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  • Haydn Wheeler

"The neutrality of the Clubmen"

Clubmen banner and Levellers banner held in Burford on Levellers Day 2016.

"Rotten-hearted nauseous Neutrals" was the description given by contemporary biographer John Vicars of the Western Clubmen in his accounts of Parliamentary activities in "England's Parliamentary Chronicle 1645-1646".

This colourful take on the Clubmen is nothing out the norm with regards to how warring factions within a war and especially a Civil War deal with a neutralist party. Weathercocks is a term that was also pinned to the Clubmen movement, a term which has its roots in that Clubmen would side with wherever their best interests lay during the latter days of the war. This has to be seen in the light of what party, Parliament or King was garrisoned in their County, and would of course be understandable. Talking to your immediate nearest warring party in a non confrontational manner, seen from an opponent's view in that war must be seen as an advantage in the propaganda war by those opponents. The capture of the Clubmen leaders in Shaftesbury August 3rd 1645 by Colonel Fleetwood's Troop of Horse is a classic example of a pre-emptive strike by the Parliamentarians and (I would say) a major turning point in the Civil War. Neutrality could now be worded as just a front and Fairfax was now given a trump card in the propaganda war.

The Clubmen had been in correspondence with the Royalist General Goring and Hopton. Fairfax using the advantage he now had due to the Clubmen's correspondence with the Royalists as proof of the Clubmen's real agenda gave him the reasons needed to quash them.

Worded as "fearing the war would be prolonged if the Clubmen joined the Royalist Army", the decision was taken to put a stop to the Clubmen's liberties. The neutrality of the Clubmen was now with their efforts to talk to both parties in the war being used against them. They were being described as a rabble and mob and being misled and badly advised.

A discredit them tactic. Nothing new and still used to quash voices of dissent, although you could say with the Clubmen, a return to normality, and what was before the Civil War was a non-dissent and seen as dissent only in their present climate.

An account of in the grandiose title of The History Of England During The Royal Reigns Of The House Of Stuart.

"This rabble were all in above 15000 men"

"in others of them they had Sentences of Scripture profanely applied by their malignant ‘Priests, who were the principal firer's up of the People to their tumultuous Assemblies, particularly Bravel before mention'd, Parson of Compton, and Mr. Rogers Parson of Langton, who issued out Warrants to the Country fellows to make Reprisals for the Prisoners taken at Shaftsbury, and the Club Men own'd, they would have laid down their Arms had it not been for Bravel, Lawford and White, Vicars or Curates.

By August 1645 the stand at Hambledon Hill in Dorset was the last in mass of the Clubmen and in some ways where the Parliamentarian Army won the decisive 1st English Civil War. The described sweeping up exercise of the South West after the Battle Of Naseby was made all the easier by the Clubmen staying as a neutralist body. With Fairfax now using and changing description of the modus operandi of the Clubmen from neutralists and now being proxy Royalists ( a term used often, my answer, well wouldn't they just be and not going under the banner of Clubmen) He had then a reason to quash as an opponent in a war and as such not a body to negotiate with on terms. By default one could say with a mass of Clubmen in Dorset, estimates of 15000 strong choosing to stay as neutralists and not joining the Kings Army in the South West, Fairfax and Cromwell won the civil war in Dorset.

The unifying common demand by Clubmen across the counties was for both warring parties to come to an agreement and the Civil War to cease, while terms were negotiated. The Clubmen were not a standing army but a call to defence only, where a threat to one is a threat to all through association (a term binding all effected by troops to selves and property) The Levellers at a later date were as a body of the army silenced in Burford on the17 May 1649 but the thoughts and ideas behind their movement lived on. (I would add,) the Clubmen stance at Hambledon on August 4th 1645 is also a date we should value as a date of a bottom up people's moment in history. For as Fairfax did say of the Dorset Clubmen "they could knock us on the head if we had to retreat from Goring". They did not..

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