The Battle of Great Severn

By May, Radmila | Contemporary Review, March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Battle of Great Severn


May, Radmila, Contemporary Review


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. …

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