The civil war of 1642 – 1653 was as close to a social revolution as Britain ever came. It granted us the gift of a Parliamentary Government and moderated Monarchy that we still enjoy today. Indeed, the brief Republic of Oliver Cromwell was revolutionary, happening years before the famous French and Russian revolutions. For many historians, what happened in Britain is far more interesting, more a case of evolution of a tired and tested system of government; than a total revolution of leadership. This is clear, as following the restoration of Charles II in May 1660, early modern Britain, constitutionally at least, remains recognisable to British politicians today.
The role of Derbyshire during the civil war is less well documented than that of its neighbours: Yorkshire, Cheshire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire. Leicestershire is too, relatively undocumented as a whole but has literature focused on Loughborough during the civil war.
Derbyshire never saw such large-scale military operations as Yorkshire, but was a vital linchpin for the parliamentary cause in the Midlands. For this reason it was a constant target for royalist offensives from its strongholds in Northumberland and the Welsh-borders throughout the civil war.
The presence of Derbyshire as a Parliamentary stronghold was almost entirely due to the efforts of Sir John Gell, whose career as a whole ‘would fill a book; indeed a full length biography is probably overdue’, according to Brian Stone, author of Derbyshire in The Civil War.
This book, available in the Local Studies Library at Record Office, is targeted at the amateur historian and makes for an easy and enjoyable read into the part Derbyshire played in the civil war; as well as a very interesting overview of the importance of Gell in this period. Local Studies holds quite a large collection of literature about specific aspects of the involvement of Derbyshire in The Civil War, as well as extensive works on the Gell family, John Gell and his Civil War stories. The book is also excellent for anyone researching Derbyshire in the 17th century, as it contains quotes from authors and diarists of the time such as Defoe.
In the archives, however are some extremely rare and interesting articles and records from the period that are a privilege to see first-hand. For example, there is a contemporary copy of King Charles II’s escape from the battle of Worcester, as told by him to the famous and brilliant diarist of the time Samuel Pepys. This story is famously Charles II’s favourite anecdote, he would tell it, and at great length whenever he hosted a large event. As well as this, are countless correspondences between John Gell, and his army commanders all over the region; these along with letters to his family give an as yet almost unseen view into his life. As Brian Stone is quoted, the publications on Sir John Gell as an individual are limited, so there is chance for historical discovery for the casual historian.
The story of John Gell’s Civil War concludes in late 1660, following the restoration of King Charles II, and arguably the return to a true democratic style of government. The Declaration of Breda, made while Charles was still in exile in Belgium, with the help of the former Parliamentary Commander in Scotland, Sir George Monck – called by many ‘a closet royalist – had the clause of Indemnity and Oblivion. This meant all who had fought against the royalists would be pardoned, and all would be equal in the eyes of the reformed government. All of those except, that is, the regicides – the so called Killers of The King – who would be suitably punished.
Sir John Gell was granted a pardon in late 1660 – the original copy with the royal seal are held in the Gell family archive collection and are certainly worth a look – along with many other items in the archives collections relating to the civil war form a part of our county and our country’s history which is totally unique. The Civil War is a fascinating insight into the eyes of early modern revolutionaries, long before the French and Russians; Britain enjoyed a constitutional shift based on honour, and integrity of good, sound and uncorrupted government.
Jack O’Brien, Work Placement Student