The Last Day of August
Great Budworth's Civil War Secret
The village of Great Budworth possesses one of the most remarkable churches in all of Cheshire, not just loved by locals but genuinely appreciated by history fans and enthusiasts of late medieval architecture right across the UK. One history they may not be aware of however is the visit paid to the village by Parliamentarian forces on the last day of August in 1644; this is a hidden history of the English Civil War in Cheshire.
Signs of War
Beyond its obvious role as a religious house and focal point for the local community, the English parish church is also a bastion of historical insight. In the absence of a castle - and sometimes even then - the parish church will likely be the oldest building in the village; and the primary witness to hundreds, and sometimes thousands of years of local life. As such, it will often find itself performing another role too; as a keeper of secrets. From the shape of the tower, a visitor may deduce the origins of a more ancient building with relative ease, and from the churchyard, with its features and tracks, they may even learn more about the historical setting of the village surrounding it. Inside too, courtesy of the various pamphlets, effigies, and mounted plaques to be found in a church of antiquity, an understanding may be gained as to the key players in the life of the building, be them local nobles or wealthy landowners. And for most, this will provide more than an ample return for a day's historical enquiry.
However, as one of the few stone constructions in the vicinity of the village, and of course the only place with a tower to provide a lookout, the parish church has naturally played witness to another, often under-appreciated timeline of local history too. From the Barons Wars of the Middle Ages, through the Wars of the Roses, and to the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, the parish church has repeatedly come to find itself at the centre of a more brutal and brazen military life. Occasionally, these chapters in its history will be known in the local area, but for the most part, it is left to the researchers and amateur historians to piece together the puzzles hidden, not only in the depths of local historical record, but often in the very fabric of the building itself. The fall out of such civil conflicts was often highly political, and in times gone by that meant highly dangerous too. The need to side with the victors, therefore, to ensure safety, often saw locals needing to get on with life under the new regime, religious or otherwise, as quickly and quietly as possible. As such, the details of the associated conflict often became purposefully forgotten. The memories left unspoken.
All completely understandable. Yet the signs and the clues are often still there to be found, assuming you know where best to look for them. There may go unreferenced in the guide book, but look closely at the stonework in the church and you may well spot deep score marks from the idle hours of billeted troops that found themselves with little to do but sharpen their weapons in readiness for battle. Outside the church too, around the doors and towers, circular depressions made from musket fire can sometimes be discovered. It is these shot marks that hold particular weight for this piece, as we look to uncover the details of a long since obscured Civil War shoot out in the heart of the Cheshire countryside.
The village of Great Budworth sits in the upper eastern quadrant of Cheshire, surrounded by rolling countryside, and makes for a perfect example of the classic English village of yore. Popular with TV crews, its cobbled lanes and cottages offer the visitor a tangible route back into the past; a route that, at every turn, finds itself in the shadow of the wonderful fourteenth-century church of St Marys and All Saints. A building described in Buildings of England, a foremost book on English architecture, as "one of the finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture remaining in Cheshire", not only is the church an historical gem, but the church grounds also play home to the former village school, a remarkably well-persevered timber-framed building built back in 1615.
A tour of the church itself brings with it many delights, not least the effigy of Sir John Warburton of Arley Hall, dressed in full dress armour. However, it was the stunning fifteenth-century octagonal font that caught my attention most when I visited recently; re-discovered in 1868 having being hidden under the church floor during the English Civil War. There was nothing in the guidebooks regarding the church's connection to the conflict.
The war was played out regionally in various spots across Cheshire, and several churches in the county make passing comment to it on their websites. Tarvin Church, around 16 miles to the southeast was a particular favourite of mine in this regard, displaying as it does dozens of musket shot holes around its tower and west wall from a skirmish that took place in the village during August 1644. The news that Great Budworth had been so affected by the war - for surely the requirement to hide a solid stone font beneath the church floor was a concession to precisely that fact - was however something of an unknown quantity to me. Armed with this new information, I took it upon myself to examine the church exterior a little more closely. Where contemporary buildings are found in close proximity to a church present during the Civil War it is not uncommon to discover evidence of a firefight. Scars left from the muskets of Royalists and Parliamentarian troops firing over close distances, closing in on one another as one side seeks to overthrow the other from what is, all sentimentality aside, a valuable strategic position.
At Great Budworth, many of the surrounding houses are likely contemporary, but better than that, the schoolhouse of 1615 is located in the church grounds. I had missed it at first, but sure enough, as I looked again, shot marks, perhaps more in keeping with a Flintlock pistol than a musket, were sunk into the stonework beside the schoolhouse door. Not only this, but there was what appeared to be a very deliberate "R" etched into the stonework too; a rather obvious reference to Royal allegiance. Turning 180 degrees to work out the angle of the gunfire trajectory, I then too found what looked suspiciously like corresponding shot marks in the corner space of the walls between the Vestry and the Lady Chapel. It was the memory of a shoot-out, it being easy to see how the corner space would provide cover for a soldier firing onto someone doing similarly from the doorway of the school. What happened here? I was relishing the challenge of trying to find out.
Civil War Cheshire
The Civil War in Cheshire is, as you might expect, a complex history that contains as many rabbit holes of exception and contradiction as it does clear lines. Broadly speaking however, following initial attempts to preserve a state of neutrality during 1642, the year war broke out, 1643 brought some relatively well-defined divisions of support. The west of the county, and the city of Chester in particular, spent most of the war as a Royalist base, well provisioned and defended - visited by King Charles in person twice - as it acted as a buffer between Parliamentarian England and the Royalist loyalists of North Wales.
Central and Eastern Cheshire however, soon found itself under Parliamentary control, with its primary HQ for the region in Nantwich and Sir William Brereton taking on the role as regional commander; it would be Brereton who would eventually take Chester itself following the battle of Rowton Moor in September 1645. Most key conflicts in the county took place early in the war, with Brereton moving quickly to take key towns during the first few months of 1643, with notable battles in Nantwich and at Middlewich, the climax of which took place around the church of St Micheal’s where 30 Royalists were killed and over 500 taken prisoner.
Royalist incursions into Cheshire would occasionally still take place however, and it is in one such instance that our conflict at Great Budworth appears to have taken place. In winter of 1643, a force of some 3000 Royalist soldiers and 500 horses arrived in the Dee estuary from Ireland, which when meeting up with Lord Byron's army from Oxford, meant a significant Royalist force was available in Cheshire for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities. Spending several weeks at wild in the county, this local army caused significant disruption to Parliamentarian plans as Lord Byron managed to galvanise his men into a fighting force that possessed a little bit more bite than the local Parliamentarians were used to. It was in this period that the Royalists took Beeston Castle, which had been under Lord Brereton's command for most of the year. It was a second, less well-known incursion, however, in August of 1644, in which we find our moment of action at Great Budworth.
On Sunday 18th August, Colonel Marrow, a Royalist commander stationed in Chester, left the city with a small band of infantry and horse to advance towards Northwich. We don't know the precise reason for his journey, but it was as likely to be a simple scouting exercise of local Parliamentarian strength as it was a dedicated mission. Parliamentarian soldiers had been alerted to the presence of Marrow's men due to their stealing of livestock on route, and as Royalist scouts reached Hartford Green near Northwich, they were duly met with a party of Parliamentarians who had arrived in an attempt to ward the Royalists off towards Chester. A fight broke out at Sandiway, and it was the Royalists who fared the better, taking a number of prisoners despite their leader Colonel Marrow himself being killed. It was the aftermath of this confrontation from which several local events remembered from the conflict took their genesis.
Leaving Sandiway, the bulk of the Royalist force made for the village of Tarvin. We know this as just two days on, Parliamentarian forces from the garrison at Nantwich attacked Tarvin Church, where they took more than 40 prisoners and killed 15 soldiers. It is what happened next though that is so important for our quest regarding Great Budworth. From troop diaries attested to in Thomas Malbon's Memorials of the Civil War in Cheshire and the Adjacent Counties, compiled by Edward Burghall, Vicar of Acton in 1899, we learn that on Friday 30th August, in light of the recent trouble at Tarvin, a large number of Parliamentarian troops marched out in order to reinforce defences in the village. However, having spent the night of the 30th at Middlewich, they made a deliberate detour north to Great Budworth on the 31st.
Tarvin, as the crow flies, is around 15 miles east of Middlewich, so a journey to Great Budworth on route means that the Parliamentarians were actively choosing to make 20 mile round trip, off-track from their desired destination. Something in Great Budworth was clearly worth the effort of a force that consisted of the majority of the Nantwich Parliamentarian Garrison visiting the village.