A BLOODY civil war clash is being explored in a day of history on Sunday. Chris Lloyd tells of the Battle of Piercebridge

ON December 2, 1642, at the beginning of the English Civil War, the Royalists of Newcastle were marching south to the aid of the city of York, which was coming under threat from Parliamentarian forces.

But at Piercebridge, their march was impeded by a small contingent of Parliamentarians which had spotted them coming and had taken control of the bridge over the River Tees the previous day.

The thousands of Royalists massed on the heights of Carlbury on the north bank, and then charged down at the hundreds of Parliamentarians holding the bridge. What happened next exactly 376 years ago is the subject of a day of events and re-enactments in the village tomorrow.

“It was the first engagement of the war, and it set the trend,” says Phil Philo, local chairman of the Battlefields Trust which is arranging the events. “It showed the Parliamentarians that they had a real force to reckon with.”

The civil war is a series of encounters that begun in 1639, when King Charles I tried to impose his religious will on Scotland, and ended in 1651 with Charles beheaded, his son – Charles II – in exile in France and the English monarchy replaced by the Parliamentarians, led eventually by Oliver Cromwell.

The North-East bore the brunt in the beginning, as the Scottish army swept south, capturing Newcastle, with the Tees briefly becoming the border between the two nations. There is a story that in 1640, a Scottish force had crossed the river at Stapleton, to the south of Darlington, where they were overwhelmed by an English force. The Scottish survivors fled along the riverbank looking for a way across, and when they arrived at Croft, the bridge was either damaged or guarded so they plunged into the river with their enemy at their backs. Many drowned.

This was just a temporary setback for the Scots, because they forced Charles to agree the Treaty of Ripon in October 1640. In it, he handed Durham and Northumberland to the Scots and agreed to pay them £850-a-day expenses – money he expected Parliament to pay.

This was one of many grievances that Parliament had against the king, and when the Scots melted, the region split into two camps: Sunderland supported the Parliamentarians and Newcastle backed the king.

In response, Charles appointed William Cavendish, the 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon Tyne, as the governor of Northumberland, Durham, Westmorland and Cleveland, and ordered him to keep the Parliamentarians under control.

In the autumn of 1642, when the Royalists of York feared they were about to come under attack, Cavendish marched an army of up to 8,000 men – 2,000 on horseback – to save them. The army was known as the Whitecoats or Newcastle’s Lambs.

The Parliamentarians, who drew support from the cities of Yorkshire, were expecting them – it has just been discovered that in late November 1642, four Parliamentarians were killed at Eryholme, on the opposite bank of the Tees to Neasham, so perhaps they were keeping an eye on the river crossings.

At Piercebridge, Captain John Hotham, from Hull, had about 500 men stationed on the high ground on the Yorkshire bank of the river at Cliffe. His force included two guns commanded by Captain Hatcher.

Newcastle’s Royalists, who had ten guns, drew up on the Durham bank.

There are several versions of what happened next. The most dramatic account that Memories has seen suggests the first of the Royalists – led by Sir Thomas Howard and Sir William Lambton – rushed at the bridge. Capt Hatcher rained fire down upon them, and they turned and retreated back into Durham with the Parliamentarians chasing after them, killing several of them.

Newcastle regrouped. He placed his guns on the plateau at the top of Carlbury bank, and began to bombard the Parliamentarians. He destroyed some of Piercebridge's Roman remains, but he forced the Parliamentarians to retreat back into Yorkshire, once they realised how they were out-numbered and out-gunned.

Newcastle then crossed the bridge unhindered, and claimed victory.

At some cost.

Colonel Sir Thomas Howard was the most senior Royalist officer killed that day. He is said to have come from Tursdale, near Durham City, and was probably the grandson of Lord William Howard of Naworth Castle in Cumberland.

The parish register of St Edwin's Church, in High Coniscliffe, records: “Sir Thomas Howard collenoll buried at 36 the 2nd of December 1642.”

The 20 or so lower ranks who were killed in the rush onto the bridge did not get such a decent burial.

Their bodies were lobbed into a common grave near Carlbury Mill, where their skeletons were discovered in 1828. More skeletons, including some of horses, were discovered in the 1850s, when the Darlington to Barnard Castle railway was being built behind Carlbury Hall – whether these were related to this battle or another encounter no one knows.

The Parliamentarians claimed that they had “not one lost nor above three wounded”.

But for Newcastle, Piercebridge was a bridgehead. Within two days of crossing, he was in York; within six days, he had won a useful skirmish at Tadcaster and soon his Royalists were in control of territory as far south as Newark.

However, it wasn’t complete control. Many towns and ports continued to prefer the Parliamentarians.

For example, Sir Hugh Cholmley commanded Scarborough for the Parliamentarians. When in December 1642 he heard that Newcastle was being re-armed with weapons imported into the Tees by Guilford Slingsby of Hemlington, he marched across the North York Moors to have it out with him – his 380 men crossing the moors in midwinter pulling heavy guns must have been tough.

Somewhere near Guisborough on January 16, 1643, they encountered Slingsby’s 500 Royalists. They chased them into the town and, probably at what is today called War’s Fields, captured and killed them. Slingsby, 32, was so severely wounded that both his legs above the knee were amputated and he died three days later.

Victorious Cholmley sent a contingent under Captain Richard Medley to guard Yarm bridge over which Newcastle’s supply trains were travelling.

In late January 1643, a large convoy of 2,000 Royalists left Newcastle with stocks recently arrived from the continent. They had 20 large guns, 140 packhorses and 120 wagons which carried £20,000 in cash. On February 1, they encountered Capt Medley’s out-numbered men on the bridge and “fell upon them, slew many, took the rest of the foot and most of the horses prisoners with their ordnance and baggage”.

The Royalists were largely unscathed, and continued on their journey to York. The Parliamentarian prisoners were sent to Durham castle, and according to the Egglescliffe parish registers, one soldier “slain here at the Yarm skirmish” was buried in the churchyard.

During or after the skirmish, the northern arch of Yarm bridge was destroyed, either in the pre-battle Royalist bombardment, or by the retreating Parliamentarians or by the Royalists once they had captured it. The Royalists placed a wooden drawbridge across the gaping arch so they could control exactly who was trip-trapping across – you can still see today where the bridge has been repaired.

The Battle of Yarm was the last confrontation of the civil wars, and although the Royalists were victorious, in 1644, the Scots invaded once more and pushed them out of the region. The people of the North-East would have suffered badly under the army of occupation, which was gradually replaced by the Parliamentarians as they tightened their grip on the country and executed the king.

All of which will be explained at tomorrow’s event, which is part of the Battlefield Trust’s commemoration of the 375th anniversary of the English Civil War.

Remembering Civil War Piercebridge

Sunday, December 2
The George Hotel
10am-3.30pm: Free living history, including re-enactments, and arms and armour handling, and local history displays.
11am & 1pm: Battlefield walks.
4pm: Commemorative service in the church, remembering those who died in the battle.
7pm: Talk on the Tees Valley Civil War Battles by Phil Philo, of the Battlefields Trust, and Civil Insolencies by Bob Beagrie, telling the civil war stories in words and music. Tickets £5 by booking on 07585-905623, or £7 on the door.