On August 22nd 1642 the English Civil War officially began when King Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham and attempted to rally support. In early September, threatened by The Earl of Essex’s army in Northamptonshire, he decided to link up with Royalists in Wales and the borders, so he marched westwards into Shropshire. He reached Wellington on September 19th and issued his manifesto, calling for a “free Parliament” and the rule of law; entering Shrewsbury the next day.
The Civil War is popularly seen as either a class struggle or a contest between the King and Parliament. The first is no longer much regarded by historians, and the latter requires an investigation of why the King was unable to gain a majority of the M.P.s, who were overwhelming drawn from the landowning gentry. In fact the 12 M.P.s representing Shropshire (two for the County, and two each for the boroughs of Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Bridgnorth, Wenlock and Bishop’s Castle) were divided: 8 for the King and 4 for Parliament. Ludlow and Bridgnorth were strongly royalist, but Richard More, M.P. for Bishop’s Castle, was a dedicated Puritan. The county sheriff was a royalist; the Lord-Lieutenant, the Earl of Bridgwater, attempted to remain neutral, and Parliament replaced him with Lord Littleton, who promptly defected to the King. One major landowner, Edward Herbert, a lukewarm royalist, retired to his power-base over the border in Montgomery. Other landowning families gave their support to one side or the other, and some changed sides.
King Charles did not remain in Shrewsbury for long before leading his army eastwards for the indecisive battle of Edgehill on October 23rd. But the town remained in royalist control for the moment.
The Civil War in Shropshire really began in September 1643 when the town of Wem, north of Shrewsbury, was taken and fortified by Parliamentary forces under Sir William Brereton. They successfully repelled an attack by royalists led by Lord Capel, who was without military experience and proved an inept commander. There followed a whole series of small local battles and skirmishes, often for control of a single village or manor-house. It was rare for any army to number more than a couple of thousand men. Both sides tried to recruit volunteers, but there were also conscriptions, and men who deserted and changed sides were liable to execution. Horses were seized from farms, money and goods confiscated from those deemed to be “disaffected”, and there was much looting, masquerading as demands for “free billeting”. Not surprisingly, many areas saw the emergence of “clubmen”; villagers intent on defending their homes and property against soldiers of either side.
Prince Rupert, the glamorous cavalry commander, arrived in Shrewsbury in February 1644 to make the town his base, but then led his army into Yorkshire, where he was decisively defeated at Marston Moor in July. The royalist position in Shropshire never fully recovered from this, for while he was away Parliamentary forces under the Earl of Denbigh scored a decisive victory in Montgomery and then moved to relieve Wem and take Oswestry.
In February 1645 Rupert’s brother Prince Maurice took command in Shropshire, but was called away to Chester, leaving Shrewsbury open to attack. The town fell to a surprise night attack by Colonel Myttton’s Parliamentary forces a week later. Thirteen Irish soldiers in the King’s service were then hanged, to the disgust of many on both sides. The same year witnessed the destruction of the King’s army by Fairfax and Cromwell at Naseby, and the Civil War in Shropshire came to an end with the fall, after the siege and bombardment, of Ludlow and Bridgnorth in April 1646.
Shropshire was thus never witnessed any major battles, but was the scene of many smaller engagements, by local forces commanded by local gentry. In this way it was similar to many other counties where loyalties were divided.
Footnote:There is a detailed survey of Shropshire in the Civil War in “To Settle the Crown”, by Jonathon Worton.