When the English thought the Welsh were Irish

There are times in life when the randomness of the calendar can prove really eerie. Such was the case with today, when, on the one day I’m not performing in a musical at my local theatre, I decided to mark the day off by checking out the National Civil War Centre in Newark.

The Nottinghamshire museum, the first in Britain to be devoted entirely to the conflict of the 1640s, has been open for six weeks now. The exhibits inside cover various aspects of the war, including the experience of plague, a host of different artefacts and clothing from the era, and an interactive touch-screen exercise whereby you decide which side you would have supported if you had been there at the time. There are plenty of sobering reminders of the reality of war, and the whole experience offers a useful window into a time when religion and politics were not only closely linked but also mattered intensely to just about everyone in Britain as well as Ireland – however hard that may be for people in Britain to fathom now.

The location of the National Civil War Centre is appropriately chosen: it was there in May 1646, at the height of the last of Newark’s three sieges that Charles I of England…and Ireland and Scotland, of course… voluntarily surrendered to the Scottish Covenanter forces, commanded by General David Leslie, who were besieging the town as allies of the Parliamentarians and Oliver Cromwell. At a stroke, Charles thus ended that phase of the conflict, by becoming the Roundheads’ most prized captive. It must certainly have come as a shock to most of Newark’s townspeople: the majority of them were Royalist supporters, and thousands of their number had died as a result of siege, battle or disease over the previous three years.

The importance of Newark to understanding the progression of the war in the 1640s also serves as a reminder of the conflict’s international nature. Put starkly, what happened in England after 1642 was influenced in no small measure by events in Ireland from 1641, which in their turn were rooted at least in part in events in Scotland after 1637. In his magnificent 1999 tome The Isles: A History, historian Norman Davies explains confusion over nomenclature has clouded understanding of the war’s international dimension:

“The English Civil War” must be one of the worst misnomers in the whole historical repertoire. Not much used at the time, the label ill suits the complex chain of conflicts which were fought out between Scotland, Ireland, and England after 1639, and has misled generations of students and scholars. Royalists called it “the Great Rebellion”, Parliamentarians “the Cause”. Historians have been looking for a replacement for some time. Some of them fell for the Marxist slogan “the English Revolution” – which completely misses the point. Others have adopted “the British Civil Wars”, which borders on the anachronistic. Perhaps the best solution is that preferred by many Scots – “the Wars of the Three Kingdoms”.

Whatever we want to call the war, each kingdom’s fate was connected closely with that of the other two. Despite his heavy defeat at Naseby in June 1645, Charles held off from negotiating surrender terms with his enemies for several months only because his ally in Scotland, Lord Montrose, was still enjoying the upper hand against the Covenanters under Lord Argyll, and so in a position potentially to turn the tide back in the King’s favour in England. Montrose’s run of military successes came to a crushing end, however, at Philiphaugh in September 1645. Similarly, another reason the war in Scotland lasted as long as it did was the intervention there by Irish Confederate forces under Alasdair MacColla on Montrose’s side: the Confederates understood that an Argyll victory in Scotland, and/or a Parliamentary victory in England would be bad news for their cause in Ireland – and so it proved.

Newark’s newest museum does its best to pay the Three Kingdoms’ War’s Irish and Scottish dimensions due attention, with several panels doing their best to put things in context, and explain how the wars in Ireland and Scotland broke out, developed, and concluded, and also how they impacted on the war in England. Such interaction and connection can still puzzle English history-watchers: before he became a Labour MP, Tristram Hunt made his name as a TV historian, with one of his first works being a January 2002 documentary on the conflict of the 1640s. In a piece for the New Statesman, he wrote of his bemusement over some of the criticism he was getting:

A man called Peter Paterson asked why the programme had all this nonsense about “the wording of the Scottish Presbyterian prayer book” and wasn’t simply an account of “the glorious tussle between Roundheads and Cavaliers”? Well, Peter, I’m afraid history is a bit more complicated than that and the war extended beyond the denizens of Middle England.

Monument to the Battle in Naseby
Monument to the Battle in Naseby

Finally, back to the calendar eeriness that I mentioned earlier. It was only after I’d arrived back home after visiting Newark that I realised the importance of today’s date: it’s exactly 370 years since the Battle of Naseby, in which Charles I’s army (if not the King himself) were made, violently, to realise that the game was up for them. Not only that, but, more gruesomely, in the aftermath of the battle Parliamentary soldiers, who would have read the continuing stories in the popular news-sheets of the supposed “barbarous” nature of the Confederate Catholic forces in Ireland, set upon and slaughtered about a hundred Royalist camp followers, including women, thinking that they were Irish. It later emerged that the soldiers could not understand their victims’ accent, and that the dead were actually from Wales.

Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.