Remember, remember the 25th of Feb,
Stratford’s very own gunpowder plot,
However for some reason,
This Civil War treason,
Has completely been forgot...
The tale of how Robert Catesby, Guy Fawkes and their Catholic accomplices attempted to assassinate James I on the 5th November 1605 has fallen into legend. This tale of gunpowder, treason and plots has been incorporated into the British calendar - where on one day a year fireworks are released, bonfires are lit and effigies of the unlucky conspirators burnt. But thirty eight years later, another assassination attempt (with a rather more successful gunpowder explosion) shook Stratford-upon-Avon.
1643, a year into the English Civil War, the residents of Stratford were
already feeling its effects. Even the Shakespeare family were not immune to
the onslaught of war. Shakespeare’s granddaughter Elizabeth reported her
distress when her scarlet petticoats and lacework were plundered by Parliamentarian
soldiers in 1645.
Stratford was built on a commercial and religious infrastructure, meaning it was completely unprepared for war. The town had no defences, rather it was low-lying and surrounded by open fields. The river crossing in Stratford (marked by Clopton Bridge) also drew the attentions of Parliamentarian and Royalist armies. The Avon’s ford marked where the south roads converged to gain access to major settlements (like Warwick) and the north of the country. Yet despite its vulnerability and geographic importance, compared with other towns in the Midlands, Stratford largely escaped dramatic physical damage and religious desecration.
Stratford’s escape from devastating damage (such as the almost complete destruction that its neighbour Banbury incurred) was most likely due to the town’s population by-and-large being in favour of the Parliamentarians. Stratford also had a strong pocket of powerful Puritans (the curate, the schoolmaster and the two wealthiest residents all being Puritans). Those who were known to be associated with the Royalists or Catholicism fled from the town very early on in the conflict, meaning the town was never a prime target for Parliamentarian military forces.
In 1643 Roundhead general Robert Greville, 2nd Baron Brooke began his occupation of Stratford. The town was taken relatively peacefully, with very few outbreaks of fire after 1642. Fresh from his victory in Kineton and Commander of Parliament forces in Warwickshire and Staffordshire, Lord Brooke was an important player in the Civil War. Within weeks of him taking command of Stratford, a Royalist plot to dispatch him began to unfold...
In the same spirit as the Catholic conspirators nearly forty years before, gunpowder was acquired for the attempted assassination. The unknown assassins laid their explosives under the new town hall and awaited Lord Brooke’s arrival.
Early on the morning of February the 25th, there was a large gunpowder explosion. In later years, one local marked the date as ‘the morning the towne hall was blowne up’. Unfortunately for the would-be-assassins, Lord Brooke was not caught up in the explosion and escaped unscathed. The local press were quick to capture the event in dramatic style -
‘NEW TOWN HALL RECKED IN BROOKE ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT’.
Contemporary reports suggest that the only real victim of this particular gunpowder plot was the architectural casualty of the Town Hall. However, a year later another more successful assassination attempt did lead to the demise of Lord Brooke - when he was killed by a sniper besieging Lichfield Cathedral. As for the Town Hall, the building incurred substantial damage, and although attempts were made to repair it, it was not until 1769 that it was restored completely and replaced with the building we see today.
So maybe this bonfire night spare a thought for the Town Hall – Stratford’s very own victim of gunpowder, treason and plot.