Tuesday, 11 September 2018

The Siege of Chester in the English Civil War - Chester 2018

The King observes the defeat of his forces at the Battle of Rowton Heath in September 1645 from the city wall of Chester

Chester played a pivotal role in the English Civil War, situated as it is on the border between England and North Wales.

Its position was key in that both it and the principality were both strongly in support of the King and indeed Wales was to be a major recruiting ground for Royalist forces throughout the war, also enabling access for Royalist garrisons to come across from Ireland from time to time.

Chester along with Bristol in the south guard the routes in and out of Wales
and both were critical Royalist strongholds allowing reinforcements to enter England from both Wales and Ireland

In the early years of the war Parliamentary armies attempted to interrupt this flow of manpower in support of the Royalist cause with an army under Sir William Waller taking Gloucester on the border with South Wales and Sir William Bereton together with Sir Thomas Myddelton advancing into the north, but both these offensives were driven back.

The situation finally swung in favour of Parliament with the defeat of Prince Rupert's Royalist army at Marston Moor in July 1644, which I visited last summer on our trip to York.

In September this battle was followed up with a Royalist defeat at the Battle of Montgomery which forced Sir John, Lord Byron and his Royalist forces very much onto the defence.

Sir John, 1st Lord Byron, 1599-1652 - Known to the Parliamentarians as "Bloody Bragadoccio",
 commander of  Royalist forces in Cheshire, Lancashire and North Wales and at the Siege of Chester.

Throughout 1642 and 43 the Royalist garrison in Chester worked hard to improve the defences around the old medieval and Roman wall as illustrated in the contemporary map below; constructing a forward ring of earthwork defences better suited to resisting artillery and better able to keep enemy guns away from the old wall.


From the city, Lord Byron directed his forces in containing the Parliamentary army under Sir William Bereton who gradually increased his control over much of Cheshire in the spring and summer of 1645.

The Royalist forces were compelled to withdraw back into Chester, safe in the knowledge that the city controlled the crossings over the River Dee and that the Welsh side of the river was still firmly under Royalist control.

In February 1645 Bereton's forces had closed on the city and stormed the walls close to the North Gate, but were repulsed and forced to adopt a close blockade.

The city's defenders must have thought their prospects had improved when Prince Maurice arrived in March with a relief force, only for him to leave the following month taking 1200 veteran Irish troops with him and leaving just 600 regular troops and some armed citizens as garrison, much to the chagrin of Lord Byron.

By September the Parliamentary army was back in force and a determined assault on the outer defences of the city saw them close on the Eastgate suburbs, allowing artillery to bombard the city wall, breaching it severely on the 22nd of September. 

It was then at this most critical point in the defence of the city that Lord Byron got word that the King was very close with a relief force and to hold at all costs.

Contemporary map of Chester's Civil War fortifications in 1645

The King's position took a severe turn for the worse following his defeat with the main Royalist army at Naseby in June 1645 and during July and August he was forced to regroup with the survivors at Raglan Castle in South Wales. 

Within a month, despite relieving Hereford and raising a few extra troops from his Welsh stronghold in the south, he would learn of the fall of Bristol under Prince Rupert and realise that Chester's position as the only gateway into England for Irish and Welsh Royalist reinforcements had now become even more vital for his cause.

The Siege of Chester and Battle of Rowton Heath 1645 (map adapted from the BCW Project)

Sending on messages urging the city to hold on he set his army on the march to relieve the city arriving on the 23rd September with his Lifeguard and a handful of infantry making up a force totalling about 4,000 cavalry.

Sir Marmaduke Langdale

On approaching the city he detached Sir Marmaduke Langdale with a 3,000 men cavalry brigade to cross the River Dee at Holt hoping to swing in on the rear of the Parliamentary besiegers whilst he led his Lifeguard into the city via the bridges from the Welsh side of the river.

Unfortunately for Langdale he soon found his force on a collision course with a similar force of Parliamentary cavalry under Major General Poyntz looking to intercept the King's force before it could reach Chester.

Major General Sydnam Poyntz

The two forces met on the Chester road at Rowton Heath on the 24th September where in a confused melee, which drew in forces from the beseigers and besieged, Langdales force was beaten and dispersed.

On the 25th September the King with 500 horse fled from Chester towards Denbigh eventually to make his way to Newark, another place in Civil War history we had a look around last year.


For the citizens of Chester there would be no option of fleeing as Lord Byron rejected calls on him to surrender the city and conducted a fierce defence, beating off storming attempts and conducting harassing raids on the besiegers, all whilst the city had to endure a heavy artillery bombardment.

It wasn't until January 1646 with the city devoid of supplies and many of its occupants dead from the bombardment or starvation that Byron was persuaded to surrender and Bereton was able to take possession of it on the 3rd of February.

The rather short-legged carving of King Charles I on this Chester shop front emphasises the city's Royalist leanings during the Civil War

The city has obviously changed in the centuries following the siege but I was amazed to see that there is still much to be seen of buildings and positions that were present during the war.

In a siege situation artillery and its effects are likely to play a key role and very often it is those damaging effects that are likely to be still seen, particularly with, as in this case, an extended period of bombardment.


As mentioned in the preamble, the Parliamentary forces broke through into the Eastgate area of the outer defence in September 1645, breaching the wall on the 22nd, only the day before the King turned up with his Lifeguard.


One of the positions the Parliamentary gunners occupied to cause that breach was the north west tower of the St John the Baptist Church, and former cathedral of Chester, marked 25 on the contemporary map above, which shows how close it was to the city wall.


The foot of the tower still stands but looking worst for wear after having been used as a gun platform, and finally collapsing in 1881, however a very friendly local squirrel was very happy with arrangements although having a trying day rediscovering a previous larder.



St John's was founded by Aethelred, King of Mercia in 689 and was Chester cathedral up until the Reformation.

Carolyn and I took time to wonder around and were given a very warm welcome plus a tea and cake by local parishioners doing their bit to help keep this beautiful old church standing and open to the public. 

Recorded as having been built on a forest track on the outskirts of the city it's long history is recorded in its glorious stained glass windows.


Legend has it that the king was told to build the church in the forest where he saw a white hind, and this has been depicted in the window below, with the hind glowing above the altar.


Another legend recorded in the church is that King Edgar, having been crowned in Bath in 972 was rowed up the River Dee by eight vassal kings from north-western Britain as a token of their submission, and recorded in the west window.


Parts of St John's are now in ruins, but these are well worth looking around as the old church has lots of history to share with the casual visitor, such as this 13th century wood coffin discovered by the sexton in the 19th century and under instruction from the vicar had it set into the ruined walls declaring its inscription to the present day 'Dust to Dust'.


Chester was a very important city in Anglo-Saxon times and with seemingly very little of that earlier history recorded elsewhere in the city, St John's seems to be the place where that past time is remembered; all be it, nowhere could I find reference to one of Chester's most famous royal patrons, Aethelflaed, Lady of Mercia who carried on her father's work to unite England in the Midlands and North, seeing Chester transformed from a former ruined old Roman town, and fending off a Viking assault in 907 with the garrison using bees to break up attacks.


Sadly she seems to have been written out of history by the chronicles of her time and perhaps Chester could do with a statue of the great lady. Anyway back to the English Civil War!

The breach caused by the gun position at St John's can still be seen today in the section of wall that backs on to the Roman garden, with the patchwork repair immediately visible.


Not only that but for visitors taking the time to read, look and understand what had happened here over three-hundred and fifty years previously, the city has placed a very nice artwork glass screen through which you can look and see the breach neatly positioned behind the picture of the assault - brilliant!

If you look carefully you can see the modern wall and ornate park trees in behind the glass screen depicting events in September 1645

Some places remember the suffering of generations long past whilst others seemed to have casually forgotten such sacrifice, so it was really nice to see that Chester has made it a point to honour all those killed during the siege.




The King arrived on the day after the great breech was blown in the wall and immediately took steps to try and drive off the besiegers by detaching Langdale's cavalry brigade as mentioned.


The best place for the King to observe the progress of Langdale's force was from the tower on the north-east corner of the wall now simply known as 'The King's Tower' marked number '40' on the contemporary map and illustrated in the header to this post.


The window from nearby Farndon Church was also on the information board at the tower and is a remarkable record of how the various officers and 'gentlemen' who attended the king at that time might have looked, together with illustrations of some of the arms and accouterments of the time.

These officers from the King's party in Chester are illustrated in all their finery and would certainly have brought a splash of colour around the tower on the day of the Battle of Rowton Heath, but one can only imagine the atmosphere of utter despondency as the King realised that his plan had failed and that all was lost.



As I mentioned, modern day sieges tend to be focused on the role of the artillery, and not just that of the besiegers but also that of the besieged.

The Royalists garrison made good use of the early war years to prepare Chester for its eventual ordeal which meant building artillery positions around the city wall.


One such Royalist position can be seen today and known locally as 'Morgan's Mount' in memory of Captain Morgan who positioned his observation platform on top of the northern wall to be able to better direct the fire of his battery emplaced in position below at the foot of the wall.


Newark had something similar placed at the Queen's Sconce, but I think this sculpt, of a gun knocked out, is a very evocative reminder of the battle that occurred here centuries ago.



Not much is known about Captain Morgan other than he survived the ordeal at Chester only to be killed in 1659 at the Battle of Winnington Bridge near Northwich, during the failed Booth Uprising.

http://bcw-project.org/military/royalist-conspiracies/booths-uprising


The picture below was painted from Morgan's Mount in 1836 and gives some idea of how much more open the ground would have been during the Civil War contrasting perfectly with the same scene today, directly below, and the modern city transformation with a dual carriageway flyover emphasising that modernity.

The view from Morgan's Mount in 1836 - Thomas Allom

The view today in 2018

It seems that Morgan's battery contained a famously large and powerful gun that became a target for Parliamentary guns, causing them to bombard it mercilessly, eventually achieving a direct hit that destroyed the piece.

The gun position viewed from the top of the wall at Morgan's Mount

The Eastgate of Chester city wall is a tourist trap with its Victorian clock tower astride it and said to be the second most photographed clock tower in the country after 'Big Ben' in London, which we of course added to with the picture below.

Chester's famous Eastgate clock tower

However much more interesting for the Civil War enthusiast is the fact that close by is a very famous public house within the city that was built in 1643 and became the favourite haunt of the Royalist garrison during their off duty hours.


The Boot Inn just wreaks of history and tradition with its entrance up from the road in one of the 'Rows' which are a famous attraction of the old Chester city centre.

Chester Rows


These long galleries that are one level up from the street are unique to the city and really add something special to its charm.


The Boot Inn is a proper pub, frequented by locals and looking like the off-duty garrison could walk in at anytime.



This is not a 'plastic pub' with make believe polystyrene rafters and old farm implements dotted around that were bought in a car boot sale in Bootle, this is the real deal.

As if to emphasise the point, I noticed a section of the wall plaster had been removed and covered with a glass panel revealing the internal wattle and daub walling that was put up to build the place in 1643, unfortunately the lighting in the Boot that creates its unique ambiance wasn't good enough to enable me to get a decent picture but I hope like me you can appreciate what a special pub this is from my pictures - I just love it.

Anyway I hope you have enjoyed this series of posts from Carolyn and my trip to Chester. We had a great week away and celebrated our thirtieth wedding anniversary whilst in the city so have both come away with some special memories of it and a holiday break to remember.


I have listed some further pages that are well worth looking at if you would like to know more about the Civil War and Chester.

http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/civil-war/battleview.asp?BattleFieldId=38
http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/civil-war/campainview.asp?CampainId=63

Next up I will take a look at Roman Wroxeter which we called in at on our way home and which is a really unique Roman site in Britain, being a city that has not been built over following its abandonment plus I came away from Chester with my own little piece of Roman history - more anon.

10 comments:

  1. Nice post,I like the mix of medieval walls and more modern earthworks that you had in the period,there were a lot of sieges and storms, great bit of history.
    Best Iain

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  2. The Northern Horse was certainly an interesting force and one that would be an attractive force for the table top. The smaller Actions round about sieges would make great little games.

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  3. Admittedly not my period, but very intriguing post nonetheless. The images and historical background snippets most enjoyable. Love the watercolors.

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  4. Very enjoyable! I'm now keen to see Chester.

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  5. Thank you! Brings life to history!

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  6. Thanks for your comments chaps, glad you enjoyed the read. Carolyn and I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Chester and I would reccomend anyone to go and spend a few days there.
    Cheers all
    JJ

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  7. BRAVO! Thank you for the inspiration from your travels.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, my pleasure, we had a great time wondering around so its always nice to share.
      JJ

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