The Siege Of Raglan

The siege of Raglan had begun. The first task facing Parliament’s Colonel Thomas Morgan’s troops was to look to their own protection. To this end, they began building earthworks and digging trenches just as their Royalist opponents had done. Like trenches in the First World War, the two lines ended up very close to each other; Morgan described how he had brought his approaches to within pistol shot of the enemy lines. The Colonel had with him a skilled engineer, one Captain John Hooper, who had recently scored a great success in defeating the Royalist castle at Banbury. Hooper set about building platforms on which to mount the Parliamentary cannon; their faint outline can still be seen in the fields to the east of the castle. Soon the Roundhead gunners were in position and ready to begin their bombardment.

The barrage, when it began, was relentless. The Roundheads pounded the castle with up to sixty shot a day. The noise was deafening, the stench from the guns sickening. Once they had found their range, Morgan’s gunners were easily able to destroy the tops of the castle towers, and with them the lighter Royalist guns that had been placed there. The battlements at Raglan were only eight inches thick, and quickly crumbled under the assault. The Parliamentarians began to concentrate their fire on the larger guns around the perimeter, and also on their main objective: blowing a breach in the castle walls.

The walls, however, held out. According to a contemporary witness, “the [great] tower itself repulsed bullets of 18 to 20lb weight, hardly receiving the least impression.” The walls of the rest of the castle proved equally defiant. Along the eastern face of the castle, the damage caused by the Parliamentary artillery is still very evident—the walls are chipped and battered, and a number of cannon balls have been found embedded in them. But the medieval masonry neither cracked nor collapsed under the barrage. To judge from the above comments on the size of the shot, it would seem that Morgan’s guns were simply not big enough. A gun firing shots of eighteen to twenty pounds would have been a culverin. This was a fairly impressive piece of equipment, weighing in at around five thousand pounds and measuring thirteen feet from breach to barrel. It could not, however, smash through stonework. For that, Morgan would have needed larger guns—demi-cannon, or whole-cannon. Capable of firing balls of up to eighty pounds in weight, these were a convincing answer to even the stoutest stone walls. Morgan appears not to have had them—at least, not at the outset. The problem with cannon was getting them where you wanted them in the first place. Whereas a culverin could be shifted by a team of twenty horses, a single cannon would have required two or three times as many beasts to get it moving. Even with such large trains, the biggest siege guns could only be moved a few miles a day. Trundling them along muddy tracks took weeks on end and, as such, was prohibitively expensive. Both sides were reluctant to commit cannon to the fray unless there seemed to be absolutely no alternative.

Morgan did, in fact, have other options open to him, but they were extremely tedious. While his gunners could continue to try and destroy their enemy’s artillery, his troops could hope to pick off individual defenders by using muskets. Muskets had been around for some time (about a hundred years) and had proved effective in battle, where they could be massed together and fired in volleys. In a siege situation, however, they were less useful, not having the accuracy required for long-distance sniping. Although you would be extremely lucky if you survived a shot from a musket, you would have to be exceedingly unlucky to get hit by one in the first place.

On one occasion during the siege of Raglan, the marquis of Worcester enjoyed just such mixed fortunes. One evening after dinner, he and his dining companions had withdrawn into his private parlor beyond the great hall—a handsome room, “noted for its inlaid wainscoting and curious carved figures, as well as for . . . a large and fair compass window on the south side.” The redoubtable Dr. Bailey, who (as ever) was there to witness events, described what happened next. As the marquis was about to entertain the assembled company with one of his pleasant after-dinner discourses, there was a distant crack, a whizz, and a sudden shattering of glass. A musket ball came crashing through the ornamental window, glanced off a little marble pillar, and struck the marquis on the side of the head. As the flattened bullet dropped to the table with a gentle thud, some of the ladies present fainted from the shock. The marquis, however, saw a golden opportunity for the kind of witty apophthegm that later enabled Bailey to dine out for decades.

“Gentlemen,” he said, turning the musket ball in his fingers, “those who had a mind to flatter me were wont to tell me that I had a good head-piece in my younger days; but if I do not flatter myself, I think I have a good head-piece in my old age—or else it would not have been musket-proof.”

Joking aside, the marquis must have realized he had had a lucky escape. By this stage, moreover, he can have had little else to joke about. The loss of his great ornamental window was just the latest in a long line of disasters to befall his beautiful castle. If he had dared to peek over the parapets, he would have hardly recognized the scene before him. Where there had once been ornamental gardens, orchards, and ponds, there was now a war zone—a no-man’s-land where every tree had been torn down and every building destroyed. The Royalist situation was becoming desperate, and five weeks into the siege, on July 12, the garrison attempted to break out; four hundred infantry and eighty cavalrymen poured over the defenses to engage Morgan’s troops. Within half an hour, however, it was all over: the Royalists were beaten back, having sustained heavy losses.

But if the Royalists could not break out, the Roundheads could not break in. Despite the successful defeat of the sortie and the destruction his guns had wreaked on the castle, Colonel Morgan was still no closer to ending the siege. All he could do was keep tightening his grip, and order Captain Hooper to keep driving forward his trenches.

Meanwhile, events elsewhere were shaping Raglan’s fate. In May 1646, even before the siege had begun, Charles I had slipped out of his headquarters at Oxford and traveled in secret to Newark, where he handed himself over to a waiting Scottish Army. It was a desperate move, choosing what he considered to be the lesser of two evils and hoping to divide his enemies. For the Royalist troops who remained in Oxford, however, it was the beginning of the end. Negotiations began almost immediately, and within a few weeks it was all over. Having been besieged and blockaded for years, the exhausted city finally surrendered on June 25.

The consequences of Oxford’s fall were first felt at Raglan two weeks later, when Parliament’s Major-General Skippon and Colonel Herbert arrived outside the castle with two thousand extra men. They arrived the day after the garrison had attempted to break out of the castle, and their presence put paid to any further thoughts of flight on the part of the Royalists. Joshua Sprigge, a chaplain who had arrived with the new troops, noted the scales were beginning to tip against the defenders.

“The enemy,” he wrote, “was reduced to more caution, and taught to lie closer.”

It was not Skippon or Herbert, however, who ended the siege, but two new characters who arrived at the start of August. The first was Sir Thomas Fairfax. A man of thirty-four years, Fairfax had cut his teeth fighting in the Netherlands, and made his reputation in the north of England during the early stages of the war. Although by no means a striking figure—he suffered from poor general health, and his physical sufferings had been compounded by two separate musket wounds—Fairfax demonstrated both skill as a military commander and a refreshing lack of egotism. At the start of 1645 he had been the natural choice as leader of the New Model Army. At Oxford, he had managed to persuade the Royalists to submit without a fight, and had avoided having to fire his great guns into the city. The ancient colleges had been saved, and Fairfax had taken the trouble to post a guard around the Bodleian Library in order to stop it from being sacked. He now hoped to bring the siege of Raglan to a similarly bloodless conclusion.

By the time Fairfax arrived at Raglan on August 7, it was all but the last garrison in England still holding out for the king. The fall of Oxford had been the signal for those few remaining Royalist strongholds to surrender. Only the tiny Henrician fort at Pendennis in Cornwall, strengthened by massive Civil War earthworks, was putting up a resistance comparable with Raglan’s. As Joshua Sprigge poetically put it, “many other garrisons that attended [Oxford’s] fate fell with it, even like ripe fruit, with an easy touch; but the two garrisons of Raglan and Pendennis, like winter fruit, hung long on.”

The garrison at Raglan, however, knew nothing of distant Pendennis. When Fairfax wrote to the marquis shortly after his arrival, he stretched the truth in order to emphasize the hopelessness of the old man’s situation.

“Raglan only obstructs the kingdom’s universal peace,” he told him, before proceeding to pile on further pressure. He had come into Monmouthshire “with such a strength as I may not doubt,” and was now offering the marquis a last chance to surrender on favorable terms. If, however, the marquis delayed or refused, “such terms . . . cannot be hereafter expected.”

But the marquis continued to play the same game as before. In his letter back to Fairfax, he referred to the castle as his “house,” and added that (having lost both Chepstow and Monmouth) Raglan was “the only house now in my possession to cover my head in.” This was not a mere word game, or the sentimental blubbering of a foolish old man. The marquis was choosing to make a point about personal property and his inalienable rights as a landowner that had been a familiar theme of Royalist propaganda throughout the war. Concluding his letter, he referred to his “house” for a final time, and wondered aloud how, “by law or conscience I should be forced out of it.”

Fairfax, exasperated, sent back a testy reply. “For that distinction which your lordship is pleased to make [i.e., between castle and house]; it is your house. If it had not been formed into a garrison, I should have not have troubled your lordship with a summons; and were it dis-garrisoned, neither you, nor your house should receive any disquiet from me!”

But Fairfax knew that he did not have to waste time with the marquis debating the legal merits of their respective positions. Even as he had drawn up his forces at Raglan, another character had appeared, and one with a far bloodier reputation than the general. This was a lady, no less, but one whose name struck fear into the hearts of grizzled soldiers. Roaring Meg had come to Raglan.

Meg was a mortar piece—a squat metal tub measuring just four feet from end to end, but nonetheless the most terrifying weapon imaginable in the seventeenth century. She was a gun, but not intended, like a conventional cannon, to smash through walls. Mortars like Meg were designed to lob their missiles clean over the defenses of a town or castle, right into the heart of the enemy camp. These missiles, furthermore, were not the solid iron balls fired by cannon, but large hollow grenades, twelve inches across and two hundred pounds in weight. Typically made of copper (or a similarly brittle metal), the grenade was packed with gunpowder, and lit by a fuse before being launched toward its target. When the powder ignited, the grenade exploded, sending shrapnel flying in all directions, killing or maiming everything within a wide radius.

The mortar was, in short, an anti-personnel weapon, intended to destroy human life rather than wear down defenses. Of course, a well-aimed shot weighing two hundred pounds could rip right through the roof of a building, and the explosive force of a grenade could easily start a fire. But they were not always successful, or even reliable weapons. A grenade was, in essence, a very crude type of shell—one without a detonator. It therefore required great skill on the part of the gunner to judge not only how far to fire it, but also how long to make the fuse. Too short and it would explode in mid-flight; too late and it might give the defenders the chance to render it harmless. There is a famous example of how, during the siege of Gloucester, a quick-thinking woman extinguished the fuse of a mortar grenade by throwing a bucket of water over it.

Above all, however, mortars could be relied upon to produce fear and panic among your opponents. During the siege of Lathom House in Lancashire in 1644, one of the defenders indicated the terror that a falling grenade could provoke.

“Little ladies had stomach to digest cannon,” he wrote, “but the stoutest soldiers had no heart for this . . . the mortar piece had frightened ’em from meat and sleep.”

From an attacker’s point of view, mortars were satisfyingly effective. Parliamentarian troops trying to break Banbury Castle in 1646 reported screams every time the mortar was fired.

When Roaring Meg arrived at Raglan in August 1646, she was still only a few months old, having been specially cast earlier in the year for the purpose of defeating the Royalist garrison at Goodrich Castle. The young lady came with powerful friends. Escorted by Colonel John Birch, Meg rolled up with five of her sister-pieces, as well as all the conventional cannon that Parliament was able to spare. In terms of the mortars, at least, this was the greatest concentration of firepower so far deployed in the Civil War. Captain Hooper, who was still busy digging his way toward the Royalist lines, now began to construct platforms for the new weapons sixty yards from the castle’s defenses.

As the marquis of Worcester watched Roaring Meg and the other mortars being rolled into position, he knew he was caught between a rock and a hard place. The level of danger had suddenly become far, far greater. No longer could he hide behind his ancestral walls; if the mortars were fired, there was a good chance that he or a member of his family would be killed. By the same token, surrender was not a tempting prospect. Who knows what a vindictive Parliament might do to him? As he confessed in a letter to Fairfax, the prospect of surrender “doth a little affright me.”

Fairfax, sensing the old man’s desperate dilemma, hammered his advantage home. Come to terms, he urged.

“If you stand it out to the last extremity,” he wrote to the marquis, “[you risk] your person, those of your family (which I presume are dear to you), and the spoil of the castle.”

Fairfax also chose to invoke the memory of another marquis who had defied Parliament to the bitter end.

“Your Lordship has no reason to expect any better than the marquis of Winchester received. He made good Basing House to the last, narrowly escaped with his own life, lost his friends, subjected those that escaped to great frights, and hazarded his house and estate to utter ruin, and himself to the extremity of justice.”

At the same time, Fairfax reassured the marquis that he would receive fair treatment at Parliament’s hands. “That what I grant,” he promised, “shall be made good.”

And so, after more than two months besieged in his castle, the marquis decided that it was time to surrender. Over the weekend of August 15–16, negotiators thrashed out the terms of the cease-fire, and on Monday a deal was struck. In two days’ time, it was agreed, the Royalist troops would march out of Raglan castle, unmolested by their opponents, and disband. Certain individuals, including the marquis himself, were exempted from this pardon; and when, on the eve of the surrender, the marquis presented the terms to his men, they pledged to keep on fighting. Their master’s mind, however, was made up. Like Jonah, he said, he would be cast overboard rather than see them all perish. Accordingly, the next morning, the Royalist garrison marched out of Raglan, with “colors flying, drums beating, [and] trumpets sounding,” just as the negotiators had agreed.

Both the marquis and Fairfax had good reason to be happy with the conclusion. For Fairfax, it was the bloodless outcome he had hoped for—once again, he had achieved victory without needless expenditure, either of men or of money. The marquis also had reason to be grateful. His castle and his household had got off lightly, even if he himself now faced an uncertain future. When the two men met that day, the marquis, true to form, was in good spirits. As the general was taking his leave, the old man made what Dr. Bailey called “a merry petition” on behalf of a couple of pigeons, which he had been feeding throughout the siege. Would the great general take the two young birds, as it were, under his wing? With so many hungry soldiers about, the marquis was concerned for their safety.

The only individual who was apparently less than pleased by the bloodless conclusion was Colonel Morgan. He was, after all, the one who had started the siege back in June, and since then he had endured the hardship of living under canvas and fighting in trenches for the best part of two months. Now, thanks to Fairfax’s negotiated surrender, his opportunity to heroically storm the breach had vanished. Worse still, he hadn’t even got to fire a mortar—Roaring Meg had on this occasion stayed silent. Writing to the Speaker in the House of Commons on the day the cease-fire was agreed, Morgan began, “After long and hard duty performed, it hath pleased God that commissioners on both sides have agreed upon articles for the surrender of the castle and garrison.”

You can hear the disappointment and the petulance in his voice when he finally adds that, “truly, had not this happy conclusion been made, our mortar pieces would have played very suddenly, and we were come very near with our approaches.”