8 June 1607
Just a couple of miles away from Boughton House, the English seat of the Duke of Buccleuch, there is nothing to show that the tiny hamlet of Newton in Northamptonshire is the site of one of the last risings in Britain of peasants against landlords. But on 8 June 1607, it was the site of a massive protest by a thousand people and the subsequent massacre of forty to fifty peasants by the local gentry at the instigation of King James I.
The Ise brook, which runs through Newton , has its source in Naseby Field, and would again run red with blood less than fifty years later.
1607 was just a few years into the reign of James I. Times were hard. Harvests had been poor, the weather bad, and the population was growing. Food was expensive and hard to come by. The enclosure of common land by local landowners, especially the Treshams of Rushton, a notorious Roman Catholic family – hard up since the involvement of Frances in the Powder Treason only two years earlier - and their cousins at Newton, was the last straw.
Trouble had been building up in Northamptonshire since May Eve, probably after a few drinks to celebrate May Day, a traditional festival which also marked the beginning of the season when animals had been permitted to graze on the common land in nearby Rockingham Forest.
Discontent spread across north Northamptonshire, and to Leicestershire and Warwickshire throughout May. The events at Newton were the culmination of the Midlands Revolt when King James feared that after hearing reports of 3000 at Hillmorton in Warwickshire and 5000 at Cotesbach in Leicestershire, the situation was becoming out of control. A gibbet was set up in the city of Leicester as a warning not to get involved. It was torn down by the people.
The protesters called themselves diggers and levellers – terms that would be more familiar when heard again in the Civil War.
The Diggers of Warwickshire had issued a proclamation to all other Diggers :
At Newton , it is reported that the protesters called themselves “levellers”.
Over 1000 peasants had gathered from the Rockingham Forest area - men, women and children - led by Captain Pouch, a strangely anonymous and mystical character, who claimed to have authority from the kingdom of Heaven and to have a pouch which contained "that which shall keep you from all harm". Following the events of 8 June, it was found to contain nothing more than a piece of green cheese.
Northamptonshire was a county dominated by the big families of the gentry - Montague, Mildmay, Tresham, Brudenell, Spencer - although there was some rivalry and disagreement between them, based sometimes on territorial and religious differences. Montagu of Boughton was a Puritan, whilst the Treshams and Brudenells were Catholic. The Treshams appear to have been particularly unpopular, but Montagu had been more sympathetic to the situation of the peasants and had spoken in the House of Commons some years earlier of the grievances of Northamptonshire relating to
By the end of May, King James I had finally ordered a stop to the escalating trouble with the peasants. He issued a proclamation of his own:
The Earl of Exeter, William Cecil, the Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, was in London , and the responsibility fell to the Deputy Lieutenants, including Montague of Boughton, and Mildmay of Apethorpe, who came to the assistance of Tresham on 8 June. The armed bands formed of local men were reluctant to be involved and the gentry had to rely on their own servants to support them. The rebels refused to obey the orders to disperse, and continued to pull down hedges and fill in the enclosing ditches. The King's proclamation was read twice. Still the rebels refused to give way. Finally, the gentry and their troops charged, and over 40 peasants were killed. Prisoners were taken, imprisoned in St Faith's Church, and the ringleaders tried, hanged and quartered. Their quarters were hung in towns across Northamptonshire as a clear message.
A letter from the Earl of Leicester reveals that the rebels termed themselves levellers, and notes the involvement of women as well as men in both the rebellion and the punishment - "they tasted of the smart as much as they". The Levellers and Diggers only fifty years later made their mark more clearly in the history books.
There is no memorial to those killed, and no mark of the events.
The survivors were granted a Royal Pardon, provided they presented themselves before Michaelmas to Sir Edward Montagu at Boughton and signed, or left their mark on, a submission document. About 110 people - including one woman, Winifred Turner of Stanion, left their mark. Less than thirty signed their names. Details of what happened are hard to find, although information can be gleaned from obscure passages in various books, and learned essays, but until recently few people were aware of the rebellion and subsequent massacre. Parish records have gone missing and Assize records burned.
A local community history group has been formed, the Newton Rebels, to raise awareness of what happened 400 years ago, to place it in its historical context nationally and locally, to develop a lasting memorial, and to help preserve what remains of the Tresham's dovecote, which is all that remains of their manor house at Newton. It is intended that the site of the Newton Rebellion will be identified more precisely, that it be marked, probably by Heritage orientation boards, and a commemorative memorial such as a stone or wayside cross in a significant position, such as St Faith's Church, Newton .
The Rebels are following in the footsteps of the late J.L.Carr, writer of the award-winning “A Month In The Country” – which features Newton Church in disguise – and Head Teacher of Highfields School in Kettering . Jim Carr fought to save St Faith’s Church from destruction, and includes the story of the Rebellion in another of his books, “The Battle Of Pollocks Crossing” (1985):
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