Stuart Wiltshire

Stuart Wiltshire: Discord and Rebellion

Queen Elizabeth, the last Tudor monarch, died in 1603 leaving England proud but weak, and bequeathing to the Stuart dynasty debts and an inadequate financial system. The benefits of the ‘Elizabethan Poor Law’ with its ‘right to work’ and welfare for the disabled were lost beneath the tide of rising population while dissension over religious conformity, made worse by the arbitrary changes of earlier Tudors, undermined the respect for authority which had made Wiltshire in particular cheap and easy to govern.

The ‘Old Poor Law’, that is the law applying before the ‘New Poor Law’ of 1834, is commonly considered to be Elizabethan, but in fact its principles go back to an act passed in 1536, when the country was suffering from the activities of bands of ex-servicemen and others trying to find a living. It provided for relief to the ‘impotent’ poor (previously an obligation of the church) to be given by each parish and for ‘sturdy beggars’ to be impelled to work or suffer branding and flogging. The parishes were expected to provide relief voluntarily and it was not until 1563 that J.P.s were empowered to raise compulsory funds for poor relief, while the administration was not made formal and uniform until the acts of 1598 and 1601, since christened the ‘Elizabethan Poor Law’. It was, admittedly, harsh but was still in advance of provision in most continental countries.

The law was brought into considerable disrepute later by some administrators of the Act of Settlement, passed following the Stuart Restoration, of 1662 which permitted parish overseers of the poor to send back to their native parish (usually the place of birth) any vagrants or others whom the overseers thought might be a charge on the overseers’ parish. But even this was not entirely new for in 1582 a child was ordered to be separated from its mother and ‘carried from tithing to tithing until it come to the place where it was born, videlicet at Melksham’. Luckily not all paupers were treated with such callousness, but ‘settlement’ cases of this sort increased as local populations and local unemployment grew.

The ‘native’ unemployed had to be found work by private indenture, or in a house of correction. Wiltshire had to levy a rate of 4d. in the pound in 1578 to provide such a house. The county tried to obtain part of the royal castle at Devizes for this purpose, but failing that they had to buy other premises in that town and hoped to recoup some of the loss by using the premises also for storing county records.

In the 17th century Wiltshire was certainly a county of change and Dissent. These were more marked in the Cheese Country of the north and west, where manufacture had been concentrated and population growth had been highest. They were muted in the more traditional and socially better-knit communities of the Chalk Country.

In the second half of the 16th century England’s population had grown by about 45 per cent; Wiltshire maintained its share. At the beginning of the 17th century the county’s population density (88 persons per square mile) was slightly above the national average, above all its neighbours but Somerset and well above that of Hampshire. The pressure on land was now severe in the Cheese Country and subdivision of land there increased rapidly. Holdings were already small, for in 1590 over half were less than 20 acres in extent; by 1640 three-quarters were below this level.

The increased demand for food, particularly from the manufacturing areas, led to higher grain prices and to the growth of capitalist farming, a change from simple production for subsistence, which was characteristic of much farming under the common-field system, to production for the ‘market’. Considerable extra production was achieved by the introduction of water meadows, which needed substantial capital investment in their construction and maintenance. These were meadows artificially watered and flooded in winter from a carefully controlled network of channels. Such flooding protected the grass from frost, while the silt deposited improved its fertility so that, it is estimated, water meadows produced four times as much hay as ordinary meadows. While cattle could sometimes be pastured in the meadows, if they would not damage the drains, the improved economy of the system depended on the greatly increased number of sheep which they could support. Sheep were folded on the meadows in early spring and the hay could feed them over the winter, but for most of the year they were sent out to forage on the sparse grasses of the open downland during the day, and folded at night on the arable, which would thus be fertilised by their dung. A special breed, the now-rare Wiltshire Horned, with a short fleece and long legs, was developed for the purpose and might walk forty miles a day; it was particularly valued as a ‘walking dung-cart’. Water meadows were introduced on the Pembroke estates in the Wylye valley in 1632, and spread rapidly.

The growth of market-oriented farming also brought engrossment and inclosure in the corn-growing areas. These changes did little harm to the latter but, together with a fall in dairy prices and government interference in the cloth industry, hit the Cheese Country hard and increased the social divisions in the county. In practical terms it was easier to enlarge and improve the Chalk Country farms and much was done. Even when the Ludlows at Hill Deverill or the Pembrokes of Wilton arbitrarily enclosed large areas of former common fields and turned former plough-owning smallholders into labourers, there was little lasting protest. But in the Cheese Country there was little scope for rationalisation and the few areas of marginal land which might be brought into cultivation were largely in the remnants of the royal forests, which were some of the last disposable assets of the Stuart kings.

The arbitrary enclosure of Melksham Forest from 1607 to 1612, of Pewsham Forest in 1623 and of Seiwood and Braydon Forests in 1630 led to increasing disturbances, more and more reinforced by aggrieved holders of common rights from other counties led by the mythical Lady Skimmington. The most severe, at Seiwood and Braydon, led to riotous levelling which was actually encouraged by local gentry such as Sir Walter Long of Dauntsey. These gentry were themselves protesting that the Stuart kings were inclosing forests and destroying rights of common in order to sell them to royal. favourites who were ‘foreigners’ or ‘Papists’, or both. In almost every case the local magistrates were unwilling and almost powerless to prosecute the ringleaders in these popular protests.

Industrial interference

Government interference in the cloth industry led to further alienation in the manufacturing areas of west Wiltshire and Salisbury. Particular damage was done by the ‘Cockayne Project’ of 1614. By this James I misguidedly granted to a London Alderman, Cockayne, the right to dye and finish cloth before its export and simultaneously banned the export of undyed cloth. As foreign customers thought poorly of contemporary English finishing and preferred to do their own dyeing, they sought other sources of undyed cloth. The West-Country industry suffered increasingly until in 1617 the scheme was abandoned.

Further resentment was caused in the 1630s by the appointment of government inspectors of cloth, although in this case the action was due to the complaints of London cloth merchants concerning the variable quality of the product. An officious administrator, Anthony Wither, who was sent to enforce the new regulations, was thrown into the river at Bradford in 1632 and the government again had a hard time persuading local magistrates to take any action against the offenders.

The divide between Cheese and Chalk Country was widened further by efforts to enforce religious conformity. Here again Tudor efforts at unification of the kingdom through uniformity in religion led to increased schism under the Stuarts. Two acts passed under Edward VI requiring the use of a new Prayer Book (originally devised by Archbishop Cranmer) were repealed by Mary but a third act under Elizabeth compelled the use of a new Prayer Book only slightly less Protestant than the second of its two Edwardian predecessors and imposed fines of 12d. a week on absentees from church service. Enforcement varied in strictness, but the Elizabethan book was generally accepted and caused little trouble till William Laud, who was already unpopular as a friend of the Duke of Buckingham and considered one of the king’s ‘evil advisers’ by the great parliamentary leader John Pym, was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1635.

Laud made great efforts to raise the standard of learning of the English clergy. In this his work echoed the sentiments of the poet George Herbert, relative of the Pembrokes, who was rector of Fugglestone and Bemerton (adjoining Wilton) from 1630 to 1633, where he wrote his Priest to the Temple, or the Countrey Parson, his Character and Rule of Lfe. Herbert advised the parson to ‘be all to his Parish, and not only a Pastour but a Lawyer also and Phisician’ and the parishioners to say their Amens thoughtfully and not in a ‘slubbering fashion, gaping or scratching the head or spitting’. But Laud was no prig, understood the importance of traditional amusements and favoured the licensing on Sundays of some sports, which James I had done in 1618 and which Charles I reaffirmed in 1633. The proclamation was welcomed in the traditionalist communities of the Chalk Country but resented by the more Puritan and increasingly nonconformist communities of the north-west.

Real trouble began however with attempts to enforce religious conformity and with Laud’s insistence on separating parson from congregation and the railing-off of altars, both of which smacked of ‘Popery’ to some. Wiltshire however did not suffer the troubles that beset Somerset largely because Bishop John Davenant of Salisbury was less officious and less ‘Laudian’ than his counterpart at Wells. Davenant recognised that discipline in the Church had been weakened by the Reformation and that ecclesiastical courts had lost most of their ‘teeth’.

Things were different, however, when the king tried, on Laud’s advice, to enforce conformity along English lines on Scotland. It was the king’s efforts to raise taxes to fight the Scots in the ‘Bishops’ Wars’ of 1639 and 1640 which led to the general alienation of the county and when calls were made for local levies to fight the Scots they met with a very sullen response. Untrained and near-mutinous troops, assembled at Warminster and at Marlborough, were sent on hastily by the local magistrates to the king at York; from there they soon returned after being routed by better-disciplined and highly-motivated Scots.

The Civil War or ‘Great Rebellion’

Map showing location of sieges and battles during the Civil War

By 1630 the leaders of Wiltshire were almost wholly opposed to King Charles. He was openly supported only by the Thynnes of Longleat, who were distracted by domestic affairs, by the Arundells of Wardour, who were debilitated by age, by Robert Hyde of Dinton, who at the outbreak of war between king and parliament in 1642 attempted to secure Salisbury, and half-heartedly by the brothers William Seymour (Lord Hertford) of Wolf Hall and Francis Seymour, recently created Baron Seymour of Trowbridge to wean him from the parliamentary cause.

Nevertheless when hostilities broke out in July of 1642 the parliamentary party in the county seemed incompetent if not divided. They were nominally led by the Earl of Pembroke, who had long been associated with the court and as a great collector of art was anxious about his much-beautified house at Wilton. He was indeed so anxious for the latter that Robert Hyde’s son Edward, later Earl of Clarendon, said that Pembroke would rather either or both sides should be destroyed than that Wilton should be taken. He was of course not alone in this neutralist feeling, which tended to grow as the war continued.

At this stage, however, anti-royalist feeling was strong and Wiltshire was untroubled by royalists, who moved westward out of the county. But fortunes changed when the king concentrated his forces around his war-time capital of Oxford and appointed Sir Ralph Hopton (of Witham, Somerset) as commander of the Army of the West. Royalist forays from Oxford captured Marlborough in December 1642 and Malmesbury in the following February. These successes brought much of the county Malmesbury and Devizes from within the area of ‘contribution’ to the king and generally demoralised  John Ogilby’s road atlas, the parliamentary party there. The latter’s military commanders, Sir Edward Hungerford and Sir Edward Baynton, proved  incompetent and treacherous both to each other and their cause. But the latter was stiffened when in March parliament’s General Wailer marched west through Wiltshire and retook Malmesbury (though it was almost immediately abandoned by Hungerford). In May Prince Rupert, with Lord Hertford, raided Salisbury while Hungerford besieged the aged royalist Lady Arundell in Wardour Castle.

In July Hopton, with his Army of the West, advanced on Bristol, was defeated at Lansdowne and sought refuge in Devizes where he was immediately besieged by Wailer. He was relieved by a force under Henry Wilmot from Oxford, which won a surprising but considerable victory at Roundway outside the town. All the West fell into royalist hands and Devizes was not threatened again until late in 1645. Wardour Castle changed hands twice and there were minor skirmishes and successes for both sides in 1643 and 1644. In September of 1644 Waller marched west again, but this time to defeat in Cornwall and retreat, pursued by a royal army which entered Salisbury in October and established garrisons at Wilton and Longford. More garrisons were established by both sides but neither side could hold Wiltshire for long, not even after Fairfax’s drive with Cromwell’s New Model Army of disciplined Puritans to relieve Bristol took him almost unopposed across the county.

At this point there arose in the southern counties a loose association of independent neutralists, mostly from Wiltshire and Dorset, who called themselves ‘Men of the Club’ and met, resolved to try to prevent the ravages of ‘foreign armies’ of either complexion. Their chief grievances concerned particularly the undisciplined brutality of Goring’s royalist troops and the parliamentary horse of Hesilrige’s ‘Lobsters’. Fairfax and his New Model Army were met by the Men of the Club on his way west, and though considering them royalist sympathisers (which was more true of the Wiltshire than the Dorset members) treated them with some respect. After his signal victory over Goring at Langport (Somerset), however, he turned with irritation on the clubmen and ‘bloodily dispersed’ them at Hambledon Hill (Dorset). They had little further effect.

After the capture of Bristol by Fairfax, royalist garrisons at Devizes, Lacock and Longford surrendered to Cromwell and the war in Wiltshire ground slowly to an end. January of 1646 saw a few raids from Oxford and Marlborough was briefly in royalist hands, but by June Lord Hertford surrendered Oxford, and Wiltshire forces on both sides were set free.

The Interregnum

At the war’s conclusion no royalists were executed as war-criminals and only one in Wiltshire was wholly dispossessed. This was Francis, Baron Cottington, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who lost his Fonthill estate. But penalties were inflicted later on all the prominent royalists. The Seymour brothers, James Thynne of Longleat, the Earl of Danby, Sir William Button and Thomas Benett of Pythouse, Tisbury, paid a ‘decimation’ tax for their assumed support of a later revolt against parliament, which totalled nearly £40,000.

When Charles I was condemned to death by parliament in 1649 two prominent Wiltshire men, Edmund Ludlow and Sir John Danvers, were ‘regicides’, that is they signed his death warrant.

While the young Charles II escaped through Wiltshire after his disastrous defeat at Worcester in 1651, the county suffered no harm in the ‘second Civil War’ which had thus ended. In ‘1654, however, there was increasing intrigue by royal supporters and in the following year an ill-prepared rising took place. It had been planned, if that is the right word, to co-ordinate risings throughout the country in March, but only Colonel Penruddock of Compton Chamberlayne was prepared. With SirJoseph Wagstaff, a ‘soldier of fortune’, he marched on Salisbury, seized assize judges and the sheriff and released royalist prisoners; Wagstaff favoured hanging the judges but Penruddock objected. Neither got the popular support they had expected and with an ever-diminishing troop rode westward in search of it, eventually surrendering at South Molton (Devon). Penruddock was hung at Exeter in the following spring.

The Commonwealth created by Cromwell as the substitute for royal government made itself increasingly unpopular as it fell into the hands of Puritanical extremists and as taxation increased. It was still more unpopular when Cromwell delegated regional government to the arbitrary hands of the ‘major-generals’. But after the collapse of the Penruddock ‘rebellion’ and the imposition of the ‘decimation’ fines on royalists there were only minor troubles in the county, though these included the mutiny in 1659 of four troops of cavalry at Warminster who demanded a representative parliament. Such a move was repugnant to Edmund Ludlow, now an inflexible champion of extreme republican government, and he was driven into exile where he wrote his own account of the Civil War. Following further quarrels between an unrepresentative parliament (the remaining members of the original Long Parliament elected in 1641) and a tired army, Charles II was, by popular consent, restored to the English throne in 1660.

Post-Restoration Wiltshire

Travel 17th Century

Wiltshire’s Edward Hyde, who had been Charles’s chancellor in exile, was made a baron on the Restoration and Earl of Clarendon in the following year. The Hydes became the most important family in the county for the Seymours were still suffering from their losses in the Civil War and the Interregnum, while the Herberts of Wilton, who had supported Parliament even if half-heartedly, were out of favour and in decline even when the fame of Wilton House, its art treasures and its new gardens was growing. Clarendon gained considerably more influence when his daughter Anne married the new king’s brother, later James II, while their daughter Mary married William of Orange and became queen of England in her own right. But the new opulence offended the royalists who had been impoverished by the late wars and his association with the so-called ‘Clarendon Code’, which attempted among other things to restore Anglican conformity, offended liberals and Nonconformists. Following disasters during the war with Holland, in 1667 he was forced into exile where he wrote his weighty History of the Great Rebellion. He never returned. At the succession ofJames II in 1685 Clarendon’s two sons were now brothers-in-law to the king. Edward, now Lord Clarendon, was made Lord Privy Seal and his brother, Lord Rochester, was made Lord Treasurer.

Wiltshire remained almost immune from the ill-effects of the ill-managed rebellion in 1686 by the Protestant and favourite but illegitimate son of Charles II, the Duke of Monmouth, against the arbitrary rule and Catholic leanings of his uncle James. There were minor disturbances around Watminster, where Monmouth had expected support from the Thynnes of Longleat, but they were suppressed by the militia under the Earl of Pembroke and potential rebels were overawed by the royal army moving west. Two of the Longleat staff joined Monmouth’s forces, however, and while the Wiltshire militia was attached to the royal army as it moved into Somerset, it was not thought reliable and was kept in reserve at the battle of Sedgemoor where Monmouth was routed. Two Wiltshire militiamen died in accidents. Six Wiltshiremen were whipped at Salisbury for seditious utterings and 16 Wiltshire rebels were sent to Wells for trial, but Wiltshire escaped the horrors of the Dorset and Somerset assizes. The Thynnes were upset only by the damage to the hay crop on their Somerset estate.

Catholic bias by the king in the appointment of army officers, however, dispersed the county’s goodwill. In 1686 both the Hyde brothers were ‘sacked’ and the Catholic Lord Arundell of Wardour was made Lord Privy Seal. The king’s attempts to remove all the local dignitaries were only cancelled by fear of the imminent invasion by his son-in-law William of Orange. William, however, landed successfully at Torbay in November 1688 (when he had been expected to land in Kent) and moved cautiously eastward, reaching Wiltshire in December. By then the royal army assembled by James at Salisbury had melted away. John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough) was one of the deserters and is thought by many to have planned to hand over the king to William if the former had moved forward to Warminster, but instead James fled to London.

Lord Clarendon, who was dismayed at the desertion of James by members of his own family, then went forward to meet William. They met at Berwick St Leonard, home of his widowed mother. The other Wiltshire peers, Ailesbury (a relative of the Seymours), Pembroke, Weymouth (Thomas Thynne) and Clarendon’s brother Rochester, remained cautiously in London but, when James fled from London on 11 December, joined in inviting William to take over the government.


Great monuments of the Stuart era are few in the county, but they include in Wilton House one of the best in Britain. ‘King Charles I did love Wilton above all places’ (said Aubrey) and encouraged Lord Pembroke in his building, gardening and decoration. A house twice the size of the present was planned by Inigo Jones and Isaac de Caus about 1633, but Pembroke fell out of favour and was sacked from the position of Lord Chamberlain in 1640. Only half the original design was built following this, but it included in the ‘Double Cube’ room, designed as a setting for family portraits by Van Dyke, the most beautiful room of its time. The other great houses of that age, Amesbury Abbey, Fonthill Splendens and the rebuilt house of the Seymours at Wolf Hall near Bedwyn, have since been lost. Only one small church was built, at Standlynch.