Plaque on Micklegate Bar YO1 6JX

During the English Civil War, York remained staunchly Royalist. A Parliamentarian force, however, besieged the city in 1644 and, although they were initially repelled, the Royalists were defeated at the Battle of Marston Moor and York ultimately fell.

Revolution was not the initial aim of the English Civil War. Those involved did not intend to behead a king and set up a republic, but religious beliefs, financial issues and the attitude of the king himself propelled a series of events which escalated into armed conflict. When Charles I acceded to the throne in 1625, he believed wholeheartedly that he ruled with the divine right of kings; God had appointed him and, therefore, his decisions could not be challenged or questioned. There were a growing number of citizens, however, who thought that Parliament, the representative of the people, should have a greater say in how the nation was governed and that there should be a limit to royal authority.

Feeling increasingly at odds with his Parliament, Charles I suspended it altogether in 1628 and for 11 years, from 1629, ruled on his own. This period was named by his supporters as his years of “personal rule” and by his critics as “the 11-year tyranny’. Because Parliament was the only institution able to raise taxes for the king, Charles had to find other ways of sourcing the funds to run the country and to support his own personal extravagance. Amongst other measures, he revived the hugely unpopular “ship money”, a tax the king could levy without the approval of Parliament. Previously, this had been a tax only imposed on the inhabitants of coastal towns in times of war to raise money for the building of ships, but the king now extended the scope of the tax to the whole country in peacetime. He also sold titles. In Yorkshire, for example, Sir Thomas Fairfax of Denton, a village between Otley and Ilkley, purchased the title of Baron Fairfax of Cameron for £1,500. His son and grandson were to play a more than significant part in the Civil War in the coming years.

Religious dissent

Increasing taxation has always been unpopular but, during Charles I’s reign, there was also unease about his Catholic sympathies. Since the Reformation of the previous century, which began as an attempt to reform the Roman Catholic Church but resulted in the setting up of independent Protestant churches, there had been differing views on church services, rituals and governance. When Charles insisted on elaborate religious ceremonies and rich vestments, there were many who accused him of popery. Mary I’s persecution of Protestants, Catholic Philip of Spain’s Spanish Armada and the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 were still in the public memory. Controversially, Charles had also married the Catholic French princess Henrietta Maria in 1625.

Suspicions of the king’s Catholic sympathies were reinforced when, in 1637, Charles, in league with the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, imposed a revised English Book of Common Prayer on Presbyterian Scotland. This proved unpopular; the Scottish people thought that the communion service was too close to the Catholic mass. In an attempt to enforce the use of the new prayer book, an army was sent to fight the Scots in two “Bishops’ Wars”, in 1639 and 1640, but the English forces were defeated. Although a truce was signed, the Scottish army was ready to join in any future challenge to the authority of the king over religious matters. The Bishops’ Wars also exacerbated Charles’s financial problems and the king was forced to recall Parliament in November 1640 to ask for money to defray the costs of the campaigns.

The ensuing debate allowed Members of Parliament the opportunity to air their complaints about Charles’s “personal rule”. Their list of grievances included their opposition to the religious reforms of Archbishop Laud which were considered to be too Catholic, the use of the Royal prerogative to raise taxes such as ship money, the king’s dissolution of Parliament rather than allowing grievances to be heard, and arresting MPs who made public their opposition to the king’s policies. Charles was forced to comply with MPs’ demand that only Parliament could dissolve itself and gave his assent to the Triennial Act of 1641 which required that Parliament should be called at least once every three years. The more extreme Protestant – the Puritan – Members of Parliament were still seeking further reforms particularly of the Church and religious practices in England. Divisions began to appear within Parliament itself and within the wider population. More moderate Protestants stood by their king but soon people were taking sides, within communities and even within families, and the country appeared to be on the verge of a civil war.

York: the nation’s capital

King’s Manor in York was the headquarters of the Council of the North until 1641 and, in 1633 and 1639, Charles had spent some time in York, regarding it as his

Kings Manor, Exhibition Square

northern capital while fighting the Scots. When the hostility of the people of London made life too difficult for him in the south, he brought his family and the whole court north to York, arriving on 19 March 1642. For a short time, it became the nation’s capital with ambassadors, nobility and officers of state visiting the city. During the Civil War itself the king made his capital in Oxford.

Leaving London would prove to be a mistake as it weakened the king’s position. The country began to divide with individual towns declaring for or against the king. On a sortie from York on 23 April 1642, Charles approached Hull with the aim of securing the key port which also housed the main northern arsenal, but he was repulsed by a force led by Sir John Hotham. As the political situation became further destabilised, Charles decided to leave York on 16 August with the aim of retaking London which was now controlled by the Parliamentarians. The Royal Standard was raised at Nottingham on 22 August, officially declaring war on the Parliamentarians, and the York authorities began work on the city defences which had previously been neglected. Repairs were made to the city walls and a small fort was built on the Mount, commanding higher ground towards the west of the city, another on Bishopthorpe Road and an additional fort in the Acomb/Holgate area. Clifford’s Tower was strengthened and the authorities also made sure that the city was well-provisioned and well-stocked with food.

City Walls at Walmgate

Families at war

Two Yorkshire families were to take key positions on opposite sides of the conflict. Born at Handsworth Manor in the West Riding, William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was placed in command of the four northern counties at the outbreak of the Civil War. Having secured Newcastle, Cavendish maintained contact with Queen Henrietta Maria who had been sent abroad for her own safety and that of the heir to the throne, the future Charles II, as well as to raise support for the king. The Parliamentary army, largely raised in the West Riding of Yorkshire, was commanded by Lord Ferdinando Fairfax with his son, Sir Thomas, second in command. During the conflict, the fortunes of the two sides ebbed and flowed across Yorkshire; Cavendish attacked Fairfax at Tadcaster in 1642 forcing him to retire; Fairfax regained Leeds in January 1643. The queen returned to England in February 1643 and was escorted to York by Cavendish. In the following months the Royalists captured Wakefield, Rotherham and Sheffield but these were soon regained by the Parliamentarians. When the Fairfaxes were defeated at Adwalton Moor on 30 June, Cavendish again controlled all of Yorkshire apart from Hull and Wressle Castle. However, this supremacy was to be short-lived. Instead of joining the king in the south, Cavendish moved to defend Lincolnshire, but the county was lost in October 1643 and the Royalist forces retreated to York. The earlier defeat of the Fairfaxes at Adwalton had strengthened the alliance between the Parliamentarians and the Scots and, in 1644, the Scottish armies began to move south to defeat the king.

York, by and large, remained loyal to the king and, as the city was key to the control of the North, it was an obvious Royalist stronghold for the Parliamentary army to neutralise with the help of the advancing Scots. Moving into position, the Fairfaxes drove the Royalist forces from Selby and were joined in Wetherby by the Scottish army commanded by the Earl of Leven. The combined forces marched north to besiege York, the Scots taking the western sector and the Parliamentarians the eastern. A bridge of boats was constructed across the River Ouse at Acaster Malbis so that the two armies could communicate. The Earl of Manchester, in whose army Oliver Cromwell was lieutenant general, also joined the siege, occupying the northern sector and building another bridge of boats at Poppleton again to aid communication.

Lamel Hill, Walmgate Stray

On 5 June, Fairfax raised a battery on what is now known as Lamel Hill, an area near the Retreat and the northern part of Walmgate Stray, to bombard the city defences. It was from this vantage point that they were able to make a breach in Clifford’s Tower, the site of two of the city’s guns. Soon after this, the besiegers captured the area outside Walmgate Bar and established another gun emplacement in St Lawrence’s churchyard about 45m from the bar. The Parliamentary forces then attacked the bar itself by mining underneath it, but Sir Thomas Glemham, the governor of the city, was made aware of what was happening and dug above them, pouring water over the besiegers. He also built a new earth wall across Walmgate to stop the Parliamentary soldiers making further progress.

Walmgate Bar, damaged during the Civil War from the batteries on Lamel Hill and St Lawrence’s churchyard.

On 7 June the Scottish army under Lord Leven attacked the three Royalist gun emplacements on the south-west side of the city, capturing two of them. The following day, the Royalists set fire to the surrounding suburbs so that the besiegers were unable to shelter in the houses as they approached the city. However, Parliamentary forces close to Bootham Bar were able to douse the fires and get close to the city walls. For a week, hostilities ceased so that talks could take place but Royalist forces refused to agree to any terms of surrendering the city and the siege continued. Parleying over and without his superiors’ permission, Major-General Lawrence Crawford rashly tried to mine under St Mary’s Tower in the hope of breaching the walls at that point. The tower collapsed but, nevertheless, the besiegers were repulsed by the defenders within the walls and an attempt by Parliamentary forces to attack King’s Manor, the king’s headquarters in the North, also failed.

Despite these successes, the Marquess of Newcastle recognised that the city could not withstand the siege for much longer and he called on the help of Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the son of the king’s sister, Elizabeth, a dashing cavalry commander with a formidable reputation. On 30 June news reached the besiegers that Prince Rupert was already in Knaresborough so the Parliamentary forces raised the siege and took their forces to Marston Moor to intercept him. However, Prince Rupert approached by a different route, via Boroughbridge. He left a large part of his forces camped outside the city and was able to enter York with a small number of soldiers to meet the Marquess of Newcastle. Rupert had received a letter from the king clearly stating that the plan was to face the enemy and, although Newcastle was reluctant, he accepted that a battle was to follow. Charles assured Prince Rupert, ‘If York be lost, I shall esteem my crown little less.’

Battle of Marston Moor

In a turning point in the Civil War, the Battle of Marston Moor was fought about five miles west of York near the village of Long Marston; the Royalist army was heavily defeated. Royalist troops, trying to escape back into York, were followed by the Parliamentary soldiers who continued the attack until the retreating men reached Micklegate Bar where there was a crush of soldiers trying to enter the city. Prince Rupert, hiding in a bean field until it felt safe to travel, returned to York but left almost immediately with 5,000 horsemen, riding via Richmond into Lancashire. Newcastle travelled east to Scarborough from where he sailed for the Continent. Sir Thomas Glemham was once more left in charge of York. Two days later, on 4 July, the siege was resumed. Although, during the interim, the garrison had been able to replace the city’s provisions, a number of citizens and soldiers had taken their chance to escape and Glemham was left with reduced forces.

After negotiations, the city was finally surrendered to the Parliamentary army on 16 July 1644. The Royalist garrison marched out and the Parliamentarians marched in, holding a thanksgiving service in the Minster. Two days later the Parliamentary army left York, leaving the Fairfaxes in charge of a garrison of Yorkshire men. As the Fairfaxes were local landowners they no doubt felt a responsibility towards York’s ancient history and gave orders that the churches should be left undamaged. A memorial tablet in York Minster’s Chapter House was unveiled by their descendant the 12th Lord Fairfax of Cameron in 1932 and emphasises just how much York should be grateful to them in the aftermath of the Civil War:

In memory of Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, 1584-1647, and Thomas Fairfax, 1612-1671, second and third Lords Fairfax of Cameron and generals of the Parliamentary forces who during the civil war 1642-1646 preserved from destruction the treasures of glass of York Minster.



Peter Wenham, The Great and Close Siege of York 1644 (Kineton, 1970)

Norah Carlin, The Causes of the English Civil War (Oxford, 1999)


© Dinah Tyszka

Photographs by Rachel Semlyen for the Civic Trust