First Civil War Engagements in West Yorkshire 1642; It Begins

Map WR 1600s edit © C Widdall
Map of the main Civil War engagements in the West Riding, Agbrigg and Morley Wapentake

Choosing Sides

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, the town became a focal point for Parliamentarian support in the West Riding. 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. Leeds had a population of 7,000.

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 tax policies was lost.

Importantly, the citizens of the West Yorkshire clothing towns were strongly Puritan and naturally supported the Parliament over the King. The West Riding was one of the areas in which Puritanism had grown most quickly. Across the kingdom, Puritanism had taken root firmly in those areas that were the most economically developed, in the industrialised areas and especially the clothing towns. In Yorkshire, Puritansim cut across all levels of income and gentility but was strongly associated with the educational revolution that was taking place in the industrialised towns. Educated men were much more likely to become Puritan than non-educated and educated men were likely to reside in progressive industrialised towns. (in “Piety and Politics: Religion and the Rise of Absolutism in England”…by Mary Fulbrook, Professor of History).

In Halifax, for example, the minor 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) who were likely to be Puritan and who supported the Parliament.

Perhaps equally urgent, 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.

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 Fairfax

Yorkshire Past and Present, Edward and Thomas Baines; William Mackenzie, London (1871-77)

Families in Conflict

Statistics quoted in Tristram Hunt’s “The English Civil War” indicate that 16% of Yorkshire families experienced conflicting loyalties, one of the most affected counties. Interestingly, allegiance appears to have cut across the class divide and was associated in the main with religion.

Before the flame of war broke out…in many places, there were fierce contests and disputes, almost to blood, even at the first; for in the progress, every county had more or less the civil war within itself.

Lucy Hutchinson, quoted in “The English Civil War”; Tristram Hunt.

Early Fighting in West Yorkshire

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”.

On the 13th October 1642, the the Parliamentarian, Sir John Savile of Lupset, gathered together his own tenants and men from the Wakefield area. 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. The first blood had been shed.

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.

…whilst each party were exerting themselves to the utmost of their power, providence in a most miraculous and surprising manner interfered in our favour, by sending the heaviest shower of snow, attended with a mighty strong and blustering wind, which beat directly in their faces with such impetuosity, that they were not able to withstand or support it; besides at the same time, one of their great guns burst asunder, which so intimidated and struck them with amazement, that they, with the greatest precipitation and confusion, fled.

Joseph Lister, eyewitness

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 only weakly defended and rode for Tadcaster with his recruits.

Tadcaster, Selby and Wetherby were equally vulnerable and, on 6th December, the Royalist Earl of Newcastle attacked Tadcaster. The Fairfaxes were outnumbered 10 to one but held the town all day until dark. Fighting had been hand to hand in the streets, but when night came, the Parliamentarians were running out of ammunition and withdrew during the night and were able to escape to Selby. 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.

Riders battle on a bridge by Palmades Palamedesz – Dutch School

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 massively and the Parliamentarian soldiers had received no pay, which was affecting recruitment, so their defence of the West Riding looked increasingly fragile.

First Siege of Bradford 18th December 1642 (Battle of the Steeple)

Royalists, led by Sir Francis Howard and Colonel Evers and accompanied by General Goring, attempted to storm Bradford again on 18th December 1642. They knew that the Fairfaxes were engaged elsewhere and expected a quick victory. As news of the impending attack reached Bradford, the citizens of the town prepared to meet their enemies and sent out messages to supporters in surrounding areas, requesting help from local clubmen (local men armed with whatever weapons they could find, including farm implements, birding guns and old swords)…

The Earl of Newcastle, who commanded the King’s forces, had got a very strong reinforcement, and had plundered Leeds already, and intended to pay us another unwelcome visit, that they might satiate their revenge upon us with great avidity; we therefore resolved to conquer or die, there was no alternative; our captain mustered all his men, which were about eighty that had muskets or long guns; the greatest part of these he placed in the church upon the steeple; the rest were armed with clubs, scythes, spits, flails, halberds, sickles laid on long poles, and such like rustic weapons.

Joseph Lister, Bradford eye witness

On the morning of 18th December, the 1000 strong Royalist force was formed up on the hillside above Barker End. The force comprised horse soldiers, dragoons, foot soldiers, infantry and artillery. As the Royalists made their first attacks on the town, local men fired on them. The steeple gave the defenders an advantage. From there, Musketeers could fire on the attackers with great success. Meanwhile, a force of clubmen, arriving from Bingley, attacked the Royalists who were trying to enter the town’s streets. The Royalists now regrouped on the hill and continued a bombardment of the town with cannons. Cannons from this period were not very accurate and fortunately for the defenders, they never hit the church steeple.

In the afternoon, the citizens of Bradford decided to take on their attackers in a bold live-or-die operation. Aided by local clubmen, they stormed up the hill towards the Royalist troops and a frenzied hand-to-hand battle was fought. The Bradford force was not well organised and that became their advantage. So close was the fighting that the Royalists could not use their cannons for fear of destroying their own forces and their muskets could only be used as clubs. It was said afterwards that:

Bradford soldiers were barbaric, ignoring the rules of warfare, offering no quarter to those who deserved it.

The rules of war allowed for “quarter” to be given to certain prisoners who begged for it, particularly important men…”giving quarter” meant to spare their lives…but the townspeople of Bradford had not respected this rule and had killed regardless of rank. When he heard of this, Newcastle vowed that when he took Bradford he would afford them what he now called “Bradford Quarter”, in other words “no mercy”.

After “eight hours of continuous fighting”, the Royalists retreated and the exhausted and relieved local men returned to Bradford. It was claimed that they had only lost two men dead with twelve other casualties. Bradford men captured about 100 horses, 40 muskets and stores of gunpowder. The great bulk of the dead, more than 100 men, still lying out in the fields, were Royalists and a track through the fields was later given the name of “Dead Lane”.

Ferdinando Fairfax, hearing of the attack on Bradford, 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 against further attack, arriving on 23rd December 1642.

© Christine Widdall 2019