West Yorkshire in the First English Civil War


The English Civil War or Wars can be divided into different phases which took place between 1642 and 1651. The adversaries were the Royalist Cavaliers of Charles I of England against the Parliamentarian Roundheads. The Royalists supported the King, Charles I, who claimed absolute rule and the principle of “divine right”. The Parliamentarians were supporters of the Long Parliament.

I was never taught about the English Civil War at school, so I didn’t know of the contribution to the war made by the towns where my ancestors lived…Halifax, Dewsbury, Mirfield, Thornhill, Ossett and Wakefield, which were to become the “Heavy Woollen District” of the West Riding. Therefore, when I started to look at the detail of the war as it was played out in West Yorkshire, I was shocked to see that these places were situated right in the path of the opposing forces at the beginning of the war and realised that many men from these towns would have been involved in the fighting or affected collaterally.

I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering which side my “Kirklees Cousins” ancestors were on. Most of them would have been people of little wealth and would have been called upon to fight by the Knights and Gentry under whose influence they happened to fall. It is even possible that some extended family members were mustered on opposite sides of the conflict.

The Yorkshire Gentry favoured the King in the proportion 4 to 1 at the beginning of the war. According to David Hey in his “Yorkshire from AD 1000”, most ordinary families were neutral in the summer of 1642 and many remained neutral throughout the war…but, where politics prevailed, it was not uncommon for family members to fight on opposite sides. Where towns were occupied at different times by the two sides of the conflict, ordinary people could be conscripted by each army in turn. What a tragedy is civil war, where neighbours and families must fight neighbours and families, in this case because the King and the Parliament quarrelled.

This article describes the main events that took place in West Yorkshire between January 1642 and July 1644 and the aftermath. Although a great deal of fighting took place in West Yorkshire in those years, it will be necessary to stray at times into the East and North Ridings and even into the borders of Lancashire, to put the West Yorkshire events into context.

The Adversaries in Yorkshire

Notable Royalists or “Cavaliers”

  • William Cavendish of Bolsover (1592-1676), Earl (later Marquis) of Newcastle-on-Tyne, Commander of the Northern Counties.
  • Sir William Savile of Thornhill Hall (near Dewsbury) (1612-1644), Second in Command (and uncle to Parliamentarian Sir John Savile of Lupset).
  • Lieutenant-General George Goring (1608-1657) – Baron Goring, General of Horse.
  • Colonel John Belasyse (Bellasis) (1614-1689) – became  Baron Belasyse of Worlaby in 1645.
  • Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Duke of Cumberland, a younger son of the German Prince Frederick V and nephew of King Charles by his sister.

Notable Parliamentarians or “Roundheads”

  • Ferdinando, 2nd Lord Fairfax of Cameron (1584-1648), Knight of the Shire (Yorkshire), Commander of the Yorkshire Forces, HQ at Hull, father of Sir Thomas Fairfax.
  • Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), Second in Command of the Yorkshire Forces (later, Commander of the New Model Army).
  • Sir John Savile of Lupset (near Wakefield).
  • Colonel Lambert, local commander, Bradford.
  • Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell.
Sir Thomas Fairfax AKA “Black Tom”

Quarrels between King and Parliament

The catalyst for war was Parliament’s frustration with the King’’s policies, especially in relation to conflicts with Ireland’s Catholics and Scotland’s Puritans.

Charles was deeply religious, favouring the High Anglican form of worship, with much ritual, while many of his subjects, particularly in Scotland and the north of England, wanted simpler forms of worship and didn’t want the hierarchy of Bishops and Archbishops.

The Irish were predominantly Roman Catholic. King Charles had married a Roman Catholic, Henrietta Maria of France, and this only made matters worse, as there were concerns about preferment by the King towards Catholic subjects. The French had insisted on a commitment to “remove all disabilities upon Roman Catholic subjects” and this had been secretly added to the marriage treaty. This allowed the Queen to practice her Catholicism and the King’s Catholic subjects would be allowed to worship in their own way too. However, Catholics were distrusted and feared by many Protestants, since the Protestants had been persecuted under Queen Mary I. Catholics had also been involved in the attempted invasion by the Spanish Armada and in the Gunpowder Plot…and Catholic nations had attempted to wipe out Protestantism in Europe.

The King increasingly found himself in disagreement, on financial, political and religious policies, with many leading members of the House of Commons. Constant arguments with Parliament had led King Charles to lock out Members of Parliament from 1629 to 1640 and rule on his own (later known as the Eleven Years Tyranny). Charles, as King, could do this under what was known as the “Royal Prerogative” and he believed that his “divine right” to rule was given to him by God.

The King now took it upon himself to devise ways of raising the money that he needed to finance a religious war against Scotland. The Scots had violently resisted the introduction of a High Anglican version of the Book of Common Prayer. The two sides fought in 1639 and 1640 (known as the BishopsWars), when the Scots defeated the King’s armies and captured Newcastle, forcing Charles to back down. The impoverished King was obliged to recall Parliament in 1640 in order to raise funds to renew his war against the Scots.

Increasingly, Parliament challenged the King’s “divine right” to govern and this led to the Parliament being dissolved again, by the King, after only a few weeks of sitting. However, Parliament didn’t, at this time, wish to depose the King, only to ensure the rightful role of the Parliament in the affairs of the country.

Attempted arrest of five members of Parliament by the King

Meanwhile, the Scots invaded northern England, occupying Northumberland and Durham. The King raised money from the Irish gentry to pursue his war against Scotland, in return for religious concessions for Catholics in Ireland. But the Scots prevailed and, by the time that they had occupied most of the north of England, Charles was forced to pay £850 per day to deter the Scots from advancing further. This is an enormous sum at today’s value and Charles was now in a desperate financial position. He was obliged to recall Parliament again in November 1640 (this became known as the Long Parliament).

The new Parliament was even more hostile to the King. In early January 1642, Charles attempted to arrest five members of the House of Commons and one of the House of Lords on charges of treason. He believed that they had encouraged the Scots to invade, were turning the people against him and that they were planning to impeach the Queen for alleged involvement in Catholic conspiracies. The King entered the Commons, occupied the Speaker’s chair and demanded the arrest of the men, but they had already fled. The House of Commons regarded the King’s intrusion as an armed assault on Parliament itself, and the King’s reputation was destroyed.

The King rules from York – Preparations for War

King Charles I

A few days afterwards, the quarrel between King and Parliament had escalated to the extent that the King left London on January 10th 1642, and travelled north, where he established his court at York, which became the new de facto capital of England. There, he began consolidating support among his northern subjects.

War now seemed inevitable and both the King and the Parliament set about raising men when and where they could, and both claimed legal justification. Parliament claimed to be justified by its own recent “Militia Ordinance“, while the King claimed the traditional “Commissions of Array“.

After Hull was occupied by the Parliamentarians, the King rode south to Nottingham, where he raised the royal standard against the Parliament on 22nd August 1642 and appointed the Earl (afterwards Marquis) of Newcastle, to be his general-in-chief in Yorkshire and the northern counties…with Sir William Savile of Thornhill Hall (near Dewsbury), as second in command.

Attempts to avoid war

Even now, Yorkshire folk did not want war. Representatives of the clothiers of the West Riding woollen districts sent a petition to Charles I at York, strongly urging reconciliation with his Parliament. This petition was delivered by Sir Thomas Fairfax but was rejected by the King.

The Yorkshire gentry also tried to keep the conflict away from their county, by signing a neutrality treaty among themselves, agreeing to disband their troops, to muster no more and to keep the peace. The “Treaty of Neutrality” was signed on 29th September 1642 by Lord Ferdinando Fairfax for the Parliamentarians and by Henry Belasyse (Bellasis) (John’s elder brother) for the Royalists. They were the two Knights of the Shire who represented Yorkshire in Parliament and they were acting with the support and agreement of other gentlemen of the county. The treaty was disowned by Parliament on 4th October 1642.

War was now a certainty.

© Christine Widdall 2019