Photograph: John Beardsworth

The modern Tower Hamlets Trayned Bandes reenactment regiment is based on Captain Leonard Leonards’ Company (East Smithfield and St Katharine’s) of the actual Tower Hamlets Trained Bands, which served with distinction during the English Civil War.

The original Hamleteers were raised from the Middlesex parishes and liberties that surrounded the Tower of London to serve as the Tower’s civilian garrison in times of war or unrest. Prior to the Civil Wars, they formed four companies – which came from St Katharine’s, Ratcliffe, Limehouse, and Whitechapel – and mustered around 600 men. However, in October 1642, as a result of their petition to Parliament, further companies were raised in Shoreditch, Wapping, and Hackney and a full sized regiment came into being.

At the outbreak of war, the trained bands were the only organised defence force in the country, there being no standing army until much later in the century. By 1644, companies received training on average once a fortnight and there were also annual exercises, or May Games, where larger formations drilled together. In theory, the trained bands were not meant to serve outside their own locality, although as early as the 1590s the demands of the state required them to march further afield or even out of the country; numerous provincial trained band companies were sent north to fight in the Bishops’ Wars in 1639 and 1640. By the time of the Civil War, therefore, precedents were already in place for them to fight wherever they were most needed.

Battle at Cropredy Bridge

On 29 June 1644, the Royalist Oxford Army and the Parliamentarian forces under Sir William Waller met in front of the small village of Cropredy, a crossing point on the river Cherwell. Having observed that a large gap had opened in the Royalist Army’s line of march, Waller launched a daring thrust across the river to cut off and destroy the enemy’s rear. The attack was spearheaded by cavalry and supported by foot and artillery, but after initial success the attacking regiments were in turn heavily counter-attacked by the Royalist rearguard and regiments of the returning van.

Photo: John Beardsworth

Under the force of the counter-attack, the Parliamentarian cavalry were driven back and the Royalists turned their attention to the Parliamentarian foot and artillery which had crossed Cropredy Bridge. These, too, were forced back and then dissolved in rout. According to Lieutenant-Colonel John Birch, commanding Sir Arthur Heselrige’s regiment of foot, some of Waller’s foot companies had been deprived of a large proportion of their musketeers, which had been commanded out to form a forlorn hope guarding the army’s rear on the far bank of the Cherwell. This lack of firepower must have had a significant effect on their ability to withstand an attack in force. The artillery, as well, had been poorly disposed, without sufficient infantry support, and the gunners, for the most part, had fled or were killed by their pieces, all of which were seized by the exultant Royalists. As a result of these errors of command, Waller’s army was on the point of disintegrating. The crisis point of the battle had arrived.

The Parliamentarian sources are unanimous in describing what happened next. The Tower Hamlets Trained Bands, which had seen no action thus far, were ordered up from the reserve with Colonel Weldon’s regiment of Kentish foot and crossed the bridge. They were able to recover two, or possibly three, of the captured drakes, and held the Parliamentarian centre while the shattered remnants of the regiments from the original attack reformed on the far side of the Cherwell. The Royalist army was unable to make an impression on this defensive formation and, with Cropredy Bridge and Bourton secured by Waller, the two armies faced each other at stalemate for the rest of the day and through the night. Lieutenant-Colonel Birch’s secretary maintained the Hamleteers were ordered to halt and secure the bridge by his master. Whoever gave the order, the appearance in Waller’s centre of these two regiments prevented the breakthrough by the Royalists. Although ranking as a defeat for the Parliamentarian Army, this was no Roundway Down. At Cropredy Bridge, Waller’s army suffered a reverse, but maintained its fighting capability and, indeed, remained on the field the following morning when the Royalists withdrew.

According to Richard Coe, who wrote an account of his service under Captain Christopher Gore, the Tower Hamlets’ advance guard stood to all night to the rear of the bridge and hung lit match from pallisadoes to conceal their dispositions. When the Royalist pickets fired on them during the night, the Hamlets musketeers (armed with doglocks, which needed no match) fired back from their true position beneath a hedgerow. This was not the only example of good soldiering from the regiment during the campaign. Some days earlier, Gore, a captain from the Kentish regiment, and a body of commanded musketeers from the two units seized the Royalist position at Newbridge by crossing the Thames in punts, took 30 prisoners, and opened the route to Oxford. Such achievements give the lie to contemporary critics (including a sergeant from Waller’s own regiment of foot, who was court-martialled and forced publicly to beg the Tower Hamlets’ pardon) who believed the trained bands were fit only to practice their postures and fill their bellies while the real fighting was left to others.

Photo: John Beardsworth

After their return to London, the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands never saw service in the field again, but returned to their original task of providing the guard for the Tower of London. In July 1647, relations between the Presbyterian-dominated House of Commons and the victorious New Model Army collapsed in mutual recrimination. The Army was angry at its growing arrears of pay and deeply suspicious of the increasing conservatism of Parliament. The Commons, in turn, were fearful at the continued presence in the land of such a powerful body of armed men who not only refused to disband or accept service in Ireland but had seized the King. To safeguard the City of London from attack, Parliament attempted to create a defence force from ex-army officers, army deserters, and, at its core, the London Trained Bands. In a bid to ensure their complicity, the officer corps of the trained bands was purged of those likely to be sympathetic to the Army. In the Tower Hamlets, Francis Zachary was replaced as Colonel by his second in command, William Chapman. However, when the Army marched on London in August 1647, the vast majority of the trained bands remained at home and the coup was, thankfully, bloodless. Sir Thomas Fairfax moved swiftly to place an Army regiment in the Tower as its garrison and the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands were given other duties. With Parliament more pliable under the close scrutiny of the Army, the officers of the London Trained Bands were purged once more, in many cases meaning a return to the status quo of 1642 or 1643.

The contribution made by the London Trained Bands throughout the war was considerable. Numerous brigades of trained band regiments were sent from the City to support the armies of the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller during 1643 and 1644 when the outcome of the Civil War remained in the balance. It is probably fair to say that, without their presence at Newbury, Alton, Cheriton, and Cropredy Bridge, Parliament would have been hard pressed to continue the war through to 1645 and the creation of the New Model Army. Commenting on the role played by the London Trained Bands at the First Battle of Newbury in 1643, the Earl of Clarendon stated:

… the London Trained Bands and Auxiliary Regiments (of whose experience of danger, or any kind of Service beyond the easy practice of their Postures in the Artillery Garden, men had till then too cheap an estimation) behaved themselves to wonder; and were in truth the preservation of that Army that day … of so Sovereign benefit and use, is that readiness, order and dexterity in the use of their Armes, which hath been so much neglected.

The part played by the Tower Hamlets Trained Bands at Cropredy Bridge was no less deserving of praise and contemporaries who fought alongside them were quick to applaud the regiment:

… the Hamblets very honourably and stoutly made good the Bridge, kept back the enemy, and recovered three peeces of our Ordnance, which we had left.

Thomas Ellis, Junior Officer, Sir Arthur Heselrige’s Horse

This sentiment was echoed by those commanding the foot:

… and had not the regiment of Tower Hamblets, whoe were marching over the bridge in the reare of the other regiment … stoutly made good the bridge, our whole army had been in great danger.

Military Memoir, Colonel John Birch, Sir Arthur Heselrige’s Foot