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While preparing my thoughts on the 375th Anniversary of the Battle of Turnham Green….

November 13, 2015


This was as close as the Royalists ever got to London.  Hastily improvised militia bands were sent out to meet the forces of the King and Prince Rupert and checked his advance at… Turnham Green – now the name of a Zone 2 tube station – but then a field a few miles west of anything anybody called London.

John Milton seems to have expected monarchist hoards to run rampage through the city and wrote the following sonnet, which we’re meant to sort of imagine pinned to his front door.

Captain or Colonel, or Knight in Arms,

Whose chance on these defenceless dores may sease,

If ever deed of honour did thee please,

Guard them, and him within protect from harms,

He can requite thee, for he knows the charms

That call Fame on such gentle acts as these,

And he can spred thy Name o’re Lands and Seas,

What ever clime the Suns bright circle warms.

Lift not thy spear against the Muses’ Bowre,

The great Emathian Conqueror bid spare

The house of Pindarus, when Temple and Towre

Went to the ground: and the repeated air

Of sad Electra’s Poet had the power

To save th’ Athenian Walls from ruine bare.

In other words please do not smash the door down and break everything and hurt people (especially me) because a major poet lives here.  Classical scholarship should tell you that good things happen to people who are nice to great poets in time of war.

Of course, if a devoted monarchist had exactly known who was living in such a house then he would have made a very deliberate choice to kick the door down and beat up the occupant.  For starters.  But it never came to that.  The Battle of Turnham Green was very inconclusive because the Royalists were too few in number to break through to London and the Parliamentarian forces too untested and untried to risk being used to advance on Oxford (Charles’ wartime capital).  Not many people died in this particular battle which could either be regarded as a sort of draw or as (with hindsight) a strategically and symbolically significant checking of royalist authority just outside London.

I remember as a child being taken to a re-enactment of the battle organised by “Sealed Knot” type dedicated folks.  The cannons were wonderfully loud and frightening and I retain a powerful sense of enormous hats and a deal of shouting.  There weren’t enough horses of course (there never are at such occasions) – and trying to figure out who was winning and how or why was difficulty.  Though it proved equally difficult back in 1642 by all accounts.

Of course the real fun, particularly if you are nine and have a sense of mischief, is to keep an eye on those people who are supposed to be dead and see how long it takes before they get up again.   I sort of feel for them.

“Colin, that’s a splendid uniform you’ve got there – did you make it yourself?  Musket, ramrod, powder, cartridge – all present and correct I see?  And you’ve come all the way down from Middlesborough I understand?  Yes, as I say, splendid.  OK – now you die in the opening artillery bombardment so if you wouldn’t mind spending the next four hours face down in mud that would be…  splendid.”

There’s a 1980s Doctor Who (5th Doctor) adventure called The Awakening which seems to depict Sealed Knot types getting a bit out of hand – although they are subject to pretty hefty alien influence.

I’ve always thought that there was something strangely fair about English Civil War re-enactments.  One side gets the prettier costumes and the other side gets to win.  American Civil War re-enactments seem rather less appealing, I have to say.  Neither side gets especially pretty costumes and a great many people die.


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