Who were Club men?

Populist uprisings

Club men was and expression used at several points during the English civil wars to describe groups of untrained unofficial local militia. It’s first used in 1643 in the Mercurious Aulicus newsheet referring to the uprisings in West Yorkshire, and gets a bit mixed up by their detractors with ‘club-law’ – an earlier phrase meaning enforcement by law of the cudgel or physical force as opposed to argument.

The club men of 1643 were highly partisan, West Yorkshire clothing towns talking up the fight on behalf of parliament, in a county whose gentry were dominated by royalist gentry, with the notable exception of the Fairfaxes and (initially) Hothams.


In 1645 Clubmen changed complexion. They remained (for the most part) populist, organised, motivated and led by townspeople and villagers, with little involvement from gentry, clergy or lawyers (although that came later). But they were fiercely neutralist, claiming to take neither side in the dispute. Their aim was to protect their community from plunder and the effects of war, and they would gather together in large numbers to protect those communities from garrisons and marching armies that threatened them.

In this they drew on a phenomenon from the start of the civil wars in 1642, where gentry of the county had gathered together to agree not to come to blows in the growing dispute between king and parliament; 22 of the 38 counties created such agreements – all of them failed.

The Clubmen of 1645

They started to appear in the Welsh border counties; from February 1645 Prince Rupert encountered them around Hereford, which city they practically besieged in their thousands before Rupert’s army dispersed them and hanged their leaders.

They then blossomed and took root in the South West – Wiltshire, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Somerset, Devon. They were motivated by the constant passage of marching armies from 1642-1646 under Hopton, Waller, Goring, Massie, Maurice, Essex et al, and the multiple garrisons that tried to tax, control and plunder the local countryside in their wake. And then from June 1645, Fairfax led the Newmodel Army on the Western Campaign after the great victory at Naseby, to Langport, and back to Bristol. Fairfax and Cromwell constantly came across Clubmen who did their level best to keep violence away.

Radical – but Conservative

In a sense the Clubmen were radical – they were organised and led without the recognised leaders of a very hierarchical society, and stood in defiance of central authority. In a deeper sense they shared the spirit o the conservative popular rebellions of Tudor England and the Commotion Time of 1549, of the food riot and of enclosure riot – a demand by the people for dangerous innovators and malignants flying on the face of the traditional ‘moral economy’ and social contract. They sought to turn the clock back, not forward.

Their demands, actions – and a ‘moral economy’

Although Clubmen were motivated by the defence of their local community and have been seen by some historians as a ‘revolt of the provinces’, yet they spoke in a national language. The words of the 1641 Protestation are common – they take action in defence of the reformed church, king and parliament, England’s ancient constitution. Thy hold those traditional leaders of the community to account, demand they mend resolve their differences, and restore good governance. And until that happens, they will govern their own affairs.

What do they do?

The Clubmen movement organised to regulate the actions of armies and garrisons n their patch. For example, in Somerset and Dorset, they worked with opposing garrisons. On the one hand they refused to pay the extra excise and levies demanded of them, and called out armed men to stop plundering raids and military forced impressment. In return they agreed to pay a regular monthly tax – and even got opposing garrisons together for a friendly pint or three. Which does sound better than fighting.

As marching armies entered their counties – particularly George Goring’s rapacious ‘crew’ around Taunton, Edmund Massie’s equally unruly Western Association, ad then Fairfax’s much more restrained New Model Army  – they gathered in great numbers and tried to keep them in order, and threatened violence if they did not.

They were self-conscious and organised, and their movement had a philosophy, structure, process – and ‘moral economy’. At the end of this article are a few of their declarations which show how they elect officials, raise money, call people out, organise speeches in old Hundred moots and Hill forts ring the bells in alarm, produce warrants. And support families who are injured in their cause.

Chalk and Cheese

Although they claimed to be neutralist, they often did show a preference. Sometimes that was simply expediency, depending on the local military situation. But David Underdown in ‘Revel, Riot & Rebellion’ famously identified a cultural collection between the Chalk downlands of Wiltshire and Dorset, and the pastoral and Woodland areas of Gloucestershire and Somerset.

In the former, mainly arable areas, he identified traditional communities, relying on community based and collective farming methods, traditional reformed religion based around the Book of Common Prayer, and tending towards the royalists. In the latter, wood pasture, he identified more individualistic communities, more dispersed settlement, stronger rural industries, with a stronger tradition of puritanism – who tended towards Parliament.

How did the centre react?

Many at the centre were outraged by an aspect of the ‘World Turned Upside down’ – ordinary people defying the natural order of authority. The more committed of the ideological struggle of the civil wars were contemptuous of neutralism – ‘Rotten-hearted nauseous neutrals’ who would not fight the good fight.

The likes of Fairfax and Cromwell in general had a lot of sympathy for the plight of these communities who had suffered three years of plundering. But could not suffer the existing of a ‘third party’, organisations that were effectively ‘states within a state’. At places like Bradbury Rings and Castle Hill, they therefore forced them to disperse with some loss of life, with prisoners subjected to a lecture from the pulpit by Oliver at the local church.

What happened to the movement?


Much of their raison d’etre came to an end with the first civil war in 1646. Though they do not disappear, because now the focus of their fury becomes directed at the hated County Committees. One of the deep ironies of the civil wars is that the Commonwealth levied far, far higher taxes that the illegal taxation that partly sparked the disputes, the infamous Ship Money. John Pym introduced Excise taxes, county Committees organised local levies, and sequestered estates – and anyway were made up or the lesser gentry and middling sort, and there was something just no right about that. In the last sample declaration below, they figure as the focus for fury.

Some are also motivated by a new, political radicalism; one that again looks backwards, to ancient liberties supposedly enshrined in Magna Carta – but now held genuinely new idea, like a universal manhood suffrage – the Levellers. One contingent of Somerset Clubmen for example sets off in 1649 to join the Leveller mutiny at Burford.

Some Clubmen Declarations and Petitions 

(These Declarations are all taken from Hayden Wheeler’s excellent book ‘Clubmen 1645: Neutralism in a Revolution’. It provides a compendium of the actions of 1645 and related acitvities of the clubmen, and Hayden’s reflection and views, and connections with the modern day, and I heartily recommend it.The book is available in ebook format and is as cheap as chips. There is also an excellent blog, Clubmen 1645).

To finish off, here are three declarations and petitions to give you a flavour of what the Clubmen of the South West were all about.

Dorset and Wilts Clubmen Desires and Resolutions Declaration

Read at Badbury Rings in 1645

We the miserable inhabitants of the said county, being too deeply touched with the apprehension and sense of our past and present sufferings (occasioned only by these Civil and unnatural wars within this Kingdom.) and finding by sad experience, that by means thereof the true worship of almighty God and our religion are almost forgotten. And that our ancient laws and liberties, are altogether swallowed up in the arbitrary power of the sword.

And foreseeing that famine and utter desolation will immediately fall upon us, our wives and children, (unless God of his in infinite mercy shall look upon our true humiliation be graciously pleased, speedily to put a period to these sad distractions, are unanimously resolved to join in Petitioning His Majesty and the two Houses of Parliament for a happy peace and accommodation of the present differences, without future effusion of Christian blood; without which accommodation we cannot expect the enjoyment either of our Religion, Liberties, or proprieties.

Meanwhile, that we whose names are under written, Resolve, and do here Declare.

  1. To defend and maintain with our lives and fortunes the true reformed Protestant Religion.
  2. To join with and assist one another in the mutual defence of our Laws, liberties, and properties, against all plunderers, & all other unlawful violence whatsoever.
  3. We do faithfully promise each to other, that the damage or loss which in the execution here of shall happen to anyone, be accounted as the loss of the generality, and that reparation be made to such party or parties by the whole County; and in case of loss of life, provision be made for his wife and children, by the County.
  4. To declare all such unworthy of the general assistance, as shall refuse, or delay to join with us in the prosecution of these our just intentions.


The Somerset Petition

Presented at Castle Hill on June 30th 1645 and resolved:

  1. To choose ten or twelve well-known men to present the Counties’’ Petitions to King and Parliament.
  2. Whether it be not necessary for us, who take up arms for peace of the kingdom, to make a choice such as we know to be the ablest among us to be officers and commanders
  3. If we choose officers, whether such parish members have enlisted themselves should not be summoned with such speed as may be to repair their colours
  4. That day – labourers are paid by general rate once a week by the parish’s chief for as many days as they have been on the general employment – viz., by the Dorset Rate of 8 pence a day.
  5. Whether the able and rich who will not join with us are not only counted ill affected but liable to pay for the poor who do their county service
  6. Whether it be not convenient for all who can to provide horses and arms for service — to preserve themselves and the County
  7. What course is to be taken for furnishing each part of the County with ammunition
  8. Whether all such may not be accepted by us who have been pressed men and so forced on this unnatural Civil War
  9. Whether we may not punish robbers and pilferers if the next adjoining governor refuses to do so
  10. Whether it be unnecessary for the County adjoining repair to the Governor of Bridgwater to demand the passage – boat of Commager that eastern and western parts may have commerce and trading together and pass either to other, and likewise for Borough Bridge
  11. That if any man active in our affairs be violently surprised at the loss of life or liberty by the soldiers of either side; whether it be not necessary for whole counties to bind themselves by oath to join together as one man to avenge the abuse
  12. Whether any gentleman of our country, active on either side, be accepted or not if willing to join us
  13. That any officer or other who is proved to have joined us owing to any plot, etc., shall suffer death.
  14. Whether such articles, as agreed upon, be published in every parish church by the minister together with the four articles which Dorset and Wilts have subscribed unto? And any minister who refuses be held an enemy to us and peace; and so be proceeded against as his offence shall deserve.


The Declaration of the County of Dorset, Showing their consent to join with other Counties in this Loyal work of redeeming his Majesty and settling the Kingdom.

June 15th 1648


We, the surviving inhabitants of the much despised and distressed County of Dorset, having like the rest of the Kingdome, long groaned under the oppressing tyranny of those whom we deputed for our redeemers and being formally too impatient sought ways of redress but proved unsuccessful.

It is not to be expected we should travel so far with a formal petition in our hands to see the two Houses; or to take pains to be scoffed at; or slighted or cudgeled back. For experience has taught us we have been fools too long to worship and deify those that are but our Trustees and Deputies, by petitioning them for that which they know is our own; and these insulters take pride either to delay or deny.

Seeing they will do nothing for us; we thought fit to declare to the world what we mean to do for ourselves and the Kingdom.

( 1 ) We demand the speedy retroduction of our imprisoned King to sit personally in the House of Peers; that that supreme Court of the Kingdom may no longer be called Master without a head.

( 2 ) That the government of the Church may be first settled by the advice of a new assembly of Protestant Divines, indifferently chosen by the clergy of each county or diocese; and this Synod, that has sat so long to so little purpose unless to act the wills of those that packed them , may be sent home to their Lectures — and the four shillings per diem conferred on those who have more need of it, and better deserve it.

( 3 ) That the common birth – right of us all , the Laws , may be restored to their former purity , and that we may enjoy them without corrupt Glosses and Comments of their Arbitrary Power, or unequal Ordinances and practices between them and their Committees.

( 4 ) That our Liberties (purchase of our ancestors’ blood) may be redeemed from all former infringements, and preserved henceforth inviolable; and that our ancient liberties may not lie at the mercy of those that have none , nor enlarged and repealed by votes and revotes of those that have taken too much liberty to destroy the Subjects.

( 5 ) That we may have a speedy and just accompt of all our Monies and estates cheated or wrested from us by loans, contributions, taxes, fines, excise, or plunder; and that the estates of Committees, Sequestrators, and all State officers (being lately purchased and raised out of the ruins of honest and loyal subjects) may be sequestered, and be made liable to give us and the Kingdom satisfaction.

( 6 ) That our Knights and Burgesses be recalled , as having broken their trust reposed by us in them; and that we may have free power and liberty to make a new choice of such Patriots as we can trust.

( 7 ) That we may no longer subjugate our necks to the boundless lusts and unlimited power of beggarly and broken Committees, consisting generally of the tail of the gentry, men of ruinous fortunes and despicable estates, whose insatiate desires prompt them to continual projects of pilling and stripping us; and that we be not awed by their Emissaries – generally the most shirking and cunning beggars that can be picked out of a County.

( 8 ) That, instead, we may be governed in Military affairs and Civil by men of visible estates and of unquestioned repute – well – beloved by us.

( 9 ) That the late imperious Governor of Lyme (Thomas Ceeley), and others of his office and broken condition , be no more sheltered under the wings of membership to glory in the innocent blood of the well – meaning Countrymen he has so unlawfully spilt; nor live upon estates they have thievishly taken from the rightful owners, but exposed to the equal Justice of known Laws; so that we may freely right ourselves and each fetch back a stolen feather.

( 10 ) That all of us sequestered, imprisoned, plundered, or fined, or any way abused or stripped of our estates, for allegiance or loyal adherence to His Majesty be restored to our estates without any more compositions , and leave to take any legal course for due reparation. Petitions being useless we make absolute demands and have heretofore on less encouragement engaged our lives , liberties , and estates , on the same grounds under the slighted and unprosperous notion of Clubmen . Notwithstanding our sufferings then , our ends are still the same and we doubt not our endeavours will be more successful.

Other Reading

If you want to know more, then in Addition to thereference above to Clubmen 1645, I can recommend a ouple of books

David Underdown ‘Revel. Riot and Rebellion is a fascinating book about popular protest betweem 1603 and 1660. So it has lots about Clubmen and the Chalk and Cheese proposition, also placed into a wider context. It was published in 1985 by OUP

Of the many general books about the Civil Wars, the most complete I would sugest is ‘Britain in Rebellion’ by Austin Woolrych. Clubmen come up at a few points, but the chapter to go for as far as Clubmen is concerned is Chapter 10, ‘Towards a Resolution’.

3 thoughts on “Clubmen

  1. Very interesting article, thank you.
    When Corfe Castle was being besieged, someone of the Clavell family at Smedmore, Kimmeridge, Dorset, complained in a letter that they were getting no news as the post couldn’t get through!

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