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The Battle of Great Severn.

On Sunday 25 March 1655 there was a battle on and around the banks of the River Severn in what is now the state of Maryland, USA. It was small as battles go: only 400 or so men altogether were involved, of whom 19 were killed during battle, and 4 were executed afterwards.

It was the final battle of the Civil War. Not the American Civil War, but the English Civil War in which the King of England, Charles I, was put on trial and beheaded, and his son, Charles II, regained his throne at the expense of abandoning the claim to absolute power that had cost his father his life. The conflict divided a country, and though the wounds healed relatively rapidly, the consequences of the war, the effect it had on the relationship between Crown and Parliament, were immense. All these events are being recalled by many exhibits in 1999 - the 400th anniversary of Cromwell's birth and the 350th of Charles I's execution.

But the Battle of Great Severn is not one that features in most histories of the English Civil War. I had studied seventeenth century history at school and could recognise the names of all the important battles. Great Severn wasn't one of them. So when, on a recent visit to Washington DC, I saw a notice in the Washington Post asking for volunteers for a re-enactment of the Battle of Great Severn, I resolved to find out more. I took myself to the Library of Congress and pursued the matter through the Catalogue.

The battle of Great Severn was not an isolated occurrence, divorced from its seventeenth century context. It had its roots both in the founding and history of the state of Maryland, and the course of the English Civil War. American and British specialist historians will no doubt be familiar with both; but the average British reader knows nothing about Maryland, and I suspect that not many Americans know much about the English Civil War. So it is necessary to give a brief account of both.

Maryland was founded by the Baltimore family and the state still uses the Baltimore coat of arms as its flag. The first Baron Baltimore had been the principal secretary of James I, the first king of England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. James I died in 1625 and was succeeded by his son Charles I. Baltimore resigned from his position when he became a Roman Catholic. He subsequently took a party of friends and family across the Atlantic to America intending to settle and eventually, in 1628, arrived in what is now Maryland but was then part of Virginia. However, to settle there would have meant taking the oaths of supremacy and allegiance from the acting governor of Virginia. As a Roman Catholic, Baltimore was not prepared to do this. He returned to England to ask Charles I for a colony of his own in which Roman Catholics could worship freely. But he died on 20 June 1632 so Charles I made a grant of land to his son Cecilius Calvert, the new Lord Baltimore.

The terms of the grant were peculiar, quite unlike the grants of other colonies. The system was palatinate, not altogether obsolete in England, but almost. Baltimore was named as Lord Proprietor of Maryland and held the colony direct from the King. The settlers enjoyed the rights of Englishmen, but Baltimore owned all the land and would receive all rents, taxes, and fees. He exercised absolute political and judicial authority, he could build fortifications, confer honours and titles, incorporate boroughs and towns, and license trade. He was head of the church in Maryland and could consecrate churches and chapels; and he had the power to make grants of land. The charter made reference to an assembly of all freemen (i.e. males not bound in service) with power to 'advise and consent' but Baltimore's status as 'Absolute Lord' was plain.

In spite of the despotic nature of the grant, in religious terms it was tolerant. Its stated goal was that Catholics and Protestants should live together peaceably. Given the depth of religious bigotry in the seventeenth century, it was a remarkable objective.

But the grant was not unopposed. One William Claiborne had already established himself in the prospective colony on Kent Island and had been evicted from it by Lord Baltimore in 1631. Claiborne was rather more than a simple settler; he was a councillor and secretary of the colony of Virginia. And he hated Roman Catholics. He and the colony of Virginia objected to the new colony being carved out of land that had been granted by charter to Virginia in 1621. Claiborne's enmity to Baltimore was an important and continuing factor for many years.

Although Cecilius Calvert was Lord Proprietor of Maryland, he never actually went there. Instead he sent his brother Leonard who arrived at what became St. Mary's City on 27 March 1634. He was accompanied by a party composed of mainly Catholic gentry and Protestants.

The new colony prospered and expanded. The numbers increased and the Roman Catholics, who had been in the majority, came to be the minority although they still formed the elite. The land was mostly carved up into large estates in a manorial system.

The assembly's first (unreported) meeting was in 1635 but in the following years it began to show its independence, so much so that Leonard Calvert, introducing a code of laws put forward by his brother, found it necessary to make compromises.

This increasing independence was a reflection of what was going on in England. There the dispute between Charles I and his subjects as to whether the King could rule without Parliament had been growing throughout the 1630's. The dispute, although constitutional in nature, also had a religious dimension: Charles, rigid and authoritarian by nature, wished to impose uniformity of worship throughout the kingdom. The progress to the Civil War between Crown and Parliament which began in 1642 was inevitable. Even the sacrifice of the King's first minister, Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, could not avert it. Strafford was a friend of the Baltimores. Cecilius Calvert, watching him, must have felt that his own property, not to say his neck, was in danger.

Although the colonies were for the most part spectators of rather than participants in the English Civil War, the effects were felt in Maryland as elsewhere. In 1642, the assembly, influenced by the Parliament in England, resolved that it alone could dissolve itself. In 1645, one Richard Ingle (an associate of Claiborne) who held parliamentary papers allowing him to take royalist ships captured St. Mary's City and pillaged those Marylanders who did not take the oath of allegiance to the English Parliament. Claiborne reoccupied Kent Island. For two years there was disorder: this period was known as 'the rebellion' or 'the plundering time.' It was with difficulty that order was restored. Leonard Calvert then died; his immediate successor was a Roman Catholic planter called Thomas Greene. But Greene was removed by Baltimore who put in his place Richard Stone, a Virginia Protestant. Baltimore, in making the appointment, was no doubt mindful of the political state of affairs in England and of the prejudices there against Roman Catholics.

One of Stone's first acts as Governor was to let into Maryland certain persecuted Virginia Puritans who settled at a place they called Providence. At first these Puritans held aloof from public life, but then, influenced by the idea of Commonwealths in England and Massachusetts, they began to play a more leading role.

The death of Charles I in 1649 was a further destabilising factor. On his father's demise the young Charles II immediately became King. But he was in exile on the Continent and England was a Commonwealth ruled by Parliament which decreed that support for Charles II was treason. Virginia, along with some but not all of the other colonies, immediately declared for the King. However, Baltimore and Stone, both cautious by nature, delayed. Then, on November 15, while Stone was away, Greene, now Stone's deputy, forced the issue by proclaiming Charles II as 'undoubted rightfull heire to all his father's dominions'. An assembly was elected and sat from 1649 to 1650. The majority of those elected were Puritans but nonetheless, and in spite of harsh speeches by Greene (who seems to have had a particularly confrontational temperament), among the legislation passed by the assembly, including the famous Toleration Act of 1649, were acts recognising Baltimore as 'Lord Proprietor', pledging support for him 'for ever, until the last drop of our blood be spilt,' and providing for the taking of an oath of fidelity to the Lord Proprietor 'but not such as to prejudice ... liberty of conscience in point of religion.'

In 1651 rumours began to circulate in Maryland that Baltimore's charter would be removed. Attempts had previously been made: for instance, in 1648 Ingle had presented a petition to Parliament to that effect. Parliament then appointed two Commissioners (Bennett and Claiborne) to make Maryland submit. In March 1652 they removed Stone as Governor of Maryland. They reinstated him in June 1652.

Developments in England contributed to Stone's problems. In April 1653 Cromwell, commander of the victorious Parliamentary army, dismissed the increasingly ineffective and chaotic Parliament. From then on, he ruled alone, but his rule was unlawful until a newly-elected Parliament made him first Captain-General (on 12 December 1653) and then Lord Protector (16 December 1653).

The relationship between Stone and the Parliamentary Commissioners continued to deteriorate. On 2 March 1654 he decreed that, although he was still obedient to the Commonwealth, all writs should 'run in the Proprietary's name as heretofore.' He insisted that the oath of fidelity to the Proprietor be taken and announced that he would confiscate the lands of all those who did not take the oath within six months. On 3 January 1654 the Puritans of Severn River objected to the oath of fidelity and communicated their objections to Bennett and Claiborne who advised them to support the Parliamentary Commissioners. But when, in Spring 1654, news reached Maryland that Cromwell had been confirmed as Lord Protector by Parliament and that all writs were to be issued in his name, he decreed (in May 1654) that all persons must submit to Parliament. This didn't do him much good, however, with the Commissioners who directed that the records of the province be removed. On 20 July Stone resigned, referring in his account to the presence of armed men.

The first general assembly under the Commissioners was held on 20 October 1654. Unlike the assemblies held under Baltimore's charter, Roman Catholics and any others who had borne arms against the Parliament (by now numbers of Royalist supporters had arrived in Maryland from England) could not be members. It passed 44 Acts, including the repeal of the Toleration Act, and enacted that Roman Catholics could not practise their faith. It levied taxes and abolished the requirement of the oath of fidelity to Lord Baltimore. Other statutes outlawed sin, vice and Sabbath-breaking.

On the 6th November 1654 a merchant ship, The Golden Lyon, commanded by Captain Roger Heamans, left England. It arrived in Maryland on 29 January 1655. On 31 January Stone went on board The Golden Lyon and told Heamans he was no longer Governor of Maryland. And at about the same time another ship, The Golden Fortune, also arrived in Maryland with a letter from Oliver Cromwell addressed to Captain Stone Governor of Maryland. Also present on board was a Mr William Eltonhead who reported verbally that Lord Baltimore's patent and lands had not been taken away. On the strength of this Stone challenged the authority of Parliament. He may also have been stung by Baltimore's calling him, in a letter written in November 1654, a coward. He seized back the records of the province which had been taken from him and ignored requests asking him by what authority this action had been carried out. His troops had already begun to move north; they sacked some houses and took at least one hostage.

Now Heamans began to get more closely involved. He was informed of a plot to kill all inhabitants of Providence, to fire The Golden Lyon, and to kill all the officers and crew. In fact, it seems that the rumours, if true at all, were greatly exaggerated. The women and children of Providence were sent on board The Golden Lyon for their protection. A War Council, led by William Fuller of the Providence Puritans, was appointed. On 23 March it issued a warrant to Heamans to serve under the War Council. Governor Stone also issued orders to Heamans who declared, however, that he was bound to serve under Fuller.

On 24 March there was a further order from the War Council to Heamans: 'you are not to fail as you will answer to the contrary at your peril.' That evening various sloops and boats were seen making their way towards The Golden Lyon. Heamans fired at them and they retreated into a creek for the night. Heamans then ordered a small armed sloop to block the creek thus effectively barring any escape by Stone's forces.

The next day, Sunday 25 March, was the day of the battle of Great Severn. Actual hostilities were delayed while Fuller sent Heamans to The Golden Lyon for the Commonwealth flag, the only Commonwealth flag in the whole of Maryland.

The battle took place at Horn Point opposite Providence. Fuller's forces drove Stone's forces to the end of the point. In less than half an hour all was over. Of Stone's forces, 17 were killed, including Thomas Hatton, secretary of the province, and 32 wounded. Among these last was Stone himself. Only 5 escaped. Of the Puritan forces two were killed.

The War Council sentenced 12 of the prisoners, including Stone, to death. Four, including Eltonhead, were actually executed: the others, after the women and soldiers of Providence asked for mercy, were reprieved.

Following the battle Baltimore complained to Cromwell that he had been 'interrupted in his rights'. A pamphlet war broke out in England in which each side justified its own conduct and vilified that of the other.

After the battle the Puritans ruled in Maryland. But Baltimore never lost his title to the colony. In 1657 Bennett and Claiborne signed a peace agreement with Baltimore: in return for an amnesty the Puritans recognised Baltimore's proprietorship and restored religious toleration.

Cromwell died in 1658. In 1660, Charles I's son, Charles II, was restored to the throne. But there was never to be another attempt in England at absolute rule by a monarch.

Although the events leading up to the Battle of Great Severn and the battle itself are inextricably linked to the English Civil War and its aftermath, their context is very much that of Maryland itself. It may well have been Greene's proclamation of the young Charles II as King in 1649 which precipitated the appointment of Bennett and Claiborne as Parliamentary Commissioners. But both were hostile to Baltimore, and it was Stone's loyalty to the Lord Proprietor which caused the friction and eventual breakdown which led to the battle. In spite of it all, Baltimore managed to keep both his lands and his head through all the political upheavals in England. It was a remarkable balancing act; it seems that some Roman Catholics in England were not totally opposed to Cromwell. They may have hoped for a degree of religious toleration that outright opposition and fervent support of the monarchy would have lost. And Cromwell himself had no wish, whatever the situation was at home, to allow too much turmoil in the colonies. It was during the Commonwealth and Protectorate that England's maritime expansion, supported by a strong navy, began to grow. Cromwell saw the usefulness of the colonies to the mother country.

It is the peculiar nature of the Proprietorship of Maryland that gives the Battle of Great Severn, however small and unimportant in itself, its interest. It cannot be fanciful to suggest that the conflict casts shadows to another conflict in which one group of Anglo-Americans objected to government by an overseas ruler and demanded the right to pass their own laws and raise their own taxes. The Battle of Great Severn was the first conflict between Anglo-Americans. It was not to be the last.
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Title Annotation:17th century military battle in what is now Maryland
Author:May, Radmila
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Mar 1, 1999
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