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The siege of Brampton Bryan

As Lord Robert Harley, a dedicated Puritan in manner and outlook, was serving as a Member of Parliament in London, it was left to his wife, Lady Brilliana Harley, to hold Brampton Bryan Castle in the north-west of the county. Brampton Bryan Castle (HER 191) was situated in Royalist territory and therefore was in an extremely vulnerable position from the outset of the armed conflict.

Nonetheless, the castle itself was not attacked until 26th July 1643. It has been said that "The restraint shown by the local royalist gentry in postponing any direct attack on Brampton for long stemmed in part from their personal regard for Lady Brilliana, although military considerations also played their part."

Through the surviving letters of Lady Brilliana, we are granted not only an excellent insight into events in Herefordshire from a Parliamentarian point of view, but a glimpse of the courage, determination and depth of religious faith of this remarkable woman. In her letters she writes about her trials and tribulations, her desire to join her husband in London and yet her preparedness to hold the castle if that be his wish. Her descriptions of scenes of daily life away from the battlefield add greatly to our understanding of this period. In June 1642, for example, she writes to her son Edward Harley about the way the common rabble abused Puritans in public places and made them afraid for their safety:

"At Loudlow [Ludlow] they seet up a May pole, and a thinge like a head upon it, and so they did at Croft, and gathered a greate many about it, and shot at it in deristion of roundheads..."

As many of her supporters and fellow Puritans left the area, Lady Brilliana became increasingly isolated. The Parliamentarian clergyman John Toombes wrote of his troubles:

"...the barbarous rage and impetuous violence of people so increased, that I could have no safety in my proper station, but was enforced to remove myself, wife and children and since have suffered the spoiling of my goods, of my dwelling house, with many other injuries". People who left the area to avoid conflict more often than not found that their houses were burned to the ground and their belongings stolen.

Even in the build-up to the war, there were tensions among the local population. Brilliana described some of the abuse she had to suffer in a letter to her husband:

"Every Thursday some of Ludlow, as they go through the town [Brampton] wish all the puritans of Brampton hanged and as I was walking one day in the garden, Mr Longly and one of the maids being with me, they looked upon me and wished all the puritans and Roundheads at Brampton hanged, and when they were gone a little further they cursed you and all your children and thus they say they do every week as they go through the town."

The small garrison itself was initially no threat to Royalist interests; it only became a serious target when the fortunes of war were turning against the Royalists and they needed a success near to home to boost the morale of their local supporters. The financial demands of waging war also strained the relationship of Brilliana with her neighbours. Long before any siege, the Royalists had stopped her receiving any income from Harley land and even stole/sequestered livestock and horses. In this letter of February 1642 Brilliana shows signs of fearing for her life:

"Now they say, they will starve me out of my howes; they have taken away all your fathers rents, and they say they will drive away the cattell, and then I shall have nothing to live upon; for all theare ame is to enfors me to let thos men I have goo, that then they might seas upon my howes and cute our throughts by a feave rooges, and then say, they knewe not whoo did it;..."

The Royalist Fitzwilliam Coningsby, sheriff and governor of Hereford, had ordered the Harley tenants to pay their rents directly to him. Lady Brilliana interpreted that as a way of impoverishing her so that she would be forced to release her garrison. It was, of course, also a way of replenishing the Royalist war coffers.

By 1643 several Harley supporters were languishing in Royalist gaols, including the Harley drummer. The attacks on the Harley estate increased. The park at Brampton was entered, four oxen taken and the workmen beaten. One man, Edward Morgan, was shot dead. It seems Brilliana had good reason to fear for her life.

During this time, Brilliana applied a secret code to her letters in case they were intercepted by the enemy. Two sheets of paper were produced with identical cut-outs. One was given to the recipient of the letters, the other was used to write the letters. The sheet with the cut-outs was laid on top of the letter and then only the words in the cut-out spaces were read. This method, at best a clumsy one, does not read convincingly. In one letter she actually says: "From this place make use of the cute paper". She then asks her husband for advice:

"[I pray you] take into [consider that] it has [Mr. Hill is] all ways ready and will be still, which I know will reioyce [much given] and in [to keepe] the beest and richest and wisest so that so that some weare much [company and ] to eate [so to drinke,] and sleepe [and I feare] this day Captaine Croft and his wife weare to seem me and so [will put his ] but all [minde much to] no purpos I long to see you more than you can thinke. [plundering.] but doo [Consider well] and that [of it.]" May 9th 1643. To decipher the meaning, you must only read the words in brackets.

These coded letters were part of an information network Brilliana built up. She sent news to Sir Robert in London and to Colonel Massey in Gloucester, who held that town for Parliament. She not only sent many letters to her son Edward, who was serving in the parliamentary army, but sent men to join her son's troops. There is a record that she provided one man with a horse worth £8.00. Despite the fear of being attacked, she allowed Brampton Bryan to become a refuge for parliamentarians. Eventually the Royalists could not ignore her any more and decided to attack.

The first siege

At the end of July 1643, Sir William Vavasour, the newly appointed governor of Hereford, surrounded Brampton Bryan with a 700 strong force of cavalry and foot soldiers. (As a newcomer to the county, Vavasour may have found it easier to make the decision to attack than would the native Royalists such as the Crofts, who had socialised with the Harley family and were neighbours.)

The castle was occupied by Brilliana, her three youngest children, about 50 civilians and 50 musketeers. Conditions inside the castle were very uncomfortable and dangerous. Cattle, sheep and horses were plundered, all the buildings in the village were burnt to the ground and the castle bombarded with cannon and small shot. Much damage was done by a gun placed in the church steeple, from which the roofs and battlements of the castle were fired upon.

However, only one man, the cook, was shot dead, and two women were wounded. In contrast, it is believed that some 60 attackers were killed. Priam Davies, a captain, later described the effects of the siege and Brilliana's fortitude:

"all our bread was ground with a handmill, our provisions very scarce, the roof of the castle so battered that there was not one dry room in it: our substance without plundered and all our friends fled, yet this noble lady bore all with admirable patience."

The siege lasted for over six weeks, but was called off when Vavasour was requested to re-enforce the Royalist attack on Gloucester. However, the respite was short lived. Brilliana had hoped to leave the castle to join her husband, but it was difficult arranging a safe passage for her and her children in a war-torn country. In the meantime, Brilliana found herself having to make uncomfortable decisions, such as ordering her men to plunder Royalists to restock the castle. She even went so far as to order an attack on Royalist troops over the Welsh border. Captain Davies describes her leadership abilities with regard to this foray, in which Colonel Lingen's troops were attacked. Men, arms and horses were captured without any loss of her own soldiers:

"this noble lady, who commanded in chief, I may truly say with such a masculine bravery ... and warlike policy, that her equal I never yet saw." [Note: "Commanded in chief" in this case means that she planned the attack, but wasn't there herself when it took place.]

From being a passive spectator at the beginning of the war, Brilliana had become a deeply involved activist. However, by October, the strains of the conflict, which had been draining her strength, began to tell. Her health broke down and by the end of the month she was dead.

The second siege

After Brilliana's death her family doctor, Nathaniel Wright, was appointed commander of Brampton Bryan Castle. The second siege took place in the early spring of 1644 and lasted three weeks. During this second siege much greater damage was inflicted on the castle by use of mines and more powerful artillery by the new force under the command of Sir Michael Woodhouse.

An extract from a letter from Sir Michael Woodhouse to Prince Rupert reveals some interesting details about this siege, involving a sally by the defenders.

" This daye betwin one & twoe of the clock the roges made a sally ought of the Castle. Coolo: Cost his men had the aproches, both officer and soldier rune, quitted the workes. Some pioners weare killed; not above twoe soldiers killed for they weare swift of foote and left tueenty musquettes, the roge weare in ower courte of guarde betimes to throwe downe ower workes, fiered ower battery, but before they could accomplish anithinge to purpose of there desires, I was with them and regained the workes againe, and shall thise night make all up againe with my owne men for pioneres ..."

Pioneers are soldiers engaged in military building works, such as bridges and mines. In this case they were digging a mine when they were surprised by a sally. The defenders of Brampton Bryan had hoped to destroy the artillery position and any mining works, however Sir Michael Woodhouse was able to regain control. The besiegers, however, did sustain some casualties and, with this in mind, the Colonel continues the letter by asking the Prince where the officers responsible for this set-back should be hanged. The taking of Brampton Bryan was very important to the Royalist cause at this point in the war, and any lapse was severely punished.

It seems that Lady Brilliana was not the only courageous woman involved at the action surrounding this castle. Another excerpt from the same letter gives us a tantalising glimpse of a further interesting episode:

" I have taken a wooman that wase sent ought of the castle with a letter to a man of this countye for releif from Gloster, the mane I have likewise. he denies any letter to be retorned by him from her, & she justifies the delivery of it to hir hand, the queane wase retorninge in manes apparrell and offered to be a soldier in Croft his company, I desier your Highnes pleasure conserninge them ..."

The meaning of this passage is not very clear. The word "queane" means "young woman" but also can refer to a woman of worthless character. We know the woman, or girl, in question would not have been from a higher status family, as she isn't mentioned by name. Did she dress in men's clothing to insinuate herself into the enemy camp as a spy? We know she was caught sneaking a letter out of the castle which asked for reinforcements from the Parliamentarian army in Gloucester. It would be fascinating to find out what happened to her.

After a valiant defence lasting three weeks, the siege ended when Dr. Wright surrendered the castle to Sir Michael Woodhouse, Sir William Vavasour and Sir William Croft. The building was sacked and burnt and the prisoners, including the three young Harley children, were taken to Shrewsbury. When the prisoners were questioned as to their reasons for taking up arms against the King, they argued the threat of "popery", of Catholicism.This confirms that for many Parliamentarians, religious reasons were one of the main motivating factors.

In the end, the Harleys of Brampton Bryan were on the winning side in the Civil War, and Sir Robert Harley was in a position to apply for financial compensation. His steward drew up a table of losses sustained:

  • The stock of cattle of all sorts - £940
  • The loss of £1,500 per annum for 3 years - £4,500
  • The castle itself being utterly ruined - £3,000
  • All the rich furniture and household goods belonging to the castle - £2,500
  • Two mills with brewhouses and stables and other outhouses together with corn and hay - £950
  • A study of books valued at - £200
  • Two parks wholly laid open and destroyed - £500
  • Timber and other wood cut down and destroyed - £300
  • Destroyed at least 500 deer and more in corn at least - £100
  • Total - £12,990

We shall never know if Sir Robert Harley felt responsible for the loss of his wife, or if indeed he appreciated her courage and loyalty.

(For more information on Lady Brilliana Harley, Antonia Fraser discusses her efforts in her book The Weaker Vessel. Woman's lot in 17th century England, published in 1984.)

[Original author: Toria Forsyth-Moser, 2003]