By Neil Chippendale
Brentford and Chiswick Local History Journal No 5 (1996)
The English Civil War officially began when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642. A number of small skirmishes were to take place over the next few months, most notably at Powick Bridge, before the two opposing armies faced each other at Edgehill on 23 October. Although this battle was inconclusive, Charles was given a tactical victory when the Earl of Essex, leader of the Parliamentarians, left the field and headed north to Warwick, leaving the road to London open for the King. This road was to lead to Brentford, a small town with about 280 houses. It was of great strategic importance because of the stone bridge over the River Brent which itself was a natural defensive position.
It has been argued that if the King had taken the advice of his nephew, Prince Rupert, and sent a ‘lightening’ force of cavalry to London, the war would have been won. Instead the King advanced gradually to the capital via Banbury, Oxford, Reading and Windsor, before arriving at Colnbrook, on the edge of Hounslow Heath, on 9/10 November.
The advance of the Royalist army led to great alarm in London. Rumours were rife that the King had given Prince Rupert permission to pillage the City as he had done at Broughton Castle. Parliament ordered all the gates to be shut and a defensive ring dug around the City. Parliament also voted to open peace negotiations with the King.
On 10 November the Earl of Essex brought the Parliamentary army back to the capital. Although it had been depleted by death, sickness and desertion, this was good news for Parliament. In Essex’s absence the Earl of Warwick had been busy recruiting more men for the army and Sir Philip Skippon had called out the London Trained Bands. (The Trained Bands were the 17th century equivalent of today’s Territorial Army. However, apart from the troops in London, the Trained Bands were not trained).
On either 10 or 11 November Parliament sent commissioners, led by the Earl of Northumberland, to Colnbrook to talk with the King. Initially the King refused to meet them as he considered one of the party, Sir John Evelyn, a traitor. This stance angered Parliament which voted the King’s action as a refusal to treat. After discussion in both Houses of Parliament, it was agreed to withdraw Sir John Evelyn and the party left for Colnbrook. During the discussions the King ‘agreed to reside at our own castle at Windsor… till committees may have time to attend us’. He also said ‘Do your duty we will not be wanting in ours’. The events of the next 48 hours were to prove these words false.
During the morning of 11 November, two regiments of foot and a company of horse arrived in Brentford from London. These were the red-coated regiment of Denzil Holles MP and the purple-coated regiment of Lord Brookes. Both regiments had fought at Edgehill and were under strength. Holles’s regiment, under the command of James Quarles, was estimated at 700 to 800 men. This number was made up of ‘London apprentices and those that so valiantly suthered [suffered] at Keynton [Edgehill]‘. Brookes’ regiment, under the command of either Colonel Edward Peto or Mainwarring had 580 men in the town. This would give a total of 1,300 foot.
The company of horse was under the command of Robert Viviers. The Parliamentarian troops were also short of arms and ammunition and had been promised that ‘it would be sent upon arrival’. The troops in the town were at ease as they knew that peace negotiations were taking place and they saw the Earl of Northumberland pass through Brentford with what he believed to be a basis for peace. He presented the document before Parliament, who realised that the King had agreed to discuss peace but had not agreed to a cessation of arms. Parliament immediately sent Sir Peter Killigrew to the King ‘to know the King’s pleasure regarding a cessation of arms during this time of treaty’. Sir Peter never reached the King – he got as far as the outskirts of Brentford ‘where he found the King’s forces fighting some regiments of the Lord General’s’.
Under the cover of an early morning mist Prince Rupert attacked Brentford with approximately 2,000 men from the regiments of Thomas Salusbury, a Welsh regiment that had run away at Edgehill, Prince of Wales regiment of horse and Prince Rupert’s own cavalry regiment. They charged along the London Road hoping to smash into the town and surprise the Parliamentary troops. They encountered stiff resistance from some troops of Denzil Holles’ regiment which had established an outpost in and around Sir Richard Wynne’s house along London Road (this was on the site of the present Lion Gate of Syon House). After taking the full force of the Royalist attack and managing to hold them back, Holles’ men started to fall back along the London Road until they reached the bridge. Here the Parliamentarian line held. The bridge and banks of the River Brent had been barricaded and the rest of the Parliamentarian troops were waiting behind the barricades.
The Prince of Wales’ regiment of horse attempted to storm the bridge but had to fall back due to heavy fire from concealed cannon. Foot regiments then attempted to take the bridge but again fell back. The Royalists then brought reinforcements into the battle. Regiments of foot again stormed the bridge, firing one round of musket shot. The bridge was finally taken and the Parliamentarians fell back to ‘Baricoed [barricaded] ….. narrow avenues’ where they had ‘cast up some little breastworks at most convenient places’. More Royalist troops were brought into the battle and the Parliamentarians started to fall back ‘from the one Brainford to the other, and from thence to the open field’.
Heavy fighting continued and by late afternoon the Parliamentarians had suffered severe losses. The ‘brave young red-coats [Holles' men] fighting most furiously, showing selves notable and brave fire-men and valiant sprats and giving the treacherous Cavaliers [Royalists] as hot entertainment as ever they felt in their lives’. John Lilburne, the political activist, wrote in the third person that he fought ‘Many long houres with inconsiderable party of men.. .holds all the enemies forces at bay and enforces them to a standstill’. Captain Lilburne is said to have rallied the remnants of the troops and counter attacked. They continued to fight on ‘front and flank’, although they were short of match powder and shot.
Finally the overwhelming odds began to tell and the Parliamentarians broke. Some fled into the Thames and drowned; others fled back towards London. Their retreat was covered by troops from John Hampden’ s regiment which had arrived late in the day. Without their arrival the Parliamentarians might have been completely wiped out.
With the town in the hands of the victorious Royalists, Prince Rupert ordered it to be sacked ‘as a punishment for having attached itself to the side of the rebels without consideration for its duty of loyalty to the Prince’. The Royalists ransacked the town, carrying away bed-linen, pewter, pots, food and animals. Boats were burned and beer and wine poured into the streets. The damage was estimated at £4,000.
The pillaging of Brentford caused a public outcry and money was raised to give relief to the town. This was still being paid in 1654 when the town petitioned Cromwell for a continuation of the £60 a year. Widows of soldiers killed in the battle were paid a pension; the wounded were taken to the ‘Savoye’ where they were looked after by the master and wardens of the Surgeons Company. Other were cared for in Brentford; St Lawrence’s church was paid to tend the wounded who could not be moved (some soldiers didn’t die until December 1642).
The captured Parliamentarian soldiers were taken away by the Royalist army. Some like Captains Lilburne and Viviers were removed to Oxford and sentenced to death for high treason, only to be released when Parliament threatened to hang Royalists in retaliation. Other soldiers (the majority) were stripped of their uniforms and taken to Reading where they were placed in pig-pens. The Royalists threatened to brand them unless they changed sides – most are said to have offered their faces for branding rather than join the Royalists. The men were eventually released and handed over to Colonel Fanes’ regiment which was ordered to look after the freed prisoners.
Members of Parliament started a fund to help ‘the poor Maymed souldiers of Parliament taken at Brayntford’. It was also hoped for ‘much money gathered by way of a collection for the souldiers that were hurt and maimed in this conflict, both for their present reliefe, as also to encourage others to shew themselves forward and faithful in these services for the cause of God and their countries good’.
We don’t know the number of men who died in the battle; the parish registers of St Lawrence state only that six officers were buried in the church and ‘divers others’; one Royalist only is mentioned in the registers. Estimates of the casualties range from 60 to 2,000. After the battle both sides published accounts of the action at Brentford. The King claimed that he had to advance into Brentford as he was encircled by the Parliamentarian army (Parliamentarian troops were at Windsor, Uxbridge, Kingston and Brentford). The King said that the advance of the Parliamentarians into Brentford was not in ‘good faith’, and he ‘Had no intention to Master the City by so advancing’. Parliament said that the battle was ‘A strange introduction to Peace’ and that the King’s troops were ‘thirsting after blood’. The battle saw the end of Denzil Holles’ regiment; those that did survive were transferred to Sir Philip Skippon’s regiment. Lord Brooke’s regiment was sent to Kingston after the battle and finally to Litchfield where it went into garrison. It was disbanded after the death of its Colonel-in-Chief in 1643.
Queen Henrietta Maria was hoping that the victory in Brentford would mean her court could go straight to London. This was not to be; the King’s army was checked the next day at Turnham Green and retreated to Oxford. The campaign of 1642 was over and London was safe.
Little remains of 17th century Brentford. The Butts, where the Parliamentarian cavalry was stationed, is now surrounded by houses. St Lawrence’s church has been rebuilt, apart from the tower, and the bridge replaced twice since. Boston Manor House is the only building to remain from Civil War days. According to local legend, it was from here that King Charles watched the battle. He may also have been in the house during the stand-off at Turnham Green; he is known to have offered peace talks in Brentford during that day and Boston Manor House would have been the most likely setting.
When he wrote this article, Neil Chippendale was the Local History Librarian at Hounslow Library. He has made a special study of the Civil War in Brentford and Chiswick and written a book, The Battle of Brentford, published in 1992. He has also written The Life of Colonel John Okey and his Regiment, 1642-1662, published in 1994.