The Old Town Hall, Weymouth © DCM
The following article about Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in the time of the English Civil War was written by the well-known Weymouth historian and antiquary, Mr. W. Bowles Barrett for the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 31, 1910
My Paper deals with the part which Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, the twin-towns by the Wey, played in the Great Civil War, and with some local incidents of the interregnum. No connected and detailed account of these stirring events has ever appeared. I shall, therefore, endeavour to fill up this gap in the town records. It is true that we have been promised for some time past a work on the Civil War in Dorset, but it has not yet been published.(Since this Paper was read, “The Great Civil War in Dorset, 1642 1660” by A. B. Bayley, B.A., Oxon., F.R.H.S., has appeared – a truly admirable work (Barnicott and Pearce, The Wessex Press, Taunton).
The feelings of bitter antagonism which sprang up between Charles I., on the one hand, and the House of Commons and a large part of the nation behind it, on the other hand, and which, ultimately, led to the Great Civil War and the Puritan Revolution, are so well known, that I need not touch upon that part of the subject.
The war broke out in August, 1642, and continued until the battle of Worcester, in 1651, that is to say, for a period of nine years. The towns of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis, and the Island and Castle of Portland, were of great importance, owing to their geographical position, especially their nearness to the French coast. (Weymouth proper lies on the south side, and Melcombe Regis [the more modern part of the Borough] on the North side of the harbour.)
A fine Fourteenth century church, was, at the commencement of the war, standing on the Chapelhaye, Weymouth, and was reached by 70 steps from the street below. By its commanding position, on the top of a precipitous cliff, it was admirably adapted for a stronghold, and was speedily converted by the Parliamentary troops into a fort called “the Chapel Fort.” As this fort commanded Melcombe (which lay on low ground to the front), as also a part of the harbour, it was, throughout the war, the key to the local situation. Another fort was erected at the Nothe to command the harbour and the bay. Platforms for artillery were set up at both these forts. Earthworks were thrown up, some at the then northern entrance to Melcombe Regis, and others just a little north of the junction of St. Thomas Street with Lower Bond Street, extending thence westwards probably to the Backwater. Several drawbridges were built and town gates erected, the positions of which are long since forgotten.
We naturally enquire whether the Weymouth and Melcombe people were mainly on the side of the Royalists or on that of the Parliament. Like the neighbouring towns of Poole, Dorchester, and Lyme Regis, they were for the most part decidedly in favour of the Parliament. In fact, the towns-folk throughout the South and East of England were to a great extent disaffected. As regards Weymouth and Melcombe, it is suggestive that, almost immediately on the outbreak of the war, and apparently without fighting, the towns fell into the hands of the Parliamentary forces,commanded by Sir Walter Erie and Sir Thomas Trenchard, who garrisoned and fortified them (2 Hut. Hist. Dors., Ed. 3, 423.) The Parliament also took possession, about the same time, of the coast towns of Lyme Regis and Poole, also of Portland and Dorchester. This was in August and September, 1642. Colonel William Sydenham, son-in-law of John Trenchard, of Warmwell, was appointed Governor of the towns of Weymouth and Melcombe. He was a leading figure in the subsequent contests. (The Governor’s residence was on or near the site of Steward’s Court, in Melcombe Regis. The lane in which the Court is situate is still known as “Governor’s Lane.”)
Both Weymouth and Melcombe were (as I am about to relate), subsequently taken and retaken several times by the opposing forces, the fate of the towns generally depending on that of Portland, the “Gibraltar of Wessex.”
BOTH TOWNS SEIZED BY THE ROYALISTS, AUGUST, 1643.
The house with the cannon ball embedded in the gable end, which stands at the corner of Maiden Street and St. Edmund Street. It is thought to date from the Civil War period. © DCM
Weymouth and Melcombe having remained in the hands of the Parliament for about a year, the Earl of Carnarvon (who had taken Bristol on behalf of the King, and was making a successful progress through Dorset with nearly 2,000 Horse and Dragoons), obtained the surrender of Dorchester, Weymouth, Melcombe, and Portland, and handed them over to Prince Maurice, the King’s Nephew, who had arrived with the Foot and cannon. This occurred early in August, 1643. The sight of these Ironsides in their heavy breastplates and steel morions, armed with musketoons, pistols and swords, must have been a striking one for the townsfolk, who, as yet, had seen but little of war. We may suppose that Carnarvon’s cavalry paraded in front of the bay, and that part of his horses were stabled in the late Priory in Maiden Street, then in ruins.
The conditions on which the towns had capitulated, with their arms, ordnance and ammunition, were that the inhabitants should not be plundered, nor suffer for any ill they had done ; but, unfortunately for the townsmen, Prince Maurice’s troops got quite out of hand and committed great ravages. They plundered the houses of the townsmen and, laden with booty, shouted and howled with joy. In fact, the articles agreed on at the surrender of the towns were so ill observed, that Carnarvon, who was a man of high honour, resented this conduct so much that he indignantly threw up his command and returned to the King at the siege of Gloucester. Matters were not improved for the townsmen by the landing at Weymouth in the following November of a body of 300 Irish soldiers under Lord Inchiquin, in support of the Royal forces.(Whitelock, p. 76.)
As to Portland, it was a Royal manor, and one of the King’s strongholds. It was of great importance as a base, not only on account of its inherent strength, but also of its proximity to Weymouth bay and harbour. The treasure and rich furniture which the rebels had but lately taken from Wardour Castle and elsewhere, had been lodged by them in Portland Castle, a prize which now fell to the Royalists.
On 20th February, 1643 – 4, a local misfortune befel some of the King’s cavalry which Prince Rupert had sent as a convoy with 3,000 en route for Weymouth. Some of the Parliament garrison of Poole and Wareham fell upon them near Dorchester (probably at Yellowham Wood), seized the money, with 100 horse, arms and ammunition, and carried all to Poole.(Coins were struck at Weymouth whilst garrisoned by Charles, half-crowns and, probably, shillings and sixpences were issued, the mint marks comprising part of the arms of the place.)
RETAKEN BY THE EARL OF ESSEX FOR THE PARLIAMENT, JUNE, 1644.
But the towns were shortly to be re-captured by the Parliament. The Earl of Essex, an honourable, steady man, but with little genius, had been appointed Commander-in-Chief by the Parliament. He had arrived at Blandford in June, 1644, with an army of 13,000, Horse and Foot, and, in that month, took Dorchester. It was felt that Weymouth and Melcombe were of much importance for the trade of the county. The towns, however, were of no great strength; Colonel William Ashburnham, the Royalist Governor there, and Captain-General of the county, had been negligent in completing the fortifications. Besides this, a change of government was facilitated by the fact that some of the townsmen (probably incensed by the exactions of the Cavaliers) had mutinied. Lyme was gallantly resisting a siege by the Royalists, commenced some two months previously under Prince Maurice, and Essex, proceeding on his march to relieve that town, sent to Weymouth, in advance, a party of Horse, under Sir Wm. Balfour. Four of the Weymouth burgesses went to Essex, who was then at Dorchester, to treat as to the surrender of the two towns. Favourable terms having been ultimately arranged, the Royalists, to the number of about 400, marched out of Weymouth on the following day (17th June), and proclamation was made that, upon pain of death, everyone should bring in all arms and ammunition to the Court of Guard and Town Hall before sunset.
Essex followed Balfour to Weymouth and remained there some days. Having possessed himself of the town, he rode to Sandsfoot Castle, which, being summoned, surrendered after three hours’ parley. The Earl of Warwick, the Parliamentary Lord High Admiral, had been engaged in relieving Lyme, and now appeared in Weymouth Roads with a fleet of nine ships to assist the operations of Essex in Melcombe. At this juncture Ashburnham retired with the remainder of his forces to Portland Castle, still held by the Royalists. Once more, then, the Parliament flag was floating over the forts of the two towns, and, without any fighting, a rich prize fell to the Parliament, including, it is said, 60 ships in the Harbour. Ashburnham’s conduct in retiring from Weymouth on the mere approach of Essex’s army was the subject of an enquiry by the King and Council, by whom he had the good fortune to be absolved from the charge of cowardice or neglect.
The memorable siege of Lyme Regis by the Royalists having been raised at about the same date as the surrender of Weymouth, Prince Maurice retired from Lyme to Exeter, and the surrendered Royalist garrison of Weymouth received orders to join him there. Favourable terms were granted them, as mentioned above, and the officers were allowed to march on horse-back, retaining their swords and pistols, the common soldiers to carry staves only.
Colonel William Sydenham was now re-appointed Governor of Weymouth for the Parliament, and the fortifications of the towns were vigorously proceeded with.
CHARLES I AT MAIDEN NEWTON.
In September and October of this year, the King was making a progress with his army from Chard through Dorset, in the course of which he came near Weymouth ; in fact, on the 1st October he quartered at Maiden Newton, staying at the Rectory House, and had “dinner in the field.” (Life of Bertie, Lord Lindsey.)
A ROYALIST CONSPIRACY, 1644.
Another change was about to take place, and the shadows of war were again shortly to hang over the towns. Sir Lewis Dyve, (Sir Lewis Dyve, of Bromham, Bedford, was connected with some of the principal Royalist families in Dorset. He was taken in August, 1645, with immense booty, at the capture of Sherborne Castle. Being brought to the bar of the House and refusing to kneel, he was compelled by force. He was M.P. for Weymouth 3 Chas 1..) who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Dorsetshire Royalist forces, had received orders from the King, then at Sherborne, for the re-capture of Weymouth and Melcombe. The Roundheads did not expect this. Peter Ince (appointed by the Dorset Standing Committee to be officiating Minister of he Weymouth Garrison), wrote
“In the beginning of February ” (1644) ” we were in as sweet a quiet and security as any Garrison in the Kingdom : no enemy near us but one at Portland, and that not very considerable, being but about three or four hundred men.” But a conspiracy by some of the townsmen (in conjunction with some in Portland) to betray the towns to the Royalists had by this time been formed, and materially helped Sir Lewis Dyve in his project. This conspiracy and its results formed some of the most interesting and important incidents of the war here.
I am unaware of any Royalist records containing other than very brief accounts of the siege of Melcombe, and of the events which immediately led up to it. I am therefore mainly indebted for information to Parliamentary sources; many of these being official, I see no reason to doubt their general accuracy. Of the sources referred to, I would particularly specify two rare Commonwealth pamphlets of which I possess copies, one being a relation of the siege, &c.,(A Brief Relation of the Surprise of the Forts of Weymouth, the Siege of Melcombe, the Recovery of the Forts and Raising of the Siege.”
By P. I., Minister to the Garrison, 1644 [March 20]. King’s Pamphlets, Vol. 198, No. 7.) by Peter Ince (before referred to), and the other a report of certain examinations taken before a Council of War at Weymouth, in March, 1645. (“The last Speeches and Confession of Captain John Cade and John Mils, Constable ; who were hanged at Waymouth for endeavouring to betray that Garrison to the enemy with all the severall examinations of the Plotters and the sentences denounced against them and others of the said Conspiracie. By W. Sydenham, Col. ; Governor of Waymouth and Captain William Batten, Vice-Admirall of the Navie and the rest of the Counsell of War at Waymouth 1645 ” [March 27]. King’s Pamphlets, Vol. 198, No. 28.)
It appears that, as early as Christmas, 1644, Fabian Hodder, a merchant and staunch Melcombe Royalist, was in secret communication with Sir Lewis Dyve, then stationed at Sherborne, and afterwards with Sir William Hastings, the Royalist Governor of Portland Castle. This was a risky business, and so the correspondence was carried on by Weymouth women, they being less likely to be suspected. (The bearers of Royalist messages from persons of high rank and importance were sometimes given ” tongue tokens,” as a proof of the genuineness of the bearers, when no written word could be risked. These tokens were tiny ovals of gold, small enough to be put under the tongue in case of need, with the head of Charles on one side and his initials on the other.) John Cade, an Alderman of Melcombe, who had served as a Captain in the Royalist forces, and John Mills, one of the Town Constables, were two other chief plotters. In consequence of Hodder’s appeals, Sir Lewis Dyve promised that he would come with 1,500 Horse and Foot, about mid- night on Sunday, the 9th February, 1644-5, to surprise Melcombe, and that he would give the plotters (according to the confession of one of them at the Council of War subsequently held), £500. The scheme of this cleverly-hatched conspiracy was that Melcombe should be attacked by Sir Lewis Dyve on that night, and that, simultaneously, part of the King’s forces in Portland, reinforced by the Islanders there, should come out and seize the Chapel and Nothe forts on Weymouth side. Besides these, there were conspirators in some of the adjoining villages, especially Preston and Sutton Poyntz, whence about 60 men were to be let into the town to join in the attack on Melcombe. The conspirators were to take the following oath, framed by Fabian Hodder : ” You shall swear by the Holy Trinity that you will conceal the intended plot.” The pass-word was “Crabchurch,” and round the arm a white handkerchief was to be worn. The town gates of Melcombe were to be opened to let in Sir Lewis, the Main Guard was to be seized, the Major of the Parliamentary regiment was to be slain, and the doors of the marshalsea, or prison, in which the prisoners of war taken by the Roundheads were confined, were to be broken open, so that they, being released, might join the attacking forces. Some of the gunners in the Chapel and Nothe Forts were parties to the conspiracy. The time, too, was opportune, for there was no Parliament ship in the Roads.
THE NIGHT SURPRISE OF THE CHAPEL AND NOTHE FORTS BY THE ROYALISTS, FEBRUARY 9th, 1645.
When the eventful Sunday came round, an order was given during Divine Service, in the picturesque old church at Churchope, that part of the Portland garrison and the Islanders should appear, with their arms, at the Castle at Castletown, by five o’clock in the evening of that day. The men having assembled, two companies were formed, under the command of Sir William Hastings one to go by land and the other by water to Weymouth proper. One company accordingly proceeded along the road by the Chesil Beach to Smallmouth. There was no bridge in those days at this narrow inlet of the sea ; it was crossed by means of a passage-boat kept by a ferryman on the Wyke side, and was known as “The Passage.” A Weymouth plotter, John Dry, a tanner by trade, had arranged with the ferryman to have his boat in readiness to bring over the Royalists. Let us picture the scene : it is now dark, silently they effect the crossing, and are met on the Wyke side by the tanner, who conducts them to the Chapel Fort. We may assume that the route chosen, in order to secure secrecy and to attack the Chapel Fort from the rear, is by Buxton and St. Leonard’s Roads, then unfrequented lanes. Meanwhile the other company goes by water to the ancient pier (long since demolished), under the Nothe, whence,led by Walter Bond, a Hope fisherman, they creep along to the Nothe Fort. The total number of the attacking party from Portland is small and does not exceed 120. As to Melcombe, all is excitement among the plotters there, in the expectation that Sir Lewis Dyve is about to arrive and co-operate in the capture of the towns. A strange gathering of country-folk (either conspirators or, at least, Royalist sympathisers), meet on Radipole Common to watch for the arrival of Dyve’s forces and to see the Nothe fight. Some, we are told, are armed with pistols, one with a Welsh hook, and others with cudgels.
The secret is remarkably well kept ; a complete surprise of the Chapel Fort is effected about midnight, the Royalists suddenly falling upon the sentinels, while most of the Roundhead soldiers are asleep. The Roundheads sound a belated alarm with their drums, but the Royalists, with loud shouts, we may suppose, of ” For God and King Charles,” occupy the fort, practically, without resistance. The Roundheads, however, “finding,” Ince says, “such dangerous guests possesst of those places which above a half yeeres pain and sweat had indeavoured to make our security,” pull themselves together and within an hour of the surprise, make a sudden assault, but are repulsed with loss. Amongst the mortally wounded in this assault is Major Francis Sydenham, the Governor’s brother, an officer greatly esteemed, who died the next day.(Major Francis Sydenham took a prominent part in the Civil War in Dorset.) The attack on the Nothe Fort is also successful, and once more the Royalist Standard is raised. (“God appearing for the Parliament in sundry late victories, &c. March 10, 1644.” King’s Pamphlets, Vol. I..95, No. 22.) The Parliament men, although exposed to the fire of their enemy, and notwithstanding the loss of the forts, manage to remain in Weymouth proper until the evening of the following day.(Colonel Ralph Weldon, son of Sir Anthony Weldon, Baronet, of Swanscombe, Kent, was in command of one of the Parliamentary regiments in Weymouth when the Chapel Fort was surprised by the Royalists. Not long after the raising of the siege of Melcombe, he, as Senior Colonel, commanded a brigade sent to relieve Taunton, then besieged by the Cavaliers. Weldon entered the town and raised the siege. He was a collateral ancestor of the Rev. Canon Weldon, D.D., the esteemed Vicar of Holy Trinity, Weymouth. It is remarkable that the Canon should now have, as part of his parochial organisation, the noble schools built on the actual site of the fort which his ancestor had defended!)
Richard Wiseman, who has been justly called ” the Father of English Surgery,” was in the Chapel Fort amongst the Royalists, at the time of the surprise, and attended some of the wounded. His “Seven Chirurgical Treatises” show the great advance he made in sound surgical practice. He was appointed surgeon to Charles II. and died 1676.(Sir Thomas Longman’s ”Richard Wiseman,” 1891.)
ARRIVAL OF SIR LEWIS DYVE, FEBRUARY 10TH, 1645.
Sir Lewis Dyve had caused serious disappointment to the King’s allies, by not arriving so soon as he had promised. Instead of coming on the Sunday, he kept the Royalists in suspense until noon of the following day (Monday). He then arrived with Horse and Foot, and, aiding Hastings, took possession of the remaining portion of Weyinouth proper. The Roundheads, in the evening of that day, withdrew to Melcombe, raising the drawbridge which divided the two towns. It is strange that their retreat was unopposed : Ince says “Our enemies tamely yeelded it ” (i.e., Melcombe), ” as untenable. We had scarce bestowed a Fortnight’s work on it since we possesst this garrison.”
ROYALIST SOLDIERS AT RADIPOLE
We get a glimpse of some of the Royalist soldiers on the Wednesday following the surprise of the forts. They refreshed themselves by marching to that part of the village of Radipole called Causeway, where, together with ” Master Wood, Clerke, Curate of Sutton Poyntz,” they regaled themselves at an ale-house and we are told, I regret to say, that some of them became “distempered with beare.” About 80 years ago, a tradition existed in Radipole of the passage through the village of soldiers in the Civil War. For aught I know, the tradition may still survive.
SIEGE OF MELCOMBE BY THE ROYALISTS, FEBRUARY, 1645.
The Royalists now poured on Melcombe from the Chapel Fort ” a multitude of great Bullets and Iron Bars, hot and cold,” battering down some of the houses. ” Some of their gunners ingaged themselves to levell us with the ground.” (Ince.)
Pikeman of the English Civil War © DCM
The long siege of that town had begun. It was resolutely held by the Roundheads. Owing to its geographical position, they were at a serious disadvantage, whereas the Cavaliers, with ample ammunition, were encamped in what was, practically, a citadel on the top of a precipitous hill, and also held the Nothe Fort, commanding the harbour, and a small fort at Bincleaves. The Royalist forces, when at full strength, numbered 4,000 or 5,000 – the Parliamentary, 900 only, and these were looked upon by the Royalists as being almost prisoners at mercy. But those sturdy Roundheads at once surrounded Melcombe with
earthworks, and defended it with splendid tenacity, avenging the losses they had sustained on Dyve’s arrival.
All that week cannonading and burning of houses went on, but with little effect. The Roundheads, therefore, proposed that there should be no more such useless burnings ; the Cavaiers replied, ” We scorn to parley with you, and will do what we please.” Sydenham then set on fire seven or eight houses in Weymouth proper and fired some Royalists’ ships on that side. Meanwhile, two Parliament ships, aided by a favourable wind, and other welcome reinforcements to the Parliament forces, arrived, including 100 Horse. Captain William Batten, Vice-Admiral of the Navy, anchoring in the roadstead with
the “James,” landed some 200 seamen who ” have proved themselves very brave men in all this service ” ; the ships also relieved the forces in Melcombe of 200 Royalist prisoners. A further detachment of 100 Cavalry, under Lieut. Colonel James Haynes, came by land.
On the following Sunday (the 16th), Sydenham routed a troop of Royalist Horse near Radipole, slaying some and capturing about 80 Horse and 45 prisoners. The Roundheads “chased the little remnant that remained up to the gates of Weymouth.”
Sir Lewis Dyve’s, Sir Thomas Austin’s, and Cleveland’s Horse, with some Foot, blocked the Parliament forces at the north end of Melcombe. Notwithstanding this, the latter sallied forth from time to time, and on one occasion succeeded in bringing in 900 sheep, and a Royalist Captain who had mistaken the Roundheads for some of his own party.
George, Lord Goring, the King’s Lieutenant-General in Hampshire and some other counties, leaving Salisbury, had arrived in Mid Dorset at the head of an army of upwards of 3,000 Horse, 1,500 Foot, and a train of artillery, besides such reinforcements as he found in these parts. On Sunday, February 23rd, there rang through besieged Melcombe the cry, ” The Cavalry,” ” The Cavalry,” for, in truth, Goring,leaving his main forces at Dorchester, had sent a detachment of Horse and Foot which, with much beating of drums and blowing of trumpets, was now approaching the town.
There were those amongst Goring’s troops who bore names held high in honour in England, younger sons of great families who had readily accepted commissions in the company known in many a field of battle as ” Goring’s Horse.” But they had to reckon here with a resolute and sleepless foe. Goring, being joined by Sir Thomas Austin’s and Cleveland’s Horse with some Foot, drew down in a body and faced Sydenham all that day, but strange to say, no summons came to surrender. The next day Sydenham captured a work which Goring’s troops had thrown up about a furlong from the town at its north end, slaying some of his men.
PARLIAMENT REGAINS WEYMOUTH PROPER, FEBRUARY 25TH, 1645.
On the following Tuesday (the 25th) an incident occurred, apparently trivial, but which actually proved the turning point in the contest. A party of Royalist Horse conveying provisions to the town were completely routed by the Parliament men and some prisoners were taken. The Royalists in the Chapel Fort, apprised of this, sent out 100 Foot to relieve their Horse, who were flying before the Roundheads, and to regain the stores. Sydenham (who was then in the field with his Horse), taking advantage of this circumstance, adroitly drew out about 150 Musketeers, who, under the command of Major Wilson and
Captain Langford, crossed the bridge from Melcombe, and within an hour stormed and carried, with the loss of only one man, the Chapel Fort and Weymouth proper. The Royalists did not discover the enemy until they were on the outworks, and, probably overestimating their number, soon cried for ” quarter.” The Roundheads took 60 prisoners, also a Lieutenant-Colonel, a Major, three Captains, three Lieutenants, and 100 inferior officers and common soldiers, with ome ” of the profidious townsmen, who after taking the covenant with us were got into arms against us” (Ince). They also took prisoner Captain Alexander Keynes, the owner of Radipole Farm, described by Ince as ” a Papist,” and as having in his ” Portmantle, a parcell of Holy Beads, a Commission for a Ship to play the Pirat with at Sea, which lay blank at Dunkirk.” They also captured 40 loads of provisions of which they were at this time greatly in need.
This was a disaster which was bitterly regretted by the Royalists, who had held the fort for 17 days only. Sir Lewis Dyve, in reporting the loss to his step-father, the Earl of Bristol, described it as a ” strange misfortune,” and wrote to Sir John Berkeley on the day of the disaster as follows : “My Lord Goring hath set up his rest to go through with it, being confident of your speedy assistance in a worke of that infinite importance to his Majestie’s service so that this place being taken, which wee are confident cannot be a worke of many dayes, the west is not only secured thereby, but my Lord Goring will likewise have an opportunity of advancing into the associated counties, which are now left naked.”
The Nothe Fort and the small fort at Bincleaves remained in the hands of the Royalists, but these were of small account, while their adversaries held the Chapel Fort. On the two following days the two neighbour towns battered away hard at one another ” both with great and small shott.”
LORD GORING’S UNSUCCESSFUL NIGHT ATTACK, FEBRUARY 28TH, 1645.
Exasperated by Sydenham’s recent success, Goring determined to carry Melcombe and Weymouth by assault in the night of Thursday, February 27th. Ince, however, says that Goring ” had no great stomack to the businesse.” Ill-fortune again attended the Royalists. Ince states that Goring “so guarded all wayes that no intelligence must come neer us.” Notwithstanding, a Roundhead, who had been taken prisoner two or three days before, ” though very strictly watcht,” managed to escape from Weymouth on the evening of the intended assault (or on that of the preceding day) and reaching Sydenham’s Horse, then in the field, warned him of the impending blow, with the result that the Roundheads placed themselves in the best position of defence. Captain Batten, too, came on shore with 100 seamen. Meanwhile, Goring marched from Dorchester with his whole body, and about one or two o’clock in the morning of Friday, 28th of February, attacked, at the same time, both towns, in several places, (the larger number attacking at the west end of Weymouth proper), and also attacked the Chapel Fort. It was a bright moonlight night. Sydenham says, (Letter from him, to the Committee of the West, March 1st, 1644.) ” they furiously stormed us at severall places of both Townes The enemy came in great multitudes thorow the streets and backsides at both ends of the Towne and disputed with us very hotly about three houres.” The Royalists at the north end of Melcombe lay behind a bank and did not come to close quarters, but fired at a distance. At the western end of Weymouth proper, Sydenham resorted to a stratagem ; he vacated the guard there (near the old Town Hall) and made a “barricade ” in High-street (which lay immediately beneath the Chapel Fort), planting a gun there. The Royalists gave a “loud hoop” of joy as they entered the deserted work, but marching down the street were repulsed by the Roundheads, leaving some dead and carrying away others to Dorchester and elsewhere for burial. Meanwhile, the Irish and other Royalists from the Nothe Fort attacked and took a small fort near the bridge in Weymouth proper, commanded by Captain Thornhill, forcing the Parliament men to retreat, but, Sydenham coming on the scene rallied his men, and, after some sharp fighting, the fort was recovered, some of the Royalists being slain. Sydenham’s horse was here shot under him. In the result the Cavaliers were defeated in all quartets and beaten back into their works. Sydenham’s men retained all Weymouth proper, except a small part towards the Nothe ; they also repulsed the enemy in Melcombe. Many of the Royalists were drowned. According to Ince, the latter reported their losses, in and subsequently to Sydenham’s assault on the Chapel Fort, in killed, wounded, and prisoners, at 400 or 500 (these numbers were probably much exaggerated), and, it was said, that 80 dead and wounded were carried to the adjoining village of Wyke Regis. Amongst the dead and wounded there were, Sydenham adds, “divers in Buffcoats and Velvet Jackets.”
RAISING OF THE SIEGE, FEBRUARY 28TH, 1645.
It seems that the Royalists now suspected the near approach of the Parliamentary forces under Sir William Waller, who, had been ordered to relieve Weymouth, but had been delayed owing to his Cavalry having broken out into open mutiny. Consequently, about ten o’clock on the morning of Friday, February 28th, the Royalists under Lord Goring and Sir Lewis Dyve suddenly drew out their forces, abandoning the Nothe and Bincleaves Forts, leaving behind them their colours, and the guns for the most part unspiked, with much arms and other booty, and without burning the corn or houses, “and so,” Captain Batten wrote,” are gone in a very confused manner.”(Letter from Captain Batten to Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons, February 28th 1644. The like from Colonel William Sydenham of even date) They withdrew to Wyke Regis, where they remained for a short time to succour the wounded, and then marched to Dorchester, and afterwards towards Taunton. This ended the siege of Melcombe, which had lasted 18 days. Thus both towns were regained by the Parliament after continuous conflicts. The loss of these two important coast towns was a great disaster to the Royalist cause.
The losses of the Roundheads, throughout, were marvellously small. They attributed their success to the interposition of Divine Providence. Sydenham says in reference to Goring’s assault ” In all this time they wounded but one of my men.”
Considering the great inequality of the forces engaged and the weakness of Melcombe, it is strange that the siege should have continued so long. It seems to have been due to extraordinary negligence on the part of Goring. He was a man of distinguished presence and is said to have been every inch a soldier, but he cut a sorry figure on this occasion.
The Parliament soldiers at the end of the fight were in sad plight. Sydenham wrote on the day the siege was raised: “My souldiers Horse and Foot have all had very hard service of it day and night. I shall entreat you to write to the Parliament for something for their encouragement ; they have neither money nor cloathes, and yet unwearied in this business.”
PARLIAMENT POSSESSES ALL DORSET.
The whole county was now possessed by Parliament, except Portland, Sherborne, and Corfe Castle. Portland Castle surrendered to Captain Batten about a year after the rout of the Royalists in Melcombe (viz., on April 6th, 1646) (Captain Batten, in reporting the surrender of Portland to Lenthall, Speaker of the House of Commons, wrote April 7th, 1646, “When they march’d away. . . they had not a colour in the island. As to the sequestration of their estates. . . there is not a hundred pounds a year amongst them all, the Governour excepted. . . . The island was very stronge and would have cost much blood to have reduced it by force. . . . There is more tobe done on the island with a faire carriage than by violence.”) and Sherborne and Corfe Castle having been captured, the reduction of the County to the Parliamentary forces was completed.
THE HANGING OF THE ROYALIST CONSPIRATORS, MARCH 3RD, 1645.
Colonel Sydenham, the Governor of Weymouth, lost no time in dealing summarily with the chief Royalist conspirators in the plot for surprising the forts. Captain Batten had them, with many other prisoners, on board his ship, ” in a posture speedily to be hanged,” and wrote to the Speaker of the House of Commons as to the prisoners : ” Tomorrow, we shall shorten the number by hanging some of the towns men who are prisoners on board us and were the betrayers of the town.” Accordingly a council of war was held on Saturday, March 1st, 1645, and on several succeeding days, before the Governor, all the field officers and captains of the Weymouth Garrison, Captain Batten, Admiral of the Fleet then riding in Weymouth Bay, and divers other sea Captains. Captain Cade, the coadjutor of Fabian Hodder, made a confession and was hanged ; Samways, a Melcombe tailor, was brought to the gallows to be hanged ; but, expressing much sorrow for his treachery, he, and Walter Bond, the Hope fisherman, were reprieved and carried back to prison, ” to make a further discovery of their partners.”(Mercurius Britanicus No. 75.) One of the plotters, ” an Irish rebell, a native Papist, put a rope about his own neck and hanged himself …. without judgement or execution, doing all upon himself.” Then, as regards Mills, the Constable, the report of the council of war states that he died ” most desperately,” ” without any signe or token of sorrow or repentance,” and that ” when he was upon the Ladder, he most desperately threw himself off, not shewing any signes of humiliation, or calling upon God for mercie on his soul, but, carelessly, in a most desperate manner, died, not so much as praying to God to receive his soul.” The hangings took place at the Nothe point, on the Monday morning following the first sitting of the council of war. Peter Ince adds with some bitterness, “There be not many of the villains left, but their sin hath found them out.” As to these, the report continues, ” Divers of them are slain, Fabian Hodder and others are in Prison at Poole and other places, not yet tried, and some are run away.” Sydenham threatened to make a halter for Fabian Hodder ‘s neck, he being the chief conspirator, but he contrived to escape and, returning to Melcombe, became, after the Restoration, a member of the Corporate body.
PUBLIC THANKSGIVING, MARCH 12TH, 1645, &c.,
On the 4th March following, an Order was made by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, for a Public Thanksgiving to be held on the 12th inst. for the success of the Parliament Forces in (inter alia) the regaining of Weymouth. (Minutes of Parliament)
The following appears in ” Mercurius Britanicus ” communicating ” the affaires of great Britaine For the better Information of the People, From Monday the 14 of April to Monday the 21 of April, 1645,” viz. : ” Divers Orders passed for payment of monies to the Garrisons of Lyme, Weymouth, and other places. But especially let Lyme and Weymouth be remembred, for never in any Nation did two places ennoble themselves by more gallant action. May we alwayes remember the famous services of Sydenham and Ceeley. May they be a patterne of imitation to others in like cases of extremitie.” Colonel Thomas Ceely was Governor of Lyme Regis, under the Parliament, during the notable siege of that town.
A month after the raising of the siege of Melcombe, the Vice-Admiral issued a warrant for clearing the streets of the soil and ruins which encumbered them, and for this purpose Lighters were impressed.
The Parliament retained possession of the towns until the termination of the war, brought about by the final overthrow of the Royalist cause at the Battle of Worcester, September 3rd, 1651. Soon afterwards nearly all the forts here (including the Chapel Fort) were dismantled and the materials sold.
EFFECTS OF THE SIEGE.
The townsmen had suffered ruinous loss and damage during the war. Many of their houses had been burnt or destroyed, others came toppling down in the streets, gardens had been dug up for soil with which to form earthworks, the church on the Chapelhay had been practically demolished, the bridge and the quays were in decay, and the harbour partly choked. The wall of the town marsh had been beaten down (why or wherefore I cannot say, possibly a battery had been placed there to reduce Melcombe) ; provisions had run short, all available supplies having been taken possession of by the military authorities, the streets had been reddened with the blood of those who had fought for King or Parliament. The townsfolk had, during part of the time, been at a charge of £30 per month to maintain soldiers quartered there, and two guards, and had been subjected to the rapine and tyrannous conduct of the soldiery. The total loss of property was estimated at £20,000. What this must have meant to such small and very poor places, dependent almost entirely on fishing, the Newfoundland trade, and the revenue from the harbour, we can scarcely realise. Indeed for a time all was in chaos ; trade wa? well nigh suspended ; the Town Clerk had gone off during the wars, and such was the death-like torpor which prevailed, that the Corporation seem to have met twice only in about two years, and entries in the Parochial Registers of Baptisms, Marriages, and Burials were for long discontinued.(In August, 1645, an Ordinance of Parliament was made, directing the Standing Committee of the County of Dorset to put in force a weekly assessment for six months, for the support of Colonel Edmund Massey’s forces. This led to the presentation of a petition by the Weymouth Corporation to the Committee. A copy of this petition is here inserted, as it throws light on the state of the town at the time.
“The humble Peticon ” &c. ” sheweth that yor petr* have sustained great losses in their estate to the value of many thousand pounds by occasion of the warre and the late seige against this towne in which divers of their houses were burnt and destroyed & ye Inhabitants of Waymouth plundered of their goods, and before that, much of yor petrs lands wasted and their houses and buildings pulled downe and their goods ymployed for ye better fortifynge of ye Garrison ; & have expended much in free quarteringe of Souldiers & cloansinge ye towne after the seige. And yor Petrs are hitherto at a great charge & trouble for ye maintenance of ye Garrison by quarteringe, Lights for ye Guard, watchinge and bearinge armes at their owne pper costs & charges pforminge that dutie of watchinge in their turnes as often as the souldiers, in wch yor petrs shall, with all readines & cheerefulnes continue as long as God shall enable them. And now yor Petrs are informed by ye Constables that aW arrant is granted by you for the raiseing of f ouer pounds weekly upon them wch (by reason of ye pmisses & their extreame poverty for want of trade as in former times) yor petrs are not only unable to pay but are put to hard shifts for ye maintenance of their owne families & the poore amongst them. And therefore yor petrs are necessitated to present their condicon unto y r serious consideracon. Humbly prayinge that they may be freed from the payment of ye said weekly assessment.” – Weymouth Corporation Records.
A GHASTLY MURDER.
We now reach a period 17 months after the raising of the siege; the townsfolk have pretty well settled, amongst themselves, their political animosities, are clearing the narrow streets of the earth and rubbish deposited during the war, and are making good the damage done to their houses and gardens, when they are startled by an extraordinary story which forms the subject of gossip at every street corner. Personal narratives connected with sieges in the Civil War have not frequently come down to us in any detail. I will, therefore, relate this one. There is a well-known public passage which leads into New Street, on the South side of the Pawnbroker’s shop in St. Mary Street, Melcombe Regis. This passage was called, until recently, Blockhouse Lane, because it led to a square stone-built Elizabethan fort, facing the bay, called “the Blockhouse.” On the site of the pawnbroker’s shop stood, during the Civil War, what is described in an old record, as ” a house of entertainment,” meaning, of course, an Inn or Public House. It was kept by a man named John Chiles. We learn that, at the time of the siege, owing to the perturbed state of the town, the house “was for the most part full of people day and night.”
The excitement which prevails at the time I was speaking of is in consequence of Chiles having just been arrested on a charge preferred against him of having, a few days after the siege, murdered a guest in his house. What stirs the populace so much is, that this terrible charge has been made by his own wife. Let us go to the ancient Town Hall in St. Edmund Street – probably an Elizabethan building – and hear the case which is about to be tried by the Borough Justices. Chiles’ wife gives her evidence. She says that a Trader named William Courtney (who seems to have come from Taunton Dean) lodged at the house on the Thursday night after the siege ; that he was a middle-aged man, with flaxen hair and yellow beard, and wore a short coat ; that he was accommodated with a pallet of straw, by the bedside of her husband and herself ; that he had with him £300 in a canvas bag, viz : 52 in silver and the rest in gold ; that about midnight her husband asked her to agree to the murder of the trader ; that she replied that she feared to do so, lest she should be hanged, to which Chiles answered that ” it was noe matter for killinge of a man now t’was a tyme of warre ; ” that her husband then got up, took a hammer, and struck Courtney twice on the forehead, while asleep; that he ” thereupon spraled, but spoke not at all ; ” that having cut away his ” shorte coate ” and part of his other clothes, she and her husband dragged the corpse down the stairs (her husband going before and she after), and carried it into an outhouse ; that her husband then looked into the street and, not seeing anyone, they together carried the corpse to some earthworks which had been constructed on the north side of the Blockhouse, and thence, apparently, along the shore, to the end of the old jetty or pier (near where the Custom House on the Quay now stands), and there threw it into the sea. There was, certainly, an appearance of truth about all this, because the jetty was the eastern most part of the quay in those days, and Chiles and his wife would naturally think that the body would be carried out into the bay. On their returning home the same way, they were challenged by the sentry at the Blockhouse, but met with no other hindrance. This gruesome business occupied an hour and a half in that dark winter night. When Chiles reached his home, he, to quote the words of his wife, ” strooke fire and lighted a candle, and told the money in their low room, on ye bare table which stands by ye window next ye streete, and laide ye gould by itselfe, and the white mony by itselfe, and then putt it up agayne into the said bagge,” and then they both went to bed, her husband saying ” that that mony would make them both.”
Apparently, Chiles’ wife must have been actuated by extraordinary malice in bringing this accusation against her husband, so long after the event, especially as by so doing she, as an accomplice, might have risked her own neck.
Chiles denied the charge in toto. The body was not recovered, and, in fact, conflicting evidence was given to show that Courtney was still alive. The wife’s statement, however, was so circumstantial, that the Justices were greatly puzzled, and had the case under consideration for four months. At length, the prisoner was committed to the Dorset Assizes, for trial. Our curiosity as to the upshot of this seventeenth century trial cannot be gratified, for no report appears to be extant. Let us hope that justice was ultimately done. This was a cause celebre, and the alleged ghastly murder of the man with the “flaxen hair and yellow beard” must have been remembered in Weymouth for many a long year.(Weymouth Corporation Record [formerly Sherren Papers], 245, p. 78.)
THE FAT CAPTAIN OF HORSE.
We now turn for a moment to an entirely different scene. Some time after the Civil War had ceased and the townsmen had quieted down, George Fox, the celebrated founder of the Quakers, visited Melcombe and held a meeting with the Quakers, who had become fairly numerous here. He met with a remarkable man amongst the Parliamentary troops quartered in the town. Fox speaks of him as a Captain of Horse. When Fox left the place, they rode together up the old Ridgeway road to Dorchester, and a very strange pair they were. Fox says, in his well-known “Journal,” (Journal of George Fox, by W. Armstead, Vol. 1,)
“This Captain was the fattest, merriest man, the most cheerful and the most given to laughter that ever I met with.” Fox, the grave Quaker, therefore felt bound to admonish him ” to come to sobriety ; ” but, at first, to little effect, for Fox naively adds, ” And yet, he would presently laugh at anything he saw.” What a splendid character this fat, cheery Captain of Horse would have made in Dickens’ hands! Which character, think you, would you have liked best, the fat boy in ” Pickwick,” who was always sleeping, or the fat Captain in Wey mouth, who was always laughing ? I believe you would have preferred the merry Captain, who ; would presently laugh at anything he saw.” With this tribute to his memory, I conclude my Paper.