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Civil War's 1648 Battle of Maidstone remembered 373 years on

Today the streets of central Maidstone are full of shoppers milling around, workers nipping out for a bite to eat, and chuggers jangling their buckets at passers by.

But unbeknown to many is that on this day 373 years ago the same streets would have been soaked in blood as one of the deadliest skirmishes fought on Kentish soil played out.

King Charles I was inprisoned on the Isle of Wight at the time
King Charles I was inprisoned on the Isle of Wight at the time

The Battle of Maidstone, as it has become known, also had consequences that last until this day - a link in the chain of events which ultimately formed how democracy operates in the UK.

It was around 7pm on June 1 1648, under heavy rainfall, that Lord General Fairfax led a 4,000-strong professional Parliamentarian Army of Roundheads to the County Town to take on 2,000 Royalist Cavaliers, who were under the command of the Earl of Norwich.

Soldiers went head-to-head with muskets and swords until, in the early hours of June 2, the Roundheads claimed victory.

They captured eight canons, 16 barrels of gun-powder and 300 Cavaliers were killed.

The countdown to the siege began in December 1647, when riots broke out in London and Canterbury after the English parliament tried to suppress Christmas celebrations.

By May 1648 there was a staunch Royalist rebellion after the county committee at Canterbury tried to block a petition calling for the return of King Charles I and the dissolution of the New Model Army, the parliamentarian army.

At the time, King Charles I was behind bars at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight after he had surrendered to a Scottish army when Oliver Cromwell helped repel a Royalist invasion of Scotland.

The Kentish Royalists secured a number of key towns on behalf of the King, which included Dover, Gravesend, Rochester and Maidstone, this was one of the biggest rebellions seen in the second Civil War.

On May 29, at a rendezvous on Burnham Heath, the Kent royalists declared the Earl of Norwich to be their leader, fearing an attack from the New Model Army, Norwich concentrated 3,000 men in the heart of Maidstone.

Parliamentary general Sir Thomas Fairfax marched his soldiers south and found the County Town which been heavily barricaded.

On the evening of June 1 torrential rain fell upon Maidstone’s streets as the Roundheads attacked Royalist barricades inch by inch; the Royalists slowly retreated back through the town, at first retreating towards Gabriel’s Hill.

Gabriel's Hill where the parliamentarians battled against the cavaliers
Gabriel's Hill where the parliamentarians battled against the cavaliers

The Roundheads suffered musket fire as they pushed forward up the hill, past what is now Wimpy and into the shadows of Week Street.

By 11pm the Roundheads had suppressed the Cavaliers to the walls of St Faith’s churchyard, where the Royalists would make their final stand. Ultimately the Roundheads would lose 80 men.

The armed rebellion serves to tell a wider story of the English Civil War (1642-1651); a time where conflict was rife in the British Isles.

A power struggle occurred between Charles I and opposing groups, including Parliamentarians in England, Covenanters in Scotland, and Confederates in Ireland.

Later, Charles’ successor Charles II would take the throne.

St Faith's Church where the cavaliers surrendered
St Faith's Church where the cavaliers surrendered

One history buff who played an integral part in a reenactment in 2008, said the battle “put Maidstone on the map”.

David Pickett, 73, a retired former councillor for Maidstone council, explained the importance of acknowledging these events.

He said: “I think on the whole the history of the Civil War and the struggle between Charles 1 and Parliament brought down the democracy we have today, the kings never regained full power.

“When we did a reenactment, we put Maidstone on the map, all of sudden we have a bit of history, a lot of people didn’t know this even happened.”

Mr Pickett, who played Royalist governor of Maidstone, Sir Gamaliel Dudley, in 2008, has served three separate terms as councillor; he joined the Civil War society in the 1970s and it was there that he started joining in reenactment battles.

An avid communitarian he helped put together the 2008 reenactment which saw hundreds attend.

He added: “I think it is an iconic event, it was a mixed bag, father fought son, families were split, the father would go and fight for the Royalists and son would go fight for the Parliament.

“It was very divisive, it split people down the middle.”

The tale of war between monarchy and parliament would come to a grisly end in 1649; Charles I was convicted of treason and executed on January 30 outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, London.

By The Restoration in 1660, Charles II had taken the throne, but parliamentarian, Oliver Cromwell would ensure no one could rule by divine right of king.

Mr Pickett added events like this should be taught in schools, he said: “I was no good at football, no good at sport, I think schools should give a broad spectrum of education and history should be important.

“With history you know where you come from and where your going, you need something to anchor.”

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