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‘WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR’

Sir William Waller
1598 – 1668

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Everyone’s heard of Oliver Cromwell and yet, by March 1645, when Cromwell was still a subordinate officer, Sir William Waller had been leading a Parliamentary army for two years. So who was this man most people have never heard of?

He was born at Knole House in Kent but, when he was five years old, his father became Lieutenant of Dover Castle and the Cinque Ports so William spent his childhood there. He was educated at Magladen Hall, Oxford before travelling to Italy – where, with a number of other young Englishmen, he enlisted in the Venetian army and had his first taste of military action.

By November 1620, he was defending the Protestant cause of Elizabeth, Queen of Bohemia and her husband, Frederick, the Elector Palatine. After the Palatinate forces were crushed at the Battle of the White Hill and Prague was over-run by the Austrian army, Frederick and Elizabeth – along with their one-year-old son, Rupert – were forced to flee through the snow, escorted by a few English officers. One of these was William Waller and another was Ralph Hopton – who I mention now for reasons which will become apparent later.

Returning to England, Waller was knighted by James l for services to both the Protestant religion and also, one would assume, to James’s daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia. He then married Jane Reynell [which whom he was deeply in love] and abandoned military life in favour of managing his father-in-law’s Devonshire estates. For the next thirteen years, he lived peacefully at Forde House near Newton Abbot.

When the Long Parliament convened in 1640, Waller sat as the member for Andover and was soon prominent amongst those in opposition to Charles l. Naturally, when the Civil War broke out, his previous military experience earned him command of all the Parliamentarian forces on the south coast; and during the first year of the war, he was the most successful of the Roundhead generals – taking Portsmouth, Farnham, Winchester, Arundel and Chichester. Indeed, he was so successful that the news-sheets nicknamed him ‘William the Conqueror’.

I’m not going to detail Waller’s entire Civil War career. Suffice it to say that his luck didn’t last. He was possibly not the most effective disciplinarian and was frequently plagued by mutinies among his troops. In 1643, he was soundly defeated by Sir Ralph Hopton at Roundway Down [the battle the Cavaliers liked to call Runaway Hill] and, in ’44, was mauled by the King at Cropredy Bridge. [Both feature in The Black Madonna]. His military career ended in 1645 with the Self-Denying Ordinance – the decree which said members of Parliament had to resign either their seat in the House or their military commission.  Interestingly, Cromwell managed to keep both.

In the years that followed, Waller was a notable Presbyterian leader of the House of Commons and a bitter enemy of the Army commanders.  He was driven  into brief  exile in 1647, was one of the Members purged from the Commons in 1648 by Colonel Pride [see Garland of Straw] and subsequently suffered at least two spells of imprisonment. Finally, in the later 1650s, he was driven to contact the exiled Royalists – though this earned him no reward at the Restoration.

On a personal level, Waller had all the sterling qualities of a medieval knight. He was brave, honourable and deeply religious. He was one of many moderate, humane men on both sides of a terrible civil conflict. And the main reason I’ve chosen to add him to my Who’s Who list, and possibly also one of the best reasons to remember him is contained in a letter he wrote to Sir Ralph Hopton – his friend for more than twenty years but now also his enemy – on the eve of the battle of Lansdown in 1643.
The great God, which is the searcher of my heart, knows with what a sad sense I go upon this service and with what a perfect hatred I detest this war without an enemy.’

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2 thoughts on “‘WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR’

  1. I really don’t follow the military ins and outs of this period (or any period) but have always been fascinated by the doings of Waller and Hopkins during the Thirty Years’ War and, again, there’s not a lot written on them. Somewhere or other I read that Hopkins was very proud of the fact that he had carried Elizabeth of Bohemia behind him on his horse after the defeat at the Battle of White Mountain. I really wish I could remember where I got that from.

  2. Sorry for the delay in responding – I’ve been away on holiday. Most of my information on Waller relates to his Civil War career and I only know of one proper biography covering his earlier life. It’s by John Adair and is titled ‘Roundhead General – a Military Biography of Sir William Waller’. It was published in 1969 and I picked up my copy in a charity shop but you might get it from a library.

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