London during the English Civil War (January 1642 – April 1646)
In January 1642 King Charles I stormed into the Parliament building at Westminster attempting to arrest six members of Parliament. Not finding them there he sought them at the Guildhall in the City of London. After his failure he feared reprisals, so the royal family fled from Whitehall Palace. Charles went north to raise an army while his royal court settled in Oxford in 1642. Within four months the country was embroiled in a Civil War.
Whitehall Palace was a large complex that was the London home of many nobles, as well as the royal family. After Charles and his family fled it was progressively abandoned, some taking flight so hastily they left behind everything they owned. The palace stood empty, later to be pillaged by mobs. The King’s magnificent art collection was sold by auction.
The coups d’etat that was taking place was unprecedented in English history. Previous removals of English monarchs were undertaken by claimants to the throne but this time it was monarch versus Parliament. A number of activists took sides either for Parliament or for the King but it was not an easily definable division of, say, Puritans against nobles, few having a complete loyalty to Parliament or opposition to the King. In general, Puritans backed Parliament and staunch Anglicans and Catholics backed the King but there were nobles, MPs, and non-Puritans on both sides. The general view was that Charles had been arrogant, reverting to ‘Personal Rule’ and attempting to take the country back to Catholicism, yet few wanted any major constitutional change. At the outset almost no-one was contemplating the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of a republic. The national mood was to avoid war.
Some of London’s leading citizens remained loyal to the King, particularly many of the aldermen and members of the East India and Levant Companies and Merchant Adventurers. By contrast, there were many radicals within the population of London who over many years had opposed various royal policies and sought change. They were well-connected between them, and well-organised in agitating for change at parish, City and national levels. They ranged in opinion from the moderates who hoped for compromise from the King to those who wished to form a republic; from many who backed the rule of Parliament to some who believed in the rule of the people.
In the early part of 1642 pro-Parliamentarian radicals within the country began organising petitions. In January over 4,000 petitioners from Buckinghamshire marched to Westminster and the following month a well-disciplined procession took place through London by the Lord Lieutenant and gentry of Warwickshire, which converged on the Royal Exchange. A large demonstration took place at Moorfields at the end of January demanding the removal of bishops from the House of Lords. Under that pressure the remaining support for the monarchy in Parliament collapsed. Yet to illustrate how the country was becoming divided, there was also a petition from Kent in March in favour of the bishops and against military preparations, inevitably rejected by Parliament.
Parliament, led by John Pym, continued to sit, having not been dissolved by the King. However, they faced the issue that the normal procedure of the monarch giving royal assent to new laws was no longer possible. Instead they resorted to creating parliamentary ordinances, initially passed in the name of the King.
There was no standing army that could support either King or Parliament, only local militias of reservists known as ‘trained bands’. London had long had four trained bands covering different wards, each named after the four points of the compass. They could be summoned by the Lord Mayor but Sir Richard Gurney was a supporter of the King who had previously welcomed him into the City in November 1641 so it was important for Parliament to take that power away from him. In March they drafted the Militia Ordinance that nominated members of a committee, all London radicals, “to make Colonels and Captains, and other Officers…for the Suppression of all Rebellions, Insurrections, and Invasions that may happen”. They tactfully explained it was “for the Safety of His Majesty’s Person, the Parliament and Kingdom, in this time of imminent Danger”. The ordinance was easily passed by the Commons but the House of Lords was reluctant to dispense with royal assent. However, they were finally persuaded by the petitions to Parliament and large demonstrations in London.
London’s government was structured into the more senior 26-member Court of Aldermen, which supported the monarchy, and the lower 237-member Court of Common Council, which during the previous decades had become more radical and supported Parliament. The Lord Mayor had the power to convene or dissolve meetings of the Common Council, and aldermen had a veto over any decisions made by the Common Council. During the spring and summer of 1642 London’s radicals reformed London’s government, taking away the Mayor’s power over the Common Council and leaving aldermen to vote on equal terms with common councillors.
The Militia Ordinance sent out by Parliament to local leaders around the country in March 1642 created a dilemma in which each locality had to decide whether to comply and back Parliament or take some other action. Charles naturally protested the illegality of the Militia Ordinance and countered by issuing commissions of array, an archaic measure calling nobles to arms in times of war. In general, those in the north of England, Wales, and the West Midlands as far as the South-West supported the King.
Charles made the first move when in April he unsuccessfully attempted to seize a large store of munitions from a garrison at Hull. War was formally declared when Charles raised his standards at Nottingham in August. The first major battle was at Edgehill, just to the north-west of Banbury that October, which ended inconclusively.
In March 1642 Parliament’s Committee of Safety instructed Lord Mayor Gurney to call a meeting of the Common Council but he declined to do so. In June, after the first action of the Civil War, Gurney proclaimed for the King. For that, and failing to suppress riots, he was impeached by the House of Commons, a charge that was upheld by the House of Lords. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London and fined £1,000. When he refused to pay, his house was confiscated and sold. He died in the Tower in 1647.
The City of London was vitally important to Parliament. Its wealthy merchants and livery companies could supply much-needed finance through taxes and loans, the Royal Mint created currency, and the Tower of London provided a secure prison and armoury. Furthermore, the influence of London spread throughout the country: those in the towns and shires watched to see which side the capital was backing.
Gurney was replaced as Lord Mayor with the MP for the City of London, Isaac Pennington, a loyal Parliamentarian. He later served as the Lieutenant of the Tower of London and was one of the commissioners during the trial of the King. Pennington’s successor as mayor in 1643, the more moderate John Wollaston, was responsible for Parliament passing an ordinance that only those loyal to the new regime were eligible to stand or vote in elections for the post of Mayor of London.