For a Parliament Freely Chosen

By Andrew Abram

The story of the discovery on 23 August 1659 of the fugitive Sir George Booth by the innkeeper of the Red Lion in Newport Pagnell, dressed as ‘Mrs Dorothy’, and his arrest and confinement in the Tower of London ‘close prisoner for high treason, in levying war against the Parliament and Commonwealth’, might be found in the pages of a historical novel. However, three weeks earlier Booth had led an armed revolt in Cheshire. Having been let into Chester on 2 August by the city authorities – the military garrison seeking safety in the castle – he mustered an estimated 3,000 horse and foot, ‘well mounted and armed, with drums beating, colours flying and trumpets sounding’ on Rowton Heath. Booth delivered his manifesto or Declaration, which roused his men and appealed for others to join the cause.

Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey (1622-84) leader of the armed rebellion in Cheshire (National Portrait Gallery)

My first book published by Helion in 2020, More Like Lions than Men, was a study of the Parliamentarian forces in Cheshire commanded by Sir William Brereton. Knowing about the military and political events of 1659, I noticed that other than a trickle of journal articles on the rising’s causes – mainly produced to mark its 300th anniversary – no comprehensive study existed. Also, more general narratives made little headway into the wider objectives of its leaders and participants. Such works have been chiefly reconstructed from the biased accounts of the victors, whereas a body of manuscript and printed sources remained untapped by many writers.

The main aims then, were to challenge notions that the rising was (a) a local event, poorly led, organised, and executed by Booth and his supporters; and (b) a failed attempt at restoring the Stuart monarchy. I was interested to understand, from the perspective of historical sources, the motivations its leaders (mainly Presbyterians, some who had fought for Parliament during the civil wars, and former royalists), and how they articulated these in a broad sense. In his manifesto Booth made no mention of the exiled Charles II, focusing instead on the untrustworthy Rump Parliament in governing the country through army interference. In calling for a free parliament, Booth asserted that without this freedom there could be no settled basis for religion, liberty and property.

Booth’s rank and file (it has been argued) came from his friends and pressed tenantry. However, though extensive evidence for their recruitment, arming and organization is wanting, many were officers of proven ability – including Myddelton, Colonel Henry Brooke and the Welsh royalist Sir John Owen – who had experience of leading troops in civil wars. Some of the lower ranks were also military veterans, although others were new to the rigour of war. Booth – a leading member of a Presbyterian gentry family that dominated Cheshire politics in the early-modern period – had been a colonel in Sir William Brereton’s Parliamentarian army and described by Sir John Meldrum in 1644 as ‘a young gentleman of great expectation’. But his increasing opposition to Brereton lessened his effectiveness, and he resigned his commission the following year.

Chester Castle (Thomas Tennant, Tour of Wales, 1778)

Even though the government response was rapid and proportional, Booth’s greatest problem was the disastrous failure of intelligence gathering and poor tactical awareness by himself and his senior commanders. Apparently oblivious to the arrival of Lambert’s veteran brigade in Nantwich on 15 August, after a forced march from London of nine days, through ‘very unseasonable’ weather, they were also stunned by the landing of 6,000 troops from Ireland at Beaumaris commanded by Colonel Jerome Sankey. Though Booth had an estimated 5,000 men under arms, his forces were split between Chester (where most of the horse was), and Warrington (where the bulk of the foot remained), some two day’s march away. Such unpreparedness is surprising, given that news of Lambert’s movements had reached Cheshire a week before. Likewise, Booth knew by 7 August that his position was increasingly isolated because much of the promised assistance from other parts of the country had failed to materialize. Exactly what he was trying to accomplish is hard to know, but a rift had already occurred with his subordinates over the rebellion’s strategic aims.

Reality soon kicked in. Following the first contact with Lambert’s scouts in the fields around Tarporley on 17 August, Booth sought negotiation. He told the major-general that he was ‘surprised to see him at the head of an army against him, who had only declared for a free parliament, offering to confer on an accommodation’. Nevertheless, Lambert was resolute, he was ordered to force the rebels into submission, and bloodshed could only be prevented by the laying down of their arms. Most probably, the declaration for the King by Myddelton at Wrexham a few days earlier had added fuel to the fire. The cry of Booth’s men was ‘Have at all’, and the Parliament’s ‘God with us’.

The seventeenth-century topography of Winnington Bridge is somewhat masked by alterations to the River Weaver, the industrial facilities of nearby Northwich, and modern housing developments. It is possible, nonetheless, to identify the main features of the battlefield from contemporary accounts and (where viable) field walking.

Broken and enclosed terrain around Hartford Green, 1.5 miles southwest of Winnington Bridge, where Lambert’s soldiers cleared bodies of rebel musketeers prior to the main battle (author’s photograph)

The fight was swift and one-sided. Booth fled with some cavalry to Chester (via Lancashire). Liverpool and Chester were seized the following day, but Sir George had gone. Of Winnington Bridge, Lambert reported, the rebels ‘were quickly beat, and put to a total rout, throwing down arms and colours, and we had the pursuit of them a great way in lanes and enclosures. Their foot are all broke and disbursed. If it had been a champion country, few of them had escaped to carry home news’. A royalist correspondent would report, ‘Sir George Booth … is poorly come off, and all his glorious pretext of a free parliament and the subjects’ liberty, which in his forehead he carried, is all ended under a wench’s petticoat, which makes many conclude him to be either a fool, knave or coward’.

The north bank of the Weaver, over which the rebels were driven by Colonel John Hewson’s regiment of foot, seconded by Lambert’s and Colonel Swallow’s horse (author’s photograph)

You can buy For a Parliament Freely Chosen: The Rebellion of Sir George Booth, 1659 here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s