- This week on the Secret Library we welcome back guest blogger Polly Clare-Hudson from the University of Leeds. Polly has previously written about a wonderful Shakespeare book in our collections but, in this article, turns her attentions to slightly-later events in 17th-century England…
The English Civil War took place from 1642 to 1651, and was a combination of military and political clashes between Parliamentarians (Roundheads), and Royalists (Cavaliers – led by King Charles I). They were primarily fighting over the nature of the government of England. The war was eventually won by the Parliamentarians, and Charles I was put on trial and executed on 30th January 1649.
The Battle of Leeds took place on 23rd January 1642, 374 years ago. Leeds was apparently of little strategic important (being much smaller than it is now). At that time, Briggate was the main street, and it still remains at the heart of the city centre.
Leeds, and the whole West Riding, had remained loyal to Parliament, but was then seized by the Royalist Sir William Savile, who had significant fortifications built to defend the town from recapture. In early 1642, Parliamentarian Sir Thomas Fairfax mounted a counter attack, marching his forces onto the site where the University of Leeds sits today. He sent a trumpeter to demand Savile’s surrender.
After Savile twice refused to surrender, battle was joined. The British Civil War Project states that a snowstorm was raging at this moment, although this isn’t mentioned in the limited primary sources I have read (of course that does not mean there was no storm). It certainly would have been an incredibly dramatic scene either way.
The battle lasted over three hours, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, emerged victorious, with 600 prisoners. Apparently just 40 men were killed, a surprisingly low number for such bloody times. The Royalists were later decisively locked out of the North at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644.
Leeds Central Library boasts a huge collection of original tracts from the Civil War, bound into individual slim volumes. These tracts were issued by both Royalists and Parliamentarians, and were essentially reports on developments in the war. They seem to have had a propaganda function, as they were made available to a public audience. Browsing through them, it seems like the collection held at the Library mainly relates to events and developments in the Yorkshire area.
One such book, issued by Parliamentarians, and which directly relates to the Battle of Leeds is titled thus: A True and Plenary Relation of the Great Defeat given by my Lord Fairfax forces unto my Lord of Newcastle’s forces in Yorkshire, January 23. Which was the absolutest and considerablest victory that was obtained since the beginning of these unhappy warres
It was written by Thomas Crompton, a Parliamentarian who claims to have participated in the battle. He notes of the men fighting that day:
“…most of them were but unexperienced fresh-water soldiers taken up about Bradford and Halifax but upon the Saturday before.”
It was also apparently the case that captured soldiers were released from custody after swearing an oath “never to fight again in this cause.”
To read more from this fascinating document of life in 17th-century Leeds, or to find out more about the Civil War in Yorkshire, come down to the library to check out some of these original pamphlets and books from the time. You can discover more about the Wing Collection by clicking here.
(The reference for the tract quoted here is: CIVIL WAR TRACT STC(WING) C7031. Ask in the Local and Family History department on the 2nd Floor of the Central Library or call us on 0113 378 6982 to view this and other books from the Wing Collection)
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