The Green That Turned To Red
by Roger Linn
In the winter of 1642 a bloody battle was fought on Muster Green in Haywards Heath, which today stands as a little moment of respite in the middle of a bustling town.
Muster Green is an attractive, open green space in the centre of Haywards Heath. Triangular in shape and outlined with mature trees, it is bordered on one long side by the main road into the town and in the Spring its manicured grass is complemented by thousands of purple crocuses, maintained by Haywards Heath Town Hall, who also own the site. However, at the very start of the English Civil War in 1642, this gentle, calm oasis in the middle of a bustling, busy town was the setting for a brisk battle between Royalists and Parliamentarians. Then, of course, Haywards Heath was no more than a village like any other in rural Sussex and Muster Green was open heathland, so why was there fighting there at all?
The county of Sussex was strategically important to both sides in the conflict that set Englishmen against Englishmen. This was because of the ironworks and cannon foundries in the north weald and because our shoreline was the shortest route to France – potentially the source of smuggled bullion and arms. It was vital for the Parliamentarians to prevent the Royalists from taking control, but at the beginning of the war, it was impossible to say who might have the upper hand. Surprisingly, in Sussex there was no clear distinction, by social class or location that defined who would support the Crown and who the Parliament.
Family raged against family, cousin against cousin. In Chichester for example, the gentry and the church supported the King while the merchant classes stood out for Parliament. Curiously, this meant that in the early days of the war the two opposing factions virtually shared the facilities as it were, politely training, drilling and practising arms within a stone’s throw of each other. The county was truly split. Sir Robert Ford who led the royalist force at the battle of Muster Green was the brother in law of one of Cromwell’s most successful generals.
Amongst the great Sussex families, the Pelhams, the Burrells and the Shelleys were for Parliament while the Gorings, the Coverts and the Culpepers were loyal to the Crown.
Their views were sincerely held and for some of the major participants at least, there seemed to be little rancour. There are letters between the staunch Royalist Sir William Campion, of Danny in Hurstpierpoint, to his great friend the leader of Parliament in Sussex, Colonel Morley of Glynde, in which they exchange fond wishes for the preservation of each other’s families. Yet there were zealots amongst the ranks of the parliamentarians for whom the war was as much about the destruction of all that they considered frivolous in what they viewed as a corrupt and self serving Church. In a chilling parallel with some modern war today, when Chichester Cathedral was invaded by the parliamentary forces under Sir Arthur Hazelrigg, he is said to have danced and capered amid the wreckage his men had made of the intricately carved screens and expressed his delight at the destruction of the great organ pipes saying, “What noise they make now.”
But what of Muster Green? In November 1642, the first year of what would be almost nine years of conflict, Sir Robert Ford, the High Sheriff who had taken control of Chichester for the Crown, decided to lead his forces through Sussex to capture Lewes for the King. Why he chose to approach Lewes via Cuckfield and Haywards Heath is unclear, but as he threatened the local population and bullied them into joining his little army as they went along, perhaps he needed to make a broad sweep of the territory rather than proceeding directly. In the first week of December they left Cuckfield and encountered their first opposition in the shape of a much smaller but more disciplined Parliamentary force waiting for them at Muster Green. There being no cannon, a very sharp, hand to hand engagement followed. The fight lasted for about an hour, during which the Royalists suffered some two hundred casualties and the forcibly recruited rural folk, not surprisingly took to their heels, fleeing through Ditchling and Hurstpierpoint. Driven from the field, Sir Robert, his officers and what remained of the original force retired onto the Downs in disorder and trudged all the way back to Chichester.
So ended the battle of Muster Green.
A History of Sussex (Darwen County History) – JR Armstrong (Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1995)
A History of the Parish of Cuckfield – The Rev JH Cooper (C. Clarke, 1912)
A Historical Atlas of Sussex – K Leslie and B Short (Phillimore & Co Ltd, 1999)
The Sussex Story – David Arscott (Pomegranate Press, 1992)
And of course the kind assistance of Cuckfield Museum