The English Civil War raged across the British Isles for nine long years and brought with it destruction on an unprecedented scale. Large field armies engaged with one another in violent and bloody pitched battles hoping that a decisive victory would turn the tide in their favour. But the war did not just take place in some distant battlefield, but all around, in the small towns and villages, farms and fields, castles and cities. Local ambushes, raids and assaults took place throughout the countryside as each side vied for control of strong points from which to extract resources to support the war effort. In simple terms, the side with the greatest wealth of resources would eventually grind the other down and win the war.
Given the dispersed and far reaching nature of the conflicts, I thought it would be interesting to investigate the war in Dorset. I found that there are so many fascinating stories that they cannot all be told, so I have focused on the small town of Wareham.
First battle of Wareham
In 1643 Wareham was a Royalist stronghold and valued because it was accessible from the sea and able to receive supplies by boat, albeit in very limited quantities. The town was enclosed on all sides by its earthen Saxon walls which had been further fortified with wooden palisades and firing platforms. Nine miles to the East lay the larger and much more prosperous Parliament held town of Poole. Boasting a huge natural harbour it was an ideal supply port where the Parliamentary navy could drop off men, food and weapons. The Poole Garrison was commanded by Captain Ley of Bridport, and it was his intention to take Wareham and open up the rich Purbeck countryside to the Parliamentarians.
On a foggy November evening Captain John Ley led a force of 200 musketeers into the Frome estuary in boats. Under cover of darkness they were landed at Redcliffe and surprised a small force of Royalists. Ley and his men engaged in a running battle all along the river path until they reached Wareham Quay where they met the Wareham garrison. After almost a day of bloody fighting in and around Wareham Quay the Royalist garrison either fled or surrendered and Captain Ley’s victory was complete. ‘The gateway to the Purbecks’ had been seized along with all of its supplies of food and ammunition.
Ley’s success meant that Captain Francis Sydenham could lead a raiding party into the Purbeck hills where he returned with 300 head of cattle to feed the garrison. Later that month he led a raid on the Royalist town of Dorchester which lies about 12 miles to the West of Wareham. After surprising the garrison he captured the Governor and his deputy before breaking into the jail and releasing all of the Parliamentary prisoners therein.
Sat having a nice cold pint of cider in the quay and looking across the river it is easy to picture the discharge of muskets and the clanging of swords.
Skirmish at Holme Bridge
Just over two miles West of Wareham and south of the A352 is a modern road bridge which spans the river Frome. If you are from Dorset or have holidayed there it is likely that you’ll have driven across it at some point to access the picturesque town of Lulworth and the Jurassic coastline. But what you may not have noticed is the smaller, now rarely used stone bridge which runs parallel to it just 10m away. This bridge was the scene of a ferocious engagement 372 years ago between Royalist and Parliamentary soldiers during the English Civil War.
The Conflict had been raging for one and half years and neither side appeared to have the upper hand. In an effort to bolster his forces, King Charles brought over several battle-hardened regiments from Ireland and hoped that they might be enough to turn the tide in his favour. One such regiment was commanded by Murrough O’Brien, Lord of Inchiquin, and was of foot comprising pikemen and musketeers. The regiment was destined to fight in the south west where Parliamentary forces were attempting to push into Royalist held territory.
The town of Wareham, just inland and West of Poole harbour was in Parliamentary hands. On the 27th February 1644 a large force of Parliamentarians ran into a small patrol of Inchiquin’s Irishmen at Holme Bridge, about two miles West of Wareham.
Holding the Southern side of the bridge was a 45 strong force of Irishmen, mainly musketeers but some dragoons were present. Approaching from the North was a 300 strong force of Parliamentarians consisting of pikemen, musketeers and horse led by Captain Francis Sydenham of Wynford Eagle near Dorchester. Taking the initiative the Royalist commander, Captain Purdon, ordered his men to advance and take control of the bridge. This they did successfully but they soon came under intense musket fire from the Parliamentarians. For five hours the Irishmen held out against repeated cavalry attacks and advances by the Parliamentary infantry and killed forty of them. It was said that ‘both officers and common men expressed most gallant courage’ and they gave ground only after all of their officers had been killed or wounded. Both Captain Purdon and his Lieutenant were wounded and propped up against the bridge, the latter ‘bled to death while encouraging his men with great cheerfulness.’
Upon the arrival of Royalist reinforcements Captain Sydenham withdrew, leaving his wounded and some supplies. It is said that the Irish held out for so long due to the encouragement of their wounded officers to hold the ground. But they may have had another reason to resist; Captain Francis’ Brother William had hanged men of the Irish regiment in Poole earlier in the month and understandably, they did not want to meet the same fate.
Next time when you’re driving over the road bridge, glance across at its disused counterpart and consider how it must have been for those men who fought there. I bet you’ll never look at it in the same way!
Second battle of Wareham
In 1644 the Royalist position in Dorset looked bleak. In order to break the Parliamentarian monopoly over the south coast of Dorset the Royalists elected to take back control of Wareham and gain access to the Purbecks once more. Inchiquin’s Irishmen would again find themselves at the center of the action.
Under the cover of darkness on a mild April night the town was attacked by the Irish regiment who scaled the walls under withering gunfire, climbing through ‘the port-holes of the cannon while the [ordinance] played upon them, though they had scarce room to get betwixt the mouth of the cannon and the wall.’
This contemporary description tells of the difficulty of penetrating the town’s defences and further testament to the attackers since they carried the town successfully. Once inside
the Royalists killed up to 80 of the defenders in a bloody and violent hand to hand combat which resulted in the surrender of 300 Parliamentarians along with the town. The Irish were lauded as the ‘incomparable musketeers’ by the Royalist press in acknowledgement of their bravery and skill at arms.
By the summer of 1644 Inchiquin’s men had further fortified the town, adding gun platforms which housed ‘murderers’; iron cannon that fired small calibre ‘hailshot’ at close range. They had also fortified a position east of the town at Bestwall. Lying outside of the town’s defences, this was designed to dominate the approach form Poole harbour.
So Wareham was once again in Royalist hands, but for how long?
Third battle of Wareham
Despite its new fortifications and the addition of an external strong point in the Bestwall area, Parliamentarian forces again determined to take the town. On the 10th August local Parliamentary soldiers reinforced by regular cavalry and dragoons attacked from the direction of Poole and ran straight in to the new Bestwall defensive redoubt. One contemporary account simply states that ‘they stormed the enemy out of Bestwall’ but this belays the true brutality and ferocity of the engagement that is evident from other records and in archaeological digs of the area.
The account of the treasurer for Dorset includes many payments for new horses which indicates that the Irish, following contemporary good practice, were aiming at the enemy horses as opposed to their riders. Another account tells how Lieu
tenant Butler led the forlorn hope (the first wave) and immediately ‘had both his eye shot out’.
Archaeological digs covering only a small section of the presumed battlefield uncovered 500 pieces of shot as well as the caps of a musketeers’ powder flasks – both indications of
a bitterly fought engagement. The varying calibres of the shot found, some as small as pistol rounds, also indicates the involvement of cavalry who fired pistols or carbines at the enemy before charging them with broadswords.
Eventually the Parliamentary soldiers carried the Bestwall strong point but the ferocity of the Irish resistance made them reluctant to assault the town itself. Instead, the commander demanded it’s surrender and that of the garrison. This was a problem for the Irish defenders who were a mixed bunch of Protestant and Catholic troops. The Protestants were willing to surrender in order to prevent further bloodshed, safe in the knowledge that they would be treated well by their Protestant captors. The Catholic contingent however faced a far more sinister and uncertain future were they to surrender. Commander of Parliamentary forces in England, the Earl of Essex ordered that ‘absolute Irish (Catholics), you may cause them to be executed, for I would not have quarter allowed to those’. The ensuing debate between the defenders resulted in the Protestants over-ruling the Catholics and agreeing to the surrender. Fortunately the local commander, William Sydenham (brother of Francis), accepted the surrender and did not enforce Essex’s dictate, treating both Protestants and Catholics remarkably well. The Catholics were sent back to Ireland and the Protestants switched sides and for the remainder of the war they fought for Parliament.
Between then and the end of the First Civil War in 1645 Wareham was relatively quiet with the exception of a daring raid committed by the Royalist Colonel Cromwell, Oliver Cromwell’s own cousin. Cromwell stormed the town with a troop of cavalry and kidnapped the Governor, carrying him off to the Royalist held Corfe Castle.
The English Civil War is often portrayed as a low impact and almost gentlemanly affair, but a small snapshot into the War in Dorset reveals the Brutal reality of the conflict. The actions described above were echoed in all corners of the country, leaving very little untouched. Military deaths in relation to overall population during the English Civil War were higher than that of the First World War, that is a chilling statistic.