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The Walls of John Fowke
London in the English Civil Wars, 1642-1648
It was a dramatic scene by design. On the fateful day in January 1642 that King Charles I swept into Parliament expecting to arrest his enemies, he was embarrassed by their absence. Instead of the more famous John Pym, Denzil Holles, John Hampden, Arthur Haselrig, and William Strode, Charles found an older and even more dedicated opponent waiting for him. According to Samuel Butler, it was Alderman John Fowke, newly elected to the common council of London, who met the king and responded to his inquiry about the missing men with a “saucy, insolent speech.”
The missing parliamentarians were probably hiding at the Coleman Street home of Isaac Pennington, Lord Mayor of London and Fowke’s mentor in mass political organizing. A key figure in the radicalization of the City, Fowke was also a merchant adventurer, a haberdasher, and probably a gunpowder bootlegger. One man thus contained almost everything about London that Charles found impossible.
Tiptoeing on the edge of treason, Fowke expressed hope that any charges against the men would “be tried but in a Parliamentary way,” emphasis Butler’s. It was a pointed, personal sting. Charles had prosecuted Fowke, a tax protester, in his star chamber for “clippings and piracies” 15 years before. Fowke then played a hand in the embarrassing fiasco of the Courteen expedition, driving a wedge between the king and his royal East India monopoly. Unsatisfied, in 1641 Fowke led the mob demanding the head of Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, a key supporter of the crown, and rose to political power in the City by supporting Pennington’s coup.
This was too much disrespect to bear now from such a bitter foe. Turning on his elevated heels, the diminutive king left Parliament intending to return and try again later. It would never happen. Feeling unsafe in London and ruminating over his humiliation, Charles fled a few days later to plot a stealth mobilization. Clumsy efforts to seize control of weapons and ammunition made his intentions obvious, however. In July, Charles fumbled an attempt to enter Hull and take its armory, laying siege for two weeks when an alert castellan shut the gates in his face. Parliament raised an army in response and Charles skulked off to Oxford. He finally raised his standard there on 22 August when negotiations with Parliament broke down.
It was the final break with Fowke and his faction. At their direction, Londoners took up shovels and confronted the king in a frenzy of digging.
One week before the Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, Parliament ordered that the Trained Bands should have “pieces of ordnance taken from Tower-hill and be planted in several places of the City” to defend it from a potential Royalist attack. The day after the Battle of Edgehill, Parliament ordered shops in the City shut down so that citizens might “attend the defence” of London and Westminster against the king, putting their backs into hurried construction. Actual organization preceded lawmaking as Parliament issued an order the following day “for the speedy putting this city into a posture of defense.” By then, thousands were already toiling away.
London was the heart of revolution and the largest mobilization center. To protect their investments, Londoners erected one of the largest defensive fortifications in Europe over just seven months, setting aside even their Puritan sabbath days. As a key leader of the war party in the City, Fowke was expected to contribute a share of physical work, not to mention money and organization. This was conspicuous piety. From Mayor Pennington and his closest allies on down, men such as Fowke had to turn up frequently and do their bit, with their wives working beside them. To be seen doing less than any other man would be a social and political disaster.
Fowke was also a powerful member of the common council and an Alderman, so he was in meetings where detailed planning orders got written. His leadership on the Committee of Safety and the militia subcommittee put him in touch with people, plans, and preparations across the City. We may judge his importance from the esteem of his enemies. Four days after the Battle of Edgehill, the Royalist newspaper Mercurius Aulicus declared “alderman Fulke” unforgiveable for agitating the City to make war on their king. Edward Walker, secretary to Charles, picked out Fowke from among the rabble and called him its ringleader. A personal war had been subsumed into a wartime propaganda scene. From the Royalist perspective, the man and London’s walls were one opponent.
London was hardly the only site of rapid civic fortification in the British Isles. Archaeology has located widespread substantial earthwork fortifications associated with the wars of 1638-1652. Municipalities everywhere responded to the emergency of war with shovels. Combined, the new defensive constructions across England by the middle of 1644 stretch far longer than Hadrian’s Roman wall enclosing Scotland. Fortifying even a small city was an enormous undertaking. For example, the defenses around Chester required the relocation of more than three million cubic feet of dirt, or about 600,000 wheelbarrow loads.
The logistics of the defenses of London dwarfed those figures. Functional, covered in grass turves to prevent erosion, the ‘Lines of Communication’ were not pretty or advanced, but they were a defensable improvement over the obsolete Roman and medieval walls of London. Ramparts connecting trace italienne-style earthworks resisted artillery attack and maximized defensive enfilading artillery fire from bastions. To attack such defenses would have cost the king an entire army, and he only had the one.
Touring the Lines of Communication shortly after their completion in 1643, travel writer William Lithgow recorded “two hundred and twelve pieces of cannon; which, indeed, is a mighty and tremenduous sight … all the ordonance are mounted upon new wheeles; besides the pallosading and barrocading of them without, with yron workes and other engynes.” However, this number of guns may be a wartime exaggeration, even deliberate disinformation. Some of Lithgow’s ‘travels’ were clearly fantasies and many readers dismissed him as a fabricator. “It seems remarkable that such a potentially useful document should have been published” when Fowke and his friends were trying to keep their building plans secret, historians Victor Smith and Peter Kelsey observe.
As the new defenses took shape, Charles repeatedly threatened to storm them. Construction was concentrated on the northern bank, his threats mentioned the southern side of the Thames. Then, with fortifications almost completed on the southern bank, Charles made an empty threat to block the Thames below London. His announcements merely enhanced the atmosphere of suspicion and secrecy within the City, where his remaining supporters met increasing social and legal pressure to conform with Fowke and Parliament.
When threats had failed to stop the Lines of Communication from being completed, Charles engaged in petty boycotts of London trade throughout his own domain. He picked an unequal fight. London was a global entrepôt, a port where wholesale goods came from around the world for manufacturing and distribution at profit. In a very real sense, the walls of London reflected the mercantile policy of John Fowke and the colonizing-interloping traders with whom he did business. Charles could never hope to match their spending power or sea power.
Worse, the king was embarrassed by the successful defense of Gloucester in 1643 when his royal siege train ran out of ammunition. Fowke was a child of Gloucestershire and a strident advocate of relief. Inspired by the courage of the smaller town, Parliamentary forces rallied from torpid inaction and marched out; Charles abandoned his siege. Charles had thus tried and failed to crack a city that was far smaller and less capable than London. Military historians refer to this as a turning point of the war.
It may also have altered thinking among Fowke’s clique. Most of the guns Lithgow described along the Lines of Communication “were in the upper weight-range of artillery,” as Smith and Kelsey note. However, a later financial report shows only 94 cannons deployed along the Lines of Communication rather than the 212 that Lithgow reported in 1643. With the king’s threats to besiege London discredited, more cities and shipping to defend than Charles, and losses to replace besides, the discrepancy may reflect the success of the Lines of Communication in deterring Royalist attack altogether, for that prospect seemed very unlikely by the beginning of 1644.
In the new year, Fowke was made a Sheriff of London and Pennington became Lord of the Tower. If the guns along the Lines of Communcations were in fact culled and redistributed at this time, it must have reflected their forward policy of taking the fight to Charles.
Befitting a king who loved the finest paintings in Europe, the Oxford defense plan was a superb design by a continental master of siegeworks, more elaborate than the defense system of London. However, in 1643 plans to divert the flow of local streams for their construction forced William Baber, the royal gunpowder monopolist, to close his processing mills and move operations to Bristol. It was typical of Charles to compromise between interests in this way and pay for it later. When Oxford finally did come under siege in 1646, Charles slipped out of the city in disguise once his ammunition ran short.
Nor was Charles ever able to test the Lines of Communication. Indeed, the closest he ever got was at Turnham Green on 13 November 1642, just weeks after Edgehill. Low on ammunition as usual and facing an army almost twice the size of his own, if far less disciplined, Charles reluctantly withdrew under the cover of his artillery. As with contemporary conflicts elsewhere, primitive logistics and conservative strategy conspired to prevent single battles from resolving this war. As long as the enemy had an army in the field, it would be difficult to lay proper siege anywhere and win a war for control of England.
This left the rural zones. Although London could resist Charles, the exurban landscape of England was supremely vulnerable to so-called ‘small war’ tactics of raiding and pillage (‘scorched earth’) implied in the contemporary French term chevauchées. Fearing the depredations of the king’s Cavaliers, many thousands of English folk left their homes and flooded into the City. Propaganda may have played a role, as the Thomason Tracts, a collection of pamphlets printed in London during the war, include lurid allegations of rapine and barbarism. Yet the reality of civilian suffering in Germany, which was being torn apart by the Thirty Years’ War at the very same time, surely enhanced such fears.
Parliament printed an order concerning this “great resort of People unto London” eleven days after Turnham Green. At the same time, Parliament ordered that “no victuals be suffered to be carried out of London and that no officer or souldier of His Excellencies Army be permitted to come into this city without a certificate.” Further orders include “a search to be made in London, and towns adjacent, for Armes.” Finally, reports of “Souldiers” having “pawn’d” their ammunition and horses heralded a paranoid gloom descending upon the City.
Walls protect, but also encircle and confine. The war was dragging on through 1644 and public morale suffered in London, whatever the grand strategic picture.
From their construction, it is clear that the Lines of Communication were oriented towards control of Londoners as much as their defense against the king. For example, the infamous Tower of London was included in the plan as a citadel, the feature of the new fortification design that had replaced the castle keep. Useful for defense, citadels had nevertheless emerged as a potent European symbol of state tyranny, much as the medieval infamy of the Tower carried over into early modern Britain.
Another mass performance took place. In a wave of “security theater” not wholly unlike the post-9/11 era, chainposts and sentry points installed around the city enforced a state of alert in the streets. Guardhouses and gates stood as visible points of control not just while coming in or out of London, but also while traveling through the City. Parliamentary acts prevented export of foodstuffs and war material upriver, so an armed sentry ship enforced these ordinances, guarding a chain which blocked barges from travel up the Thames towards Oxford without permission. No part of London was uncontrolled.
Despite these measures, Royalists moved in and out of the Lines of Communication throughout the war, often printing their pamphlets in London, for example. Clearly, secrecy was hardly improved by the Lines, nor was it possible to keep the plans of their construction completely secret from the king. Rather, these walls and bastions protected Fowke’s party in the City from king and countrymen alike and allowed Parliament to control the outbound flow of war material.
Charles had only himself to blame, really. As recorded by court historian Bulstrode Whitelock, on 5 January 1643 an open letter from the king promised pardons to everyone in London — with the exceptions of Mayor Pennington, Henry Mainwaring, John Venn, and John Fowke, all of whom were to suffer execution for treason. The ham-fisted outreach was vindictive and mercurial, which the king’s supporters in the City saw to their dismay. Well-meaning loyalists tried to edit the damaging material from a republished version, but Pennington censored the redacted edition immediately and confiscated the printed copies. In its place, the Lord Mayor had eight printings of the unexpurgated original letter run and distributed across the City to ensure everyone knew all about it. The king’s own words had the desired effect, spurring volunteer labor participation and public displays of commitment.
During the next several weeks, Charles Stuart received answers from Londoners in at least seven pamphlets defending the targets of his ire. On 14 January 1643, there was “A Humble Remonstrance to the Kings Majesty, in vindication of Isaak Pennington, Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Foulkes, Capt. Venne, Capt. Mainwaring, whom his Majestie desires to be delivered to custody to answer an accusation of treason. Printed for T. Wright.”
On 11 February, “The Declaration and Vindication of Isaack Pennington, Col. Ven, Capt. Mainwaring and Mr. Fowke, in answer to the sundry pamphlets wherein they are charged to be the maine incendiaries of these present troubles in London. Printed for Humphrey Johnson.” Reflecting a common theme, the author proposed to “safeguard” London, protecting “the subjects liberties, and the security of the true Protestant religion” against supposed Catholic infiltration.
Other very-17th Century titles include “The Bloody Game at Cards,” “A Briefe Answer to a Book Intitled His Majesties Letter,” and “Animadversions on the King’s Answer.” All of them mentioned or alluded to Fowke. In their wake, Londoners redoubled the speed of construction and rumors of Royalist conspiracy abounded.
The atmosphere of suspicion turned electric in June with the revelation of the Waller Plot against the city. The sequence of events that followed was typical of the press cycle that had emerged by 1641, as Fowke rose to political power, and that was visible with each pamphlet defending the king’s foes. First, a pamphlet appeared proposing a “Vow and Covenant” of Parliament to resist nefarious royal plots in the City. Then the following Sunday, multiple sermons across London all endorsed the idea. Fowke was patron to the preachers. The proposed ceremonies were duly held with pomp and circumstance.
When an army did finally come to call on London, the Lines of Communication failed to stop them from imposing their will on Parliament. This is unsurprising, since to a small degree it was John Fowke’s army.
Just as the walls of London were a personal investment, Fowke personally contributed £1,000 of the £80,000 fund for the organization and equipment of the New Model Army, to say nothing of his tireless efforts to create it in the first place. Chaplains to the new force, including Hugh Peter and Joshua Sprigge, counted Fowke among their patrons. Perhaps equipped with some of the cannons that had formerly defended London from an empty threat of attack, the New Model Army was victorious at Naseby in 1645, overcoming the main Royalist army at last. Thereafter, a series of brutal sieges cracked Royalist strongholds until Charles became a captive.
Yet apparent victory slipped away. Losing their fear of the king, Parliament stopped paying their expensive new army. This was hardly uncommon for the era. Indeed, frequent arrears in pay explained most Spanish failures to reconquer their rebellious Dutch provinces and debilitated mobilization for every side throughout the 30 Years’ War. Exhaustion with the cost in blood and wartime taxes had caught up with the war party in London. A new clique ran Parliament in 1646. Pym was dead, Holles was in charge, and Fowke was on the outside, looking in.
Left out of his customary place on the nomination list for the militia committee in April, the very next month Fowke was among the conspirators who met Oliver Cromwell to plot the New Model Army’s march on London. Fowke then emerged as the liaison between Parliament and Thomas Fairfax negotiating the peaceful handover of London’s defenses when Parliament balked at war against their own (Fowke’s?) army.
During the same month of June, protesters mobbed Westminster demanding the changes to the militia committee list be reversed. After taking control of the City in August, the New Model Army quite insisted on Fowke’s immediate re-appointment to the militia committee, and both houses of Parliament promptly and solemnly agreed. As a condition of this process, the defenses of London were now “slighted” and “reduced” so that Parliament could no longer close London to outside attack.
However, the Royalist flame still burned. A series of uncoordinated uprisings shook the country again, and so the New Model Army marched out of London to suppress them.
After crushing the Scots at Preston, they marched back to London in August 1648 to straighten out Parliament once again. According to Denzil Holles, as the victorious host approached the outlying suburbs, “some false brothers in the city as Alderman Foulks and Alderman Gibbs, bewitcht the city and lull’d it into a security” so the New Model could take control of London again. Dismantling work on the hastily-constructed Lines of Communication now resumed in earnest. Hardly any traces are left today.
John Fowke, personal enemy of the king, took part in every major decision during the brief history of London’s wartime walls, agitating and organizing and planning and fitting out and building them. He also arranged the unopposed entry of an army into London — not once, but twice — breaching or bypassing those same defenses to restore his private interests. It is not too much to say that the Lines of Communication reflected the personal policy of John Fowke throughout their existence, and even through their demolition.
We cannot credit one man alone for such a monumental endeavor, but no other figure in wartime London can claim greater responsibility than John Fowke. Everyone else involved in creating the Lines of Communication worked with Fowke. He never fought a battle, but he knew his business, and in that sense his impression on history ought to be greater than that of his contemporary Wallenstein, for Fowke died of old age after winning almost all of his wars where the more famous man died at the hand of assassins, lost in his mystic reverie.
It is strange that no single, standalone historical volume about Fowke has ever been published. This writer hopes to correct that travesty some day.