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The Prince, the Earl, his gift, and the massacre of Bolton…

Almost 375 years since the notorious ‘Bolton Massacre’, Roundheads and Cavaliers will again descend on Bolton on 7-8 July for an exciting FREE event featuring thrilling battles and fascinating ‘living history’. Click here for more details…

John Callow from the University of Suffolk, is writing a new biography of James Stanley, Earl of Derby, the Royalist officer and Lancastrian magnate who, it was claimed, led the assault on the defences at Bolton in May 1644.

John kindly agreed to write for us about Stanley, the so-called ‘King of Mann’, and his involvement in the attack – but what is revealed is that the people involved found the struggle for Bolton had gone from being an intensely local affair to a very different kind of war – something more brutal than anything they had witnessed before…


When does a killing in battle become murder? How does chivalry descend to the level of a war crime?

James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby
James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby

For James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, it all came down to a fight in a muddy street.

Dampened powder flashes in the mirk and the lashing rain, blood running into the gutters, screams of women and the cries of children as the King’s men broke through the town walls and earth ramparts. ‘Nothing heard’, wrote one contemporary, ‘but kill dead, kill dead was the word in the town’, with ‘horsemen pursing the poore amazed people, killing, stripping, and spoiling all they could meet with’.

This was how wars ended and cities fell on the Continent, in the Germany of the Thirty Years’ War or during Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland. But these scenes unfolded right here, in Lancashire, at the prosperous market town of Bolton, on the afternoon of Tuesday 28 May 1644.

Bridling at earlier defeats, the searing scorn heaped upon him by his political enemies and the attack upon his own home at Lathom House, the Earl had begged Prince Rupert, the Royalist commander, to allow him to lead the assault upon Bolton, the most stubborn, independent and Puritan of Lancashire’s towns. No one could have doubted his bravery that day. Resembling a pitched battle rather than a formal siege, the early attacks by the king’s army had faltered and been thrown back with heavy losses before Stanley led a charge that cleared the outlying fields of the Parliamentarian Horse, and joined his own Lancashire regiments taking command of an assault that surged over the walls and sent the defenders streaming back through the streets, abandoning their arms, powder, and 22 standards, with all order gone.

On one level, this should have been the high point of James Stanley’s career. The day had brought a stunning victory that had brought Lancashire back under the King’s control. All resistance was broken, with more than 600 prisoners set upon the road south and 50 officers taken. Furthermore, it was Stanley’s leadership of the attack that had marked the crucial turning point in the battle. It was said that he was the first man in the Royalist army to fight his way through the defences, the first to get into the rebel town, the first in valour and prowess, scribing an arc through his enemies with the blade of his sword. As thanks, he gave Prince Rupert an expensive ring; in the hopes that he might be restored to his command of Lancashire.

Yet, in fact, this marked the nadir of his fortunes. The Prince had other ideas about the Earl’s abilities, confided the county to his own men and ordered Stanley back to his post on the Isle of Man: if not quite in disgrace then left in no doubt that control of the war had passed from the heads of traditional aristocratic families to a violent new breed of professional soldiers, grouped around Rupert. Worse still, contemporaries were unanimous in their opinion that what had happened after the Royalist storming parties entered the town was of far greater significance than the conduct of the battle, itself.

The English, we are told do not ‘do war crimes’ – and certainly not on their own doorstep. The idea certainly doesn’t fit with the romantic landscapes fashioned by the novels of Sir Walter Scott and Harrison Ainsworth, and still less with the image of gallantry created around the Cavaliers by Eliot Warburton and the popular historians of the Victorian age.

Yet, the ‘massacre of Bolton’ as the Parliamentarians termed it, certainly was a war crime. The town, and everything in it, had been declared as the Royalist ‘soldiers reward’ and theft, murder, extortion and rape became the order of the day once the enemy had fled. Reaching beyond the brief noting of 78 burials in the parish register, the accounts of suffering still have the power to move, to shock and to challenge our modern pre-conceptions about the nature of the English Civil War. A preacher’s widow was left shivering, violated and stripped to her smock; a 72 year old woman was run clean through with a sword; and Elizabeth Horrocks was dragged at the end of a tether, from one end of Bolton to the other, and threatened with hanging unless she surrendered all her savings to jeering soldiers. Even Stanley’s bravery and conduct came to be questioned. It was now said that he had not killed Captain Bootle in the midst of the fight, but in cold blood and fury after the town had fallen and the guns had been silenced. Though this was almost certainly untrue – the product of propaganda and malice on behalf of his enemies – what cannot be doubted is that Bootle had once been the Earl’s own servant. The civil war was bitter and personal, the occasion for score settling and rough justice. The sense that Bootle had sought to challenge the existing order, to rise within society and to challenge, both politically and militarily, his former master could not have been lost upon James Stanley, even in the heat of the melee.

War itself is nothing but tragedy: the tragedy of the great, and the small, alike. In the case of James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, it lay in his inability to adapt to what he famously called this ‘general plague of madness’, as the conflict tore apart all of his pre-existing assumptions and all that he held dear. Highly intelligent and cultured, he had distinguished himself as a supremely gifted peace time administrator, but he had suddenly found himself thrown into the maelstrom of a civil war for which he was neither prepared nor militarily suited. This, then, was the tragedy of a bright and reflexive courtier, conscious of the need for compromise, who was destroyed through his role in the massacre of Bolton in 1644, and by the mistrust and ingratitude of Prince Rupert, and of successive Stuart monarchs.

It had been Rupert, rather than James Stanley, who had given the order for ‘no quarter’ to be given to the citizens of the town; but it was the earl rather than the prince who came to pay the price. Parliament neither forgot, nor forgave his actions. Consequently, when Earl James – the erstwhile man of peace – was condemned to death, in 1651, for his role in continuing and fuelling war; it was decided that he should be executed in the market place of Bolton to atone for the innocent blood that he had shed there.

Unknown artist: The Execution of James, 7th Earl of Derby.
Unknown artist: The Execution of James, 7th Earl of Derby.

Whether he contemplated the slaughter during his last hours, or recalled the face of Captain Bootle and the cries of Elizabeth Horrocks, he might have brooded that the ring he once gave to Prince Rupert, on the field of battle, was probably the most expensive and misplaced gift of his life.


John Callow is a Visiting Tutor at the University of Suffolk who has written widely on Early Modern culture, belief and politics. His books include James II. King in Exile, (History Press, 2017) and Embracing the Darkness. A Cultural History of Witchcraft, (I.B. Tauris, 2018). He is currently working on a biography of James Stanley, Earl of Derby: Cavalier and King of Man for Helion Publishers.

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