Civil War 'skirmish' provokes fresh outbreak of hostilities: Oliver Gillie visits a village 'wounded' by loss of battlefield status

THE OFFICIAL classification of a Civil War engagement at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire as a skirmish, rather than a battle, has annoyed local people and others who believe that it was a turning point in English history.

Chalgrove, along with other English battlefields, has been investigated by an expert panel appointed by English Heritage. The panel, chaired by General Sir Martin Farndale, has proposed a classification of battlefields based on reports made by David Smurthwaite, a historian at the National Army Museum.

However, members of the John Hampden Society, formed to honour a distinguished Parliamentarian who was killed at Chalgrove in 1643, believe that the expert panel has overlooked the historical importance of this engagement. If John Hampden, who was a cousin of Oliver Cromwell, had not been mortally wounded at Chalgrove then English history might have taken a different course, they say.

Roy Bailey, honorary secretary of the John Hampden Society, said: 'Hampden opposed the levy of Ship Money by King Charles in the late 1630s, on the grounds that it was an illegal tax. As a result he became the best known and most popular man in England and was described as Patriae Pater, father of the people. His death rocked the nation.'

By June 1643, the Earl of Essex, leader of the Parliamentarian army, had advanced to Thame and was challenging the King's army, under Prince Rupert, which was based at Oxford. A Parliamentarian, Colonel John Urry, defected to the Royalist camp with news that a convoy bearing pounds 21,000 was on its way to pay Essex's army. On 17 June, Prince Rupert led a mixed force of almost 2,000 horse, foot and dragoons out of Oxford to intercept the force. The Royalists failed to find the convoy and began to retreat to Oxford pursued by an improvised Parliamentarian force of about 600 men, estimates Mr Smurthwaite in his report.

Prince Rupert rallied his men at Chalgrove field where the smaller Parliamentarian force, led by John Hampden and others, drew up behind a hedge to meet the Royalist cavalry charge. The Parliamentarians were outnumbered and after a short fight fled. About 45 men, mostly Royalists, were killed. John Hampden took two musket balls in the shoulder and retreated to Thame where he died six days later.

Mr Smurthwaite concludes in his report to the panel: 'To call Chalgrove field a battle is something of a misnomer . . . By any standard Chalgrove field was only a skirmish. Innumerable engagements of similar size were fought during the English Civil War and these have almost invariably been forgotten . . . John Hampden might not have been a soldier of any distinction but he was an immensely important politician.'

Hampden was one of the five members of Parliament who narrowly avoided arrest by King Charles on charges of high treason. Following this, Hampden proposed that the King place the Tower of London, the Militia and the principal forts in Parliament's hands. Charles refused and war was then inevitable.

Villagers, together with the local history society and the John Hampden Society, are organising protests at the downgrading of Chalgrove field. They are worried that the battlefield may be spoilt by gravel extraction.

Gill Blackshaw, parish clerk, said: 'The village is extremely upset. We have had a battlefield marked on the map here for years and we don't think it is right to demote it to a skirmish. We are protesting to English Heritage about the classification and asking them to think again.'

(Photograph omitted)