Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Firing the first shots...........

For many of those that lived in Colchester, the first action of the Civil Wars took place on the 22nd August 1642. When St. John's Abbey, the home of Sir John Lucas, was attacked by a crowd from the town, and set in train what became known as the 'Stour Valley Riots.'

The Lucas family had a chequered relationship with the townspeople of Colchester, and could really be described as being 'in' Colchester, but not 'of'' Colchester. The family were not recent residents, having acquired the Abbey during the reign of Elizabeth, but its place just outside the walls gave it a certain separation.

Sir John himself had made enemies amongst the townspeople with many disputes over water and local gentlemen like Sir Thomas Barrington. However, it was during the period of personal rule that he did much to antagonise the gentlemen and common people of Colchester.

Ship money was a tax a Monarch imposed on coastal towns to build ships in times of trouble. However, in 1629 Charles I had dissolved parliament and ruled without it until 1640. Without a parliament to vote through supply, Charles needed to raise money elsewhere, particularly for his wars against the Scots, and so decided to ask for ship money from towns that normally would not need to contribute.

As you can imagine this was not greeted with universal delight, and many in Essex, particularly Colchester, were reluctant to pay. Indeed Sir Harbottle Grimston (the father of the subject of the biography I'm writing) was imprisoned at one stage for refusal to pay. Essex ended up as one the places most in arrears, and Sir John Lucas was appointed to the task of gathering it.

In this he proved extremely efficient and managed in the space of some eighteen months to make up the arrears. He was forced to use harsh, if legal, methods to accomplish this, and so long before the rumblings of war began, his popularity amongst the people of Colchester was very low.

So on the night of August 21st rumours began to spread that Lucas and a troop of armed men were preparing to leave the following day and join Charles at Nottingham. The Mayor put a watch on the house, and called up the trained bands (England did not yet have a standing army as we would understand it) and at midnight as Lucas (supposedly) stepped out of his house and this was taken as the signal for the troops to move out.

However the crowd read it as their own signal to attack and they did with alacrity (although this wasn't the first time Lucas's property had been attacked) ransacking the house, threatening servants and family, and eventually moving onto next door St. Giles' Church where they broke open the family vault and desecrating some of the coffins.

I won't go into any real detail here as that will be saved for the book, but the riots spread throughout the region, with Lady Rivers at St. Osyth being very hard hit also, and with that attack and those on Laudian ministers, a strong anti-Catholic and anti-Laudian element was involved. Indeed, the attacks spread to such an extent that John Walter believes that calling them the 'Stour Valley Riots' is actually a misnomer, and they were symptomatic of general unrest in a country on the verge of civil war. It was later that day that Charles raised his standard at Nottingham beginning the civil wars between monarch and Parliament.

So as we've seen, Colchester was there from the very beginning, and Richard Baxter wrote of the events at St. John's, "the warre was begun on our street before the king or the Parliament had any Armies." As for Lucas himself, the story is that he and a Laudian minister with him Thomas Newcomen were in effect arrested and taken to London by the town's MP's Harbottle Grimston and Sir Thomas Barrington, although Walter says this is untrue and that Lucas was already in London.

Whatever the case, the attack on St. John's Abbey was amongst the first notable events of the civil wars, and Colchester played another major role with the siege of 1648. So as well as commemorating this event, we also mark the start of the wars of the three kingdoms (although the people of Hull may well disagree), and the many changes that it wrought both militarily and constitutionally.


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