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Notts Rebels: Lucy Hutchinson

29 April 20 words: Gareth Morgan

To celebrate the Nottingham Castle Trust's Voices of Today campaign, our weekly look at the rebellious people, acts and events from Nottingham's past continues with the story of 17th century trailblazer Lucy Hutchinson...

Diarist, combat medic, poet, translator, biographer – quite the CV for this week’s Nottingham Rebel: Lucy Hutchinson. A true 17th century trailblazer, Lucy famously translated Latin poetry into English, as well as plenty of her own verses. It would have reached a wider contemporary audience if anyone would have published it but, at the time, it was deemed unsuitable to publish female-penned work. She also kept a diary of her life and experiences in the Civil War, spent at Nottingham Castle, which you’ll be able to see when the Castle re-opens next year.

Lucy was born in 1620 in the auspicious surroundings of the Tower of London where her father, Sir Allen Apsley, was Lieutenant. She was the second of ten children, growing up on the banks of the Thames and usefully, it turns out, learnt a fair bit about castle fortifications. Lucy was a keen student, owing to the insistence of her father who, though more of a soldier than an intellect himself, ensured she learnt how to read and write. After her father fell into financial trouble and passed away when Lucy was ten, her mother remarried and started to search for potential future matches for her daughter. Much to her chagrin, however, Lucy rejected them all. 

At the age of eighteen, Lucy met John Hutchinson who had been living with her younger sister’s music teacher. In her memoir, Lucy writes this meeting from his point of view, allowing her to suppose that it was her poetic and scholarly gifts that attracted John to her. He was considered a suitable match, belonging as he did to a moderately prosperous gentry family, and the couple were married at St Andrew's Church, Holborn, in July 1638. The couple later moved to John’s estate in Owthorpe, just south of Cotgrave, in October 1641, soon after the birth of their son, John.

Britain in the early 1640s was in tumult with the crown and Government locked in a struggle for power. On 22 August 1642, King Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham Castle, effectively declaring war on his own people and his Parliament, kick-starting the Civil War. Nottingham and its Castle were not Charles’ for long, however, as he quickly left after finding little backing in the town. Nottingham became a stronghold for Parliament in a region dominated by those who supported the King.

John, encouraged by Lucy, supported Parliament and joined Colonel Francis Pierrepoint’s Nottinghamshire Parliamentarian Regiment (catchy title) in December 1642, commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel alongside his brother Richard, who was made a Major. Lucy notes that John was seen as a capable young officer and liked by the men. John also became a member of the Nottinghamshire Defence Committee responsible for taxes raised on the town for the completion of new defensive works.

Britain in the early 1640s was in tumult with the crown and Government locked in a struggle for power

John received rapid promotion from Sir John Meldrum, commander-in-chief of the Nottinghamshire forces, in August 1643 when installed as Governor of Nottingham Castle, where he and Lucy would spend much of the war.

The Hutchinsons held Nottingham despite repeated raids by Royalists from nearby Newark. The first such instance came in September 1643 with the raiders slipping in under cover of darkness, with it reported that more than half of the night-watch were not at their posts. The remaining garrison was stuck inside the castle with a small number of soldiers, while the King’s troops sacked the town for five days until relief from the garrison from Derby finally arrived. The raiders even took the Lord Mayor prisoner, tied him up and put him in a sheep pen in the Old Market Square. After this attack, John ordered the demolition of St Nicholas’ church which had been used by the invading troops. The current church, on what is now Maid Marian Way, was built in 1678. This first attack had been led by John’s “most uncivil enemie”, his cousin Sir Richard Byron. Lucy too had divided family loyalties, with her brother Allen as a senior Royalist officer.

The Royalists attacked again in January 1644 in the middle of a snowstorm. Lucy writes that over 1500 troops from Newark attacked Nottingham, wading waist-deep through drifts of snow. They only managed to occupy the town for a few hours as the Roundhead counter-attack, led by John at the castle, was swift. The Cavaliers retreated, their wounded men and horses “left a greate track of blood, which froze as it fell upon the snow”.

The third attempt to capture Nottingham was in February 1644. A planned surprise incursion was foiled by a man, Cornet Palmer, who had been held prisoner at Newark. Having escaped, he fled to Nottingham to tell the Castle garrison of the Royalists’ plan. Cavalier Captain Rowland Hacker had, in Lucy’s words, “chosen thirty of their men who, in disguises, should come like women and market people, and with long knives, daggers, hatchets and such kind of weapons as had under their cloaks”. However, the Parliamentarians were waiting and chased the raiders back across Trent Bridge with ten of their number forced into the river below. Five of the men drowned, four were captured and one managed to swim to freedom. John later remarked that those captured should have been thrown back in.

The final attack on Nottingham was in April 1645, when John was away in London to answer the “vexatious petitions” against him. Other members of the Defence Committee were opposed to John’s role due to his relative youth (only 28) and his single mindedness. John had also upset the city’s Presbyterians in the pulling down of St Nicholas’. The governor was called before Parliament to answer these claims. While John was in London, a Royalist party captured the fort at Trent Bridge and massacred the garrison. They held the fort for around a week before abandoning it, realising that it held little strategic advantage. 

By November 1645, the war had turned decisively in Parliament’s favour after the King’s thumping defeat at the Battle of Naseby. John, along with Colonel-General Sydnam Poyntz, marched on Newark via the Royalist manors of Shelford and Wiverton. By this time, Lucy had returned to Owthorpe and may have heard the battle at Shelford, which was only a few miles away. The Nottingham garrison participated in the third and final siege of Newark – both the only attempt on the city that they took part in, and the only one that was successful - that led to Newark surrendering on 6 May 1646. Nottingham mostly avoided the rest of the Civil War, save for an attempt by the Royalists to take the town in 1648 which was defeated at the Battle of Willoughby Field.

The Parliamentarians were waiting and chased the raiders back across Trent Bridge with ten of their number forced into the river below. Five of the men drowned, four were captured and one managed to swim to freedom

Throughout the war, Lucy served as a medic and nurse for the wounded, both Parliamentarian and Cavalier, at the Castle. She was supportive of many of the religious minorities that were in the town, mainly the influx of new Baptist congregations, much to the ire of the Presbyterians. Goose Fair continued throughout the war, although it was held in Lenton rather than the Old Market Square. While there might not be historical evidence to support it, we do like to think that this was Lucy's idea, simply so we can refer to it as Lucy's Gooseh. 

By 1649 Charles had lost the war, followed swiftly by his head, with John being amongst the signatories of his death warrant. Nottingham lost too: at the end of the Civil War, John ordered the demolition of what remained of Nottingham’s medieval castle and walls hoping that they could never again be used militarily against the people of Britain.

During the 1650s, John and Lucy retired to Owthorpe and Lucy’s career as a writer and translator really took off. She was the first named translator of the full text of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) into English verse. It is also around this time she was writing her own poetry, including a collection called Elegies and Order and Disorder, arguably the first epic poem written by a woman in the English language. Lucy also penned On the Principles of the Christian Religion, an articulation of the Puritan beliefs of herself and her husband. It was dedicated to her daughter Barbara and likely intended as a work of religious instruction. Amongst her other religious writings is a lost translation of Congregationalist divine John Owen's work Theologoumena Pantodoupa.

By 1660, the Protectorate that ruled after the execution of the king was over and Charles’ son, Charles II, was invited back as monarch. He took a fairly dim view of those who had killed his dad, which, to be fair, most of us would. In October 1663, John Hutchinson was arrested, ironically confined in the very building Lucy had been born in: the Tower of London. A warrant for his transportation to the Isle of Man was prepared in April 1664, but he was finally transferred to Sandown Castle in Kent on 3 May 1664. The castle was ruinous and unhealthy, and he died of a fever four months after his removal on 11 September 1664. Lucy obtained permission to bury his body at St Margaret's Church, Owthorpe.

After John’s death Lucy continued to write and would edit the diary she had kept during the war, turning it into her most famous work: Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson. This, like many of her writings, were not widely published during her lifetime – likely a mixture of censorship and her gender holding her back. Lucy was truly a woman ahead of her time and, much like now, lived through some truly unprecedented days.

'Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday