During the English Civil War and the subsequent period up until the restoration of the monarchy, Nathaniel Whetham established a reputation as a highly competent and loyal soldier and administrator in the parliamentary cause, culminating in his appointment as Governor of Portsmouth. He occupied this role between 1649 and 1659, a period when the allegiance of Portsmouth was held to be of supreme importance to royalist and parliamentarian interests alike. It is perhaps surprising therefore that his name is not better known in the history of either the civil war or of Portsmouth. An appraisal of his life and achievements is overdue.
In the parish of Burstock, Dorset, there was an ancient manor known as Whetham or Wheteham and it was from this place that the Whetham family derived their name. Members of the family appear in historical records buying and selling manors with one becoming MP for Tavistock, but generally they were not noticed until the reign of King James when one Thomas Whetham was Recorder of Chichester. Nathaniel Whetham's father was Thomas Whetham who had inherited the family estate at Drimpton from his father John Whetham. Nathaniel, the sixth and youngest child of Thomas and Dorothy Whetham, was born in 1604 and baptised on 25th November of that year.
Nathaniel's early life would have been exclusively rural in character, but the family were on the move and by the time he was 16 years of age his brother Thomas was describing himself as a 'Gentleman, of the Inner Temple' and was able to secure an apprenticeship for Nathaniel with Edward Terrill, the baker to the Inner Temple. By 1632 he had completed his apprenticeship and been appointed 'housekeeper' or 'steward' to the court of the Baker's Company, had married Joanna, the widow of Edward Terrill, and was contemplating emigration to America. To this end he had joined the "Company of the Plough" which had secured a patent from Sir Ferdinando Gorges on valuable land in South-East Maine. The venture did not turn out well and so Nathaniel settled down to practise his trade in the Company of Whitebakers, taking on a succession of apprentices in his own right.
The marriage between Nathaniel and Joanna produced four sons between 1633 and 1639, but only Nathaniel, baptised on 25th September 1633, and Joseph, baptised on August 28th 1639 survived beyond infancy. During these years Nathaniel's business flourished, and now possessed of property he began to make investments, but this was a time of growing resentment against the King and particularly his support for the High Church ritualistics of the Bishops. Whetham himself joined the Presbyterian movement though held no strong views about the struggle between King and Parliament. His inclination however was towards Parliament and when the City of London began raising support in it's cause, joined the militia. His standing was such that he was immediately appointed major of dragoons and a captain of one of their companies. His colonel was Richard Browne.
In August 1642 the king raised his standard at Nottingham and after a few initial skirmishes set up his headquarters in Oxford. To counter his threat to move on London, Parliament set up garrisons along the road to the capital. It was to a place near Aylesbury that Major Whetham and his dragoons were stationed under the orders of Colonel Goodwin. Whetham struggled to control his company, many members of which would have returned to the comfort of their firesides had he not been a permanent presence. An abortive attack on the Royalist garrison at Brill did nothing to quell the unrest but such must have been the respect that he acquired during this period that within a few months Whetham re-appears on the historical scene as Governor of Northampton.
The Earl of Essex had asked his local commander Colonel Goodwin to recommend a discreet man to assume command of Northampton in the knowledge that the town stood close to important routes of communication between Oxford, London and the north. Goodwin's choice was Nathaniel Whetham and for the next four to five years he held the town on behalf of Parliament in the process of which he demonstrated a canny sense of strategy, in both defence and attack, for which he could have had little training. In October 1643 he repelled an advance by Prince Rupert and his twenty-two troops of horse and 700 men followed by a night raid on Royalist troops along Watling Street. In April 1644 Whetham organised the rescue of over thirty parliamentarians from Banbury Castle, and returned to the same spot in August of that year for the first seige of the castle during the early part of which Whetham was described as 'Commander in chiefe' and 'valliant and faithfull'.
For most of the next three years Whetham remained at Northampton, taking part in, amongst other actions, the second seige of Banbury Castle. Towards the end of the Civil War Whetham disappears from view in the army records but surfaces briefly in the Bakers Company records which show he was elected under-warden in 1647. He then seems to have returned to his roots in Dorset where he purchased the manor of Chard under the sale of lands formerly owned by the bishops. He did not bow out altogether though as he was appointed to the very Board of Trustees overseeing the sale of lands before being sent to Portsmouth as Governor in September 1649.
At this time the army was the major power in England as the navy had seen a quarter of the fleet defect to the royalist cause in 1648. Parliament believed it was critical that the navy be built up as fast as possible and towards that end it was important that Portsmouth be reinforced. To these ends the Navy Commissioners sent William Willoughby to the dockyard and Nathaniel Whetham to Portsmouth.
The repairs to the fortifications were Whetham's immediate priority but it was to take several years and frequent requests for funds before this could be achieved. In addition, Whetham was intimately involved in the reorganisation of the armed forces, in particular setting up of a Hampshire Militia under his own command. As if that wasn't enough for one man to manage Whetham was also responsible for civil affairs, to which end he was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Hampshire, and to organise the support and incarceration of prisoners of war.
Despite the numerous responsibilities handed to Whetham his most important task remained the strengthening of the fortifications around Portsmouth. In June 1650 he was allowed 200 loads of timber from the New Forest, cut so as not to jeopardise the navy's needs, towards the repairs of both Portsmouth town and Southsea Castle. This wood, though undoubtedly useful, was nowhere near enough so Whetham petitioned the Council of State for funds on 3rd May 1651, writing that "...if speedy course be not taken the platform that commands the harbour and the tower wherein the stores both for the Navy and Garrison are kept will fall into the sea...". Nothing was done, even after a visit to London and a personal appeal. On June 19th the Council recorded the allotment of £500 towards the upkeep of the garrison, but making the order and finding the cash were two entirely differnt matters.
The summer of 1651 saw a fresh problem arrive at Colonel Whetham's door, that of the poverty being experienced by the civilian population of Portsmouth. The Council of State wrote to Whetham and to the Mayor and Aldermen of the town requiring the latter to find employment and relief for the people and for Whetham to report on how the municipal authorities proceeded.
In December 1652, Whetham is recorded as still pleading for the cash promised in the previous year but the chronic want of money from which the government suffered was leading to disaffection among dockyard workers and sailors. On one occasion the Navy Commissioner Francis Willoughby, who had followed his father into the role, called on Whetham for military help to suppress a rising tide of mutiny.
From 1652 to 1654 England was at war with Holland which required even greater effort from Colonel Whetham who was charged with the management of pressed men who were often picked up in provincial towns and given money to make their way to Portsmouth. Unsurprisingly many took the money and ran, and even those who made it to Portsmouth immediately deserted on seeing the conditions there. Soon England had the advantage over the Dutch and Whetham found himself obliged to deal with the prize ships brought into harbour and the large numbers of sick and wounded they brought with them. Under such conditions it was inevitable that sanitary services would break down as the Admiralty Committee witnessed when they visited at Whetham's behest.
One of the land soldiers turned seamen who was present in Portsmouth at this time was General George Monck who forged a close relationship with Whetham and when in 1655 Parliament sent Monck north to deal with the Scots, Whetham went with him as a member of Monck's Council of State for Scotland. Before then Whetham had a number of dangerous uprisings in the land about Portsmouth to contend with, against one of which he mobilised the Hampshire Militia and led them into the field against the royalists.
When Nathaniel Whetham left for Scotland, Major Peter Murford took over responsibility for Portsmouth, but only as Lieutenant Governor, giving the impression that Whetham's absence would only be temporary and indeed in March 1657 he returned to take up his position again. Whetham's contribution to the Scots campaigns and subsequent administration was considerable, even to the point of being elected Member of Parliament for Fife, but records do not show why he left and returned to Portsmouth.
On his arrival Whetham wrote to the Committee of Safety saying that he had founds affairs at Portsmouth very much under control but was soon back dealing with a shipload of prisoners from a vessel taken off the Isle of Wight. He was shortly elected to sit on the Committee of Safety itself but does not appear to have attended any meetings. By the summer of 1658 all immediate danger from the royalists having passed Whetham wrote to the Council of State asking for leave to visit his estate at Chard, but he was not released.
The reasons for this may well have been the widening gap between Parliament and the Army in the form of the Committe of Safety. Parliament needed somewhere safe to meet and they chose Portsmouth as the the most loyal and defendable position. The Council of State despatched Heselrige, Walton and Morley to Portsmouth to hold the town in the name of Parliament. The navy under Admiral Lawson was expected to join them shortly. Colonel Whetham secured Portsea Island by Garrisoning Portsdown Fort and awaited the expected seige.
The Army took great exception to Whetham's action believing him to have been the most trustworthy of soldiers, but Whetham's response was consistent in that he owed his position to Parliament who had appointed him and therefore it was right that he owe allegiance to them rather than the army.
The Army soon sent a force with the orders to beseige Portsmouth but they were not prepared to commit sufficent numbers to confront the troops in the town. In any case as soon as the beseigers arrived outside Portsmouth many of them simply changed sides and entered the town to join it's defence. Such was the strength of the town that Lawson saw it was unnecessary for him to bring the navy up in further defence and instead took his ships to the Thames where they directly threatened the Army. The Portsmouth garrison were soon on the road, heading towards London, and in the face of such overwhelming superiority the army capitulated.
Colonel Whetham then set out to join General Monck who was advancing on London from the north and stayed with him throughout his triumphal procession to the capital. Such was Whetham's contribution to the cause that he was awarded a pension of 200 pounds a year and hereditary entitlement to his lands as well as his own regiment. And that was the zenith of Whetham's career, as by June 1600 he had been relieved of his position at Portsmouth, had seen his regiment handed over to Colonel Richard Norton and witnessed the return of the new king Charles. Matters only got worse as the King and Parliament agreed to annul the sale of church lands by which Whetham had bought the manor of Chard which now reverted to the Bishop of Bath & Wells.
Although some attempt was made to compensate Nathaniel Whetham for the loss of his manor, no money was ever paid over. Whetham left his manorial home for a small tenancy on the estate where he remained until his death on 16th September 1668.
13th May 2011
The Calendar of State Papers
"A History of the Life of Colonel Nathaniel Whetham" by Catherine and William Whetham