WITH his fresh faced good looks, flowing curly hair and a devil-may-care swagger as he led his cavalry into battle, he was the pin-up boy of the English Civil War – the dashing David Beckham of the Royalist cause.
So why was audacious Prince Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, 1st Duke of Cumberland, 1st Earl of Holderness – or Rupert of the Rhine, as he was popularly known – chasing cattle and sheep near Swindon 370 years ago?
And why was Swindon thrust into the limelight when those momentous events of the 17th Century, which altered the fabric of our nation, suddenly became news again?
Compared to neighbours Marlborough, Highworth, Malmesbury and Devizes, Swindon was a sleepy backwater with a population of around 600 during the armed encounters and political upheavals that constituted the Civil War (1642-1651.) So when the annals of the nine year conflict were finally written, the modest hill-top community – located in the heart of today’s Old Town – hardly figured.
But with Wiltshire being in the thick of the action, Swindon was not entirely untouched by the historic proceedings as the Parliamentarians and Royalists went head-to-head. Supporting the cause of King Charles I, the Royalists – or Cavaliers – enjoyed the upper hand during the summer of 1643. In July they achieved a tumultuous victory when 600 Parliamentarian (Roundhead) soldiers perished in the Battle of Roundway Down near Devizes.
Pursued by the thunderous Royalist cavalry, the Roundheads and their unfortunate horses “stumbled and tumbled and rolled willy-nilly” down a 300ft semi-precipitous slope into what is today known as “Bloody Ditch.”
Seven weeks later, however, after successfully relieving a besieged Roundhead garrison at Gloucester, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex and Captain General of the Parliamentary army led his men towards London by way of Swindon.
Imagine the wide-eyed excitement in rural Swindon as the aristocratic Chief Commander rode in on a drizzly September day in front of thousands of infantrymen shouldering their brutal 16ft long pikes.
Teams of horses would have been hauling heavy, unwieldy cannon as well as the more manoeuvrable and effective mortar guns.
“No doubt the locals gaped their fill at the sight of this military invasion,” proclaims Studies in the History of Swindon (1950) written by four historians including future Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman.
It was a Sunday and Essex attended a service at the Swindon Parish Church, the remains of which are in the Lawns. He spent the night with friends at Chiseldon but his artillery and trained soldiers – mostly “artisans and shopkeepers” from London – camped in and around Marlborough Road.
Swindon history lecturer Martin Thomas says: “Marlborough Road makes perfect sense as there was a mill and stream – in Mill Lane – providing fresh water. Troops could also avail themselves of the local amenities, like the pubs.”
The men would have belonged to the Yellow, Red and Blue regiments, depending on what part of London they were from; weeks later the latter two regiments distinguished themselves during the First Battle of Newbury.
The History of Swindon goes on: “Perhaps some Swindon townsmen talked with these gallant tradesman soldiers, gaining knowledge of another England further away than the ancient Wiltshire Downs.
“As the Earl of Essex passed through the town, the Wiltshiremen could have observed his flag… but perhaps they were more interested in the 1,000 sheep and 60 head of cattle which the Parliament army had seized en route from Royalist supporters.”
It has been suggested that these creatures – or at least, some of them - were the property of Richard Goddard, Swindon’s Lord of the Manor, a suspected Royalist.
Enter Rupert of the Rhine, quick-thinking, energetic 23-year-old commander of Charles I’s cavalry – a man who embodied the very spirit of the cavalier; carefree, arrogant, chivalrous.
A year earlier, Rupert’s rampant cavalry had routed the Roundheads at the war’s first major encounter, the Battle of Edgehill. Not the sort of chap then, to allow Essex to wantonly parade his spoils through Swindon. He was also itching for payback after the Siege of Gloucester.
As Essex’s men traipsed out of town the Royalists pounced a few hours later, near Aldbourne. The History of Swindon says the Roundheads lost their booty of livestock “when the Royalist troopers of Prince Rupert charged and harassed their army in a fierce encounter.”
In his book The Civil War in Wiltshire (1997) Tony MacLachlan says Rupert executed “a near miraculous move,” swooping majestically into the Roundheads’ left flank while Colonel John Hurry hit the column’s rear.
“Rupert, revelling in this spirited sort of action, was in constant danger and only narrowly avoided capture after his horse was shot in the head,” wrote MacLachlan.
The Battle of Aldbourne Chase, as it is known, was resumed with greater intensity and numbers at Newbury the following month when Essex – later superseded as commander by Oliver Cromwell - claimed an indecisive victory.
The Second Battle of Newbury, in 1645, left Swindon with one of the country’s most touching war memorials.
Sir John St John, of Lydiard House, in today’s West Swindon was a committed Royalist who lost three sons fighting for Charles I. William died at Cirencester, then John at Newark.
When mortally injured Edward was lofted home from Newbury the shattered Sir John erected a magnificent full size gilded effigy of him in St Mary’s church, behind his mansion.
Known as The Golden Cavalier it depicts Edward emerging from his campaign tent in full cavalry armour, holding a shield bearing the family coat of arms.
And that would have drawn a line under Swindon’s Civil War involvement had, some 350 years later in May, 1998, DIY builder Glenn Bailey not decided to build a patio.
“Wielding a spade,” as he later recalled, he surprisingly unearthed a broken pot four foot under the back garden of his thatched cottage in The Pitchens, Wroughton.
Inside were a pile of old washers. At least that’s what he thought they were. Closer inspection revealed a spectacular treasure of silver coins, dating from 1500 to 1643.
Valued together at nine pounds, 15 shillings and eight pence, the 219 coins of almost of pure silver would have been worth the equivalent of thousands of pounds when they were hidden.
The Wroughton Hoard – now exhibited in Swindon Museum – was almost certainly buried during, or just after, the Civil War. But by whom and why is a mystery – and how come the owner never dug them up?
Martin, 57, says it is thought that the garden, next to the village stream, was once part of a blacksmith’s.
He says: “When they were here the troops could have pressed the Wroughton blacksmith into service. A blacksmith would have been invaluable, particularly with horses and in repairing and making weapons. “It would offer an explanation as to why the coins were buried in the first place – in case the soldiers took them.
“If not a blacksmith, it may well have been someone also pressed into service who buried his savings for the same reason.
“Our Wroughton resident may have been killed at Aldbourne Chase, Newbury, or even executed for trying to desert. Truth is, we’ll never know. All we do know is that whoever buried their savings in or around the Civil War period didn’t dig them up.” - Barry Leighton