At the start of the war, the population of West Yorkshire has been estimated as 220,000, approximately half of the population of the whole county.
Bradford was a market town with 2,500 inhabitants, but with 10,000 living within its parish. Although Bradford was of little strategic value, its citizens were strongly Puritan and the town became a focal point for Parliamentarian support in the West Riding.
Leeds had a population of 7,000. Wakefield and Halifax were towns with around 400 households each…but the “parish” of Halifax contained 21 townships and was the largest parish in the county. The gentry, yeomen, husbandmen, merchants, well-off tradesmen and artisans comprised a ruling elite of 18% of the population (figures extrapolated from the later hearth tax records).
These districts were built on the cloth industry and were extremely vulnerable to any collapse in the cloth trade, such as began when confidence in the King’s policies was lost. Perhaps even more importantly, the King had moved to Yorkshire and set up his “capital” at York, constituting an ever present danger. It was inevitable, therefore, that Yorkshire in general and West Yorkshire, in particular, would become strategically important in any national conflict.
Once war was inevitable, Royalist Sir William Savile (the nephew of the Parliamentarian Sir John Savile) quickly seized the West Riding towns of Leeds and Wakefield for the King, without opposition. Bradford and Halifax were held for the Parliament. Bradford now became the main garrison for the Parliament and Leeds for the Royalists. It is quite remarkable that the two places which feature most strongly in the early years of the war in West Yorkshire, Leeds and Bradford, were only 8 miles apart “as the crow flies”.
Bradford, with Leeds, Halifax, Wakefield and the clothing district of the West Riding, took a very active and determined part in the civil war between Charles I and the Long Parliament, Bradford being the chief stronghold of that party, in the West Riding. None of those towns were then directly represented in Parliament, except as forming portions of the county constituency of Yorkshire; but they were already the chief places in the West Riding, and as such took a leading part in all public affairs. The Fairfaxes, the Lamberts, and other great parliamentary families of Yorkshire, several of which resided within a few miles of Bradford, were looked upon as the natural leaders of the people in that great contest…
…At the beginning of the civil war, Sir Thomas Fairfax, the representative of a race of soldiers, and a man of dauntless courage and great military talent, assumed the command of the parliamentary party in the neighbourhood of Bradford ; whilst his father, Ferdinando, Lord Fairfax, was appointed Governor of the fortress of Hull, and was recognized as the Commander-in-chief for the Parliament, in all those parts of Yorkshire which upheld the authority of that assembly and resisted the demands of the King. Thus Hull was the headquarters of Lord Fairfax, and Bradford the head-quarters of Sir Thomas FairfaxYorkshire Past and Present, Edward and Thomas Baines; William Mackenzie, London (1871-77)
Early Fighting in West Yorkshire
On the 13th October 1642, the the Parliamentarian, Sir John Savile of Lupset, gathered together his own tenants and men from the Wakefield area, which would include Dewsbury, Ossett, Sandal. The small mostly unarmed force was marching to join Parliamentarians at Bradford, when they were attacked by a Royalist force led by Sir Thomas Glentham. Sir John Savile was taken prisoner and three of his men were killed.
In late October, a force of 800 Royalists from Leeds set up camp at Undercliffe, north-east of Bradford. On October 23rd, they attacked Bradford. The town was unfortified but citizens blocked the ends of streets with harrows, wagons and carts and set fire to so much straw that the attackers could not see their way forward. The men of Bradford came to the assistance of the defending troops with muskets, pistols and farm implements. Every able-bodied man and boy bore arms.
The Parliamentarians held off several attacks and suffered some losses. Fortunately for the town, the already bad weather turned into a blizzard. Snow fell heavily, blowing into the faces of the attackers and one of the Royalist cannons exploded, after which the Royalists retreated. In November, Sir Thomas Fairfax arrived in Bradford with a Parliamentary force and set about recruiting and training soldiers.
At the end of the month, Fairfax left Bradford for Tadcaster with his recruits, leaving Bradford only weakly defended. However, Tadcaster, Selby and Wetherby were also vulnerable and, on 6th December, the Royalist Earl of Newcastle attacked Tadcaster. The Fairfaxes held the town all day until dark. Fighting had been hand to hand in the streets, but when night came, the Royalists prevailed, the Parliamentarians retreated and were able to escape. The Royalists went on to also take Wetherby for the King. They were now able to use Wetherby and Tadcaster as headquarters for their proposed blockade of York.
There were also some small victories for the Parliamentarians. On 13th December, Sir Thomas Fairfax, with Captain John Hotham, successfully raided Sherburn-in-Elmet. However, Newcastle’s army in Yorkshire outnumbered the Parliamentarians four to one and the Parliamentarian soldiers had received no pay, so their defence of the West Riding looked increasingly fragile.
First Siege of Bradford 18th December 1642
Royalist, Sir William Savile, attempted to storm Bradford again on 18th December 1642, expecting, no doubt, to finish it off. Along with volunteers from the surrounding land, the citizens of Bradford again held off the attack.
Ferdinando Fairfax, hearing of the attack, sent his son, Sir Thomas, to the aid of the citizens. Thomas Fairfax left Selby to make a daring night march through Royalist-held territory with a detachment of three troops of horse and 120 dragoons to reinforce Bradford on 23rd December 1642.
© Christine Widdall 2019