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“Vile Ministers” and “Poor Silly Creatures”

David Pilling tells the story of the Dorset Clubmen’s abortive attempts to curb the excesses of both sides in the English Civil War

dorset-clubmen-english-civil-war-Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell in a contemporary portrait by Thomas Walker. He holds a baton, the symbol of high military command.

Dorset saw a great deal of action during the English Civil Wars (1643-51), including the sieges of the Royalist strongholds at Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle, but the largest pitched battle to be fought in Dorset was not between Cavaliers and Roundheads. Instead it was fought between an army of Roundheads and a mob of local farmers driven to defend their homes and livelihoods against marauding soldiers from both sides.
The causes of the battle lay in the fact that many rural communities within Dorset and surrounding counties suffered badly as their lands and goods were plundered indiscriminately by Royalist and Parliamentary troops. At last the war-weary yeomen and farmers resolved not to endure this any longer and formed local militias to defend their families and property. They came to be known as ‘Clubmen’ due to the rudimentary nature of their arms and weaponry, including clubs, scythes and pitchforks. Often assembled and led by local clergymen, their only pretence to a uniform was a white cockade in their hats and banners that bore the motto: ‘If you offer to plunder or take our cattle, be assured we will bid you battle.’
The first appearance of Clubmen was in Shropshire during the winter of 1644-45 and the movement quickly spread through neighbouring counties and the Welsh border. By May 1645 bands of Clubmen had started to appear in Somerset, Wiltshire and Dorset. The Clubmen in these areas proved to be the most dangerous and intractable, as shown when they hunted down and butchered Royalist fugitives from the Battle of Langport in July 1645. The first notice of Clubmen in Dorset acting independently was in May when 4000 of them assembled at Wimborne St Giles to organise a force of watchmen to guard against marauding Cavalier and Roundhead soldiers.

dorset-clubmen-english-civil-war-Sir Thomas Fairfax
Sir Thomas Fairfax, the Lord General of Cromwell’s New Model Army, was the most accomplished Parliamentarian officer

On 11 July the Roundhead General Sir Thomas Fairfax met leaders of the Clubmen and persuaded most of them to disband in return for his promise that his troops would commit no outrages against the local population, but the Clubmen of Dorset were not convinced and remained in arms. That the Dorset Clubmen were still a threat is evident from the siege of Sherborne Castle in August 1645, when Fairfax felt sufficiently threatened by a meeting of Clubmen at Shaftesbury to send troops to arrest the ringleaders. The man he sent to quell the unruly mob was none other than Oliver Cromwell himself, leading a thousand dragoons.
As they were passing Duncliffe Hill, a mile or two to the west of Shaftesbury, they noticed some colours flying from its peak and a scout was sent to investigate. He climbed to the top of Duncliffe, ‘a place full of wood and almost inaccessible’, and there he found a mob of Clubmen. Their leader was Richard Newman of Fifehead Magdalen, and when he learnt that Cromwell himself was at the bottom of the hill, he came down to explain that the Clubmen were only defending themselves from the continual plundering by both sides. At this point, Cromwell, according to several reports, made the strenuous twenty-minute climb to the top of Duncliffe to talk to the defenders in person. He was able to pacify the Clubmen sufficiently for them to return quietly and peacefully to their homes, ‘being very well satisfied and contented.’
However, the most serious confrontation between regular troops and Clubmen in Dorset was at Hambledon Hill overlooking the Blackmore Vale, where a small army of some four to five thousand Clubmen led by a group of local clergymen, including Newman and Rev. Thomas Bravel of Compton Abbas, assembled to make a stand against the Roundhead dragoons. The courage of the Clubmen was stiffened by Bravel’s promise to pistol any one of them who ran away during the coming battle. They would need all their courage, for Cromwell was now determined to put a stop to the nuisance of the Clubmen and the threat they posed to his army’s supply lines.
The first encounter between Cromwell’s troops and the Clubmen occurred when a squad of his dragoons came across a musketeer at the foot of Hambledon Hill. When they asked where he was going, he replied that he was going to join ‘the club army’. The dragoons demanded that he lay down his musket, to which he responded by cocking and pointing the weapon at them. Before he could fire they managed to wrestle the man to the ground and relieve him of his musket, hurting him in the process but not killing him.

dorset-clubmen-english-civil-war-Hambledon Hill,
Hambledon Hill, the site of the infamous battle between the Dorset Clubmen and Cromwell’s troops

After this farcical beginning, Cromwell attempted to negotiate with the Clubmen drawn up on the slopes of Hambledon Hill, but his messengers were shot at. A second request was spurned and Cromwell’s patience was rewarded by two of his men being killed in a hail of bullets. Faced with this intransigence, Cromwell gave up any attempt at negotiation and prepared to attack.
Cromwell later described the clergymen Thomas Bravel and Richard Newman as ‘two vile ministers’, but vile or not, they evidently possessed some military skill, for they picked the commanding position of Hambledon Hill and ordered their men to dig trenches against the advancing Roundheads. If Cromwell was perturbed by the sight of several thousand Clubmen dug in on the slopes of Hambledon he showed little sign of it, for he had already captured some of their ringleaders while they were holding the meeting at nearby Shaftesbury and he knew how poorly equipped and ill-disciplined they were.
Inevitably, the clergymen and their ragged troops proved no match for Cromwell’s tactical skill and his battle-hardened professional cavalry. The Clubmen had lined up expecting a frontal attack, but Cromwell sent a detachment of fifty dragoons under a Major Desborough to circle the hill and charge into the rear of their position while he led the rest of his men against their front. In the event, Cromwell’s own advance was unnecessary as the Clubmen took one look at the dragoons galloping towards them and scattered, many of them attempting to escape by sliding down the hillside on their backsides. Among those who fled in this ignominious fashion were Bravel and Newman and the rest of the clergymen, who along with the rest ‘slid and tumbled down that great steep hill to the hazard of their necks’.
During the Civil Wars such a rout was usually followed by bloody pursuit and slaughter, but Cromwell had no desire to preside over the killing of farmers and country folk. In his report to Fairfax of the action at Hambledon Hill, he described how his dragoons ‘beat them [the Clubmen] from the work, and did some small execution upon them; I believe killed not twelve of them, but cut very many.’ He described the Clubmen as being ‘poor silly creatures’ and described how his dragoons rounded up 300 of the fugitives and locked them up overnight in St Mary’s Church in the village of Shroton.
The next morning Cromwell examined the leaders, dismissed them as ‘malignant priests’, gave the rest a lecture and sent them back to their farms and villages, claiming in his report that the prisoners promised ‘to be very dutiful for time to come, and will be hanged before they come out again’. Sixteen Roundhead soldiers who had been captured by the Clubmen before the battle and threatened with hanging were also found and liberated.
There were further Clubmen risings in the following months, but Hambledon Hill marked the last time they would pose a serious threat to either Royalist or Parliament troops. It was reported that after Cromwell’s victory ‘a man might ride very quietly between Sherborne and Salisbury’ through the areas that had been the heartlands of the risings. The Clubmen are often regarded as something of a footnote in the history of the Civil War, but their threat was far from underestimated at the time: in the words of General Fairfax’s chaplain, Joshua Sprigg, if the Clubmen rising ‘had not been crushed in the egg, it had on an instant run all over the kingdom’.

dorset-clubmen-english-civil-war-The Clubmen felt that they were 'piggies in the middle' of the two sides in the Civil War
The Clubmen felt that they were ‘piggies in the middle’ of the two sides in the Civil War

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