In the year we celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, I thought it would be a good opportunity to explore the role Manchester played in another landmark constitutional event in British history, the English Civil War. Although 17th Century Manchester was only a small market town with a population of no more than 5000, in 1642 it was one of the first to witness the violence which would soon plunge the entire country into conflict.
In the previous decades, Manchester had experienced an influx of Flemish merchants to work in the town’s burgeoning textile industry. This helped to give the town a strong mercantile and puritan character. Over the course of 1642 tensions had been heating up between King Charles I and his Parliament and across the country people began to choose sides.
This period of uncertainty is well documented in the Central Library Archives. A collection of broadsides from the time tell the story of the lead up to war. One document is a “humble petition” of baronets, esquires, ministers, gentlemen, free-holders, and others peaceably affecting in the County Palatine of Lancashire;
Beseeching your Majesty to return to your great Councell (the representative body of your Kingdom).
The King, who had moved his court to York, issued a response on the 11th May. It stated that the petition;
Is grounded upon misinformation and being grieved and highly offended to see how his good people have been, and are abused by false rumours and intelligences.
By 28th May the dispute had escalated further with Parliament issuing an order to the Sheriffs, Lord Lieutenants and Deputy Lieutenants in Counties like Lancashire. It stated;
Whereas it appears that the King seduced by wicked councell intend to make warre against the Parliament and under the covor of a guard to secure his Royall Person, doth command troops both of horse, and foot, to assemble at Yorke. All of which is against the laws of the Kingdom, lending to the dissolution of the Parliament and destruction of his people.
The summer of 1642 saw the scramble across the country for arms and gunpowder by both sides. Despite Manchester’s pro-parliamentary stance, the County of Lancashire was dominated by the staunchly Royalist James Stanley, Lord Strange, son of the Earl of Derby.
Having quickly taken command of the supplies of other northern towns, such as Preston and Lancaster, Lord Strange turned his attention to Manchester. Strange’s efforts were resisted by the town’s inhabitants who declared their support for Parliament and refused to hand over the munitions. When Strange entered the town with a small group of cavaliers, on 15th July, a scuffle broke out leading to what is commonly seen as the first casualty of the conflict, a local weaver named Richard Perceval. Following the incident, a stand-off ensued as Strange raised troops to retake the gunpowder and weapons by force.
As Lieutenant General of Lancashire, Lord Strange issued a declaration on the 17th August;
To raise forces of horse and foote soldiers to attend his Majesty.
He warned those who might oppose him;
Faile not as you tender his Majesties service, and will answer contrary at your perils.
On the 16th September, Parliament issued a warrant for Lord Strange’s arrest under the charge of treason, despite his continued loyalty to the King;
Whereas the Lord Strange, having continued a long time, and still remaining in actual rebellion against his Majesty, and Parliament is for the same impeached of high treason by the House of Commons, in the name of themselves, and all the commons of England.
All sheriffs, and other of his Majesties subjects are hereby required to do their best endeavour for the apprehension of said Lord, and the bringing him up to the Parliament, there to receive condigne punishment according to his demerits.
By September, Lord Strange had amassed enough men to retake the town and didn’t anticipate any serious difficulties because of Manchester’s complete lack of fortifications. Fortunately for the defenders, a German military engineer, John Rosworm, assisted in building makeshift defences just in time before the arrival of Strange’s men.
Marching through Salford, Strange’s men attempted to cross Salford Bridge (near where the Victoria Bridge now stands) in order to reach Manchester town centre. They were immediately greeted by musket fire from the other side of the River Irwell and stopped in their tracks. For the rest of the month the defendants were able to hold off against the Royalists forces. At the start of October, Lord Strange learned of the death of his father and finally decided to abandon the siege to claim his inheritance and title as the new Earl of Derby.
Manchester’s resistance to the Royalist forces did not go unnoticed by Parliament who made a declaration on 6th October;
In commendation of the inhabitants of the Towne of Manchester, for their valiant resisting the late Lord Strange, and now Earle of Darbie, And to incourage them in their valour which they have showed for their owne defence, and to endeavour to suppresse or apprehend the said Earle, or any of his complices, assuring them of allowance and payment for all disbursements or losses in that service.
In 1649 Charles was tried and executed and the monarchy was abolished in favour of a republic. James Stanley would eventually be captured and executed in Bolton following the failure of Charles I son, Charles II, to overthrow Oliver Cromwell’s new Commonwealth in 1651. Out of the turmoil of the Civil War Manchester was one of many places which prospered. In 1654 it was rewarded with its first Member of Parliament, Major General Charles Worsley, though this would be short lived. In 1660 on the restoration of Charles II, Manchester was once again deprived of its MP and would have to wait almost two further centuries to achieve political representation.
Further information about Manchester in the 17th century can be found on gmlives.org.uk.