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Bradford in 17th C

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Bradford at the time of the First English Civil War 1642-45

At the beginning of the English Civil Wars Bradford was a small town of about 2,500 inhabitants situated in the valley of the Bradford Beck in the heart of the West Riding of Yorkshire.

To the south west was the town of Halifax of similar size and the surrounding area contained a number small villages and hamlets.

Bradford was considered a small but busy market town and commercial centre in the West Riding at that time. The inhabitants were, for the most part, engaged in small scale subsistence farming and the manufacture of woollen cloth which was very much a cottage industry and the main source of income. The land surrounding the town was mostly of poor quality open pasture used for the raising of sheep and cloth production was the chief source of income for the local people. There were a few enclosed fields and gardens for the cultivation of crops and vegetables and raising of livestock surrounding the town and also some small scale coal mining in the area.

The 3 main streets in Bradford were Westgate, Ivegate and Kirkgate on the hill side just to the north of the Beck. There were 2 bridges over the river and the church was sited just beyond, where the cathedral is sited today.

Although the Beck is little more than a stream these days and runs in a culvert under the centre of the city it is important to note that at in the 17th century it would have been wider and deeper, probably like a small river, particularly in the wet weather. At that time the Beck would have proved a significant obstacle for any assault by an army from the south. In the years that have followed improved drainage the development of the land on the hills overlooking Bradford have changed the nature of this water course considerably.

Bradford was by no means a major centre of importance compared to some of the larger towns and cities in Yorkshire like York, Leeds, Wakefield, Pontefract and Hull. It did not occupy any position of strategic importance and was neither a military town or fortified in any way.

At the start of his reign King Charles I  sold the manor of Bradford to the citizens of London to help pay off his huge debts. This greatly angered the local population. The people of the town and surrounding areas also hated Bishop William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom King Charles favoured and had appointed. Laud had called one of the parish clerks before the Court of High Commission because he had conducted informal religious services. Laud was seen to be  aggressively promoting the movement of the church towards a more ritualistic and sacramental form of worship and prayer and persecuting those of Puritan beliefs and their ministers. These actions were deeply resented by the many Puritans in Bradford and surrounding areas. The men of the local cloth trade were by nature strong minded, outspoken and non conformist who would not sit idly by and submit to interference in either their religion or business. Following the brutal Catholic revolt in Ireland fears of invasion by the Irish rebels did nothing to calm the anxiety of the local people and their hostility towards the King and the Archbishop.

Because of these factors it was natural that most of the people of Bradford would support the Parliamentarian cause at the start of the Civil War in 1642. This was not the case in the rest of the north east of England which was, for the most, part a Royalist stronghold with the notable exception of the port of Hull on the Humber Estuary.

Bradford became a focus of Parliamentarian support and recruiting in the Yorkshire. For this reason it assumed some significance for the Parliamentarian cause in the north during the First English Civil War and was the scene of some spirited encounters between Royalists and Parliamentarian forces during those turbulent years.

At the start of the Civil War the local vicar by the name of Francis Corker, a strong Royalist supporter, fled Bradford. An interesting character he became chaplain at Pontefract castle and distinguished himself by leading a party of men out of the castle during the siege to obtain relief from Oxford. After the King’s defeat he changed sides and, after the Restoration of the Monarchy, was imprisoned in the Tower of London. He was released because of his previous good services to the Crown and returned to Bradford. The welcome he received from the local people is unknown but is likely to have been very unforgiving to say the least. He died in 1667.

The period was one of hardship for the local population who, in addition to being directly involved in the conflict, provided food, supplies and taxes to provision, equip and finance whichever army was dominant in the area at the time.

It is interesting to note the number of burials in the church grounds during this period was unusually high for a town with a population of only 2500 approx. In 1642 burials numbered 142 which rose to 493 in 1643 and 149 in 1644. This probably reflects the numbers of those, soldiers and civilians, killed in the fighting in and around the town during this period.. It could also reflect increased numbers who died of disease of course although I have found no mention of plague in the town during this period. In 1645 the figure fell to a more normal 74.

At the conclusion of the First Civil War Bradford took many years to recover to even its previous modest standing in the county in spite of the fact that the West Riding was not directly involved in the Second and Third Civil Wars.

There is nothing on record to show with what feelings the news of the Restoration of the Monarchy was received by the good Puritans of Bradford. The inhabitants endured much hardship during the reign of the so called "Merry Monarch " - Charles II.

Some of them were implicated in that foolish attempt at conspiracy known as the "Farnley Wood Plot," but managed to escape the fate of the unfortunate ones who suffered the penalty of death.

Persecution for religious and political principles was rampant and, for very petty offences, people were imprisoned or put into the stocks or the pillory. The roads were infested with highwaymen who made travelling from one town to another very hazardous.

The slow recovery of the town was inhibited by the arrival of bubonic plague, “The Black Death”, in the years following the civil wars. This ravaged the area and population. In 1665 the infection was accidentally brought to Bradford in a bundle of old clothes and the disease spread rapidly with many dying from its effects.

The woollen manufacture, for which Bradford had once been famous, failed to revive after the Civil Wars and the inhabitants wisely turned their attention to the manufacture of worsted cloth.

With the ascension of William and Mary to the throne in 1689 a new era began, the dawn of a happier and more prosperous state and a brighter future.


To contact David W Fell click on  the shovel.

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