Thursday, April 01, 2010

Alton Church: a door with a past

A cycle ride down to Alton, and a visit to the church there, which like the churches at Burford and Painswick, was the scene of fighting during the Civil War. My picture is of the church door. If you click to see it at full size, the old scars of its history can be seen: musket ball holes are evident, what is thought to be a loophole like a vertical slot for defenders in the church to fire out, and a ragged cross-shaped hole perhaps made by a pike.

The door has been patched with old metal surrounds for key-holes; one of the rings is a medieval sanctuary ring. But sanctuary counted for little in 1643, when the established, tithe-supported church would have been just another building held by the enemy for the parliamentary soldiers.

The desperate struggle at this church is partly told in the brief pamphlet published in London three days after the fighting, A narration of the great victory, (through Gods providence) obtained by the Parliaments forces under Sir William Waller, at Alton in Surrey the 13. of this instant December, 1643. Against the cavaliers: where were taken neer a thousand prisoners, a thousand arms, two hundred horse, with divers officers of great quality. As it was delivered by a messenger sent by Sir William Waller, to the committee for safety of the kingdom, and divers of the house of Commons, and approved by them appointed to be forthwith printed and published. Printed for Edw. Husbands, Dec. 16 1643.

What happened at Alton was that Sir William Waller led one of his speciality night-time troop movements, from Farnham to the east, setting off at seven in the evening (this was on December 13th). I think the idea was to give the impression to any potential informants that he was heading towards the siege at Basing House, but on the way west, turned abruptly south towards Alton, where a substantial royalist force had been billeted since the start of December, and by detaining everybody the force met with, getting within half a mile of the town without being spotted, or having their approach revealed.
Ludovic Lindsay, the 16th Earl of Crawford, was in command of the royalist cavalry forces in the town. Learning that a substantial force was almost upon him, this former mercenary first tried to escape eastwards with most of his cavalry, but ran into parliamentary cavalry deployed on the road towards Winchester, retreated back into the town, then fled south. Waller’s forces were determined to prevent more escapes, closing in on the town from all sides:
“The horse were immediately appointed to make good all passages, so that the enemy could not have the benefit of their accustomed running away, but were taken by our horse, our foot in the meantime behaving themselves like men, with great expedition, beat the enemies out of their workes of the North-west, and East parts of the Towne, and possest themselves thereof, where they displayed their colours in the sight of their Enemies, then our men advanced speedily into the Market-place, and the Enemy being all Musquetiers drew themselves into the works neere the Church, where they had double trenches and a Halfe-Moone, and made the Church and a Barne there their chiefest refuge, here grew then a very hot fight, which was continued neer two houres, by reason of a Malignant, who willingly fired his own Barne, and other houses, thereby to offend our men with the smoake; by reason of which smoake, we lost about three men: the fire and smoak abating, our men fell close to their worke againe, and forced the Enemy to retreat into the said Church, and Barne, where they were all taken prisoners. The Towne thus being taken on all sides, the Enemy desired and obtained quarter…
In this fight were taken prisoners 700 in the Church, neere 100 in the Barne; above 100 in the field, with divers Irish men and women: also neer 200 Horse, 1000 Arms, one Colonell, one Major, one Lieuetenant Colonell, thirteen Captaines, three Coronets, one of which with the Princes Armes, another the Earl of Straffords, with divers other Colours hid in the Church; there were slaine of the Enemie neere 40 amongst which was Colonell Richard Bolles: the Enemies word was (Charls) Ours (Truth and Victory).
The mighty providence of God was seene in this, and as in many other mercies towards us: for in this Fight for a certaine truth, there were not above five of our men slaine, and about six wounded, and about six scorched with powder, by reason of their owne negligence: This done, our worthy Major Generall caused the people of the said Towne to slight the Workes: tooke the Prisoners, and tied them two by two with Match, and are now in Farnham Church and Castle, where they heare better Doctrine then they have heard at Oxford, or amongst the Irish Rebels.”

About what you would expect of propaganda: minimum casualties for the reporting side, disaster for their enemy. In the present-day Church itself, the report is that Colonel Bolles killed seven or eight men himself, before finally being killed in the church pulpit. This too, is too good to be true. Did he have 700 men with him, and do all the fighting himself? The parliamentarian pamphlet claims no more than 40 of the royalists killed in all the fighting. Perhaps it was a pattern of minimal resistance, and successive withdrawal, followed by surrender. I imagine the colonel fighting on at one side of the church, while elsewhere his men were busy laying down their weapons.
The church’s own pamphlet about this fighting supplies a local detail, that the corpses of dead horses were piled in the church porch by the retreating defenders to impede the attackers. That scene of horror around this door gets us close to the reality.
A small defeat for the King’s cause, but dismaying in its totality. Charles, hearing of the death of his Colonel Bolles, apparently said: “Bring me my mourning scarf; I have lost one of the best commanders in this kingdom”. His imprisoned fighters were marched off in cords improvised from musketeers’ slow-matches, for re-indoctrination at Farnham.

No comments: