1648: KENT & ESSEX
Civil disturbances first broke out in London and Canterbury during December 1647 over Parliament's attempt to suppress traditional Christmas celebrations. In London the lord mayor personally intervened to calm the situation, but at Canterbury the mayor was driven out of the city, along with several magistrates and clergymen. The Kent county committee was obliged to mobilise the Trained Bands to restore order. Extensive rioting broke out during April 1648 in several places around the country, including London, Norwich and Bury St Edmunds, with rioters demanding the return of King Charles to full power. In combination with the Royalist uprising in south Wales, the Engager threat from Scotland and a revolt in the navy, the situation was growing increasingly dangerous for Parliament.
A Royalist rebellion broke out in Kent after the county committee at Canterbury had attempted to suppress a petition calling for the return of the King and the disbandment of the New Model Army. Canterbury, Rochester, Sittingbourne, Faversham and Sandwich were seized by Royalist insurgents on 21 May 1648. The following day, at a meeting in Rochester attended by many of the local gentry, an armed gathering of Kent Royalists was scheduled to be held at Blackheath on 30 May in support of the petition. On 26 May, Dartford and Deptford were seized by insurgents. A naval revolt broke out on 27 May when ships of the Parliamentarian fleet declared for the King. Threatened from the sea, the three artillery forts that guarded the anchorage of the Downs — Deal, Sandown and Walmer — surrendered to the Royalists and Dover castle was besieged.
General Fairfax had been preparing to march north against the threat of invasion from Scotland. With rebellion so close to London and the danger that the Kent insurgents would be joined by Royalists from Essex and Surrey, Parliament ordered Fairfax to deal with the immediate threat. On 27 May, Fairfax mustered his troops on Hounslow Heath. Colonel Barkstead secured Southwark to the south of London, while the Trained Bands under Major-General Skippon were mobilised to defend the city itself. By 30 May, Fairfax had advanced to Blackheath. On rumours of his approach, the Royalists at Deptford and Dartford dispersed. Leaving a detachment at Croydon to act as a rearguard against any threat from Surrey, Fairfax bypassed the insurgents' stronghold of Rochester and marched for Maidstone where an army of Kent Royalists was assembling on Penenden Heath.
The Earl of Norwich was proclaimed leader of the Kent Royalists at a rendezvous at Burham Heath between Rochester and Maidstone on 29 May. Norwich concentrated his forces at Maidstone, deploying a detachment to guard the outskirts and throwing up barricades around the town itself. With about 3,000 troops to defend the town, Norwich remained with his main force of around 7,000 men on Penenden Heath. At four o'clock that afternoon, Fairfax arrived at the head of 8,000 New Model Army veterans. Rather than make a direct assault on Maidstone or attack the main Royalist force, Fairfax turned the enemy's flank by attacking the outpost at Farleigh Bridge and crossing the River Medway south-west of the town. By seven in the evening Fairfax had secured the outer defences and stood before Maidstone itself, intending to storm the town the following morning. During the evening, however, the Parliamentarian advance guard under Colonel Hewson became involved in heavy skirmishing with the defenders. As other units were drawn into the fighting, Fairfax decided to make a general assault. The Royalists resisted in a series of furious street battles, but their barricades were gradually overwhelmed and the defenders driven back through the town to make a stand at Gabriel's Hill. Around 11 o'clock, the Royalists broke and fled, leaving 300 men killed and 1,000 taken prisoner.
The Earl of Norwich took no part in the battle of Maidstone, probably because the bulk of his untrained, poorly-equipped army had no heart for the fight. He escaped towards London with about 3,000 men. On reaching Blackheath on 3 June he found the gates of London barred against him and the city resolutely defended by Skippon and the Trained Bands. With Colonel Whalley in hot pursuit, most of Norwich's followers deserted. On 4 June, he crossed the Thames with 500 loyal supporters and hurried to join Sir Charles Lucas and the Essex Royalists at Chelmsford.
Fairfax sent a detachment under Colonel Rich to recapture Dover Castle and the forts at Deal, Walmer and Sandown then set off in pursuit of the Earl of Norwich with his main force. Colonel Rich spent three months in reducing the Kentish castles: Dover surrendered on 6 June, Walmer on 12 July, Deal on 25 August and Sandown on 5 September.
Most of the county committee for Essex was taken prisoner by an angry crowd at Chelmsford on 4 June. Colonel Farre with some of the Essex Trained Bands declared for the King and the veteran Sir Charles Lucas took overall command of the Essex Royalists. Lucas was joined at Chelmsford on 9 June by the Earl of Norwich, Lord Capel and Sir George Lisle with the remnants of the army from Kent. In the north of the county, however, the Trained Bands declared for Parliament. Sir Thomas Honeywood, a member of the county committee, seized the weapons in the county magazine at Braintree. On 10 June, Lucas marched into Braintree with about 4,000 troops, his movements shadowed by Colonel Whalley at the head of a small force of cavalry and dragoons. On 12 June, Lucas occupied Colchester hoping to recruit more troops before marching to raise the counties of Norfolk and Suffolk for the King. Meanwhile General Fairfax was marching swiftly up from Kent. With his advance guard, he joined Whalley and Honeywood at Coggeshall on the 12th. The following day Fairfax was at the outskirts of Colchester to rendezvous with Colonel Barkstead's infantry brigade which had hurried up from London.
Lucas deployed his forces to occupy the suburbs and bar the approach road from London into Colchester. Fairfax hoped to repeat his achievement at Maidstone and ordered an immediate attack. The Royalists resisted fiercely. Barkstead's infantry were thrown back three times, but the superior Parliamentarian horse overwhelmed the Royalists and the entire force was pushed back through the suburbs of Colchester towards the main town. Barkstead led the pursuit and advanced through the town gates only to be routed by a sudden cavalry charge and flank attack by Royalist infantry. Fairfax continued the assault until midnight, but was finally forced to abandon the attempt to carry Colchester by storm, having lost between 500 and 1,000 men.
Colchester was strongly fortified. Fairfax resigned himself to committing his forces to a long siege despite the threat from the Scots and Langdale's Royalists in the north of England. Roads leading to Colchester were secured against the possibility of the Royalists breaking out and Parliamentarian warships blockaded the mouth of the River Colne to prevent supplies being shipped in. All through June, the Parliamentarians worked on constructing a ring of forts around the perimeter of the town where siege guns were mounted to batter the walls. On 2 July the circumvallation of Colchester was completed. On 14 July Fairfax's troops seized the Hythe, Colchester's harbour on the Colne. The following day the gatehouse of the old abbey which commanded the southern wall of the town was taken.
The siege grew bitter and brutal. Uncharacteristically, Fairfax's troops committed a number of atrocities, including the torturing of a messenger boy and the desecration of graves in the Lucas family vault. The civilians of Colchester were mostly Parliamentarian sympathisers but Fairfax refused to make any concessions to alleviate their suffering. On the other side, the Royalists were accused of using poisoned bullets, i.e. bullets roughened and then rolled in sand to increase the likelihood of causing gangrenous wounds. By the beginning of August, provisions in Colchester had almost run out and the defenders were starving. Lord Norwich and Sir Charles Lucas clung on with the sole intention of keeping a large contingent of the New Model Army pinned down at Colchester but on 24 August, news came of the defeat of Langdale and the Scots at the battle of Preston. Realising that their cause was lost, the Colchester Royalists began negotiations for surrender.
General Fairfax's terms for the surrender of Colchester were harsh: junior officers and lower ranks were granted quarter (guaranteeing the prisoner's life), but senior officers were obliged to surrender to mercy (life or death was at the discretion of the victorious commander). After Fairfax occupied Colchester on 27 August 1648, he left the fate of the Earl of Norwich and Lord Capel to Parliament but ordered the execution by firing squad of four non-aristocratic commanders: Sir Charles Lucas, Sir George Lisle, Colonel Farre and the mercenary Sir Bernard Gascoigne.
Colonel Farre managed to escape and Sir Bernard Gascoigne was reprieved because he was a foreign national, but the execution of Lucas and Lisle went ahead. Fairfax's decision — almost certainly influenced by Commissary-General Henry Ireton — was controversial. Although the Royalist officers had surrendered on mercy, it was unprecedented in the civil wars for an execution to be carried out under such circumstances. Ireton and Fairfax justified the severity of the sentence on the grounds that Lucas and Lisle had caused unnecessary bloodshed by attempting to defend an untenable position. Furthermore, Lucas had broken his parole by going to war against Parliament a second time, and was himself accused of executing prisoners in cold blood during the siege. The executions reflect the sense of anger and frustration felt by Parliamentarians at the Royalists who had inflicted a second civil war upon the nation. They were calculated to deter others from taking up arms against Parliament and to set a precedent for the execution of Parliament's enemies.
The executions of Lucas and Lisle were carried out in the evening of 28 August 1648 in Colchester Castle. They died courageously and were swiftly elevated to the status of Royalist martyrs. Pamphlets appeared within days condemning their barbarous murder by Fairfax. According to legend, the grass never again grew on the spot where they were killed. The area is now paved over and marked by a memorial obelisk.
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iv (London 1894)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)
P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)
Alf Thompson, The Siege of Colchester, (Orders of the day, Volume 32, Issue 2, April 2000)