Thursday, February 4, 2016

The death of William Fletcher at Gloucester

Family history research on the “ordinary” people of 17th century England can prove challenging.  This blog posting is my effort to put flesh on the bones of William Fletcher of London.  I suspect, but have not been able to prove, that he is one of my great-grandfathers.   I cannot confirm, absolutely,  that all of the details below refer to the same William Fletcher (Flesher), but the pieces of this story come together well, and I hope that it will prove helpful to future researchers. 

In 1643 England was in the throes of a civil war.  The earliest fighting had taken place in the previous year – the Royalists (Cavaliers) coming up against the Parliamentarians (Roundheads) at Edgehill.  The primary question to be resolved was whether the King should govern without the consent of his Parliament.  Issues related to authority, religion, and rebellion undergirded almost twenty years of war.   

Most of England’s cities stood with the Parliamentarians throughout the war, and in 1643 the Earl of Essex called out two of London’s trained bands to follow him to “the relief of Gloucester” – that city being then under siege by the Royalists led by King Charles.  William Fletcher, a young gentleman of London, met the call.  William was probably in his early 30’s, husband to Abigail Vincent, and father to at least two sons, William Fletcher and Benjamin Fletcher (future governor of New York).  Records style William Fletcher (sr) as a gentleman, a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clothiers.  He lived in the parish of St Lawrence Jewry, and his armorial bearings are recorded as - Sa a cross flory betw four escallops ar quartering Vincent, viz, az a chev between three quatrefoils slipped ar.

London’s trained bands were established during the reign of Queen Elizabeth.  The British Civil War Project website houses very helpful information on these militia regiments.  From their site:

In the absence of a regular army, the Trained Bands were the only permanent military units in England when the Bishops' Wars broke out in 1639-40 and the First Civil War followed in 1642. The popular view was that the Trained Bands were inefficient, poorly equipped and badly disciplined. With a few exceptions, this was generally true of the provincial companies. The London Trained Bands were of better quality thanks to enthusiastic societies of citizens who met regularly during the 1630s to practice their drill, hiring expert soldiers to instruct them. In 1642, the Common Council increased the four regiments of the London Bands into 40 companies of 200 men each, organized into six regiments and distinguished by their colours: Red, White, Yellow, Green, Blue and Orange.

William Fletcher likely belonged to the “Blew (Blue) Regiment”.  More specifically he probably served with the Blew Regiment’s Auxiliaries, led by Sir William Springate (Springett).  London’s Red and Blue Regiments accompanied Essex to Gloucester in September of 1643.  On the 5th of September the Parliamentarian forces gathered outside of Gloucester on Prestbury Hill.  They would shortly prove such a threat to the Royalists that they would abandon the siege, and march off toward Bristol. 

The Parliamentarians met with success, but William Fletcher never returned to his family in London.  Was he the victim of an unfortunate turn of events?   One of the earliest records I located in connection with William Fletcher was a reference to his funeral entry, found in Burke’s Armory (1884):

1643; William Fletcher slain before Gloucester and buried at the Collegiate Church there; Funeral Entry Ulster Office from St Lawrence (Jewry?), London England.

I suspect that this funeral entry relates to an account I recently came across in the aptly named “Bibliotheca Gloucestrensis: a collection of scarce and curious tracts relating to the county and city of Gloucester: illustrative of, and published during the civil war, with biographical and historical remarks, Volume 2”, compiled by John Washbourn, 1823.  In his book Washbourn publishes an account written by Sgt Henry Foster with another lengthy title – “A true relation of the severall passages which have happened to our army, since it advanced towards Glocester”.   Henry Foster was an officer in London’s Red Regiment, under Col Harvey.  He gives a detailed account of the experiences of his regiment, and includes the story of their arrival at Prestbury Hill outside of Gloucester.  Apparently the weather was formidable, and the officers and men made a rather confused and desperate descent of the hill, to seek shelter in the nearby villages.  Here is the story that Henry Foster tells:

. . . the army marched for quarter to severall villages adjacent, Colonell Harveye's foot, the London redcoats, and Kentish regiment, drawing off towards Southam, a little village not farre from the foot of the hill, sidewards, which when we were within two or three bow-shoots of my Colonell  himselfe, with colonel Sir William Springate, Major Shepheard, and his owne cornet, with myselfe and some few others, out-marcht the foot, the rather indeed that my colonell might (according to his wonted vigilancy) view the avenues before the darknes of the night should overtake him; which while he, with Major Shepheard, were about, Major Bourne and Captain Buller with their troops (mistaking us for cavaliers) dismounted at our quarter, and by a pistol shot (before we could make them understand who we were) wounded sorely, we fear mortally, Cornet Flesher, and we strongly presumed had pistolled more of us had not my colonell seasonably returning, made knowne himselfe, and so rescued us.

Cornet Flesher (Fletcher) likely died on the same day the Royalist troops marched away from Gloucester.  Due to the chaos of the situation, it was probably deemed best to bury him at Gloucester Cathedral (Collegiate Church), rather than escort his body back to London.  A sad story indeed!

For more details on William Fletcher, visit his page at the Markham of Chesterfield website.

Further Reading:
Numerous accounts have been written of the Gloucester Siege.  One I particularly enjoyed was Jon Day’s, “Gloucester & Newbury 1643: The Turning Point of the Civil War”, published by Pen and Sword in 2007.  It includes the account of Cornet Flesher. 
The Blew Regiment of the London Trained Bands website

About the Photo:
Preparation Sketch for “The Setting Out of the Train Bands from London to Raise the Siege of Gloucester”, by Charles West Cope, about 1865, from the Parliamentary Art Collection (Palace of Westminster). 

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