image courtesy of www.wiltsglosstandard.co.uk
Walking through and enjoying a coffee or taking in the shops of Stow-on-the-Wold today it’s hard to think that this sleepy town was once the setting for one of the most important battles in English history and should you decide to visit the town, we would urge you to walk and take in, especially if you like to imagine the site about 400 years ago!.
The Battle of Stow took part during the English Civil War, which was fought between 1642 and 1646 between the Parliamentarians and Royalists. The English Civil War was unlike any other war in that it was fought on several battlefields and included not only huge conflicts with opposing sides, but minor skirmishes and sieges. These conflicts were ever moving and ranged from the far north of England to the distant south. The Battle of Stow however, was the one conflict that was to see the end of the English Civil War, and would change the way England governed itself forever.
This is how it began.
In Spring of 1646, King Charles I was desperate to stop the Parliamentarians from taking control of the country, and so, as he was waiting for backup soldiers from Ireland, Scotland and France to help his cause, he decided to gather his remaining loyal troops situated in the west of England. Charles commandeered Sir Jacob Astley for this task and despite moral being low, Astley managed to rustle up some 3,000 royalist soldiers. The aim was to get to Oxford and hunker down until more soldiers joined them.
Sir William Brereton and Colonel Thomas Morgan led the Parliamentarians, and soon learnt that Astley was attempting to get to Oxford with his royalist troops. Astley tried to evade the oncoming Parliamentarians but eventually he had to turn around and fight, and this battle took place on a hill just northwest of Stow (you can walk to it in about 20 mins from the centre of the town).
Just before dawn on the 21st March, Colonel Morgan’s men converged up the left hand side of the hill to attack Astley’s army, but they was soon forced back and eventually overpowered by the Royalists. On the right side, Colonel Morgan’s men fought on and the royalist cavalry fled the hill and surrounding field, which left the centre of the hill under attack. Here the royalist forces managed to keep their ground but when a secondary parliamentary attack followed, they were beaten back into the village of Stow. The battle continued into the streets of Stow, and there is a local legend that the slaughter of the soldiers was so severe that the blood of the wounded flowed down Digbeth Street.
The battle finally ended when Sir Astley was captured. The Parliamentarians bought a drum for the 66-year-old veteran to sit on, and as he sat in the middle of the marketplace, pondering the fate of the country, he said: “You have done your work, boys, and may go play, unless you will fall out among yourselves.”
The remaining royalist prisoners were captured and held overnight in St. Edward’s Church, the only building in the town that was large and secure enough to hold the captured prisoners. Any soldiers who had been killed during battle were laid to rest in Digbeth Street, although where their actual remains are precisely situated is not actually known.
The rest of the royalist prisoners were marched on to Gloucester where they remained under lock and key before being exchanged for parliamentary prisoners, or they were given their freedom after swearing an oath not to take up arms against Parliament again.
As for the leader of the Royalist army, Astley was kept prisoner in Warwick Castle until Oxford surrendered to Parliament, and he was then given his release in June. Astley eventually retired to the family home in Kent and died in 1652 at the age of 72.
The start of a modern Parliament
This devastating defeat at Stow, suffered by Charles’s I army, was to signify the end of the Civil War, and put paid to the quest of the Royalists once and for all. Shortly after the Battle at Stow, Charles surrendered in May 1646. This last battle is significant in English history as it played an enormous part in putting down the foundations for the parliamentary rule of England that we see today, as opposed by royal reign of the past. It also led to the execution of Charles.
As for Stow in the present day, if you look hard enough, there are reminders of the men who fought and lost their lives, defending the cause that was so dear to them. On a public footpath, just west of Donnington is a stone obelisk which marks the spot where Royalist forces slept the night before battle and where they positioned themselves in readiness for the next day’s onslaught. There is also a memorial monument, which is situated in St. Edwards Church, the same church that housed the royalist prisoners. This monument is dedicated to all the men, royalist and parliamentarian, who lost their lives at the Battle.
But without doubt, the most poignant place to visit to remember the Battle of Stow must be the cross in the marketplace, where Sir Astley himself sat and surrendered, effectively ending the English Civil War.