The siege of Pembroke Castle

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On 11 July 1648 the siege of Pembroke Castle, which had begun eight weeks before, ended in the surrender of the garrison.

These days the siege and surrender are virtually a forgotten events but at the time this was a significant victory for Cromwell and parliament, being almost the final act in what we now know as the English Civil War.

During most of the civil war between king and parliament, the town and castle of Pembroke were held for parliament by John Poyer, the town's mayor.

Pembroke Castle

Following the royalist defeat at Naseby and the subsequent capture and imprisonment of Charles, the first phase of the civil war came to an end. Poyer, like many other parliamentary supporters, could confidently expect to bask in the glow of work well done and maybe even enjoy a little financial reward.

Instead, Poyer was immediately charged with having appropriated land to the value of £6,000 during the war. He was summoned to London to answer the charges but, luckily, managed to avoid serious punishment. However, by the winter of 1647 he was bitter and resentful at the way he had been treated.

Poyer was not alone. It was a difficult and dangerous time in Wales, in Britain as a whole, as old scores were settled and people who had previously supported the king now conveniently changed sides in order to reap the benefits of the new system of government.

Poyer, who was undoubtedly an unruly and, probably, very dishonest man, found himself caught in a trap of his own making.

All across the country soldiers who had fought for the parliamentary cause were ordered to lay down their arms and disband while promised wages, sometimes years in arrears, were not paid.

General Rowland Laugharne, the chief parliamentary soldier in west Wales, and his soldiers found themselves in exactly that position. Discontent was rife and tempers flared. There were many other reasons but the discontent and anger were major factors in the unrest that culminated in the outbreak of the Second Civil War.

The war did not last long. In Wales the supporters of the king, many of whom had originally fought for parliament, were soundly beaten at the Battle of St Fagans on 4 May 1648. For Laugharne and Poyer there was little they could do except ride west with the remnants of their troops, lock themselves into Pembroke Castle and hold out for as long as they possibly could.

The siege was initially run by Colonel Thomas Horton but Oliver Cromwell, only too aware of the danger the Welsh rebels posed to the new democratic regime, decided to head for Pembrokeshire and take charge of matters himself.

The town and castle of Pembroke provided a significant problem for any besieging army. Protected on three sides by water and by high, unscalable cliffs, the castle was isolated from the town by the imposing Barbican Tower and Gate House.

The town itself was surrounded by strong walls and, with houses running along a narrow finger of land, the cramped streets were likely to provide as difficult a problem as the fortress – even if the attackers could get across or through the walls.

Cromwell arrived outside Pembroke about 24 May and despite being badly troubled by gout, he managed the siege between the moment of his arrival and the eventual surrender of the garrison seven weeks later.

There were numerous assaults on the fortress, all of them being driven back by the desperate defenders. On 4 June a storming party nearly got over the town walls before being repulsed with the loss of 27 men killed and many more wounded.

A few days later Rowland Laugharne, at heart always a cavalry man, led out a raiding party of dragoons to kill a further nine of Cromwell's men and take over 20 prisoner. Cromwell placed artillery in the churchyard at nearby Monkton and from there a steady and effective fire was kept up on the town and castle. When ammunition ran low, the gunners simply used huge stones that they had dug from the ground.

By the middle of June fodder inside the beleaguered garrison was beginning to run low and Laugharne's horses were feeding on thatch from the roof of the town houses.

It was not just horses that were suffering. By 10 June rations for the soldiers – and townspeople – had been reduced to half a pound of beef and half a pound of bread each day.

By now the garrison was in a state of near mutiny. Poyer had been constantly promising that relief would come from Prince Charles in France and from other royalist parts of the country. Nothing ever materialised and many of his soldiers, despairing of any future help, went over the walls to safety.

At the end of June a serious breach was made in the town walls and the defenders were forced up the main street of the town, almost to the gates of the castle. Rowland Laugharne led an attack on the rear of the parliamentarian troops and the besiegers were eventually driven out. The skirmish had cost over 130 lives, on both sides.

On 11 July, with food running out and more and more townspeople being killed each day by Cromwell's artillery, John Poyer was at last forced to ask for terms. The terms were far from lenient. The castle was slighted and many men were imprisoned and fined. Poyer, Laugharne and Rice Powell – who had held Tenby for the rebels – were taken to London for trail as traitors.

All three were found guilty and sentenced to death for their part in the rebellion. However, a degree of leniency was suddenly agreed upon and it was decided that only one man must die.

Lots were drawn to see which one of the three men it would be. The unlucky man was John Poyer and, despite appeals, he was duly shot at Covent Garden on 25 April 1649.

It seems a strange way for Puritans, who abhorred all forms of gambling, to carry on, gambling with that most precious of commodities, a man's life. Poyer went to his death with courage and fortitude, leaving his family with the simple motto "Fate is against me."

With the end of the siege at Pembroke the Second Civil War ground to a conclusion. For the next 12 years the country had no monarch, Cromwell's Protectorate reigning supreme. Pembroke and its castle now sit in quiet solemnity – a far cry from that eight weeks of mayhem and terror in 1648.

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