The Civil War
The economic, religious and political differences which brought about the Civil War were as much in evidence in Somerset as anywhere in the early years of the 17th century, and Somerset men like the politician, John Pym of Brymore, Robert Blake of Bridgwater, and William Prynne of Swainswick, the Puritan pamphleteer on one side, and Sir Ralph Hopton on the other were figures of national importance in the struggle between king and parliament. Somerset suffered from inflation and an over-manned and often unstable clothing industry, and the ever-present threat of plague, starvation and disorder had been problems for many years.
But there were growing discontents. John Pym, a leading opponent of the Crown in parliament, found many Somerset gentry and townsmen from manufacturing centres like Bridgwater and Taunton of like mind. Protestant suspicions of Charles I’s Catholic alliances and spendthrift policies were brought to a head between 1634 and 1639 when the Crown tried to levy ‘ship money’, taxation not approved by parliament, but charged on the excuse of a foreign invasion threat. Somerset’s gentry, led by Sir Robert Phelips of Montacute and the Berkeleys, opposed the levy so successfully that the tax for the year 1639 was 96 per cent, uncollected.
There was opposition, too, in religious matters. For generations folk had relaxed after church services on Sundays, each village, having a place, as at Dundry, where ‘sports and plays of several sorts were used as setting up maypoles . . – dancing, sporting, kissing, bull baiting, coiting, bowling, shooting at butts, cudgel playing, tennis playing and divers other sports and plays’. But Puritan clergy and their followers declared that, like the old church ales or parish revels, these unseemly sports led to fighting and drunkenness and should be suppressed. The godly justices of the peace in the county supported the Puritans, and the Lord Chief Justice himself, sitting in Taunton in 1632, ordered all revels and ales to cease. The king and Archbishop Laud, strongly supported by Bishop Piers of Bath and Wells and the traditionalist clergy, and by Sir Robert Phelps out of spite for the Lord Chief Justice, took the opposite view. The order against revels and ales was withdrawn, and the’ king issued the ‘Book of Sports’, which declared that the old sports could still be played on Sundays with the exception of bull and bear baiting, plays, and, for ordinary folk, bowls.
But, whatever the king declared, revels and ales seem to have lost their popularity.
The Puritan view of church services was also at odds with the bishops and the Court, and Somerset provided an important legal action when in 1635 James Wheeler and John Frye, the churchwardens of Beckington, refused to obey Bishop Piers’ order to remove the communion table from the middle of the chance!, where it had stood for 70 years, to the east end, there to be decently railed. For the people of Beckington, and for many other parishes, the communion had come to be a commemoration of an ordinary meal on an ordinary table, far removed from the sacrifice of the Mass, and the measures the bishop demanded seemed too much like a return to dangerous old ways. The Beckington – churchwardens were prepared to go to gaol for their convictions; many other parishes submitted with great reluctance.
Dislike of financial and religious demands produced as much opposition to the Crown in Somerset as anywhere, and when the king was finally forced to summon parliament rather than continue his autocratic rule, Pym led a campaign of opposition. The first (the Short) Parliament found Somerset members disunited, but the results of the second election later in the same year were clear. Somerset returned only one courtier–Edmund Wyndham at Bridgwater—and he was soon expelled. Some members, notably Sir Ralph Hopton, Sir Edward Rodney, and Sir William Portman, were later to fight for the king, but at the beginning they were for a godly reformation. Bishop Piers and some Laudian clergy like the Bible translator, Alexander Huish, rector of Beckington, were denounced, and the bishop was imprisoned in the Tower. Ship money and the other evils were swept away.
But Hopton and many like him were not revolutionaries. They might dislike Piers, but Hopton would not abolish all bishops, and he could not approve the extreme measures advocated by Pym. When parliament tried to control the militia the county divided: Poulett, Phelips, Dodington and Berkeley were with Hopton and the Marquess of Hertford for the king; Homer, Popham, Strode, Ashe and Pyne were for Pym and parliament. Both sides recruited in the late summer of 1642 and the first skirmish of the war at Marshall’s Elm, near Street, was a victory for the royalists. Among the towns Wells was for the king; Taunton, Bridgwater and Dunster were against him, and despite the presence of the experienced Hopton on their side, the king’s supporters were forced to leave the county. The next summer, however, after success in Cornwall and Devon, Hopton came to Somerset again, and meeting Hertford at Chard formed a large and strong force which easily induced Taunton, Bridgwater and Dunster to surrender. They then moved towards Bath, where a skirmish at Chewton Mendip and then the bloody battle of Lansdown drove the parliamentary forces out of the county. Somerset and the West were again held for the king, though the behaviour of the troops on both sides was already making both parties less than popular.
In the following summer, 1644, the parliamentary forces under Essex tried to re-conquer the West, but the king followed him into Cornwall, failing on the way to find the support in Somerset he hoped. Indeed, in his rear Robert Blake had taken over Taunton from the royalists, and his defences of the town for three months from April 1645 not only revealed the divisions between the royalist commanders, but sapped the military forces they could ill spare. The siege was finally lifted early in July when the royalists, having withdrawn to a strong position on the west side of Langport, were utterly defeated. Cromwell called the battle of Langport the ‘Long Sutton Mercy’ (for he had just marched through Long Sutton parish when fighting began), and thought it was as important as Marston Moor. Certainly, although the royalists held out at Bridgwater for a fortnight, they were finally forced to surrender, and many of their leaders were taken prisoner. Bath fell, and then Bristol and the castle of Farleigh Hungerford. Only Dunster remained, but after 160 days Francis Wyndham gave up in April 1646.
The fighting was over, but the troops were not gone. Towns and houses alike were to feel the military presence as they had felt it at the height of the war. Crewkerne, on the main road to the south-west, had received the attentions of both sides almost from the beginning of the war. The royalists met near the town in 1643 and local affairs were in turmoil. The parish clerk was so involved that the registers were not maintained. Local people found themselves paying regularly for the privilege of having the visitors, and the accounts of the grammar school include payment of 6d. to a soldier ‘to redeem a leaden shute that carries the water over the wall’, the man having seen its obvious value as raw material for bullets. Essex was in the town in June 1644 and Prince Maurice in September, when the king himself was expected. The school governors contributed to a weekly rate for royalist army pay each week in 1644 as well as to a levy for arms. Essex came back later in 1644, and in March 1645 a party of royalists was routed and 500 taken prisoner near the town. Two months later two detachments of royalists fought each other there by mistake. Soon the school governors found themselves paying towards the parliamentary garrison at Lyme Regis, and they were still supporting the army—then named the British army—in 1648.
Everywhere in the county men suffered for their opinions both during the war and afterwards, and there were doubtless many, like Clement Caswell of Crewkerne, supporter of neither side, who was ‘very much impoverished’ by the plundering of the troops. The royalist Lord Poulett was kept out of his house at Hinton St George until 1648, and suspicious troops were quartered in the parish until 1661. Dean Walter Raleigh was beaten up by his jailer in his own home at Wells and died of his injuries; Richard Sterne, rector of Yeovilton, was imprisoned on a prison hulk at Wapping; Henry Ancketyll, rector of Mells was probably poisoned. Less unfortunate were men like William Piers, son of the bishop, who took up farming and sold cheese in the markets at Ilminster and Taunton; or George Wotton, vicar of Bridgwater, who kept a school at Williton.
But Somerset royalists were not without hope for the future. Francis Wyndham, who had held out for so long at Dunster, and Robert Phelips of Salisbury were in touch with the exiled Charles II. His attempted return which ended so disastrously at Worcester in 1651 would have been a worse tragedy for the royalists but for the loyalty of Somerset men. Charles stayed for three days at Abbot’s Leigh after the battle, passed unrecognised by the dispossessed rector at Wraxall, was hidden at Castle Gary by Edward Kirton, and then remained for several nervous weeks at Trent, protected in the house of Francis Wyndham. While there John Selleck, formerly rector of Elworthy, went to see him with a message written on paper, but rolled to the size of a musket ball, to be swallowed in case of need. He was duly rewarded, with others, when the king came into his own again.
For some, restoration came too late, or brought too little reward. Sir Hugh Wyndham of Kentsford died in 1671 at the age of forty-eight. His tombstone at St Decuman’s lies over the remains of a disappointed man:
Sir John Stawell, a leading royalist, spent four years in Newgate prison, his estates were sold, and he himself was ruined. He lived to see Charles II restored but soon after was buried at Cothelstone in 1662 with the pomp befitting a royalist. George, his son, found the grand plans for a mansion at Low Ham too much for his straitened purse, but finished his grandfather’s church there, including on its screen the text from Proverbs 24: 21:
George had no son to heed his warning, but his brother, Ralph, received a peerage from the king his family had served so well. He lies in Low Ham church, a building begun in the 1620s when, in a pure Gothic style, it was designed for a liturgy of which Bishop Piers would have approved.