Three hundred and sixty three years before this book was written Sir Jacob Astley
led an army of 3,000 men out of Bridgnorth, a small town in the county of Shropshire,
towards Oxford - then the Royalist capital of England. He did not make it. His journey
ended at Stow-on-the-Wold, the highest town in the Cotswolds.
The battle of Stow took place in 1646; the battle for Stow is taking place as
I write - nearly four centuries later. I live on the edge of the town and the upstairs
rooms of my home look out onto a lovely Cotswold scene. In the distance there is
a tree-lined ridge marking the beginning of the Cotswold escarpment which drops steeply
into the Severn valley. Closer by there is a much less dramatic valley more typical
of Cotswold country and within which I can see the golden village of Longborough
- sometimes distinct, sometimes hiding in the mist. Stow looks down onto the village
of Longborough, as it does onto all of the surrounding towns and villages. Slightly
to the right of my line of sight towards Longborough I can see a steep field recently
planted with young trees. This field is quite near to Donnington (a small village
which I cannot quite see) lying two kilometres or so from Stow. It is within this
field that the battle of Stow took place, a battle which undoubtedly represents a
turning point in history since the battle of Stow was the last battle of the English
The Civil War has been written about extensively and from many viewpoints. Any
attempts to provide a concise overview of the period preceding the war and of the
war itself seem doomed to failure: it was, and remains, a complex stage in the evolving
history of England. Imagine a country racked with problems: food prices were soaring
as were taxes, the leader of the country was at odds with his own parliament, the
Scots were revolting and so were the Irish, religious fundamentalists were vocal,
foreign competition was undermining the key industries, and the government was perpetually
short of money. Hey, this sounds rather familiar. Today Gordon Brown would frown
in gloomy recognition of these problems and perhaps sympathise with the leader of
those days, a fellow Scotsman trying to rule an unruly nation.
Unlike Gordon (I think) Charles the first truly believed that he had been chosen
to rule by God, a belief that hardly encouraged compromise. In the words of a Venetian
diplomat of the time, "This king is so constituted by nature that, he never obliges
any one, either by word or deed". Perhaps, therefore, not the best man to steer the
nation through difficult times.
Members of Parliament may not have disputed the king's right to lead, but they
were sufficiently emancipated to desire some say in the running of the country: what
is more they controlled the means of raising money - the taxation system. And it
was lack of cash that finally ruined Charles' attempts to rule without parliament.
Things came to a head at the beginning of 1642 when the king, spurred on by his Catholic
wife Henrietta, entered parliament with the intention of arresting the five key men
who opposed him. They were not there, "the birds had flown", and the Speaker of the
House refused to reveal their whereabouts. Emboldened by this demonstration of royal
weakness, parliament drafted new legislation that would have stripped the king of
most of his powers including control of the army plus effectively removing the bishops
from the Church of England (a particular target for the Puritan dominated parliament).
Charles summarily rejected these demands and so the battle lines were drawn.