Country Matters: Dangerous liaisons in Cirencester

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WITH a major anniversary of the English Civil War coming up, I find it tempting to day- dream about what life was like in our area when internecine conflict ravaged the countryside. The opening this morning of 'Civil War', an exhibition at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester, will further sharpen local curiosity about the events of 350 years ago.

Prepared by the Royal Armouries at the Tower of London, the display includes many striking objects, not least the suit of gilt armour worn by King Charles I. The show has already attracted large audiences in Hull, Nottingham, Coventry and Worcester, and on this, its final stand, the key point of interest will be the siege of Cirencester, which fell to the Royalists under Prince Rupert on the afternoon of 2 February 1643.

For me, the greatest fascination of the war lies in its impact on ordinary country people. Gloucestershire was the scene of intensive military activity, with much coming and going by the forces of both sides; but so intricate was the pattern of Royalist and Parliamentarian allegiances that yokels must have found things bewildering.

On the whole, the landed gentry were for the King and the towns for Parliament; but Chavenage, the great Tudor house near Cirencester, was then owned by Colonel Nathaniel Stevens, who had been a member of Parliament and became a confidant of Cromwell. Chavenage was thus used as a base by whatever Parliamentary troops happened to be passing, and it came through the war with little damage.

In contrast, Beverston Castle, only a mile across the fields to the south, was a Royalist stronghold, then belonging to a branch of the Berkeley family. Three times besieged, eventually captured and blown up, it was left a ruin.

No stranger, gazing at its shattered hulk today, could guess that between it and Chavenage a romantic yet dangerous liaison once flourished. During the Civil War a Berkeley son - so the story goes - was in love with Colonel Stevens's daughter, who would place a candle in her little window (which still exists) whenever the coast was clear, so that the young man could slip across and visit her. Little did he realise how devious her motives were: it was she who wormed out of him the secrets of Beverston's defences, and so secured the castle's demise.

Surviving records show what a menace it was - no matter which side you were on - to have soldiers billeted in your house or on your land. In those days before banks or paper money, people kept what wealth they had at home, usually in the form of coins; and although in normal times a stout chest, bolted to the fabric of the building, might suffice to protect valuables from casual thieves, such repositories were no use against determined troops.

In Cirencester a lawyer of Royalist sympathies called John Plot was temporarily detained by the Parliamentarians. Released after the town had fallen, he returned home to Coxwell Street, to find his house full of Royalist soldiers and his capital of pounds 1,200 missing. (It is hard to gauge modern equivalents of 17th-century values, but historians suggest that one must multiply by at least 100.)

Out in the country, things were no less difficult. Soldiers billeted on a farm would simply take what they wanted in the way of corn, sheep and cattle, driving off animals not needed immediately for slaughter. Horses - for the cavalry, and for pulling artillery - became extremely scarce and valuable.

In the various armies, the proportion of cavalry was exceptionally high - sometimes 50 per cent. Suddenly to have to find sustenance for, say, 2,000 men was bad enough; but to feed 2,000 horses was a still more daunting proposition.

Accounts left by John Chamberlayne, a landowner at Maugersbury, reveal in painful detail what it cost him to entertain - involuntarily - armies from either side. When Prince Rupert faced Lord Essex on his land in the summer of 1643, he had 'corn upon the ground' trampled and spoiled to the value of at least pounds 40 - perhaps pounds 4,000 in today's terms. Forced to quarter 30 officers, 40 horses and 120 foot soldiers of Sir William Waller's army for five days, Chamberlayne spent another pounds 27 10s. Besides these direct costs, he lost 17 plough horses, and paid large sums 'to stave off quartering' and 'to avoid charges incident to war'.

Often crops were deliberately destroyed. The Parliamentarian attack on Sudeley Castle, for instance, took place under cover of a smokescreen caused by the firing of hay and straw, and the attackers moved in protected by bales of wool.

Such was the economic dislocation caused by the war that Gloucestershire took a century to recover. Famine set in, and a particular casualty was the wool trade, which had sustained the area since the Middle Ages, but which had recently fallen into decline, and now collapsed.

In such uncertain times, by far the safest place to put valuables was underground - and three hoards now on display in Cirencester bear witness to the passion for burial that overtook Cotswold folk in or about 1643.

One cache was of 12 silver spoons found beneath the floor of a shop during alterations in 1963 - and fine, chunky, broad- bladed fellows they are. They bear the initials CRL on the base of each handle, and the London marks for 1637-38. Who can doubt that they were hidden just before or even during the attack by Prince Rupert?

The other two hoards are of coins, one buried in the yard of Manor Farm, at Ampney St Mary, near Cirencester, and the other beneath the floor of a hall at Weston Subedge, in the north of the county. This last is of particular fascination, for it shows evidence of careful planning and preparation.

The 307 silver and two gold coins were hidden in a lead pipe sealed at both ends. From the fact that the money filled the container exactly, one can infer that the owner made the receptacle to measure. He also left in it a note bearing the legend 'Ye hoard is pounds 18'. In fact the coins add up to a total a few pennies short of that amount, and historians conjecture that at the last moment the man kept a small amount on him for immediate expenses.

The sight of the silver and gold, gleaming bright, prompts many questions. What happened to the owners who never came back? How many other hoards were buried? How many still lie in the ground? Most farmers in our area seem confident that their land conceals treasures as yet unfound - and only the other day an archaeologist with a high-powered metal detector discovered at Chavenage a beautiful Charles I half- crown, a few inches beneath the surface.

Had I myself been alive in 1643, I believe my instinct would have been to go to ground in some high, wooded combe way out in the hills, and live there like a wild animal until the troubles were over. Three and a half centuries on, all who see the exhibition must surely cross themselves and offer up a prayer that what happened then, and is happening today in Bosnia, will not - could not - ever again take place in England.

'Civil War' is open daily, 10am- 5pm (Sundays 2pm-5pm) at the Corinium Museum, Park Street, Cirencester, from now until 28 March.