3:10pm Wednesday 6th June 2012
By Chris Koenig
Odd, when you come to think of it, that Burford should one day have commemorated the actions of someone who beheaded a monarch; and then, just weeks later, celebrated the fact that another monarch has been on the throne for 60 years.
First, the beautiful town staged its annual Levellers Day last month; then of course there was the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, with a big tea party and a ceremony of lighting the beacon. But there was anything but national unity during that miserable May of 1649, just three months and after Charles I was executed. The Civil War may have come to an end but dissension about how the country should be governed was rife — with the Levellers, now hailed by some as the world’s first socialists, calling for far more in the way of democracy than Oliver Cromwell was prepared to countenance.
Early in the month, about 800 troopers of the Parliamentary Army mutinied in Salisbury, angry not only on ideological grounds about representation in the new monarch-less nation they had created but, more mundanely, about overdue wages and the fact that they had been ordered to fight in Ireland. On May 14, they marched to Burford hoping to meet up with like-minded troops. They believed that the commander of the Parliamentary forces, General Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671), would not attack without discussing their grievances.
Sadly for them, their belief was mistaken At midnight Fairfax and Cromwell entered the town with 2,000 horsemen. They captured 340 of the mutineers and shut them up in the church — where one, famously, carved his name. Even today you can read “Anthony Sedley, 1649, Prisner” [sic] in the lead lining of the church font.
On May 17, three ringleaders were shot in the churchyard. Other mutineers were forced to climb the tower to watch — and thereby learn that Cromwell was not to be trifled with. A fourth ringleader was forced to preach a sermon which he did “howling and weeping like a crocodile” — according to an excellent single-sheet publication called A Burford Trail, published by the Burford and District Society.
As it happens, Burford is also closely associated with the fractured national politics of the 17th century through its then principal inhabitant, William Lenthall. He was born in Henley in 1591 and became the MP for Woodstock in 1638, going on to become Speaker of the Commons in 1640.
When King Charles I turned up in Parliament with an armed force to arrest five MPs (including John Hampden who was eventually killed at the Battle of Chalgrove Field in 1643), Lenthall knelt before him and said: “May it please your Majesty, I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place but as the House is pleased to direct me.”
He had bought the Elizabethan mansion Burford Priory in 1637 — presumably with money he had earned as a successful lawyer. He bought it from that other Civil War Romantic hero Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland of Great Tew, who, after doing his utmost to avoid war, rode recklessly out on the Royalist side at the first battle of Newbury — and of course was immediately shot dead He had told friends that morning: “I am weary of the times and foresee much misery for my own Country and do believe I shall be out of it ere night”. Lenthall, too, died an unhappy and depressed man in 1662, deeply ashamed about his role in bearing witness against certain regicides (the people who had signed Charles I’s death warrant). He was buried in Burford churchyard in a tomb (now destroyed) marked “Vermis Sum” (I am a worm).
All in all, I would rather be living in this united kingdom, celebrating 60 years of Queen Elizabeth, than in that disunited one.
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