sides were hoping for a compromise but gradually, as the positions became more and more entrenched, it was apparent that civil war was unavoidable. Even though there was some support for the Parliamentarian cause in the county, most of the landed gentry were Royalist in sentiment and, when it mattered most, supported the king. And, as it costs money to arm men and to fight a war, it was the support of the gentry which was to ultimately declare Herefordshire for the king.

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2003]