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Hereford under siege

Hereford prepares

After the departure of Sir William Waller's troops, the Royalists in Hereford had a period of two years to reassess and strengthen their position. During the early summer of 1644, the King commanded that Hereford should be fortified. As the Royalists had been having trouble recruiting men and gaining supplies, the King gave full authority to the governor of Hereford to impress men (to force them to do military service), seize all arms, billet and quarter soldiers as required and levy contributions. If people would not support the Royalist army voluntarily, they would be forced to do so.

That the city of Hereford was a Royalist stronghold at this point cannot be doubted. King Charles I chose Hereford as a safe haven after his troops were routed at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645 and stayed for two weeks. The king's presence galvanised the governor into action and decrees were sent to all parishes with requests for men and arms.

Colonel Barnabas Scudamore had been appointed governor of Hereford. He was an experienced military man and brother to the MP for Herefordshire, Viscount Scudamore of Holme Lacy, who had surrendered to Sir William Waller during the attack on Hereford in April 1643. At this point Viscount Scudamore was still a prisoner of Parliament in London. Colonel Scudamore's preparations for a Parliamentary attack and siege were meticulous and, as we shall see, successful.

He ensured that the building work recommended by Sir Richard Cave in 1644 was carried out. The gates were finally strengthened, drawbridges replaced fixed bridges, the castle was repaired to a certain extent and the buildings outside the city walls were taken down to prevent them from being used by an attacking army.

The Scottish army arrives

The Scots army under the leadership of Alexander Leslie, First Earl of Leven, fought on the side of Parliament because in the event of victory, Scotland was promised the right to practise Presbyterianism (a form of Protestantism based on the teachings of John Knox, who believed in a more democratic religious institution without the appointment of bishops.) Besides, the soldiers were mercenaries, which means that they were paid to fight and had high hopes for taking home loot.

This large army of about 8,000 foot soldiers and 4,000 cavalry had already fought successfully in the north of England, at the one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War, Marston Moor (1644). It had witnessed the surrender of York and had taken Newcastle. By the time the army descended on Hereford on July 31st 1645, the men were hardened and experienced, yet perhaps also weary and certainly insufficiently supplied.

Read the following four descriptions and decide which one comes from a neutral source, which one was written by a Royalist sympathiser and which ones were written by sympathisers of the Scottish Army.

The following four descriptions come from a variety of sources. One is by a neutral source, one was written by a Royalist sympathiser and the other two were written by sympathisers of the Scottish army:

  • "The Scots marched with a very sorry equipage; every soldier carried a week's provision of oatmeal, and they had a drove of cattel with them for their food." (Oatmeal formed the mainstay of the Scottish diet during this period. Wheat was not grown in many parts of Scotland and, unlike in England, bread was not a staple part of the diet. Scots would have porridge for breakfast and also eat oatcakes with most meals. The soldiers would usually make a dough of oatmeal and water and bake this on hot stones from an open fire. Cavalry officers would carry a skillet for cooking oatcakes. However, when the infantry soldiers were marching, or did not have access to fire or boiling water, they would moisten the oats with milk or water and knead it in their hands to provide a nourishing, if somewhat unappetising, paste.)
  • "I myself was a great Proselite [supporter] of theirs, till I had experimented their oppressions, self seekings and cruelty at the siege before Hereford; where though they were sufficiently provided for, ...Yet the great spoyle and havocke they made, almost to the impoverishing and ruining many poore families in that Country, ... divers houses riffled, doors, chests and Trunks broken open, severall families undone; most of all their Cattle, horses, and goods taken from them, much mony, plate, Jewels and all kind of rich houshold-stuffe, Rings, and other rich commodities, as wearing apparel, linnen, books, ..."
  • "The Scottish army hath a very able traine of artillerie, and many pretty engines for war, and devises for killing Cavaliers and Papists ... never was a better disciplined Army in the Christian world than ours. We have no dangerous mutinies ... but an universall cheerfulness in our whole body ... never did Army make less spoile, commit less violence, fewer plunderings ... Our Army is very hardy too, and can endure all heates and colds, and a small victailing will serve the turne; a little paste well kneaded in the palme of their hands is there usuall dyet, and they are not so tender as your English Cavaliers, who love ease, and eating, and carousing ..."
  • "... Highlanders. These are not so civilized as we could wish, but they are good soldiers and hardy men, and are usually clad in a light plaid or speckled stuff, and in this attire they usually march, never using any armes upon their bodies. They have darts, and bows and arrowes, and durkes or great knives; and which is a wonder (for they are none of them very religious) yet they all hate bishops, papists, and cavaliers, and they threaten to pull them all to pieces, one limne from another."

Most contemporary descriptions omit an important part of most large armies, namely the hundreds of women and even children who travelled with the baggage train. These women would have nursed injured soldiers and cooked and washed for their menfolk. If the soldiers weren't paid, then their own families would go hungry too. Committees were set up in areas the army had to pass through to feed and supply the army, but the Earl of Leven complained to Parliament that his soldiers were not sufficiently provided for in Herefordshire. He also commented on the terrible state of the roads: " ... the Army is not able to march above eight miles a day, though they begin to march at the Sun rising, and continue till ten at night ... the county is unwilling to afford us anything, and the committees give us no assistance."

Were people actively denying help to a Parliamentarian Army? Were they themselves too hard-up to support over 10,000 men? Were people fed up with first having to support the Royalists, then Waller's army, and finally the Scottish army? Many people buried their valuable belongings to keep them save from both sides in this conflict. If you type "Civil War" into the Site Name box on the Historic Environment Record database, you will find two Civil War coin hoards which were uncovered in the 1980s; one in Marstow (HER entry number 3861) and one in Welsh Bicknor (HER entry number 3704).

The plundering by the Scottish Army left an indelible mark on the memory of the affected Herefordians. People could not pop out to a supermarket to restock when their supplies were taken, and even if they could have bought some things at market, they would have had no money if that too had been taken. Remember, ordinary people did not have bank accounts, and credit cards did not exist in the 17th century.

The siege

The population of Hereford was about 4,500, and in addition to the regular inhabitants there were a number of Royalist gentlemen who had had to leave their own areas when these were occupied by the Roundheads. Altogether there would have been around 1,500 soldiers and armed townsmen defending the city.

A series of letters passed between the leaders of the besieging army, who requested Hereford to surrender, and the governor of Hereford, Colonel Barnabas Scudamore, who rejected outright any suggestion of handing over the city to the Scottish army. The siege itself was fierce and all manner of military techniques and practices common to this period were applied. The walls were attacked with cannon, mines were laid, and at the same time the Royalists staged several sallies to wreak havoc with the besiegers. Breaches in the walls were instantly repaired by the courageous townspeople who worked under enemy fire.

An excellent source regarding the siege from the defenders' point of view is a letter written by Sir Barnabas Scudamore which was eventually published in the form of a pamphlet. Many pamphlets were published during the Civil War by both sides, as a means of propaganda and dissemination of information in a time before national newspapers existed. In this letter to Lord Digby, Scudamore praises the efforts of the common soldiers and townspeople, both men and women:

"My lord, I should give your Lordship an accompt of the valor of our common Souldiers and Townesmen, that would hazard themselves at the making up of breaches (to the astonishment of the Enemy), till their cannon played between their leggs, and even the Women (such was their gallantry) ventred where the Musquet bullets did so, ..."

The defenders not only were courageous, they also were imaginative in their use of defensive tactics, some of which to us today would seem very cruel:

"... what frequent alarums we gave them [the Scottish Army] by fireballs, lights upon our Steeple, by Dogs, Cats, and outworne Horses, having light Matches tyed about them; and turned out upon their works, whereby we put the enemy in such distraction, that sometimes they charged one another; ..."

It seems that they tied a form of explosives or fireworks/sparklers to cats, dogs and old horses and let these unfortunate animals out of the city walls to confuse the besiegers. One legend has it that a bull was covered in a hurdle of twigs, wood and pitch which was set on fire. This poor creature was then let loose out of one of the city gates. The Cavaliers also had an unusual idea for keeping up morale. At one point the Royalists staged a foxhunt on the city walls in full view of the Scottish army!

Another point in the favour of the defenders was the lucky coincidence that several skilled men were available in this time of crisis: a number of miners, a particularly good cannoneer and an expert carpenter and builder by the name of John Abel, who designed a special hand mill for gunpowder and grinding corn when the mill was destroyed in a bombardment. After the siege, he was awarded the privilege of calling himself the King's Carpenter.

Nevertheless, after withstanding the tremendous onslaught for nearly six weeks, the city would have been overrun, had the news not reached the Earl of Leven that the King's troops were rushing to lift the siege of Hereford. The Scottish army broke camp and retreated to Gloucestershire. Hereford entertained the King and celebrated!

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2003]