History of the Amersham Area

The Civil War and Bucks

This article was written by Geoff and Shirley Sherlock for the Amersham Society/Amersham Museum newsletter based on a talk by Julian Hunt and is reproduced here with permission.

Julian Hunt made a welcome return to the Market Hall in 2005.  Although it was one of the best early spring evenings the Hall was packed and Julian’ s lively presentation encouraged everyone to pay careful attention to the range of oil paintings, in slide form, that he put before us.

Mention the Civil War to most local people and John Hampden and the Ship Tax come to mind but what did he look like? King Charles I?   Some mental images of a tall, handsome Cavalier, richly dressed and attractive to many ladies appears in the thought bubbles of many.  But are these mental images and scraps of history near to reality?  According to the paintings, collected for the County Museum’s special exhibition earlier this year, and to Julian Hunt’s detailed explanations, no.

For those of us who had been to Aylesbury to see the exhibition it was a welcome chance to see the fine portraits of the dramatis personae again.  The exhibition had taken three years to plan but the paintings were only available for three months such was their rarity and value. The first painting, by Daniel Mytens in1633, showed us Charles I as a Knight of the Garter, an impressive figure sure of his “Divine Right”, but in fact short of stature and rather weak-willed.  He was respected by many of his court for his skill in hunting and his horsemanship but he was a suspect figure for others. The son of Mary, he was a Scot, and he came to England surrounded by the courtiers of his father James I. Was he going to lead a Catholic revival or was he going to follow his father on a middle course in religion and politics, realising that, in the mid-17th century , the two could not be separated?  He did attempt to provide a balance between Catholics and Protestants but as result he was not popular with either side in the troubled years following the Reformation.

In Bucks there were influential people ready to push forward their own religious or political views involving the King in the process.  George Villiers, from a Leicestershire family, was one such courtier; a charismatic man and, from his portrait, quite a dandy.  After the death of James I he became a favourite of Charles and was very influential.  So effective was he that Charles created him Duke of Buckingham.  Villiers was responsible for the first house at Cliveden and it was there that he took his mistress, the Countess of Shrewsbury , after killing her husband in a duel.  In 1623, Villiers and Charles, urged on by James, paid a visit to Spain to “check out” a Spanish princess as a possible future bride for Charles. They were supposed to travel incognito but were identified and English politicians stopped the scheme as another catholic with powerful allies was the last person they wanted at court.  A counter-Reformation and the return of the Papacy was a definite fear.

Buckingham was blamed for the mess and, to placate the Protestants, military raids were made on Spain and France in 1625. In the same year, however, Charles married Henrietta Maria, a Catholic princess and daughter of the French king!  Some found her to be very attractive and others, including Charles noted her “buck teeth and bulbous eyes”.  Henrietta Maria, painted by van Dyke in 1625, held court and attracted supporters from France and Spain.  This openly Catholic group aroused much suspicion and “this dangerous and beautiful woman” was distrusted although Charles had remained a Protestant after their marriage.  They remained rather distant as a couple until 1628 when George Villiers was assassinated.  Charles, having lost his favourite, turned to Henrietta for support and they became a devoted couple.

Another member of the court, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, who supported the king at times and in the 1630s and 40s acted for Charles in Ireland where he was hated.  Wentworth was executed in 1641 in spite of Charles promising him his support.  About the same time Archbishop Laud was attempting to impose the English Prayer book on the Scots and causing huge resentment there. The subsequent rebellion by the Scots could not be subdued without the army.  The rag tag gathering raised by Charles, was pushed south by the Scots.  Any further action needed money from Parliament.  Charles, short of funds, had to recall Parliament after ignoring it for eleven years and was refused.  This bubbling cauldron of distrust, Charles’s arrogant dismissal of the power of Parliament and his attempt to arrest six of its members (1642) were all part of the final upheavals that led to the Civil War.  Julian wove the pictures of the complex and devious men involved into the convoluted story of the run up to the war, a story that extended over about 20 years.

One of the six MPs was John Hampden.  In 1636 he refused to pay the infamous “Ship tax” which Charles, short of cash as usual, wanted to extend from the coastal towns to the whole country—a stealth tax!  Hampden was a Bucks. MP and in 1641 had supported the Grand Remonstrance, a list of rights and duties for the King that he had been forced to sign. Hampden had already annoyed the King by blocking some highhanded actions by the Duke of Buckingham in Beaconsfield in 1634.  Hampden, a gifted lawyer, first cousin of Oliver Cromwell, was shown to us in his portrait of 1643. He knew from school days in Thame and from social and political links, a number of other Protestant families active against the King.  Goodwin from Wooburn near Aylesbury; Lord Wharton, Lord Lieutenant of Bucks, also known as “Sawpit Wharton” after he supposedly fled from the Battle of Edgehill and hid in a sawpit; Bulstrode Whitelocke served in Hampden’s regiment and had his house at Fawley Court near Henley destroyed by Royalist forces.  Julian commented that the mid- nineteenth century painting, usually called “When did you last see your father?”, illustrates the pressures put on many families in the 1640s.

The Waller family of Beaconsfield were royalists and were suspected of trying to ferment a rising in London. They were fined £10 000 and forced to flee abroad.  Most people know something of the Verneys of Claydon House. Sir Edmund Verney , one time MP for High Wycombe, fought for the King at Edgehill. His portrait, by Anthony van Dyck c.1639, shows a distinguished looking man but Julian’s story was amazing.  Verney was the King’ s standard bearer at Edgehill and he died, defending the flag.  To get the flag the soldiers had to cut off his hand and this was the only part of him ever found.  When the Civil War Exhibition was opened in the County Museum in November 2004, Verney’s descendent held up his hand and he was wearing the family ring taken from that dead hand, some 360 years earlier.  The Verneys also illustrated a family divided by war. Sir Edmund’s son Ralph, MP for Aylesbury, supported the Parliament.  Ralph’s portrait by Cornelius Johnson (1634) shows a sensitive face, perhaps a rather fragile person. However, he refused to follow Cromwell’s oath to establish Presbyterianism and was exiled in France and lost Claydon House for many years.

In Amersham William Drake, a puritanical man and a maltster, supported Parliament and disagreed with the resident vicar Charles Croke.  Drake brought in a rival preacher, Richard Baxter from Kiddermister, who was noted for holding religious debates that sometimes lasted all day.  As Amersham was on the route from London to Aylesbury it became known to some as  “the sweetest country I ever saw.”  Drake believed that the Church of England was the cement for the social system. In the troubles he was a moderate voice and his house survived, as did his wealth.  Today we know him through the Alms Houses built in 1657, in Amersham.

Royalists in the area included Sir John Borlase of Marlow. His portrait (Anthony van Dyck c1638) showed him dressed in a lace collar and rich fabric clothes. His wife, Alice, was also painted at the same time and dressed in similar rich fabrics. Julian pointed out that, in the custom of the time, her right hand resting on her stomach indicated that she was pregnant.  Alexander Denton, another royalist from Hillesden in north Bucks, lost his house “burnte downe to the ground” and he died in the Tower. Sir Kenelm Digby of Gayhurst (north of Newport Pagnell) lost his fortune through lending money to the king. His portrait showed a man in deep sorrow after his wife died suddenly in1633.

Aylesbury as a Parliamentary stronghold was significant in the siege of Oxford.  As there were no war photographers in the 1640s Jan Wyck’s bird’s eye view of the city under attack was Julian’s only scenic picture.  Painted some 40 years after the battle it shows the layout of the town, the defensive works, a perspective of the skyline and camp scenes in the foreground. Oxford was finally surrendered to General Fairfax and Cromwell in 1646.

Cromwell’s “warts and all” portraits and death mask have appeared in many books.  Hampden described him before the War as “a sloven who may become the greatest man in England”.  Cromwell, probably the best known of the regicides, was a man of great religious zeal and military skill.  Whether one regards him as a great reformer and founder of our modem system of government or as a murderer depends on your reading of history.  However, Julian Hunt’s last painting was of Charles I at his trial in January 1649, a sombre picture by Edward Bower.

Throughout his detailed and informative talk, Julian kept to his theme that these people got themselves into this state through the complex interaction of personal relationships, religion and politics and his parallels with the present day kept us enthralled.

Before the vote of thanks by Martin Brooks, Julian Hunt was asked about Mrs. Cromwell at Woodrow House. While there is some evidence that she stayed there he doesn’t know for how long.  However, there is no evidence that the King stayed at the Kings Arms.  Given that Amersham was staunchly for Parliament he thought it was highly unlikely.  A large and attentive audience had an entertaining and enjoyable evening.

 Another article about Amersham in the time of the Civil War was written by Nicholas Salmon and appeared in the January 1994 Amersham Society News

During the Civil War, Amersham served as the Headquarters of the Buckinghamshire Lieutenants, and for this reason maintained a Parliamentary garrison similar to those in Aylesbury, Hartwell, Wing, Bierton, Waddesdon, Leighton, Wendover, Missenden and Chesham.  The strength of this garrison probably varied but in November 1643 it is recorded as ‘3 scoare musketeers’.  Opposed to these pockets of Parliamentary strength in the area were the stations of the King’s army located at Buckingham, Winslow, Bicester, Thame, Brackley, Brill, Haddenham and adjacent places.  It has been suggested that the Whiteleaf Cross, cut in the side of the chalk hills near Risborough, was made to indicate the Parliamentarians’ route from Aylesbury Vale ‘by way of Hampden and Missenden to the headquarters of the Buckinghamshire Lieutenants at Amersham’: a route which effectively avoided the King’s troops.

From the beginning of the war, troops passed regularly along the High Street on their way to and from London.  However, it was not until after the battle of Aylesbury in 1642 that the townsfolk witnessed the reality of war when Oliver Cromwell led his victorious troops through the town on his way to Chalfont St Giles where he stayed at the ‘Stone’.  Two years later the war was brought closer to home.  Sir Samuel Luke, a staunch Parliamentarian, records in his journal for January 29 1644 that ‘John Carpenter …. heard at Berkhamstead that a party of the King’s horse came this morning from Henly to Amersam, where they plundered captain’s house of this side, and diverse other houses in the towne, and set fire to one ende of the towne’.  Another entry, for March 9, 1644, records that ‘on Thursday last a party of horse went out under the command of Sir Jacob Ashley, whoe plundred the towne and returned backe the same day’.  The next year Cromwell himself stopped for refreshment at the ‘Griffin’, while on his way to meet the King’s Commissioners.

It was also during the Civil War that Richard Baxter, in his capacity of regimental chaplain, made his famous visit to the town.  Baxter was a moderate puritan who urged co-operation amongst the various religious denominations. While in Amersham he visited St Mary’s Church where he found an ‘ignorant sectarian’ preaching from the pulpit.  Annoyed by the man’s bigoted attitude, Baxter went outside and rounded up all the local officers to prove to this individual that the majority of the army believed in brotherhood rather than sectarian rivalry.  Taking the pulpit and facing the men and officers and various interested townsfolk (many of whom were no doubt non-conformists), Baxter spent the whole day preaching his religious message of Christian brotherhood and listening to what he termed ‘an abundance of nonsense’.

It has been suggested that during the Protectorate, Oliver Cromwell’s wife, Elizabeth, and her two daughters resided in the town.  As far as I can tell the origin of this story lies in some scribbled lines in the Parish Records that follow the election of a new ‘Register’ in October 1656.  Dated 1730, these lines are in the hand of Benjamin Robertshaw (then Rector of Amersham) and list some of the personalities in the area at the time of the Civil War.  Among these are ‘Mrs Cromwell, Oliver’s wife and her daughters of Woodrow High House, where afterwards lived Captain James Thompson’.  It is difficult, however, to confirm this residence.  The Cromwell family are recorded as being in Ely until 1646 after which they moved to a house in Drury Lane.  If their residence was actually during the Parliament, then it is unlikely that Elizabeth Cromwell would have been accompanied by her daughters as they had all married by this time.  It seems likely that the stay was only temporary and that over the course of time it has been somewhat exaggerated in significance by Robershaw.

After the defeat of the Royalist cause at Nazeby in 1645, the parliamentary garrison at Amersham was removed and life returned to normal.  It was not until 1651 that the town came back into contact with the wider issues of state.  In this year Charles II and his followers crossed into England while Cromwell was engaged in Scotland.  On September 3 1651 Cromwell confronted the Royalist forces at Worcester and, with a superiority of almost three to one, drove the invaders back into the city where they suffered disastrous losses.  Some of the prisoners taken at this battle were brought back to London via Beaconsfield and the Amersham parochial accounts contain a record of money paid ‘for bread and cheese carried to Beaconsfield for the prisoners taken at the Wooster fight’.