The battle for Yorkshire hearts...

Sarah Griffin traces the history of the British Civil War, and Charles I's time in York, through items in the Library's Special Collections.



Today, 3 June, is the anniversary of a meeting at Heworth Moor just outside York. It was called by Charles I, for him to meet the people of Yorkshire, and our Special Collections hold some exciting material that helps us tell this story.

Left: Charles I. Right: Charles I in Parliament.
The British Civil War was a conflict that saw brother set against brother and, ultimately, the execution of an anointed king. The disagreement was between Charles, who believed in the divine right of kings and as such did not take kindly to being told he couldn't do things, and Parliament, who were the people telling the king he couldn't do things. The spoof history book '1066 and all that' says it is easy to tell the sides apart as the Royalists were 'Romantic' and the Roundheads were 'Repulsive'. Sadly it's not quite that straightforward and a quick timeline is probably useful.

Firstly Charles decided to rule without Parliament which meant he was also without the funds that they could grant him. He decided to raise money through a variety of means, several of which seemed guaranteed to annoy everyone, such as taxing soap, or redrawing common land boundaries and then fining people for living in the King's forests.

Eventually, after eleven years, the money ran out and he had to recall Parliament. The atmosphere was, understandably, not relaxed, and  tensions cranked up and up. In January 1642, Charles burst into the House of Commons to arrest five Members of Parliament he had accused of treason. They escaped, and the people of London showed their displeasure of the King's actions by rioting in the streets. Charles had overplayed his hand and the capital had become a hostile place for him.


Illustration from a Civil War Tract
So, in March 1642, Charles abandoned London and brought his court to Yorkshire. Travelling with him was the Royal printer, Robert Barker. Barker set up his press in St William's College, in the shadow of York Minster's Great East Window. The King stayed in York for five months from March to August and, isolated as he was from his capital, he needed to stay in touch with his supporters and the rest of the country. He did this through a series of tracts printed by Barker in York. The publications were not objective pieces of work. In much the same ways as politicians today use information, Civil War Tracts were intended to discredit their opponents and to tell one side of the story. The production of the tracts was not high quality, they were quickly produced and rarely illustrated. Any images tended to be poor quality and often did not match the text, for example a broadsheet from the King complaining about the raising of trained bands was illustrated with an image of a man riding a sea monster!

Charles' letter to John Goodricke
Charles needed to drum up support and as well as publishing tracts he wrote letters and addressed his people. One of his letters survives in the Special Collections. It was to John Goodricke, a Yorkshire Member of Parliament, asking him to remain in the city at the King's pleasure. Goodricke stayed loyal to the crown and was eventually captured and imprisoned by Parliament.

In May, Charles called a meeting of the gentry of Yorkshire to come to York Castle. The Freeholders of the City were unhappy to be excluded, so a second gathering happened on 3 June at Heworth Moor. It is claimed that over seventy thousand people attended. What Charles wanted was for those present to pledge their allegiance to him for the coming conflict.

Parliament was unhappy with this state of affairs. Open hostilities had not been declared and they were keen to avoid war if possible. They prepared a petition to deliver to the king requesting him to stop trying to raise an army, and asked Thomas Fairfax, a Yorkshire gentleman, to deliver it. Charles knew that something like this was going to happen, and refused to let Fairfax anywhere near him. Every time Fairfax came close, the King would gallop off in the opposite direction, once almost running Fairfax down. This game of  'tag' finally ended when Fairfax managed to force the petition under the King's saddle. Fairfax wrote a letter to his father, Ferdinando, listing the people who had been at the meeting. This letter also survives in our Special Collections.

Left: Thomas Fairfax. Right: Fairfax's letter to his father.
Charles was disappointed at the response of the Yorkshire gentry who were less keen to pledge allegiance than he had hoped. One eyewitness described the day as a 'confused murmur of noise', not the ringing acclaim that the King was relying on. Charles left York in August and travelled to Nottinghamshire where he raised his standard, and took the first steps on the road to a war that would divide the hearts of the English people, and eventually led him to the scaffold.



All the items in the Special Collections are on the Library catalogue and available for study. For more information please contact Sarah Griffin, Special Collections Librarian.

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