Life in the time of… Francis Hacker
By Philip Yorke
Three bloody Civil Wars devastated England in the mid seventeenth century. By the time peace had been restored, a King had been beheaded, the country had become a republic, Christmas Day had been abolished – and Oliver Cromwell had risen through the ranks to become the most controversial ruler in the nation’s history.
Most of us know very little about this most violent and turbulent of times; a period when brothers became bitter enemies; when five percent of the population was brutally slain; and when religion shaped the political landscape in a way few of us can imagine.
For the last eighteen months, I have been on an incredible journey uncovering all sorts of information about this fascinating time – the most gruesome in England’s history. My quest has been to write a debut novel, entitled Rebellion, capturing accurately the everyday problems confronting the people of the time.
|King Charles I.|
The UK’s National Civil War Museum has greatly helped my work, as has the University of Leicester. Both have given me the opportunity to speak to eminent historians and touch and handle weapons, armour, clothing and everyday artifacts like news pamphlets, that defined the age. These experiences, and my own investigations, have given me a privileged insight into what it felt like to live in the 1640s and 1650s.
As I have learned more about the times in which Francis Hacker, my main character, lived, I have counted my blessings. For I have no romantic desire whatsoever to have existed at a time of such unrest, when I would have been forced to back either the King or Parliament in their brutal conflict, and to inflict harsh and cruel deprivations on so many innocents. No, I am very content to live my life firmly in the twenty first century! For, despite our challenges with things like global terrorism and climate change, I know how lucky I am to be alive at this moment in time.
So let me tell you a little bit about Francis, a noted Parliamentarian army commander, and a confidante of Cromwell.
Francis was born in 1618, got married when he was just 14 years of age (to the 20-year-old Isabel Brunts) and went on to become a revered military leader in his own right.
A man of few words, he rose to prominence in the New Model Army and eventually became its leading Colonel. His intelligence and ability to outwit his enemies were second to none, and there is no doubt he led from the front and was a true soldier’s soldier.
He was immensely loyal to the cause, and the people, he served. And Francis was also a devoted husband and father.
His courage was proven on many occasions, but most notably in April 1645, when the city of Leicester fell to the swashbuckling Royalist Prince Rupert after a short and brutal siege.
After leading his men valiantly in a desperate rearguard action against superior enemy forces, Francis eventually surrendered. After his capture, he was offered the command of one of the King’s leading regiments of horse. He scornfully rejected the offer, knowing he would suffer deprivations and be reduced to beggary.
By declining Rupert’s advances, Francis condemned himself to an extended second period of imprisonment at the Royalist stronghold of Belvoir Castle (he had also been a prisoner in late 1643). This confinement led to him being absent from the Naseby battlefield in July 1645, where Cromwell’s highly disciplined New Model Army comprehensively crushed the King’s forces, in a ruthless and precise manner not witnessed since the Roman invasion of Britain.
Following this catastrophic defeat, the game was over for Charles. Within months, the first Civil War was at an end and the King was a prisoner.
But the story of Francis Hacker is only just beginning...
The King proved to be as cunning an adversary in defeat as he was while his armies still roamed the land, and before too long, hostilities between his supporters and Parliament recommenced for almost a year between 1648-49.
Francis played a full role in taking the fight to the King’s men. As a result the revolt was extinguished. Yet this did not stop Royalists taking up arms once again in a bid to see the Prince of Wales, Charles’s eldest surviving son (also called Charles), restored to the throne.
Just as had been the case previously, the third uprising was quashed in 1651, at the decisive Battle of Worcester. Francis commanded the Parliamentary army’s horse on the right flank and played a pivotal role in leading the New Model Army to victory.
And that, you may think, should be the end of all that? Surprisingly, it’s not!
For most of the decade, Francis is drawn into a number of extraordinary conflicts and intrigues.
Plots against Cromwell emerge – perpetrated by a secretive band of Royalists known as “The Sealed Knot”. In total, eight attempts are made to topple the man who becomes England’s Lord Protector.
As loyal and committed as he has always been, Francis played the fullest of roles in putting down the attempts to overthrow Cromwell, particularly in 1655, when he rounded up the ringleaders of one of the most notorious would-be coups.
He was also highly active north of the border, where he helped Cromwell suppress the ambitious Scots.
But, as the end of the decade approaches, time has started to run out for Parliament and Francis Hacker.
In 1658, Cromwell died suddenly. Broken-hearted by the shock death of his favourite daughter, the Lord Protector is struck down by a mystery illness many experts believe to have been malaria. He took his last breath on 3 September 1658.
Cromwell’s demise plunged Parliament into a crisis from which it never recovered.
The short-lived ‘reign’ of Richard Cromwell, Oliver’s oldest surviving son, ensued before he stepped aside as the head of the Protectorate and Commonwealth.
With few options left, Parliament and the army decided to make overtures to the exiled Prince of Wales, who had been forced to live in France. Over several months, a deal was concluded that allowed the heir to the throne to return to England as sovereign, and for the monarchy to be restored.
Which was all well and good – unless you happened to be Francis, or one of the other 58 signatories of Charles the First’s death warrant!
And so unfolded the last chapter of a quite remarkable life, one that saw Francis betrayed by General Monck, head of the army; imprisoned and interrogated in the Tower of London; and then put on trial for High Treason, with a guilty verdict a foregone conclusion.
Francis was officially condemned as a Traitor on 16 October 1660. He was hanged three days later at Tyburn.
He was the last of the regicides to meet their doom – and the only one of the condemned men to be spared drawing and quartering. Infamy was his unjust reward for serving his country honestly and fulsomely.
Rebellion, and the subsequent books in the series, tell Francis’s story for the first time, some 350 years after his death.
If you read it, I hope you enjoy it.
By Philip Yorke
It is 1643.
England is in the grip of a brutal, unforgiving civil war.
Captain Francis Hacker returns to his home in the Vale of Belvoir after Parliament’s Northern Association army has been routed at the Battle of Adwalton Moor.
The defeat is a bitter experience for Francis. He has lost many of his best men in the slaughter and there a few reasons to be optimistic, as the forces of Charles the First are now seemingly invincible.
Out of the darkness and despair, Francis as asked by Parliament to lead a secret attempt to topple the King, thereby bringing months of death and destruction to an end.
Little does he realise it will require him to become involved in a deadly deceit that puts everything he holds most dear at risk…
Life. Death. I am someone who holds the power to give one and take the other. And I revel in it.
Since the troubles started, I have seen men, some little more than children, slain at my command. Occasionally, they have been brave and faced their fates boldly, unafraid, with their eyes wide open. But more often than I care to remember, they have pleaded for their lives before they have been put to the sword, or our muskets have barked fire. And, as the blade has cut forth, or the lead shot has bitten deep, their terror has been released and they have pissed and soiled themselves before succumbing to the after-life. For the end is nearly always brutal and demeaning. It is rarely kind.
I have to tell you that I have not felt guilt, shame or remorse at these moments of lust. I have watched my enemies die and, to my eternal shame, rejoiced at their pain and suffering. I am at war. My men are at war. We are battle-hardened warriors fighting for a holy cause. And we will not let any puppet of the King stand in our way.
But it hasn’t all been bloodshed and gore.
I can recall many times when we have behaved with chivalry and compassion, when we have reunited our foe with their families and set them free, knowing they would soon be rallying under the Royalist banner, with husbands, fathers and sons returning to the fray in the hope of making a Parliamentarian kill. That knowledge hasn’t mattered. At these moments, we have been simple men once again.
Right now, I am looking at more than a hundred unruly souls. They are my brothers in arms.
It is late. There is a chill in the air. Most are drunk. Like me, all are filthy and stink. Yet I feel a unique bond with these men branded renegades and rebels by the King. Our loyalty is borne out of the God and cause we serve, the slaughter we have inflicted on our enemy, the pain we have endured as a group, and the pure joy we draw every day from the simple pleasure of being alive. It’s these things that are forging our identities, ensuring we become one of the most feared militias in the land.
Out of the corner of my eye I can see Smith. Fat, bald and missing most of his teeth, he is a man of contrasting ugliness and beauty. On one level, he is a supreme killer, fearing nobody – least of all me. Skilled with sword, cleaver and musket, he is the one soldier you want by your side in the heat of battle. Yet he also has the most melodious voice I have ever heard. At this moment, he is singing a song – lamenting one of his many long lost loves and a lifetime of regrets – and it sounds like an angel is in our midst.
My men, those sober enough to retain some sense and reason, have smiles etched on their faces. Huddled around the campfires, they are swaying to Smith’s wistful lullabies; they are hooked on every word; and they are as close to earthly heaven a tormented soul can be. They want to escape from their world of death, pain and futility, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.
And, I confess, so do I.
Smith’s wondrous, tortured melodies, help us forget everything that has passed, and embolden us for what is about to come.
We embrace moments of tranquility and joy with a vengeance and zest, and we heartily sing along.
Until men like me give the order to break camp.
“It’s almost time,” I say to Abijah Swan, my ever-loyal Subaltern. “Prepare the men. Tell them to be quiet. And let’s make sure the horses have been fed and watered, so they are ready for the long day ahead.”
A nod of the head and an impish grin is all I get back in reply. And that’s all I need.
Swan is my brother in everything other than flesh; the man I trust most in this murderous world. He’s got my back – and, in ten long months, he’s already saved my life many times. And my men love him. It’s little wonder. He’s one of them: tough, ruthless and seemingly without weakness. But he also possesses raw intelligence and is a natural leader. In truth, I tell you, there is not a better man alive with whom to share my fears, joys and pains.
With the click of Swan’s tongue, the angelic singing stops abruptly. Smith looks up and his left eye twitches. In the silence, dozing men stir. Drunken heads are cleared.
“Make ready,” says Abijah.
“Check your muskets and your gunpowder; make sure they’re dry. Check your swords and daggers; they had better be sharp. And make sure you wear your helmets. They will save your life one day, but they will only do the job they are intended for if you lump heads happen to be wearing them!”
As one, my men rise and go about their business with the precision of disciplined veterans. And I smile as I see many of them heeding Swan’s words, reaching for their ungainly and heavy helmets.
Many seem too young to be consumed in this pitiless bloodshed. Rather than cleaning their daggers and counting their lead musket balls, they should be tucked up in their pallets and mattresses, with their loved-ones around them. Old-timers like Lambert, Hill and Hipwell, should have hung up their scabbards and muskets years ago. But they can’t. None of us can. They, like me, feel called to teach our King the lesson he deserves.
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Philip Yorke (known as "Tony") has a special interest in history – and loves reading intelligent, multi-layered plots and well-told stories.
He is a former Fleet Street investigative news and sports journalist who worked for The Daily Mirror, The People, Daily Star and Sunday Business newspapers. He has also worked in the corporate, business and charitable worlds.
Married to Julie, with whom he has five children, he enjoys relaxing to classical music; reading the works of Nigel Tranter, Bernard Cornwell, Robyn Young, Conn Iggulden, Robert Harris, Simon Scarrow and CJ Sansom; and supporting Hull City and Leicester Tigers. He is also an active church-goer.
He lives in Leicestershire, England.