John Bigg’s Other Shoe

John Bigg's Other Shoe

This month’s story was supposed to have been about the ruined abbey of Godstow, but the response to Bradshaw’s Hat has been so rich and so interesting that we feel compelled to postpone the Dissolution for a while. 

Martin Sheppard, distinguished publisher of History books, got straight to the point with a reminder of the semiotics of millinery in the seventeenth century:

“Bradshaw’s refusal to remove his hat in the presence of the King was a political statement in itself. Charles I’s refusal to remove his hat during the trial was a sign that he did not recognise the court trying him.”

Dr George Southcombe of Wadham College reminded us that, even in the midst of strife, standards of librarianship in Oxford remained uncompromised.

“My favourite Oxford Civil War anecdote centres on a royal book request. The then Vice Chancellor of the University, the formidable Samuel Fell (in whose Deanery at Christ Church King Charles I was lodged at the time), wrote a note to John Rouse, Bodley’s Librarian, requesting the delivery of a book:

December 30, 1645 

Deliver under the bearer hereof, for the present use of his Maiesty, a Book intituled Histoire Universelle du Sieur D’Aubigné: and this shall be your warrant.

His maiestyes use: is in commaund to use.

S Fell Vice Can.

“Rouse adamantly refused, on the grounds that the Bodleian was not (as it still is not) a lending library. The King’s request had to be withdrawn.

“It would seem that the Divine Right of Kings could only extend so far.”

Charles I Letter

As for Samuel Fell, the thwarted Vice Chancellor, he died three days after the execution of his King – from shock it is said. His tombstone in Sunningwell church lies immediately to the left of the altar. It bears the single word ‘DEPOSITVM’ [laid down, i.e. buried], the initials ‘S.F.’, and the date. Not for nothing does it also display a skull as a memento mori. (We have the former Regius Professor, R.J.W. Evans, to thank for this information.)

Samuel Fell's Tomb

The fate of John Bigg, the ‘executioner’, is a story in itself. Undeterred by the pandemic, Oxford’s intrepid video historian, Stuart Panter, tracked down and filmed John Bigg’s other shoe at Dinton Hall ­­– as well as the sword supposedly wielded by Oliver Cromwell at the decisive Battle of Naseby, 1645.

And Bradshaw? What became of the regicide judge? The answer is that he died in October 1659 just a few months before the Restoration of the Monarchy under Charles II – but not before acquiring the deanery of Westminster Abbey and building an observation tower chamber above it! We are most grateful to Tim Tatton-Brown for this architectural footnote.

Talking of architecture and observation points, we even heard from Professor Roger Crisp, who resides in ‘Cromwell’s House’, Old Marston, the building in which was negotiated the treaty which ended the third siege of Oxford.

Cromwell's House

Last but not least, our attention was drawn to a remarkable – and remarkably grisly – connection between Oxford and Ireland, featuring none other than the man behind the Ashmolean death mask, the wart-strewn Lord Protector whose name still evokes feelings of extreme outrage on the Emerald Isle. It comes from Dr Clive Holmes, Emeritus Fellow of Lady Margaret Hall, it shows how dangerous equestrianism can be, and it deserves to be printed in full:

John Biggs Other Shoe

“Civil War Oxford was the setting for an incident that was to end up leaving a brutal mark on Anglo-Irish history. The man involved was Sir Arthur Aston, the Royalist Governor since August 1643. A high-born, battle-hardened, professional soldier, Aston was ambitious, fiercely proud, easily antagonised, undoubtedly courageous.  As Governor he was hated by the civilian population of Oxford. It was a loathing he reciprocated; on one occasion he beat up the Mayor, and he was always attended by a guard of four halberdiers. But he was admired at court, particularly  – as a fellow Catholic – by Queen Henrietta Maria, and he certainly enjoyed the flattering attention of the ladies. This was to bring about his downfall.

“The date was 19 September 1644. Things were relatively quiet in Oxford: the Parliamentary armies that had beleaguered the city in the spring had moved with the bulk of the royal forces into the west country. Taking advantage of the hiatus, Aston rode out to Bullingdon Green (heathland at the edge of what is now Cowley and Horspath) accompanied by some of the ladies resident in the city. Aston decided to display his horsemanship before the admiring female audience, but a caracole turning manoeuvre went badly wrong and his horse fell on him, shattering his leg. Gangrene set in. Aston had to undergo an emergency amputation, after which he was fitted with a wooden prosthetic.

“His recovery was surprisingly swift and he vigorously attempted to regain the governorship of Oxford, feuding venomously with his two successors in the role until, in 1646, Prince Rupert persuaded him to transfer to service in Ireland. There he joined the army of the King’s viceroy, the Earl of Ormond.  

“In 1649 – following Charles I’s execution – Ormond with his regiments reached an accommodation with the majority of the Confederate Catholics (who had rebelled against English oppression in 1641 and taken control of most of the country.) Together they declared their allegiance to the royalist cause in the person of the king’s son and heir. Aston was made Governor of Drogheda, a heavily fortified port town on the River Boyne commanding the all-important route between Ulster and Dublin. 

“The regicide regime in England was bound to challenge this threat. Cromwell, who had recently been appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, sailed from England with an army of twelve thousand and a substantial siege train. He arrived before the walls of Drogheda on September 1st. By the 10th his heavy 48-pounder guns were in place ready to batter the southern walls of the town. He summoned Aston to surrender. 

John Biggs Other Shoe

“The summons was contemptuously rejected. Cromwell’s cannon began to thunder and the walls were breached. Eventually, following a third wave of attacks led by Cromwell himself, the Drogheda defences were overrun. Aston, many of his officers and about three hundred men climbed up to the Mill Mount, a high point overlooking the southern part of the town. Cromwell ordered his men to assault the position, and to slay all its defenders – even those who had surrendered. 

“The garrison was massacred without mercy. Many civilians were also put to the sword. The death toll ran to over three thousand, including a group burnt alive when they sought sanctuary in St Peter’s church. Sixteen royalist officers were decapitated and their heads sent to Dublin to be stuck on spikes.

“The episode remains a stain on Cromwell’s reputation to this day. As for Sir Arthur Aston, former Governor of Oxford, he was butchered in the bloodbath, his wooden leg torn off by his assailants and used to bludgeon him to death.”

Drogheda Sword