The Destruction of Worcester City and Cathedral in The English Civil Wars

1651 map of Worcester

Worcester’s Civil War era defences were substantial

During the English Civil War, much of the prolonged conflict was concentrated in the West Midlands, around the Royalist stronghold of Worcester, which was itself besieged on several occasions. The siege in 1642 by parliamentary forces saw savage methods used by both sides to establish influence in the city creating hostility and unrest amongst the local community. The Parliamentarians elsewhere allegedly employed arsonists at a rate of £2 a night to set the residents’ homes ablaze.[1] During sieges, thatched roofs were targeted in particular, as the Parliamentary command invested in the destructive potential of flaming arrows, maintaining a high rate of fire while saving on limited reserves of gunpowder. The authorities in the city responded by prohibiting thatched roofs in certain high-risk districts and by placing pots of water in key, accessible locations. The monetary cost of damages caused by the burning was estimated at £100,000.[2]

During the siege, the Cathedral became central to the defenders’ military operations, since not only could it accommodate a considerable number of soldiers and their stores, but also for the capability offered by the bell tower for use as an observation post.  The Cathedral also acted as a formidable defensive structure, with thick stone walls, largely invulnerable to incendiary attacks. It is also important to note that the Cathedral, recently re-fitted under Laudian reforms in an ultra-High Church, Anti-Calvinist style, represented an affront to the Puritanical sensibilities that underlay the Parliamentarian movement.

Charles II

When the Parliamentarians finally took Worcester in 1651, Charles II fled into exile, only to be restored to the English throne in 1660

Recovery after the devastation of the Civil War was predominantly a long, difficult process, hindered by the lack of charitable aid available and the conditions of a post-conflict recession. Despite high levels of taxation and rent, it was believed that the onus of reconstruction should be placed on the tenants rather than landlords. Unwilling to assemble dwellings only to then be charged rent to live in them, it is unsurprising that shanty towns grew up around the outer suburbs of Worcester.  However, the authorities soon put in place minimum building standards and the temporary structures were cleared out once the owners left or died. With insufficient and poor quality accommodation, local emigration was rife, but this only shifted the unaddressed problems of homelessness and vagrancy into other districts.

Some people even chose to lodge in the Cathedral as it was opened up to the especially destitute. The Cathedral would certainly not have been a luxurious abode, however, as it was left in a state of serious disrepair – the Parliamentary forces causing an estimated £10,000 worth of damage through vandalism[3]. The leaden roof had been stripped away by Royalists and Parliamentarians alike for both manufacture of ammunition and raw profit. It would have been dark, damp and draughty.

With the Cathedral finances becoming increasingly tighter, the decision was made to demolish the Leaden Steeple, a separate bell tower close by, in order to sell off the used building materials. In total £560 was raised and devoted to architectural repairs and charities[4], but it was not until the Restoration of the monarchy in the 1660s, and the securing of a £500 loan to fix the roof[5], that religious services could resume.  Once the wartime stagnation and subsequent social impact was addressed, the city and Cathedral began to return to normal.

The 'Leaden Steeple' shown here to the left of the Cathedral was torn down so that it's building materials could be sold off to raise revenue

The ‘Leaden Steeple’ shown here to the left of the Cathedral was torn down so that it’s building materials could be sold off to raise revenue


Andrew Gwilt

[1] As was alleged in Chester. At Exeter a man was paid £5 for setting fire to works of the besieging force. See Porter 1994: 45

[2] Porter 1994: 77-79

[3] Noake 1866: 567

[4] Porter 1994: 96

[5]Noake 1866: 569


Noake, J, The Monastery and Cathedral of Worcester, London, 1866

Porter, S, Destruction in the English Civil War, Dover NH, 1994

See also: Till, G, How the English Civil Wars affected the finances of Worcester Cathedral, Worcester Cathedral ADD MSS 583, 2007


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