By Colin Maynell
A prayer, inscribed in modern times on the bridge at Cropredy in Oxfordshire, the site of Civil War conflict in 1644, reads ‘From Civil War Good Lord Deliver Us’.
The impact of the English Civil War was as traumatic for the unengaged population as it was for the soldiers who fought. Looking at how local communities experienced the war – its impact on ordinary villages and towns – can tell us a huge amount about what living through such a conflict was like.
It has been estimated that there were around 100,000 civilian deaths as compared to direct deaths from combat of 85,000. The total number of deaths represented about 3.6% of the English population, the highest proportion in any modern war fought by the English either civil or international. The people also suffered exorbitant taxation from both sides, the costs of quartering the armies, physical damage to property, the plundering of livestock and equipment and interruptions of commerce through disruptions of the trading routes, and the spread of disease.In 1643, King Charles I personally authorised the Earl of Northampton of Compton Wynyates and Colonel Gerard Croker from Hook Norton to raise a regiment of horse, and occupy ‘the Townes of Long Compton, Barton on the Heath, Storton, Cherington, Brayles, Wichford and Ascott in our county of Warwick; Little Compton, Sutton under Brayles and Shinington in our county of Glocester’. The regiment was also authorised to ‘receive contribution out of the same after the rate of Tenn shillings six pence weekly for each Trooper’, starting in January 1643, together with thinly veiled threats that if the locals did not pay the money as demanded, they would suffer ‘our high displeasure’.
The ‘contributions’ were taxes by any other name and were ostensibly for the expense of protection from the Parliamentary north of the county. However, the promises of Royalist protection proved completely ineffective as later in 1643 Brailes, Cherington, Willington and the Wolfords and probably other local villages were plundered by the Parliamentary army of the Earl of Essex and the London Trained Bands en route to raise the siege of Gloucester.
So, not only did the villagers have to quarter the Royalist troops and horses, but had to pay for the pleasure at a rate that was barely affordable. It is not known how many troops were eventually recruited into the regiment but if we guess at about 100 this would mean that each village was quartered with approximately 10 troops and horses each. Some of the ‘contributions’ collected may have been spent locally, but no doubt much of it ended up in the coffers of the Royalist garrison at Compton Wynyates.With the Royalist troops came disease, probably typhus borne by the lice and ticks that infested both the soldiers and their mounts, and equally possibly, dysentery. Typhus, sometimes known as ‘camp fever’, was already rife in Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire, spread by the armies of both sides. At Barton-on-the-Heath, one of the few parishes with surviving Parish Registers from the 1640s, the arrival of disease and the consequent mortality crisis can be tracked. From 1640 to 1650 the average number of deaths was approximately 3 each year in a parish of about 130 souls. However, in 1643 the number rose to 12, with 9 of the burials recorded as children. The Blizzard family, long time residents of the village, suffered 3 child deaths during the year, their sons Richard, Thomas and William.
The final insult came in May 1643. By this time the ‘Townes of Long Compton and Brales’ were in arrears in payment of their ‘contribution’, and the parishioners appealed against the demands. The King ignored their cries, and replied that failure to pay the accumulated arrears would be at the villagers ‘utmost perils’. We do not know the ultimate outcome of the stalemate – almost inevitably it would have involved plunder – but we can be sure that the villagers of South Warwickshire well shared the sentiment written in stone at Cropredy.
Colin Maynell lives in South Warwickshire. He has recently completed the Diploma in English Local History, and is now a student on the online Advanced Diploma in Local History.