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Raglan Castle and the Civil War

The destruction of Raglan's great tower by Parliamentary forces.

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.

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


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