Battle of Edgehill - Local Traditions Review

A critical review and critique of local traditions and folklore relating to the Battle of Edgehill.

Charles stayed on the field the night after the battle, making himself as comfortable as possible in King's Ley Barn [sic].
British Battlefields. (Philip Warner). 1972

Introduction

Virtually all of the well-known Battle of Edgehill battlefield traditions relating to physical locations are not descendants of aural tradition directly from the afternoon of the battle, but are sadly seemingly merely examples of romantic imagination or, at best, seriously misplaced interpretations of the day's events, typically dating from the 19th century. Rupert's Headland, Radway Tower, King's Clump, the king sleeping at King's Leys Barn and breakfasting at a Radway cottage (or the Sunrising Inn), Windmill Hill, the King's left at Sunrising, Princes watching the battle from the hillside, Kingsmill's battlefield grave, grave pit mounds, blacksmiths shoeing horses at Egge Cottage, etc. These are all 19th century invention and appear to go someway to help satisfy what must have been a burgeoning visitor interest and - with the exception of loosely locating where the epicentre of the fighting took place - helped to resolve a practically absolute lack of knowledge or understanding of the battlefield itself.

Clearly the existence of local tradition and folklore relating to Edgehill and other battlefields can provide crucial clues for interpreting events and particularly for older sites where contemporary records become increasingly scarce. If folklores are known to have existed close to the event's dates and have a lineage dating back to the actual events through oral tradition then fascinating details are preserved which would otherwise be lost. Most of these are preserved in place names, early maps, and by early travel writers visiting the area, which was particularly popular during the Victorian era. At the very least they can provide initial clues for conjecture to be tested against.

Regrettably, the percentage of quality historic local knowledge regularly proves unsatisfactory. Dangerously many local traditions have provided incorrect guidance when interpreting battlefields and famously even inspire the siting of battlefields in the wrong locality altogether. Some authors argue against revisions of battlefields, seemingly wishing to preserve a history of history?1 Perilously many elements of battlefield narratives and interpretations can be traced back to the influence of flimsily - sometimes whimsical - local folklores. But their abundance, variation, logic and even style, can quickly establish a judgement as to their vintage, inspiration, rationale and reliability. Acknowledging the willingness and love of such traditions also provides a healthy focus when determining which are merely theories, early tourist propaganda or simply romantic nonsense.

Interpreting early modern folklore is different to evaluating the accuracy of eye witness accounts and other precious sources of information. The key objective is to gain knowledge from such lores, but determine which are likely to be based upon true and accurate oral tradition transcending directly from the event or their invention - innocent or contrived - during a later era.

Many folklore traditions are often little more than someone, somewhere and at sometime making incorrect assumptions or repeating supposed knowledge incorrectly, and shouldn't be confused with actual oral tradition. This phenomena is still casually demonstrated in modern times, such as a Cambridge University Press publication studying enclosure maps in 2004, which states that Charles II watched the battle from a Windmill at Edgehill2 or the innocent inaccuracy of Howard Green's Battlefields guide from 1973 which 'paraphrases' a local tradition and creates something wholly different when he states Its imposing tower [of the Castle Inn] is believed to have been used by King Charles as his first headquarters3. In theory, a 'tradition' - which bears considerable influence upon the conjecture of a 20th century historian concerning a 17th century battle - can be based upon little more than the inventive ramblings of a village drunk from the 18th century. While all too often the creation or adoption of local tales is also used to explain away unresolved issues.

Many battlefield folklore traditions with a little research and a pinch of cynicism can be traced to their origins and often quickly exposed as inaccurate. Many originate from a simple misunderstanding of an existing lore or piece of local knowledge, or almost inevitably a story is paraphrased to eventually become something else (often providing three or four variations of the same lore). The mundane truth persists that many travel writers of the 19th century, recording these local lores, may simply have spoken to the first labourer who happened to be nearby on the day of their visit who carried their own interpretation of local knowledge, whether accurate or not. Examples of this exist in modern times and perhaps during Alfred Burnes' recorded visits in the 1940s for his Battlefields of England book.

Tradition states, as has been previously remarked, that there was only one hedgerow between Radway and Kineton, that which ran through the midst of Essex's centre.
Illustrated Naval & Military Magazine. (George Miller). 1890.

Then there is the pro-active use of supposed tradition to substantiate a theory or hypothesis, which regrettably all too often appears to be a habit deployed by the celebrated local historian and Reverend of Radway, George Miller, who wrote repeatedly about the Edgehill battlefield in the late 1800s. His enthusiasm and efforts seem to demonstrate a possessive claim to his local landmark, establishing him as the battlefield's authority of the time. Other than his details relating the battlefields mass graves, some of Miller's personal musings - typically passed-off as 'tradition' - are perhaps single-handedly responsible for more confusion, misdirection and inaccurate interpretations of any UK battlefield? He admirably attempts to substantiate his beliefs of where the Royalists were or weren't forced back to by interpreting battle archaeology which had been discovered - and which was against the general understanding of the battle in his time - and genuinely reads several topographical details to interpret the battle, but "confusingly" he liberally uses the keyword 'tradition'. This in turn indicates how other traditions are sometimes created; being no more than someone's imagination or hypothesis. Casual claims of cannon balls being found in wholly unlikely locations is also seemingly a popular habit for justifying a theory. Establishing the existence of a true local tradition as a separate discipline to establishing the accuracy of the content of any tradition becomes a requirement.

If I were to wildly speculate that the cannon balls mentioned by Beesley in 1841 - found on the brow of the hill above the old Westcote region of Edgehill - might relate to a separate reference made by John Belasyse - who fought at the battle - that the Royalists had defended the hill (as this could possibly indicate that cannon might initially have been positioned at the top of King John's Lane) then this would be a theory. But if someone were to read these words 100 years from now and report that supposition as virtual fact and attribute it to "tradition", then a decent illustration of how much of the Edgehill battlefield "traditions" were created is demonstrated. With Victorian iron railings erected around burial sites, a path and commemorative stone laid at the largest grave pit and another grave site rebranded as Captain Kingsmill's, its easy to recognise the regular and steady tourist numbers which visited the battlefield during the Victorian era and connect this with the amount of tales and folklore traditions which only appear to date as far back as this period (fuelling the interest) and to then establish a reasonable idea of a given lore's immediacy to the actual event.

The presence of an historic battlefield and one graced with the presence of a king inevitably gives rise to local folklores with the percentage directly involving the king himself quickly undermining their credibility and perhaps also indicates who, and which era, is responsible for them. Such folklores often develop a recognisable pattern. At Edgehill several of the most celebrated traditions all involve an object, landmark or building of renowned antiquity. In some cases, the misinterpretation of the true age of such landmarks exposes the lore and illustrates the era they were created. Many make no rational sense, whether through the logic of a story they relate or topographical details such as a tumulus, offering a vantage point, yet which sits directly behind a higher swell in the land. Some even appear to have evolved simply based upon the existence of yet another tradition.

In the 18th century Sanderson Miller - acting ostensibly as the local squire - planted three commemorative clumps of trees around Radway's proximity to the battlefield, and perhaps creates the first 'theme park' or battlefield trail, maximising the village's celebrity. How and why he derived at these locations is unknown and whether or not he acted upon pre-existing tradition is an important consideration. But his actions did influence later commentators to speculate that specific buildings were also intended to represent events from the battle or his planting of any other trees anywhere, happily creating more traditions.

Some traditions are so appealing even modern academic studies can be persuaded to adopt their version of events over and above several contradictory contemporary accounts and primary sources? It is surprising how few studies of the battle are willing to actively challenge some folklore from the battlefield in order to clarify the realities of a given issue; yet regularly demonstrate a willingness to challenge significant interpretations of events directly from the battle itself and contemporary first-hand sources?

Its arguably clear, for example, there were only two grave sites at the centre of the Edgehill battlefield, but local interpretations of unusual objects, the accommodation of a locally famed soldier through local hearsay hijacking a known grave site and an awful map by Ribton-Turner (1893) - which even contradicts his own descriptions - have all contributed to a wonderfully confused picture. But by removing, or introducing, the tendency for local tradition to only confuse accuracy, a clearer picture emerges. (When it comes to theorising about the grave pits at Edgehill, even the most grounded and respected of Edgehill battlefield commentators seemingly suffer from Edgehill grave pit fever and inexplicably produce grave pit or burial theories, based upon suspect historic interpretations of the flimsiest of supposed local lores and fail to rationalise various contradictory hearsay, poorly paraphrased traditions and thin haphazard written records of where locals from later eras believed pits existed.).

It is perhaps most surprising how easily new traditions hazardously appear to be constantly created, or wholly misinterpreted, even by today's modern authors and commentators. A community project creating a permanent Edgehill battle exhibit at Radway's church in 2015 remains unsure how or why it describes Captain Kingsmill as being cut in two by a cannon ball/bullet? Around this same time, a local restaurant and hotel also inexplicably states in its guided walk leaflet (provided to guests and available via its website) that "The King breakfasted at a nearby Ratley farmhouse before retiring to Edgecote"? Even the authoritative 1995 Edgehill battlefield report by none other than English Heritage is susceptible to fanning the origins of the feeblest of little-known and modern-day speculation when it talks about modern woods in the center of the battlefield and how It is thought that the plantations were intended to represent Parliamentarian units. Another source of a similar modern myth and complete assumption - as well as a handful of general guides to Warwickshire from around the 1970s and 80s - is provided by Warwickshire County Council tourist guide leaflets (for the Centenary Way) from the early 1990s when it brazenly states the beeches [upon Edgehill] were planted in the 1700's to mark the positions of the Royalist Army in 1642.

Almost before it was light the main body of the Royal army struck camp, and marched by way of Mollington and Warmington to a position on the Edge Hills extending from Edge Hill House on the south to Knowle End on the north, the King's standard being placed and displayed on the site now occupied by the Round Tower.
History of Warwickshire. (Clive Holland). 1906.

Cruelly, the modern reader can also quickly establish which antiquated sources demonstrate a habit of regularly recording local traditions inaccurately (or demonstrate a persistent habit of recording variants when compared with other sources), which can begin to establish which authors to overlook. Some influential publications from the 19th century even manage to interchange different elements of local mythology from several different traditions and locations.

Once one tradition is undermined, several others can quickly follow and a whole 'belief system' surrounding the Edgehill battlefield is fundamentally exposed. This might be demonstrated by the seemingly radical re-interpretation of the battlefield by the archaeological evidence revealed by the major battlefield survey in 2004-7.

If anything, the obvious inspiration of battle related details and deployment plan shown in a 1756 enclosure map for Radway village - created by a local man and under the instruction of a key resident of Radway - clearly being those shown in an earlier Beighton (1728) map, demonstrates a virtually non-existent local knowledge of the battlefield during the 18th century and exposes the vacuum slowly filled by 19th century romantic and period-piece imagination. However, the power of tradition continues into the modern era often disguised as academic study as largely invented deployment plan positions for the battlefield, first introduced in the mid-twentieth century and representing just another era of fashion, are happily adopted and defended by professional historians well into the 21st century; even in defiance of factual evidence as well as heavily contradictory geographical details from contemporary accounts.

Arguably, modern day insistence upon promoting the 'traditional' battlefield interpretation (with deployments parallel with the escarpment) is, in fact, now little more than a modern tradition.
Editor: battleofedgehill.org. 2014.

Some examples of key Edgehill traditions which contradict the facts:

The royalist army deploying along the escarpment before the battle? Nowhere is this stated by numerous contemporary and primary accounts (and is an image only created by 19th century narratives). Contemporary accounts actually describe the opposite. Quite simply, as soon as all of the king's army had arrived at the rendezvous, they descended the hill.

The royalist army stretched the length of Edgehill from Knowle End to Sunrising, with the king at its centre? The King's position is never mentioned by contemporary accounts prior to the battle commencing (and he falls back towards the right, before it does). Deploying along the escarpment is a 19th century invention. Modern research into numbers, and army formations for the period and as described for this battle have established a dramatically narrower deployment footprint which could never stretch the distances proposed and barley covers half of this stretch of the scarp.

Radway Tower marks the spot where the royal standard was planted or where the king stood? The original source of this supposition in the late 1800s famously compromises his own historical reporting on several subjects, and his supporting logic for this piece of hypothesis establishes it only as his own conjecture. His own publications gradually elaborate upon this supposed lore and originally makes no effort to suggest that the building was constructed to celebrate this imagined scene. The building's 18th century designer and original owner, who kept extensive diaries, never once makes any reference to the battle concerning its construction. This popular "folklore" is often repeated with the claim that the building was started in 1742, but official conveyance records confirm that the land was not purchased until 1743 (and construction began in 1745). The land was purchased because it was situated next to a pre-existing medieval track-way entering the Radway Grange parkland from the hill top. A cottage - potentially 16th century - needed to be demolished and cleared for the tower's construction. The fundamental "logic" of this "lore" is also based upon the floored folklore that the king's army stretched the full length of the escarpment; as far south as Sunrising hill.

Royalist cavalry having their horses re-shoed at Egge Cottage in Edge Hill? The cottage was not built until the mid-18th century, but was designed to appear much older.

The king was fired at while positioned above Bullet Hill? Numerous bullets have been recovered from the field(s) of bullet hill for centuries and is where it takes its name. Case shot (containing hundreds of small "bullets") was reported to have been fired by a contemporary account at this hill on the day following the battle.

The king passed the night at Kings ley barn? Numerous contemporary records describe where the king actually spent the night before and after the battle and clearly describe him and most of his army returning back up the scarp after the battle and towards the Warmington hills. The barn was originally called the kings barn (long before the Edgehill battle) because it stood in "Kings Field" which was named in relation to a medieval king (King John).

Prince Rupert regrouped his cavalry at a place since known as Rupert's headland? Once bullets began to appear in this region when ploughed they were assumed to be Edgehill battle related and at this outpost assumed to be from cavalry which ranged further afield. It is in fact the exact location described by contemporary records of a small civil war skirmish from 1644. Modern archaeological evidence also pinpoints much of the parliamentarian baggage train to the south of Kineton, as well as a reorientation of the battle lines, leaving little reason to surmise that Rupert ventured anywhere near this region.

The king stood upon, or planted his standard upon, Kings clump? Archaeological evidence clearly indicates that this area of the landscape saw very little action in the battle and comprehensively indicates where the armies would have actually stood (in a different region of the battlefield altogether). Contemporary records also describe and indicate where the army descended the escarpment, which was significantly to the north of this location. The mound is an old windmill mound and may even post-date the battle.

The king breakfasted at a cottage in the village before or after the battle? Contemporary records describe where the king spent the night before and after the battle (being nowhere near Radway village).


Notes

  1. A Brief Guide to British Battlefields. David Clark. 2015. Introduction.
  2. The Enclosure Maps of England and Wales 1595-1918: A Cartographic Analysis. By Roger J. P. Kain, John Chapman, Richard R. Oliver. 2004.
  3. Guide to the Battlefields of Britain & Ireland. Lt Colonel Howard Green. 1974.