Ascension Day Customs: Beating the Bounds

Beating the Bounds Dorchester 2nd July 1901 DCM © 2015

Beating the Bounds Dorchester 2nd July 1901 DCM © 2015

Dorset Folklorist, John Symonds Udal wrote about the traditions of ‘Beating the Bounds’ on Holy Thurday (Ascension Day) in Dorset in his book ‘Dorsetshire Folklore’ published in 1922:-

Beating the Bounds.— It was the general custom in olden days, and is still observed in many parishes in Dorsetshire, for certain persons to go round, or perambulate the boundaries or limits of their own particular parish in Rogation Week, or,—to be more precise,—on one of the three days before Holy Thursday or Ascension Day, though more often, I think, on Holy Thursday itself. Upon these occasions, as Brand (i, 168) tells us, ” the minister, accompanied by his churchwardens and parishioners, were wont to deprecate the vengeance of God, beg a blessing on the fruits of the earth, and preserve the rights and properties of the parish.”

In Dorsetshire the last of these objects would seem to be the one principally or solely considered at the present day. This perambulation is known as “Beating the Bounds”.
Before I proceed to the ” perambulations” of particular parishes, I would like to produce in full the most amusing account of this interesting and useful custom contributed by William Barnes to Hone’s Year Book (p. 589) as existing in Dorsetshire in his younger days. He says :—

“A Perambulation, or, as it might be more correctly called, a circumambulation, is the custom of going round the boundaries of a manor or parish, with witnesses, to determine and preserve recollection of its extent, and to see that no encroachments have been made upon it, and that the landmarks have not been taken away. It is a proceeding commonly regulated by the steward, who takes with him a few men and several boys who are required to particularly observe the boundaries traced out, and thereby qualify themselves for witnesses in the event of any dispute about the landmarks or extent of the manor at a future day. In order that they may not forget the lines and marks of separation they ‘ take pains y at almost every turning. For instance, if the boundary be a stream, one of the boys is tossed into it; if a broad ditch, the boys are offered money to jump over it, in which they, of course, fail, and pitch into the mud, where they stick as firmly as if they had been rooted there for the season ; if a hedge, a sapling is cut out of it and used in afflicting that part of their bodies upon which they rest in the posture between standing and lying; if a wall, they are to have a race on the top of it, when, in trying to pass each other, they fall over on each side, some descending, perhaps, into the still stygian waters of a ditch, and others thrusting the ‘human face divine ‘ into a bed of nettles ; if the boundary be a sunny bank, they sit down upon it and get a treat of beer and bread and cheese, and, perhaps, a glass of spirits.

When these boys grow up to be men, if it happens that one of them should be asked if a particular stream were the boundary of the manor he had perambulated, he would be sure to say, in the manner of Sancho Panza ‘ Ees, that ’tis, I’m sure o’t, by the same token that I were tossed into’t, and paddled about there lik’ a water-rot till I wor hafe dead.’ If he should be asked whether the aforesaid pleasant bank were ,a boundary : ‘ O, ees it be, ‘ he would say, ‘that’s where we squat down and tucked in a skinvull of vittles and drink.”

With regard to any boundary perambulation after that he would most likely declare, ‘ I won’t be sartin; I got zo muddled up top o’ the banks, that don’ know where we ambulated arter that.'”

Melcombe Regis. — The late Mr. H. J. Moule, sometime curator of the Dorset County Museum at Dorchester, and a learned writer upon the county’s antiquities, in his account of the ” Weymouth and Melcombe Regis Borough Records “, which he edited in 1883, gives (p. 9) several extracts from a small folio volume, chiefly of law minutes, comprising depositions taken about the middle of the seventeenth century, recording a ” perambulation ” of the parish of Melcombe Regis about that time, in which one of the deponents, an old woman of 82 years of age, speaks of having joined in a ” Procession” round the bounds of Melcombe Regis nearly three-quarters of a century previously, and deposes to an ” old elderne stubb ” (stump) at Washford as having been one of the boundaries.
Radipole.—The same deponent also testified that the minister of the adjoining parish of Radipole, with his parishioners, used to go round their bounds on the same day; and at a pound on the bounds (“in the place of which pound a dairy house was sithence builded “) he read a chapter and ” alsoe a psalm there to be sung “. After this the perambulation was continued, the villagers on the west side of some rails then standing and the townsmen on the east side.

West Lulworth.— There is also in the same volume (C. p. 232) a reference to still earlier depositions (Elizabethan), in which an old man gives evidence as to his having often ” after he was of remembrance” gone on procession, as the custom then was, with the minister and parishioners to take ” view” of the boundaries of the parish of West Lulworth. The witness describes the route, ending at Furzeymill Pitt, ” where they had usuall Beere and Cake-bread.”

Chideock.— A very complete account of the ” perambulation ” of the bounds of a parish and manor as entered in old records is that of Chideock, in West Dorset, which took place before the steward of the manor and many inhabitants of the parish. It is given by the Rev. T. Worthington in his History of Chideock, and copied by the late H. N. Cox in his account of that parish, contributed in a series of papers to the Southern Times in 1886. Mr. Cox also, like Mr. Barnes, alludes to the various steps that were sometimes taken to impress upon the memory of the boys who accompanied the perambulation the exact situation of the boundaries.

Bridport.— Although the main incidents of these several ” perambulations ” may have been very much the same, yet occasionally they have been varied by others of a more interesting or amusing character. A modern instance of the latter, fortunately attended by no serious result, occurred on the occasion of “beating the bounds ” of the borough of Bridport in 1891, which was reported in several West Country papers. The following account, taken from the Bath Daily Chronicle of 24th October, 1891, appears in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries for December, 1891 (vol. ii, p. 305) :—

“The historic function of walking the boundaries of the Borough of Bridport by the Mayor and Corporation and the principal inhabitants was the occasion of an amusing contretemps. In the course of the perambulation the city fathers came to a large millpond, which marked the boundary of the town. It was necessary to the performance of the ceremony that the pond should be crossed, and the Mayor, the Borough Surveyor, and another embarked on a large raft, on which they were to be towed across. They had not been long afloat when the raft was submerged by their weight, and the trio were standing up to their knees in water. When half-way over, to make matters worse, the rope became entangled, and, amid the laughter of the townspeople, the Mayor toppled over into the pond, and his two fellow-citizens were also precipitated into the water. They quickly regained the raft, but were as quickly thrown again into the muddy pool. The Mayor promptly described the boundary by swimming ashore, and his example was followed by one of his companions, but the Borough Surveyor remained alone on the raft, and was eventually towed to land completely drenched.”

Marnhull.— The Rev. Canon Mayo publishes in the Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries (vol. xv, pp. 19-21 and 29-31), 1917, a long account of a perambulation held for the Manor of Marnhull on 7th and 8th June, 1808, and made by the then Lord of the Manor, John Hussey, Esq., his steward, and the principal inhabitants of the parish. A copy had been furnished to the Dorset editor of that periodical of the perambulation contained in a MS. book of Rentals and Quit Rents relating to the Manor.

As Canon Mayo says : “It has a value as being a record of local boundaries, and illustrates a custom which at one time was universal in our county.”

Beating the Bounds Weymouth 13th May 1896. The Mayor of Weymouth Claiming a Boundary Stone at Radipole Bridge DCM © 2015

Beating the Bounds Weymouth 13th May 1896. The Mayor of Weymouth Claiming a Boundary Stone at Radipole Bridge DCM © 2015

Wyke Regis.— The Bound Stone.—The following account of the annual visit paid by Portlanders to “The Bound Stone” on the Chesil Beach at the Fleet appeared in the Bridport News in May, 1893, under the heading of ” Wyke Regis : The Bound Stone ” :—

“The Portlanders seem determined to keep up their rights, which they annually maintain by an official visit to the well-known ‘ bound stone ‘ on the Chesil Beach. Holy Thursday, or Ascension Day, is, as by custom, the day on which the ceremony takes place. This year the number attending seems to have been augmented for some reason or other ; perhaps the fact of a new stone being used added importance to the affair. Be that as it may, there were many visitors, both by sea and land.

“It is said the rights of the Portlanders extend to the new bound stone opposite Fleet, but the public would like to be enlightened as to the nature of those rights. There is one right at all events which does not extend beyond the Portland side of the stone, that is, we are informed that the lord of the manor of Abbotsbury, or rather the Earl of Ilchester, does not interfere with or claim the foreshore. Not that such a right would be of any use whatever, seeing the difficulty of telling where it is. The shingle shifts with the weather, and with it the foreshore, if ever such existed except in fertile imagination.”

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The Black Death in Dorset

Black Death in Dorset From the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’ Volume 43 1923, an article written by the Rev. Canon J. M. J. Fletcher, M.A. entitled ‘The Black Death in Dorset (1348 – 1349)’

It has frequently been pointed out that the middle of the fourteenth century appeared to be the time of England’s greatest glory. France had suffered a crushing and unexpected defeat at Crecy in 1346. In the following year Calais was taken. And when Edward III, in the height of his triumph, landed at Sandwich on October the 14th, 1347, the whole country seemed to be carried away with excitement at the success of their King. To all appearance an era of glory, of peace, and of plenty had arisen. It was the golden age of chivalry. And, in various parts of the country, tournaments were held to celebrate the establishment of the Order of the Garter, which appears to have been instituted by the King in order to hand down to posterity the memory of his martial prowess.

Such was the England upon which the great pestilence fell in the summer of 1348. It has been described as having been

“a turning point in the national life. It formed the real close of the mediaeval period and the beginning of our modern age. It produced a break with the past and was the beginning of a new era. The sudden sweeping away of the population and the subsequent scarcity of labourers raised, it is well recognised, new and extravagant expectations in the minds of what are called the lower classes; or, to use a modern expression, labour began then to understand its value and assert its power.” (F. A. Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. xvi.)

For two years or more, previously, there had been rumours of a mysterious disease which had been raging in the distant east, and by which, in a brief space of time, whole districts were depopulated. China and India more especially suffered. Tartary, Mesopotamia, Syria and Armenia were depopulated. Cairo lost daily, while the plague was at its height, from 10,000 to 12,000 persons. (Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages (translated by Babington) 2nd Edit., 1835, p. 21.)

Its specific causes are unknown. The opinion of the time connected its appearance with contemporary physical phenomena of a remarkable kind. Parching droughts were
succeeded by convulsions of the earth and crackings of its surface from which a fetid and poisonous vapour was projected into the atmosphere, the corruption of which was afterwards increased by malarious exhalations from swamps caused by incessant deluges of rain. To the panic-stricken imagination of the people, the pestilence seemed to be advancing to their destruction in the palpable form of a thick stinking mist.

The Death CartThe pestilence found its way to Europe along the great trade routes, being carried by the trading caravans which brought spices and gums and silks and other produce of the eastern markets. An Italian writer (|Gabriele de Mussi, Ystoria de Morbo. quoted by Gasquet, Op. cit.. pp. 4, 17, &c.) tells how the infection was brought to Genoa. Some number of Italian merchants had resorted to a place called Tana, north of Constantinople and under the rule of the Tartars. Tana was besieged and taken by the Tartars; and the Christian merchants, who were violently expelled from that city, were then received, for the protection of their persons and property, within the walls of Caffa, which had been built by the Genoese in the Crimea. This, too, was attacked by the Tartars, and the inhabitants were hard pressed. Suddenly the plague broke out amongst the Tartar host. At first they were paralysed with fear; and then, turning their vengeance on the besieged, and, in the hope of communicating the infection to their Christian enemies, by the aid of the engines of war they projected the bodies of the dead over the walls into the city. As far as possible the plague-infected bodies were committed to the sea. Before long, however, the air became tainted, and the wells of water poisoned. In this way the disease spread so rapidly in the city that few of the inhabitants had strength to fly from it. From the Crimea the plague seems to have found its way to Constantinople, which, at that time, was the great centre of communication between the Asiatic and European countries. It reached Italy in the early days of 1348, being brought from the Crimea to Genoa and to Venice. Boccaccio (Boccaccio, Decameron, Introduction) tells us graphically of what happened at Florence. All classes were affected. Magnificent dwellings were rendered desolate, sometimes to the last inhabitant. Riches were left with no known heir to inherit them. People of both sexes dined, apparently, in the best of health, and at supper time were lying dead. Stricken children were forsaken by their parents. The poor languished on the highways, in the fields, or in their own cottages, and were dying like animals. Flocks and herds wandered unwatched through the forsaken harvest fields.

The pestilence reached France about the same time that it reached Italy. From Genoa it was brought to Marseilles, where in a month 57,000 were carried off by the sickness. It reached Avignon, where Pope Clement VI held his court, in the early days of January, 1348. Here, in the first three days, 1,800 people are said to have died ; and in the seven months that the plague lasted no less than 150,000 persons in the surrounding territory died. The Pope found it necessary to consecrate the Rhone, that bodies might he thrown into the river without delay, as the churchyards would no longer hold them. He himself lived in seclusion in his palace at Avignon, keeping up constant fires and allowing no one to approach him.

Weymouth Harbour

A view of the harbour as it appears today. At the time of the Black Death Melcombe Regis Harbour was to the right and Weymouth Harbour to the left

The pestilence first attacked England in the summer of 1348. It was probably brought from Calais, being conveyed by fugitives who came to England in hopes of escaping from it. It appears certain that the first place attacked was Melcombe Regis, or Weymouth, which at that time was apparently almost as important a port as Bristol or London.

” In the year of our Lord 1348, about the feast of the translation of S. Thomas (July 7th),” writes the Author of the Eulogium Historiarum, (Eulogium Historiantm, Vol. Ill, p. 213.) a contemporary monk of Malmesbury, ” the cruel pestilence, terrible to all future ages, came from parts over the sea to the south coast of England into a port called Melcombe, in Dorsetshire. This plague, sweeping over the southern districts, destroyed numberless people in Dorset, Devon and Somerset.”

The plaque on Custom House Quay which records the part that Melcombe Regis played in the story of the Black Death

The plaque near ‘The George Inn’, Custom House Quay which commemorates the event when the Black Death entered Dorset

Bristol more especially suffered. Other dates given for its first appearance in this country are July 25th and August 1st, while another contemporary monkish chronicler (Henry Knighton, Chronicon Ltyccstrcusis (Rolls Series), Vol. II, pp. 58, &c.) states that it began in the autumn of the year 1348. News of its actual presence had not apparently reached the Bishop of Bath and Wells (Ralph of Shrewsbury, Bishop, 1329-1363.) on August 17th, for on that date he sent letters throughout his diocese ordering processions and stations every Friday, in each collegiate, regular, and parish church, to beg that Almighty God would protect the people from the pestilence which had come from the east into the neighbouring kingdom. The same bishop, a little later, issued a mandate which he ordered to be read clearly and distinctly in the cathedral on the 10th of January, 1348-9. (Wilkins, Concilia Magn. Brit, 1737, Vol. II, pp. 745-746 (Ex reg. Wellen., fol. 333). In it he speaks of the pestilence having left many parishes destitute of spiritual care and without a priest. Numbers of people were dying without the Sacrament of Penance, in consequence of the infection, and through dread of the disease. And he directs that it shall be made generally known that, if a priest cannot be found, confession of sin may be made to a layman, or even in case of necessity to a woman; though, if the penitent recovers his health, confession is again to be made to a priest. Moreover, in the absence of a priest, the Sacrament of the Eucharist may be administered by a deacon. And if no priest can be found to administer the Sacrament of Extreme Unction, then, as in other cases, faith in the sacrament ought to suffice.

It is said that from June 24th until Christmas it rained either by day or by night almost without exception. And no doubt the abnormally wet season,’ unhealthy as it naturally was, would aid the development of the sickness.

Black Death VictimThe Pestilence appears to have been some form of the ordinary Eastern, or bubonic, plague (Gasquet, The Great Pestilence, p. y; Hecker, Epidemics of the Middle Ages, pp. 4-27; Villani, quoted by Dr. Jessopp in The Black Death in East Anglia; Chronicon GalfricU le Baker de Swyhebroke, Oxford 1889, pp. 98-100). It showed itself in swellings and carbuncles under the arm and in the groin – sometimes in size as large as a hen’s egg, at others smaller and distributed over the body; but in addition there were special symptoms, from one or more of which the patient suffered, which seemed to differentiate it from the common type, viz.:

  1. gangrenous inflammation of the throat and lungs,
  2. violent pains in the region of the chest,
  3. the vomiting and spitting of blood,
  4. the pestilential odour coming from the bodies and breath of those affected.

Though many recovered from the carbuncles and glandular swellings, it is stated that none did from the blood spitting. Sometimes the patient died within a few hours, though more usually the sickness lasted from three to rive days before death.

From the absence of contemporary statistics it is impossible to tell what proportion of the population was swept away by the plague. Platina, of Cremona, (B. Platina, Lives of the Popes (Clement VI) who lived about a century later, conjectures that, during the three years that it raged in Italy, ” scarce one man in ten escaped.” The same proportion is given for England by some of the Chroniclers,( Galfridus le Baker, Op. cit., p. 98; T. Walsingham, Historia Anglicana (Rolls Series), Vol. I, p. 273; Annales Monastici (Rolls Series), Vol. Ill, p. 475. ) who are followed by Stow and Barnes. (Barnes, History of Edward III (Cambridge, 1688), p. 435; Stow, Survey of the City of London, Vol. I, p. 129, Vol. II, 61. 62.) This must of course be an exaggerated conjecture. But, in all probability, the population of the whole country before the plague was somewhere approaching rive millions, of whom perhaps the half perished in the fatal year. A certain amount of evidence, however, can be obtained from various ecclesiastical documents, such as the records of institutions to vacant benefices, lists of ordinations, &c. And, if I seem to deal mainly with ecclesiastics, I would point out that it is because such statistics are to a certain extent available; and, what is more, that they are practically the only ones that are, with the exception of what may be surmised from the Court Rolls. I propose for the most part to confine myself to the county of Dorset, merely stating beforehand that, in January, 1349, Parliament, which was to have met at Westminster, was prorogued until April, (Rymer, Fcedera, Vol. V. p. 655.) in consequence of the deadly pestilence having broken out and daily increasing in severity, so that grave fears were entertained for the safety of those attending. In the early spring it was again found necessary that it should be prorogued indefinitely. (Ibid, p. 658.)

A scene from the former Weymouth attraction 'The Timewalk' shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

A scene from the former Weymouth attraction ‘The Timewalk’ shows a plague victim receiving the last rites from a priest while his distraught family look on

Dr. Gasquet gives the number of Institutions in the county of Dorset during the seven months from October 1348 until April 1349, as 5, 15, 17, 16, 14, 10, and 4, or a total of 81, whereas the previous average had been only one a month. That is to say that during those months there were more than eleven times the usual number of Institutions. The learned Doctor must have dealt, I think, only with Institutions to benefices conferred by the King or by some monastic or other quasi-public body; for from the episcopal registers, which are preserved amongst the muniments of our own Cathedral at Salisbury, and which I have examined carefully, the number of actual Institutions to Dorset benefices will be found to be 4, 17, 28, 21, 12, 12, and 6 – making a total of 100. And furthermore in these numbers are not included Institutions due to vacancies which had been caused by resignation or exchange. The pestilence still lingered on during the next four months, May to August, when the Institutions, owing to death, numbered 9, 3, 11, and 5.

West Chickerell appears to have been the first parish to be deprived of its Incumbent, for his successor was instituted on September 30th, 1348. His oversight of the parish, however, was but a short one, for another Institution to West Chickerell was necessary on the 6th of the following March. During October, 1348, there were Institutions to Warmwell on the 9th, and to Wool, Combe Keynes (Wool and Combe Keynes, however, were held in plurality by John Glanvill in succession to Richard Palmere. Consequently the loss by death was only one and not two.) and Holy Trinity, Dorchester, on the 19th. From then the deaths of Dorset clergy followed one another in quick succession. The parts of the county most affected were the districts within a short distance of the coast, and the villages through which the Winterbourne passes before emptying itself into the Stour. Bincombe changed its Incumbent both in November and in March; Worth Matravers lost both Rector and Vicar; at East Ringstead (Osmington) there were two changes in a short space of time; Tyneham suffered early in November ; Warmwell, Combe Keynes and Wool have already been alluded to; Winterbourne Monkton, Winterbourne Houghton, Winterbourne Came, and Radipole doubtless caught the infection from Weymouth or from Dorchester. At Wareham the Incumbents of Lady S. Mary, S. Martin, S. Michael, and S. Peter (two ?), as well as the Prior of the alien Priory, (Onginalia Roll, 22 Edw. Ill, m. 4.) were amongst the victims; There were new Incumbents at Milborne S. Andrew in November and again in February. Between November 17th and November 20th there were eight Institutions, seven of which apparently were due to the death of previous Incumbents, viz.: — on the 17th at Kingston Russell, (Here, as elsewhere at implies for, or on behalf of . Xo doubt the clergy were usually instituted at Salisbury, or wherever the Bishop might be at the time.) on the 18th at Cerne Abbas, East Lulworth, and East Morden (as well as one at Catherston Leweston, through resignation), on the following day at Toller Porcorum and Winterbourne Zelston, and on the 20th at Langton Long, Blandford, of the Chantry Priest. At Langton, although the Rector lived through the visitation, another Institution to the Chantry followed in June. Then there were Owermoigne, Aff puddle, Chalbury (twice), West Chaldon (now united to Chaldon Herring) both in December and May, West Knighton, and Stafford. Along the Valley of of the Winterbournes, Clenston S. Nicholas suffered most severely, there being fresh Institutions on December 7th, March 6th, April 8th, and yet again on May 3rd; while Winterbourne Houghton had three changes, viz. : on December 18th, March 5th, and June 7th. The Winterbournes Steepleton, Stickland, Whitchurch, and Zelston all lost their clergy, as, too, did Sturminster Marshall, which lies near the junction of the Winterbourne and the Stour. Not far away is Spetisbury, which lost two of its Rectors as well as two Vicars. Lytchett Matravers and Hilton, two other sufferers, are in the same neighbourhood. Lower down the Stour from Sturminster Marshall we come to Wimborne Minster, (Close Rolls, 23 Edw. III. January 31 and June 17.) two of whose Deans died in quick succession. Here the Win, or Allen, joins the Stour; and along the Win there were fatal cases amongst the clergy at Witchampton, Wimborne S. Giles, and Wimborne All Saints.

Blandford Forum, on the Stour, so far as its clergy were concerned, seems to have escaped the ravages of the disease; but Blandford S. Mary, Pimperne, Tarrant Monkton, Tarrant Rushton, Okeford Fitzpaine, Shillingstone, Farnham, Iwerne Courtney, Hammoon, Fontmell Magna, Iwerne Minster, Ibberton, Marnhull, Thornton (early in December and again in the middle of April), and Stour Provost all were bereft of their parish priests.

On the other side of Dorchester, of the coast towns, Bridport was one of the first to suffer, the institution taking place on November 9th, 1348, while the new Incumbent
himself succumbed just three months later. From the Bridport Corporation Records (Historical MSS. Commission. Appendix to Report, p. 475) we find that there were two Bailiffs of the town in each year; but in the 23rd year of Edward III (1349-50) four bailiffs are named, as having held office, Edward Stone, John Grey, William Hichecoke and Richard Laurenz in tempore P&stilcntice. The Abbot of Abbotsbury fell a victim quite early to the ravages of the disease, and, before his successor was appointed, the Vicar also died. Portesham, Puncknowle, Litton Cheney, Askerswell, Compton Valence, Allington, Bradpole (twice in the space of three months), Pilsdon and North Poorton were deprived of their clergy, as were Maiden Newton, South Perrott, Hooke, Toller Porqorum, Chelborough, Chilcombe, Chilfrome, Broadwinsor and Buckland Newton.

The northern part of the county was not nearly so much affected, though Gillingham lost one of its Chantry Priests at the beginning of December, 1348. Shaftesbury, however, suffered most severely. The Abbess herself, fell victim to the terrible disease, which also proved fatal to the Incumbents of S. Peter and S. Andrew, S. Martin, S. Laurence (both in November and in May), S. Mary and S. John, and later in the year S. Ronald. In addition to these, the Monastery lost its Chaplains, both at the altar of S. Nicholas and at that of S. Curas, while the House of S. Thomas was bereft of its Custodian.

For Sherborne, there were Institutions for the Free Chapel of S. Thomas on January 12th; and on the 18th of the same month a new Abbot was elected. Castleton, hard by, had previously lost its Vicar before December 21st. At Bradford Abbas, not far away, a new Vicar was instituted on December 1st. He can but have lived for a few days, for just twelve days later, on December 13th, in consequence of his death a successor was instituted; and about eight months afterwards, on the 20th of August, 1349, the death of this successor is noted, and there was yet a third Institution. Chardstock, farther S.W., on the borders of Devon, saw changes of Incumbents on March 8th and on December 8th.

Enough has been said to show how widely spread the ravages of this terrible disease were in the County of Dorset.

Although our own Bishop, Robert Wyvil, was spared, for his episcopate lasted from 1330 until 1375, yet two of our Metropolitans died of the plague. John de Ufford was elected Archbishop of Canterbury upon the death of John Stratford, and received the temporalties on December 14th, 1348; but he died of the plague before his consecration, on the 20th of May, 1349. He was succeeded by Thomas. Bradwardine, who was consecrated on the 19th of July, 1349. This great and good prelate, writes Dean Hook, (W. F. Hook, Lives of the Arclibisliops of Canterbury, Vol. IV; p. 106.) who had known how to administer

“the consolations of religion to the wounded in camp, and to the dying on the field of battle, regarded the post of danger as the post of honour. He hastened to England, prepared to lead the way to the abodes of sickness, sorrow, and death.”

He landed at Dover on the 19th of August, and after doing homage to the King, who held his court at Eltham, on the 22nd, he proceeded to London. At once he sickened of the plague, and died on the 26th of August.

There was a return of the plague in 1361, and, great as had been the mortality amongst the clergy of Dorset in 1348-49, at this later visitation it was, if anything, greater. Amongst the victims of this second pestilence was Thomas de Brembre, Dean of Wimborne Minster, and founder of a chantry in that Collegiate Church. Wimborne had lost two Deans during the time of the preceding visitation. And this was not all, for the Bishop of Worcester, Reginald de Bryan, who had formerly been Dean of Wimborne, died in his Cathedral City of the plague. Amongst other Dorset Incumbents who died were those of Canford, Lytchet Matravers, Moor Crichel, Hinton Martel, Chalbury, Gussage All Saints (two), West Aimer, Iwerne Minster, West Parley (two, viz. on August 27th and on September 6th), Pentridge, Edmondsham, Tarrant Gunville (two), Long Crichel, Belchalwell, Pulham, and Buckland Newton; and at Shaftesbury, S. Peter (two), S. Martin, and S. John.

It will be interesting just to look at the comparative numbers of deaths amongst the clergy in the neighbouring counties of Wilts and of Hants.

In Wilts, the Institutions, according to the Registers of the Bishop of Salisbury, in 1343 were 15; in 1347, 29, which number would be above the annual average. In 1348 they had risen to 72, and in the following year to 103. In 1361, during the second visitation of the plague, they were 128. At Ivychurch Priory, in Wilts, a house of Augustinian Canons, the ruins of whose abode are still to be seen some three miles or so to the east of Salisbury, the whole community was carried off with one single exception.

In Hants, the number of Institutions in December 1348 was 7; in January, 12; in February, 19; March, 33; April, 46; May, 29; June, 24; July, 18; August, 11 ; and in September 12; or during the ten months, 211, which would be about ten times the annual average.

What has been said of the mortality amongst the clergy will imply that there must also have been a terrible mortality amongst the people in general; although no doubt, in the exercise of their office amongst the sick and dying and with the dead, the clergy would be more especially exposed to the risk of infection. It is quite evident that the ranks of the clergy must have been very seriously diminished. And consequently, steps had to be taken to supply the places of the parish priests and chaplains of the religious houses who had died in such great numbers. The regular times of Ordination, at the Ember Seasons, had to be disregarded; and not infrequently men who had only attained to the minor orders — deacons, and even acolytes — were instituted to vacant benefices before being raised to the priesthood. Over and over again we read of permission being given for considerable numbers of men to be ordained priest who were under the canonical age. And sometimes they were passed very quickly through the various orders to the priesthood. It has generally been considered that it was partly due to this that there was a marked decline in the spirituality, as most certainly there was a deterioration in the intellectual attainments, of the clergy.

“So great,” writes the chronicler, (Henry Knighton, Chronicon Leyceslrensis, Vol. II, p. 63.) “was the dearth of clergy that many churches were deprived, and were wanting in divine offices, masses, mattins, vespers, sacraments, and sacramentals. It was difficult to get a chaplain for less than £10, or 10 marks, to minister in a church, instead of for four or live marks, or two marks with board (cum mensa), as before the pestilence when there were plenty of priests. It was difficult to get anyone to accept a Vicarage for 20 marks or £20. But in a short time a great multitude whose wives had died of the plague, many illiterate and mere lay- men, barely able to read, still less to understand, became candidates for orders (conjiuabant ad ordines).”

There was a natural reaction upon the religious life of the nation. One good result, however, was the foundation of Winchester College, of which the plague was the proximate cause, the ultimate cause being the wish to have a learned clergy to carry on the duties of the church and the business of the state. And in the first clause of the Statutes of New College, Oxford, William of Wykeham’s other great foundation, the munificent Founder sets forth with great clearness the objects of his foundation, and shows that what he intended was to provide educated clergy, who were not monks, but seculars, to fill up the gaps caused by the Black Death.

And the recurrence of the pestilence, in some places at any rate, drew attention to the advisability of better sanitary conditions. In one of the Close Rolls (Lit. Clans, 35 Edward III, Feb. 25, quoted in Stow’s Survey of the City of London (1720), Vol. I, p. 129.) is a King’s letter relative to Butchers’ Hall Lane, or Stinking Lane, London (25th February, 1361).

“Order that all Bulls, Oxen, Hogs, &c., should be led as far as to Stratford or Knightsbridge to be slain, instead of being killed in the city, and the putrified blood running down the streets, and the bowels cast into the Thames, whereby the air is corrupted and sickness and other evils have happened.”

Although at first the scourge fell most heavily upon the labouring classes, it was not long before it produced a marked improvement in their social status, and eventually a general enfranchisement of servile labour. In numberless manors so many of the peasants had been swept away that the land could not be tilled, but lay fallow and neglected. The old method of farming by bailiff gave way firstly to the system of stock and land lease, (Thorold Rogers, Six Centuries of Work and Wages, pp. 277-280, &c,) and gradually to that of ordinary tenant farming. And, partly from lack of labourers, and partly because it was found to be more profitable to “grow” wool than corn, large tracts of land which had formerly been cultivated were converted into pasture. And, indeed, labour was in such request that it could make its own terms; and, in spite of statutes and enactments and branding and fines and imprisonments, men were not content to be bound down as in past days to reside always in their old neighbourhood and to work for a mere pittance. The Statute of Labourers was passed in 1349, immediately after the first visitation of the plague, with the idea of compelling labourers to work for the wages formerly accustomed to be paid, and confining them to their own counties. This and subsequent laws passed were but imperfectly obeyed, and eventually,

“under the dread of servile war, the abolition of compulsory service and all the other demands of the populace were tacitly but surely accorded. Thus, within fifty years of the visitation of the Black Death, serfdom and villainage were practically abolished in England, and the labourer, released from his bondage to the land, was free to carry his thews and sinews to the best market” (W. Warburton, Edivard III, p. 144.).

In addition to the authorities noted, the following works may be consulted.

  • Seebohm, Articles in Fortnightly Review, Sept. 1, and 15, 1865.
  • Creighton, History of Epidemics in Britain, Vol. I.
  • Victoria History of Dorset, Vol. II, pp. 20, 21.
  • English Historical Rcvieiv, July, 1890, p. 524.
  • Stubbs, Constitutional History ,1875), Vol. II, p. 434.
  • Dr. Jessopp, Nineteenth Century, Vols. XVI, p. 915, and XVII, p. 599.
  • Stow, Annates, 384.
  • Thucydides. History of the Peloponesian War, Bk. II. sect. 47 — 57.

Related Sources:

Original Letter signed by Colonel William Sydenham & Bulstrode Whitelocke

Colonel William Sydenham’s Commission signed by William Waller

Remnants of the English Civil War, Weymouth.

The Crabchurch Conspiracy

Mark Vine and Professor Ronald Hutton viewing the ‘Cannonball in the Wall’ in Maiden Street, one of hundreds fired into the Parliamentarian garrison of Melcombe during February 1645.

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Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in the English Civil War

The Old Town Hall, Weymouth

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.)

THE FORTS.

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.

Cannonball House, Weymouth

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

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.

Dorchester GallowsColonel 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.

Related Sources:

The History and Finds of Weymouth’s Sandsfoot Castle

The following article entitled ‘Notes on Sandsfoot Castle’ by T. S. Groves is from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’, volume 3 published 1879.

Sandsfoot Castle

Sandsfoot Castle taken in 2008 before restoration in 2012 © DCM

“This prematurely ruined structure, described by Leland in his well-known itinerary “as a right goodlie and warlyke castle, having one open barbicane,” dates from no further back than 1539, the year when Henry the VII. compelled the surrender of the larger monasteries, and when consequent on the vigour of his assaults on Popery, he began to fear a coalition of Catholic sovereigns against his kingdom.

Portland Castle, on the opposite side of the bay, had been built a few years previously, the two being mainly intended to provide protection from foreign cruisers for English ships frequenting the “Roads,” and prevent the assembling of hostile navies therein with a view to invasion.

A ground-plan of Sandsfoot Castle was published in 1789 by Delamotte, of Weymouth. It appears to be authentic, but from what source he obtained it I am not aware. No good elevation of the castle in perfect state is known to exist, nor is there any adequate description of it in that condition.

As a ruin it has been often engraved, but the artists have usually shown themselves more desirous of attaining picturesque-ness of effect than accuracy of detail.

Grose, who wrote during the latter half of the last century, gives, in his “Antiquities of England,” the best verbal description we have of it.

Tudor Coat of Arms All Saints Wyke regis

The Royal Coat of Arms, carved in stone, was removed from the castle and now is over the south door of All Saint’s Church, Wyke Regis. © DCM

He says, ” The body of the castle is a right angled paralellogram, its greatest length running from north to south. At its north end was a tower on which were the arms of England, supported by a wivern and an unicorn. (These arms, carved in stone, were many years ago removed from the gateway of the castle and affixed to the north wall of the chancel of Wyke Eegis church). The north part seems to have been the governor’s apartment, and is all vaulted. Near its south end is a lower building, said to have been the gun room; this being broader than the other part of the edifice, forms flanks, which defend its east and west sides, and on the south the front is semi-circular; before there was formerly a platform for cannon. On the east and west sides there are embrazures for guns, and below them two tiers of loopholes for small arms, the lowest almost level with the ground. The north front is nearly destroyed, but the remains of an arch or gateway show that the entrance was on that side.

The whole edifice seems to have been cased with squared stones, the walls were thick and lofty, and the buildings, though small, were not inelegant. Since the «’ restoration ” it has been neglected and suffered to fall to ruin. The north, east, and south sides were, at a small distance, surrounded by a deep ditch and earthen rampart, through which, on the east front, was a gate faced with stone, part of which is still remaining.”

In this description there are several inaccuracies. The lower building on the south side is not semi-circular, but octangular, its eighth side forming the southern end of the main body of the castle. The ground-plan I have referred to shows that five of the sides were pierced for embrazures, three of which pointed seawards, the other two covering respectively the shore to the right and left. The sixth and seventh sides are not fully developed, and were not pierced for cannon; the flanking effect must, therefore, have been produced by loopholes for small arms in the upper story, of which indeed indications are given in Buck’s engraving (date 1733).

There is reason also for objecting to his description of the east and west sides of the main building. The lowest tier of apertures on the west sides are evidently those of windows for lighting the cellar of the castle ; the tier next above these are, or rather were, loopholes, but the facing stones having been removed the contraction of the openings that originally existed is no longer apparent. The uppermost tier is simply a range of windows—the places where the iron bars were inserted being plainly visible.

From the east side the cellar received no light, consequently there is one tier of perforations less.  On this side was a doorway and four loopholes on the ground floor, and four windows above.  I doubt very much whether there were on either the east or west side embrazures for cannon.  The ground-plan certainly gives a figure of what appears to be a cannon lying in one of the eastern openings, but it must I think be an error, as at the point in  question,   immediately behind the  supposed embrazure is the head of a staircase leading to the cellar.   The castle on the land side was in fact very weakly fortified.     It relied perhaps for defence in this direction on its ditch and rampart, the latter doubtless furnished with cannon, especially at . the bastions at its east and west angles.

The “open barbicane” mentioned by Leland is not visible. He must, I think, have inaccurately applied the word to the gun-room at the southern end. The term is rightly employed to indicate a port in advance of the main building for the purpose of protecting the entrance gate and drawbridge, if any.

Grose omits to mention the grooves in which slid the portcullis, and which are still visible at the north and principal entrance.

Inside Sandsfoot Castle

The interior of Sandsfoot Castle after restoration in 2012 © DCM

The arrangements of the interior will best be understood after actual inspection, I will, therefore, refrain from describing them. It is evident that a very large portion of the octagonal gun. room has fallen owing to the sea having undermined its foundation. A large block is now lying on the rocks below, undergoing the gradual disintegration by the action of the waves that has in my time dispersed many still larger fragments. In my father’s time, sixty years ago, a carriage could be driven between the castle and the cliff, and in 1859, if an ancient map may be credited, the castle, surrounded on all sides by a moat, stood in the centre of the field.

The dilapidated (a word here most correctly applicable) condition of the outer walls is said to have been occasioned by the stones having been torn from their places and carried to Wey-mouth for building purposes. Two houses in St. Thomas street have been pointed out to me as having been mainly constructed out of the spoils of Sandsfoot Castle. One is half inclined to wonder how such a thing could have happened seeing that the building has never passed out of the hand of the Crown. But there were giants in those prae-reforrm days—at peculation and robbery!

It seems that round shot of stone were used, at least occasionally, for the service of the guns. Some schoolboys, playing about the castle, crawled into one of the large drains that opened on the cliff, and found there a stone shot of some six inches in diameter. A similar shot was found at Portland, and brought to Sir John Coode, who had the curiosity to know whether it was really a shot or only a natural concretion. He therefore placed it under a steam-hammer, and gave it a blow so judicious that it cracked into two exactly equal pieces, when lo ! in the centre was found a perfect specimen of a petrified Cardium of some sort. The split shot is to be seen at the Engineer Office, Portland. There can be no doubt I think of the stone being really a shot—its perfect sphericity would seem to prove that— but there is reason to suppose that in order to save labour the ancient artificer had selected a stone already partially rounded, a concretion in fact founded on the shell of the Cardium.

Sandsfoot Castle can scarcely be said to have a history. It must have changed hands again and again during the Civil Wars, but existing records make no mention of any siege whatever—a fact which strengthens my argument that the castle was indefensible on tho north or land side. Probably it followed as a matter of course the fortunes of the neighbouring fortified town of Weymouth and Melconibe Regis. The names of some half-dozen of its Governors are known, but no interest would attach to their enumeration.

The same must be said of the references, few and far between, to  the existence of the castle and its garrison, in the borough archives—archives which are alas in private hands, and probably about to suffer  dispersion to the four winds of heaven under the very noses of a body of men whom I fear I must characterise as indifferent to the history of their borough, and more antiquarian in their notions than in their tastes.”

The follow-up article entitled ‘Sandsfoot Castle, Weymouth’ by  W. C. Norman is from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society’, volume 41 for 1920, published 1921

“I have recently read with considerable interest T. B. Groves’s “Note on Sandsfoot Castle, which appeared in Vol. III. (pages 20, &c.) of the  Proceedings of our Club. This to a great extent is accounted for by the fact that my school days were spent at Weymouth, and naturally I was well acquainted with this ruin.

For this reason, and because of what is related further on, I thought I might, without presumption, add a few remarks on the subject.

My earliest recollection of the Castle reaches back to a period of over 60 years, and is, that it was then on the edge of the cliff. Indeed, most of the gun-room was gone, and its south-eastern and south-western walls projected over it considerably, as a result of being undermined by the disintegrating action of the sea.

An old ostcard of Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens

An old postcard of Sandsfoot Castle and Gardens

At this time there was no way round the Castle and the sea cliff outside it, except the dangerous one of climbing round the overhanging ruins, which afforded a very precarious foothold, and from which to the rocks below was a sheer drop of 40 feet.

There was a large fall of masonry from the south-front in 1835, and there have been others at various times since.

I will briefly refer to Mr. Groves’s remarks in passing.

From a plan of Sandsfoot Castle dated 1789 (in my possession) and which I was, many years ago, (by the courtesy of an official) allowed to copy from one in the War Department Office, on Bincleaves, the dimensions of the Castle are there given as :— length, 100 feet; width, 50 feet.

The east, north and west sides still have the protection of the ditch and rampart, and it is fair to assume that similar works defended the south side; but all traces of these must have been obliterated more than 70 years ago, by the occasional subsidence of the cliff into the sea.

Sandsfoot Castle

Sandsfoot Castle taken in 2008 © DCM

That the opening in the east rampart was a gateway or entrance is, I think, open to grave doubts. On a map and plan of the Castle which I saw more than 50 years ago, and which was then in the keeping of the War Department at their Office on the Bincleaves, that opening is described as being a magazine. Years ago there reposed in the ditch, directly behind the so-called u gateway,” a massive door jamb of stone. The upper end of the jamb was turned, so as to form half of the head of a semi-circular door arch. When the corresponding jamb was in position it would accommodate a door measuring 3ft. by 4ft. 6in. in the rabbet formed for this purpose. A door of this size, although suitable for a magazine, would be totally inadequate for the general purposes of the Castle. When I last saw this jamb, it had fallen from the ditch on to the undercliff below. I searched for it in June, 1918, but could not find it. Possibly it was hidden by the rank growth of weeds, or had sunk in the soft earth.The grooves in which the portcullis moved are clearly in view, also the stone stairway leading to the chamber (over the main entrance) in which was the machinery used for raising or lowering this.

There were two entrances to the cellars, one at the northeast angle of the Castle, the other a few yards to the south of this, When a school-boy, I, with three boy friends, resolved to clear the steps of the last-mentioned entrance from the earth which, in the course of very many years, had accumulated there. We devoted a half-holiday to the object. We began at the top, and had nearly reached the bottom, when I found a small coin, which proved to be a Rose farthing of Charles I., 1635. This type is similar to the Harringtons’, the difference being, that these bore the Rose on the reverse, in lieu of the Harp, which distinguishes the Harringtons’.It is evident that the old map showed the Castle as it was at some early date of its history, and not as it stood in 1859; as, at this time, not only had the rampart, ditch and intervening land between them and the Castle entirely disappeared, but also a considerable portion of the building itself had fallen into the sea.

As I was one of the school-boys referred to in Mr. Groves’s paper (Vol. III., p. 23) I feel quite qualified to give a few details relating to the finding of the stone shot.

About the year 1855 I was walking, with two other boys, on the sea-shore under Sandsfoot Castle, when we “spotted” the opening of a drain which a fall of the cliff had brought to view.

It was directly under the south-west angle of the Castle, and about 30 feet above the shore. The opening  was almost closed with earth. We had a strong desire to investigate ; but how ? It was not an easy matter at that time, as the cliff was then nearly perpendicular. I was deputed to make the ascent, and, by the aid of my pocket-knife and a pointed piece of wood, foot-holes were cut in the face of the cliff, and the upward journey began.

At length I reached the drain, and cleared its mouth. Inspection revealed the fact that its bottom was covered by a few inches of earth, and that it extended about six or eight feet in a direct line, when it appeared to be choked by fallen masonry. This ended the first introduction to the drain; but we arranged to pay it daily visits in order to carry on the work, and, in order not to interfere with our school duties, these visits had to be made in the early morning. So, for some time, we rose with the lark, and reached the scene of operations at 7 a.m. This gave just an hour for work, before we had to start for home, breakfast, and school.

The Poisoned Cup by Joseph Drew

‘The Poisoned Cup’, a short novel by Joseph Drew set in the reign of Elizabeth I has Sandsfoot Castle as its backdrop. © DCM

As our operations were carried on in semi-darkness, lying prone, and in a very confined space, our progress was not rapid. The earth had to be loosened and scraped forward; then the worker wriggled backwards, drawing the earth forwards until the outlet of the drain was reached, when the result was sent over the cliff. As the clearing progressed, the one working in the drain was occasionally quite hidden from view. One morning, when I was at work, and nearing the obstacle, I came upon something which for a time defied my efforts to remove it; but at last I loosened it, and took it from its bed, where it had probably been resting for centuries. I wriggled back to daylight with my unknown prize, when it was seen that it was a hollow cylinder of iron, open at one end, and closed at the other. There was a handle on one side. What it was I knew not then; but the heavy burden was cheerfully borne as, with light hearts, we trudged back to breakfast. Another visit sufficed to clear the floor of the drain of accumulated earth and rubble, and to enable us to see clearly the nature of the obstruction. I should state that in the roof of the drain and about six feet from the outlet, a perpendicular drain joined it; and down this had fallen a rectangular piece of stone measuring about 2 feet x 10in. x 10in., which was firmly jammed at the angle formed by the junction of the perpendicular and horizontal drains.

To remove this was both difficult and dangerous. The working space was cramped; the prone position of the operator most uncomfortable. Moreover there was the knowledge that when the obstruction moved it would come with a rush; and then it would be a case of stand clear, or be crushed. The obstruction was at length removed without mishap, and when it came down into the drain, I found to my great joy, that three stone shots, which had lodged behind it, were now released. These I drew towards me, and wriggled back to the outlet with them. They were received with shouts each took one. We were a happy trio as we wended our way homewards.

A few years later I found an iron shot, about 3in. diameter, 18 inches beneath the surface of the gun-room floor.

Some years after this, when visiting the Tower of London, I found that the iron cylinder was a breech chamber of a 15th Century cannon in which the charge of powder was placed. It was then inserted in an aperture in the cannon and pressed forward in the direction of the muzzle, and secured in this position by a bar of iron which passed through holes in the sides of the gun and rested against the end of the chamber, thus preventing it from moving. There was a touch hole in the chamber. The shot was then inserted in the muzzle and rammed home, and the gun was ready for action.

Formerly there was a tradition that when Henry VIII. built Sandsfoot Castle, he used some of the material which he obtained from Bindon Abbey (which, like so many other religious houses, fell a victim to his rapacity) for its construction; but there appears to be no proof of this. However, a close inspection of the Castle walls show that there are, among the rubble, many fragments of worked and carved stone, including two archaic corbel heads which evidently came from some ecclesiastical building. This appears to give a little colour to the report; but it is too slight for anything but the merest conjecture.

My three “finds” at Sandsfoot Castle referred to in the foregoing pages, viz., the breech-chamber, stone shot and iron ball, are in the Dorset County Museum.

In writing the above I merely desired to place on record circumstances which are in my personal knowledge, and which otherwise might have been lost sight of.

Loading the Cannon Pierrier

Loading the Cannon Pierrier © DCM

N.B – Since this paper was written I have received information from the Royal United Services’ Institution, Whitehall, to the effect that this early breech-loading weapon, known as the cannon pierrier, was much used in the early part of the Sixteenth Century for throwing stone shot from small castles. The accompanying sketch, from a drawing by Grosse, in the Royal United Services’ Institute shows the progress of loading the cannon pierrier. The small stone or iron balls were apparently inserted at the breech. (See middle gun).

The large stone balls, 6in. diameter, which we found, would be used not in a pierrier, but in a howitzer.”

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