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The Castles of Wales and the Civil War

The Destruction of Raglan Castle

Despite the peaceful advances of the Tudor era, the castle as a military strongpoint was to have yet one last lease on life. When the Civil War broke out between the king and Parliament in 1642 Wales was almost wholly royalist, and a number of castles were garrisoned in Charles I's cause. Conwy was renovated and refortified during 1642-43 by John Williams, archbishop of York, and was held for the king throughout the first Civil War. Caernarfon and Ruthin both withstood Parliamentarian sieges and raids during the first war, and only finally surrendered in 1646. Denbigh, too, was held for the king until the garrison was forced to abandon a hopeless struggle after a very long siege lasting from the end of 1645 through until October 1646. In the south-east, the staunch royalist marquess of Worcester held out at Raglan in the spring and summer of 1646, in one of the most hotly-contested sieges of the war. The marquess finally surrendered to Sir Thomas Fairfax on 19 August, long after the submission of the king and the collapse of his cause.

Various other castles features to a greater or lesser degree in these wars. Surprising as it may seem, though, cannon bombardment was not the principal cause for their destruction at the time. So powerfully constructed were the medieval stone defences, gunpowder was only part of the story. It was the subsequent "slighting" ordered by Parliament, which caused the real damage.

Raglan was the last of the great aristocratic homes to fall during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s. This castle-palace of the Somersets, Earls of Worcester (and later Dukes of Beaufort) was the center of a vast estate, with an annual rental of L24,000. The earl, a fanatical royalist, was reputed to be the richest man in England, and his family later claimed he had given over L1,000,000 to the king's cause. It was also said that the "keeping of the garrison of Raglan, towards which till the very last there was never a penny contributed, raysed or exacted, amounted to at the very least L40,000." Certainly, the castle was a curious piece of the old society which the Civil War destroyed. It was run on patriarchal lines. The earl would permit neither swearing or drinking. He was a learned man of great taste, who had built up a magnificent collection of works of art, and he had inherited an immense library, which included the finest collection of Welsh bardic manuscripts in existence, as well as thousands of other treasures. Raglan had other marvels, including much hydraulic machinery, installed by Lord Herbert, the earl's heir; it made roaring noises and terrified the rustics. But Herbert was not at Raglan; he was the king's general in south Wales, and the defence of the castle was entrusted to his younger brother, Lord Charles Somerset.

The Earl took a number of precautions before the castle was invested. He has the trees in the park cut down. He burnt down the cottages in the line of fire. The fireplace and panelling in the best oak parlour were taken down and sent to one of his lesser houses (they are now at Badminton). Unfortunately he did not remove the library. As to siege-works, Lord Charles built a battery 500 yards north-east of the castle gatehouse, in the style recommended in official artillery handbooks; and he created an entirely new bastioned enceinte, covering the south, east and north sides, where attack was most expected. As a matter of fact, the siege itself was unnecessary, since by 1646, when Fairfax demanded the castle's surrender, it was clear that the king's cause was lost. Other garrisons were freely submitting. But the earl (now promoted to marquess) was a proud man. It was boasted that "Raglan and Pendennis, like winter fruit, hung long on." The kind had issued general orders about yielding, but the earl was upset that Raglan was not referred to in them by name. So after exchanges of many messages, his obstinacy triumphed and he defied the parliament men: "So I submit myself and yourself to do what you think fitting."

The castle had a daily bombardment of sixty shot, each eighteen to twenty pounds. They made little impression on the great tower, beyond destroying the battlements, but they did immense damage to other parts of the castle. In addition, the parliamentary chief engineer, Captain Hooper, planted "four mortar pieces in one place and two mortar pieces at another, each mortar piece carrying a grenado shell twelve inches diameter." These killed and wounded many. Worcester had 800 horse and foot in his castle and they made "diverse and desperate sallies"; but after the fall of Oxford the besieging force rose from 1,500 to 3,500, and the garrison was "reduced to more caution and taught to lie closer." In August, Worcester was induced to surrender to Fairfax. He and his household waited in the hall and "could see through the window the general with all his officers entering the Outward Court, as if a floodgate had been let open." Inside the castle were found twenty cannon, a huge powder magazine, and a powerful mill capable of making three barrels a day, "great store of corn and malt, wine of all sorts and beer"; the horses were "almost starved for want of hay...and therefore were tied with chains"; there was also a "great store of goods and rich furniture."

Raglan was "the first fortified and last rendered," for Pendennis had fallen two days before. The garrison were treated with great leniency, considering the eleven-week siege, and allowed to leave with colors flying and drums beating; the hundred officers, gentlemen and squires were even permitted to retain their arms, bag and baggage. But Worcester himself was detained in parliamentary custody, under the Black Rod, and died a few months later. His library, and much else of value, was deliberately burned, under the supervision, ironically, of Henry Herbert of Coldbrook, a direct descendant of William ap Thomas, who had collected the rare manuscripts and built Raglan's Great Tower. This last caused some trouble to the "slighters": "The Great Tower, after tedious battering the top thereof with pickaxes, was undermined, the weight of it propped with the timber, whilst the two sides of the six were cut through; the timber being burned it fell down in a lump, and so still firmly remains to this day." It is interesting that the parliamentarians, in dealing with a superb piece of masonry like this tower, could think of nothing better than the old mining technique used by medieval siege-engineers - and fortunate, too, for enough was left, and still remains, of Raglan to give the visitor a strong idea of its former strength and magnificence.

Wales - Castles and Historic Places, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, Wales Tourist Board, publisher, Cardiff, 1990.

The Castles of England, Scotland and Wales, Paul Johnson, Harper & Row, New York, 1989.

The Destruction of Montgomery Castle

The following extracts are from documents in "Herbert Correspondence," published by the University of Wales Press, 1963. The entries throw some light on the destruction of Montgomery Castle at the end of the Civil War.

22 Dec 1646. Order of a Committee of Lords and Commons that are of the Committee of Both Kingdoms.

This it be reported to the Commons that it is the Opinion of this Committee that the outworks of earth of Montgomery Castle should be slighted; and that without further slighting the castle with all goods, ammunition, and arms belonging to Lord Herbert be delivered to him according to the capitulation.

27 April 1649. Richard, Lord Herbert to the Committee for Co., Montgomery

...he readily consents that the castle be dismantled and made indefensible. Proposes that the outworks be totally slighted, the grafts before the new building filled up, and the drawbridge taken down; the graft between the new building and the old castle filled up, the drawbridge taken down, and the old castle demolished. They would be pleased to certify how weak the new building is, being after the modern fashion of brick, and not able (in that place) to resist the weather.

23 June 1649 (The Committee for Montgomeryshire) to Col. John Jones.

In pursuance of his order of the 15th instant for demolishing Montgomery Castle (the actual resolution of the house of Commons was on 11 June), which came the 22nd, they met at Montgomery this day and after examination of the workmen and those that paid them in the late Lord of Churbury's time, find the new building comes to L4,731, and the old castle valued at L2,000 - but conceive it was not built at double that.

1649 (summer, no date) Order of the Committee (for Montgomeryshire)

Ordered that Mr. Edward Allen and Mr. Richard Thompson (Thompson was the Town Clerk and Recorder; Allen was the Bailiff-elect) supervise the demolishing of Montgomery Castle; to be careful to preserve the materials, and give directions for the drawing of the old castle before demolishing the walls...Conceive it fitting Mr. Allen and Mr. Thompson be satisfied for their pains out of the moneys from the materials.

16th November 1649. Ed Allen and Richard Thompson to the Commissioners for Demolishing Montgomery Castle

In pursuance of their order as to the demolishing Montgomery Castle, they accordingly have seen the total demolishing thereof and kept account, by which it appears the materials amount to L500 and the disgarrisoning and demolishing to L503 3s.


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