In the early hours of 11th January 1645, King Charles I’s soldiers shadowed Abingdon, led by his nephew Prince Rupert. In the endgame of the English Civil War, the town had become a symbolic milestone; to finally capture it would resuscitate the royalist cause after a suffocating four months of failure. This remarkable struggle is preserved in a series of letters, which reveal just how Abingdon tore the royalist high command apart.
Four months earlier on 14th September 1644, Rupert’s bitter rival, Lord George Digby, began the offensive by firing off a series of letters to Parliament’s governor of Abingdon, Major-General Richard Browne. The toxic Digby may have had golden curls and a politician’s silver tongue, but he certainly didn’t have the Midas touch. Considering Abingdon’s garrison was mutinous over pay, he’d assumed it to be ripe for the picking and coaxed Browne to turn coat. But the fruits of this labour were to prove entirely rotten.
Digby’s courting quill flattered, fawned and offered rewards a-plenty. There was a baronetcy, continued governorship of Abingdon, and command of a brigade in the King’s army. Digby even offered Browne, “what other reward you shall desire within His Majesty’s power to grant.” Rupert, however, argued that the King should despatch regiments of soldiers rather than letters, but the Prince was muzzled, not least because Browne seemed to be rising to the bait.
However, Browne’s cunning words never translated into action and Digby resorted to tittle tattle in an effort to alienate him from his parliamentary colleagues; Sir William Waller had spoken to the Countess of Brentford of the, “rogue Browne, who would use her like a clown.” Digby also promised to send on, “Lord Saye’s letter written with his own hand, whereby you may guess at your future respects with [Parliament].”
Despite facing a barrage of eloquent excuses and procrastination, Digby reloaded his ink time and again for ten fruitless weeks. On the 1st December he pushed for action with an idle threat, “it would be an extreme grief to me, to be an occasion of misfortune to you.”
Digby had staked everything, even his reputation, by assuring the King that he could win over the enemy. But he gambled away all chances of the royalists ever taking the town and lifted the stakes by betraying the King’s commanders in his next letter. “The pressures of our military men here for some enterprise, either for the taking or blocking up of [Abingdon], are daily such as I suffer much by opposing them.”
Communications between the two pen-pals was to get more explosive. Warning signs such as Parliament sending fifteen-hundred reinforcements to Abingdon failed to dim the blue skies of Digby’s world. Only on the 19th December did Browne admit that his, “design was to play with you at your own game, till our works … were strengthened and accommodated with men and provisions …”
Digby threatened to publish the letters to prove Browne’s prostitution of himself. Unbelievably, he also persisted and suggested Browne might follow through once royalist troops approach the town. But Browne, acting fast and acting first, published all of these fascinating and insightful letters and saved this chapter in Abingdon’s history for posterity.
Having strung Digby along with fine words, Browne now let rip. “I find you are swelled, and the poison you vent is worse than spiders; but your web is so thin, that the readers will guess by the ridiculousness of your plot.” Browne wasn’t finished. “If I were a prostitute, my lord, as you call me, why did your honour act the pimp, and offer me a reward with such solicitations so frequently, so hotly, so long a while?”
At this juncture, Rupert and the army were finally let loose upon the strengthened defences of Abingdon, and the reinforced parliamentarians manning them. On the 11th January 1645, three-thousand royalists came upon the town with the dawn. A contingent from Faringdon began a diversionary assault from the west but were fended off. Rupert and the main force attacked from the south, crossed Culham Bridge to establish a foothold near the old abbey, and then attempted to destroy the bridge. Browne’s men waded through waterlogged meadows, surprised Rupert’s men by outflanking them, and forced them to retreat. Some royalists were cut off and trapped on the bridge and Sir Henry Gage, the King’s famed commander, was killed. Dutch mercenaries and Irish soldiers were amongst those captured and in obeyance of Parliament’s orders, Browne mercilessly hung the Irishmen. The royalist humiliation over Abingdon was an open wound. After only two months as General of the King’s armies, Rupert’s command had been neutered by politicians playing at toy soldiers.