Sir Arthur Aston, the Royalist general, was the younger of the two sons of Sir Arthur Aston Senior, knight, of Fulham in Middlesex, by his first wife, Christiana, daughter of John Ashton, of Penrith in Cumberland. He was grandson of Sir Thomas Aston, knight, of Aston-by-Sutton in the Bucklow hundred of Cheshire, in which county the 'ancient and knightly family' of Aston had long flourished. His cousin, the 1st baronet of that name, was the father of Sir Willoughby Aston who inherited Wadley House at Littleworth in Faringdon from the Purefoys.
Probably, Sir Arthur was a native of Fulham, but nothing is recorded concerning his birthplace or education. He went to Russia during the unsettled state of that kingdom which preceded and followed the assumption of the throne by Michael Federovich in 1613. He was accompanied by a certain number of men, captains and commanders, and furnished with letters of recommendation from King James I, and he probably remained there till a truce was concluded between this power and its belligerent neighbours, the Poles, in 1618. Returning to England, he again procured letters from King James and repaired to the camp of Sigismund III, King of Poland — the enemy against whom he had lately striven — with the view of aiding that monarch in his war against the Turks. In this service, he consequently witnessed the total overthrow of the Muslim army. With Christopher Radzivill, general-in-chief of the Lithuanian forces, he served throughout the war, attending the invasion of Livonia by Grustavus Adolphus, in 1621. As a proof of his meritorious services, he obtained, from that general, letters testimonal, dated at Vilna, 1st January 1623, in which his military bearing is highly extolled, especially in recovering the castle of Mittivia, which had been captured by the Swedes. For this and other services, Sigismund, in a deed, dated 23rd April 1625, granted him a yearly pension of 700 florins. Upon peace being restored to the dominions of Sigismund in 1631, Lieutenant-Colonel Aston, for he had now attained that rank, once more returned to England.
Having raised here a regiment of native soldiers, he again departed for the Continent. Once more he drew his sword in the service of a former adversary. Joining Gustavus Adolphus with his newly raised company, he attended that celebrated commander in his expedition against the Austrian Count Tilly, and probably throughout that splendid campaign which terminated on the plain of Lutzen.
At the commencement of the Scottish rebellion, he returned home with as many soldiers of note as he could bring with him. On 8th April 1640, he was appointed, by the Earl of Northumberland, Sergeant-Major-General of the Regiments under Viscount Conway, then lying at Newcastle, and, after the rout at Newburn, retired with that body first to Durham, and then into Yorkshire. Upon Northumberland's sickness, the command of the army devolving on the Earl of Strafford, he was by that nobleman appointed, on 7th September, Colonel-General of one of the brigades serving against the Scots, who then occupied Newcastle. On the 17th of the same month, he was made Sergeant-Major of the newly raised train-bands of Yorkshire, in which capacity he served until the return home of the Scots and the disbandment of the English army.
Dodd relates that, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Sir Arthur Aston - who had been knighted on 15th February 1641 – "offered his services to King Charles, but was refused; his Majesty alleging that the cry of Popery already ran so high against him that it would certainly inflame matters if he admitted so many persons of that communion. Afterwards, as 'tis said, Sir Arthur, by way of trial, made the same offer to Sir Thomas Fairfax, General of the Parliament's forces, who immediately embraced it. The King, being made acquainted with this passage, not only granted a commission to Sir Arthur, but gave a general invitation to all other Catholics to come unto him." The appointment he received was that of Colonel-General of the Dragoons, with which regiment he did his Majesty good service at Edgehill, beating off the field the right wing of the Parliamentary army.
Upon the King's removal to Oxford from Reading, on 21st November 1642, where he had lain since the attack on Brentford, he left Sir Arthur - who had now succeeded Mr. Wilmot as Commissary-General of the Horse - governor of that town, with a garrison of about three thousand foot and a regiment of horse of about as many hundreds. Whilst Governor of Reading, he hanged one or two of his own men who had been guilty of some notorious crimes "to stop the mouths of the people," said a contemporary journalist, "for his murdering Master Boys, an honest citizen of London, by a seeming act of justice." In the 'Weekly Intelligencer' it is stated that this Boys, who was executed in the town, was suspected of being a spy.
During the Siege of Reading, he, three times, repulsed the Parliament forces under the Earl of Essex; but, afterwards, whilst standing under a shed near the enemy's approaches, he received an injury on the head, occasioned by the fall of a tile - an accident which deprived him of his senses for the remainder of the siege. Accordingly, he resigned the command to Colonel Richard Fielding, the senior officer of the garrison. Clarendon, speaking of this accident, says that it "was then thought of great misfortune to the King, for there was not in his army an officer of greater reputation, and of whom the enemy had a greater dread." The siege terminated on 27th April 1643 by the garrison evacuating the town with the honours of war. Sir Arthur, in a horse-litter, led the procession, which made for Wallingford and, the next day, joined the King at Oxford. Sir Arthur's wound did not long deprive the King of his assistance; for, on 27th July following, he came post from Bristol - at the taking of which city he was probably present - to the King at Oxford, informing him of the state of things in the West. In the following month, at the particular request of the Queen, who resided in the city and who imagined herself safer under the protection of a Catholic, he was appointed Governor of Oxford on the death of Sir William Pennyman. Here, on 1st May following, the degree of M.D. was conferred upon him by the University. On 19th September 1644, he was thrown from his horse and broke his leg: gangrene set in, and amputation was performed on 7th December. This accident was regarded by the Puritans as a judgment of God against Aston for an act of revolting cruelty which he had perpetrated a short time before in adjudging that a soldier, against whom he bore a grudge, should have his right hand sawn off. As Sir Arthur thus became incapable of discharging the active duties of his office, the King removed him from the command, on Christmas Day, conferring upon him a pension of £1,000 a year. He was removed, says Anthony A'Wood, "to the great rejoicing of the soldiers and others in Oxford, having expressed himself very cruel and imperious while he executed that office".
In November 1646, we find Aston in Ireland with the Marquis of Ormonde, with whom he probably returned to England on the delivery of Dublin to the Parliament. It seems likely that, after the execution of the King, he joined the marquis in Ireland, on his resuming the government there. Certain it is that, on 27th July 1649, he sat on a council of war convened by the Lord-Lieutenant. Being left with a garrison of 3,000 men in defence of Drogheda or Tredagh, Sir Arthur three times repulsed the army of General Cromwell, which approached the works on 8th September 1649. This determined perseverance, however, eventually proved unsuccessful. The town was entered on the 10th. No quarter was given and only about thirty persons escaped, who, with several hundreds of the Irish nation, were shipped off as slaves to the island of Barbados. Aston perished in the butchery. He was hacked to pieces and his brains were beaten out with his wooden leg.
Clarendon remarks that the King, in all his armies, had but one general officer of the Catholic religion, "Sir Arthur Aston, whom the Papists, notwithstanding, would not acknowledge for a Papist.' The same writer, referring to Aston's appointment as Governor of Oxford, says he "had the fortune to be very much esteemed where he was not known, and very much detested where he was; and he was at this time too well known at Oxford to be beloved by any." Clarendon adds that he was "a man of a rough nature, and so given up to an immoderate love of money that he cared not by what unrighteous ways he exacted it."
Edited from Leslie Stephen's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1885).
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