The following is an extract from Book II of William G Carpenter’s epic poem about the English Civil Wars.
The poet is Philip Meadowe, assistant to John Milton in his role as Foreign Language Secretary for the Council of State under the Protectorate. Meadowe reads his lines to Milton at Milton’s house in Petty France, Westminster.
1643: a tough year for the Parliamentarian armies, with defeats in every quarter of England, and ever and always short of money and provisions. Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex (herein “Dev-Ex”), Captain-General of the Parliamentary Army, is Meadowe’s protagonist in the early sections; this excerpt presents the successful conclusion of Dev-Ex’ siege of Reading in April 1643.
An excerpt from Book I, The Sword of Gideon, may be found at Expansive Poetry Online Spring 2022 (www.expansivepoetryonline.com/CarpenterPoem.html).
WILLIAM G. CARPENTER is the author of Eþandun (Beavers Pond Press,2020), which depicts King Alfred’s struggle with the pagan Danes in 878 AD. Available from Amazon, Itasca Books Distribution and www.williamgcarpenter.com
The Loss of the West
Dev-Ex’ men were dying by the score:
“to death, by troops, the soldiers went,” says Chapman,
men spotted, burning, writhing, raving, bruised,
the life of men ebbing in stinking rills,
yet Dev-Ex knew no crime against Apollo,
no priest’s daughter seized, no ritual stinted,
that merited infernal punishment
of his half-frozen, always hungry men –
unless, as seemed unlikely, He preferred
east-facing altars and communion rails
and a Book of Common Prayer for the godly Scots –
unless He favored base servility
towards every courtier that caught Charles’ ear,
including Laud, Charles’ encroacher-in-chief.
Or was it our indifference to His Word,
maiming and murdering maugre Majesty?
Rupert had stormed Birmingham on Good Friday,
then, on the very feast of the Resurrection,
Sir William Waller occupied Welsh Chepstow –
perhaps no insult to the Prince of Peace
unless pursued without humility,
which was, Dev-Ex conjectured, Waller’s way.
Our guns knocked down the tower of St. Giles,
but only when the Rs set a cannon on it.
As to maimed rites, Parliament starved his army,
though willing enough to grant him compensation
for R despoilment of his lands in Staffs
out of the lands of Arthur Capel, Charles’s
lord-lieutenant of Salop, Chesh, and North Wales –
who loyally had bought a barony
when Charles, hungry for money, slashed the fee.
(A bargain at three hundred fifty pounds;
Sir Richard Newport later paid six thousand.)
The “generals” in the Houses, knowing famine
and filthiness would breed disease in soldiers
who could afford nor daily bread nor clothing
whenever their promised daily eight pence failed,
nevertheless dared not incur the blame
of taxing men enough to fund the war –
pretending to themselves that Charles’s false
and dilatory treaty for a peace
would obviate the need to pay the army.
Wherefore the Houses tottered along on loans,
first voluntary, then by threat of law,
and now sought to shift the hugeous cost
of war onto the Rs by sequestrations,
a measure certain to inflame their hatred.
Only Pym, the true, the brave, foresaw
the Ps must needs dig deeper for the Cause
and dared to introduce an excise bill,
which naturally would kindle popular ire.
As Dev-Ex lay in Daniel Blagrave’s bed,
his mind floating up through depths of sleep,
Sir John Meyrick breathing next to him
in darkness, with Sir John’s siege-guns rumbling
all day, all night, now going on nine days,
from west, north, east, and south of the worn town,
the birds a-chattering in the intervals,
he knew the siege of Reading verged on failure.
Most of his regiments were undermanned,
primarily from this devilish camp fever
that wantoned through his army’s camps and billets.
Provisions, powder, shot grew ever scarcer.
And today, Charles’ host would arrive in force.
At least the dead and dying could be shipped
down the Thames, which the Ps controlled downstream.
An army is a perishable thing:
maybe he ought to have rolled the dice at Oxford,
leaving Aston’s garrison in his rear.
War was martyrdom, whoever triumphed.
Pudsley dressed him. Dev-Ex breakfasted
with Carey-Rochford, Robartes, Grey, and Hampden,
Constable, Goodwin, Skippon, and Du Boys.
Meyrick, of course. Cold capon, bread, and wine.
They then progressed from Blagrave’s house in Southcote
to Caversham, where they met with Colonels Holborne,
Barclay, Meldrum, and Middleton, who’d slept
close to their regiments across the Thames.
Dev-Ex had brought his secretary, Baldwin.
Dawn lightened the rainy air. No sun shone,
though fresh buds glowed on the tips of branches.
“This Council of War shall now come to order.”
Thus President Meyrick. A dim chill tavern.
“To recapitulate,” Dev-Ex began,
“why we’re here instead of Charles’s capital:
leaving Aston’s regiments in our rear,
seven of foot and several troops of horse,
whilst charging Charles’s ring of garrisons –
not wise. Whilst our more greener regiments
further dissuaded us from undertaking
the more hazardous task. For which cause, too,
we thus far have elected not to storm
the governor’s forbidding palisadoes.
Also our bargemen crave this reach of Thames.
To boot, this matter weighed as much as any,
the welfare of the godly Reading people
groaning under Sir Arthur’s popish cruelty,
beaten, robbed, enslaved – their homes their prison.
Rupert’s troopers roar like a sudden squall,
but Aston’s swarming plunderers have settled
like locusts on the folk, consuming them.
“We’ve held off from mortaring their houses
and burning the unhappy town to the ground.
Our guns play on their works, not on their churches.
And so we find ourselves: the walls unbreached,
their garrison intact, and our men scourged
by fever – with Charles and Rupert and young Maurice
and ten or twelve regiments, horse and foot,
arriving from Wallingford at any hour.
In which light, the sole course, best to preserve
what yet survives of our afflicted force –
you know not how it gnaws at me to say it –
the only certain means to preserve our army,
is penitently to march back to Windsor,
relinquishing this siege for better days.”
They sat in silence, stunned. Constable bridled:
“My lord, you mock our faith and fortitude.
Think of the vast mercy shown at Kineton
and other fields too numerous to name.
Crawling back to Windsor, where our men
had starved, but for killing of Charles’s deer –
with Charles and Rupert snapping at our flanks –
it behooves us, rather, to quick-march to Oxford
and storm it, having lured the popish wolf,
the wolf and the wolf’s cubs, from their popish den.”
Du Boys added, not to be thought timid,
in his tongue-tied Netherlandish accent,
“When we have Oxford, they must sue for peace.”
Meyrick had replaced him on the ordnance.
The president studied faces, but said nothing –
betraying no dismay or disagreement,
unclear whether he was for or against retreat,
as Dev-Ex’ oldest, closest comrade present.
Anticipating, Skippon answered thus:
“Respected sirs, our horse may reach the town,
but our lame foot would quickly be devoured
by Cavaliers raging along Thames-side.
And it will take some days to ship our sick
downriver, lest Sir Arthur murder them.”
The small coal fire began to warm the room,
“divine tobacco” (Spenser) scenting the air.
Said Hampden with a smile: “My lord but tempts us.
Not so, Lord General? You would try our courage?
The mercies Colonel Constable refers to,
they follow us today. My Lord Grey (nodding)
has swelled our host. Our trenches indefeasibly
advance on Aston’s works. This man Flower –
we’ve now cut off Charles’ traffic with his people.”
“A malignant messenger,” commented Meyrick.
“A drummer of ours fished him out of the river.”
Goodwin spoke up eagerly, “And look
at the feats of our fierce Caledonian friends,
Barclay and Holborne foiling the Earl of Forth;
Meldrum and Middleton, at Dorchester,
routing Charles’ life guard and snatching a cornet.”
Dev-Ex exhaled a puff of smoke, content
to hear his councillors debate the motion.
An old Parliament man, the General knew
that deference must be pricked to foster counsel.
Grey added that the Eastern Association,
having assumed the risk and the expense
of sending several regiments abroad
(minus the Norfolk troop that mutinied
rather than fight for foreign counties’ safety)
with Cavendishes criss-crossing their northern borders,
if the Houses’ host rearward marched to Windsor
never again would join in such campaigns.
The Parliament itself might reconsider
commissions should this mountain sire a mouse.
The colonels knew that Lord Grey’s eastern levies
were the worst-equipped, -disciplined, and -paid
of any mustered for the present siege.
They studiously refrained from knowing glances.
Dev-Ex nodded. Grey could contribute nothing.
“I see that none here favors our withdrawal,”
said Dev-Ex, releasing peaceable smoke,
“which therefore, for lack of a second, dies.
Yet such would not impair our army’s principal
purpose, which of course is guarding London.
Nor do all favor a sudden lunge at Oxford.
And so, a bear at stake, we abide Charles’ dogs.
War is martyrdom, whoever triumphs.”
They sat a moment, till Dev-Ex suggested
the Council briefly adjourn to Caversham Hill,
whence they might gain celestial instruction
as to their dispositions for the day.
With Meyrick leading, following the thunder
that broke at intervals from the thick cloud
and smoke that hid the battery up the hill,
recalling Sinai to those godly captains,
they left behind the houses of the village
and left their horses at the barricade
that guarded Aston’s knowledgeable works.
They found themselves exposed to wind and rain,
and earthquake when the greater pieces roared,
then huddled in the lee of a makeshift shed
erected on the south perimeter
to guard the match and powder from foul weather.
Stepping into the wind, the General peered
across the river towards the battered town,
once prosperous, once occupied by Danes
as hostile as Sir Arthur Aston’s Rs.
He scarcely could discern its walls and ditches
through the slanting rain and low blowing clouds.
Nor could he find his other batteries,
whose smoke the rain and gale bore away.
Beckoning, he led the shivering colonels
across the hill’s crown to its northmost fence.
From there they could make out their furthest outworks,
but beyond those, nothing. Where was Charles?
He scanned the plain with his perspective trunk,
then absently passed the device to Meyrick.
He eyed the dripping faces of his fellows.
“Here we are,” said Dev-Ex. “At the stake.
Four good if weary regiments we have
facing Charles’ most probable approach.
Can four withstand his ten? And what if Rupert
swoops in from west or south, and Aston sallies,
an anvil to the German prince’s hammer?
The Houses’ army could be smashed to bits,
the London road left practically unguarded,
and us to face whatever punishments
befall men who squander the Lord God’s host.”
A wet gust licked Dev-Ex’s fringe from his brow.
Meyrick ushered the Council back to the shed,
where Dev-Ex dabbed his eyes. Continuing:
“Yet I concur, I must, with your advice,
Lord Grey, that to scurry back to Windsor
would be at least as costly to our Cause,
worse than defeat, in weakening the spirit
of those who do, and those who might, support us.”
Unwilling to infect them with his dread,
and wishing, further, to lift up their hearts
despite the wind and rain, despite their prospects,
Dev-Ex glanced from face to face. How he missed
Greville – his faith, his quiet joy in those he loved,
his portion of Our Savior’s kindliness,
his lucency in speech, his unrestrained
audacity in countering the foe.
At least he still had Meyrick, Hampden, Robartes –
unlike Achilles, who went mad with grief
when his Patroclus fell to Hector’s spear.
He caught the expectant glint in Hampden’s eye,
Hampden’s lips as if prompting his next words:
“Let us rejoice, dear friends,” concluded Dev-Ex,
“in how Our Lord has favored this our leaguer.
His mercies you know well, and his afflictions.
It is our privilege to fight His battles.”
Still Hampden looked at him expectantly.
“Meyrick,” Dev-Ex said. “Turn these great guns
to north-northwest. Charles will be here soon.”
Hampden, yet again, now Goodwin too.
His two MPs, with Constable a third.
Meyrick was a fourth, but “grappled to him
with hoops of steel and worn at his heart’s core.”
“Robartes,” Dev-Ex added, to the baron,
“your foot, men know, stood firm at Kineton.
Go quickly, now, and march them over the bridge.
Meldrum will dispose them in his lines.
We’ll meet Charles with five regiments at Caversham.”
Robartes paled, pursed his lips, and nodded,
the slow action more a submissive bow.
“Questions? Meyrick, you may adjourn the Council.”
They silently recrossed the battery,
the south wind spitting rudely in their faces.
Dev-Ex felt as though his mask had cracked,
allowing chill tears for the coming slaughter
to drench his shaven cheeks in rivulets.
The slender works he’d raised against his dread
gave way, and fear suddenly swarmed his trenches.
“Dear Lord. Dear Lord,” he muttered to himself.
“Only you. Only you, my Lord. My God.”
And the Lord God of Hosts heard his appeal.
He stopped and looked across the river, where
the drifting cloud concealed and revealed Reading.
A whitish thing appeared and disappeared,
wavering on the corner of the wall,
the northwest corner, facing Caversham Bridge.
He looked, and the others followed his gaze,
as the white cloud opened and closed the vision.
He took back his perspective-trunk from Meyrick.
It was. Yes. A white flag of parley.
“Praise God,” said Dev-Ex. “Aston wants to talk.”
But Aston did not want to talk. Bedridden,
speechless from an injury to the head
inflicted by a falling chimney tile,
thanks to Meyrick’s diligent cannoneering,
Sir Arthur had laid down his tyranny.
Command devolved on Colonel Richard Feilding,
a kinsman of William Feilding, Earl of Denbigh,
an R, and of P Colonel Basil Feilding.
Dev-Ex hurried back across the river
and sent a trumpeter with Carey-Rochford,
whose father, Dover, served in Charles’s horse guards,
to make a truce, if offered, and give terms,
God willing, for surrender of the town.
The Rs sent Colonel Bolle and LC Thelwell
and Sergeant-Major Gilby out to treat,
while Carey-Rochford stayed behind, a hostage,
joined by LC Russell and SM King.
Meyrick’s guns fell silent, as did Feilding’s.
When Dev-Ex summoned Aston, he’d refused
to let him march away with all his men.
“I came not,” Dev-Ex said, “for the town only,
but for the men” – the whole three thousand of them,
a formidable access of strength for Oxford.
But now, with Charles and Rupert on his doorstep,
his regiments consuming with the fever,
Dev-Ex willingly approved that trade
(excepting renegadoes from his army),
but capped removal of R guns and plunder.
“Do we lack faith?” asked Hampden, privately,
once the trumpeter was on his way.
They stood a few steps off from Dev-Ex’ tent,
where the R envoys sat. The rain had paused.
“Where is the sword of Gideon and the Lord?”
Hampden continued. “We outnumber Charles.
Relief from Oxford was expected, which
is why we came with such a populous host.”
“I’ll bear whatever blame accrues,” said Dev-Ex,
“without undue concern for martial glory.
We cannot risk leaving London naked.
Better a living dog, than a dead lion.
Their ‘full honors of war’ will cost us nothing.”
A distant cannon fired, well beyond Caversham.
Charles was coming. They went inside the tent,
Dev-Ex quietly ordering the guards
to keep the Rs from running back to Reading.
“We’re under a truce,” he said to Colonel Bolle.
The rain resumed. Cannon- and musket-fire.
The Rs were agitated, caught between
their truce and their obedience to Charles.
A messenger from Colonel Meldrum came:
Barclay’s and Robartes’ men were holding firm
against the whole brunt of Charles’ attack.
Hampden left the tent to order dinner
and fetch a few more guards to watch the Rs.
Colonel Bolle hailed from Louth in Lincolnshire,
but his foot regiment was raised in Staffs.
Dev-Ex, the latter county’s lord-lieutenant,
knew Bolle’s officers and knew their families.
Gilby, a papist, served under papist Belasyse.
They dined. There was no sally out of Reading,
which, Dev-Ex said, was good news for their treaty.
Good news, he meant, for the R negotiators,
now Dev-Ex’ hostages in all but name.
He ordered Hampden to the nearest battery,
with orders to let fly with one great gun
to mind Colonel Feilding of his position.
The cannonfire dwindled and fell silent.
Feilding asked for leave to seek Charles’ blessing
on the terms he and Dev-Ex had agreed.
A messenger was sent and Charles was found
encamped amid his host near Wallingford.
He seemed to give assent to Dev-Ex’ terms,
whereupon Colonel John Belasyse MP,
Lieutenant Colonel Edward Villiers, Bolle,
Gilby, Thelwell, and George Bond joined Feilding
and cosigned the articles of surrender.
The following morning, Aston’s garrison
(including Henry Mordaunt in disguise,
soon to inherit his poor father’s earldom)
marched from Reading out Grey Friar’s gate,
led by Sir Arthur on his horse-drawn litter,
drums rattling, colors hanging, trumpets bleating,
the foot with ball in mouth and smoking match,
with four pieces of ordnance in their train
and fifty wagonloads of bag and baggage.
WILLIAM G. CARPENTER is the author of Eþandun (Beavers Pond Press, 2020), which depicts King Alfred’s struggle with the pagan Danes in 878 a.d. Available from Amazon, Itasca Books Distribution and www.williamgcarpenter.com.