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John Poyer, the forgotten hero (or villain) of the civil war

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 12:00 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

When you think of the Civil War, the great rebellion against the crown that took place in the 17th century, you tend to think only of famous men like Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. Yet the war was organised and fought by dozens of less well-known individuals, all of whom contributed, in lesser or greater degrees, to the success or failure of the war.

Pembroke castle

Pembroke castle

In Wales there was one man in particular who seemed to symbolise the turmoil of the age, supporting first parliament and then the king. He was the mayor of Pembroke, John Poyer.

Initially, at least, Poyer was devoted to the parliamentary cause. He was a rumbustious and temperamental man who, unfortunately, created a large number of enemies for himself in his relatively short life.

As well as being Pembroke's mayor, in the years running up to the outbreak of war he also commanded one of Pembrokeshire's Trained Bands, the groups of ordinary citizens who made up most of parliament's forces during the early months of conflict.

Parliament needed people like Poyer and his Trained Band because by 1642 all of south Wales had come out in favour of the king - apart from the towns of Pembroke and Tenby.

Over the next few years the war in Pembrokeshire was chaotic with first one side gaining the upper hand, then the other. John Poyer was in the thick of it all, manipulating, bribing and fighting to advance the parliamentary cause.

Many of his actions were high handed and, sometimes barely legal. At Michaelmas 1642, for example, Poyer, his term of office as mayor of Pembroke at an end, refused to stand down.

The new mayor had decidedly royalist leanings and there was no way Poyer was going to let him take control. He duly retained and held the position of mayor for the next six years.

Pembroke castle and town, under the command of Poyer and General Rowland Laugharne, quickly became a serious thorn in the side of royalist forces in Wales. So serious was the threat that the local royalist commanders declared that when they captured John Poyer they would put him in a barrel pierced by nails and roll him down hill into Milford Haven. John Poyer merely shrugged and commented that they would have to catch him first.

Thanks to the military skill of Rowland Laugharne and the adept political manoeuvring of Poyer, the parliamentary forces in Pembrokeshire were ultimately successful and in May 1646, with the surrender of Charles I to the Scots, the Civil War came to an end. Parliament had clear control of the country and now, it seemed, men like Poyer could enjoy the fruits of victory.

In Pembrokeshire, however, bad feelings continued to simmer. Poyer was called to London to answer charges of appropriating land and property in the county, to the value of £6,000. The charge eventually came to nothing but John Poyer was incensed that he should be called to task by parliament, the very people he had risked his life to champion.

For some time Laugharne's soldiers - like many other armies across the length and breadth of Britain - had been refusing to disband until they were paid arrears in wages.

Sir Thomas Fairfax, general of all parliamentary forces, now ordered Poyer to appear once more before a committee of accounts and to give up control of Pembroke and its castle. Poyer, an unruly and, probably, very dishonest man, refused and used the excuse of the unpaid soldiers. He would vacate the castle, he declared, when Laugharne's men had been given the wages they were owed.

And so the country slipped towards a second civil war. There were many other causes of this second eruption of civil war but men like Poyer and Laugharne - who had been solid supporters of parliament - now declaring for Prince Charles, the king's son. When parliament sent a large force under General Horton to deal with the south Wales rebels John Poyer simply declared:

"He, who feared neither Fairfax, Cromwell or Ireton, would be the first man to charge against Ironsides." (Quoted in Pembroke: For King And Parliament)

Unfortunately for Poyer and Laugharne, their army was defeated at the Battle of St Fagans on 4 May 1648 and the pair fell back on the fortress of Pembroke to lick their wounds and to take stock. Parliamentary forces soon appeared outside the town walls and a seven-week siege began. Soon no less a person than Oliver Cromwell himself arrived to take command of the besieging troops.

Poyer, like Rowland Laugharne, was tireless in the defence of the town, appearing on the walls, leading out sorties against Cromwell's troops. But inevitably, food and water began to run short and at the end of July the town surrendered. John Poyer, along with Laugharne and Colonel Rice Powell who had garrisoned Tenby against Cromwell, were sent to London for trial as traitors to the state.

A military court sat from 4-12 April 1649 and, at last, returned a guilty verdict. All three men were condemned to death for their part in the rebellion.

However, the council of state decided on leniency - only one man must die, his fate to be decided by a child who would draw lots to discover who would face the firing squad. Perhaps inevitably, the unlucky man was John Poyer.

Poyer had certainly created his fair share of enemies over the years and whether or not it was a rigged ballot will never be known. But it does seem strange for Puritans, who hated all forms of gambling, to be playing a game of chance with that most precious of commodities, a man's life.

Poyer's execution took place at Covent Garden on 25 April 1649.

Led to the place of execution by two troops of horse and three companies of foot, he made a short speech, confessing to having led a "loose life" but insisting that his loyalty to parliament had never changed. He was then shot, dying with the same courage and spirit he had displayed all his life.

John Poyer was a charismatic, contradictory and self destructive character. His final words were later taken by his family and used as a motto - "Son est contra me" (Fate is against me). It was a suitable epitaph, even though it could be argued that Poyer's fate was, ultimately, controlled by no-one other than himself.


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