The Tower, the Lieutenant, and the Ensign’s Wife

Wenceslaus Hollar’s etching of the Tower of London, 1647. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces
Wenceslaus Hollar’s etching of the Tower of London, 1647. Crown Copyright: Historic Royal Palaces

375 years ago, a political crisis was consuming Britain and it was about to pass a point of no return. In breach of parliamentary privilege, Charles I entered the House of Commons on 4th January 1642 in an attempt to arrest five MPs who had been most vocal in efforts to transfer powers from king to parliament. The attempt failed and, amid growing hostility, Charles and his family fled London to Hampton Court Palace.

Control of London, and more specifically, the Tower of London, became of increasing strategic importance amid these rising tensions. It was in this atmosphere that parliament declared a lack of confidence in the Lieutenant of the Tower, Sir John Byron, who Charles had appointed in December 1641. Parliament ordered that London’s militia blockade the Tower on 12 January, and, following a month of pressure, Byron resigned, giving way to the puritan Sir John Conyers – an appointment agreeable to parliament – on 11 February.

Parliament’s success in securing a sympathetic Lieutenant of the Tower was part of a broader strategy to seize the capital, and their success was to prove pivotal in their defeat of the royalist forces in 1646. Indeed, Charles was not to return to London until the winter of 1648-49, when, in the custody of a victorious parliament, he was tried and executed. The republic which resulted lasted until 1660 when, in the wake of the death of its leader, Oliver Cromwell, it collapsed and Charles II was invited to return to the throne.

Intriguingly, the events of early 1642 appear to have reared their head at the Tower thirty years later, almost to the day. In March 1672, one Robert Baxter, ensign to Sir John Robinson, the first new Lieutenant of the Tower since the Restoration, was hauled before a court martial for a series of offences. This included the allegation that he had brought ‘great quantities of wine’ into the Tower, ‘defraudi[ng] the King’ of his customs duties in the process.

This was not Baxter’s sole indiscretion, since he had also resisted later efforts to remove his smuggled goods from the Tower. Even worse, it was recorded that his wife – who we know only as ‘Mrs. Baxter’ – took part in a subversive tirade against Lieutenant Robinson, telling him that ‘they were not soe abused in Olivers time’, and hoping ‘that the Lieu[tenant] … would be carried out of the Tower’.

Sir Godfrey Kneller’s 1685 portrait of Sir John Robinson, Lieutenant of the Tower, 1660-1679 © Historic Royal Palaces.
Sir Godfrey Kneller’s 1685 portrait of Sir John Robinson, Lieutenant of the Tower, 1660-1679 © Historic Royal Palaces.

Mrs. Baxter’s words are intriguing. Firstly, she was a woman and, as well as being criminal, her words transgressed contemporary expectations that women should remain silent on political matters. Secondly, her hopes that Robinson would be ‘carried out of the Tower’ evoke the events of 1642 when, as we have heard, Sir John Byron was put under pressure to resign from his lieutenancy of the Tower. Baxter’s nostalgic reference to the time of Oliver Cromwell – commander of the parliamentarian forces – suggests that this allusion was intentional and pointed.

Mrs. Baxter’s outburst shows how memories of the civil war endured, and that, despite the return of Charles II, these could sometimes favour parliament’s actions in the 1640s. They might also suggest that anniversaries – in this case the thirtieth anniversary of the crisis of 1642 – provided ‘flashpoints’ of memory in England long after the armies of the civil wars had downed swords. Responding to the perceived mistreatment of her husband, Baxter’s first recourse was to memories – recently rekindled, perhaps – of parliament’s resistance to the crown.

Dr Ed Legon

The Baxter case will feature among others in the author’s Revolution remembered: seditious memories after the British Civil Wars (Manchester University Press, early 2019).

For references to the episode in 1672, see F. H. Blackburne Daniell, Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles II, 1671-2 (London, 1897), pp. 163, 200, 201, 234; and, in particular, TNA, SP 29/303/235i. The following works have been helpful to the author in writing this article: Stephen Porter, London and the Civil War (Basingstoke, 1996); Keith Lindley, Popular Politics and Religion in Civil War London (Aldershot, 1997); Ronald Hutton, ‘Byron, John, first Baron Byron (1598/9–1652)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), online edition, May 2010.

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