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 ‘English’ Civil Wars and Interregnum period.
Whilst there is plenty on Tudor 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 (pictured left) 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. Obviously, Parliament’s war effort was driven from the Houses of Parliament, and whilst London did not witness as much actual fighting as in other parts of the Three Kingdoms, two battles (Brentford in 1642 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 at Turnham Green in November 1642, a stand-off between the Parliamentarian and Royalist armies could easily have become the largest battle of the entire conflict.
London was the hub of the Parliamentarian war effort – 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”. It was the seat of Government; the economic powerhouse; and, in the Tower of London, the country’s principal arsenal.
London’s militia, the Trained Bands, formed the core of several of Parliament’s armies during the early years of the war. Whilst the Trained Bands were in the field, London’s citizens played a direct role in the defence of the capital through the construction of an 18km circuit of earthwork fortifications – the famous ‘Lines of Communication’.
The capital was a place of execution (public executions took place in at least five different locations in central London). It received the war’s wounded and captured, and was the place of burial for many of the wars’ chief protagonists. But 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).
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. Yet London’s pivotal role in the Civil Wars and interregnum are regularly overlooked. 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 (pictured right) 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 will be published by Helion and Company in autumn 2017.