Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Ghosts of Battle - Alton

The following guest article is by Rupert Matthews, author of the book Haunted Hampshire.

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The Ghosts of Battle - Alton
By Rupert Matthews

The Hampshire town of Alton has spent most of its centuries-long history slumbering in gentle tranquillity. But on one violent and bloody day in 1643 it leapt to national fame. The fame may have gone, but the marks of the violence remain - both physical and spectral.

During the 1640s, England was torn apart by the Civil War that would see King Charles I sent to the scaffold and end in victory for the Parliamentarian roundheads of Oliver Cromwell. But in December 1643 the war had only just begun. The King had raised an army from the Midlands and the West Country, while Parliament hold London and East Anglia.

The townsfolk of Alton were fiercely Royalist, so they viewed the arrival of a Parliamentarian army in Farnham with unease. Help was at hand, however, for a regiment of infantry and a squadron of cavalry, led by Lord Crawford, rode into town to hold it for the King. Crawford bivouacked his troops in the hopfields that then surrounded the town and converted the Church of St Lawrence into his command post. Firing platforms were built inside each window, allowing musketeers to fire through the glass. He then sent scouts out towards Farnham to keep an eye on the Roundheads.

The Parliamentarian commander, however, was the notoriously wily Sir William Waller. He allowed Crawfords scouts to see his men encamped around Farnham and foraging around Bentley. Then he marched his main body of men northwest, swinging north of Alton to attack the town down what is now the A339.

Crawford was taken by surprise and hurriedly gave the order to retreat towards Winchester. He left in the town a rearguard of about 100 infantry under Colonel John Boles with orders to delay Waller’s 3,000 men as long as possible before running for it or surrendering.

Boles skirmished through the streets of the town before making his final stand in the Church. For several hours his crack musketeers held off the Roundheads, shooting down any that dared to cross the churchyard. But eventually the ammunition ran out and the Roundheads were able to batter down the church doors and burst in.

The enraged Waller gave little quarter and only a few Royalists were taken alive. Colonel Boles was not among them. He took his stand in the pulpit with pistols and sword. It is said he killed 6 Roundheads before he was cut down. But he and his men had not died in vain. The main Royalist force had slipped away from the trap to regroup in Winchester.

The marks of this fight are still seen in the Church. The South Door has a loophole cut in it from which Royalist musketeers fired at the enemy, and it is pitted by bullet holes. Elsewhere the stonework, especially around the windows, is pockmarked by bullets, some of which remain embedded deep in the stones. When the roof was repaired in the 19th century dozens of bullets were retrieved for the old timbers, some of which are on show in a glass case in the church.

But I was more interested in the less obvious relics of the grim battle. The ghosts of Boles and his men are said to return to fight their last battle time and again in the Churchyard and in the Church itself. Several people have reported hearing shouts and cursing as well as the slash of metal on metal and the unmistakable “phut-bang” of ancient muskets being fired. Some have even reported the smell of burnt gunpowder. The noises of battle begin outside, then move inside and end at the pulpit, still standing, where Colonel Boles died so valiantly. Nothing, however, is ever seen.

I came to Alton on a calm spring summer’s day after an hour of sunshine had dried up the water left by a torrential downpour. Nobody much was about, perhaps fearing another heavy shower. He heard no gunfire, nor smelt gunpowder. The Church of St Lawrence stood peaceful and serene within its great churchyard.

This is, perhaps, how it should be. The Church dates back to about 1070, having been built in the exciting new Norman style within a few years of the Norman Conquest. This original church remains, though it has been extended to north, west and east over the years. It has not, however changed much since the day of battle. The West Door has been bricked up, but otherwise it stands pretty much as it was when repairs after the battle were completed in 1646.

Whether you are hunting ghosts, looking for a historic church or just after somewhere for a quiet moment of peace, the Church of St Lawrence in Alton is well worth a visit. I recommend it.

The Church of St Lawrence is one of the most imposing buildings in Alton. The town lies just off the A31 and is well-served by carparks. The train service on the London-Portsmouth line is frequent and the train station close to the centre of the town. From the High Street take the side street which runs beside the Crown Hotel. The Church lies off the left of this road, as it bends to the right, after about 200 yards.


Rupert Matthews is the author of the book “Haunted Hampshire” which is published by the History Press (ISBN 978-0752448626) and available on Amazon and from all good bookshops. You can find Rupert’s website at www.rupertmatthews.com. He also maintains a blog about the unexplained at www.ghosthunteratlarge.blogspot.com.

If you would like to contribute a guest article for the website please contact Richard Thomas at richard@richardthomas.eu.

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