Great Stalemates of the English Civil War – The Battle of Wem, Summer 1643

This post was originally published on on November 16, 2010

We of the Routier persuasion are renowned for liking our women to be strong, occasionally armed and above all, recklessly feeding us lunch in the face of fierce enemy opposition. There were a few occasions in the Civil Wars when the local women showed fortitude such as the first siege of Basing House in 1643 where the women of the garrison hurled stones, bricks and insults from the battlements. There’s at least one battle where the women turned the balance.

Bad Girl Action, sisters duel in France 1650

Wem [10 m. N. of Shrewsbury] was the first town in Shropshire to declare for the Parliament, a small garrison was empaneled to defend the town. A rampart of earth was thrown up to fortify the town, strengthened by palisades placed so thickly that a whole coppice in the township of Lacon (a couple of miles NNE) was cleared for this purpose. All houses and buildings outside the wall were burnt to prevent the enemy using them for shelter.

In the summer of 1643, the king sent out Lord Capel, of nearby Whitchurch with a division of 4000 men, 120 wagons, three cannon, two drakes (5lb field guns) and a great mortar piece capable of firing a 30lb shot, to storm Wem. In response Parliament sent Sir William Buerton from London with a troop of horse and a regiment of foot and had orders to raise the train bands and to fortify near-by Nantwich.

Lord Capel resolved to attack Wem before it’s works were quite finished. The wall was unfinished and the gates had no hinges, being only propped up in the finest jerry-built fashion. Buerton’s forces drew near to Wem to support and defend it. The two armies lay within a mile of each other for several days, skirmishing lightly. Capel made use of a ruse to draw off the Parliamentary troop. He marched into their billet and plundered all the villages about Nantwich, and then under the cover of the night returned back another way. Sir William Buerton with his own men, and almost all the garrison of Wem hastened to relieve Nantwich (and get their stuff back). There were only a few soldiers left to hold Wem with the aid of the townspeople.

When the ruse was discovered by the parliamentary army late in the day, Wem was initially given up as lost, but at about three or four o’clock the following morning the Parliamentary army had a change of heart. The army then moved so slowly that before their arrival lord Capel’s army had twice stormed the town, and had twice been repulsed. Some royalist field pieces fired on the town, but did no execution, tragically during this action a cannon ball passed through an innocent hogshead of beer. About eighty Royalist men approached the wall on the north side, but fled at the sight of a lighted match and two rolls of bark which had been planted on the wall, which the rumour mill had entitled “a couple of Drakes.” Another piece of deception scarred the enemy, placing old women in red cloaks at strategic spots looking like soldiers.

The principal Royalist attack was made at Drayton gate. There the townsfolk acquitted themselves well, with the women fighting remarkably as commemorated in this bit of doggerel verse:

The women of Wem and a few musketeers
beat Lord Capel and all his cavaliers. — [Higson, 124]

As the main body of the Parliamentary army finally approached at their leisure, the Royalists drew off and as at Turnham Green, secured the bridge. The fall of the night put an end to the engagement.

Wem was to fall along with much of Shropshire in a later action, but became a base for parliamentary guerillas for the rest of the royalist occupation.

It obviously had some impact on the Royalist troops, who in the Prayer of the Shropshire Royalists begged

From Wem and from Wich, [i.e. Nantwich]
and from Clive of the Styche, Good Lord, deliver us! [Jackson, 586 ]

More reading

H2G2 – Prees Heath, Shropshire, UK

Garbet, S., The History of Wem accessed 16 November 2010

Higson, John, The Church Bells, 1869.

Jackson, Georgina, Shropshire Folk Lore, 1883.

Lean, V. S., Collections by Vincent Stuckey Lean of Proverbs (English and Foreign), Folk Lore and Superstitions, also Compilations towards Dictionaries of Proverbial Phrases and Words, Old and Disused. Bristol, 1902

Thiselton-Dyer, Rev T.F., Folk-Lore of Women, London 1906.


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