Changing Sides During the English Civil Wars
Turncoats and Renegadoes: Changing Sides During the
English Civil Wars
Oxford University Press 258pp £65
A recent documentary about the English Civil Wars posed a seemingly straightforward question: Roundhead or Cavalier – which one are you? This captures the popular memory of 1640s’ England as a nation ‘by the sword divided’ into two rival and polarised sides locked in political and military conflict. In reality the situation was rather different, with many people attempting to remain neutral and some local communities raising arms against both royalist and parliamentarian forces. Perhaps most intriguing of all were those individuals who actually changed sides – both from Cavalier to Roundhead and vice versa – some on more than one occasion. This book is the first dedicated study of this startling practice.
Although lack of evidence makes it impossible to quantify the full extent of side-changing, Andrew Hopper’s extensive research reveals how it shaped the course of the wars on a number of levels. The practice was prevalent throughout society, with the book focusing on side-changers among the peerage, MPs and army officers and common soldiers. The reasons for their behaviour might vary. Peers could fear for the future of estates lying within enemy territory, army officers perhaps hoped to secure promotion, while common soldiers might be attracted by the promise of more regular pay. But the changing military and political situation seems to have had an impact on all these groups, with the flow of defections mirroring the fortunes of war. Thus the practice benefited the king during the early 1640s, with the trend reversed in Parliament’s favour by the middle of the decade.
Upon their defection, side-changers were often eager to display their worth and fidelity to their new allies. This they might attempt by handing over information, or bringing their soldiers or even entire garrisons with them. Events, however, did not always turn out as planned. Thus when the governor of Hull, Sir John Hotham, attempted to defect to the royalists, he was violently assaulted by one of his own soldiers and eventually arrested and executed. Similarly, when Sir Alexander Carew, parliamentarian governor of Plymouth, ordered his men to fire on a parliamentarian ship, he was bound hand and foot by his own serving man. As with Hotham, he too was beheaded by Parliament for his treachery.
While both sides encouraged side-changing, they also virulently condemned those ‘renegadoes’ who betrayed them. When the Earl of Holland reverted his allegiance to Parliament, he was described by one royalist as having ‘returned to his vomit’. The name of another frequent side-changer, Sir John Urry, who changed sides no less than four times, became a byword in the printed press for the act itself. Although the actions of such men are normally dismissed as opportunistic and entirely self-serving, here they are seen as a necessary survival strategy in the face of a fast moving sequence of events.
This approach raises important questions about loyalty and allegiance during the Civil Wars. We may feel confident in labelling Oliver Cromwell as a Roundhead and Prince Rupert as a Cavalier, but what of the pressed men and conscripts who fought on both sides; men who if taken prisoner might simply enlist with their captors? Similarly, those executed for treachery by Parliament’s High Court of Justice often claimed, and with some justification, that it was their judges and not they who had betrayed the cause for which the war had initially been fought. In this context one man’s turncoat was another man’s freedom fighter.
Philip Baker is co-editor of The Agreements of the People: The Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).