Peterborough Divided by the Sword: The Town in the English Civil War


The Civil Wars that tore Britain apart tend to be looked at on a grand scale by many, with people focussing on accounts of the great personalities and battles associated with this ‘War without an Enemy’. Increasingly historians have started to look how this conflict affected particular localities, giving a much clearer picture of the profound impact it had on the population. This blog article has been written in a similar vein, to look at Peterborough during the 1640s in a way that may prove useful to those interested in the mid-17th century, and as a microcosm of how this tempestuous period impacted upon one small cathedral city. It’s also unusual in that significant personalities – both Charles I and Cromwell – played a part.

Peterborough was a prosperous market town during the late medieval period, dominated by the Abbey of St Peter. Not only was the abbey church (today Peterborough Cathedral) an imposing physical presence over the town, but the abbey was local landlord, rent collector, tax collector, owner of many local pubs, custodian of the markets and guardian of law and order in the town. The town also had the honour of the burial of a Queen of England, with Katharine of Aragon’s remains being laid to rest within the Abbey church in January 1536. Such an honour was not to ensure the Abbey’s prosperity for long. (1)

Peterborough’s economy suffered with the dissolution of the abbey in November 1539. The pragmatism of the last abbot, John Chambers, who threw the gates open and welcomed Henry VIII’s commissioners, meant that the church building survived the Reformation relatively intact. Although the church, and indeed Chambers himself, were elevated by the creation of the diocese of Peterborough in 1541, the town never fully recovered from the impact of half the wealth of the key local economic powerhouse being confiscated by the Crown. (2)

By the early 1600s Peterborough was then an unremarkable market town, like so many others across the country, albeit dominated by a magnificent Cathedral church, as shown in John Speed’s map of the town published as part of his county map of Northamptonshire in 1611. The population numbered perhaps 2,500, and the economy centred around the markets held on the central Marketstede and trade from river traffic. (3)


The town did hold a strategically important position, controlling an important river crossing across the Nene, and being situated just off the Great North Road. The political power by this period had passed from the church – although the incumbent Bishop and Dean were always important – to elected local burgesses (or ‘feoffees’) and local gentry families. These included the Fitzwilliam family of Milton Hall, who had taken the opportunity to increase their landholdings by purchasing lands before and during the Reformation, and the Orme family. Humphrey Orme had been a groom of the bedchamber under Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth I, under whom he had leased substantial landholdings around Peterborough including West Deeping (1536) and Warmington (1573). His son, also Humphrey, had purchased a knighthood from James I in 1604 and was now resident in a substantial mansion, Neville Place, on Priestgate in the town (today the site of Peterborough Museum). (4)

With the outbreak of the Civil War in England in August 1642, Peterborough declared for the King. This royalist sentiment may seem odd to modern eyes given the associations we know of today within Cambridgeshire of Cromwell and the Eastern Association. Given that the town was only on the cusp of East Anglia and was in fact within the county of Northamptonshire, which leaned more towards the Royalist cause, this is perhaps less surprising. The local elite families such as the Ormes and Fitzwilliams were Royalist in sympathy and the local clergy of high church inclination. Bishop John Towers (appointed in 1639) was one of the twelve bishops imprisoned in the Tower of London for protesting against the Bishop’s Exclusion Bill of 1642 and after his release the following year spent the duration of the first Civil War at the Royalist capital at Oxford. (5)

A substantial amount of local worthies were away from Peterborough serving the Royalist cause. In 1643 as part of the Parliamentary ordinance denouncing known ‘delinquents’ (or known Royalists away from their homes) the following Peterborians were named:

Captain Styles, Walton
Newdigate Pointz of Dogsthorpe
Dr. Cosin, Dean of Peterborough
William Hake, Peterborough
Matthew Robinson, Longthorpe
John Towers, Bishop of Peterborough
Thomas Dove, Upton
James Carrier, Helpston
John Bourne, Ufford
Mr Styldolph, Wittering
Robert Dixon, Peterborough
Millicent Pratt, Dogsthorpe (6)

As with most places, communities and even families were divided by the sword. Newdigate Pointz’s cousin Sydenham rose to become a Parliamentary general in the North, and there is evidence to suggest Sir Humphrey Orme’s son was also a parliamentary sympathiser.

Peterborough had no substantial defences and does not even seem to have had a garrison of troops. Given its position as a river crossing and its proximity to the other ‘malignant’ town of Crowland (thus acting as a potential staging post for an assault), it was a prime military target.

The town was taken by Parliamentary forces commanded by Oliver Cromwell (then Colonel Cromwell, prior to his subsequent rise to prominence) on April 18 1643 with Colonel Hobart’s regiment of foot and his own regiment of horse. Cromwell was quartered in the house at the Vineyard at the back of the precincts, and most prominent Royalists were captured with little resistance. An account cited by Symon Gunton, local antiquarian and parish priest for St John’s church in this period described how Cromwell found himself confined to bed for several days at Peterborough after riding under a low gateway in the precincts and forgetting to duck – resulting in a severe concussion! (7)

Gunton describes how Cromwell’s troops ransacked the high church Cathedral the day after the capture of the town, which many saw as an affront to their Puritan beliefs. The rood screen was pulled down, the Lady Chapel so badly damaged it had to be subsequently demolished, stained glass smashed, tombs vandalised, church doors removed, statues used as target practice (although this rebounded on one soldier very literally), metalwork looted and papers burnt. (8)

The Royalist Newsbook‘Mercurius Aulicus’ describes the damage wrought thus:
‘It was advertised this day from Peterburgh, that Colonell Cromwell had bestowed a visit on that little City, and put them to the charge of his entertainment, plundering a great part thereof to discharge the reckoning, and further that in pursuance of the thorow Reformation, he did most miserably deface the Cathedrall Church, breake downe the Organs, and destroy the glasse windowes, committing many other outrages on the house of God which were not acted by the Gothes in the sack of Rome, and are most commonly forborn by the Turks when they possesse themselves by force of a Christian city.’ (9)

Archaeologists excavating in the Cathedral Precincts in the summer of 2016 uncovered the detritus of Cromwell’s troops in a rubbish pit, including butchered animal bones, 1640s drinking vessels and clay pipes, musket balls and broken stained glass. More details about this remarkable find can be found in the archaeological report.

Having reduced Peterborough, Cromwell’s troops then went on to take Crowland in May, taking the fortified centre around the already ruined abbey. In the meantime, other Parliamentary patrols took it upon themselves to ‘cleanse’ local churches. On June 10th troopers from Captain Beaumont’s company arrived in the nearby village of Yaxley. There they broke into the church, and according to Gunton’s account, did “piss in the Font, and then baptize a Horse and Mare, using the solemn words of Baptism, and signing them with the sign of the Cross.” (10)

There was a brief attempt to retake Peterborough, the attack coming from the midland Royalist capital of Newark. In July 1643 a thousand Royalist troops tried to retake Peterborough, but were driven off by Col. Palgrave in a brief skirmish on the north side of the city at Millfield. The Royalists withdrew towards Stamford, pursued by Palgrave who was joined later by Cromwell who had been at Rockingham. Initially the Royalists attempted to defend Wothorpe Tower, but thought better of it and withdrew to Burghley House. Cromwell surrounded the house until reinforcements arrive. The Royalists initially refused to surrender but did so after a brief artillery barrage of the house on 24 July. (11) After his success in this area Cromwell was appointed Governor of the Isle of Ely in August 1643.

To the south of Peterborough, in modern day Stanground, are the remains of Civil War earthworks at Horsey Hill. These were almost certainly built in 1643 under the auspices of Parliamentary troops. Here at the south eastern corner of the city the fort could dominate the approach to Peterborough by road (part of the so-called ‘Fen Causeway’), an ancient byway which ran between the Nene and the northern reaches of Whittlesey Mere.

The fort may have been started for one of two strategic reasons:

Construction may have started shortly after Cromwell took Peterborough in mid April as part of a chain of defences to protect the eastern side of Peterborough from a possible counter-attack from the Royalist garrison at Crowland. As Crowland was taken only a month later the rest of these defences would then have never been started, although Crowland was retaken for the King in 1644.

It may have been started (or completed after Crowland fell, as an alternative use) from the summer of 1643 as a means of securing the main road into the Fens and to Ely after Cromwell had been appointed governor and the Royalists had attempted to retake Peterborough. Had a future attempt to retake the town succeeded the fort would have provided a means of delaying a follow-up action against Ely and the Cromwellian heartlands. This would tie in with a small defensive work at Stanground Sluice. (12)

Other than garrisons being stationed locally (and therefore one assumes at such a strategically important position), there is no evidence to suggest that any military action took place at the fort site. Given the fact that substantive fighting in the area had finished almost certainly by the time the fort was completed there would probably have been only a limited garrison on site. This is evinced by the fact that in October 1644, after the Royalists recaptured Crowland, the Eastern Association felt the need to rush an additional 300 men from Cambridge to hold ‘Horsey Bridge Pass’.(13)

The fort at Horsey Hill is a very fine example of an artillery fortification of the Civil War period. It is similar to the ‘sconce’ type artillery fortifications found elsewhere, such as those at Earith and March and further afield the stunning example of the ‘Queen’s Sconce’ at Newark. (14) These fortifications were all built of piled and rammed earth to form ramparts surrounded by a protective ditch. The rampart would have been topped with a wooden palisade, with sharpened stakes and pits placed as traps around the fort.

These forts were designed to be built relatively quickly, with an unskilled workforce and for minimal cost compared to stone defences. There was the additional advantage that the earth ramparts would largely absorb or deflect cannon shot compared to traditional castle walls. (15) Accommodation for any garrison within the fort is unknown as the site remains unexcavated, but based on similar structures elsewhere it seems likely this would have consisted of tents or temporary wooden shelters within the structure. A magazine for containing gunpowder was likely to have been excavated into one of the bastions.

Unlike these other examples Horsey Hill has five, as opposed to four, bastions and is arranged in a pentangular form, with the entrance on the south curtain wall covered by a salient. Each bastion would have been built as a gun emplacement, and it is significant that three of these cover the river/western approaches to the fort, indicating that it was most likely built to cover the river, crossing and road. (16) The site covers some five and a half acres, with the rampart rising to some 4 metres above the base of the ditch. The area around the fort would have been levelled of vegetation for a considerable distance (at least half a mile) to deprive any attacking force of cover and provide a clear field of fire for the defenders.

The site is relatively complete and, compared to similar sites, is in a remarkable state of preservation. The road has dug into the north side of the fort a little, the construction of a later toll house and the grange within the fortifications has encroached a little and the site is overgrown in many places, but otherwise is in excellent order.

There were no further events of note for the remainder of the First Civil War, which ended in June 1646 with Charles I’s capture. Charles spent his last night of freedom, 3 May 1646, in Stamford. (17) The next day he surrendered to the Scots army near Newark, expecting their support, but the Scots sold him to Parliament for £400,000. Charles was taken south to Holdenby House in Northamptonshire, on the beginning of the road that would lead to his execution in January 1649. Local tradition has it that he spent two nights as Parliament’s prisoner en route to Holdenby confined in the King’s Lodging above the Cathedral gateway in Peterborough.

The one substantial military action that took place in Peterborough was during the Second Civil War, at the 13th century moated and fortified manor house, Woodcroft Castle near Helpston, which survives today as a private house. Woodcroft was garrisoned for the king by Dr Michael Hudson, priest, former chaplain to King Charles and latterly Royalist Scoutmaster-General. (18) In June he had been trying to forment a further rising against the victorious Parliamentarians in Stamford, only to be driven out. He was pursued back to Woodcroft by a troop of soldiers led by Captain William Smart. The Parliamentary troops attempted to storm the castle, only to be driven off with the loss of several men including Smart himself.

Within hours, a full regiment of Parliamentary reinforcements arrived led by Captain Smart’s brother-in-law Colonel Winters, now out for vengeance, but who began by summoning Dr Hudson to surrender. Hudson refused, so the Roundheads assaulted the castle, spending several hours attempting to break in before being repulsed. They then again summoned Hudson to surrender, threatening to give no quarter and kill everyone they found inside. Hudson again refused to give up the Castle.

Again the Parliamentarians attacked. During the assault Hudson stood on his tower shouting encouragement to his own men and hurling abuse at his enemies. He then got rather a shock when the gate was blown in by his enemies using a petard, a gunpowder packed bomb placed against the castle gates. As the only way out was being stormed, Hudson attempted to avoid being hacked to pieces by dangling from the ramparts. He was found by Parliamentary soldiers who cut off his hands, causing him to plunge into the moat below – a genuine case of ‘look no hands’!

Hudson somehow managed to swim across the moat, only to be dragged out by two vengeful soldiers. One called Egborough was the former servant to the parish priest at Castor and the other, Walker, a ‘low-born shopkeeper from Stamford‘. Dr Hudson was disembowelled by the men with a halberd and had his tongue ripped out in retribution for the insults he had hurled from the ramparts. At this point he finally expired. The grisly relic of his tongue is said to have been dried and paraded around local towns and villages as a trophy. (19)

Peterborough saw no more military action for the duration of the Civil Wars, and struggled to recover some form of normality. Oliver St John, Member of Parliament for Totnes and Chief Justice of the Common Pleas acquired property in the area. St John had risen to prominence for championing John Hampden in the Ship Money trial in 1636 and helping steer through legislation to create the New Model Army in 1645. He was also married to Oliver Cromwell’s cousin, Elizabeth. Now he acquired the the lease of Thorpe Manor from sale of confiscated church land, and arranged for the ransacked remains of the Cathedral to be used by the townspeople as a parish church. Duly the townspeople began to make repairs to the Cathedral, pulling down the remains of the wrecked Lady Chapel to provide building materials. (20)

In the meantime St John had embarked upon his own building project in the shape of Thorpe Hall, built between 1653 and 1656. Today the hall is a Sue Ryder hospice and is accounted as being the best surviving Commonwealth period mansion in the country. In 1654 the diarist John Evelyn visited the house during the building works, and described it as ‘a stately palace built out of the ruins of the Bishop’s palace and cloisters’. (21)

Whilst the town may have had a prominent Parliamentarian building a new home on its outskirts, it was determined to still proclaim its Royalist loyalties. For the 1654 Parliament Peterborough was the only place in England to send a Royalist MP, in the shape of Sir Humphrey Orme, the new incumbent of the Orme estates after the death of his namesake grandfather in 1648. The new Sir Humphrey was known to consort with Royalists in London, and was allegedly a ‘prophane swearer, hard drinker and a drinker of the health of the late King.‘ To make matters worse for the other MPs, his wife Mary was a Catholic. As a result they spent a good deal of time trying to expel Sir Humphrey from Parliament for his behaviour and beliefs! (22)

Whilst Peterborough might have celebrated the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, the town never truly recovered from the impact of the events of recent years. The Dissolution of Peterborough Abbey the century before had a caused a downturn in the local economy from the wealth and glory of the Middle Ages, which half the monastic lands and wealth that the town depended on for its prosperity having been confiscated by the Crown. The Civil War only compounded this misery, with the most visible feature of the town, its magnificent Cathedral, having been badly damaged by the depredations of Cromwell’s troops. Many of its glories were gone forever, never to be replaced. Many of the local gentry had been heavily fined for supporting the Royalist cause, again taking money out of the local economy. Although a new Guildhall was commissioned as a centrepiece for the Market Square, which still stands today, adorned with the Royal arms of Charles II as a celebration of his Restoration, it is significant that this was not completed until 1671. (23) This was because as it took time to raise funds from the now cash-strapped local economy, not least as another disaster hit Peterborough in the meantime. In September 1665 the Plague made a final visitation upon Peterborough, killing a third of its population in a matter of months. Whilst many of the Cathedral clergy fled the town, Symon Gunton stayed at his post as Parish Priest of St. John’s Church to bury 543 of his parishioners. (24) It would take over a century, another war, and the arrival of military prisoners from it in the area, before Peterborough’s fortunes would begin to recover fully from the effects of this tumultuous period in history.


(1) See W. T. Mellows ‘The Last Days of Peterborough Monastery’ (Northants Records Society, 1947) for a full discussion of this.

(2) Ibid; M. Barcroft ‘Luckiest of All’ passim (Minimax, 1983)

(3) Ibid

(4) S. Orme, ‘The Orme Family’ in People of Peterborough (Peterborough Museum, 2009), p. 68-70

(5) ‘The Bishops of Peterborough’ , Cathedral publications, 1984

(6) ‘Fenland Notes and Queries’, Ed: Rev W.D. Sweeting (Vol. 45, 1900)

(7) S. Orme, ‘Oliver Cromwell’ in ‘People of Peterborough’, p. 71 – 73

(8) S. Gunton, ‘History of the Church in Peterborough’ (1686, reprint edition, ed. Jack Higham, Clay Books, 1990), p.333 – 340

(9) Mercurius Aulicus, Friday 28 April 1643

(10) Gunton, ‘History of the Church in Peterborough’, p. 335

(11) C. Davies, ‘Stamford and the Civil War’ (Watkins, 1992), p. 31 – 33

(12) M. Osborne, ‘Cromwellian Fortifications in Cambridgeshire’, (Cromwell Museum, 1990) p. 15 – 16

(13) P. Harrington, ‘English Civil War Archaeology’, (English Heritage, 2004), p. 98 – 99

(14) See Osborne and Harrington for detailed analysis of these sites

(15) Ibid

(16) Osborne, ‘Cromwellian Fortifications in Cambridgeshire’, p.32

(17) Davies, ‘Stamford and the Civil War’, p. 40 – 41

(18) J. Whitehead, ‘Cavalier & Roundhead Spies: Intelligence in the Civil Wars and Commonwealth‘, (Pen & Sword, 2009) p. 83

(19) See Davies, ‘Stamford and the Civil War’, p.42 – 44 and S. Orme, ‘Haunted Peterborough‘, (History Press, 2012), p.45 – 47

(20) Gunton, ‘History of the Church in Peterborough’, p. 339

(21) E Davies, ‘Peterborough: A Story of City and Country, People and Places‘, (Pitkin, 2001), p. 18 – 19

(22) Orme, ‘The Orme Family’ in People of Peterborough, p. 69

(23) Ibid

(24) Gunton, ‘History of the Church in Peterborough, Introduction p. xiv


7 thoughts on “Peterborough Divided by the Sword: The Town in the English Civil War

  1. A really interesting post again. When I next visit Peterborough I will see it with new eyes! Knowing the history of a place adds so much to the experience of living or visiting there. I cannot just admire a town or building for its own sake – I need to know about the people who built it and lived in it. Your essays bring the past of Peterborough alive once more.

  2. Pingback: Peterborough – 彼得堡半日遊 | 滿腔熱水

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