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The King and the Colonel

“On the king’s progress to Bath Colonel Popham [gave him] a costly dinner”.[1]

It’s a throwaway comment in a court newsletter from September 1663. Blink and you’d miss it. Not give it another thought.

Long haired man in black armour sitting on a grey horse

Portrait of Colonel Alexander Popham. English, mid-17th century. I.315

But consider these four things:

How did this happen? And what, you have to wonder, did they talk about?

Royal road trip

King Charles took advantage of Popham’s hospitality because in the late summer of ’63 the King was travelling to Bath. This had the double advantage of getting him out of London in that sultry, plague-ridden season, cutting the costs of maintaining the court in the capital. The recently restored royal family was in austerity mode.

The King travelled with only a handful of servants. In those areas the King visited,  the great and the good footed the bill for the his accommodation and sustenance. This tradition demonstrated their loyalty and support.[2]

The Domestic State Papers detail the generosity of the King’s subjects on the road:

Popham was down for a “costly dinner”. In correspondence, the Dowager Countess of Devonshire wrote “the King has been very much feasted by Col. Popham”.[3]

By the sword divided

Political and religious division in the British Civil Wars was not related to class or income.

Popham was from a wealthy, well-established West Country family who sided with Parliament when King Charles I declared war in 1642. Popham’s motivations are not recorded but it is likely he objected to the King’s imposition of taxation and the royal suspension of parliament or was concerned by the Catholic influences at court. Certainly he commanded troops for Parliament in the West Country, and fought at the Battle of Roundway Down. We think he acquired his armoury to equip his horse and foot soldiers, as was customary for commanders of his rank at the time.[4]

A 17th century armour: leather coat with stell breast and back plates, gloves and sword associated with Colonel Popham.

This armour, gloves and sword are associated with Colonel Popham. III.1956 A, III.1956 B, III.1956 C, III.1957, III.1958, IX.2785.

Some of Popham’s neighbours, including Sir Thomas Dolman and the Seymours of Marlborough Castle will have done exactly the same thing. Except that they fought for, and remained loyal to the King.

How quickly they forget

After the wars Popham seems to have changed his mind, skating thin political ice until the opportunity arose to restore the monarchy in 1660, which he supported. He was not the only citizen of the Commonwealth to reverse decisions made at the beginning of the wars.

So while King Charles II persecuted the regicides, the signatories to his father’s death warrant, political expedience dictated an amnesty for those who had been instrumental in his family’s downfall in less significant ways.

17th century hall with arms and armour displayed on the walls

Photograph of the Great Hall at Littlecote House with the armoury on display before it was auctioned and acquired by the Royal Armouries in 1985

Even so, such convenient political forgetfulness must have been hard to maintain at Littlecote.

The weaponry may not have decorated the walls, as was the fashion later in the century, and storing breastplates 20 feet off the ground wasn’t practical for a functioning armoury — but several hundred items were still in the house. Some of those muskets may even have been aimed at the young Charles himself when, as Prince of Wales, he commanded the Royalist forces in the West.

But for the restoration of the monarchy to succeed in 1663, the King needed the Colonel and the Colonel needed the King. So they drank and ate together in the shadow of war, and — one imagines — talked about almost anything else.


  1. Great Britain. 1860–1939. Calendar of state papers: of the reign of Charles II. 1663-4, 2 September
  2. Weiser, B. 2003. Charles II and the Politics of Access
  3. Page, W. (editor) 1898. The manuscripts of the Duke of Somerset, the Marquis of Ailesbury, and the Rev. Sir T.H.G. Puleston, bart. p171.
  4. Richardson, T. & Rimer, G. 2012. Littlecote: the English Civil War Armoury. Royal Armouries.


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