Whilst researching my next book for Helion (covering the campaigns in Flanders in 1657-9, which climaxes with the Battle of the Dunes where Royalists and Cromwellians fought on opposing sides) I’m uncovering a gallery of colourful characters.
They range from the Spanish General Don John of Austria, who one occasion failed to capture a French supply convoy because he was taking his siesta; the diminutive, fiery Welshman Thomas Morgan who (by his account at least) largely won the Battle of the Dunes single-handedly; Lieutenant John Gwynne, Royalist soldier in exile; and lastly (but by no means least) Colonel Richard Grace, ‘soldier extraordinaire’.
Grace – an Irishman born around 1620 – was a Captain in Prince Rupert’s Regiment of Horse; and later, under Colonel Will Legge, in the First Civil War. He saw action in a number of engagements – notably Marston Moor and the fighting around Oxford in the summer of 1645 (see my book Royalist Capital: Oxford in the English Civil War, just published by Helion).
With the Royalist defeat, Grace returned to Ireland – operating first with the Royalist Earl of Ormonde and later, as a notable guerrilla leader with the Irish Confederates in their struggle with the Cromwellian forces. He was noted for his ferocity; his men allegedly cutting off the ears of a prisoner. A price of £300 was placed on Grace’s head by the English authorities.
Cornered at last on his island base on Lough Coura in Offley, Grace was granted terms. Like other former Confederates and Royalists, he was allowed to recruit an Irish Regiment of Foot and take service with Spain (currently at war with France). Problems began at once. Grace claimed that the Spanish broke their agreement to maintain his men. Before he even reached Catalonia, he had lost half his men through Spanish neglect. He was sent to garrison the town of Hostas on the border with France. What happened next was a subject of dispute…
Richard Grace had resolved to change sides and take his remaining troops over to the French. King James II claimed that Grace did so openly and honourably, giving the Spaniards time to replace his men at Hostas. The Spaniards however told another story…
The townspeople discovered that Grace was planning to hand Hostas over to the French and besieged him in the castle. Eventually, they agreed to pay Grace 400 Reales and let him leave to join the French. The Spanish authorities were furious; for a time they barred Irish soldiers entering Spain. Fighting now on the side of the French, Grace allegedly impressed James, Duke of York, who treated him “with the familiarity of an equal rather than the reserve of a sovereign.”
In 1656, Grace and his regiment – like other Irish troops – switched sides again and formed part of Charles II’s army in Flanders (though only after angry Spanish objections were overcome). At the Battle of the Dunes in 1658, Grace showed considerable skill in extricating his regiment intact from the debacle.
After the Restoration, Grace returned to Ireland and led the life of a country gentleman. But the outbreak of the Williamite War in Ireland after the 1688 Revolution would see 70-year-old Colonel Grace taking up arms again in another colourful episode of a remarkable career. A story for another time perhaps…
In a rather sad footnote – which perhaps exemplifies the typical ingratitude of the House of Stuart to even their most loyal followers – in his memoirs, James II calls this gallant soldier “Colonel Richard Gray”.
To register your interest in our English Civil War Conference, taking place on Saturday 19 September at Rowley’s House in Shrewsbury, please email firstname.lastname@example.org