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Civil War

“Poor Silly Creatures”

Who rules England:  the King or Parliament? That was the question setting the country alight in the middle of the 17th century. Both had their armies ready to slog it out to the death and it seems either side gave scant regard for peoples land, crops or property.
Here in Dorset and some other counties the less politicised among the population got thoroughly fed up with Charlie and Ollie’s gangs trampling down their crops, stealing their livestock and causing mayhem in their towns and villages. So they decided to form their own gang, becoming known as the Clubmen because of the crudity of their weapons: clubs, pitchforks and scythes in the main.

The Clubmen owed allegiance to neither side and were made up of a ragbag of yeoman, farmers, and villagers with a few parsons shouting orders from the sidelines. They were intent only to preserve the peace in their communities, save their land, livestock and possessions and to put an end to the pillaging carried out by the troops of the opposing camps.  A simple white cockade was their uniform and they marched with banners proclaiming: ‘If you offer to plunder or take our cattle, be assured we will bid you battle.’
Battle they did. For their trouble, they usually came off worse. To Cromwell, who first came upon them at Duncliffe Hill a little to the west of Shaftesbury, they were an annoying distraction who posed no real threat to his plans or his men. In August 1645 the Clubmen gathered on Hambledon Hill – between 2,000 and 4,000 angry citizens. Led by the Revd Bravel of Compton Abbas , they were ready to do battle against whatever Cromwell threw at them.

Earlier, during the siege of Sherborne Castle,  General  Fairfax  ordered the arrest of about 50 of the Clubmen’s leaders while they were holding a meeting at Shaftesbury.  On the 4th of August 1645 Cromwell, having successfully laid siege to Sherborne Castle, had an army of about one thousand men freed-up.

These Parliamentarian soldiers were far fewer in number but better organized, armed and commanded. They attacked the Clubmen, including four members of the clergy ,from the rear most of them fled. Those left on the hill were chased by about 50 of Cromwell’s dragoons.
Hambledon Hill was to be the Clubmen’s last stand in Dorset.  The dragoons rounded up about 400 Clubmen off the hill and locked them up in St. Mary’s church at Iwerne Courtney, leaving them to stew overnight. The next day Oliver Cromwell himself having already decided they were “poor silly creatures” came and lectured them and then to everyone’s surprise let them go home including the “malignant priests, who were principle stirrers up of the people to these tumultuous assemblies.”

Joshua Sprigg, who was General Fairfax’s chaplain, is quoted as saying; “If this had not been crushed in the egg, it had on an instant run all over the Kingdom and might have been destructive to the Parliament”.  In some people’s minds then, the Clubmen were a force to be reckoned with after all.

Memories of Weymouth’s Old High Street

Weymouth can be a busy town – in summer holidaymakers crowd the seafront and the town, in winter it’s more peaceful, although the shopping streets are usually busy. Now the Christmas lights are on, the seasonal atmosphere aids the traditional pursuit of spending money and more money.

A Dorset Echo columnist commented that far too much of old Weymouth and Melcombe Regis has been demolished. That is certainly true, but there are still unexpected examples of the old towns which have somehow survived the march of modernisation. Some look increasingly threatened by neglect.

In Elizabethan times, it was Melcombe Regis on the north bank of the River Wey – where the modern town centre is now situated – and Weymouth on the south bank. There were many rows and disputes, until the Privy Council and the Queen forced the two boroughs to unite in 1571.

In the old borough of Weymouth – behind the ghastly concrete structure of the modern Council Offices – stands the rump of the old High Street. Leading from Holy Trinity Church to Boot Hill, this was the trading centre of the old borough – controversially demolished in the early 1960s, considered by many to have been a great corporate act of vandalism.

The old High Street, with the raised pavement, even today has something of the charm of Tudor England. The two oldest buildings are The Boot pub and the Old Town Hall opposite. The old centre of local government is mired in controversy as the owners, Weymouth & Portland Borough Council, have allowed this grade II listed building to decay for years. Repairs are estimated at over £100,000 and the council say it doesn’t have the money. Having installed a “temporary” odd replacement window, plastic drainpipes and chicken-wire over the windows, local criticism over their lack of stewardship has been increasing.

Across the road from the Old Town Hall, the splendid grade II listed Boot dates to about 1600. Well known to real ale drinkers, The Boot has won their Wessex Region Pub of the Year by the Campaign for Real Ale. This fine old pub, Weymouth’s oldest, is also lauded in the Good Beer Guide and the Good Pub Guide.
There are two versions of how the pub got its name. In the days of Queen Elizabeth I, the River Wey flowed at the back of the pub, with the public slipway running down the side. The Melcombe Regis ferry operated from here and “Boat Inn” could have been corrupted to “Boot Inn.” Others speak of the fact that the Dorchester to Portland mail coach would stop at the inn and force those sitting on top to help push the coach boot up the Hill. Did Boot Hill get its name from the pub, or vice versa? That is unclear.

The hooded stone mullion windows are certainly late Tudor and as the road falls away to the level of the old boat ramp, one door is at lower level.  Built on a slope, the bare boarded rise carries on up into the main room, which opens out to the full width of the house. A waist-high skirting board follows round the room and the walls are adorned with local pictures. The black beams are certainly original and the inside has a warm, homely feel. In winter, a real fire warms the room. A carpeted snug forms the right hand room, leading to a few more stairs and the short bar to the right.

Local historian Mark Vine has been researching the Civil War and highlights the many battles that were fought around The Boot and the old High Street. He rightly criticises the lack of official interest in an important historical story and battle site. Many royalist and parliamentary soldiers lost their lives in these skirmishes, the existence of which is not marked in any way.

In 1645, Colonel William Sydenham and his Commonwealth troops set up a defensive line at the top of High Street, near the Boot Inn. Roundheads set up cannon on the raised pavement by the Town Hall and pounded King Charles’ men every time they looked out of The Boot’s door! Eventually, there was a battle royal in High Street and a major massacre of 500 Royalists ensued, right outside the pub and along the quayside.

Dorchester – The Maumbury Rings

“The largest prehistoric monument of its kind in Britain” is how one early antiquarian observer described Maumbury Rings; just ten minutes walk from Dorchester town centre. It is said to have been able to accommodate ten thousand spectators and enclose an area equal to fifty football pitches, although these claims seem a little exaggerated. Certainly the class of monument to which the Rings belong is one found nowhere else in the world outside England, but many other examples of its kind have since been largely ploughed away, including others in Dorset.

Not so Maumbury Rings. This monument is the largest and most important structure of its kind in Britain and has survived intact simply because of its proximity to Durnovaria (Roman Dorchester) and because it has proved so useful for a range of different functions over the centuries. But Maumbury was originally constructed as a henge, one of those still somewhat enigmatic earthworks of England’s Neolithic people, and its origin can be traced back to about 2,500 BC.

It was Sir Christopher Wren who is said to have been responsible for first applying any archaeologically minded scrutiny to Maumbury Rings, though the great eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley also wrote about it at some length. Variously described as a “sun temple” or “a Neolithic dewpond,” others fancied the rays of the sun rising in the east passed through the north-east entrance to strike the rising ground at the opposite end, though this has since been shown to be a fallacy.

A large stone is said to have once stood near or across the south-west entrance, and which was long thought to have been the sighting-stone for solar and lunar observations. It is noted that in 1879 a minor excavation was made in the hope of locating this stone, but none was ever found.

Whatever Maumbury’s original purpose as a Neolithic enclosure was, it may well have suffered the same fate as other henges in the area had not the emperor Claudius resolved to bring Britain into the Roman Empire in 43 AD. When the town of Durovaria was founded it was soon appreciated by some engineers or planners that the Maumbury henge conveniently defined in its own outline an earthwork thought to be easily adaptable to serve as a small amphitheatre for gladiatorial or other entertainment without the extra labour and expense of having to start from scratch. Instead of what had probably been existing insubstantial embankments being levelled into oblivion by ploughing, they were re-inforced with rammed chalk and raised to their present day height.

It is believed that by the first millennium BC Maumbury Rings was in use as a Celtic earthwork, possibly some temple on the lines of Stonehenge. Following the departure of the Roman Legions in about 410 AD, the Rings probably continued in use as a meeting place, but no record exists from the Saxon period. During the Middle Ages the arena became the scene of jousts and other revels.

But it is not until the 17th century that we have a clear record of any major event connected with the monument. During the Civil War the Parliamentarians quickly saw the earthwork’s potential as a defensive site, and turned it into a gunnery emplacement to command the then exposed flank of the town from the direction of the Weymouth Road, up which the Roundheads expected the Royalists to advance. After the Civil War, the macabre rise in popularity of public executions by hanging led to the rings being used for this grizzly purpose. However executions at this locality ceased in 1705.

Rather through hearsay, a story has been handed down about the execution, probably in the late 17th century, notable for its particularly tragic circumstances. The details have apparently never been properly recorded, but a young unnamed woman was sentenced to death for some minor crime by hanging at Maumbury. However, at the time she was condemned she was expecting a child. Not wanting to condemn an unborn child to death as well, the magistrates deferred the mother’s execution until the child could be born in prison.

Following the birth the woman was duly hung, but has ever since left behind the unanswered question of who she was, who the child’s father was, and above all what became of the child. Was the child adopted? Did it die in infancy? Did it grow into adulthood and perhaps emigrate? The tragedy of this case is that it occurred a century too soon for the possible commutation of the sentence to transportation to be enacted. But clearly, this is a mystery, which can never be solved without intensive genealogical investigation.

In 1908 the archaeologist George Cary began the first systematic excavation of the earthwork to be conducted in modern times. Probably Cary hoped that the various romantic imaginings and speculations about the henge’s use in pre-Roman times could be laid to rest once the site’s history was set on a firm footing based upon the evidence of the stratigraphy and finds uncovered. Cary’s first excavation revealed that, as might be expected, sherds of recent pottery, ceramics, and other objects were abundant in the first foot or so of soil removed, and included a Victorian half-penny. But these and some older mediaeval pottery underlying them soon ceased.

By the end of the third season in 1910, two Romano-British graves had been discovered and opened, together with seven shafts approximately of the same age as the henge itself re-exposed in the arena floor. These shafts, which may have served a similar function to that of the comparable pits (Aubrey Holes) at Stonehenge, were found to contain a considerable number of tools made from deer antler, together with Neolithic pottery sherds and flint flakes. Interestingly, the existence of these shafts has led to the conclusion that the Romans experienced considerable difficulties in constructing parts of the arena floor and boundary walling of the amphitheatre.

During a much more recent excavation in the early 1970’s a deep cutting made into the chalk walling on the north east side showed that the Romans had to overlay the prehistoric shafts with rammed chalk in the arena’s western curve in order to stabilise the floor surface. It was therefore evident that the Legionary engineers found it harder than expected to adapt the earthwork to their requirements.

During this excavation another four shafts were exposed, bringing the total known to eleven. During an exploration of the outer part of the north entrance a third grave was discovered in the chalk, this time containing a skeleton of a well-built Romano-British man accompanied by a pottery vessel. But the work of this excavation was mainly concerned with determining the real purpose of the shafts. This was not proved, though it is thought likely that they were flint mines.

Today Maumbury is a tourist landmark and attraction, equally attractive to children and picnickers alike, with its own information board at the northern entrance.