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Lost Kings and Rebelling Knights: Harrow in the English Civil War

Harrow, it seems, has a long and storied history of rebellion. While last week we looked at some of the events to have taken place within the borough during the bloody days of the Peasants’ Revolt in the fourteenth century, this week we travel further forward in time to the 1600s, to a time when the country was once again engulfed in conflict – to the earth-shaking days of the Civil War.

These are some of the most interesting events and figures from the Harrow area during this hugely important historical episode.


The Residents’ Rebellion

Much like the Revolt we looked at last week, the Civil War was the sum of years of discontent – though, in the Civil War’s case, some have suggested its roots go back centuries.

A central factor in the short term however was King Charles I, who during his reign gained a notorious reputation thanks to his religious policies and his increasingly volatile relationship with parliament.

As the decades in the seventeenth century progressed, the situation grew evermore unstable – from the lowest rungs of society to the highest – and by the 1630s, things were at fever pitch.

It was during this time that Charles, unable to work with parliament, introduced his ill-advised Ship Money tax – despite it being peacetime.

As with Lord Sudbury’s tax some three hundred years earlier, Harrow residents did not take kindly to this fresh form of extortion – the local residents rebelled, actively refusing to cooperate with the tax collectors that the crown sent out.

This was especially the case in 1635, with collectors supposedly having had difficulty in obtaining the payment of the tax in full, and then again in 1640, when Harrow residents once more challenged the king’s men.

Some forty seizures of property took place in retaliation for non-payment.

It is perhaps unsurprising then, that when these far-reaching tensions finally erupted into open conflict, Harrow had a role in it.

While all evidence indicates that no fighting actually took place in Harrow, there is a military dispatch from 1643 that would suggest our famous hill was chosen as military base – which is perhaps also unsurprising considering the vantage point the hill’s height would offer.


Another Harrowvian Knight

Harrow during this time was also home to a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell, Charles’ arch-rival in this conflict.

This man was Sir Gerard Gilbert, who had inherited Flambards, a house on Harrow on the Hill that, once, was described as one of the largest houses in Harrow.

During the years preceding the outbreak of the war, Sir Gerard had found himself increasingly on the side of the Parliamentarians and of Cromwell – particularly after his marriage to one of Cromwell’s cousins.

When war finally broke out, the Harrow landowner was quick to declare his support for parliament, and was soon made paymaster of the Parliamentary army.

During the fighting, Sir Gerard reportedly raised a regiment on parliament’s behalf, largely comprised of Harrow men.

Much like 1381’s knighted Harrow landowner, after the war’s resolution and the victory of the Parliamentary cause, Sir Gerard found himself reaping the benefits of being on the winning side – being made lord of the Upper House by Cromwell, who was now the country’s Lord Protector.

Yet his close affiliation with the Cromwells eventually served to thwart his political ambitions when in 1659 Oliver Cromwell’s son was forced out of office, and Gilbert was subsequently denied admission to the House of Commons. Nonetheless, the Harrowvian knight was fortunate enough to survive the violent restoration of the monarchy that was soon to come – despite his ties to the side that had seen the execution of Charles I only a few years before. Instead he would die peacefully in January 1670, being buried in Harrow, and bringing his tale of war and court intrigue to a decisive close.


The Myth of the Fleeing King

Yet despite Sir Gerard’s ties to the borough – and his undeniable ties to the Parliamentary cause – one of the most pervasive stories from Harrow in this time seemingly runs counter to it.

This story goes that following his defeat at Oxford in 1646 and his subsequent flight, the increasingly desperate king Charles I took momentary refuge on Harrow on the Hill.

Here he is said to have tended to his horses, and to have taken one last look from atop the hill at the capital that had, once, been his.

In recent years however this tale has come under scrutiny, with it having been pointed out how Harrow was Cromwellian stronghold, as well as the fact that the companions who Charles supposedly had been travelling with in story had fled the county by this point.

Nevertheless, it remains an interesting tale from the period – especially since, unlike the other events to have taken place in Harrow during this time, it has a presence in Harrow today at the top of Grove Hill.

Here, outside Harrow School’s Arts Schools, one can find a plaque on a sealed-up well to commemorate this local tale and mark the place where Charles supposedly stopped. Should you find yourself in the area, it may well be worth seeking out – regardless of whether the story is true or not.

Altogether then, Harrow has a number of interesting stories to tell of this period in history.

With the smaller, local stories like these often being lost in the widescreen view that we take to history, it is indeed made only more important that these narratives are remembered.

Moreover, the events in Harrow during this time would suggest a curious tendency for rebellion amongst Harrow residents – especially rebellion against the crown.

Regardless however, whether it be in the bloody anarchy of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, or the grand, political struggle of the English Civil War in the 1640s, Harrow had a hand in both conflicts, contributing a part to the wider narrative that predominates the history, and producing a number of interesting local stories, as well as intriguing local characters, that are absolutely worth remembering.


Written by Harry Turner.

Image Credit: History.com