London’s Civil War

David Flintham’s first book for Helion CIVIL WAR LONDON. A MILITARY HISTORY OF LONDON UNDER CHARLES I AND OLIVER CROMWELL  has just been published

The author talks about why he thinks the cities Civil War history is often overlooked.

Any decent London bookshop will have shelves devoted to the history of the capital.  But taking anything more than a cursory glance at the titles on display will reveal a glaring omission: the virtual absence of anything about London during the 1640s and 50s, the period of the ‘English’ Civil Wars and Interregnum.  Whilst there is plenty on Tudor London and Shakespeare’s London, and books about the Great Plague, the Great Fire and the London of Samuel Pepys appear with an almost staggering regularity, those about the London of Charles I and Oliver Cromwell are rare, so much so that it is probably possible to count the titles published on this subject over the past 30 years on the fingers of two hands.

Yet there was scarcely an event during the English Civil Wars where London did not feature. London was the hub of the Parliamentarian war effort and it was not for nothing that Thomas Hobbs wrote “But for the city the Parliament never could have made the war, nor the Rump ever have murdered the King”.  Whilst London did not witness as much actual fighting as in other parts of the Three Kingdoms, four battles (Brentford, and Turnham Green in 1642, and Bow Bridge, and Surbiton in 1648) did take place in what we now know as Greater London.  It was from London that Parliament’s army to relieve Gloucester was dispatched, and in 1649, it was to the capital that Cromwell returned from Ireland in triumph.  And Turnham Green in November 1642, a standoff between the Parliamentarian and Royalist armies could easily have become the largest battle of the entire conflict.

London’s importance has been emphasised by countless historians, with some going as far to say that by fleeing his capital in January 1642, King Charles I lost the war several months before the fighting actually started.  But most studies focus on London as the political and economic powerhouse – overlooking the fact that militarily, London was just as important.  At the outbreak of the fighting, Parliament was able to call upon the Capital’s ‘citizen soldiers’ – well trained and equipped soldiery.  These Trained Bands, formed the core of several of Parliament’s armies during the early years of the war, although their commitment was not always assured.  In addition to its militia and other volunteers, London was also able to defend herself through the construction of the largest system of urban fortification constructed anywhere in the country – and here London’s citizens played a direct role in the defence of the capital through the construction of a 18-km circuit of earthwork fortifications, the famous ‘Lines of Communication’.

London’s arms trades supplied the Parliamentarian war effort, and the Tower of London, safely in Parliament’s hands since January 1942, the country’s principal arsenal.  The capital was a place of execution (public executions took place in at least five different locations in central London), it treated the war’s wounded, and was the place of burial for many of the wars’ chief protagonists.  Armed soldiers were a common sight on London’s streets and the political direction of what has sometimes been referred to as ‘The English Revolution’ was steered by several armed coups within the capital.

Whilst London was controlled by Parliament, London was never 100% behind the Parliamentarian war-effort: amongst its population were both neutrals and Royalists (although the extent of a perceived Royalist ‘fifth-column’ is a matter for debate).  Indeed, a sufficnet number of Royalists fled London in 1642 and 1643 to form a largely ‘London’ Royalist regiment in Oxford, command by Marmaduke Rawdon, himself a former Colonel in the London Trained Bands.  Other Royalists could be found in London’s military hospitals and prisons (and, for some, ultimately at the capital’s many places of execution).

When David Underdown spoke of Revel, Riot and Rebellion in his 1987 work, he could have easily been describing the London of the 1640s and 1650s, as the capital experienced all of this and more.  And despite the ravages of time, and of the Great Fire and the Blitz, there is still much of the London known to Charles I and Oliver Cromwell to be seen today.  For instance, a three-mile stroll through Westminster takes in where Charles was executed, where the body of Cromwell was hung, the place of burial of a number of leading Parliamentarians, the birthplace of both Charles II and James II and the only remains of London’s Civil War fortifications.  Delve deeper and even more of London of the mid-17th century reveals itself.

All that is needed is a good guide…

Civil War London: A Military History of London under Charles I and Oliver Cromwell by David Flintham published by Helion and Company (September 2017)

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