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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

When the English Parliament tried to suppress Christmas celebrations in December 1647, Riots broke out in London and Canterbury. In London, the Lord Mayor managed to intervene and quell the situation. However, in Canterbury the rioters drove the mayor from the city, leaving a rioting community that set the tone for what was to come.

As the Civil War progressed, things became even more dangerous for Parliament. The placing of King Charles I under arrest at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, in April 1648, sparked a spate of riots around the South East, as the Royalist rebellion demanded his return to full power. As well as the extensive rioting in Kent and Essex, an uprising was taking place in South Wales together with the threat from the Engager Army in Scotland.

In May 1648, Kent was witness to a significant Royalist rebellion, when the committee at Canterbury tried to suppress a petition calling for the disbandment of the New Model Army and reinstatement of the King. The Kentish Royalists reacted with aplomb, quickly securing a number of key towns on behalf of the King, which included Dover, Gravesend, Rochester and Maidstone. Alongside the Royalist uprising in South Wales, this represented one of the biggest rebellions seen in the Second Civil War.

On 26 May, the insurgents gained control of Deptford and Dartford, and the following day a naval revolt broke out when several ships from the Parliamentarian fleet declared allegiance to the King. This seaward threat to the artillery forts which guarded the Downs led to the surrender of the troops positioned there, and the fall of Dover castle.

Meanwhile, the New Model Army divided into two. The larger portion going, with Cromwell, to deal with the uprising in South Wales, while the remaining 6,000 troops, under the command of General Fairfax, were to move north and counter the threat from the Scottish Engager.

However, his plans changed when Parliament ordered him to deal with the more immediate and local threat to London of the uprising in Kent. Parliament surmised that the Kent Royalists if left unchecked, would join forces with insurgents from Surrey and Essex, and become a real danger to London.

On 27 May, troops under Major General Skippon mobilised to defend London, Colonel Barnstead’s band strategically secured the area at Southwark, to the South of London and Major Fairfax gathered his troops on Hounslow Health and advanced towards Maidstone, reaching Blackheath by 30 May.  

On the 29 May, at a rendezvous on Burnham Heath, the Kent Royalists declared the Earl of Norwich to be their leader. Fearing an attack from the New Model Army, Norwich concentrated 3,000 men in the heart of Maidstone, who built barricades around the town centre. A smaller group guarded the outskirts Norwich remained with around 7,000 men on Penenden Health, some way outside the main town area.

At four o’clock on 1 June 1684, Fairfax arrived on the outskirts of Maidstone with an 8,000 strong army of NMA veterans. Employing a well thought out tactical strategy, he avoided heading straight into the town centre, and confronting the rebel troops, instead opting to circle and attack on the outpost, at Farleigh Bridge.

From here, the New Model Army crossed the River Medway to the south west of Maidstone and by 7pm, had secured the perimeter of the town. Standing before the barricaded town centre, Fairfax began to lay plans to storm the stronghold at first light. These plans were never to be executed.

During the evening of 1 June, an advance guard led by Colonel Hewson came under attack from a group of insurgents. After some heavy skirmishing with the defenders, other units began to get drawn into the fight and Fairfax decided it was now or never. He launched his general assault as the night was drawing in, running his main army straight into the stronghold of the Royalist rebels.

The strength of the smaller and less well trained rebel army took Fairfax by surprise. Rather than being the walkover he had convinced himself it would be, the battle was bloody and hard fought on both sides. Inch by inch and street by street, the New Model Army attacked and won each Royalist barricade, facing not only the ferocity of the defending army in their path, but also the torrential rains that fell on Maidstone that night.

The Royalists slowly retreated back through the town, at first retreating towards Gabriel’s Hill and then into the shadows of Week Street. Finally, at 11pm, and cornered in the confines of a churchyard, the remaining Royalists fled, leaving a tally of 300 of their men dead or dying and 1,000 others captured.

After the battle, the Earl of Norwich escaped in the direction of London. With him,  he took around 3,000 men from the rebel forces. However, upon reaching Blackheath on 3 June he discovered the gates to the capital firmly closed to him and the forces of Major General Skippon ready to defend the city against his access. At this point, the bulk of Norwich’s followers turned tail and deserted. All that remained of his once 10,000 strong force were around 500 or so resolutely dedicated followers, who helped Norwich cross the Thames and head for Essex, to join Sir Charles Lucas and the Royalists in Chelmsford.

Fairfax set about recapturing Dover Castle and the three forts on the edge of the Downs. Fairfax had won the battle, but the event was not without casualties on his side too. An estimated 30 – 80 Parliamentary troops lost their lives that day, against a smaller and largely unskilled army of “cavaliers, citizens, seamen and watermen”. Fairfax’s troops received a run for their money, and although the New Model Army was victorious, it learned a thing or two in the process.

The Battle of Maidstone 1648

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