Morecambeology - A nation at war with itself by Peter Wade

A sundial in a peaceful country churchyard just off the Lune Valley records a turbulent period in English history.

Sunday, 6th December 2020, 3:45 pm
King Charles 1.
King Charles 1.

As is common, the sundial has a verse on the theme of mortality and the passage of time – ‘As the long hours do pass away, So doth the life of men decay’.

The sundial is dated 1630 and carries a loyal dedication – ‘Long liffey King Charles’ – to Charles I who succeeded to the throne in 1625.

Charles’ reign was characterised though by a deteriorating relationship with Parliament, leading eventually to civil war and Charles’ execution. Among the decorations of the sundial are two motifs which cast a shadow of history – a skull and scythe. If part of the original design, these eerily presage Charles’ fate; if later, they reflect the differing local loyalties which emerged in the civil war. The English Civil War from its first casualties in the summer of 1642 to the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the exile of the young Charles II in 1651 divided the nation across counties, communities and even within individual families. Its casualties numbered some 100,000 (a higher proportion of the population than died in the Great War) including for the first time a significant number of civilians. Around 150 towns were destroyed, 50 villages and 10,000 houses. There were no hard and fast rules as to how the nation divided, only general trends. Within England, support for the Parliamentary (Roundhead) side tended to come from middle-class traders of Puritan or dissenting religious views and generally located south-east of a line joining Hull and Plymouth. Supporters of the Royalist (Cavalier) side tended to be drawn from the gentry and peasant classes, to follow the Anglican or Catholic religion and be geographically to the north and west, often from smaller rural communities or else university and cathedral towns. Many towns, however, were neutral. Support from Scotland and Ireland was sought by both sides.

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Lancaster Castle.

There were few major set-piece battles. Other encounters were often small-scale,chance affairs, occasionally giving the opportunity to settle old scores and rivalries. Lancaster was strategically important in the Civil War as in other conflicts because of its location on a main north-south route. However, its castle proved to be as much a liability to the town’s civilian population as a comfort.

In February 1643 Lancaster Castle was occupied by a force of Parliamentarians from Preston. This was followed by a scramble to secure the cannons from a Spanish ship wrecked off Rossall Point. The cannons were brought back to the castle which was then besieged the following month by a Royalist force. Lancaster’s civilian population found

itself caught between the two, powerless to prevent the town being ransacked. Some 80

properties along Penny Street had goods stolen before being set on fire. These included houses, barns, a malt kiln and supplies of hay, corn and livestock. The one saving grace is that human casualties seem to have been low.

After hostilities ended, Lancaster Castle had its walls removed (a process known as ‘slighting of fortresses’) so it couldn’t again be used as a seat of military power. There were other consequences of the Civil War for Lancaster and its surroundings. Thirteen parishes had signed up for the Solemn League and Covenant – originally a bid to

bring Scotland on to the Parliamentarian side by pushing religious observance in England

towards Presbytarianism. This ‘Godly Rule’ saw a clampdown on anything that might be

seen as encouraging a Royalist uprising; checks on clergymen and teachers; control of newspapers and periodicals; the shutting down of alehouses, playhouses and ‘lewd houses’; bans on brewing, travel on the Lord’s Day and swearing.

In 1662 there was a move to purge England of its puritan clergy but of Lancaster it was said ‘not one man in the whole county intends to conform’.

The Plague of 1665 and Great Fire of 1666 were seen as divine retribution for what the diarist John Evelyn described as ‘prodigious ingratitude, burning lusts, a dissolute court and profane and abominable lives’.

A general fast was called for as a penance.