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Henley Skirmish, 1643: Contemporary Account

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English Civil War Society

The Sealed Knot

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Civil War: A Novel

It would be misleading to title this page "Sonning Common during the English Civil Wars", as not a fragment of the village we see today existed at the time. When war broke out in the 1640s, the area, although known even then as "Sonning Common", was an expanse of unenclosed waste land to the north of the ancient parishes of Sonning and Caversham. Together with "Gallows Tree Common", it formed a single large tract of country that stretched all the way from Cane End to the settlements of Sonning and Caversham themselves. The land was rough, and the chalky soil covered mainly with gorse, bracken and bramble. When the Domesday Book was compiled in 1086, the whole of Caversham Parish had numbered only one hundred inhabitants; by the seventeenth century the population around Kidmore End and Cane End (which were then the northern boundaries of that parish) would still have been tiny. The Chilterns were a hub for the English wool industry, and the only inhabitants of Sonning Common in the 1640s would have been a few tenant farmers or perhaps squatters, who grazed their sheep on the scattered patches of the commons where the brambles gave way to turf.

The church of St John the Baptist at Kidmore End was not built until 1852, and the ecclesiastical parish of Kidmore End did not exist until 1853. The new parish was created from the northern extremities of Caversham, Sonning (Eye and Dunsden) and Shiplake parishes. Until that time, inhabitants in those outlying parochial areas would have had to travel up to six miles towards the Thames in order to attend church at either Caversham, Sonning or Shiplake.

Trade routes ran to the north and west of the district. They were not the wide, well-made roads we know today, but rough pack roads for the transport of goods over the hills. The route to the west ran from the River Thames at Reading up to Wallingford and Oxford via Cane End, and probably closely followed the route of the modern A4074. Today the road is notorious for car accidents, and was scarcely safer a few hundred years ago: any trade route was a magnet for robbers, and the Rev Smith-Masters noted that "even after the beginning of the 19th century it was not considered safe to cross the commons and woods of Kidmore End by night unaccompanied."[1] To compound the problem, the road that skirted the north of the commons was also a trade route of ill-repute. It ran from Henley-on-Thames to Goring-on-Thames via Peppard Common and Wyfold Grange, passing close to Cane End, and was in later centuries known as the "Pack and Prime Road". Pack, because packs of goods were unloaded from boats at Henley and onto pack horses; and prime because the men accompanying the goods had to prime their pistols as defence against the bandits who infested the road. Demonstrably this area of Oxfordshire was wild country, and as early as the medieval period a special officer was appointed to keep peace in the district, and to see that England's laws were not broken. The officer was called "The Steward of the Chiltern Hundreds", and his jurisdiction included the Hundred of Binfield, within which Sonning Common lay. In the sixteenth century the entire Manor of Sonning passed into the possession of the Crown, and in 1629 King Charles I awarded it to some of his subjects. However, these changes of landlord would not have greatly affected the character of this rough land immediately below the Chilterns.

Charles had come to the throne at the death of his father, King James I, in 1625. He was a second son, not groomed for the throne until his elder brother Henry died in 1612. Charles encountered various political and religious troubles throughout his reign, in Scotland and Ireland as well as England[2]. Much of it was due to his stubborn and autocratic style of rulership, grounded in his firm faith in the "Divine Right of Kings": the belief that as King he had been appointed by God, and was accountable to nobody but God. Naturally this caused friction with the more radical elements within the English Parliament, who desired that there be more accountability to the people, and the Parliament began to refuse cooperation for various of Charles's enterprises. In 1629 the King embarked on what is now known as "The Personal Rule", a period during which he chose to run his various kingdoms without parliamentary assistance. However by 1640 he needed money to counter the increasing threat of an invasion from Scotland, and was forced to recall his MPs. Although his intention in doing so was only to discuss the present crisis, Parliament was determined to first obtain satisfaction for existing grievances, and refused to vote him the money he needed until he met its demands. Charles refused, and dissolved the House again after less than a month in session. Finally, in 1642, the situation in England disintegrated into open war, and by November of that year the King had made a temporary headquarters at Oxford, whilst the Parliament had begun to barricade London against the threat of a Royalist attack[3].

In southern Oxfordshire the market town of Henley remained stubbornly Parliamentarian in outlook, and hosted Parliamentary soldiers. Three hundred were based at Phyllis Court, which they fortified, keen to keep Henley and its river crossing out of the King's hands[4]. The Royalists rapidly set up their own garrison at nearby Greenland House, which remained in constant conflict with the enemy troops at Henley until the house's capture in July 1644. The large number of musket balls still to be found in certain parts of Shiplake (this author possesses one) testifies to some sort of heavy action there, or possibly manned outworks to protect Henley against cavalry raids from Reading.

Reading, strategically vital both as a major river crossing and as the "front line" between Royalist Oxford and Parliamentarian London, rapidly became a sorry pawn between the two sides. As the war commenced late in 1642 the town was garrisoned for the Parliament; however the Parliamentarian troops fled early in November, and King Charles himself was able to walk in with his own soldiers and take it. In April 1643 he reluctantly surrendered it back to the Parliamentarian Earl of Essex after a stiff siege; presumably the unfortunate party of Royalist officers captured at nearby Sonning the same month were either part of the King's unsuccessful relief force, or had been part of the defeated garrison itself, and had straggled dangerously behind it as it retreated to Oxford under truce. Reading changed hands for a third time in September 1643, when the Parliament abandoned it again and it was snatched back for the King by his nephew Prince Rupert; the next, and indeed last Royalist garrison to be installed there held out until late March 1644, when it was withdrawn for strategic reasons after a major Royalist defeat in Hampshire. Thereafter Reading remained in the Parliament's hands until the end of the war in 1646.

And so we find Sonning Common in the 1640s: an untamed piece of land north of the river Thames, inhabited mostly by sheep; surrounded on two sides by treacherous roads, on the third by the battered town of Reading, and on the fourth by quarrelsome Henley, which sat on the main upland route between Oxford and Reading and became a natural focus for skirmishing between the two sides.

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[1] Smith-Masters, Rev. J. E., The History Of Kidmore End Oxfordshire, 1933, p.39.
[2] B
oth Scotland and the whole of Ireland were at that time territories of the English Crown. Politically, Wales had no recognised identity besides its language and geography, and at that time it was considered to be little more than an extension of English territory.
[3] The events which led to the English Civil Wars are too complicated to elaborate on further here, and readers are referred to the recommended reading list.
[4] Appropriately, the then Commons Speaker William Lenthall was born in Henley in 1591. The house he was born in still stands. Known latterly as “The Speaker’s House”, it stands on the left side of Hart Street (as viewed from the bridge), opposite the churchyard. A wooden plaque on the wall records the building’s significance.

© copyright S F Jones, 2005