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Thursday 22 August 2002, 9.02 am - 9.30 am.
Melvyn Bragg follows his long historical exploration of the Routes of English with Voices of the Powerless, in which he explores the lives of the ordinary working men and women of Britain at six critical moments across the last 1,000 years.

Listen to Melvyn Bragg's introduction
Hear how people chose sides
Hear how we traced the powerless
Hear how people survived the siege
Hear how soldiers were treated in the siege
Hear how the siege ended
You can read the original sources..>>

The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester - Introduction

The Road to War

At the beginning of his reign, King Charles I faced a perennial problem of English monarchs, how to raise the money and resources needed to wage war.

When Parliament failed to vote for the taxes needed, Charles tried force taxation through customs dues and forced loans, imprisoning those who refused to pay.

In reaction, the Parliament of 1628 came up with the Petition of Right, demanding the King to declare illegal arbitrary imprisonment and tax collection without parliamentary consent.

The King caved in, however he insisted that the Petition simply confirmed old liberties and did not create new ones.

But in 1629 Charles decided to rule without Parliament, beginning a period commonly known as 'Eleven Years' Tyranny' 1629 - 40.

Largely peaceful and prosperous the main source of conflict in this period was religion.

The new Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud and his followers were seen as almost popish in their beliefs and practices. While Charles himself seemed indifferent to the growth of Catholicism at Court. Puritans and other radical protestants were coming increasingly under attack.

However, despite these concerns, few of Charles's subjects would consider his overthrow. It took a remarkable series of errors by Charles to persuade even a minority of his subjects that he was unfit to govern.

The first of these came when Charles tried to impose his will on rebellious Scottish Protestants. Unfortunately he used largely Irish Catholic armies to do so. He even contemplated using Spanish and Papal grants to pay for those armies. However Charles was humiliatingly defeated by the Scots and was forced to finally summon Parliament in 1640.

When it was clear that no agreement was going to be found between the King and Parliament some of the Parliamentary leaders drafted 'The Grand Remonstrance' ostensibly a petition from Parliament to the King asking him to get rid of evil counsellors.

Really it was an appeal to the people and in the debates on whether the Grand Remonstrance should be printed or not swords were first drawn in the House of Commons - so strongly did men feel about the issue. Concern about the Grand Remonstrance drove some moderates to the King's side.

After an unsuccessful attempt to arrest five members of Parliament (Jan. 4, 1642), Charles left London (January 10), and both sides prepared for war. This was the inevitable result of a growing number of sources of conflict, including religious issues, which turned a crisis of confidence in the King into rebellion and revolution.

When both groups took up arms, the war broke out in August 1642.

The commanders of Royalist and Parliamentary forces at Chester. On the left Lord john Byron, Royalist, on the right Sir William Brereton, Parliamentarian.
The commanders of Royalist and Parliamentary forces at Chester. On the left Lord john Byron, Royalist, on the right Sir William Brereton, Parliamentarian.

The Course of the War

Royalist support came largely from Wales and from the North and West of England, Parliament held the richer South and East and controlled London, the areas more economically developed. In Lancashire, Sussex, Yorkshire and other counties the industrial areas were Parliamentarian, the agricultural areas Royalist. The ports and navy were virtually all Parliamentarian, the cathedral cities virtually all Royalist.

Most magnates hoped to preserve the peace of the counties over which they presided - County communities were resistant to the demands and interference of central government throughout the century.

Initially the opposing armies were of equal numbers (each about 13,000 men); the Royalists were superior in cavalry until the formation of Parliament's New Model Army (1645). However, Parliament's greater economic resources ensured the conflict's ultimate outcome.

As wars go, the Civil Wars weren't particularly bloody - certainly not in comparison with the 30 years war on the continent. Around 100,000 - about 1 in 10 men were killed - but population movements, of troops and refugees also spread disease. Some estimate that the English population fell by a fifth during the 1640s.

Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642, and a number of inconclusive encounters which settled nothing. Royalist victory at Edgehill was balanced by Parliamentarian victory at Marston Moor.

When war broke out in 1642, both sides could only command only the local militia, or trainbands, of those districts supporting its cause. But militia were always unwilling to fight far from their homes.

So both sides authorised its supporters to raise troops from among their own tenants and associates. These private parliamentary armies were perhaps in better condition than those raised for the king, because Parliament provided for their pay; but strategically they were not effective because of the lack of unified command.

As a result, the New Model Army was brought into existence. The New Model Army, formed in February 1645, won the English Civil War for Parliament and later came to exercise important political power.

A map of Chester from the 17th Century.
A map of Chester from the 17th Century.

The End of War

The New Model Army first saw action in the great parliamentary victory at Naseby (June 14, 1645). After Naseby the war took a decisive turn.

The Scots swept through the North of England, Parliamentary forces through the Southwest. 1646 saw the final disbanding of Royalist troops and the surrender of Oxford. King Charles took refuge with the Scots, who handed him over as a prisoner to the Parliamentarians when they left England in January 1647.

During 1647 Charles was first kidnapped by the army, which was increasingly at odds with Parliament, and then escaped. He negotiated with a Scottish group promising to establish Presbyterianism in England and suppress Independents in exchange for aid.

This started the second phase of the wars, a series of Royalist rebellions, and a Scottish invasion (July 1648). All were defeated, and resentment at Charles's duplicity led to his trial and execution (January 1649).

Soldiers from the English Civil Wars. On the left a musketeer, on the right a pikeman.
Soldiers from the English Civil Wars. On the left a musketeer, on the right a pikeman.

The War in Chester

In 1642 Chester was a compact city with around 8,000 inhabitants. Most lived within the city walls, some in suburbs to the north and east. Chester was a strategically important city - the political, economic and ecclesiastical centre for a wide area of Cheshire and North Wales. It was also on the main routes into North Wales and along the coast of North West England and was the place from which troops to and from Ireland embarked and arrived, presumably coming up the River Dee which bordered the city.

Chester was one of the most prosperous cities in England at the time with many wealthy traders. Tradesman were typically leather merchants and the city had favourable trading privileges granted by Charles. This is why the city's aldermen declared for the Royalists. The war would presumably have come as quite a shock to its inhabitants, who were used to a relatively peaceful and prosperous life.

Chester's civic government was effectively in the hands of a small oligarchy of Aldermen known collectively as 'The Brethren', had built up privileges and trading monopolies they were determined to preserve. The manoeuvrings of this group helped assure that the city would declare for the King - although of those who took one side over the other, the majority of the townspeople were probably Royalist in sympathies anyway. However, as in much of the country, a large number of the common people cared little for either side. The pro-Royalist faction was led by the Gamull brothers, merchants William and Francis, and the Holme family.

Chester typifies the experience of many besieged cities during the Civil Wars. Its citizens endured a lengthy siege but had little say over which side the city declared for. Chester is a good example of 'powerlessness' in that the richer merchants, to whom the King had granted lucrative rights for the production - and presumably import - of goods, declared the city for the Royalist side. Almost a Royalist coup, this decision resulted in the siege - a siege in which the city's poor suffered considerable hardship. The primary sources - although mainly written by the rich - are plentiful and Chester suffered particular deprivation as it endured one of the longest sieges of the war.

From 1644 the city was besieged by the Roundheads - led by Sir William Brereton - and was blockaded and bombarded for 15 months before finally agreeing terms of surrender in early 1646. Deaths and casualties resulted from the firing of flaming mortars into the city, fighting between soldiers and militiamen on both sides, often on or near the city walls, and finally, hunger, which killed civilians and, in greater numbers, the Welsh soldiers who were billeted in the city. After the war, many of the citizens were left homeless and impoverished, many had sold all their possessions and spent all of their savings on food, and many were killed by the plague which then swept through the city.

The main sources are the account of Lord John Byron, the Royalist Governor who led the defence of Chester, the papers of his adversary, the Parliamentarian Sir William Brereton, the account of Randle Holme the third, or at least of a contemporary who had access to his papers, a leading merchant and staunch loyalist. There are letters written by soldiers, prisoners and deserters to their family and military commanders, for example intercepted letters written by Welsh soldiers trapped inside the city, letters such as that of John Price to his mother. And finally, there are parochial records recording deaths and an inventory of food left in the city, recorded by household, which was organised by Lord Byron in the final weeks of the siege.

War and the People

While we generally associate the Civil Wars with either political and social radicalism or a romantic struggle between roundhead and cavalier, the Royalist and Parliamentarian sides had very little to distinguish them.

There were no great economic differences between the landowners who led the two sides throughout the war. They did not represent the interests of different class groups merely differing views of how these interests were best served.

Within Parliament, the majority of the Lords sided with the Crown in the Civil War, while most MPs opposed the Crown. The majority of the landed elite would have preferred to avoid hostilities but were drawn in by an active minority, ideologically divided by constitutional and religious issues.

The majority of civilians had no choice. With no strong sense of allegiance to one side or the other the poor were as likely to support the King as his enemies. Most soldiers were fighting for personal gain or on the orders of their masters, landlords or employers.

During the Civil Wars, ordinary men and women had a rare opportunity to express radical religious, political and social beliefs. Cromwell allowed complete religious toleration among his troops and allowed them to discuss and worship in their own way - provided they were good fighters. Democratic calls for reform were also heard

Most forceful in this were The Levellers radical groups created during the Civil War who came to prominence in the 1640s. Led by John Lillburne, Richard Overton and others they wished to create a republican constitution with sovereign one-chamber legislature chosen by near-universal male suffrage.

Their proposals were issued in Agreement of the People 1647 and debated by the army at Putney in 1647 (without acceptance).

It's difficult to know whether this radicalism was something new or simply that the concerns of humble men were rarely given an outlet - and the chaos of the civil wars allowed expression of long-held beliefs. Either way - the popular radicalism that the Levellers expressed was forced underground once again in the 1650s.

Mutinies by Levellers and allies in the army were crushed ruthlessly in 1649,and with them the Leveller's movement.

John Barratt, Historian
Mark Stoyle, senior lecturer from Southampton University
Simon Ward, senior archaeologist with Chester city council
Eileen Willshaw, heritage manager for Chester City Council

Christopher Hill, Roundheads and Cavaliers and Everyman
John Morrill, Government and Politics in England and Wales, 1625 - 1701
Encyclopaedia Britannica
Rupert H Morris and Bill Lawson, The Siege of Chester,1924
John Barratt, Cavaliers

Useful Links
The Long View - The English Civil War and peace accords - from BBC Radio 4
Chosing Sides in The English Civil War - article from BBC History

Listen Live
Audio Help
l - Castles and Cruelty - extracts on programme page.
2 - The Peasants' Revolt - extracts on programme page.
-3 - The Reformation - extracts on programme page
4 - The Plantation of Ulster - extracts on programme page
5 - The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester - - extracts on programme page
Listen to Melvyn Bragg talk about Voices of the Powerless
Listen to Simon Elmes, executive producer, give an unigue insight into the programme.
Listen to the signature music
Go to - Homepage.
Go to Prog l - Castles and Cruelty
Go to Prog 1 - Biography of Orderic Vitalis
Go to Prog 2 - The Peasants' Revolt
Go to Prog 3 - The Reformation
Go to Prog 3 - The Reformation - Key Events
Go to Prog 4 - The Plantation of Ireland in the Counties of Armagh and Tyrone.
Go to Prog 5 - The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester
Read The Sources
Go to Prog 1 - Castles and Cruelty
Go to Prog 2 - The Peasants' Revolt
Go to Prog 3 - the Reformation
Go to Prog 4 - the Plantation of Ulster
Go to Prog 5 - The English Civil War and the Siege of Chester

In Our Time
Thursday 9.00-9.45am, rpt 9.30-10.00pm. Melvyn Bragg explores the history of ideas. Listen again online or download the latest programme as an mp3 file.
This Sceptred Isle
BBC History - Plantation of Ireland
Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time for BBC Radio 4, a series where he and his guests discuss the "Big Ideas" of cultural or scientific significance.

He also presented The Routes of English, his millennial series celebrating 1,000 years of the English language.

Melvyn Bragg was born in 1939 in Wigton, Cumbria - where many of his books are set. He won a scholarship to Oxford to read history, and in 1961 he gained a coveted traineeship with the BBC.

He has presented a number of television series including: Read All about It, Two Thousand Years, and Who's Afraid of the Ten Commandments? and createdThe South Bank Show.

Melvyn presented Start the Week between 1988 and 1998. In his 1998 series On Giant's Shoulders he interviewed scientists about their eminent predecessors.

As well as presenting for Radio 4, he is Controller of Arts for London Weekend Television. In 1998 he was made a life peer. He's written 17 novels, the latest of which, The Soldier's Return, won the WH Smith Literary Award.

Melvyn Bragg was made a Life Peer in 1998 and he took the title of Baron Bragg of Wigton in the County of Cumbria.

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