NANTWICH, HOLLY HOLY DAY

Grid Ref: SJ 652 523
25 January 2003, 21 January 2012 and 25 January 2014

Every year, on a Saturday in late January, the Battle of Nantwich is celebrated with the aid of the 'Sealed Knot Society', which performs re-enactments of battles of the English Civil War. In late January there is often insufficient light for photograpy but here is a selection of pictures taken on two differerent occasions.

 

Pikemen spacer In front of church
Pikemen   In front of the church
Inspection   Musket loading
Inspecting the troops   Musket Loading
Muskets   Camp followers
All present and correct   Camp followers
Remembrance   Marching
Ceremony in the town centre   Marching to the battlefield
Marching   Marching to battle
Marching to the battlefield   Marching to the battlefield
Nantwich   Parade
Town Centre parade, 2012   Moment of silence, 2012
Parade   On Parade
On Parade, 2012   On Parade, 2012
Town Crier   Soldiers
Town Crier in 2014   Musketeers in 2014

 

The Battle of Nantwich in the English Civil War

It is probably not commonly known that during the English Civil War there were as many men engaged in military forces as a proportion of population as there were in the Second World War. The population of England and Wales at the time was about 6 million with about 1.5 million in Scotland. Nantwich had a population of about 10,000 while that of Chester was possibly 25,000.

During 1643, King Charles could not assemble his whole army at Oxford. There was an army in the west under Hopton, that of Lord Byron in Wales and West Cheshire and the force in the North East which was countered by General Fairfax's forces in Yorkshire. Charles hoped to get more troops from Ireland via Chester and North Wales. If he could concentrate his forces at Oxford he could march on London, held by the Parliamentarians.

Nantwich was a Parliamentary HQ and stood in the way of Byron reaching the south from Chester. Parliament made an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters. At this time England and Scotland were separate countries but had the same King. The Covenanters thought that if Charles I won the war in England he would return to his business of introducing the changes of Archbishop Laud that had led to the Bishops' War. The Covenanters were strongly opposed to Laud's dilution of Protestantism.

Nantwich turned out to be of strategic importance because of its position in blocking Byron and this was perceived by General Fairfax. It was sufficiently important to lead to a battle in the winter months which were unsuitable for campaigning because of the poor state of the roads in winter. Beeston Castle  had been a Parliamentary outpost commanding the crossing through the Peckforton hills but on 13 December 1643 the Royalists captured it. Steel, a former cheese merchant, was in command and many thought that he surrendered too quickly. He was subsequently tried by court martial and shot. The Royalists then advanced from Chester past Beeston to threaten Nantwich. The cavalry was aided by the cold weather, which had frozen otherwise boggy ground particularly to the south and west of Nantwich.

Nantwich is protected to the west by the River Weaver. To the south of the town the river is much narrower as at this point several small tributaries come together. The approach to Nantwich down Welsh Row leads to the bridge in front of the town. In December, Royalist forces came south to the west of Nantwich through Wrenbury and then turned east to Audlem and on to Barthomley. The Royalists planned to encircle Nantwich. The garrison tried to break out to the east but were driven back at Holmes Chapel. On the 28th December, the Royalists took the village of Crewe and then approached closer to Nantwich to take Dorfold Hall, the house of one of the Wilbrahams. From there they could shell Nantwich with red hot shot in an attempt to burn the town. Nantwich had been destroyed in the great fire of 1583 and this would have been in the folk memory of those defending it. Everybody turned out to prevent the fires, led by Mrs. Brett a washer woman. By the time of the Battle of Nantwich the market had not been held for six weeks.

On the 12 January, forces from Nantwich had to sally forth to gather food. On the 16th, Byron called on the town to surrender but it did not. On the 18th a direct attack was made on the town from the West but stopped at the bridge. The victor at Beeston was killed in Welsh Row.

Byron had put up a pontoon bridge to allow his men access to both sides of the Weaver south of the town. He needed to maintain forces to the west to secure his supply lines from Chester and his line of retreat. On the other hand the east side of the town was easier to attack and he needed to prevent reinforcements from that side. As a result his forces were divided by the river. At this point two important events took place. The Royalists were running short of ammunition but supplies coming to them from the south were intercepted by Parliamentarians at Wem in Shropshire. The second event was a major thaw resulting in the ground becoming soggy south of Nantwich and the river rising so that the pontoon bridge was abandoned.  Byron's forces were now divided with a long journey south of Nantwich required to cross the Weaver.

Meanwhile, Fairfax, perceiving the danger that would ensue if Nantwich fell, crossed the Pennines from Lincolnshire, and gathered forces in Lancashire that were investing the Earl of Derby's house at Lathom. He crossed the Mersey and collected Parliamentary troops from Manchester and East Cheshire, gathering them at Delamere. They moved south towards Nantwich and came into contact with Royalist forces at Acton. The Royalists had about 1,000 cavalry and 2,500 infantry whereas the Parliamentarians had 1,800 cavalry, 500 dragoons and 2,500-3,000 infantry   

Forces from Nantwich sallied forth to attack the Royalists from behind. The country was unsuitable for cavalry because of the small enclosed fields and Byron made his way back to Chester. About 200 Royalists were killed and 1,500 infantry surrendered. They were made prisoners in the church at Nantwich. Most of the Royalist artillery was captured. There were few casualties on the Parliamentary side.

After the Battle of Nantwich, Prince Maurice was sent to Chester to organise the defences. Beeston Castle was not retaken by the Parliamentarians until 1645. In the first week of December that year Lathom Hall surrendered and Colonel John Booth was able to bring troops south to Beeston where food supplies were exhausted. With the fall of Beeston its beseigers could reinforce those at Chester and cut the remaining lines of communication for the Royalists there. No rescuing force came from Oxford and eventually Lord Byron, the Royalist commander, was forced to negotiate surrender with General Brereton, who occupied the town on 3 February. For the first time in three years, there was no fighting in Cheshire.

(Note that at this period the Julian Calendar was still in use in England. The year began on 25 March. Thus December 1644 was followed by January 1644. The Gregorian Calendar, in which the year begins on 1 January was not introduced in England until 1752. However, many authors writing about this period change the dates as if the Gregorian Calendar had been introduced already. Thus the Battle or Nantwich took place in January 1643 on the Julian Calendar but January 1644 on the Gregorian Calendar.)

Sources:

British Civil Wars
The Sealed Knot
Sir William Brereton
Lord John Byron "The Bloody Braggadocio"
The Civil War in Cheshire, by R.N. Dore, Volume 8 of a History of Cheshire, general editor J. J. Bagley, published by Cheshire Community Council, Chester, 1966.
Notes taken on The English Civil War in Lancashire and Cheshire, a course of lectures at Wilmslow Guild by Clare Pye, Autumn 2002.

I am grateful to John Brough for pointing out to me that the correct name of the festival as Holly Holy Day not Holiday (and declaring me an Honorary Dabber for my website)

Nantwich Page 1: The Church of St. Mary
Nantwich Page 3: Town Centre


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Cheshire Antiquities
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