London during the English Civil War (January 1642 – April 1646)

Destruction of the ancient cross in the centre of Cheapside in May 1643. It had long been viewed as “an object of Romish religion” and regularly defaced and repaired. It was finally removed by soldiers during the mayoralty of Sir Isaac Pennington, by order of Sir Robert Harley.

It had by then become clear that conflict would not end quickly and Londoner’s passion for the war was diminishing. Royalist ships commanded the sea, blocking foreign trade; shop-keepers were away with the trained bands; and markets were closed; business at the Royal Exchange ceased; the lawyers at the Guildhall were kept busy with bankruptcies; there were no visitors to town so the ladies of Covent Garden went without clientele.

From March 1643 Parliament began to sequester the property of Royalists to help pay for the war and to return money lent by its supporters. A plot was discovered in May to allow the Royalist army to take control of London. It was led by the MP Edmund Waller, along with his brother-in-law Nathaniel Tomkins and the wealthy merchant Richard Chaloner. Waller confessed but paid a bribe, spent 18 months in prison and fined £18,000, after which he was permitted to go into exile abroad. Tomkins and Chaloner were executed in July 1643. Many others were forced to disavow support for the King to avoid suspicion.

In August two or three thousand London housewives, with white ribbons in their hats, processed to Parliament with a petition praying for peace. The Commons assured them of a speedy end to the war but the women demanded that Pym be handed over to them. MPs locked themselves in the building while the trained bands began shooting. Two women were killed and others injured in New Palace Yard. The following week seven peers defected to the Royalist side.

The publishing of printed information had long been strictly controlled. Only members of the Stationers’ Company, which retained its monopoly by royal charter, were authorised to print books or pamphlets prior to the war. Anyone found publishing irreverent or unauthorized material could have been severely punished. After the King departed London, however, publishing was no longer controlled. For a time, anyone was able to print and circulate pamphlets, and London was flooded with material on subjects ranging from propaganda to bizarre ideas. In 1643 Parliament issued the Ordnance for Regulating of Printing but with little effect. By 1647 many of the printed tracts were critical of Parliament and a new ordnance was issued threatening severe punishment.

Theatres had thrived in London for well over 50 years but it was considered as frivolous and sinful entertainment by the godly Puritans. In September 1642 the Long Parliament declared that plays were of “lascivious merth and levity” and incompatible with “these times of humiliation” and civil war. Playhouses were ordered to close, and other popular past-times such as bear-baiting and maypole-dancing to cease. The major theatres had no choice but to comply, although in practice the ordinance was ignored by a number of smaller establishments. A much stricter law was introduced in 1647 that allowed magistrates to send militia into theatres and destroy stages and seats, as took place at Salisbury Court off Fleet Street that year during the performance of A King and No King. A further prohibition was introduced in February 1648.

The work of the Committee for Plundered Ministers was initially to compensate those churchmen who had been replaced by pro-Royalist Anglican ministers. By 1643 it was active in replacing ministers with Puritan parsons.

The hard-line Sir Robert Harley headed the Committee for Demolition of Monuments of Superstition and Idolatry, which was created in April 1643. Church alters were to be removed, as was anything that included a cross, crucifix, angel, church organs, or other religious pictures, although in reality most altars had already been taken away before the war. Some churches removed their steeple. The old Cheapside Cross, originally erected as one of the series of ‘Eleanor Crosses’ by Edward I in the early medieval period went in May 1643, which was not surprising as it was topped by a naked Diana with water sprouting from her breasts. The great maypole on the Strand was demolished in 1644 on the basis that it was pagan. Charing Cross, the finest of the Eleanor Crosses, located at the northern end of Whitehall, was demolished in 1647 and the stone used for paving.

John Williams, Dean of Westminster Abbey, had played an important role before the Civil War, acting as a mediator between King and Parliament. In 1642 he was imprisoned in the Tower by order of Parliament. Released in May, he left London for the Royalist town of York where he was appointed Archbishop. Westminster Abbey’s Chapter met for the last time that year before dispersing to save themselves. The abbey building was requisitioned and used to house soldiers of the parliamentary army. The removal of the abbey’s stained glass was ordered. The royal regalia that had been used in coronations since that of Edward the Confessor was taken to the Tower of London, broken up and sold for the weight of the precious metals.

The pulpit of Paul’s Cross in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Londoners had for centuries been to hear great public debates and sermons, was demolished sometime around 1641 and never replaced. In October 1642 Parliament instructed the Lord Mayor to close the cathedral for worship. The dean and chapter were replaced by a committee and many of the cathedral’s treasures were confiscated or went missing. In September 1643 a large fund that had been collected for the restoration of the building was instead used to pay the wages of troops. Bishop of London William Juxon retired to the countryside.

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