Its History Actually: The Battle of Huntingdon and The Battle of St. Neots
July 6, 2023

Well, perhaps not battles in the conventional sense, but more skirmishes actually. However, there is nothing wrong with emphasising local history. Besides, two rather important historical figures were involved.

Before we delve into all that, let’s briefly mention last month’s book review. You may recall that when I told you about King Stephen, I mentioned some other singletons (that is, individuals with unique names): Victoria, Anne, and Mary. Well, that wasn’t entirely accurate with regards to Mary. In 1688, when Catholic King James II was deposed, Parliament invited Protestant William of Orange and his wife, Mary (James II’s daughter), to be joint monarchs. So, there was a second Mary, although I have never seen her referred to as Mary II.

Now, back to the battles/skirmishes. In June 1645, the Royalist army, led by King Charles I himself, was defeated at Naseby (the site of which is only about a 40-minute drive west along the A14 and well worth a visit). This battle was one of the defining moments of the civil war. The defeat was a double blow for Charles, as his private correspondence, which was captured, revealing his attempts to raise foreign Catholic mercenaries to fight in Britain in support of his cause. This further alienated the Parliamentarians and even some of his own supporters, who were growing wary of the King’s duplicity.

After the defeat at Naseby, the King continued to seek support in the country, initially in Wales and then heading north towards Scotland before turning south. By the end of August, he was in East Anglia with elements of his army. As the Royalists approached Huntingdon, they were met by a small Parliamentary force, and a brief skirmish took place near Stilton. Casualties were light, and the small Parliamentary force withdrew. Charles entered Huntingdon on August 25, 1645. This could have been somewhat of a propaganda coup, as Huntingdon was the birthplace of Oliver Cromwell, and it was the centre of the ‘Eastern Association,’ Cromwell’s power base. By this time, Charles’s fortunes were on the decline.

Charles spent two nights at the George Hotel (not named after the Hanoverian Kings who came along 60 odd years later). The Falcon public house in Market Square was also present at the time, and Royalist officers would have been billeted and drinking there. The Parliamentarians complained about the conduct of Royalist soldiers billeted in the town and Godmanchester, and there were allegations of rape and pillaging in an area known to be sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause. On the other hand, Charles was keen on ensuring his troops behaved themselves, and orders were issued accordingly. It is said that Charles ordered the execution of a number of men caught robbing locals. So, you have different accounts, and whom you believe, as is the case now, tends to depend on which side you support. After his brief stay, the King set off in the direction of Oxford, where more bad news awaited him.

The battle at St. Neots was a more serious encounter and occurred on July 10, 1648, during a phase known as the second civil war. By May 1646, the Royalist cause appeared to be lost, and Charles was forced to negotiate a settlement with Parliament. However, behind the scenes, he was trying to split the opposition, and matters came to a head in early 1648 when Royalist supporters in the Scottish Parliament agreed to restore Charles to the throne. Uprisings were planned in various parts of England to catch Cromwell and his New Model Army off guard. The Earl of Holland and George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, raised a small force to capture London. However, this proved insufficient for the task, and they were repelled. Many of the force members deserted, while the remaining attempted to escape north and reached St. Neots late on July 9. In the early hours of the following morning, a much larger Parliamentary force, led by Colonel Adrian Scrope, attacked, overrunning the tired, hungry, and demoralised Royalist force on the town bridge. The fighting in the town was fierce, but the Royalist force was quickly overwhelmed. Holland was captured and executed for treason the following year (having changed sides two or three times by then!). The Duke of Buckingham managed to escape, rejoin the King, and eventually became one of the most important (and dissolute) members of the court of King Charles II.

I have provided only a brief overview of these two events. Much more can be discovered about these fascinating events in the museums in Huntingdon and St. Neots, and I strongly encourage you to visit and support both.