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The Siege of Brampton Bryan Castle

The Siege of Brampton Bryan Castle

Will be recreated by the English Civil War Society over the weekend of 12-13th August 2017 – with musket, pike, a living history camp and you van also visit our hosts superb book barn, at Aardvark Books, Brampton Bryan is a small village situated in North Herefordshire, England close to Shropshire and Welsh borders. Brampton Bryan lies mid-way between Leintwardine and Knighton on the A4113 road. SY7 0DH   

 Brilliana Harley and the Siege of Brampton Bryan Castle

By Dr Lesley Prince

Brilliana was born around the year 1598. She was the eldest child of Sir Edward Conway of Ragley in Warwickshire, a soldier and diplomat who had been appointed Secretary of State by James I. At the time his daughter was born, Sir Edward was lieutenant-governor of Brill, in the Netherlands, and he commemorated this appointment in the unusual name he gave his child.

Brilliana was well-educated, and could read French and Latin as well as English – in one of her letters she says she prefers reading books in French to books in English.

In 1623 she married Sir Robert Harley – she was his third wife – and between 1624 and 1634 they had seven children. We know about Brilliana and her life from the letters she wrote from her home at Brampton Bryan castle to her eldest son Ned, who went to study at Oxford University in 1638. ‘I have sent you by the carrier eight bottles of cider in a box. Pray send me one of your socks, to make you new ones by.’ She asked Ned to buy her mirrors and fruit dishes (hers were all broken, and she wanted some new blue and white ones) and sent him her watch, so he could get it mended. She worried about Ned’s health: ‘I have sent you some juice of liquorice, which you may keep to make use of, if you should have a cold’, and explains that she hasn’t sent him a pie, because ‘your father says you care not for it’. So instead of food, ‘I have sent you a little purse with some small money in it, all the pence I had’.

By the summer of 1641, Ned had gone to London to join his father. Sir Robert Harley was a Member of Parliament, one of those MPs who opposed the King, Charles I, and his policies. In religion Sir Robert was a Puritan – he lost the lucrative post of Master of the Mint in 1635 because he supported nonconformist ministers. In 1643 he became chairman of the parliamentary committee for ‘the destruction of monuments of superstition and idolatry’, and he personally smashed stained glass and statues in Westminster Abbey and other churches.

The country was becoming more and more unsettled in the run-up to the outbreak of civil war, and by early 1642, people were laying in supplies against the fighting that now seemed inevitable. ‘Doctor Wright desires you would … buy him two muskets and rests and bandoleers, and fifteen or sixteen pounds of powder in a barrel..’

Brilliana’s greatest worry was having to run the estate without her husband. ‘I acknowledge I do not think myself safe where I am. I lose the comfort of your father’s company … my trust is in God. What is done in your father’s estate pleases him not, so that I wish myself … at London… But if your father think it best for me to be in the country, I am very well pleased with what he shall think best.’

Many of the people in the area around Brampton Bryan supported the King, and Brilliana noticed their behaviour changing. ‘I have deferred writing till it be late, that I might let you know how the fair went … I was something afraid, because they are grown so insolent’, and on another day, ‘Sir William Croft (a local Royalist) came to see me: he never asked how your father did; spoke slighty, and stayed but a little.’

But she determined to do her duty, to Sir Robert and his home. On 2nd July 1642 she wrote: ‘At first when I saw how outrageously this country carried themselves against your father, my anger was so up, and my sorrow, that I had hardly patience to stay. But now, I have well considered, if I go away I shall leave all that your father has to the prey of our enemies, which they would be glad of; so that, and please God, I purpose to say as long as it is possible, if I live. This is my resolution, without you father contradict it. I have received this night the hamper with the powder and match, but I have not yet the muskets …’

Brilliana had earlier sent plate (disguised as cake!) and horses to London for Sir Robert’s use, and clearly – aware of the growing danger – he and Ned were sending her what supplies they could to defend the house. ‘I have received the box with twenty bandoleers, but the boxes with the muskets and rests the carrier has left to come in a wagon to Worcester’. And ‘I have made the plumber write to Worcester for fifty weight of shot’.

War was formally declared on 22nd August 1642, when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham Castle. Sir Robert Harley and Ned returned to Brampton Bryan in the autumn, but had left by December. Ned and his brother Robert joined the Parliamentarian commander Sir William Waller. The Herefordshire Royalists wanted Brampton Bryan to eliminate any danger that might come from a local Parliamentarian stronghold, and if they could, to use it and any materials it could supply for the king’s cause. The Marquis of Hertford demanded that Brilliana surrender it, which she refused to do: ‘on Monday we prepared for a siege’. Fortunately further plans either to take the castle by siege or alternatively to blow it up were shelved, because the Royalist troops were ordered south to the siege of Gloucester.

Although the Royalist plans were on hold, Brilliana’s situation was still very uncomfortable: ‘They have forbid my rents to be paid … now they say, they will starve me out of my house; they have taken away all your father’s rents, and they say they will drive away the cattle, and then I shall have nothing to live upon … My dear Ned, desire your father to send me word what he thinks I have best do; for if I should put away the men in my house I should be every day plundered, and as basely used as it is possible …’

In March, another summons to surrender the castle arrived, and again Brilliana refused, though she was still agonising over what to do. ‘I desire your father would seriously think what I had best do; whether to stay at Brampton, or remove to some other place. I hear there are 600 soldiers appointed to come against me.’

The siege started on 26th July. Two or three troops of horse and some foot, totalling about 700 men, arrived outside the castle and proceeded to block off all access. The castle garrison consisted of fifty musketeers and some gentlemen, plus members of the household and Brilliana herself. Captain Priamus Davies, one of the officers, wrote an eye-witness account of the siege. The Royalists summoned the castle to surrender: once more Brilliana refused. On 27th, there was a continuous exchange of musketfire. The Royalists took the town and the church, but some were killed by the castle’s defenders. The Royalists made two further attempts to persuade Brilliana to leave – both unsuccessful – while plundering all the livestock they could find and continuing to fire on the defenders.

At the beginning of August, the Royalists started to dig siege works in the gardens and the grounds, and both sides fired buildings, so that by 3rd August most of the town had been destroyed. It was on that day, too, that the bombardment of the castle started. The Royalists had manoeuvred a cannon into the church steeple, and fired it onto the battlements. A second cannon was brought into use on 7th August, a third on 8th, and by 9th August there were five ‘great guns’ battering the walls. As well as the bombardment, the Royalist troops shouted abuse at the castle’s defenders – ‘called us roundheads, rogues and traitors’ – Priamus Davies in turn described the Royalist officers as ‘capon-faced cowards’!

Throughout the ordeal, Brilliana encouraged and inspired her garrison, who admired her courage. Further comfort came from news smuggled through the blockade – a victory for parliament’s forces, or that the besiegers’ biggest cannon had broken, killing the gun captain. On 21st August, Brilliana called a meeting to devise a plan for destroying the house where the Royalists were making grenades. A party of ten men attacked it, backed up with rockets fired from the castle. This worked splendidly: some Royalists were killed and others panicked, then the men retreated back to the castle, unhurt. The house was set on fire and all the grenades and grenade-making materials were burnt.

After nearly a month of siege and bombardment, there was a stalemate. The defenders couldn’t drive off their attackers – but the Royalists did not want to be seen to storm a castle commanded by a woman –and a very highly respected woman. The Royalist commander, Sir John Scudamore, asked for a parley on 23rd August, and the next day he entered the castle via a rope ladder. Brilliana would not see him herself, bur he presented a letter from the King, in which Charles said he hoped matters could be settled: he was ‘unwillling that our forces … should take such course for forcing or firing … as they must otherwise take’.

Brilliana replied, pointing out that the castle was hers by law, but if the King required it of her, would he permit her and her family to go somewhere safe. Her letter was sent to the King, besieging Gloucester. At the same time news reached her secretly that Gloucester was determined to hold out, and that Royalist atrocities at Bristol had turned many people against them. Cheered by this, Brilliana prevaricated – waiting for the King’s reply, she dealt with various communications from the local commanders. There had been a cease-fire since the start of the parley, though when the Royalists began to move some guns on 6th September, they were fired on from the castle. During the night of 7th September, most of the enemy departed, taking their guns, and the siege ended on 9th, when the last Royalist troops fired the barricades. The reason for this soon became clear: they had been ordered to Gloucester to swell the king’s forces, which now faced a large army sent by Parliament to relieve the city.

The siege of Brampton Bryan was over. The castle was in a dreadful state – the roof was so damaged there wasn’t a dry room in the place, and there was hardly any food. But instead of taking vengeance on the people who had opposed her, Brilliana patiently tried to make peace with them. Brilliana became famous as the news of her heroic defence of Brampton Bryan spread through the country. Even the Royalists admired and applauded her.

But she had never been strong, and the siege had been hugely stressful. By October another Royalist army was menacing the castle. In a letter to Ned dated 9th October, she said she had ‘a great cold’, and that ‘it was an ill time to be sick in’. She never saw Ned or Sir Robert again. The cold turned to pneumonia, and she died at the end of October.

And the castle? Besieged again, the defenders heard dreadful stories of the fate of nearby Hopton Castle. Without their inspiring mistress, the castle surrendered early in 1644, and the defenders were imprisoned at Ludlow. Brampton Bryan was ‘utterly ruined’.

But Brilliana’s story lived on. When Sir Robert Harley died in 1656, his brave wife was remembered at his funeral:

‘though surrounded with drums and noise of war, yet she took her leave in peace. The sword had no force against her.’

 Cannon Fire !

At our depiction of events at Brampton Bryan, you will see, hear, and feel, a lot of C17th artillery. One of the reasons it is so important, is because during the siege,  Captain Priamus Davies, who was one of the defenders  of Brampton Bryan, counted the number of times cannon were fired at the castle. This is his list:

3rd August: (from a cannon positioned in the church steeple) 5 shots which shattered the battlements.

4th August: 26 shots

5th of August: 23 shots, which brought down a stack of chimneys, followed by another 14 shots

(making a total of 37)

6th of August: (Sunday) 8 shots before morning service

7th of August: (from a new cannon positioned to the west of the castle) 3 shots, one of which broke a window and hurt two of the ladies in the castle

8th of August: 29 shots

9th of August: (from the five great guns positioned round the castle) 42 shots

10th of August: 3 shots, which broke some glasses

11th of August: 25 shots

12th of August to 20th of August: (the bombardment continued) ‘many thousand great and small shot’

21st August:: 4 shots

22nd of August: 8 shots

23rd August to 5th of September: a parley

6th September: two great guns fired at the castle

7th of September: two more great guns fired at the castle

9th of September: the Royalists set fire to their barricades and leave.