John Birch, 1615-91

Presbyterian army officer famous for capturing Hereford in a daring midwinter attack in 1645.

The eldest surviving son of Samuel and Mary Birch, John Birch was born at Ardwick Manor near Manchester into a family of prominent Presbyterians. Little is known about his life until 1633 when he set up as a merchant in Bristol and married his first wife, Alice Selfe (d.1675). When the First Civil War broke out in 1642, Birch supported Parliament as captain of the Bristol militia. He foiled a Royalist conspiracy to seize the city in March 1643 but when Bristol fell to Prince Rupert in July 1643, Birch lost his fortune and fled to London.

With the help of Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Birch gained a commission in the army raised by Sir William Waller for service in south-eastern England. He fought at the first siege of Basing House in November 1643 and led the attack on Alton Church in December. Birch was seriously wounded by a shot in the stomach at the siege of Arundel Castle and was given up for dead. However, the extreme cold is said to have stemmed the flow of blood and helped him to survive. After recuperating in London, Birch rejoined Waller in time to participate in the battle of Cheriton in March 1644. He played an important role at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644 by defending the bridge against Royalist attacks.

Birch's greatest military achievement was his capture of Hereford in December 1645 in a surprise midwinter attack. He was appointed governor of Hereford and co-operated with Colonel Morgan and Sir William Brereton to defeat the last Royalist field army at Stow-on-the-Wold in March 1646.

Birch was elected MP for Leominster towards the end of 1646. He became an active member of the Presbyterian faction and was among the forty-three MPs arrested and briefly imprisoned during Pride's Purge in December 1648. During the Commonwealth and Protectorate period, Birch bought up former church lands in Herefordshire and became a leading figure among the local gentry. He remained a persistent critic of the government and was imprisoned several times. Although elected to the Second Protectorate Parliament in 1656, Birch was among those prevented by the Major-Generals from taking their seats. After Cromwell's death and the fall of the Protectorate, Birch supported the Restoration and was authorised by General Monck to take command of the Hereford garrison.

Birch was active in Parliament throughout the reign of Charles II with a particular interest in the religious settlement. Despite his anti-Catholicism and opposition to the Act of Uniformity, he was employed by the government as a commissioner of the excise and as an auditor for the treasury. He was a firm supporter of William of Orange against James II and was among William's entourage when he entered London in 1688.


Newton E. Key, John Birch, Oxford DNB, 2004

Rob McLeod, Life of John Birch