Worcester Cathedral during the English Civil War - 1642 to 1651
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The "Faithful City" of Worcester, due to its unwavering support and loyalty to the King, was one of the most harshly fought over, and most harshly punished, towns in England; the Cathedral suffered greatly from this over the course of the war.
Before the civil war began, the Cathedral clergy supported the King and the reforms of Archbishop Laud. They had overseen the construction of a new stone altar with very fine vestments and furnishings, which had been criticized as being too decorative for a Protestant church. They also discouraged weekly sermons in the Cathedral; these grievances caused the city to send a petition to Parliament in 1641.
In a letter from the King, dated 7th July 1642, we can see him asking John Prideaux, Vice Chancellor of Oxford and Bishop of Worcester, to raise funds for "Our necessary defence." The Dean and Chapter raised £1,100 from timber cut down on their estates to aid the King at the beginning of the war. In August that year Charles writes of his outrage at how the Bishop is being treated by Parliament:
"Our right trusty and well beloved the Lord Bishop of Worcester hath been
menaced to be sent for in a disgrace full manner to the parliament, as if indeed
he were a notorious malefactor and delinquent."
The King goes on to instruct the officers and citizens of Worcester to assist the Bishop and to arrest anybody attempting to seize him.
In 1642, Sir W. Russell, Sir J. Byron and Lord Coventry led the Royalists in Worcester. Princes Rupert and Maurice later reinforced them and won an initial victory at Powick Bridge on 23rd September 1642. This was the first battle of the civil war. However, the Parliamentarians from the Earl of Essex's army far outnumbered the Royalists and very soon after the battle occupied the city. On Sunday September 25th the violation of the Cathedral began. The altar was vandalised and vestments, books, furniture and fittings were destroyed. The Puritan soldiers enjoyed the destruction of what they would have seen as images of "Popery". A Royalist source claimed that Parliamentarian Dragoons put on surplices and Cathedral vestments and wore them as they rode round the city, and service books were torn up.
The Cathedral's organ also appears to have been damaged although the first man who attempted to take an axe to it slipped and fell from a step ladder and broke his neck. The windows would have been destroyed unless they were already of plain glass. The nave and cloisters were used to house the troops and their horses, with the quire and aisles used as latrines. The outside of the Cathedral fared no better; in November 1642 the Chapter books give details of repairs made to water pipes "abused and broken by ye rebells" and the cleaning of the pavements in College Green "left very filthie by ye rebells". The Earl of Essex compelled the citizens of Worcester to pay a fine of £5000 and to guarantee a loan of £3000 to Parliament, which appears to have taken the form of gold and silver plate weighing 2200 pounds.
Once the troops had occupied the Cathedral they explored the crypt and found a treasure of stores and provisions for the use of the Royalists. Canon Dr. William Smith and Dean Christopher Potter who were looking after the material both had to make their escape before the Parliamentarians could seize them. The Earl of Essex and the parliamentary forces withdrew from the city in October 1642 in order to follow the King's army to Shrewsbury. The Bishop appears to have escaped the city before it was occupied and would be absent for eleven weeks before returning to Worcester. After the Battle of Edgehill in November 1642, the Royalists re-entered the city and held it until July 19th 1646 when they surrendered to parliamentary forces. During these years, Worcester was attacked once more on 29th June 1643 by General Sir William Waller, who bombarded the city for a day before moving on. He withdrew at one in the morning and according to a Royalist news source 400 women of Worcester hurried out of the city with shovels and spades to demolish the Parliamentarian siege works and level ditches and trenches left by the Parliamentarians. General Waller was so impressed by their efforts that he courteously wrote a letter to the citizens commending the courage of the women involved, despite being on the opposing side.
The Cathedral sustained no major damage during the 1646 siege as far as we know. The Bishop's palace (now the Old Palace) was hit on 11th June by a cannon ball, and the priory gate (now Edgar Tower) was also hit during the siege by cannons firing from Perry-wood Hill. A small brass cannon was hauled to the top of the tower on 15th July 1646 - presumably to fire back. One of the biggest problems for the Cathedral at the time was the stripping of lead from the roof by Royalist defenders to make munitions. The chapter house or cloisters were probably used by the Royalists to hold stores during the siege. Colonel Henry Washington led the defence of the city, ably helped by the Bishop of Worcester John Prideaux and the Dean Richard Holdsworth. A cannon ball weighing 17½ pounds landed in the Dean's pantry and we know that his house was hit on another occasion. When Oxford surrendered, only Worcester was left as a Royalist stronghold; on the 19th July, the city finally surrendered. At 6 o'clock that morning there was a final service in the Cathedral, led by the Bishop for the Royalists. When the Parliamentarians marched in the next morning, the fiery Hugh Peters, chaplain of Cromwell's regiment, preached in the Cathedral. The Dean and Canons of the Cathedral, as well as the Bishop, were dispossessed. On the next day, July 20th, the organs were removed from the cathedral.
An order of parliament was made in 1647 that, in order to rebuild certain almshouses and churches (St. John, Dodderhill and Castlemorton) the leaden steeple - a bell tower (clochium) that had stood next to the Cathedral since medieval times - was to be taken down. A Parliamentarian called Birch removed the lead from the roof and realised £617 4s 2d from its sale and the sale of the Irish oak beams of which it was constructed. This was a lot less than the £1200 the materials were estimated at. Two entrepreneurs from London, John Gyfford and Anthony Twyne, bought from the parliamentary trustees the cloisters and garden grounds. These they resold to some local men named Yarrenton, Baldwyne and Darling who removed the lead and timber, leaving the stone shell. What remained of the Cathedral plate was handed over to one Beauchamp, who sold it and handed over the proceeds to the officers of Parliament. The Cathedral's lands, divided into 30 lots, were sold off, between August 1647 and March 1650, for £23,652 14s 3¼d.
A parliamentary survey of the Cathedral's property was carried out in 1649, and clergymen or preachers sympathetic to the parliamentary cause occupied the Dean's and Chapter's houses. Some of the tenants' names are given: John Lydiatt, Richard Moore, Giles Collier, Gilbert Cox, Simon Moore and Rowland Crosby.
The Parliamentary control of Worcester was only interrupted for twelve days when, on August 22nd 1651, Charles II arrived with his (largely Scottish) army; he was then defeated at the Battle of Worcester on 3rd September. No damage of the Cathedral is recorded at this time but there is no doubt that the nave and cloisters once again became lodgings for the troops and their horses. The town was looted, houses ransacked and it was said that dead bodies of men and horses filled the streets. Prisoners were sold for exportation for as little as £1 each. During the Battle of Worcester one of the Royalist commanders, William Duke of Hamilton, was fatally wounded. He died at the Commandery and his body was buried in the Cathedral.
After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 the Cathedral was found to be in poor condition, both structurally and in its ability to conduct services. Canon Barnabas Oley led a huge reconstruction effort in which he strove tirelessly to save the building. The Chapter accounts show how various items were bought, such as Common Prayer Books (£5 17s 9d), printed song books for the choir (£12 15s), 2 silver flagons, etc. The famous organ builder Harris also erected a new organ. The records of the Cathedral that had fallen into the hands of the parliamentary surveyors in 1649 were recovered from Anthony Palmer, Henry Hill and John Mott. Documents in the Cathedral's archive show how Canon Oley tried unsuccessfully to retrieve medieval manuscripts, which had been taken by Royalist book collectors.
Today in the Cathedral there are monuments to The Duke of Hamilton, Bishop John Prideaux and Sir Thomas Lyttelton. There are stained glass windows commemorating Colonel Henry Washington and Revd Richard Baxter. The Duke of Hamilton is buried near the High Altar.
The Cathedral is a member of the Battle of Worcester Partnership, which has an interest in the recognition of Worcester's Civil War History and promotion of the Civil War battlefield of Worcester.
Magnificent views of what would have been the battlefields can be seen from the top of the Cathedral Tower, where you can imagine the scenes that Charles II would have witnessed and that influenced his decisions and contributed to making the Battle of Worcester 1651 a turning point in British History.
To book a 'Battle of Worcester Tower Tour' with a Cathedral guide, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cathedral Gift shop in the Cloisters, sells local author Tony Spicer's book on the Battle of Worcester (priced at £5.95).
The Cathedral library has a collection of seventeenth century books and archive material relating to the civil war era, including letters from Charles I, documents of the Dean and Chapter, and books by Prideaux, Baxter, Clarendon and many other authors of the time. Tours can be prebooked, visit the link above to enquire.
See a display of images from the Cathedral Library collection, the current gallery of photos is on the subject of the civil war.