Siege of Reading

The Siege of Reading was an eleven-day blockade of Reading, Berkshire during the First English Civil War. Reading had been garrisoned by the Royalists in November 1642, and held 2,000 soldiers under the command of Sir Arthur Aston. On 14 April 1643, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex brought a Parliamentarian army of 19,000 men to lay siege to the town, and began bombarding the town two days later.

During the siege, Aston was wounded and command of the garrison passed to Richard Feilding. On 25 April, Feilding requested a truce in order to negotiate the town's surrender. Despite a relief force commanded by King Charles I and Prince Rupert arriving the following day, Feilding held to the conditions of the truce, and Essex's army was able to repel the relieving army. The surrender terms were agreed on 26 April, and the next day the Royalists left the town for Oxford.

Background

In October 1642, King Charles returned to Oxford from the indecisive Battle of Edgehill. He then proceeded cautiously towards London, going via Reading. After being repelled from London, he retired back through Reading, where he left a Royalist garrison of 2,000 soldiers under Sir Arthur Aston, who was appointed as governor.[1] Aston was unimpressed with the soldiers available to him, writing to Prince Rupert that he "could never have a greater affliction light on me than to be put in command of them".[2]

Reading, located on the main route between London and Oxford, was strategically significant both due to its location as a 'frontier' between the two military strongholds, and the fact that it was located at a crossing point of the River Thames.[2][3] Prior to the war, the town had only minimal defences, and Aston realised that to have any chance of holding the town, these needed to be improved. Over the winter months, Aston oversaw the creation of a defensive line; a ditch with a raised earthen rampart linking a series of bastions. This form of fortification was known as a "continuous bastioned enceinte", and was common for Royalist defences during the Civil War.[4] The ramparts were topped with stone from Reading Abbey, where they destroyed the church's nave specifically for the purpose. For the construction of the defences, Aston forced civilians from the town to work alongside his soldiers, and was described by his biographer in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as "bullying his soldiers and the citizenry alike".[2] Aston maintained strict discipline over his troops, and had several hanged for not meeting his standards.[2]

Aside from the forced labour, the Royalist garrison presented other difficulties for the town: at the time Reading had a population of around 5,000, upon which space had to be found to house the 2,000 Royalist soldiers.[5] Furthermore, the building of the fortifications and the army's expenses were charged to the town. Amongst these expenses were Aston's salary, which was so large that he loaned money back to the town with interest. In Stuart Hylton's 2017 A–Z of Reading: Places–People–History, he claims that: "In any list of unpopular figures in Reading's history, Sir Arthur Aston... must surely feature near the top."[6]

Prelude

In January 1643, the Parliamentarians learnt that Reading was poorly defended, so John Hampden and John Urry led a small force across the Chiltern Hills to scout the town. They only managed to get as far as the River Kennet, which they were unable to cross as it was so swollen.[7]

Over the winter, there were growing calls for peace, particularly on the Parliamentary side, and a compromise was presented to King Charles at Oxford in February 1643. Although the proposals were far less than previously made by parliament, the King was unconvinced and responded with demands of his own for the return of his income and military assets. Further discussion ensued, in which the King demanded more and more, and in early April parliament withdrew from the negotiation process.[8]

Siege

The Earl of Essex, commander-in-chief of the Parliamentarian army, marched an army of over 19,000 men (16,000 foot soldiers, 3,000 cavalry plus artillery) from Windsor, and arrived at Reading on 14 April.[9][10] The Parliamentarian army established itself to the south and west of the town and captured Caversham Bridge, cutting Reading off from the main Royalist forces in Oxford.[11] Essex demanded that the town surrender, and in response, Aston said that he would rather "starve and die" than give up Reading.[12] Accordingly, the Parliamentarians blockaded Reading, and Essex established his headquarters in Southcote.[13]

By 16 April, the Parliamentarians had setup their artillery, and began to bombard the town.[1] Two days later, 600 Royalist musketeers managed to reinforce Reading via Sonning, to the east of the town. The blockade was subsequently tightened, surrounding the town on all sides.[13] During the bombardment, falling debris struck Aston and apparently rendered him unable to speak. The Royalist historian, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon suggested that the affliction might not have been genuine, but rather a way of maintaining his reputation in a lost cause.[2] Command of the garrison passed to Aston's second-in-command, Colonel Richard Feilding.[1]

On 25 April, Feilding displayed a white flag from the town walls, and established a truce in which to negotiate the town's surrender. The same day, a relief force commanded by King Charles and Prince Rupert attacked the Parliamentarian army at Caversham Bridge, but Feilding held to the truce, and the garrison did not join the battle. Essex's army was able to repel the attack, and the relief force retreated. Surrender terms were agreed the next day, and on 27 April the Royalist soldiers marched from the town to Oxford.[1] Aston apparently regained his ability to speak during the journey.[2]

Aftermath

Feilding was court-martialled and sentenced to death for surrendering Reading, but the intervention of Prince Rupert led the Prince of Wales to pardon him. The capture of Reading meant the Parliamentarians could challenge Oxford directly, but Essex and William Waller were unable to coordinate their forces for an attack.[1] Reading was held by the Parliamentarians until October, when they evacuated the town and it was retaken by the Royalists, but they in turn evacuated in the face of a Parliamentarian army the following May, and the town remained in the hands of Parliament for the remainder of the war.[14]

References

  1. Plant, David (23 March 2006). "The Siege of Reading & Chalgrove Field, 1643". BCW Project. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
  2. Morgan, Basil (2004). "Aston, Sir Arthur". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/823.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  3. Barratt 2009, p. 10.
  4. Barratt 2009, pp. 10–12.
  5. Yarrow 1952, p. 73.
  6. Hylton 2017, p. 8.
  7. Venning 2015, p. 67.
  8. Cust 2007, p. 371.
  9. Baker 1986, p. 25.
  10. Gentles 2014, p. 100.
  11. Gentles 2014, p. 169.
  12. Fletcher 1839, p. 17.
  13. Ford, David Nash (2001). "The Siege of Reading". Royal Berkshire History. Nash Ford Publishing. Retrieved 9 October 2019.
  14. Marsh, Simon (26 July 2018). "Reading, its Abbey and the Civil War". Reading Museum. Retrieved 11 October 2019.

Bibliography

Further reading

  • Barrès-Baker, Malcolm (2004). The Siege of Reading: The Failure of the Earl of Essex's 1643 Spring Offensive. Ottawa: EbooksLib. ISBN 978-1-55449-999-1.

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