Cromwell in Walden

Cromwell in Walden

One of the stories told about Saffron Walden relates how Oliver Cromwell’s soldiers stabled their horses in the Church doing the English Civil War.  There is no truth in this fable - but the real story of Cromwell’s visit to the town is far more interesting.

The year was 1647 and the New Model Army had won the first civil war for Parliament in its struggle against King Charles.   The Army had marched south and in March set up HQ in Saffron Walden, awaiting Parliament’s decision on disbandment.

Parliament wanted to disband the Army, and send more than half the soldiers to Ireland to quell a revolt.  The soldiers were weary of fighting, reluctant to go to Ireland, and wanted Parliament to resolve several grievances before disbanding.  Their major grievances included seriously outstanding arrears of pay, and indemnity for any acts committed during the war.

In an attempt to get Parliament to listen to them the soldiers had circulated a petition.  Infuriated by the petition Parliament issued the notorious “Declaration of Dislike” branding the soldiers as “enemies of the state and disturbers of the peace”.

In response the soldiers set up their own organisation, electing representatives from each troop and regiment and outlining their grievances in a pamphlet called “The Apologie of the Common Souldiers”  - although it was anything but apologetic.   The army was verging on mutiny, refusing to serve in Ireland “until our just desires be granted”.

Oliver Cromwell, and three fellow-officers were ordered to Saffron Walden to reassure the soldiers that a considerable sum of money would be paid on disbandment, and to investigate the growing unrest in the army.

When Cromwell and the other Commissioners arrived in Walden on 2 May, they found that, fearing a Royalist attack, the cavalry had been issued with ball and powder, and guards stood on every street corner with their swords drawn.   This may have been a ruse, however, for while Cromwell discussed his plans with senior officers, the soldiers’ representatives, the “Agitators” as they were called, were holding a meeting of their own, at which they elected a Chairman, Captain John Reynolds, who came from Castle Camps, and drew up a plan for “managing the councils of the army”.

Cromwell met the officers in the St Mary’s church on 6 May and reported on the meagre concessions offered by Parliament.  He made a “long grave speech” promising that Parliament would “in tyme pay the arrears” and stating that it was a noble thing for young men to volunteer for the “holy war” in Ireland. When he was interrupted by one of the Agitators who presented a “remonstrance” outlining the soldiers grievances, Cromwell “took on like a madman and declared openly ...that all those that had a hand in the remonstrance were enemies of Parliament.”

Cromwell was unable to satisfy the soldiers’ demands, and returned to London.  Two weeks later the soldiers again presented their demands at debates held in Saffron Walden church, but Parliament was not prepared to compromise.  The soldiers became increasingly radical, acting in their own interests and even seizing the King so that he was unable to make a deal with their enemies in Parliament.  Within months the army marched on London.  It was an exciting and turbulent time and when the soldiers in Saffron Walden elected their own representatives they provided a practical expression of the democratic ideas put forward by the Levellers a few months later in Putney, and ensured the town of a lasting place in the history of England.

Martyn Everett

First published in the Saffron Walden Reporter, 10 May, 2007