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. Something 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 and its place at the centre of a genuinely hidden history of the English Civil War.
Signs of War
For many of us with an active interest in local history, a passion for local churches is a healthy and seriously rewarding sideline to develop. Beyond its obvious role as a religious house and focal point for the local community, the parish church is also a bastion of historical insight. In the absence of a castle (and sometimes even still) the parish church will likely be the oldest building to be found in our village or town, and as such it has found itself playing the primary witness to, and chronicler thereof, hundreds and sometimes thousands of years of local life. In this guise it will naturally find itself performing another role too; as a keeper of secrets.
From the shape of the tower or the main doorway, a visitor may deduce the origins of a more ancient building with relative ease. A round tower, originally defensive, likely made from knapped flint, is almost always a rare reminder of our Saxon heritage. An original Norman church will have a squared tower, and a semi-circular archway, often decorated with zig-zag or chevron shapes around the door. There are clues everywhere as to the age of the building, even in the buttresses of the walls; Norman structures tend to be flat and broad, and early English from circa 1200 projecting slightly with a slopped cap, with later styles tending to be free-standing, joining the wall by way of an arch. So much information and that’s without even beginning to consider window styles and general stonework.
In the churchyard too, with its features and tracks, the visitor may be able to learn more about the historical setting of the village surrounding the church. Is the churchyard raised above the level of the church floor? If so, by how much? The average English parish church has seen upwards of ten thousand burials over the past eight hundred years, which is why so many of them now present as elevated (try not to think about that too much next time you’re walking through one at night).
Courtesy of the various pamphlets, effigies, and mounted plaques to be found in a church of antiquity, going inside the building you may find that understanding can be gained as to the key players in the life of the building and area, be them local nobles or wealthy landowners. Look closer still and there may even be antiquated graffiti on the walls, not to mention the daisy-wheel hexafoil, ‘W’ and ‘X’ symbols that may be found around its doors and windows; ‘witch-marks’ from a time when local communities genuinely believed that evil spirits could be deterred from crossing a threshold by such carvings in the stone. As you may well be able to tell, some of us can get a tad obsessive about this stuff!
Now for most, any selection of these discoveries will quite rightly 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 also become acquainted with, an often under-appreciated timeline of local history too; war.
From the Baronial conflicts of the Middle Ages, through the events of the Wars of the Roses, and onto the English Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century, the parish church has repeatedly come to find itself at the centre of a militarised experience. 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 dusty recesses of the local historical record but often too in the very fabric of the building itself.
They may go unreferenced in the guidebook, but look more closely at the stonework inside the church and you may well spot deep score marks left from idle hours of billeted troops that found themselves with little to do but sharpen their weapons in readiness for battle. Then outside the church, around the doors, windows, and towers, we may come across what I often consider to be the jewel of such studies; circular depressions made from musket fire. It was the unexpected observation of such that inspired this piece, for whilst many of the topics I cover centre on reappraising age-old legend and folklore, this one came about through my own personal experience back in the summer of 2021, as a summer stroll in a churchyard led me to uncover the details of a long since obscured Civil War shoot-out in the heart of the Cheshire countryside.
A Beautiful Village
The village of Great Budworth sits in the upper eastern quadrant of Cheshire, surrounded by rolling, untouched countryside, and makes for a perfect example of the classic English village of yore. It is a place with a deep-rooted history, its name coming from the Saxon words bode and wurth, meaning ‘a dwelling by water’ in reference to its proximity to the nearby mere. Noted in Domesday Book as already having a resident priest back in 1086, it would go to spend much of its history as part of the Arley Hall estate, right up until 1948; something which did much to preserve the look and feel of the village so admired today.
Popular with location scouts and TV crews, its cobbled lanes and cottages offer the visitor a rare and 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 a 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, replete in full dress armour. However, it was the stunning fifteenth century octagonal font that caught my attention most when I visited that summer day on account of a sign noting its re-discovery in 1868 - having been hidden under the church floor during the English Civil War. There was nothing in the guidebooks regarding the church's connection to the conflict, yet this was obviously a serious moment in the history of the village. Such absence of commentary is not unusual.
The fallout 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, to ensure safety, often saw locals needing to simply 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 taboo for those immediately connected to the church.
The Civil War had played out in various spots across Cheshire, and several churches in the county make passing comment about it on their websites and in their guides. Most locally to Great Budworth, Tarvin Church, around 16 miles to the south-east, is a particular favourite of mine in this regard, displaying as it does dozens of musket shot holes around its tower and west wall, the scars of a skirmish that took place in the village during the August of 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. It would lead to the most enthralling experience I have ever had while exploring such a location, stoking my imagination and passion for the topic ever since.
Where contemporary buildings are found in close proximity to a church that was present during the Civil War, it is not uncommon to discover evidence of a firefight; marks 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 primarily a valuable strategic position. At Great Budworth, many of the surrounding houses are likely contemporary but better than that, the schoolhouse of 1615, as mentioned previously, is located on the church grounds. I had missed it at first, but sure enough, as I looked again, shot marks, more in keeping with a Flintlock pistol than a musket (such pistols are known to have been in wide use during the conflict, especially by members of the cavalry) were scattered around the schoolhouse door. And then I saw it. A very deliberate ‘R’ etched into the stonework.
It was one of those rarest of moments, a mainline straight into the past, at least it would be, if it was, as I suspected, etched in reference to Royalist allegiance. Turning 180 degrees to work out the angle of the gunfire trajectory, I then found what looked suspiciously like corresponding shot marks in the corner space of the walls between the vestry and the Lady Chapel. Was this the material memory of a shoot-out? It was easy to see how the corner space would provide cover for a soldier firing onto someone doing similar 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 anything like clear lines. Following the king raising his standard at Nottingham in 1642, and the promise of Parliament’s response, for most local communities during the first year of the war, the focus was entirely centred on attempting to preserve a state of neutrality. In the beginning, it was more about ensuring the safety of your local resources than any rallying cries, with local militias setting out to avoid involvement in militarised political conflict and simply protect their families. Come 1643 however, the sheer breadth of the war meant this was no longer possible, and some relatively well-defined divisions of support had been carved out.
For the majority of the war to come, the west of the county, and the city of Chester in particular, would be cast as bastions of the Royalist cause. Provisioned and defended - and visited by King Charles in person twice - the Cheshire region acted as a buffer between Parliamentarian England and the Royalist loyalists of North Wales. Central and eastern Cheshire however would soon find themselves largely under Parliamentary control, with the Parliamentarian headquarters for the region set up in Nantwich - Sir William Brereton of Handforth Hall taking on the role of regional commander.
Most key conflicts in the county took place early in the war, with Brereton moving quickly to take key towns during 1643, with notable battles at Middlewich bookending the year. The war had brought brothers face to face on the battlefield in a very literal sense, dividing families and generations. This is a war let us not forget, that per head of the population, killed more in England and Wales than the First World War. By the winter of 1643, for everyone, the conflict had become a brutal, bloody, and totally unavoidable affair.
Yet no matter the perception of majority Parliamentarian control of the county that history has passed down to us, during that winter, Royalist designs on central Cheshire were still very much a going concern. In December, a force of some 3000 Royalist soldiers and 500 horses arrived in the Dee estuary from Ireland. When meeting up with Lord Byron's men from Oxford, who had recently surged into Cheshire taking back many towns and villages for the king, this new force meant a significant Royalist pack was available to be put to use in Cheshire for the first time since the outbreak of hostilities.
Spending several weeks at wild in the county, this local field army caused significant disruption to Parliamentarian plans, as Lord Byron managed to galvanise his men into a fighting unit that possessed much more bite than the local Parliamentarians had been used to. It was a detachment of this new force that attacked Beeston Castle, that great clifftop fortress of the thirteenth century perched atop Beeston Crag that had been controlled by Brereton since 20th February. It was a highly prized strategic asset, as nothing much could happen for miles around without it being spotted by whoever commanded the position.
By winter, its crumbling walls had been repaired, its motte cleared, and it was now a very workable stronghold once more. The new force from Ireland however, in a band led by Captain Thomas Sandford, saw it as a prize ripe for the taking and one that, once captured, would send a defiant message to Parliamentarian soldiers located across the county. On December 13th, Sandford and his elite team infiltrated the castle's defences, scaling the cliff, and confronted the castle governor Captain Steele. So shocked was Steele at the covert attack, he surrendered on the spot. The Royalists would claim the castle for the king, and they wouldn’t be turfed out again for the better part of two years; the siege that eventually dislodged them in November 1645, providing the basis for the destruction of the castle which resulted in the ruins we see today.
The taking of the Beeston illustrates well just how problematic a patchwork of allegiant colours was to be set beneath the veil for Cheshire during the year to come; a time filled by events that would ultimately send the blood-stained fingers of the war reaching for the village of Great Budworth.
The year started with the Battle of Nantwich on 25th January. At the time, following Byron’s successful counter-offensive before Christmas and his defeat of Parliamentarian forces in Middlewich on December 26th, Nantwich had briefly found itself as the only Parliamentarian garrison in Cheshire.
Quartered in the snow around the village of Acton, it was only a matter of time before Byron’s new Cheshire army would attempt to take Nantwich too. Its garrison was led by a local noble, Colonel George Booth of Dunham Massey, and although strategically vulnerable, was still strong in fighting terms with around 2000 men at arms. Bryon encircled the town on January 18th, knowing that should he kick the garrison into touch, Cheshire would officially become a Royalist county once more. What he didn’t know, however, was that additional Parliamentarian forces were already on the way, led by the esteemed Sir Thomas Fairfax, who was at that time in the war, Commander in Chief of the whole Parliamentarian army.
On 24th January, Fairfax entered the region, his first contact coming with a group of Royalist outriders that had been sent to guard the road from Delamere Forest. Word reached Byron, but he was none too concerned, determined to focus on his siege of the town. The next morning, however, as it so often does, nature intervened in the course of events.
A sudden thaw of the snow had seen the River Weaver rise dramatically, sweeping the beam-bridge away in its wake before Bryon had time to move his troops onto dryer ground. In the upshot, he was instead forced to move his men some 6 miles away to the bridge at Minshull Vernon so that he might maintain communication lines back to his camp at Acton, where his artillery was being stored in the churchyard.
The situation proved the perfect target for the advancing Fairfax. His forces engaged, outflanking the Royalist right, and immediately took the upper hand as Booth led 600 musketeers out of Nantwich to overrun the camp in Acton churchyard. By mid-afternoon, the battle was over, and more than 1500 of Byron’s troops were taken prisoner, with Byron himself retreating to Chester. Never again in the course of the war would the Royalists have the chance to take back Cheshire for the king.
In the wider war, the spring of 1644 saw the Parliamentarians make gains across the country. The king’s new capital at Oxford was now under serious threat and his northern stronghold of York was under siege. It is onto this stage that Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of the king and the man from whom the atypical swashbuckling image of the Cavalier is thought to be drawn, found his calling. Initially intending to aid the Royalists in York, he had stormed the Parliamentarian garrison at Stockport before heading to Bolton, ordering an attack amidst heavy rain. Rupert’s forces were repelled, with hundreds killed in the process, but he was undeterred, persisting with hand-to-hand fighting in the streets across the evening of 28th May until he finally won the day. It would be recorded as the Massacre of Bolton, as in the aftermath, Rupert's forces are reported to have slaughtered more than 1000 people in the town.
As the people of Cheshire waited to discover what tricks and trials may hit them next, in truth life for the most part became relatively settled across the summer months, and it is precisely because of this that the more unusual occurrences that did pipe up during the season are relatively well attested in the record; amongst which, we find our occasion at Great Budworth.
With Cheshire now back in Parliamentarian control, yet Chester itself being chock full of Royalist soldiers, it was only natural that one side should wish to keep a close eye on the other. For the Parliamentarians, this was a relatively easy task, with dedicated patrols on major highways and throughout the country green. For the Royalists in Chester however, with little to no information of events surrounding them making it through the lines, they needed to ride out and actually have a look for themselves. For the most part, this went unnoticed. When they did get caught though, things could get very ugly, very fast.
On Sunday 18th August, Colonel Marrow, a Royalist commander stationed in Chester, left the city with a small band of infantry and horse on advancement towards Northwich. It would have been a scouting exercise like any other, except that Marrow was something of a kleptomaniac when it came to livestock. He was renowned for it, and so on this trip, locals were keen to alert Parliamentarian soldiers in the area in an attempt to save their animals.
As Marrow’s scout party reached Hartford Green near Davenham, they were duly met with a detachment of Parliamentarians who had arrived in an attempt to ward the Royalists off back towards Chester. A chase ensured, back out of the village, until a full fight broke out at the crossroads at Sandiway; details of which are left to us in a work that will prove invaluable to us in tracing the rest of our story.
Memorials of the Civil War in Cheshire and the Adjacent Counties, compiled by Edward Burghall, Vicar of Acton in 1899, is an incredible resource for the Civil War in Cheshire, as its original author, Thomas Melbon was keeper of the parish records at St Mary’s Church in Acton - the churchyard used for the Royalist camp at the Battle of Nantwich - during the war, and so had an avid real-time interest, writing his account of the Civil War shortly after its end.
Regarding the fight at Sandiway, he writes;
Colonel Marrowe slane. On Sunday 18 Aug 1644
Colonel Marrowe issued further of Chester with all or most of the horse & foote their, and marched towards Northwich; by the way, they plundered some poor men's cattle; but some of them, appearing onto the Townsmen on Hertford Green, had the forces in town issued upon them; which they perceiving, fled before towards Sandiway. The Townsmen pursued them, and the king's men took fifteen of them prisoners & carried them away; but Colonel Marrowe was shot in Sandiway by one lying under a hedge, & was carried alive into Chester, where he died the next day afterward.
It was the aftermath of this confrontation from which several local events, long remembered from the conflict, take their genesis. Leaving Sandiway, a section 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 in retaliation. Tarvin had been plagued by similar events since the outbreak of hostilities in Cheshire, and it is Tarvin’s church, the twelfth century St. Andrew’s, that I referred to earlier as exhibiting one of the ‘best’ examples of musket fire marking in the whole of England. The exterior walls are peppered. It is a fascinating sight and a grim reminder of events in the aftermath of the fight at Sandiway. I say that as although there were, as aforementioned, several other skirmishes in the town during the war, all others appear to have been raiding parties sent out by the Royalist garrison at Chester to attack Parliamentarian troops billeted in the village.
This instance is different, and the likely cause of the damage, as the only people that would need to take shelter in the church in a Parliamentarian village, and then be shot at - apparently lined up against the exterior wall - would be fleeing Royalist troops. It is what happened in the days that followed that is so important for us and the quest regarding events at Great Budworth.
Again, from troop movements attested to in Memorials we learn that on Friday 30th August, in light of the recent trouble at Tarvin, a large number of Parliamentarian troops - the whole of the Parliamentarian garrison from Nantwich - marched out to reinforce defences at Tarvin. However, having spent the night of the 30th at Middlewich, they then 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 a twenty-mile round trip, off-track from their desired destination.
Moving troops at the best of times was not a welcomed task. Mobilising a garrison, leaving their station unguarded but for the local militia, would never be something undertaken unless it was deemed absolutely necessary. For Tarvin, with aspirations as a market centre, one might understand the desire to reinforce and ensure the defences were up to speed, should the Royalists employ a sustained revenge attack. It would be seen as a worthwhile enterprise, and something to which such manpower - perhaps 500 strong - would add serious expediency. Therefore, for the detour, there was clearly something in Great Budworth, a village with a population of just a couple of hundred souls, that was of sufficient importance to draw the curiosity of an entire garrison force.