The time Rugby became a war zone - and how our town's Cromwellian sympathies might shape our views today

Former Rugby Advertiser reporter John Phillpott looks back to the days when Rugby and its surrounding villages had become a war zone…

Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 5:04 pm
Updated Tuesday, 23rd March 2021, 5:08 pm
The long-gone Shoulder of Mutton inn, Rugby... rumour had it that Oliver Cromwell stayed there.

Graphic images of war and the terrible effects that armed conflict has on civilian populations can regularly be viewed on our television screens.

Sprawling lines of exhausted refugees carrying ragged bundles that are their only possessions, followed by pinched-faced children staring blankly into some middle distance with unseeing eyes, are never all that far away from news reports.

And we’ve all seen sights such as these often enough, usually – and thankfully - from the safe distance of our mealtime living rooms.

But just imagine if such scenes were being played out across Rugby and surrounding villages in the present… and that you are yours were also caught up in the chaos.

Travel by time machine back to 1645 and that is exactly what you would be witnessing.

I’ve just finished reading an excellent ‘lockdown’ book by Glenn Foard, titled Naseby: The Decisive Campaign, which deals with the most crucial battle of the Civil War during the middle of the 17th Century, and one that set this country on the road to parliamentary democracy.

Bearing in mind the location of this village, just over the border in Northamptonshire, it will perhaps come as no surprise for you to learn that the Rugby area was very much caught up in the struggle of those terrible times.

For between the outbreak of hostilities in 1642, and the final battle at Worcester in 1651, the Rugby area was more or less continually involved.

In the first weeks of the war, Royalist general Prince Rupert challenged the Parliamentarians under the Earl of Essex to a set-piece battle on Dunsmore Heath in order to settle the dispute.

Instead, the opposing sides clashed at Edgehill on the Warwickshire-Oxfordshire border, which produced no clear-cut victory for either side.

And it would take nearly three years for Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army to be fully ready to take on King Charles’ forces, first defeating the monarch at Marston Moor in Yorkshire, and then again in the rolling fields of our neighbouring county.

The story unfolds in the late spring of 1645. Cromwell orders Colonel Vermuyden’s 2,000 horse and 400 dragoons to leave their quarters in Rugby and head north.

Meanwhile, the King’s army shadows the parliamentarians, passing through the town and neighbouring villages in north-east Warwickshire, leaving a trail of destroyed and looted buildings, and pillaged crops.

Refugees crowd the roads, many homeless and starving.

This is exactly the scenario that people anticipated. Ever since the Royalist rampage through nearby Kilsby three years earlier, the fearful populace knew what to expect.

There has been a persistent rumour down the centuries that Charles spent the night in Rugby just before the battle at Naseby, but there is no evidence for this.

However, it seems more likely that he crossed the river at what became known for posterity as King Charles’ bridge at Stanford-on-Avon, on his way to the clash.

What we do know is that the king stayed at the Wheatsheaf Inn at Daventry, while his army spent what was almost certainly a more uncomfortable time camped on Borough Hill, just outside the town.

Fortunately for those who would come after them, many people kept records of the turmoil that had afflicted the countryside.

We learn from one diarist that a wealthy merchant from Flecknoe bitterly resented the presence of the Royalist army, reporting that ‘goods were taken with much violence’ and that, to add insult to injury, he had also been forced to provide free accommodation for the soldiers.

This sort of behaviour by the Royalist troops did them no favours. Commander of the New Model Army Sir Thomas Fairfax made a point of paying for local people’s services, acutely aware – unlike his Royalist counterparts – that the last thing he needed was a hostile populace.

This policy would reap dividends as that bloody summer unfolded. When the battle came on Saturday, June 14, 1645, the Royalists were completely routed and never became an effective force again.

The victorious Ironsides eventually turned their attentions to the King’s remaining forces in the West Country, passing through Lutterworth and Rugby again, and then on through Warwick and Stratford-upon-Avon.

While they rested and cared for their wounded at Leicester, brewers at Long Lawford sent supplies of beer for the weary victors. Across other villages around Rugby, and in the staunch Parliamentarian city of Coventry, people rallied round to send supplies to Fairfax’s men.

Even today, there are people who voice their allegiance to one side or the other, despite the fact that the Civil War ended generations ago.

It could be argued that the great national dispute over Brexit was – and perhaps still is – an echo of those turbulent times.

But we must all hope that the days when the roads around Rugby were clogged with refugees fleeing their burning homes and farms remains firmly in the past… where they belong.

John Phillpott has written extensively about his childhood in Churchover and experiences as a young reporter on the Rugby Advertiser during the 1960s.