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Dying for his king – or how a would-be Parliamentarian ended up a dead Royalist

There is a picture in the National Portrait Gallery that I have always been particularly fond of. Originally, I was drawn to it more because of the formal garden in the background than the sitters in the foreground (this was when I was thinking BIG when it came to garden design), but every time I’ve visited the gallery, I have ended up standing a long time before this depiction of a seemingly happy and content family – mainly because they don’t look all that happy. The father looks somewhat stressed, the wife looks just as worried, and only the toddler leaning against his father’s leg rocks the seems relaxed. So, dear readers, today I thought we’d meet the 17th century Capells – and especially Arthur Capell, the pater familias in the picture.


The Capells were relatively new to the world of the hoity-toity. Only a couple generations back, the Capells were merchants, and one William Capel was a London draper, became mayor and laid the foundations of the family fortune. By the time our Arthur was born in 1603, the family was well-to-do landed gentry and had been so for the last eighty years or so, long enough to distance themselves from their tradesmen roots and add an extra “l” to their surname.

Little Arthur grew up as the cosseted heir to a large fortune and as the member of a huge family, seeing as his grandparents had twenty children (and I’m thinking poor, poor woman…). His parents both died while Arthur was young, he spent some time in Cambridge and in 1627 married a young woman called Elizabeth Morrison who brought even more money to the Capell household. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1632, the not quite thirty-year-old Arthur became one of the richest men in England.

Cromwell's head Anthony_van_Dyck_-_Charles_I_(1600-49)_with_M._de_St_Antoine_-_Google_Art_Project (1)Despite all this wealth, Arthur was not much of a material boy. Devout and serious, he was a man for whom words like duty and honour meant something. So when he became an MP, he had a genuine desire to change things for the better – among other things he considered it important to ensure the king acted in accordance with Parliament’s directives. The king in question, rather obviously, did not agree. After all, Charles I had been raised believing in Divine Right. It is therefore not entirely strange that during the first years as an MP, Arthur mostly voted with the Parliamentarians. But as the radicals grew more vociferous (and much more radical), Arthur started feeling somewhat queasy. It was one thing to curb the king’s wilful behaviour, another thing entirely to question his authority – or his existence – altogether.

Arthur_Capel,_1st_Baron_Capel_by_Henry_Paert_the_ElderOur fledging Parliamentarian therefore began drifting in the direction of more moderate men, and the king, being at times quite astute, made Arthur Baron Capell of Hadham and gave him a seat in the House of Lords – and what a dashing baron he was, our Arthur, well over six feet tall and rich enough to flounce around in silks should he feel like it. (He mostly didn’t) Thus, the former fervent believer in a king ruled by Parliament was seduced into the Royalist camp, and being Arthur, once he had sworn the King fealty, there was no going back. Given the times, this meant our Arthur was in for a long and hard ride, because as we all know, the discord between Parliament and king swelled until it exploded into the English Civil War.

arthur capell DqLRxtqWkAEvU6hIn 1642 Lord Capell fought at Edgehill as a member of the king’s bodyguard. He had dipped into his considerable riches and equipped an entire regiment at the outbreak of the first Civil War, and he was to dip deeper and deeper into his personal wealth as the fighting progressed. While brave and audacious, creative when needed, it soon became eminently clear that he was not one of those men gifted with the skills required to make a great military leader. He lacked strategic vision and had a tendency to become bogged down in tactics, winning minor skirmishes while losing out in the bigger picture.

So in 1645, Lord Capell was instead sent to Bristol to serve on the council of the Prince of Wales. At this point in time, the previously so wealthy Capell was strapped for cash. His Essex estates were under sequestration, and only the fact that his wife had Parliamentarian connections kept his family in relative safety. In 1646, after fierce fighting in which Capell was wounded, what remained of the Prince’s advisors fled to Jersey and from there to France where the Prince was reunited with his mother.

As Lord Capell was uncomfortable in the very Catholic household of Queen Henrietta Maria, he spent the coming months in exile in the Netherlands, but by 1647 he was back home where he was first placed under house arrest. By July he was back at Hadham Hall. Things, it seemed, were over: Parliament was in charge and the king was its prisoner. Except, dear peeps, things were far from over. Parliament was not exactly a united front, with deep divisions between Independents and Presbyterians. King Charles attempted to exploit this, and in November of 1647 he escaped, making for Isle of Wight.

The king had hoped to be well-received at the Isle of Wight. Instead, he was incarcerated – in comfort – at Carisbrooke Castle. He decided to further deepen the divisions among the Parliamentarians, and in December of 1647 he signed a secret treaty with the Scots: if they supported him, he promised to implement Presbyterianism throughout England for a minimum period of three years. (Good luck with that, one can’t help thinking, but given the way events unfolded, this would never be put to the test.)

In May of 1648, the Royalists rebelled, the Scots army – according to the agreement with Charles I – invaded, and disaffected Parliamentarians took the opportunity to join the fracas. In Essex, things exploded, and Lord Capell felt honour-bound to join the uprising, despite the potential risks to himself and his family. As the New Model Army rose to the challenge, the Royalists took cover behind Colchester’s walls, and just like that, one of the more memorable sieges of the Civil War was in the making.

The Siege of Colchester, 1648 (engraving) (b/w photo)

Initially, Fairfax attempted to breach the town by force. His men charged, were fought off, charged again, and voilá, they’d made it through the gates. A ruse, as it turns out, because suddenly the gates swung shut behind them and the men were trapped, shot at from all directions. It is said our Arthur was one of the men behind the plan. Whatever the case, Fairfax lost very many men that day, the Royalists substantially less.

The Parliamentary forces settled down for a long siege. Having discovered that Lord Capell was one of the leaders, they had his sickly son brought over from Hadham Hall to hold as some sort of hostage, parading him within sight of the city walls. There were loud protests at this dishonourable behaviour (on both sides), and the boy was released. I guess his father heaved a sigh of relief. The siege ground on, with the people behind Colchester’s walls were reduced to eating cats, dogs, rats, leather – well, anything, really. The townspeople attempted to appeal to the Parliamentarian forces for food, but Fairfax was not giving them as much as a loaf of bread as he feared any victuals provided to the civilians would end up with the Royalists.

There were constant skirmishes, leading to loss of life and limb. The Parliamentarian forces ate their way into one Royalist position after the other, and for the men trapped in Colchester, things went from bad to worse, but they dug in and refused to budge, hoping the Scottish Army would succeed in trouncing Cromwell. Unfortunately for our trapped Royalists, it wasn’t Cromwell who hit the dust at the Battle of Preston. Instead, the entire Scottish Army was vanquished and the Second Civil War was thereby over – well, except for the stubborn men in Colchester.

In Colchester, the news were received in silent despair. Hungry and outnumbered, the only thing the besieged men could hope for was generous terms for their surrender – but frankly, in the present situation Fairfax had no reason to be generous. All he had to do was wait.  However, Black Tom Fairfax was a pragmatic man, less interested in spilling Royalist blood than in establishing some sort of peace, which is why he offered the common men quarter, while the “Lords and Gentlemen” who had led the uprising had to surrender unconditionally, with no guarantees as to how they would be punished.  For the sake of their men, Lord Capell and his fellow commanders had no choice but to accept Fairfax’ terms, and on the 28th of August 1648 the Royalists capitulated, after more than eleven weeks.

Fairfax disbanded the weakened Royalist troops, hauled two of the commanders before a military court and had them executed at Colchester (which he felt entitled to do as they weren’t peers) and had Lord Capell and his remaining companions dragged off to stand trial for treason. None of the captured men held any hopes about coming out of this alive.

For some months, Arthur languished in the Tower. Meanwhile, the king was desperately attempting to negotiate some sort of truce, but while a majority of Parliament wanted to find a solution, Oliver Cromwell didn’t. In his opinion, the king was a tyrant and a danger to permanent peace – and the king’s recent secret agreement with the Scots proved his point. In early December of 1648, Oliver and his comrades “purged” the Parliament of those considered too lenient vis-à-vis the king. The remaining MP’s, the so called Rump Parliament, voted to indict the king for treason. For the times a very novel – and shocking – approach.

charles_executionAs we all know, Charles I was found guilty and beheaded. Arthur Capell did not have to witness the death of his king – but he was more than aware that a second court was being convened, and that one of the defendants would be him. So Capell did what any man would have done, he escaped. Now, it may be worthwhile to point out that very, very few have escaped the Tower. But Arthur somehow got himself over the walls, jumped into the moat – and nearly drowned in the mud. Only his uncommon height saved him.

Ultimately, his burst of freedom was short-lived. He was recaptured in Lambeth, stood trial and was, as expected, found guilty. On March 9, 1949, he was beheaded in the Westminster Palace Yard. After he was well and truly dead, his head was sewn back on his body and his remains were dispatched to Hadham Hall to be buried – minus his heart. I assume his wife wept, not only for her husband, but also for her family, now in substantially reduced circumstances. But that, sadly, was how life was during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.

Eleven years later, Charles II was restored to the throne. And in 1661, Arthur Capell’s eldest son (also named Arthur) was made Earl of Essex, his father’s estates restored to him. A gesture, I believe, made more on behalf of the man who died for his king than for the son. Whatever the case, the Capells were back on top. Not that the pater familias in that portrait I so love was around to rejoice, but who knows: maybe he peeked down at his son and smiled, feeling somewhat vindicated for all he lost when fighting for a king he once considered far, far too big for his high-heeled boots!

2 thoughts on “Dying for his king – or how a would-be Parliamentarian ended up a dead Royalist”

  1. Marvellous painting. Elizabeth, gazing at him with those huge, worried eyes, seems a very unusual pose for a family portrait. He seems to be trying – and failing – to show calm and equanimity, whilst she is trying her hardest to communicate her concern/fear. Fascinating blog, thank you.

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