Lessons from the Clubmen: How the English Civil War can Make us More Civil
Increasingly, when I think of the divisions within British society – Left and Right, Leave and Remain, for example – I can’t help but think of the Clubmen
In the 1640s and into the 1650s, as many of us were taught, England was torn apart by the Civil Wars between Parliamentary and Royalist forces. Even after Charles I lost his head at Whitehall in January 1649, his heir Charles II would continue the fight until being routed at Battle of Worcester.
“Now, I’m not suggesting that we grab a pair of hedge-trimmers and head for the nearest Brexit demo, or Far Right gathering. Goodness no…”
At any time, war is devastating and disruptive, but this was especially true in the period between the invention of gunpowder and mechanization. Needing a constant supply of food and other resources to keep fighting, armies moved across the landscape like locusts, leaving villages and farmland stripped clear. Starvation and disease followed in their wake.
A Third Force
Faced with this prospect, many civilians elected to choose one side over the other, setting aside some of their harvests, or selling at reduced prices to keep armies moving, hopefully away from them. This had the danger of reprisals, as territory was gained and ceded over the years.
Others, equally frustrated at the behaviour of both sides, chose to take up arms and defend themselves against anyone who threatened their livelihood, or their lives – these were the Clubmen.
Particularly strong in numbers across the south-west and Welsh borders, where the wars had fiercely raged, clubmen constituted farmers, craftsmen and a small number of local gentry who refused to be drawn into the wider conflict and armed themselves against any force approaching them.
“They simply couldn’t rely on the locals to give up their food without some sort of fight.”
While some groups had guns and horses, most took clubs, pikes, scythes and other bladed implements as their choice of weapon – some believe this is where their moniker came from.
One notable group of clubmen could be found in Worcestershire. In March 1645, over a thousand gathered at Woodbury Hill, where they presented a petition to the Governor of Worcester, Gilbert Gerard.
Their declaration announced that they were ‘now enforced to associate ourselves in a mutual league for each other’s defence’, and that ‘protecting and safeguarding our persons and estates by the mutual aid and assistance of each other against all murders, rapines, plunder, robberies, or violences which shall be offered by the soldier or any oppressor whatsoever’ was their duty.
For the time, this was strong stuff, and even though they presented little threat to an organized and well-armed fighting force, both Royalist and Parliamentary forces were forced to consider them in their military strategizing. They simply couldn’t rely on the locals to give up their food without some sort of fight.
White Ribbons on their Hat
Elsewhere, in Dorset, entire groups of villages came together as Clubmen in early 1645, and established warning systems, by which they could be made ready at the approach of an army. The locals distinguished themselves as politically neutral in the conflict by wearing white ribbons on their hats.
As both Royalist and Parliamentary forces crossed the area, Clubmen groups gathered, as much as a show of force, or protest, rather than any serious attempt to block their progress. Sometimes this worked to dissuade commanders from plunder – other times didn’t end so peaceably.
Perhaps the greatest strike against Clubmen came at the hands of Parliamentarian forces in
The ‘Battle of Hambledon Hill’
Having bothered Parliamentary forces in the area for months, many of the Clubmen of Dorset withdrew to Hambledon Hill, near Blandford Forum. There, the former Iron Age fort was turned into a sea of tents, with banners flying, bearing such mottos as, “If you offer to plunder or take our cattle, Be assured we will bid you battle”.
Unwilling to risk any more disruptions to his campaigning, Oliver Cromwell sent soldiers on the 4th of August to demand their surrender. When they were shot at as they approached, dragoons were sent in – ordered to use the flat of their swords, to minimize casualties.
Increasingly, when I think of the divisions within British society – Left and Right, Leave and Remain, for example – I can’t help but think of the Clubmen.
Nevertheless, around sixty Clubmen were killed, many more escaping by sliding down the steep sides of the hill to disappear among the hedgerows.
A large number of Clubmen would also be taken prisoner by Parliamentary forces, but were released when it was realised that holding them may trouble than they were worth, considering the fact that many were the local farmers who would be feeding them.
While their stand against the battling forces of the English Civil Wars has been considered an ultimately futile one, the Clubmen of England
In an age where, increasingly, many feel that they are being pressed between forces, caught up in a struggle where they cannot help but come out the loser, their example of community self-defence should be one that we draw some inspiration from.
Maybe we can’t change the world by ourselves… What we can do is identify who may be at risk from harm in these squabbles
Now, I’m not suggesting that we grab a pair of hedge-trimmers and head for the nearest Brexit demo, or Far Right gathering. Goodness no. What I am suggesting is that we give greater thought to the ways that we, within our local communities can strengthen our bonds and stand together, when our towns, cities, villages – whatever – become a battleground for the vast, powerful political machines that dominate our age.
Maybe we can’t change the world by ourselves. Maybe the issues that dominate our lives are just so huge and complex that we’ll never see their full resolution….
What we can do is identify who may be at risk from harm in these squabbles. We can make sure that we know and trust our neighbours. We can come up with arrangements to provide for each other in times of trouble.
We can build community spaces for all to use. We can strengthen programs that monitor safety and health, as well as the welfare of those who have been marginalized.
We can learn to be activists, in our own small way, making change happen.
We can talk, and try to understand one another, above all else.
We can make the effort to ensure that at least our local community is strong and stable, no matter who, or what, rampages outside.