Oliver Cromwell’s March Through Neath
19th May 1648
by Keith Reed
In the Spring of 1648, rebellion broke out in South Wales and other parts of the country. (A period later known as the Second Civil War). Disturbed by these events, Parliament sent Lieutenant General Oliver Cromwell and his army from London to put down a Welsh uprising. Travelling by way of Gloucester, Cromwell had already reached Monmouth when news reached him that the rebel forces, numbered 8,000 men, had been defeated at the Battle of St Fagans, outside Cardiff, on May 8th by a smaller but well disciplined Parliamentary army of 3,000 horse and foot under Colonel Horton who had marched from Brecon in severe weather.
The rebel forces fleeing the battlefield headed West to Tenby and Pembroke Castle and were followed in hot pursuit by the Parliamentary Army. Cromwell arrived at Chepstow on May 10th and at Cardiff on May 16th. Travelling through the Vale of Glamorgan he reached the fishing Port of Aberafan . While there, Cromwell decided to take away the Town Charter but was unable to find it as it had been hidden in the hollow of a chopping block. Heading West, Cromwell reached Swansea on May 19th, and it is recorded in the Minute Book of the Common Hall: ”At which time came into this town the truly honourable Oliver Cromwell Esquire, Leitenant General of all the forces of the Kingdom of England under the command of the Parliament, Lord of this town, the Seignory of Gower, and Manor of Kilvey, with the members thereof, who gave unto the poor of this town to be sent out at interest for the benefit and advantage of ye said poor the sum of ten pounds and the sum is referred to the Portreeve of the town for the time being.”
Cromwell left Swansea, and moving swiftly arrived in Pembrokeshire on May 24th. He had his heavy cannon brought by sea and besieged Pembroke Castle for forty eight days before it surrendered. Parliament in it’s gratitude had conferred on Cromwell all the estates of the Marquis of Worcester in Gloucestershire, Monmouth, Glamorgan and Gower. Oddly enough, many of the towns and villages that Cromwell passed through during this time including lands in the Neath area theoretically belonged to him.
However there is little evidence that Cromwell was in the Neath area, but in fact to travel from Aberafan to Swansea he had to pass this way. Could it be as the Reverend Phillips states, “Cromwell, passing through Glamorgan and meeting with a sullen silence on the part of many of its villages which refused him and even the shoeing of his horses.” Could it therefore be that Neath was a royalist town? After leaving Aberafan, Cromwell would have travelled on the Roman Road through Baglan to Briton Ferry and the River Neath, it is possible but unlikely that Cromwell and his army crossed the river at this point, the reason being the river at low tide is very treacherous. Avoiding the whirlpools and quick-sands, Cromwell with a few body guards could have crossed the river by boat and travelled to Swansea over the Crumlyn Burrows and the rest of his army marching around Neath. However it is more plausible that Cromwell may have rested at Briton Ferry House (later Vernon House), which was the home of Bussy Mansel, Cromwell’s Commander in Chief in Glamorgan. (When the Sunnycroft Roundabout was being constructed at Baglan a Cromwellian pike head was discovered in a nearby stream. Could the Roundheads have rested and watered their men and horses here).
At the National Library of Wales are deposited the Aberpergwn Letters and Manuscripts, 1878. There is reference to a prize essay written in Welsh c. 1840; it does not mention any visit by Cromwell himself to Aberpergwm, but notes that as Cromwell was descended from the same princes as the Aberpergwm family, he wrote a letter while in Glamorganshire top seek support claiming kinship and fodder for his troops’ horses. Cromwell sent some of his men towards Glyn Neath and when his troopers were refused entry they fired cannonballs at the house. In 1825 cannonballs of various sizes were found in the grounds around the house. There is also a story that as Williams was in the act of mounting his horse a cannonball carried his leg off.
Further evidence may be apparent in “Neath and District, a Symposium” which states, “The story goes, though it is discounted by some, that in the mid seventeenth century, Oliver Cromwell sent what we now call an industrial spy disguised as a minstrel to secure the secrets of the process.” (tin plate).
In conclusion, one must respect that the speed the Parliamentary Army was travelling, covering the whole of South Wales in less than ten days, was quite a remarkeable feat in its self. May I suggest that Cromwell and his army did not stop at Neath at all, but simply marched straight through the town leaving little room for any ceremony. Travel;ling from Briton Ferry along the Old Road through Melincryddan up Eastland Road down Water Street into the town itself, marching along Old Market Street (then known as High Street) down Duck Street towards the timber bridge spanning the river. Some of his horses would have forded the river using the Abbey weir situated below the bridge, continuing past the ruined Abbey top their left and also passing the Abbey Manor House they marched up the Old Road Skewen, and on to the Crymlyn Road descending down on towards the River Tawe and crossing it at its upper reaches and arriving in Swansea on May 19th, the same day they marched through Neath.
Many people say that Oliver Cromwell visited Neath and Keith Reed paints us a picture in his article of the route that Oliver Cromwell would have taken to get from London to Pembroke after the battle of St Fagans.
What is not so widely spoken of is the time at Neath of Colonel Horton of the Roundheads. A Colonel who fought alongside Oliver Cromwell and who chased the three Royalists, Roland Laugharne, Rice Powell and John Poyer, Mayor of Haverfordwest, from St. Fagans, after his troops routed the Welsh there and onwards, to Pembroke Castle and the famous siege.
Documented in the Rushworth papers is the following letter :-
Col. Hortons Letter to the Lord General,
May it please Your Excellency,
I Am now advanced to Swansey and Neath, and I hope Col. Okey will join with me to Morrow, and then by God's Assistance we shall endeavour to engage the Enemy within Two or Three Days, they lying now on this side the River of Towry, which runs through the midst of Caermarthenshire. Col. Powell hath now declared so positively for the King, that it's hoped the greatest part of the Officers and Soldiers, they having taken the Covenant, will fall off from him. Two Captains came to me Yesterday, and say, That the Officers are displeased to see Culpepper and other Cavaliers rule all, and the Officers sent to them for Orders. They have made the greatest part of the Commonalty for them, which appear in great Numbers upon Rendezvous; and the Malignants from all Parts steal in to them. Col. Fleming with a Party of Horse and Dragoons gave them an Alarm on Thursday last at Havathry, took Twelve Horse-Men. Want of Provisions, especially for Horse, in these Barren Mountains (which we are to pass over before we can engage) doth most trouble us; had we Money we might expect it from our Enemies. My Regiment hath had but a Fortnight's Pay this Six Weeks, and not like to have any in a long time; yet, I praise God, the Soldiers are generally Chearful. I shall upon all Occasions, give your Excellency Account of our Proceedings, and be
Your Excellency's Constant and Faithful Servant,
Neath April 17. 1648.
Colonel Horton was stationed at Neath awaiting troops to join him from Brecon and other areas and it was the hills between Neath and Cardiff he so dreaded navigating. We have more information from the Rushworth papers to give us some idea of the extent of this operation :-
Saturday April 29th 1648
Letters from Wales this Day tell but ill News, how that Poyer hath fallen upon a Forlorne of Four Troops of Horse in Pembrokeshire, Commanded by Col. Fleming, routed, killed and taken all or the most part of them; Col. Horton with the main Strength being not then come up, but since advanced near to Poyer, with Intent to engage if they will stand to it. Col. Fleming is missing and thought to be slain.
Monday 1st May 1648
The Defeat to our Forces in Wales, we mentioned the last Week, was more fully certified to this purpose.
Colonel Fleming defeated in Wales.; The Country bent against the Parliament
'Colonel Horton hath endeavoured to engage the Enemy, by they by all means avoid fighting, unless upon Passes. Colonel Fleming being sent with a Troop of Horse, and two of Dargoons, to gain a Pass from the Enemy, found they had quitted the same; and marching on to discover, was, before he was aware, on their whole Body; and though the way was narrow, yet charged them, killed many; a Cornet and about four Soldiers lost on our side. Captain Moleneux, who charged far with a small Party, was shot through the Thigh. Colonel Fleming and his Party was forc'd to retreat to a Church, and sent to Colonel Horton, then four miles off, for relief, which he hastned with all speed; but the whole power of the Welsh being so near the Church, improved their opportunity, took the Church before the relief came. They within had quarter. Colonel Fleming was there slain; some say he killed himself for Grief. About an hundred Men were taken Prisoners. A Drummer is gone for Exchange, of which our Forces took some. A Drummer came from the Enemy, and had in his Hat (as most of the Enemies have) a blue and white Riband with this Motto, We long to see our King. The Cavaliers begin to arm and appear, and were rising in Brecknockshire, to fall on the Rear of Colonel Horton; which he understanding, marched into that Country, which lies to the North of Glamorganshire; took Mr. Gamell and ten Gentlemen more, with divers Countrymen, fortifying a House. The Countries are universally bent against the Parliament; where ever Forces come, they carry away their Children, Cattle, with what Goods they can get, fly into the Woods, leaving their Houses empty; which how sad would it be to them, should we take the German way? Their Smiths are all gone, their Bellows cut by themselves before they went. If one would give Forty Shillings for a Horse-shoe, or a place to make it, it is not to be had. There is no possibility of ending this Trouble, but by such a Power, and such a Way, as is lamentable to think.
Lieutenant General Cromwel to go to South Wales.
Lieutenant General Cromwel is Ordered by the General and Council of War at Windsor, To go to south Wales, with two Regiments of Horse and three of Foot; which, with those already, make about 8000 Horse Foot, and Dragoons. He intends to be gone Wednesday or Thursday; The Regiments that go, are his own, and one other of Horse, Colonel Pride's, and one other of Foot.
So when Oliver Cromwell came through Neath on his way to Pembroke where he had been sent by Parliament the troops he brought with him combined with those already here in South Wales, to a number in excess of 8,000 men. They would have made some tramp through Neath to cross the wooden bridge with their flashing helmets, pikes and muskets at the ready. The paper of Keith Reed published above speaks of a Cromwellian pike head being found in a Baglan Stream, should Horton and Cromwell have stayed with Bussy Mansel whilst en route to Pembrokeshire and Breconshire, then this is the exact location where their troops would have rested.
It is also worthy of note that in the last letter published here above it cements the words of the Reverend Phillips quoted by Keith Reed in the attitude of Royalist Neath to the Parliamentary troops and their commanders during their stay there.
Many of the prisoners taken by Colonel Horton, Oliver Cromwell and others in Wales, were transported to the West Indies.
Bussy Mansel was made a Commissioner for Glamorgan alongside other Parliamentary supporters in 1649, namely:-
“For the county of Glamorgan, Philip Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, Algeron Sidney Esq; sir Thomas Lewis Knight; Oliver Cromwel Esq; Richard Cromwel, William Lewis, Bussy Mansel, Michael Oldisworth, Edward Pritchard, Thomas Carn, Evan Seys, Humphrey Windham, William Herbert de Cogan, William Powel, William Basset, Edward Stradling, Richard Jones, Philip Jones, Henry Bowen, John Herbert, John Price, Thomas Evans, Roland Dawkins, John Gibs, William Peer, Edmund Gamadge, and Thomas Spencer, Esqs.”
In 1647 when the Roundheads came to South Wales it is very probable that Briton Ferry where Bussy Mansel dwelled would have been where Colonel Horton and Oliver Cromwell would have had the billeting and welcome they expected. It is shown in the Hearth Tax Return of 1671 how substantial a dwelling was the home of Bussy Mansel. Briton Ferry House was credited with twenty two hearths, by far the most substantial house in the Neath area.