The Capells were relatively new to the world of the hoity-toity. Only a couple generations back, the Capells were merchants, and one William Capel was a London draper, became mayor and laid the foundations of the family fortune. By the time our Arthur was born in 1603, the family was well-to-do landed gentry and had been so for the last eighty years or so, long enough to distance themselves from their tradesmen roots.
Little Arthur grew up as the cosseted heir to a large fortune and as the member of a huge family, seeing as his grandparents had twenty children (and I’m thinking poor, poor woman…). His parents both died while Arthur was young, he spent some time in Cambridge and in 1627 married a young woman called Elizabeth Morrison who brought even more money to the Capell household. Upon the death of his grandfather in 1632, the not quite thirty-year-old Arthur became one of the richest men in England.
Despite all this wealth, Arthur was not much of a material boy. Devout and serious, he was a man for whom words like duty and honour meant something. So when he became an MP, he had a genuine desire to change things for the better – among other things he considered it important to ensure the King acted in accordance with Parliament’s directives. The King, rather obviously, did not agree. After all, Charles I had been raised believing in Divine Right. It is therefore not entirely strange that the first years as an MP, Arthur mostly voted with the Parliamentarians. But as the radicals grew more vociferous (and more radical), Arthur started feeling somewhat queasy. It was one thing to curb the King’s wilful behaviour, another thing entirely to question his authority – or his existence - altogether.
In 1642 Lord Capell fought at Edgehill as a member of the King’s bodyguard. He had dipped into his considerable riches and equipped an entire regiment at the outbreak of the first Civil War, and he was to dip deeper and deeper into his personal wealth as the fighting progressed. While brave and audacious, creative when needed, it soon became eminently clear that he was not one of those men gifted with the skills required to make a great military leader. He lacked strategic vision and had a tendency to become bogged down in tactics, winning minor skirmishes while losing out in the bigger picture.
So in 1645, Lord Capell was instead sent to Bristol to serve on the council of the Prince of Wales. At this point in time, the previously so wealthy Capell was strapped for cash. His Essex estates were under sequestration, and only the fact that his wife had Parliamentarian connections kept his family in relative safety. In 1646, after fierce fighting in which Capell was wounded, what remained of the Prince’s advisors fled to Jersey and from there to France where the Prince was reunited with his mother.
The King had hoped to be well-received at the Isle of Wight. Instead, he was incarcerated – in comfort – at Carisbrooke Castle. He decided to further deepen the divisions among the Parliamentarians, and in December of 1647 he signed a secret treaty with the Scots: if they supported him, he promised to implement Presbyterianism throughout England for a minimum period of three years. (Good luck with that, one can’t help thinking, but given the way events unfolded, this would never be put to the test.)
In May of 1648, the Royalists rebelled, the Scots army – as per the agreement with Charles I - invaded, and disaffected Parliamentarians took the opportunity to join the fracas. In Essex, things exploded, and Lord Capell felt honour-bound to join the uprising, despite the potential risks to himself and his family. As the New Model Army rose to the challenge, the Royalists took cover behind Colchester’s walls, and just like that, one of the more memorable sieges of the Civil War had begun.
Initially, Fairfax attempted to breach the town by force. His men charged, were fought off, charged again, and voilá, they’d made it through the gates. A ruse, as it turns out, because suddenly the gates swung shut behind them and the men were trapped, shot at from all directions. It is said our Arthur was one of the men behind the plan. Whatever the case, Fairfax lost very many men that day, the Royalists substantially less.
The Parliamentary forces settled down for a long siege. Having discovered that Lord Capell was one of the leaders, they had his sickly son brought over from Hadham Hall to hold as some sort of hostage, parading him within sight of the city walls. There were loud protests at this behaviour, and the boy was released. I guess his father heaved a sigh of relief. The siege ground on, with the people behind Colchester’s walls soon reduced to eating cats, dogs, rats, leather – well, anything, really. The townspeople attempted to appeal to the Parliamentarian forces for food, but Fairfax was not giving them as much as a loaf of bread as he feared any victuals provided to the civilians would end up with the Royalists.
There were constant skirmishes, leading to loss of life and limb. The Parliamentarian forces ate their way into one Royalist position after the other, and for the men trapped in Colchester, things went from bad to worse, but they dug in and refused to budge, hoping the Scottish Army would succeed in trouncing Cromwell's army. Unfortunately for our trapped Royalists, it wasn’t Cromwell who hit the dust at the Battle of Preston. Instead, the entire Scottish Army was vanquished and the Second Civil War was thereby over – well, except for the stubborn men in Colchester.
Fairfax disbanded the weakened Royalist troops, hauled two of the commanders before a military court and had them executed at Colchester (which he felt entitled to do as they weren’t peers) and had Lord Capell and his remaining companions dragged off to stand trial for treason. None of the captured men held any hopes about coming out of this alive.
For some months, Arthur languished in the Tower. Meanwhile, the King was desperately attempting to negotiate some sort of truce, but while a majority of Parliament wanted to find a solution, Oliver Cromwell didn’t. In his opinion, the king was a tyrant and a danger to permanent peace – and the King’s recent secret agreement with the Scots proved his point. In early December of 1648, Oliver and his comrades “purged” the Parliament of those considered too lenient vis-à-vis the King. The remaining MP’s, the so called Rump Parliament, voted to indict the King for treason. A very novel – and shocking – approach.
Ultimately, his burst of freedom was short-lived. He was recaptured in Lambeth, stood trial and was, as expected, found guilty. On March 9, 1949, he was beheaded in the Westminster Palace Yard. After he was well and truly dead, his head was sewn back on his body and his remains were dispatched to Hadham Hall to be buried – minus his heart, which at a future date would be presented to Charles II. I assume his wife wept, not only for her husband, but also for her family, now in substantially reduced circumstances. But that, sadly, was how life was during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath.
Eleven years later, Charles II was restored to the throne. And in 1661 Arthur Capell’s eldest son (also named Arthur) was made Earl of Essex, his father’s estates restored to him. A gesture, I believe, made more on behalf of the man who died for his king than for the son. Whatever the case, the Capells were back on top. And as to Arthur Capell Junior, well, I do believe he deserves a post of his own!
The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.
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