....from Dark Beginnings.



Siege action continues at King’s Lynn

7 Sep 1643 (Thu) || There is another Letter come out of Norfolke, which informeth, that on Friday, Saturday and Sunday last, there hath been fighting between the Earl of Manchester’s Army, and the Towne of Lyn, by continuall shooting off their great Ordnance one against another: that Colonell Cromwell hath battered them sorely from old Lyn, the shot of whose Ordnance hath slaine divers men, women and children, and that the lamentable shriecks and cries of women and children are heard a great way out of the Towne, and yet the Townsmen are so cruell and hard hearted to them, that they will not suffer them to depart the Towne. And that the Townsmen issued out to Goward, and Village distant about a mile and a halfe from thence, where they fired two houses, which were soone quenched againe, that the Earles forces drove them back againe from thence, and slew about ten of them, and have cut off their fresh water. And that the Townsmen have felled all the trees about their Towne, to bereave the Earles Army of approach and shelter. That the Lyn ships are in League with Newcastle, and that they have lately sent twelve of them thither to fetch sea-coales, and returned, by the Parliaments ships which besiege the Towne by sea. William Ingler – Certaine Informations

It was in these troubled times, legend has it, that a gentleman’s society, unique to the town of Lynn, and quite unlike any other club or society in this country, was said to have been formed. The story of how precisely it came about has been lost in the annals of time, as have the names of those involved in its formation.  It is said that no records were kept to protect those involved, as any evidence falling into the hands of the Parliamentarian forces would certainly have led to their imprisonment and even execution.

From an examination of the history of that time it is possible that this  society could have had its beginnings in the period 1644-5 to the 1650’s, most likely in the latter years as the Protectorate then, effectively became a despotism. As has now been discovered,  the Society, is said to have held its first meeting in 1650, the year after the execution of Charles the Martyr, according to "The Sphere 23rd July  1949", which contains information that can only have been provided by the members themselves. (see section, Changing Times  1930's to 1950's for copy of item.) 

The siege [of Kings Lynn] began on August 23 1643, with Parliamentarian ships blockading the port. But the Earl of Manchester, Commander of the Parliamentary forces did not have the upper hand - the Association counties were slow to send men and he complained that these troops were of poor quality and not well equipped.

According to Hillen in his History of King’s Lynn:


In the CIVIL WARS of the reign of Charles 1. the mayor and burgesses of Lynn declared for the royal cause, and, aided by the country gentlemen, they placed the town in a posture of defence, and held out, with great bravery, against the attacks of 18,000 parlimentarian soldiers, under the command of the Earl of Manchester, during a close siege of nearly three weeks, commencing August 28th, 1643, and not terminating till the 16th of September, when the garrison, consisting only of about 5000 men, and not being strengthened, as expected, by a reinforcement from the Earl of Newcastle’s army, then lying near Lincoln, was obliged to capitulate, and paid a fine of £3,200, to obviate the distress of being plundered.  During the siege, on Sunday, September 3rd, when the minister and congregation were assembled for Divine worship, a 16 pound shot was fired from west Lynn into St Margaret’s church, were it did no further harm than shatter a pillar into a thousand pieces, and frighten the people away, with the loss of many of their hats, hoods, books, etc.  After the siege, the town was garrisoned for the Parliament, and so remained during the continuance of those civil broils which so long agitated and distressed the kingdom.  In 1653, the corporation invited Cromwell to visit the town, and the mayor “was allowed £5 for his preparations for the entertainment of the Protector.”  from History of King’s Lynn Hillen


Near three months after the surrender of  Lynn, the following order of both houses(of Parliament) was issued, bearing the date December 9th 1643: “ it is this day ordered by the Lords and Commons that such persons as did take any of the goods of the well-affected,  by themselves or such as they appointed, or did any damage to their houses or mills, or any other ways, shall make restitution to all such well-affected persons as have been damnified, according to the greatness of their losses. And that Col. Walton, governor of King’s Lynn, Mr Perceval  and Mr. Toll, members of the House of Commons, {for that town,} shall examine what damage hath been done to the well-affected, and appoint such as have done them injury to make them reparation accordingly: and if any of them shall refuse to make such reparation, that the said governor, Mr. Perceval, and Mr. Toll, shall have the power to sequester so much of the estates of such malignants as will make the reparation, and assign it to those that have been damnified.” – Hence it appears, that the town was then divided into two great political parties, the most powerful of which approving, and even admiring the corruptions and insanities of the Court: how far the case is similar or dissimiliar at present, we need not say. attrib. Rushworth


Sometime after the above order was issued by the two Houses, a party of royalists, at the head of which was the young L’Estrange, afterwards the noted Sir Roger, formed a plan for surprising the town and recovering it for the king, who had granted him a commission, constituting him its governor, in the case of success.  But the design was betrayed by two of his confederates, though both bound by an oath of secrecy: which shews what trusty and choice hands they were.  L’Estrange was consequently seized, tried by a court-martial, and condemned to die as a traitor.  The sentence however was not executed.  He remained in prison from 1644 till 1648, when he luckily escaped, and sometime after got out of the kingdom, where he remained, as was said before, * till the autumn of 1653, when he succeeded in making his peace with the Protector:  after which he lived in this country unmolested to the day of his death, when he was at a very advanced age.


For the remaining years, down to the restoration, this town appears to have remained tranquil, and pretty loyal to the constituted authorities, or new order of things.  It seems also to have surmounted its former sufferings, **  and to have fast advanced in wealth and prosperity.  We discover no particular symptoms of disaffection here within those years,  unless it was about 1650, when there was an insurrection of the royalists in this county, and a major Saul, a worthy gentleman, as an old M.S. Says, was hanged here in the Tuesday market place,  for being concerned, it seems,  in that affair.**Those sufferings, as to loss of life,  seem to have been inconsiderable:  even during the siege we hear of but four of the towns-men killed, and a few wounded……from History of Lynn From the Earliest Accounts to the Present Day Vol. 11 William Richards 1812.

As time went on under the Commonwealth..….All allusion was now gone as to the pretended benefits of the civil war.  It had ended in a despotism, compared to which all the illegal practices of former kings, all that cost Charles his life and crown, appeared as dust in the balance.  For what was ship money, a general burden, when set by the side of a Cromwellian decimation of a class, the royalists, whose offence had long been expiated by a composition, and effaced by an act of indemnity !  Or were the punishments of the star-chamber so odious as the capital executions inflicted without trial by peers, whenever it suited the usurper to erect his high court of justice!   Hence we find that the government of the Protector was universally unpopular; and the sense of present evils not only excited a burning desire to live again under the ancient monarchy, but obliterated, especially in the new generation that had no distinct remembrance of them, the apprehension of its former abuses.  The tyranny of Cromwell, and his contempt of law, contributed more than the army of General Monk to place Charles the Second on the throne of his father. From the Life of Oliver Cromwell by Michael Russell 1833 pps 221-222.


In 1646 King Charles who was residing at Oxford, attempted to reach Lynn in disguise to board a ship for Montrose Scotland, or the continent. Whether this was even a feasibility, even so the King made to within 10 miles of Lynn before agreeing to the terms of the Scots……..according to Ketton-Cremer:


“ It is unlikely that Charles really supposed that he could ‘make a strength in the neighbourhood of Lynn. After the failure of the uprising at Lynn in 1643, and Roger L’Estrange’s abortive attempt to seize control of the town the following year, a strict control had been kept upon the Royalists of western Norfolk. They were in no condition to take any concerted action whatsoever. From Norfolk in the Civil War Ketton-Cremer pp 311-312.


It was against this background, and no doubt the fate of Major Saul, would also be on their minds, that according to Mr. Ellis Richardson, Hon. Sec. of the Reffley Society, in an undated letter, most probably written in the 1930’s or 1940’s, in which he said …..


 “According to tradition, the Reffley Society, came into being in the days of the Commonwealth. It is said that, during Cromwell’s protectorate, a gathering of thirty men or over was an illegal gathering, the law presuming, with patently good reason, that the object of any such meeting was most likely to be conspiracy against the government.


The citizens of King’s Lynn and its neighbourhood were strongly Royalist in sympathy.  The town had been held for King Charles 1 during the Civil War, and had only surrendered to the attacking Cromwellian forces to prevent the threatened destruction of the lovely church of St Margaret, the situation of which rendered it particularly vulnerable to bombardment by the enemy artillery drawn up on the opposite bank of the River Ouse.


This surrender was not indicative of any change of heart in the people of King’s Lynn; on the contrary, bitterness and resentment were no doubt added to their old antagonism because of the means by their foes to compel it.  Consequently it was but natural that some of the bolder spirits among them should take pleasure in defying the laws which were, as they viewed it, presently designed for their oppression, and some thirty men decided that, law or no law, they would forgather on one day in each year to show their contempt for their rulers, and to enjoy themselves in any way they might think fit.


Perhaps, because discretion tempered, to some extent, their boldness, they chose as their meeting place the secluded Reffley Spring, ***  and their successors the Reffley Bretheren or ‘Sons of Reffley’, have continued, for nearly three centuries, to meet annually at the same spot. Always have the Bretheren been thirty in number, except when death or other contingency temporally depleted their ranks, and thirty in number they still remain to the present day.


I personally see no reason whatever to cast doubt upon the Bretheren’s firm belief in the lawless but romantic origin of their Society.  The absence of any written records of the days of its inception is hardly to be wondered at, for even granted that their scholarship was equal to the task, its founders would see but little point in committing to paper names and facts which might mischance, fall into the hands of the  authorities and be used against them as proof of their delinquencies.

Moreover, it is quite evident that not for many years after its foundation did the members of the Society consider necessary any written accounts of their activities. It is also, I think, a significant fact that the Society has no avowed object save ‘conviviality and good fellowship………...” From an undated document written by Mr Ellis Middleton, Hon. Secretary of the Reffley Society (in the 1940’s).


***At the time that the Society was founded, said to have been in 1650, although other dates have been suggested, (for instance, the membership today, are said to have ties bearing the date 1644, though this could refer to the time when they started meeting there informally.). However, if as noted above, in Mr Middleton’s relatively recent letter in comparison with the presumed age of the Society, which focuses on the fact that the Society’s limitation on its membership to thirty men” has been a constant factor from its inception, then discovering when such a law came into being, would indicate that the Society was formed subsequent to the creation of the said law. This, however, has proved to be no easy task. There is nothing in the list of Acts and Ordinances passed by the Interregnum Parliament which specifically refers to the Assembly of Thirty Persons. The nearest being an Order passed on the 3rd May 1643 preventing Disorderly Assemblies in Dorset Somerset and Wilts etc. with no indication as to whether it was extended to the rest of the country.

 However, I am much indebted to Peter Gaunt of Chester University (p.gaunt@chester.ac.uk) for providing 

me details of the Newcastle Propositions, which Cromwell's Parliament put to Charles 1st, firstly in Newcastle and and later when he was holed up on the Isle of Wight. (See ​page 'Newcastle Propositions' for details.)


 Charles 1 The only English King to be tried sentenced and executed. Photo Getty.


As Charles I refused to give the Propositions Royal approval, (though this would be rather academic after 1649, when he was beheaded,) the intent of the “to the number of thirty persons” clause must have become known amongst those of Royalist persuasion in Lynn. Sir Edward Coke and possibly others were in Westminster, and would have known of the “Propositions” as it was stated that they had been voted on and published. For the Royalist sympathisers in Lynn and the surrounding area, who would have deplored the capture (1646) and subsequent execution of  Charles 1 in 1649, the existence of this clause, whether in force or not, in addition to their being “under strict control” by the Parliamentarians since 1643,(Norfolk in the Civil War Ketton-Cremer p. 311) could very well have been the “last straw” which led to the formation of what would  eventually become known as the Reffley Society, as stated by Mr Middleton.  Also the wording is so similar to that in his letter. We can only assume that the Society came into being in the summer of 1650, the year after Charles I The Martyr was  executed.