St Albans, A Civil War Miscellany

Author: Alf Thompson, The Earl of Northampton’s Regiment

Orders of the day, Volume 31, Issue 4, 1999

Depending on when you read this, you may either be just about to engage in the St Albans Muster or be recovering from it. Whatever the case, as a prelude or a postscript, here is a brief Civil War miscellany of St Albans.

Hertfordshire, as a county on the fringes of London, was a bastion of Parliamentarian heartland throughout the Civil Wars. During this period St Albans was a township which later received city status, with the Abbey Church being consecrated as a cathedral. The town had been of strategic importance throughout history and had been associated with early scenes of civil strife. In the 15th century St Albans and its environs was bloody with the butchery of two great battles between the Houses of York and Lancaster. By the 17th century it had prospered through the relative peace of the Tudor and early Stuart period and had grown in the wake of trade and commerce.

When civil unrest came to the fore in the late spring of 1642 St Albans, like the rest of Hertfordshire, adopted Parliamentarian sympathies. That is not to say that there was no Royalist support: indeed a number of powerful Hertfordshire families declared for the King, the most notable being Arthur Lord Capel of Hadham, Lucius Carey Lord Falkland of Aldenham, Sir John Harrison of Balls Park and Sir Richard Fanshawe of Ware.

In July 1642 Parliament ordered the towns of Hertford and St Albans to train militia in the service of Parliament as a safeguard against open hostility with the King. Mr Alban Cox was given command of the horse and John Marsh command of the foot. Alban Cox later became a colonel in the New Model Army and was a close friend of Oliver Cromwell. Cox lived at Beaumonts near St Albans and it is recorded that Cromwell stayed as his guest on a number of occasions during the Civil War period. Parliament had sent out orders throughout the county forbidding the posting or reading of Commissions of Array on behalf of the King. Lord Capel ignored the order and served the Commission of Array in Hertfordshire. Capel, who had been the member for Hertfordshire, had been extremely active in open debate denouncing the King’s methods of taxation. However when the inevitable strife was on the horizon he could not bring himself to take up arms against the King and was from beginning to end an ardent Royalist. He was described as tall and handsome, a man who had presence and was greatly respected within the county. Not surprisingly there were those ready to serve the King and readily carry out orders issued by such a man as Capel. In St Albans the Mayor, William Newe, carried out Capel’s orders and served the King’s Commission of Array in July 1642. He was promptly summoned before Parliament and imprisoned, for while he was a Royalist his Corporation were for Parliament. A similar course of action took place in Hertford with the Mayor suffering the same fate as Newe. Kingston (1894) compiled contemporary manuscripts of the county of Hertfordshire and recognised that the populace was essentially ‘Puritan’ and the power base of the merchant classes gave little hope of any measurable Royalist support.

One of the most memorable scenes connected with the Civil War in St Albans was the march through the town of the first great Parliamentarian army commanded by the Earl of Essex. The army, 20,000 strong, marched up Holywell Hill, passing by the Abbey towards Redbourn and Dunstable, then northwards on to Edgehill. Hertfordshire Records describe the event as being both joyous and colourful, and refer to the array of banners and the mixed colours of the regimental coats. It is interesting that manuscripts record that before the battle of Edgehill was over Parliamentarian deserters had returned to St Albans bringing news of a great Parliamentarian defeat. The townspeople, not knowing the truth, treated them well and the parish records of St Peter’s Church show an entry, “Given To A Soldier That Came From Edgehill 5s 0d.” On 5th November 1642 Essex’s army returned to St Albans on the way to defend London against the Royalist threat, and was greeted with much cheering and great celebration.

Throughout the first years of the Civil War the Earl of Essex frequently used St Albans as a garrison town for the main body of his army and the Abbey Church became the Parliamentarian headquarters. In the later years of the conflict St Albans was the HQ for Fairfax and the New Model Army, and manuscripts recognise the difference between the mixed regimental colours of Essex’s army and the red coats of the New Model Army. Although St Albans was the scene of celebration for many a Parliamentarian triumph, it also witnessed the departure of Essex’s army to ill-fated defeat at Lostwithiel. In the spring of 1644 Essex led his army out of St Albans to unexpected defeat in the West Country which marked his decline as a soldier. The departure of the army on this occasion was a “great relief” to the townspeople as the army in long-term quarters had become a great burden. It seems that for the most part the Army of Parliament was both well received and well behaved, however records show that in March 1645 twelve recruits were arrested and two hung in St Albans for “violating household and inhabitants”. The garrison was prompt in making the arrests and were quick to point out that the recruits were not authentic soldiery, but rather vagrants in the guise of recruits.

In January 1643 a certain Captain Cromwell made an impact in St Albans. Leading a troop of horse, he was on his way to assist in securing Cambridge against an emerging Royalist threat when he heard of Royalist unrest in St Albans. Thomas Coningsby, the High Sheriff of Hertfordshire, was attempting to serve the King’s Commission of Array in the Market Square. Undaunted by what had happened to the unfortunate Mayor William Newe, he rode into St Albans with a body of men dressed in ‘green velvet doublets’ and set up his recruitment drive in the Market Square. Whilst in the midst of his campaigning, unknown to Coningsby Cromwell had pulled up with a troop of horse outside the Old Cross Keys Inn. Cromwell dismounted his troopers and marched into the Market Square, where he denounced Coningsby’s Commission and set about making arrests. In the midst of a skirmish Coningsby escaped into the Red Lion Inn, but was cornered by Cromwell and arrested. He was tried as a ‘malignant’ and served nine years in the Tower and died in captivity. In December 1643 Col. Nathaniel Fiennes was tried and sentenced to death at St Albans for his surrendering of Bristol to Prince Rupert. He was later pardoned by Essex.

The village of Aldenham is only a few miles from St Albans and in its parish church there are memorials to the Carey family and in particular to Lucius Carey, Lord Falkland of Aldenham, who had been born in Burford in Oxfordshire. In 1642 Carey sold Aldenham House to Sir Job Harby, a staunch Royalist. The house later became the property of Denzil Holles in 1663. It was completely restored in the 19th century, but has many 16th and 17th century internal features.

Lord Falkland has been described as both the most noble and most pathetic figure of the Civil Wars. Prior to the Wars he was a member for Newport, I.O.W. and was a moderate, but when war broke out his allegiances were clearly with the King. He has been described as an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable man, a philosopher and poet, noble and gallant. However it is well documented that by his own word he was sickened by the plight of the age and developed a melancholy that degenerated into a morbid death wish, seeing no end to the war. When he charged headlong to his death at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643, he committed a gallant suicide and met the death for which he had longed. He charged his mount through a heavily guarded gap in a hedgerow and Parliamentarian musketeers easily picked him off. He was shot through the neck, stripped naked and was identified after the day-long battle by a mole on his neck. His body was returned home and later interred at Great Tew church. There now stands a memorial to Lord Falkland at the Newbury battle site.

By the winter of 1643 St Albans was clearly established as a Parliamentarian headquarters. The Abbey Church had been requisitioned by the Army and the HQ at St Albans was in frequent use by the Parliamentarian High Command. Evidence of this is confirmed by a number of notable recorded events throughout the Civil Wars, one of which was the reviewing of the Army by Lord Fairfax on Easter Day 1645. Twice the Abbey Church was used as a prison. Following the great Parliamentarian victory at Naseby Col. John Fiennes was ordered to take 3,000 Royalist prisoners to St Albans to be held prior to being taken to London and paraded through the streets in a great triumphal procession. Parish records of St Albans note the “burdensome cost” of the venture, and it is documented that the church windows were removed to allow the flow of fresh air. After the Royalist disaster at Colchester during the Second Civil War, Fairfax brought back thousands of prisoners to St Albans to await their fate. Once again the Abbey Church and environs were used as a prison.

An anecdote worth highlighting is that recorded by Michael Hudson, chaplain to the King, in his text “Confessions and Examinations of Michael Hudson”. When Charles accepted military defeat and fled from Oxford in April 1646, he travelled north to surrender to the Scots at Newark, accompanied only by two companions, one of whom was Hudson. In avoidance of the Parliamentarian Army his meanderings took him to St Albans. Hudson recalls as they were on the road just outside St Albans at about two o’clock in the morning they heard horse coming upon them fast. The immediate reaction was one of fear and that they had been caught by Parliamentarian troopers. They were relieved to find that they were but drunken revellers riding through the night. As the party approached St

Albans they were challenged by an old Parliamentarian soldier carrying a halberd, who was on sentry duty and demanded identification. Hudson told him that they were on a mission from Parliament carrying urgent messages. He offered him 6d. for his commitment to duty and they were given permission to enter the town. However having had a major scare they decided that St Albans, Parliamentarian town that it was, was a high-risk place to stay for the night, so they rode through the town and on to Whisthamstede (Wheathampstead), where the King’s companions knew of a safe house.

In July 1648 The Earl of Holland and the young Duke of Buckingham, having raised 1,000 horse, attempted to support the main Royalist Army by attacking Fairfax from the rear, but were cut off and defeated at Kingston. Holland retreated with some 500 men to St Albans where he unsuccessfully tried to rally support. With the Parliamentarian army hot on his heels he withdrew to St Neots; having underestimated the closeness of his assailants he quartered for the night. The Parliamentarians surprised him during the night and gave battle. Holland was easily defeated, arrested and later tried and executed. The Earl of Holland and the Duke of Hamilton were executed on the same day as Arthur Lord Capel, the ardent Hertfordshire Royalist. Cromwell advised Parliament to put Capel on trial rather than deport him, because he recognised that he would always be constant to the Royalist cause.

Hertfordshire Royalists suffered greatly during the Civil Wars and prominent Royalists in particular. Lord Falkland had been killed at Newbury, the Fanshawes exiled and Capel executed. Although not specific to St Albans, the death of Capel is worth telling. It is well recorded that he went bravely to his death and made beau geste in the face of death. Capel asked Brandon the executioner whether he was the same headsman who had killed his King. Brandon said that he was and that the axe was the very same. Capel, on hearing this, kissed the axe and made a request that his heart should be cut from his body, placed in a casket and laid at the feet of his King, saying that he wanted to serve the King in death as he had in life. The heart was taken out, but Parliament refused the cavalier request. However it was placed in a silver casket and presented to Charles II on the Restoration then returned to Hadham for burial.

Whilst Capel was sealing his own fate at Colchester the events of the second Civil War were about to seal that of the King. In November 1648 the Council of Officers met at St Albans, where Fairfax and Ireton, along with other senior army officers, debated his fate. Having decided that Charles should be tried, they signed a Remonstrance which was delivered to Parliament. This led to Pride’s Purge and the ultimate death of the King.

As Oxford had been to the King and London had been for Parliament, St Albans was the seat of the Army. It had become the Army capital in the untenable triumvirate between King, Parliament and Army. It was here that Lilburne began to offer caveats about creating a greater oppressor than the one that had been fought against. Cromwell was not present at St. Albans, but it is clear that this was the birth of Caesar’s power and a demarcation point that Fairfax had not anticipated.

When the Protectorate was declared, St Albans was the scene of great merrymaking and drunken celebration. Less than a decade later it rejoiced in the Restoration. The town had already cheered General Monck and his army of 6,000 as it made its way towards London to ensure the Restoration. Monck delayed five days in St Albans, and when the Restoration was declared St Albans lit great bonfires. The Hertfordshire Records for 1660 record in detail the great expense the town went to celebrating the Restoration: the Corporation paid for large amounts of sack, ale and tobacco to be given freely at the Market Cross, powder and match were supplied to fire cannonades in celebration and maypoles were set up in the town. This once staunch bastion of Parliament, home to its Army, was now heralding the reign of a Stuart. The parish registers show in detail the vast amounts of money spent on the celebrations. It is interesting to note that on three separate occasions the entries show 4s 0d paid to bellringers - for hailing the Protectorate, announcing the arrival of Monck, and for heralding the Restoration.

  • Hertfordshire Record Society Papers and Tracts
  • Hertfordshire and The Great Civil War: A Kingston, 1894
  • The Life and Times of Lord Falkland: J A R Marriot, 1907
  • The Memoirs of Anne Lady Fanshawe 1600-1672, revised 1907
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