Through Great Britain and Ireland With Cromwell - H. E. Marshall

The King at Oxford

Oxford, like London, is upon the Thames. But how different in every way the two towns are! In London, the streets are full of hurrying throngs, and all day long the beat of feet and roar of traffic fills the air. The river, crowded with ships, both great and small, flows dark and muddy. The banks, lined with warehouses, are noisy and busy with trade and shipbuilding.

At Oxford it is very different. The river even has changed its name and is here called the Isis. It flows between green meadows starred with flowers and shadowed with leafy trees, and on its clear waters, though there is scarce a sail, there is many a punt and canoe, and by the bank a gay line of college barges.

Beyond the trees rise the old grey colleges, dim and weather-worn with the storms and sunshine of many a hundred years, beautiful with tower and turret, and tracery of stone-work. Here there is neither bustle nor din. Peacefully Oxford lies as if sleeping in the sunlight, but within these old grey walls are gathered treasures of learning from past ages. Through the silent courtyards many a famous and learned man has trod, down the peaceful streets have passed many a fair lady and gallant knight.

Oxford, like Cambridge, claims to be very ancient. One old writer says that the city was built more than 1000 years B.C., and that it took its name, Oxford, from old British words meaning the ford for oxen. Another thinks the University was founded by some Greeks who came with Brutus of Troy—that Brutus who changed the name of Albion to Britain. But these are fairy tales. Certain it is Oxford has played a part many a time in our history. Before the Conquest the Witenagemot was sometimes held there. The soldiers of Stephen besieged it, and from it Queen Matilda fled away over the frozen snow. There was held the "Mad Parliament," when, for the first time since the Conquest, English laws were written again in English. And now, in the Great Civil War, it was to be the scene of gaiety and laughter, of blood and battle.

Soon the grey old courtyards were awakened with song and laughter. For the court of Charles was gay even in this time of bitterness and war. Fair ladies and fine gentlemen stepped about the green lawns, mingling strangely with grave professors and noisy students. Here the Queen rejoined her husband, and here too the King held his Parliament—the "Mongrel Parliament," as Charles himself called it. It was made up of those nobles and gentlemen who had left the Puritan Parliament in London, or who had been cast out of it. But the Mongrel Parliament was of little use, and Charles soon dissolved it, as he had dissolved so many others.

Meanwhile Prince Rupert, or "Prince Robber," as the people learned to call him, scoured the country round, robbing and plundering. To Abingdon, Henley, Egham, Staines, Hounslow, Brentford, nearer and nearer to London he came, followed by the King and all the royal army. The shopkeepers and merchants of London had dug trenches and built walls around the city to keep it safe, and now they marched out under Essex, and camped upon Turnham Green, ready to defend their homes. They were 24,000 strong, and a skilful general might easily have surrounded the King's army and cut off his retreat to Oxford. But Essex was slow and hesitating. He gave orders and recalled them again. He acted indeed as if he were afraid of beating the King too thoroughly, and so Charles got safely back to Oxford. There were men who grumbled and said that Essex was no true Parliamentarian, yet, when later, the King tried to bribe him back to his side, the old general would not listen.

But Captain Oliver Cromwell watched all these things, thinking his own thoughts. After Edgehill he had spoken wise words to his friend John Hampden. "Your troops," he said, "are old, decayed serving-men and tapsters, and such kind of fellows. Their troops" (meaning the Royalist troops) "are gentlemen's sons, younger sons, and persons of quality. Do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows will ever be able to encounter gentlemen, and have honour, and courage and resolution in them? You must get men of a spirit that is likely to go on as far as gentlemen will go—or else you will be beaten still."

And John Hampden, a wise and gallant man, and a true patriot, thought that Oliver talked indeed good sense but of what was not possible.

But when Oliver spoke of "gentlemen," he did not mean fine clothes and grand manners. He meant men, brave and good. "A few honest men are better than numbers," he said. "If you choose godly, honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them. I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, that what you call a 'gentleman' and is nothing else. I honour a Gentleman  that is so indeed."

So, while Essex hesitated and debated, Captain Cromwell worked in his own county, doing what he could. He rode here, there, and everywhere, fighting and drilling, talking and writing letters, increasing his troops until he had nearly 1000 men—"a lovely company," as he himself calls them, "honest, sober Christians, who expect to be used as men."