Civil War is the worst kind of conflict tearing at the very fabric of human society. It destroys the mutual understanding and co-operation of communities, it makes enemies of friends, and it rips apart families turning brother against brother and father against son.
One such family were the Verney’s.
Sir Edmund Verney, the patriarch of a large and respected Buckinghamshire gentry family was born on 1 January 1590, and was in almost every respect unremarkable for a man of his class. He was educated in the normal way by private tutors before progressing to university where he was taught to be obedient to his superiors, to be true to his word, to serve his King, and to believe in God.
In 1606 he married Margaret Denton, by whom he had 10 children. He was knighted by King James I in 1612 and was appointed a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber where one of his duties was to take care of the pale-faced, sickly, and painfully shy Charles, Duke of York, the second son of the King.
The always fragile, accident prone Charles certainly needed taking care of and Sir Edmund Verney was just the man to do it. He was an undemonstrative, loyal, devoted, and hard working, a man who exuded authority and was not swayed by flattery so it was unsurprising perhaps that he was concerned by the influence wielded over the young Prince by the ambitious and unscrupulous James Villiers, Duke of Buckingham.
He would in time become an invaluable source of stability and authority in the Royal Court but in domestic affairs Sir Edmund’s life was rarely trouble free. Possessing little financial acumen he was reckless with money and by the 1620’s he was already heavily in debt and despite the many rewards garnered through his devotion to the Royal Family he was to remain so for the rest of his life.
He did nevertheless manage to secure his ever-growing family’s future, even if that security was always a little tenuous.
In 1623, he accompanied the young Charles and the Duke of Buckingham to Spain on a madcap scheme to woo the Spanish Infanta.
They travelled through the country on horseback using aliases and wearing false beards. Sir Edmund felt ill-at-ease with such nonsense and his temper snapped when he witnessed a Catholic Priest giving the Last Rites to a dying member of their entourage. He dragged the priest away and punched him to the ground. It was an ignominious end to a farcical episode and the party returned home empty-handed their reputations hardly enhanced by such shenanigans.
In 1624, Sir Edmund was elected the Member of Parliament for Buckingham and the following year appointed Knight Marshal, or the man responsible for running the Royal Court. By now the Prince Charles had been crowned King Charles I and Sir Edmund’s previous loyalty was to be well rewarded benefiting from the sale of monopolies and being awarded a Court Pension which went some way to alleviating his financial difficulties.
Despite his loyalty, Sir Edmund was not in agreement with his King on many issues, particularly his religious policy. He was a Puritan and though by no means a fanatical one he shared the same concerns as others of his persuasion. He feared the return of Roman Catholicism and thought he could see its increasing influence within the Royal Court.
The King, he believed, was naively permitting this to happen and along with many others felt that he, just as before when under the influence of Buckingham, was being led astray by evil council.
By 1640, after 11 years of personal rule without recourse to Parliament, Charles’s regime was beginning to unravel with his attempt to impose the Common Book of Prayer in Scotland and the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud’s religious reforms had been violently rejected by the Presbyterian Kirk.
Charles stubbornly refused to budge on the issue and tried to impose his reforms by force, the trouble was he neither had the means nor the army to do so. After an embarrassingly one-sided skirmish a Scots Army invaded England and captured Newcastle cutting off the coal supply to London.
Despite always having had a fractious relationship with his Parliament Charles had little choice but to recall it.
They had an agenda of their own however, and under the leadership of John Pym they passed, though only by 6 votes and with 200 abstentions, the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances against Charles’s personal rule that they wished addressed before they would provide the funds for the King to raise and equip an army. In the autumn of that same year Ireland rose in revolt and reports were reaching England of Protestants being murdered in Ulster.
Despite the deteriorating situation Charles refused to compromise.
Pym was determined to clip the King’s wings, make him more of a Constitutional Monarch, and transfer effective power to Parliament. Charles remained firm to his conviction that he was King by Divine Appointment.
On 3 January 1642, he tried to arrest Pym and his closest associates in the House of Commons but they managed to evade capture, now there could be no going back and war between the King and his Parliament became inevitable.
Like many families throughout the country the Verney’s now had to choose which side to support in the coming conflict.
Despite his many qualms regarding the King’s religious policies and his choice of advisers, Sir Edmund could not betray his Lord and Master, he wrote:
“I do not like the quarrel, I do heartily wish that the King would yield to their desires, but I have eaten his bread and served him near thirty years, and will not do so base a thing as to forsake him now; and choose to lose my life (as I am sure to do) to preserve and defend this which it is against my conscience to do.”
Sir Edmund’s son Ralph, who had sat beside his father in the House of Commons throughout the great debates of the previous months was equally firm in his own convictions and could not reconcile himself to the King’s cause. He believed that the people through their representatives in Parliament should have precedence in the governance of the country.
Like his father he wrote often on the issue but despite sharing similar views they were diametrically opposed on the matter of the King’s rule:
“Peace and our liberties is all I desire. Until we have peace we can have no liberty; and without liberty I shall desire no peace.”
Moreover, he had been present during the debates regarding the Militia Bill by which Parliament had tried to wrest control of the military from the King, and he had sworn the Militia Oath. Oaths were no small thing in Stuart England and could not be easily broken. He could not in any good conscience go back on his allegiance to Parliament.
Sir Edmund accepted his son’s decision with regret rather than anger.
Ralph’s younger brother, also Edmund, did not greet it with such equanimity. He was a fervent Royalist, rash and hot-headed, so unlike the more reflective Ralph and he argued vehemently long into the night with his brother in an attempt to change his mind. He believed that any Englishman’s first loyalty was to his King, and what of his obedience to his father?
Edmund was outraged but Ralph could not be swayed from his course of action, they would soon go their separate ways.
On 22 August 1642, King Charles I raised his Standard at Nottingham, effectively a declaration of war.
Sir Edmund Verney’s reward for his many years of devoted service was to be appointed Keeper of the King’s Standard, and he vowed to defend it with his life.
The first great battle of the Civil War was fought at Edgehill on 26 October 1642, and the Cavalier Officer Sir Jacob Astley’s prayer before the battle commenced has since become rightly famous:
“O Lord, thou knowest how busy I am this day. If I forget thee, do not thou’st forget me.”
The Lord however was to forget, Sir Edmund Verney.
He was in the thick of the fighting but refused to relinquish his grip on the Standard as the dead piled up around him. A witness described what happened:
“He killed two men with his own hands before his servant Jason was struck down, but he refused to relinquish the Standard and was killed in the push of pike.”
Sir Edmund’s body was never recovered from the field of battle, only his severed hand still clasping the Standard which had been identified by its signet ring.
His son Ralph heard of his father’s death whilst sitting in the House of Commons listening to the Earl of Essex declare his defeat at Edgehill a great Parliamentary victory. He was heartbroken and struggled to hold back the tears he was no less distraught to discover that his family did not even have a body to commit to a proper Christian burial.
Nonetheless, he remained true to his convictions and his belief that only war could bring the King to heel.
With the war going against Parliament and himself dying of cancer, John Pym in his desperation to secure Scottish support agreed to the Solemn League and Covenant which promised to make Presbyterianism the official religion of England, and a treaty was signed that was to turn the tide of the war, but this was something that Ralph could not sign up to.
Unable any longer to reconcile himself to the Parliamentary cause, he went into exile. In his absence, in 1646 the estates he had inherited following his father’s death were sequestered.
While Ralph languished in unhappy exile his younger brother Edmund continued to fight for the Royalist cause.
Following the King’s execution in January 1649, Oliver Cromwell, by now Commander of the Parliamentary Army turned his attention to Ireland where the Duke of Ormonde’s Royalist Army continued to hold out and by September 1649, he was besieging the town of Drogheda.
Though greatly outnumbered and outgunned its Commander Sir Arthur Aston refused to surrender despite Cromwell demanding he do so and warning him of the dire consequences if he should not.
Parliament’s first two assaults on the town were repulsed but the third led by Cromwell in person overwhelmed the infantry led by the young Edmund Verney. He fought bravely it was said but was cut down and killed.
At least he had avoided the massacre that followed as more than 2,000 men were brutally murdered after having laid down their arms.
Ralph Verney was to return to England in 1653, when upon his arrival Cromwell promptly ordered his arrest.
It had been decided that he was politically unsound and had been implicated in Royalist plots along with other members of his family whilst he had been in exile. He was only released from prison two years later following the Lord Protector’s death.
He returned to his life as a country gentleman and was subsequently elected to Parliament on a number of occasions but he served only briefly. He had lost his taste for politics and instead concentrated on running the estates that had since been returned to him and on his work as a local Magistrate.
Calm was restored to the family and with the return of the Stuart Monarchy the Verney’s were rewarded for their loyal service to the previous King and the dynasty with a number of Royal sinecures that were to secure their financial future – the irony was only partial.
But the past cannot be re-lived or its history re-written without fabrication. Melancholia, the hand-maiden of a long life cannot be placated with lies.
Sir Ralph Verney died on 24 September 1696, aged 82.