Some of the men looked up at the sound of hooves outside but most, scattered across the pews in the church, kept their heads bowed. Not in prayer but in defeat. It was four days since they’d marched out for Salisbury and three since they’d been surprised in the night, routed by White and a division of horse. They were four hundred strong when they’d rallied to Captain Thompson to find alliance with their Leveller brothers. Now Thompson was gone, fifty men were dead, and the rest were holed up, captive, in the church in Burford.
A key scraped in the lock and the church door was pushed open. A burly figure stood silhouetted in the frame, the early Spring light spilling into the gloom around him. He raised a hand to his face, briefly covering his nose against the fetid stench: three hundred men’s fear, sweat, shit and piss hung in the room. It stank of despair, of death. He lowered his hand and called out into the church.
“Who speaks for you ?”
More heads lifted now. Two of the men closer to the door got to their feet.
“We are free men Major. We all speak for ourselves,” answered one of them.
The Major spat on the floor. “Men ? You’ve barely started using a blade on your face boy. And last I heard you were only as free as Cromwell’s coin gave you leave to be. You all know me. Major White. I answer only to Fairfax and Cromwell. You all answer to me.”
“I will speak for these men,” said a voice from the back of the church. “And as for coin…,” he paused. “Sir, we’ve scarce seen any of that for weeks.” A tall, slim man stood and made his way through the huddles of men. He bore the same red overcoat as the others, his hung open over a once white shirt, now stained with blood and filth. Thick stubble covered his face. For all his unkempt appearance he stood straight and met White’s gaze.
“And who might you be ?” asked White.
“Thompson… James Thompson. My rank was Cornet. Insomuch as anyone commands these men then I do.”
“We bear no rank now. Know this Major, we will not march further a single step without discussion of our demands and without pay of the monies we are already owed.”
“I knew your brother, Thompson. You have his look. You have his taste for treacherous anarchy as well. At least you had the courage to stay with your men and not flee like he did.”
“Having your kin named coward by a man that attacks infantrymen – his own infantrymen – on horseback and under the cover of night is no insult. Look to your own courage Sir and I fear you’ll find it absent. And what you decry as treachery and anarchy we call simply the just settlement of England’s revolution.”
“We killed the King. Reckon that’s enough revolution for any man,” said White.
“Any gentleman perhaps. For Cromwell perhaps.” Thompson gestured at the soldiers around him. “There’s been no revolution here Major. Naught that changes things for us. Do you expect us to go back to tend fields we don’t own, watch Cromwell be King in all but name, and have no say in how this land ought be governed ?”
“I expect you to go to Ireland as you’re ordered.”
“We’ll not go to Ireland. There’s nothing there but more war. We’ve turned this world – this country – upside down and when it’s righted we don’t want to find ourselves back at the bottom.”
“This is your last chance Thompson. This is a direct order from Cromwell. Re-join the Army, nay say your demands, and march for Ireland to help put down the Catholic heretics. Your men will be pardoned and they will be paid.”
Thompson shook his head and said, softly “Not me Major, not me. A Lord’s purse is not reason enough for me to fight anymore.” He then raised his voice, projected across the church to the weary, beaten men that he’d fought alongside. “Do not follow me blindly into death, friends. There is no honour in that and no shame in wanting to live. Our cause, our common cause, does not end here today. Carry it with you in your hearts and tell it to all that will hear, all that would live as free men. Be led no longer by nothing more than the belief that this land belongs to each of us.”
White grimaced, nodded and turned and left the church. The door remained ajar but a phalanx of men, armoured and armed, were visible outside. White addressed them, loud enough for the prisoners to hear.
“Take them up the tower and spread them out on the roof. They’ll be secure enough up there and I want them all to see what happens to traitors. When that’s done bring me Thompson, whoever’s next in command, and two privates. Bring them out here and make ready a firing squad.”
“Let me die with my helmet on Major. A simple soldier’s request to another soldier.”
“I can understand that,” said White. He beckoned one of his guards. “Fetch Cornet Thompson his helmet. He fought with us as a soldier and I’ll let him die as a soldier.”
“We were on the same side but fighting for different things,” replied Thompson. He waited, squinting slightly in the early morning sun, until a helmet was found for him. He raised it in salute to the prisoners strewn out across the leaded church roof-top above him before placing it on his head and stepping back to stand against the wall. The sun reflected back and up off the helmet such that those directly above had to look away, shielding their eyes. The first they knew he was dead was when they heard the musket’s discharge. A pair of crows, dislodged from their nest, angrily took flight, squabbling and squawking. The men smelt the cordite on the air and, when they looked down, Thompson was slumped against the wall, knees seeming to have buckled beneath him.
Corporal Perkins was next. Second in command and second to be made example of. He refused the offered blindfold and faced down the squad as implacably as Thompson before him. He fell amidst a hail of shot, shrapnel lodging in the church wall behind him.
The men on the roof were quiet. Three days without food, sardined together in close quarters, and the loss of their command had sucked the spirit from them. White sensed the rebellion ebbing away. One final blow and it would be quelled.
“Hear me,” he shouted up to the subdued watchers above. “Here stand two of your comrades. Privates like you. Honest men led astray by anarchists and dreamers.” He signalled to his own men who dragged two captive soldiers up to the wall, stood them up next to where Thompson and Perkins had fallen. One of the men was pulled to one side to some pre-arranged design. “This is what happens when good men stray,” called White suddenly pointing at the man left in front of the firing squad.
Shots rang out again and he fell. Private John Church scarcely had time to compose himself, to offer up a prayer, or to make his peace before he was executed. White gestured at the other man, held firm in the grip of his captors.
“And this is what can happen when good men find the right path again.” The man was released. He stood, uncertainly, and waited for White to speak. “You have a full pardon. It is forgotten. You understand the terms ?” The man nodded quickly. White addressed them all again. “I think you all understand the terms. Welcome back to the New Model Army.”
This is a true account. Least wise it’s as true as I can give for the events of that day hang heavy in my heart. I’ll tell it as all that hold England dear should know what happened. All that hold dear the idea of what England might be should know what happened and weep.
I am a soldier in the New Model Army. Anthony Sedley. Private. I fought for Cromwell and for Parliament against a King that had strayed from God. We cut the head from the snake but I fear it has just grown anew. We are betrayed. The rebellion is done.
Cornet James Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private John Church were executed on this day, 17th May 1649, at the church in Burford. Examples to the rest of us. Like frightened children we set aside our dreams of suffrage and vows to take our rightful stake in this England. We knelt, re-pledged allegiance and now march for Ireland under a Lord’s banner. Be it a Lord or be it a King, it seems the outcome is much the same for us.
I repeat the words that Sir Thomas Rainsborough spoke at Putney:
For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under
I carry the shame of surrender. Not just to the Army but that we surrendered the idea that our lives were as equal to those that birth has put above us. This is a true account. Let history not forget us. It shall be our judge.
This is the twenty third story in my series of 42 shorts that I’m writing to raise money and awareness for Mind, the mental health charity. My fundraising page is here and all donations, however small, are appreciated: https://www.justgiving.com/42shorts/
This story is a true one although obviously there’s no way of knowing exactly how the events at Burford that broadly ended England’s brief flirtation with full revolution played out. It’s a story that’s (in my view) shamefully neglected in the teaching of Britain’s history, almost as if we want to brush it under the carpet. What might have been…