Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth and the Interregnum lasted just 11 years, during which time he managed to cancel Christmas celebrations, among other reforms. His rule started when he had King Charles I’s head chopped off , yet most Brits don’t seem to know or care about the devastating English Civil War in the mid 1600s.
My interest in history came late, 20 years after I had left England for a new life in Canada. In the mid 80s I read Pierre Berton’s compelling book Flames Across the Border to learn more about my new country – and was hooked. Nothing taught at school had stuck in my youthful brain, but suddenly I had a new interest. The War of 1812 between the United States and the British in Canada was filled with enough blood and thunder to excite anyone. Later in my career, I had the privilege of directing Pierre’s television series Heritage Theatre, written by the inestimable polymath Lister Sinclair. Of course, the events around the Niagara frontier featured in several episodes.
Recently, I realized that my knowledge of English history had many large gaps and I’ve been filling them in and bringing them to life by visiting the places where key events and battles took place.
I’ve been researching and writing about the Civil War that engulfed England, Scotland, Ireland and to a certain extent, Wales. But because of the pandemic, I’ve not been able to do any on the ground research until my last visit to the UK.
There were dozens of small battles and skirmishes during the conflict between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians, but I’m focussed on the three major battles: one at the beginning, when it all started; one towards the end, which showed the Royalist forces could be beaten; and one at the very end when the Royalists were well nigh wiped out.
First, the Battle of Edgehill was fought on Sunday 23 October 1642. As talks between the King and Parliament broke down, both the Royalists and the Parliamentarians raised large armies. Finding themselves in close proximity, the Cavaliers descended from the well defended heights of Edge Hill and forced the first major battle of the war with their opponents on the plain below. Both armies were amateur and inexperienced, and neither was able to gain a decisive advantage. Both sides were looking for a quick victory to end the war, but it lasted another four years.
Two years later, after mostly Royalist victories, the Battle of Marston Moor was fought on the evening of Saturday 2 July 1644. The City of York was held by the Royalists and had been besieged by the Parliamentarians. Prince Rupert, in command of the Cavaliers, raced to relieve them. Even though he was outnumbered, he decided to give battle and both forces gathered on the wild meadows of Marston Moor just west of the City. Late in the day, the Roundheads, augmented by a large Scottish contingent, launched a surprise attack. After two hours, Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry routed the Prince’s cavalry and annihilated the remaining Royalist infantry. The Prince escaped by hiding in a bean field. Cromwell, at the head of the now professional New Model Army proved the Prince, an impetuous commander at best, could be beaten.
Finally, the Battle of Naseby was fought on Wednesday 14 June 1645. Although heavily outnumbered, King Charles decided to make a stand and fight. After several hours of combat, with thousands of casualties, the Royalist army was effectively destroyed. The King lost all his personal baggage and papers, the contents of which were later used in evidence at the trial which condemned him to death.
On a bleak November day in 2021, I set out from York to find the site of Marston Moor. My satnav (GPS) had nothing, but fortunately I’d printed out a good map from the UK Battlefields Resource Centre, which led me to a narrow country lane. There was no signage of any sort in the neighbourhood, but eventually I located a small obelisk which marked the approximate centre of the battlefield. North of the monument stretched the Cavalier forces, about 17,000 men. South of the monument, the even more numerous opposing forces gathered, with Cromwell’s cavalry taking an imposing position on a small hill. The fighting went on until nearly midnight, with over 4,000 Royalist and a few hundred Parliamentarian casualties. There’s a small explanatory plaque, a layby which on a busy day might accommodate three cars – and that’s it. Nothing else to signify the largest battle fought during the Civil War.
At Edge Hill, I fare even worse. I found the hill, and the village of Edgehill, but of the battlefield I could find nary a trace. Turns out there isn’t much and anyway, most of the battlefield is on military land and not accessible. I take some photos from the bottom of the hill, over what I assume could be the battlefield, and when it starts to drizzle, retreat to the warmth of a pub and a glass of whisky. That the first battle in a war which cost the lives of an estimated two hundred thousand soldiers and civilians, should be so poorly commemorated, is a disgrace.
Naseby, my next stop was barely better. There’s a fundraising project to raise the battle’s visibility, headed by Charles Spencer, the author of several excellent historical books, but the Naseby Battlefield Project doesn’t seem to be doing much. Earl Spencer (Diana’s brother, of course) says the battle was “…the most important battle fought on English soil in over 900 years. It saw the end of the Royalist army as a fighting force… I think it is a national disgrace that we don’t have a memorial there to remind people of this great moment in our history.”
Spencer points out that the Americans treat their Civil War (1861 – 1865) more seriously, with a large visitor centre at Gettysburg, site of the major battle in that conflict, with 1.8 million visitors in a normal year. Move the decimal point – I doubt all three of these UK sites get 18 visitors a year between them.
At least the route to the site is clearly signposted from the main road. But when I arrive, there’s a layby which might accommodate five cars, a tromp across a farmer’s field and another small monument. The couple of boards with a description of the battle are interesting and informative, so we can thank the Project for something. It begins to rain again, and I slink back to my car across the wet grass, supremely disappointed. In the whole time I’m there not a car passes on the country road.
By complete comparison, two key battles in Canada’s march from French trading outpost to British Dominion are brilliantly commemorated with monuments, museums and visitor centres.
A few years ago, we drove to Quebec City. One of my objectives was to visit the site of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, fought between the British and the French on Thursday 13 September 1759. Arriving at Battlefields Park, we stop at the museum and interpretive centre, before heading out on the walking trail. The battle was decisive in the eventual British victory – and the creation of Canada – and notable because both the English commander, Major General James Wolfe and the French commander Lieutenant General Louis-Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm, were killed.
The site was largely agricultural until a campaign in 1908 ceded 255 acres to create the park we see today. It contains a splendid monument to Wolfe as well as many other historic elements.
On a weekend jaunt to Niagara-on-the-Lake, we checked out the Brock Monument. It commemorates the Battle of Queenston Heights, fought on Tuesday 13 October 1812, as part of a long-term attempt by the Americans to annex the nascent colony and in retaliation for a humiliating defeat by Major General Isaac Brock at Detroit. More than a thousand soldiers crossed into what was then Upper Canada, climbed to the top and forced the British from the Heights. Brock, an ancestor of my children, was killed leading a heroic counterattack. Mohawk warriors held back the Americans for hours — long enough for reinforcements to arrive so that the British could retain the crucial outpost. Canada remains independent of America to this day.
Queenston Heights was recognized very early as sacred ground. It was here that the first Brock Monument was built in 1824. A second larger monument was unveiled on 13 October 1859, after the first one was damaged by an explosion. One can climb the 235 steps to the top of the impressive 56 metre (184 foot) tower, though I have not done so personally. Self-guided walking tours of the National Historic Site tell the story of the battle. Pierre Berton’s War of 1812 tells the whole story.
It’s ironic that two British generals gave their lives for the creation and defense of the Empire and are commemorated in a manner not seen in Britain outside London. I hope that one day the Brits will recognize the fact that as American philosopher George Santayana said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Cromwell’s Puritan reforms are long gone, but for many of us Christmas festivities were cancelled yet again. But wherever you are and in whatever state your celebrations, we wish you a happy New Year. And may 2022 turn out to be better for all of us.
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