It’s been a long time coming but LORDS OF MISRULE finally has a new cover. Opinions, anyone?
I’m delighted to announce that THE MARIGOLD CHAIN
has been awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion.
B.R.A.G. stands for Book Readers Appreciation Group and of the titles submitted to it for consideration, only 20-25% achieve a medallion. The Marigold Chain now joins A Splendid Defiance in gaining this honour.
“A very enjoyable read. The writer has a talent that makes even a complicated historical story with many characters smooth reading. I definitely recommend this book and look forward to more from this author.”
Daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, little is known of Kate’s early years or education. In May 1638 she secretly married Lord George Stuart, ninth Seigneur d’Aubigny and second son of the Duke of Lennox. Clearly, it was a love-match; less clear is why neither Kate’s parents nor the King, who was guardian to the Stuart brothers, would consent to the match. But the young pair did it anyway and had it commemorated in two sumptuous portraits by Van Dyck. The one of George (now in the National Portrait Gallery) bears the motto, ‘Love is stronger than I am’.
The couple had two children. Tragically, however, George was killed at the battle of Edgehill in October 1642 leaving his young widow not just heart-broken but in financial difficulties. Since George hadn’t made a will, Kate couldn’t gain access to his money.
In May 1643, she got Parliament’s permission to come to London to deal with her husband’s affairs. Kate used this opportunity to deliver the King’s Commission of Array (aimed at raising forces among royalist sympathizers in the city) to fellow-conspirator Edmund Waller. It’s said she frequently carried secret messages hidden in her curls! Unfortunately, the Waller Plot was betrayed and some of the obscurer figures involved in it were hanged by Parliament. Kate claimed the protection of the French ambassador, by virtue of her husband’s French title, but was none the less imprisoned in the Tower for some months.
By late 1648 Katherine had married her second husband, a Scottish gentleman of the bedchamber to the King – James Livingston, Viscount Newburgh. They did not have children.
In December 1648, only weeks before his trial and execution, Charles I spent a night at the Newburghs’ house in Surrey, on his way from the Isle of Wight to Windsor, and the couple seem to have made some attempt to secure his escape. Their plans were foiled by the precautions of Major-General Thomas Harrison, but they were able to pass messages from Charles to his exiled queen.
Following the regicide the Newburghs joined other royalist exiles at The Hague. Kate died there in 1650 and was survived by her husband, who was created Earl of Newburgh in 1660 on the Restoration.
General George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle
1608 to 1670
George Monck was born near Torrington in Devon. His military career began at the age of sixteen when, having thrashed the sheriff who’d arrested his father for debt, he was packed off on the ill-fated expedition to Cadiz. In the years that followed, he fought at La Rochelle and the Low Countries – distinguishing himself at the siege of Breda in 1637. He fought for Charles l in the Bishops’ Wars, commanded a regiment of Foot against the rebels in Ireland and would have continued serving the King throughout the first Civil War had he not had the misfortune to be captured at the battle of Nantwich in January 1643 – with the result that he spent the remainder of that conflict in the Tower. Had he agreed to turn his coat, he would have been released in an instant but he refused to do so and insisted on remaining loyal to the King. Instead, he passed the time writing a book – Observations upon Military and Political Affairs – and having an affair with his laundress, Nan Ratsford.
When the King’s cause was irretrievably lost, Monck finally agreed to fight for the Parliament and spent two years serving as Major-General of Ulster and a further two creating order in Scotland. Then, in 1652 with the advent of the first Dutch War, he went to sea as an Admiral. Not surprisingly, he didn’t have much of a grasp of nautical language and, according to his sailors, was more likely to shout ‘Wheel right!’ than ‘Hard to starboard!’ Yet he proved a successful naval commander and it was he who won the decisive battle which ended the war in 1654.
At around this time, Nan Ratsford was widowed and Monck married her – a happy and surprising ending to a long-standing love-affair. Monck’s next posting was as Governor of Scotland where he ruled with moderation and was as popular as a man in that position was ever likely to be. It was this part of his career which was to prove immensely important for, during it, he built up great authority in Scotland – along with his army and a full treasury. All these placed him in a key position in the crisis which built up after the death of Cromwell in September 1658. For six months, George Monck became a prominent and powerful figure in English politics and the use he made of this power changed the course of history.
He supported Richard Cromwell’s brief term in office and gave no support to the Royalist intrigues of 1659. But when Lambert and Fleetwood expelled the Rump in October, Monck was moved to act and lead his army south. By the time he crossed the Tweed on New Year’s Day in 1660, the Rump had been recalled but Monck marched on, arriving in London on February 3rd. The chaos within government was such that he became convinced that only the return of Charles ll could prevent anarchy. The advice, sent orally rather than on paper, to the king-in-exile formed the basis of the Restoration settlement. Fresh elections brought a strong Royalist majority, causing Monck to reveal his approval of the return of the monarchy. And appropriately enough, it was he who greeted Charles ll on the beach at Dover in May, 1660 and, in effect, handed his kingdom back to him.
Although George – now created Duke of Albemarle – served Charles for ten more years, the most momentous moment of his career was over. He had restored the monarchy without spilling a single drop of blood but, modest and old-fashioned, he was out of place at the Restoration court – though still respected in military matters. He dealt with the disbandment of Cromwell’s army and went to sea once more, less successfully than before, during the second Dutch War of 1664-67. He died in 1670 and was buried with much ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
The restored monarchy didn’t have the money to build a monument to General Monck and historians have tended to neglect him. But it was he, believing that soldiers should be a tool in the hands of civil authority rather than weapons in those of ambitious generals, who put an end to military rule in England. He said, ‘I am engaged in conscience and honour to see my country freed from that intolerable slavery of a sword government …’ If he truly believed this – and it seems that he did – I can’t help but wonder what he thought Cromwell had been doing from 1653 onwards and why, despite that, he continued to support him. Loyalty, perhaps?
Sir Richard Willys 1614-1690
The Sealed Knot was a secret organisation formed between November 1653 and February 1654. It’s purpose was to co-ordinate and control all Royalist conspiracies in England,to keep the wilder elements in check and to prepare for an uprising against the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. Centuries later, this idea conjures up romantic images of gallant gentlemen risking their lives in Scarlet Pimpernel-like activities. Sadly, the reality was rather different … because the Knot never really achieved anything.
It was made up of six members. Five were younger sons of influential and, in most cases, rich families; the sixth man wasn’t.
Lord Belasyse, the second son of Lord Fauconberg was related to both John Lambert and Thomas Fairfax.
Lord Loughborough was the second son of the Earl of Huntingdon.
Sir William Compton was a younger son of the Earl of Northampton.
Colonel John Russell,third son of the Earl of Bedford, was related to Lords Bristol and Newport.
Colonel Edward Villiers, also a younger son, was related to the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Suffolk and Sir Edward Hyde – to name but a few.
Sir Richard Willys was the son of a Cambridgeshire lawyer and wasn’t related to anyone of note.
Willys fought abroad in the Thirty Years War before returning to serve King Charles in 1639. He earned his knighthood and the rank of Colonel during a cavalry skirmish in October 1642. Two months later, he was taken prisoner but managed to escape and in 1643 he became a Major-General of forces in Cheshire and Shropshire. He was captured again in January 1644 and spent nine months in the Tower before being released in an exchange of prisoners. Once free, he joined forces with Prince Rupert at Bristol.
In May of 1645, Willys was appointed Governor of Newark … and this is where bad-timing, conflicting personalities and tactlessness all came into play.
In June, the King’s army was destroyed by the New Model at Naseby. In September, the surrender of Bristol cost Prince Rupert his commission, his uncle’s favour and his reputation. He was ordered to leave the country. He didn’t. Instead, he followed Charles 1 to Newark, intent on getting a court martial to clear his name.
Richard Willys was pro-Rupert and didn’t mind showing it. When the King arrived at Newark, Willys met him at the gate; by contrast, when Rupert turned up shortly afterwards, he greeted him two miles outside the town with a full military escort. Already critical of the behaviour of some of Willys’s men, Charles took this as an act of defiance and a personal affront. Although he allowed Rupert a court-martial (which found the Prince not guilty) he revoked Willys’s appointment as Governor of Newark and replaced him with Lord Belasyse.
The result was an angry, undignified and public quarrel. There were even treasonous rumblings about making Rupert King – an idea the Prince strongly repudiated. (See A Splendid Defiance for more on this). Rupert’s friends took Willys’s dismissal as a further attack on them while Willys himself took umbrage at the slur on his ability to command and challenged Belasyse to a duel. Actually, provoking Belasyse wouldn’t have been very difficult his lordship already had a reputation for duelling. But the King forbade the two men to fight – with the result that ill-feeling between them lingered on and manifested itself a decade later in the affairs of the Sealed Knot.
In May 1654, Willys was arrested in the wake of a plot to assassinate Cromwell – a plot he’d had no part in – and was convinced that he had been betrayed to the authorities by Lord Belasyse. In this, he was mistaken. His arrest was merely one of many at this time – in fact, Edward Villiers was detained along with him. Interestingly, neither arrest was anything to do with the Sealed Knot … for though Secretary of State and Spymaster-General John Thurloe already knew it existed, he didn’t yet have any names. If he’d known he had two of its members in custody, the next phase of Willys’s story might have happened sooner.
In the latter part of 1656 and while still a member of the Knot, Willys started supplying Thurloe with information. His reasons for this are unclear but the most likely one is that he thought the writing was on the wall and the King’s cause irretrievably lost. At any rate, he seems to have been selective about what he told Thurloe and also made it a condition that no Royalist should be executed as a result of his information.
For three years, apparently unsuspected by his friends and associates, Willys remained a double-agent, contributing to the Sealed Knot’s consistent lack of success. And when his treachery finally came to light in July 1659, it wasn’t thanks to the Knot. He nefarious doings were revealed to Sir Edward Hyde by one of Thurloe’s assistants.
As a consequence and regardless of his military achievements, Sir Richard Willys has gone down in history as the man who betrayed the Sealed Knot.
At the Restoration in 1660, he was denounced as a traitor and condemned to death. He was later pardoned on condition that he never attended court or came into the presence of Charles ll. He lived quietly in Cambridgeshire until his death in 1690.
This is a bit different to my usual Who’s Who in that it’s not nearly as detailed. George, John and Bernard Stuart are largely known to us through Van Dyck’s outstanding portraits and details of their actual lives are very thin on the ground. Despite this – and for reasons that will become clear as you read the few lines below – I felt there was a strong case for featuring them.
Esme Stuart, 3rd Duke of Lennox and his wife Katherine had eleven children, six of whom were sons. Henry died at the age of sixteen, Francis at less than a year. Of the remaining four, only one – Ludovic – survived the Civil War.
Lord George Stuart, 9th Seigneur d’Aubigny
George was brought up in France by his grandmother and, on the death of his father, he became a ward of Charles 1. When his brother, Henry, died in 1632, he inherited the title of Lord d’Aubigny.
Returning to England in 1636, he married Katherine, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk, secretly and without her father’s permission – which suggests that the two of them were very much in love. They had two children, a son and a daughter.
George died of injuries received at the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642. He was twenty-four years old.
On a separate note, his widow later re-married and became Lady Newburgh. She and her husband were suspected of Royalist plotting after the 2nd Civil War and forced to flee abroad – though the date they did so is unclear as we know Charles 1 spent a night at their home on his final journey from Carisbrooke to London. You can meet Katherine [Kate] at the King’s trial in Garland of Straw.
Lord John Stuart 1621-1644 and Lord Bernard Stuart 1623-1645
Like his brothers, John [the one wearing gold] entered the King’s service at the start of the Civil War. He died at the Battle of Cheriton in March, 1644, aged twenty-three.
Bernard was created Earl of Lichfield as a reward for his gallantry at the first and second Battles of Newbury. He died of wounds sustained whilst leading a sortie against Parliamentary besiegers at the Battle of Rowton Heath. He was twenty-two.
All wars are fought by young men and the Civil War was no different. At present, many people around the world are remembering the sons and brothers, husbands and fathers who lost their lives in the First World War. The tragic losses suffered by the Stuart family in the 1640’s is a perfect illustration of how little things change.
As with several other portraits in my Who’s Who collection, the ones shown here are on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London.
Sir William Waller
1598 – 1668
Everyone’s heard of Oliver Cromwell and yet, by March 1645, when Cromwell was still a subordinate officer, Sir William Waller had been leading a Parliamentary army for two years. So who was this man most people have never heard of?
He was born at Knole House in Kent but, when he was five years old, his father became Lieutenant of Dover Castle and the Cinque Ports so William spent his childhood there. He was educated at Magladen Hall, Oxford before travelling to Italy – where, with a number of other young Englishmen, he enlisted in the Venetian army and had his first taste of military action.
By November 1620, he was defending the Protestant cause of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia and her husband, Frederick, the Elector Palatine. After the Palatinate forces were crushed at the Battle of the White Hill and Prague was over-run by the Austrian army, Frederick and Elizabeth – along with their one-year-old son, Rupert – were forced to flee through the snow, escorted by a few English officers. One of these was William Waller and another was Ralph Hopton – who I mention now for reasons which will become apparent later.
Returning to England, Waller was knighted by James l for services to both the Protestant religion and also, one would assume, to James’s daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia. He then married Jane Reynell [which whom he was deeply in love] and abandoned military life in favour of managing his father-in-law’s Devonshire estates. For the next thirteen years, he lived peacefully at Forde House near Newton Abbot.
When the Long Parliament convened in 1640, Waller sat as the member for Andover and was soon prominent amongst those in opposition to Charles l. Naturally, when the Civil War broke out, his previous military experience earned him command of all the Parliamentarian forces on the south coast; and during the first year of the war, he was the most successful of the Roundhead generals – taking Portsmouth, Farnham, Winchester, Arundel and Chichester. Indeed, he was so successful that the news-sheets nicknamed him ‘William the Conqueror’.
I’m not going to detail Waller’s entire Civil War career. Suffice it to say that his luck didn’t last. He was possibly not the most effective disciplinarian and was frequently plagued by mutinies among his troops. In 1643, he was soundly defeated by Sir Ralph Hopton at Roundway Down [the battle the Cavaliers liked to call Runaway Hill] and, in ’44, was mauled by the King at Cropredy Bridge. [Both feature in The Black Madonna]. His military career ended in 1645 with the Self-Denying Ordinance – the decree which said members of Parliament had to resign either their seat in the House or their military commission. Interestingly, Cromwell managed to keep both.
In the years that followed, Waller was a notable Presbyterian leader of the House of Commons and a bitter enemy of the Army commanders. He was driven into brief exile in 1647, was one of the Members purged from the Commons in 1648 by Colonel Pride [see Garland of Straw] and subsequently suffered at least two spells of imprisonment. Finally, in the later 1650s, he was driven to contact the exiled Royalists – though this earned him no reward at the Restoration.
On a personal level, Waller had all the sterling qualities of a medieval knight. He was brave, honourable and deeply religious. He was one of many moderate, humane men on both sides of a terrible civil conflict. And the main reason I’ve chosen to add him to my Who’s Who list, and possibly also one of the best reasons to remember him is contained in a letter he wrote to Sir Ralph Hopton – his friend for more than twenty years but now also his enemy – on the eve of the battle of Lansdown in 1643.
‘The great God, which is the searcher of my heart, knows with what a sad sense I go upon this service and with what a perfect hatred I detest this war without an enemy.’
James Graham 1612 to 1650
5th Earl and 1st Marquis of Montrose
Portrait by Gerrard von Honthurst
I should begin by saying that, since Montrose is one of my great heroes, I won’t be making any attempt to be unbiased here. This one is personal.
Born at Montrose and heir to one of the most ancient and noble Scottish families, James Graham might well be described as the perfect Renaissance gentleman. He was a soldier, a scholar, a poet and the epitome of Christian chivalry. He rode well and was extremely athletic; he enjoyed books and the arts and held deep religious convictions. He was also very good-looking – curling chestnut hair, clear grey eyes and a splendid figure.
When Archbishop Laud’s new prayer book was introduced in Scotland in 1637, Montrose – though a Royalist – was one of the first to sign the National Covenant. Originally, he didn’t see this as opposition to the Crown. He saw it as a matter of spiritual liberty and, initially, even fought in the Bishops’ Wars of 1639-40 until doubts set in, causing him to distance himself from the increasing despotism of the Kirk. This brought him into conflict with Archibald Campbell, Marquis of Argyll – with the result that Montrose, by now in direct contact with Charles 1, was imprisoned for five months without trial.
Montrose finally joined the King in Oxford in 1643 and, in March of the following year, rode north as His Majesty’s Lieutenant-General in Scotland. With only two companions but recruiting as he went, he winnowed his way through the Covenant-dominated lowlands to his home territory of Perthshire; and there, in July, his thousand or so Highlanders were joined by 1,600 Irishmen led by the somewhat colourful Alasdair Coll Keitach.
As Max Hastings puts it in his outstanding biography, The King’s Lieutenant-General had been granted the steel spearhead of an army. Montrose’s Year of Miracles had begun.
Inevitably, this little army was ill-armed and poorly-equipped. But in August 1644 at Tippermuir, Montrose defeated a force twice the size of his own and took Perth. A month later, it was the turn of Aberdeen – by which time Argyll was giving chase. It is worth noting here that, due to Argyll’s seizure of their lands, both the Highlanders and the Irishmen were blood enemies of the Clan Campbell.
Drawing the Covenanting army out of England was exactly what Montrose had been hoping for but his own inferior numbers made it necessary to lead Argyll a merry dance, rather than be brought to battle at a time and place not of his choosing. In October and virtually out of ammunition, he was at Fyvie Castle melting pewter chamber-pots down to make bullets. And then, as winter was setting in, he and his small army did the impossible.
They vanished into the sow and ice of the Grampians, crossing the mountains in severe weather and with little suitable clothing. Their journey covered some 200 miles and, tiring of both pursuit and the freezing conditions, Argyll retired to his castle at Inverary – a decision he was to regret when Montrose’s force arrived without warning in January of 1645 and the Irish and Highlanders book both the castle and their long-awaited revenge.
The Annus Mirabilis continued. Montrose triumphed at Inverlochy in February, Auldearn in May and Alford in July. His victory at Kilsyth in August made him master of Scotland. Glasgow opened its gates and Edinburgh freed its Royalist prisoners. It seemed the moment was now ripe for Montrose to march south and mend the King’s fortunes in England.
It was not to be. The Highlanders and Irish refused to march south with the Clan Campbell in their rear. Consequently, Montrose left Glasgow with only six hundred men to face six thousand under the command of David Leslie. The result was a foregone conclusion. Montrose was utterly defeated at Philiphaugh near Selkirk in September and the Year of Miracles was over.
Now a fugitive, Montrose fled to the continent. He was hailed as a hero in Vienna and Paris, given a Marshal’s baton by the Emperor and offered high military command by Mazarin. It is also possible that, at this time, he formed a close relationship with Rupert of the Rhine’s sister, Princess Louise, and that they planned to marry. This may be no more than a charming story – or it could be true. The portrait of Montrose [above] is ‘attribulted’ to Gerard Honthurst – but Louise was a talented artist who had studied under Honthurst. Since her family was always short of money, she needed to sell her work and some of it was signed by Honthurst because his name fetched a higher price than her own. So did Honthurst paint Montrose – or did Louise? Sadly, we’ll never know.
Time wore on but Montrose’s loyalty and hopes were still with the Royalist cause and in April 1650 he returned to Scotland with a few hundred men from Orkney and a handful of Danes. Three weeks later, his forces were annihilated at Carbisdale. Former friends who might have helped him didn’t and he was captured. Under the auspices of his old enemy, Argyll, he was executed at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh on May 21st.
His last words from the scaffold were:
I leave my soul to God, my service to my prince, my goodwill to my friends, my and love and charity to you all.
His head was placed on a spike at the Tolbooth prison and his limbs severed for distribution to Glasgow, Stirling, Perth and Aberdeen.
Eleven years later on May 11th, 1661 while Argyll lay in a dungeon awaiting his own fate, the people of Edinburgh lined the streets as the remains of the Lord Marquis were given a State Funeral and interred in a magnificent tomb in St Giles’ Cathedral. The King’s Champion was finally laid to rest with all the honour that was his due.
The inscription below the effigy are words of Montrose’s own, written whilst awaiting execution.
Scatter my ashes, strew them in the air;
Lord! Since thou knowest whence all these atoms are,
I’m hopeful thou’lt recover once my dust,
And confident thou’lt raise me with the just.
I’ve visited Montrose’s tomb many times over the years. It’s not just beautiful; it’s a little oasis of tranquillity where one may sit for a while and remember a remarkable man. Like other visitors, I’ve always left a small tribute – my preference being for a single red rose. But on one occasion when this wasn’t possible, I left a large purple thistle. I don’t say the one in the photograph above is mine – but it very well could be.
And a brief footnote to this tale of two Marquises …
On May 27th 1661, the Marquis of Argyll was also executed at the Mercat Cross and his head placed on the same spike previously occupied by Montrose. I call this fitting. Argyll’s tomb lies on the opposite side of the nave of St Giles’ Cathedral to that of my hero.
I have never seen it.
Lord George Goring 1608 to 1657
When he was twenty-one years old, George Goring married the daughter of the millionaire Earl of Cork. She brought him an impressive dowry of £10,000 – which he soon squandered on cards, dice and debauchery before taking military service in Holland. By the time he was thirty, he had acquired a reputation as a gambler, a libertine and a soldier.
The famous siege of Breda in 1637 left Goring with a shattered ankle, a permanent limp – and presumably also permanent pain – but he didn’t let this stand in his way and, when he returned to England, he accepted the post of Governor of Portsmouth.
The Earl of Clarendon [who plainly didn’t like him!] declared that, ‘he would have broken any trust or done any act of treachery to satisfy an ordinary passion or appetite.’ A severe criticism perhaps, but not unjustified. Goring’s actions between 1640 and 1642 don’t do him much credit. He managed to convince Parliament of his loyalty whilst making Portsmouth a base for the King; he was deeply involved in the Army Plots of 1641 but betrayed both of them to the Commons; and when the Civil War began, he declared openly for Charles 1 but surrendered Portsmouth within a month and decamped for Holland.
He didn’t remain abroad for long. Once back in England, he distinguished himself as a cavalry leader in the north, was taken prisoner in 1643 and released in 1644. He commanded a wing of the Royalist Horse at Marston Moor where he acquitted himself well against Fairfax only to be routed by Cromwell – and it was at this point that the rot seems to have set in. Goring had always been unreliable and was notorious for letting his men run amok. But after Marston Moor he appears to have started hitting the bottle with serious regularity whilst going out of his way to become a thorn in Prince Rupert’s side.
In the latter, he was ably assisted by Lords Wilmot and Digby – the three of them joining forces to intrigue against Rupert and to obstruct him at every turn. Inevitably, this constant ill-feeling and the resulting arguments was to eventually prove disastrous to the King’s cause.
In August 1644, Goring – now Captain of Horse in the West Country – let the Roundhead cavalry slip through his fingers at Lostwithiel but redeemed himself with a gallant showing at the battle of Newbury two months later. However, the following year saw him refusing to join Rupert before the battle of Naseby, preferring to spend his time in idle, largely drunken resentment – occasionally punctuated by bursts of action. During the next few months, he lost Taunton and caused a local rebellion by letting his men loot homes and kill livestock. By the time the Roundheads wiped him out at Langport in July 1645, he was widely regarded as ‘the evil genius of the war in the West‘.
With the King’s cause past saving, Goring went to the Netherlands and, from there, to command English regiments in Spanish service. He was to spend the rest of his days there, dying in Madrid in 1657.
So what do we make of this man who, both during his lifetime and long after it, was either loved or reviled? Egotistical, charismatic, pleasure-seeking, wasteful, intelligent, quarrelsome, brave? All of those things, probably. He had a way with the ladies and was the kind of rakehell more commonly found after the Restoration. He diced and whored and drank … but he also had a natural military talent and the ability to inspire men. He was wildly ambitious – and equally wildly irresponsible; and though he possessed the potential for brilliance, he rarely achieved it.
Nowadays, a lot of people probably consider swaggering, hard-drinking, sword-out-at-the-drop-of-a-hat George Goring to be a typical Cavalier. I don’t think this is true. He was more than those things – and many of his contemporaries were none of them. But there seems little doubt that he was one of the Roaring Boys.
I should start by saying that the picture worries me. Rainsborough is described as a tall, powerfully-built man and we can see by his dates that he was only 38 when he died. So can this portrait really be him? I’d imagined him as being dark, dynamic and a little fierce. Instead, he looks calm and cuddly – rather like a favourite uncle. Ah well.
Rainsborough’s family had connections with New England – in fact, two of his sisters married Winthrops of Massachusetts. Thomas himself was brought up to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a sailor. After the onset of the Civil War, he served as Vice-Admiral for a while in 1643 but was then commissioned as a Colonel and spent the remainder of the war serving Parliament on land.
He became known for stern discipline, skill at breaking sieges and ferocity towards the enemy. He commanded a regiment in the New Model, fought at Langport, Naseby, Bridgewater and Bristol – where, on taking Prior’s Hill Fort, he put every man inside it to the sword.
But Rainsborough’s interest for us today lies less in his military career than in his part in the Putney Debates of 1647. [See Garland of Straw] He was the only field officer in sympathy with the views of John Lilburne and the Levellers. He opposed continued negotiation with the King aimed at reconciliation and demanded a new constitution with an extended franchise and political equality. Basically, he argued the case for ‘one man, one vote’. Since, at that time, only landowners had the right to vote this radical idea found immense favour amongst the common soldiers and none at all amongst Rainsborough’s fellow officers.
His most-often-quoted and therefore most famous speech included these words:-
I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore, truly, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.
Nicely-put and perfectly true – but a cause of huge disagreement in the Debates. Frequently hot-tempered, Rainsborough at one point became so incensed with Cromwell that he shouted, ‘One of us must not live!’ The quarrel was smoothed over but it is unlikely that they ever became bosom friends.
At the start of the second Civil War, Rainsborough was again appointed Admiral of the fleet – probably in order to remove his dissenting presence from the Army Council. Unfortunately, his Leveller views were unpopular with the Navy which mutinied and refused to let him board his ship. Back to fighting on land, he was sent to help break the siege of Colchester – where he was responsible for the summary executions of Lucas and Lisle.
His next posting in the autumn of 1648 was another siege – this time at Pontefract where the Cavaliers had been holding out since the early summer. A quartet of Royalists attempted to kidnap him from his quarters in Doncaster but the attempt went awry and Rainsborough was killed.
His funeral at Wapping was attended by some three thousand Levellers wearing sea-green ribbons in his memory; and the younger radicals, to whom Rainsborough was a great hero, called him ‘the just, the valiant and the true’.
Thomas Rainsborough’s voice is not the most well-known – though I’ve seen numerous references to him just recently – but it is a powerful one.