Think of the Civil War and it’s all grim Roundheads and grinning, dashing Cavaliers. Big set-piece battles like Marston Moor. The Civil War never touched ordinary places like Leeds at all. Did it?
Well yes, it did, and there was certainly no glory in the reality. In the two decades before the Civil War began, Leeds had gained in stature, with a charter of incorporation in 1626 and an increase in the wool trade of the town that was bringing serious money into the coffers, as well as into the pockets of the merchants. It was becoming a prosperous place, with perhaps six thousand inhabitants.
For the most part the merchants supported King Charles, but there were many in Leeds whose sympathies lay on the side of Parliament. Above all, people wanted peace and all that went with it. But that wasn’t about to happen.
The Royalists were the first to have a military force in Leeds. It was October 1642, just two months after Charles had raised his standard in Nottingham to begin the conflict. The troops hadn’t managed to take the more important Bradford, but settled on Leeds as second prize. Soon after they were ousted by the Roundheads and so the game of ping-pong, with Leeds as the ball, began.
In 1643 the town was taken by Parliament troops (again). With cavaliers headed west from Hull to take Leeds, Roundheads found themselves defeated on Seacroft Moor and then the town was under siege, Parliament forces eventually retreating.
But they were back, and on April 7, 1644, Leeds was retaken by Cromwell’s men. They’d never again be shifted from power and Leeds essentially became an occupied town, under the military governership of Major-General Carter.
Peace should have reigned in Leeds but it wasn’t quite that simple. After the battle of Marston Moor the Scottish troops employed by Parliament passed through the town. They wanted money and even when they received it they sometimes left destruction in their wake. Some of the merchants who supported the King suffered badly, with houses burnt and property taken.
Even after Charles’ surrender the battles weren’t over. Parliament assessed fines on supporters of the King. These weren’t merely for form, these were heavy body blows. Robert Benson, a Leeds attorney, had to pay £200 – a fortune in today’s money – while John Harrison, one of the leading citizens of Leeds and the man responsible for St. john’s Church, was assessed a fine of over £400. These were wealthy men, but the cloth trade had been hit hard by all the fighting and disruption. From 1642 money had been a scarce commodity in Leeds, not just for the rich but also the poor, who inevitably suffered most. And with poor relief in disarray, many probably starved to death before there was some stability.
There are two postscripts to this story. One of the apocryphal tale of King Charles being held at the Red Hall in Leeds in 1647, on his way to imprisonment and trial in London (it was right by where King Charles Street stands now). John Harrison sent him a tankard. When the king lifted the lid it was filled with gold sovereigns. Did it really happen? No one knows for sure, but look for it in one of the stained glass windows in St. John’s church.
The other even certainly did happen. Leeds was filled with people run down in body and spirit. In early March the first case of plague was reported and on the 11th, Alice Musgrave of Vicar Lane became the first of what would be more than 1300 deaths before the outbreak ran its course towards the end of the year. What the war hadn’t destroyed, nature would.
Chris Nickson is the author of the Richard Nottingham novels, set in Leeds in the 1730s. The sixth in the series, Fair and Tender Ladies, will be published at the end of September. Gods of Gold, set against the backdrop of the 1890 Leeds Gas Strike and featuring Inspector Tom Harper of Leeds police, is set to appear in April 2014.