The following article was originally written for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and published February 2015. If you enjoy English history and haven’t visited the blog, check out the EHFA site here.
The English Civil War was a time of divided loyalties, where brother fought against brother and neighbours faced each other on a bloody field. But there was one Royalist family that was united in their staunch loyalty to the King: The Comptons.
The Comptons had estates in Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire, and Compton Wynyates, in Warwickshire.
Spencer Compton was the 2nd Earl of Northampton, born in 1601 and educated at Cambridge. In 1622, he was appointed Master of the Robes when Charles I was still Prince of Wales, and he held that position until the third year of Charles’s reign.
Spencer Compton succeeded his father as the second Earl in 1630 and became Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire. When King Charles needed to raise an army against Parliament, the Earl of Northampton executed the Commission of Array (a medieval system of raising troops by Royal decree) in Warwickshire to muster men for the King.
Spencer Compton was best known for his last stand against the King’s enemies at Hopton Heath in Staffordshire. On March 19, 1643, the Earl led a Royalist army (mostly cavalry) against Parliamentary forces commanded by Sir William Brereton and Sir John Gell. During the battle, the Earl’s Royalist army succeeded in capturing over three hundred horse and eight pieces of ordinance (cannon).
Their victory, however, was not without a price. The Earl was swept off his horse and captured by the enemy. When they offered him quarter, Spencer Compton gave them this famous response,
“I scorn to take quarter from such base rogues and rebels.”
Their answer was swift. The Earl died from a blow to the head.
When Sir John Gell tried to ransom the exchange of the Earl’s body for the captured ordinance, his son, James Compton, refused to negotiate. Imagine what the son must have felt having to reject such a request, even though without a doubt, his father would have given the same answer. Gell became enraged. In a base act, the Parliamentary commander allowed the Earl’s body to be paraded through the streets of Derby by his men.
James Compton, 3rd Earl of Northampton
With his father’s death, James Compton took over his father’s command. He led his troops at the first Battle of Newbury in 1643, and the following year, rode to the assistance of his brother, William Compton, who held Banbury for the King. With the assistance of Prince Rupert, James Compton lifted the siege on October 26, 1643.
Following the end of the first English Civil War, James Compton was ordered into exile by Parliament, and on May 1, 1646, he and twenty retainers left England for the Netherlands. Unfortunately, that was only the start of his legal troubles. Parliament seized the Earl’s estates and levied a fine of £20,820.
Over the next four years, James Compton petitioned for a lower fine until Parliament finally settled on a reduced amount of £14,153. To place this sum in perspective, the approximate annual income of a nobleman was £6,000. In the end, James Compton was successful in keeping his family’s estates.
During the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, James Compton, 3rd Earl of Northampton, took on his father’s title of Lord Lieutenant of Warwickshire until his death in 1681.
Oliver Cromwell once referred to the third son of Spencer Compton as a “godly cavalier,” high praise from an enemy. While his eldest brother, James, commanded a dashing regiment of horse, William’s military service was dominated by sieges.
As previously mentioned, he was governor of Banbury and held out against Parliamentary troops for thirteen weeks until his brother relieved the siege. He held Banbury until the end of the first English Civil War when he was forced to turn it over to Parliament.
During the second English Civil War, William continued to fight for the King. He held the rank of Major-General at Colchester in 1648 when General Fairfax besieged the town for Parliament.
The siege lasted eleven weeks during the height of summer with the ripening fields as a tantalizing backdrop. Fairfax’s men surrounded the town, and their tactic was simple: starve the Royalists and wait.
Having eaten the last of the rats and horses, the defenders had no choice than to surrender. A number of Royalist commanders were summarily shot, but William Compton escaped that fate and was imprisoned at Windsor Castle in early September 1648.
It appears that William did not remain Parliament’s guest for very long. In Prince Rupert’s memoirs (October 28, 1648), he notes that William Compton and William Legge brought to Holland a letter for him from the King. Charles I wrote the following during his confinement on the Isle of Wight.
“Dearest Nephew, For want of a cipher, I have chosen this most trusty messenger, Will Legge, to acquaint you with a business which is of great importance for my service; for I have commanded him to desire in my name both your advice and assistance. Of which, knowing your affection to me, I am so confident that I will say no more, but only to desire you to give full credit to this bearer, and to give him a quick despatch, for his sake who is Your loving uncle and most faithful friend, Charles R.”
The letter was a form of introduction to assure Rupert that the bearers were in the King’s confidence. The unwritten plea was for Rupert to arrange for a ship to lie in wait for the King’s escape off the Isle of Wight. No one was to know about the plan. But in the end, the King’s plans were foiled by a number of factors, and he never attempted an escape at that time.
The next time we hear of William Compton is in 1653 when he became one of the founding members of the Sealed Knot, a secret Royalist association.