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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 The King’s request had to be withdrawn.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

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During the English Civil War Oxford was besieged on no fewer than three occasions. The assumption has always been that the Parliamentarian forces were grouped on Headington Hill, as inferred from the famous painting by Jan Wyck (below: on display at the Oxford Museum). Catherine Robinson and Mick Winter argue that the actual position was further north, on the hills above Barton. Are they onto something?

Most accounts of Oxford during the Civil War tell the story from the point of view of the besieged Royal court, not from the perspective of the Parliamentarian forces camped outside the city. Indeed, although General Fairfax is known to have moved his HQ from Marston – his main base during the second siege of Oxford – up the hill to Headington for the third siege (May/June 1646), the precise location of the new base has never been identified, as far as we know. (The reason for the shift was perhaps the decision of the Royalists to flood the meadows surrounding the city and burn down all houses within a three-mile radius to prevent the enemy using them as billets.)

We suggest that the HQ was in fact established in the hamlet of Barton, within the parish of Headington, and that the most suitable location would have been the land then known as ‘Hengrove Common’, now Barton Fields, on the west-facing slope alongside today’s A40. From this airy elevation, Fairfax would have had a clear line of sight over to the artillery base at Elsfield and down to Colonel Rainsborough’s quarter at Marston, plus easy access to Colonel Herbert’s quarter at Cowley and the rendezvous point at Bullingdon Green. The nearby Bayswater Brook (originally called ‘Loud Brook’ and presumably much wider and faster-flowing than it is nowadays) would have provided a source of water, with grain supplied by Bayswater Mill. There would have been plenty of space on Hengrove Common for an encampment of 3,000 men, with all the associated wagons and tents depicted in Jan Wyck’s painting of the siege.

Recent finds on the present-day Barton allotments include fragments of seventeenth-century stone beer bottles, a stray musket ball and two silk tokens (presumably produced to compensate for the shortage of currency during the Civil War). Numerous clay-pipe fragments have also been dug up, many with the distinctive small bowls that signify seventeenth-century origins.

Such pipes are known to have been supplied from the neighbourhood of Headington Quarry to the besieged Royalists – so why not to the besieging Parliamentarians as well?

We are not academic historians – just republicans with an amateur interest in archaeology and local history. We would welcome comments from better-qualified followers of MorrisOxford. – Catherine Robinson (cmrobinson.oxford@gmail.com) and Mick Winter

Averil Barnes reminds us of the verdict of the Civil War’s most famous historian:

Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, was King Charles II’s most senior minister, and Chancellor of Oxford University as well as Lord High Chancellor of the entire realm. His History of the Great Rebellion and Civil Wars is reputed to have sold so many copies that its royalties (no pun intended) were sufficient to fund the building – designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor – which is named in his honour and which eventually came to house the University Press. Of Sir Arthur Aston he wrote:

‘He had the fortune to be very much esteemed where he was not known and much detested where he was, and he was at this time too well known at Oxford to be beloved by any.’ – AB

Photo courtesy of Stephen Foote
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