A HISTORY OF WARRINGTON IN 10 1/2 OBJECTS: WINWICK CANNONBALL
Hello and welcome to Episode 7 of a History of Warrington in 10.5 Objects. My name is Craig Sherwood and I’m the Collections Officer at Warrington Museum & Art Gallery.
People often ask why there is a statue of Oliver Cromwell in Warrington situated at the foot of the Bridge over the River Mersey. He wasn’t born in Warrington, they point out, nor did he die here. Admittedly he did stay in Warrington, but probably only for a few nights at most and if I’m honest Oliver Cromwell is probably second only to Mary Queen of Scots in terms of the number of sites boasting that a historical figure slept there at some point.
The truth is that the statue was a gift by local councillor Frederick Monks in 1899 in honour of the 300th anniversary of Cromwell’s birth. Monks admired at least some of Cromwell’s attributes but not everyone in Warrington agreed. There was a rigorous Council debate over whether to accept the statue at all and there was particular opposition from Warrington’s Irish Community over the plans to erect a statue of a man who was responsible for a huge death toll amongst the Irish population. It’s a debate that hasn’t gone away in the intervening 120 years as recent events have once again led people to reconsider who we commemorate in our public statues.
Whatever you think of Oliver Cromwell, there is however a kind of logic behind positioning his statue near Warrington Bridge. This was, after all, the final scene in a drama that had started 30 miles away near Preston and had reached its climax at nearby Winwick in the most important Civil War Battle that you’ve probably never heard of.
Object Number 7, a cannon ball from a Parliamentary frame gun, made of iron, dating to around 1648, found at Winwick, near Warrington.
I have the cannonball in front of me now and it’s hard to describe it without using the phrase ‘a rusty sphere of iron’ so I won’t. Perhaps surprisingly the cannon ball, or more correctly round shot, is fairly small and fits easily into my hand. It’s nothing like the large metal cannonball you imagine being fired from a pirate cannon or one of the huge cannons you find on castle walls. In fact it’s more like a large musket ball and like a musket ball this is very much a piece of ammunition from artillery that was designed to be moved easily and quickly.
The English Civil War is one of the most misleading terms in British History, which is a field of study that is chock full of misleading terms. To start with the term English is a bit of a misnomer because the Civil War actually dragged in the populations of Scotland, Wales and Ireland too. It wasn’t even a single war, more like three significant sub-wars stretching over 9 years in total between 1642 and 1651 with intervals in-between so those involved could pop to the toilet, grab some more popcorn and so on. Some historians even lump the first two Civil Wars together and consider the third Civil War as a kind of sequel – an English Civil War digestif if you like.
As with any war the causes of the English Civil War – we’ll stick with the term for now – are pretty complex. If you only remember one thing I suggest it should be this – the Civil War did not start off as a revolution. No-one intended to *spoilers* execute the king and replace a Monarchy with a Republic. Instead a series of conflicting attitudes to Royal authority and religion escalated, as it sadly so often does, into an armed conflict between two groups of people. On the one side you had the Royalists – sometimes called Cavaliers – who supported the authority of King Charles I, and on the other you had the Parliamentarians – sometimes called Roundheads – who supported that of Parliament.
When this conflict escalated into war the Northwest of England became a key area of military operations and Warrington, largely because of its strategic position as a bridging point on the River Mersey, was prominent in the strategies of both sides. Warrington is used to being caught between two implacable foes – it’s halfway between Manchester and Liverpool after all – but during the English Civil Wars it became dangerously involved in the fighting between the forces of King and those of Parliament.
In fact the town of Warrington got dragged into the Civil Wars before they had even started. On 20th June 1642, two months before King Charles I had formally declared war, the king’s supporters captured Warrington’s stores of arms and ammunition in what we’d describe today as a pre-emptive strike. The Royalista then proceeded to establish a local military headquarters in Church Street and fortified the town with a hastily constructed series of ramparts and ditches.
Warrington was now a Royalist stronghold and therefore, much to their dismay, the inhabitants of Warrington found themselves on the front line of a series of skirmishes that moved between the towns of Warrington, Leigh and Wigan. The most significant of these was the Battle of Stockton Heath on 3rd April 1643 during which Royalist forces under the command of the Earl of Derby drove back the invading Parliamentary army. 5 days later the Parliament decided to have another go and this time they descended on the town of Warrington from all directions. They set up their cannons on Mote Hill, formerly the site of the Botelor family’s castle, and began bombarding the town from there. If you look at the east wall of St Elphin’s parish church today you can see scars from this cannonball fire on the stonework. The Earl of Derby was not at all prepared for a siege and panicked, ordering that Warrington should be set on fire. According to legend the town burned for three full days.
Warrington, by now somewhat charred, remained under siege for over a month but the final assault began in the last week of May. The town was bombarded again and fighting broke out in the streets as the Parliamentary forces stormed and took Warrington for Parliament. The Royalists tried to recapture the area several times but their attempts met with failure and soon events elsewhere in England rendered their efforts irrelevant. A resounding defeat at the hands of the newly formed New Model Army at the Battle in Naseby in June 1645 ended any real hope of a Royalist victory, although King Charles I was nothing if not stubborn and didn’t finally surrender until the following May. The English Civil War was over…
… or so they thought. King Charles I did not surrender to Parliament, but chose to surrender to the Scottish instead, hoping to negotiate with them later and this drive a wedge between the Scotland and their Parliamentary allies in England. His plans failed and in January 1647 Scotland handed the king over to Parliament in return for £400,000 – the equivalent of around £50 million pounds today. The New Model Army under the leadership of a then up and coming general called Oliver Cromwell offered the king a peace deal, but Charles I refused it, escaping to the Isle of Wight in November. There he concluded a deal with his Scottish supporters that he hoped would put him back on the throne. The English Civil War Part II was on.
The following July an army of Scottish royalists crossed the border into England in support of the King. Led by the Duke of Hamilton, the army moved south through Lancashire prompting Cromwell and the New Model Army to head north to meet it. Some reports claim that the Scottish army consisted of around 18,000 soldiers, more than twice the size of the New Model Army, but the truth is that all this had happened so quickly no accounts are entirely accurate. Certainly neither side was properly prepared – Cromwell’s army had no heavy cannons, just a few easily transportable frame guns. The Scottish Royalists on the other hand were even more poorly equipped and had to commandeer horses on route to carry their ammunition. Crucially by the time the Scottish units were moving through Lancashire they were travelling in a column so long that by the time the front had reached Wigan, the foot soldiers at the back were still in Preston around 18 miles away.
On 17th August 1648 Cromwell took the opportunity to attack this column at Preston and captured the town. The next day he attacked the remainder of the Scottish army in hand to hand fighting. The Scottish Royalists were outmaneuvered and with Preston in Parliament’s hands the remaining 7,000 foot soldiers and 4,000 mounted troops marched southwards in retreat. Although most sources cite the Battle at Preston as the last of this phase of the war there would be one more battle – the Battle of Winwick.
The summer of 1648 had been miserable and wet and so the rivers and streams were swollen and the ground was boggy underfoot. This slowed the Parliamentarian forces so much that the fleeing Royalists were able to widen the gap between themselves and their pursuers. The Royalists took the opportunity to hole up in Wigan, plundering the town in the process. Whilst pinned down in Wigan the Royalist forces lost another thousand troops who either died from their wounds, were captured or simply deserted.
Making the most of their head start Royalist Cavalry continued to Warrington, three miles to the south, which was the only place an army could cross the River Mersey for ten miles in either direction. We can only imagine the reaction of the townspeople of Warrington as thousands of terrified soldiers on horseback suddenly flooded into the town. The cavalry’s orders were to stay at Warrington until the infantry arrived and to help hold off Cromwell’s army at Warrington bridge. Unfortunately during war orders can be lost, misinterpreted or simply ignored and what actually happened was that cavalry didn’t stop, crossing over the bridge and leaving the remaining infantry marooned on the north side of the River Mersey.
Sensing defeat the infantry, now largely composed of Scottish foot soldiers, chose to make their last stand at a place approximately half a mile to the north-west of the Warrington suburb of Winwick, at a place called Red Bank. It was a well-chosen spot where the road between Wigan and Warrington crossed a marshy valley with a high sandstone bank along the southern edge. It was a defensible point and so there the Scots waited for the pursuing Cromwellian forces.
It is at the site of this final showdown that the cannonball was found, probably fired by the Parliamentary side from an easily transportable cannon known a frame gun. Musket balls have also been found at the site, indicating that the two armies probably spread out across the valley and fired upon one another whilst the close quarter combat took place along the road. As often with military history the exact details of the battle change depending on whether you’re reading reports from the winners or the losers, many of them written 30 years later or more after the battle, but what seems clear is that the Scots were either winning or at least holding their position against Cromwell’s advance troops until the main Cromwellian infantry arrived.
If the arrival of the infantry wasn’t bad enough for the Royalists, Cromwell’s mounted forces had taken advantage of some local knowledge and part of the cavalry had circled round by a secret route to cut off the Royalist’s escape route. Caught between their opponents infantry and their cavalry the Scottish Royalists, sensing defeat, tried to flee. They were cut down in their hundreds at Winwick and the surrounding fields and the few survivors that made it to Warrington Bridge arrived there to discover that their own cavalry had already fled across the bridge. With no cavalry to cover their escape and no reinforcements waiting for them they surrendered on the spot, close to where Cromwell’s statue stands today.
Contemporary accounts describe how the fields, meadows, woods and ditches along the road from Wigan to Warrington were strewn with corpses. Local field names recorded in the tithe maps hint at the bloody horror, including Butch Crow and Scotch Fields. St Oswald’s Church Winwick was used as a temporary prison to house the captured survivors. These prisoners are thought to have numbered no more than 5,000 – less than a third of the force that had set out from Scotland and less than half the number who had fled the Battle of Preston a few days earlier. Oliver Cromwell himself headed into Warrington where he stayed in the now demolished General Wolf Inn on August 20th, 1648. At a nearby building, now known as Cromwell’s Cottage, he sent dispatches proclaiming his victory over the Scottish Royalists at the Battles of Preston, Warrington and Winwick.
The Scottish prisoners of war were, however, a problem. Warrington had been so impoverished by 9 years of war that it could scarcely feed itself let alone feed thousands of captured Scots. Such was the anger against the Scottish Royalists in the town that even when the order to release them was given the prisoners refused to leave without an armed guard. In the end many of them were marched out of town by Cromwell’s soldiers to the jeers of the locals, very probably along the route out of town that has since become known as Scotland Road.
The Battle of Winwick had been the final proof, if proof were needed, that Cromwell’s New Model Army was superior to anything that the Royalists could field. Success at Preston, Warrington and Winwick emboldened the army and their power and that of Cromwell began to exceed Parliament itself. Four months later in an event known as Pride’s Purge soldiers from the army prevented moderate MPs from entering the House of Commons, thus tipping vote in favour of those MPs who wanted to put King Charles I on trial on a charge of high treason. The King was eventually convicted and executed in 1649. The Second English Civil War was over and England became, temporarily at least, a Republic.
Warrington had one more role to play in the outcome of the English Civil Wars. In 1651 the late king’s son who had been proclaimed King Charles II arrived in Warrington with his supporters on 16th August. There he had a choice, head for straight for London in an effort to strike a decisive blow or travel down the Welsh borders in the hope of recruiting more soldiers to his cause. Unfortunately for Charles he chose the latter. The rumours of huge numbers of supporters in the Welsh borders waiting to rise up in support of the Prince proved to be just that and Cromwell’s army met and defeated the Prince’s forces at Worcester. It’s difficult to tell what might have happened had the prince headed straight to London but arguably the fateful decision the future king took at Warrington led to the end of the English Civil Wars and 9 more years of Republican government in England.
We’re turning to a mixture of true crime and obsolete punishment for the next episode of the podcast. We’ll be discussing an iron gibbet cage and the sad tale of a crime that shocked Georgian Britain – the murder of James Hogworth.