Dr Ian Atherton thought he had found something to contribute to a current research project in which several colleagues at Keele are involved, ‘The Chase Through Time, Cannock Chase, Staffordshire’ The Chase through Time.
This is what he discovered.
Writing at the end of March 1643, the editor of the Parliamentarian newsbook Certaine Informations included a short account of a battle between the Roundheads under Sir John Gell who had advanced out of Lichfield, and the earl of Northampton’s Cavaliers from Stafford ‘upon Sunday last, at a place called Cranock green’. No place called either Cranock Green or Cannock Green is known in Staffordshire, but could this be an otherwise unknown, or ‘lost’ civil-war battle at Cannock in March 1643?
The date ascribed to this battle, however, Sunday 19 March 1643, shows that this is not a forgotten civil-war battle, but an account of what is well known to historians as the battle of Hopton Heath. This newsbook report of a battle at Cannock Green illustrates the phenomenon of co
mpeting names given to battles and the processes of battle nomenclature. Despite the oft-cited example of Shakespeare’s Henry V where the English king, on learning that his victory has been fought in the shadow of Agincourt castle, declares ‘Then call we this the field of Agincourt’, the process of naming a battle was far from straightforward, and it was common for the same encounter to go by various names. The battle of 19 March 1643 was known to contemporaries by four different titles. Three inhabitants from Leek who fought on the Parliament’s side later claimed for their losses ‘in the bataile of Heawood’, naming the encounter from the Parliament’s quarters around Great and Little Haywood before the battle. The naming of a battle from the location of the camp b
efore the fight was not uncommon, with Hastings in 1066 being only the most famous example. Sir William Brereton, the Cheshire Parliamentarian who joined with Gell’s forces to face the Royalist army, located the battle at Salt Heath. Since he had marched from Newcastle-under-Lyme to Stone and then Sandon on his way to the rendezvous, he had presumably advanced onto the heath land from the north or Salt side, hence the name. A Royalist account published a couple of weeks after the battle named it Hopton Heath, perhaps because the last settlement the Cavaliers had passed on their march north-east out of Stafford was Hopton. Both Hopton Heath and Salt Heath were established t
oponyms before the battle. The name Cannock Green probably derives from a report of Sergeant-Major Lee, a London Parliamentarian in Gell’s forces. His naming of the battle probably reflected the mental geography of an outsider for whom Cannock Chase was the most significant feature noticed on his march out of Lichfield. It might also suggest that for strangers to the region Cannock Chase seemed to extend north of the River Trent to the unenclosed heath land north-east of Stafford. One response to all these competing names was not to name the battle at all, but merely locate it by reference to the nearest well-known town. Sir John Gell, for example, in his account of his service in the first year of the war merely described the unnamed battle as ‘on a heath within two myles of Stafford’.
The name Cannock Green did not catch on, repeated only in Thomas May’s 1647 History of the Parliament of England and then forgotten. Nor did the name Haywood stick. But both Salt Heath and Hopton Heath were often used for the battle throughout the 1640s, with a tendency for Parliamentarian sources to use the former, and Royalist ones the latter. That the name Hopton Heath eventually triumphed was probably because the battle was principally remembered for the death of the earl of Northampton, and hence the Royalist name persisted. The various names for one civil-war battle illustrate, therefore, that while previous historians have tended to examine alternative battle names as evidence in their search for the precise location of the fighting, they should rather be seen, as Philip Morgan has argued, ‘as part of the discourse of memory’, and also as indicating the movements and mental geographies of troops before the battle.