Photograph: Rusty Aldwinckle

Due to the many theatres and campaigns of the British Civil Wars, it often becomes necessary to take up differing regimental guises to suit particular historical scenarios. We have further identities other than the Tower Hamlets Trayned Bandes.

Colonel Thomas Rainsborough’s Regiment of Foot

During the period of the New Model Army, we take the field as Colonel Thomas Rainsborough’s Regiment of Foot (the Tower Guards). We still wear our Venice red coats, but for this alter ego we discard the musket rests as by 1645 these were becoming a rare sight on the battlefield. As New Model soldiers we also set aside our buffcoats, which tended to be the province of officers, cavalry, and members of the London Trained Bands.

History of the Regiment

Rainsborough’s first regiment, which served with the Eastern Association, was raised in Lincolnshire in April or May 1643. When he accepted a commission in the New Model Army, this regiment passed to Colonel James Grey who commanded it until June 1646. Rainsborough’s new regiment, unusually, was formed by reducing three other Eastern Association units, those of Colonel Ayloffe, Russell and Crawford.

Rainsborough Flag

With this new regiment, Rainsborough captured Gaunt House near Oxford on 1st June 1645 and two weeks later fought at the battle of Naseby where as part of the reserve, it marched forward to plug the gap made in the Parliamentarian first line made by the initial Royalist assault and consolidated the position.

The regiment was subsequently present at the sieges of Bridgwater, Sherbourne and Bristol, Nunnery Castle and Berkeley Castle. Later in the year it served at the sieges of Oxford and then Worcester, where Rainsborough was recommended to become the city’s governor.

Photo: John Beardsworth

In 1647 he was loyal to the Army against the now Presbyterian-dominated Parliament and commanded the detachment which occupied Southwark. Elements of the regiment were present at the Putney Debates and Rainsborough himself played a prominent role in support of the Army’s Leveller agitators. Amongst his contributions are words in support of universal (male) suffrage which have rung down through the centuries and still have resonance in the modern world:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s 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; and I am confident that, when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things.

At the Army rendezvous at Corkbush Field near Ware, Rainsborough attempted to present Lord General Fairfax with a copy of the Leveller manifesto, An Agreement of the People, but was prevented from doing so.

Photo: John Beardsworth

In 1648 Rainsborough received a commission as Vice-Admiral of the Navy although his radical political views were at odds with those of the conservative-minded naval officers and ratings and after just five months he returned to the Army. Following the death at the siege of Colchester in July 1648 of Colonel William Shambrooke, commanding officer of the Tower Guards, Rainsborough was appointed as his successor. This regiment had been raised in autumn 1647 after the Army had seized London, specifically to garrison the Tower of London in place of the civilian soldiers of the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands. The civilian militia did however return to their former duties when the Tower Guards marched out to join Sir Thomas Fairfax in summer 1648. Shambrooke, once Lieutenant-Colonel of the Tower Hamlets Auxiliaries, had assumed command of the Tower Guards after the death of Colonel Needham at the beginning of the siege of Colchester. The regiment fought well under all three Colonels and on 25th July, a party led by Rainsborough, waded the River Colne and seized and attempted to burn Middle Mill, although the fire was subsequently put out by the Royalist defenders.

After the surrender of Colchester, possibly as an attempt to remove him from the centre of political power, Rainsborough was ordered north with the Tower Guards to direct the troops involved in besieging Pontefract Castle. However, the existing commander of the local Parliamentary forces, Sir Henry Cholmeley, refused to accept Rainsborough’s commission and hand over command, and wrote to the House of Commons and Lieutenant-General Cromwell to complain, while Rainsborough in turn approached the county committee in York to plead his case. During the ensuing confusion, a party of Royalist defenders sallied out of Pontefract Castle in an attempt to capture Rainsborough and, it is thought, exchange him for the captured Royalist general, Sir Marmaduke Langdale. But Rainsborough refused to take quarter and during the struggle he was run through with a sword and mortally wounded.

He was buried with full military honours in St John’s Chapel, Wapping, in the Tower Hamlets, next to his father. As a mark of respect, the officers and men of his regiment tore up his regimental colours and wore the shreds of sea green silk as tokens to his memory. Thereafter, sea green was the colour most associated with the Levellercause.

The Tower Guards did not survive Rainsborough by many weeks. On 25th November 1648, by order of Parliament, the regiment was disbanded.

  • Bulstrode Whitelocke, Memorials of the English Affairs (1682)
  • J H Round, “The Tower Guards”, in The Antiquary, vol X (1884)
  • Laurence Spring, The Regiments of the Eastern Association, volume 2 (1998)
  • Stephen Porter, London and the Civil War (1986)