The Great Rebellion - Siege of Elizabeth Castle

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This is the ninth and final part of a 54-page article by F H Ellis first published in the 1937 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Elizabeth Castle from the north. The church is on the left

Guernsey

After the fall of Mont Orgueil, there remained only Elizabeth Castle; Blake having no mind to throw away the lives of his men by attempting to storm such strong position left Heane to bring his mortars to bear on the fortress and turned his attention to Guernsey.

An officer aboard the Happy Entrance wrote that 'as soon as the Old Castle should fall it is possible that the General will make a trip to Guernsey and summon Cornet Castle of which we have more hope they having small hope of relief'.

Blake must have left Jersey early in November for a letter from Weymouth dated the 12th relates that a ship had come into port, the Master of which had anchored at Guernsey and found Admiral Blake in treaty with Cornet Castle. The ship only stayed one night and 'the Master was not on shore to know the issue, only he saw the General's boat go freely by that coast into the Pear and likewise boats past between the Castle and the ships with flags of truce. Saturday mornings last (8 November), when he was a little way from the Island coming for England, he saw many guns fired both from the Towne and the Castle which he conceives upon some agreement for the surrender of the whole Island'.

Blake and Colonel Burges did not come to terms, although they were in treaty for some time the enemy were so high in their propositions that Blake broke off negotiations and once again refusing to risk his men and his ships left affairs in the hands of Colonel Bingham, Lieut-Governor of the Island, for with supplies from Jersey now cut off the fall of Cornet Castle was merely a question of time.

Captain Coppin commander of the Happy Entrance arrived in Plymouth on 21 November, so it may be presumed that Blake arrived there too. Testimony to the value of his services was shown a few days later when he was elected a member of the fourth Council of State. He took the oath of secrecy at its first meeting on 1 December. The government might well be proud of him, the fall of the two Castles had yet to come but there could be no long delay and when Elizabeth Castle was evacuated and Cornet Castle surrendered on 15 December, less than two months had elapsed since he sailed from Weymouth.

Despite appalling weather conditions, and in face of determined opposition, the task had been accomplished with very few casualties. The highest estimate is that of the official account, six killed and 24 wounded. Of course this does not include the men drowned in the Tresco, but although she foundered and a few of the smaller craft were wrecked, considering the dangerous coasts and the terrible weather it seems almost miraculous that the shipping losses were not far heavier. Henceforth for a short time Blake's energies were to be mainly devoted to the wellbeing of his men and his ships before he once more took command at sea in what was to be a glorious period of British naval history.

Expedition ships

No list of the ships engaged in the expedition appears to exist. Only four, Happy Entrance, Phoenix, Elizabeth and Eagle, are named but it is possible to identify three others from the official list of ships for the winter guard approved by Parliament on 30 October less than a week after the landing.

  • Happy Entrance, Captain John Coppin, 44 guns 180 men
  • Phoenix, Captain John Wadsworth 36 guns 150 men
  • Elizabeth, Captain Jonas Reeves 36 guns 150 men
  • New frigott, Captain John Taylor 36 guns 150 men
  • Pearl, Captain Roger Cuttance 24 guns 80 men
  • Tresco, Captain George Blake 24 guns 70 men
  • 10th Whelp, Captain Philip Gething 16 guns 60 men

The three first ships and all the Captains are mentioned in an account of the landing published the day after the narrative, which gives some additional details. Pearl was a new ship only ready for her guns in July, and Cuttance was her first commander. Tresco, as already noted, was a prize taken at Scilly, 10th Whelp had for some time been under the command of Philip Gething. The frigate Eagle of the narrative, also mentioned by Chevalier as the frigate Eagle of eight guns, may have been the Eagle shallop which captured the boat sent to Cornet Castle from the Downs in 1648, for frigate and shallop are sometimes used interchangeably at this period.

There is no Eagle frigate in Mr Anderson's list only an Eagle shallop of six guns and there is no Eagle among the list for the winter guard. Peter Pett, in a letter dated 3 September 1651, notes the launch of the new frigate Eagle but even in the days of very rapid ship-building characteristic of the period she can hardly have been ready to sail with the expedition. Thus the Captain Taylor, who 'did very valiantly' at the landing, may have commanded either the Eagle or one of the other Navy ships not named, of which there may have been several.

A battery ship 'and battering ships' are also mentioned in the narrative and other newspaper accounts. It has been suggested that these may have been ships with special facilities for carrying artillery for the purpose of attacking forts, such as were used in the 18th Century, or that the term may have been an early form of, or confusion with, battleship, and so might apply to any of the frigates engaged in bombarding.

Among the 80 sail must have been a number of smaller naval craft such as pinnaces, shallops, etc, in addition to the armed merchantmen, transports, and victualling ships. There is record of the hire of the frigate Peter on Colonel Heane's contract with the Lord Deputy; John Bennet, master of the ship John, petitioned with others concerned in the ships which were lost upon the service of the taking of Jersey; Jacob Arnol received £450 for the wages of his men and the loss of his ship at Jersey and Elias Holmes, employed in reducing Jersey, £102 for the loss of his vessel and a further £10 for waiting for his money and charges expended about it. Both these men were paid in February 1652.

A plan of the castle in 1650

Impregnable castle

Heane's remaining task was no light one for Elizabeth Castle was deemed impregnable. Built on a rocky islet in St Aubin's Bay and entirely surrounded by the sea at high tide, it was possible to approach by land at the ebb, but the time was too short for an attack upon such a strong position. Mont Orgueil, called the Old Castle was Jersey's chief stronghold in mediaeval times but the coming of artillery so altered the defensive powers that in the reign of Edward VI it was decided to fortify St Hillary's Islet and where a monastery had once flourished the New Castle began to rise.

When the religious troubles in France were causing anxiety, Queen Elizabeth enlarged and fortified the Castle and to this period belong the Keep and the Upper Ward. Still later when the French were threatening reprisals after Buckingham's expedition to the Isle of Re, the Lower Ward enclosing the remains of the old Priory Church was constructed, followed in 1646 by the outwork, Charles Fort, at the north end of the Islet and shortly before the expedition by a small fortified tower a little south of the Fort.

The Fort and the Tower were separated from the Lower Ward by a piece of ground of considerable size called the Green, but it was not until after the Restoration that the area was enclosed by ramparts. During the Civil Wars the rocks surrounding the Islet were scarped to lessen the danger of attack and just before the siege earthworks were thrown up on the Green flanking the Fort and Tower. The Islet — despite its name — is not a permanent island for its landward connection, a low ridge of shingle formed by the tide-meet, remains exposed for about five hours between tides.

This ridge is known as 'The Bridge'. At high spring tides it is submerged to a depth of 15 feet and at high neap tides to a depth of 10 feet. During Charles II's visit a soldier riding towards St Helier after the Bridge was closed, failed to keep on the ridge and was drowned.

When Carteret crossed to the Castle from St Aubin's Tower, the garrison numbered 442, a medley of French, Swiss, Germans, Danes, English, Scotch, Irish, some seamen, and part of the Militia, while in addition there were a number of civilians, including landowners, clergy, lawyers, and merchants. All these he formed into three companies under command of Sir Philip Carteret, the Lieut-Colonel of the Germans and Major Collins. These companies mounted guard by turns, but on the nights when the tide was out and there was possibility of approach by land, every man had to be on duty in case of attack.

Batteries

The town of St Helier stands at the eastern end of St Aubin's Bay, flanked by the Town Hill, which runs roughly north and south, the south end being nearest to the Castle about 1,000 yards away. Here several guns were mounted and the graveyard of St Helier's Church, which in those days adjoined the shore, was also used for a battery as it had been in 1643, when Bandinel and Lempriere were in conflict with Sir Philip Carteret. Seven or eight guns were in the angle between the Church and the Town Hill and there were more batteries extending westwards along the shore.

The day after the fall of Mont Orgueil, six 36-pounders were mounted on the Town Hill, possibly brought from Mont Orgueil Castle, for Chevalier says that many of the Island guns were used in the siege. Four days later three more batteries were erected on the Town Hill, one of four guns and the others of two each, but though the artillery kept up a harrassing fire, little damage was done to Elizabeth Castle beyond knocking down some parapets, which the defenders promptly repaired with turf. Carteret's fire likewise was not very deadly, it is reported that a house in the town was hit but no harm done, which is not surprising seeing that the distance from the Castle was nearly a mile and that the most important houses were built of granite never more than two storeys high and the walls seldom less than 3 feet thick.

One night a sortie was made by 15 horsemen from the Castle in the hope of getting information as to what was happening in the town. They succeeded in bringing back an islander who told woeful tales of pillage and of the desecration of the Church by the Puritan soldiery. According to Chevalier, the soldiers from Guernsey did a good deal of looting on the west coast, carrying off beds and other household goods to the ships. He says that Heane, who had forbidden pillage on pain of death, was very angry when this was brought to his notice and did his best to get the things restored.

Chevalier also says that the soldiers recently released from Mont Orgueil and a company called the blacq coulleurs, not identified, also ravaged the country. Nicholas Robert, an ensign in the Guernsey militia who was one of the signatories to the Remonstrance to Harrison, and who commanded one of the transports, climbed to the top of the belfry of the Royal Court, without a ladder, and carried off the gilded crown which surmounted it. This was afterwards taken to the Parliament in London, but was returned to Jersey after the Restoration.

Guernsey soldiers

According to Chevalier there were 900 soldiers from Guernsey, whereas the English accounts record only two or three companies of English troops under Major Harrison, and the 67 prisoners from Mont Orgueil who were also English. In view of the well-known feeling between the inhabitants of the two Islands, it is possible that a number of volunteers came over from Guernsey with some idea of revenge on Jersey, and perhaps allowance should be made for an anti-Guernsey bias which may have brought Chevalier somewhat exaggerated accounts both of the numbers and of the depredations.

Soon after the investment of Elizabeth Castle came news that the King had safely landed in France. Carteret sent Mr Poingdestre to congratulate him on his miraculous escape and to inform him of affairs in Jersey, saying that he hoped to be able to hold the Castle for eight months. There appears to have been little difficulty in communicating with France; boats could slip away from the little harbour of St James, beneath the Castle walls, despite the vigilance of the Parliament ships. Blake seized the island of Chausey near Granville to try and intercept the traffic but seemingly with little effect.

A 17th century mortar

The emplacement of Heane's three mortars was a great undertaking as the largest weighed 450 lb, and they had to be hoisted out of the ships and dragged to the south end of the Town Hill. Breastworks eight or nine feet high were built round each mortar. Chevalier carefully explains that the height of the breastworks made it impossible to see the Castle and that the method employed was high-angle firing by geometry and not direct as from a cannon. In the manuscript of the journal are a number of sketches illustrating the mortars and the grenades. At first the grenades were filled with musket balls as well as powder, but this made them so heavy that they fell short, after which only powder was used. Each grenade took 30 or 40 lb of powder and another 10 lb for the charge. The engineer in command of the mortars was Thomas Wright, 'who did by his fireworks perform singular service', for which Parliament afterwards gave him a gratuity of £10.

Explosion

The third grenade to reach the Castle fell through the roof of the old Priory Church into the vaults beneath, where a quantity of ammunition was stored. It set fire to some barrels of powder, causing a great explosion, which wrecked the Church and five or six houses including Chancellor Hyde's. Sixteen men were killed and 10 wounded, including armourers and carpenters, but chiefly Irish soldiers quartered near. Some water tanks and a quantity of provisions were also destroyed.

Sir George and Lady Carteret and others had a narrow escape as only just before they had been at service in the Chapel within the Church. According to Falle and the Clarendon Manuscript, the grenade was 30 inches in diameter, one Jersey historian even goes so far as to say 36 inches, these being somewhat exaggerated estimates although there are records of grenades 16 and 18 inches in diameter being made in England at this time. Durell, in his edition of Falle, says that the diameter was 13 inches and that the shell was 2 inches thick. In his day pieces of it were preserved in the armoury of the Castle.

The explosion caused consternation among the defenders and many threw down their arms and prepared to go over to the enemy, refusing to accept Carteret's assurance that it was the powder in the magazine and not the grenade which had wrought the havoc. Sword in hand he tried to restrain them, threatening to hang any deserters, but nevertheless many slipped away, having more fear of a grenade than of a rope. On the following day Lady Carteret and others went to France and Sir George took the precaution of burying the rest of his powder well underground.

Hearing of the terror prevailing and of the amount of damage caused by what Chevalier terms these Inventions dyabolliques, Heane sent a drum to summon the Castle, perhaps thinking that as at Mont Orgueil the garrison would force the Governor to surrender. But Carteret trained guns on the Parliament men to show that he had no intention of giving in. Heane continued to fire grenades, the defenders rushed on to the Green whenever they saw them coming and terror prevailed at the Castle, and although several men were caught and hanged, deserters continued to slip away, including the master mason, who knew the strength and the weakness of the defences.

Three days after the great explosion, a grenade set fire to some wheat ricks in the Lower Ward and another passed right over the Upper Ward. In all 38 were fired of which 20 fell within the Castle, but only the two above mentioned caused serious damage.

Approaches to King Charles

As no answer had been received from the King and it was now three weeks since Poindextre departed, Carteret sent his chaplain, Mr Durel, with instructions to tell his Majesty of the explosion and to ask for help to recapture the Island, which he optimistically said would only require "des forces bien mediocres". Two days after Durel's arrival Charles sent him back with Poindextre, each carrying a duplicate letter as a precaution against capture. Attempts to get help from France had failed and the King, while recognising Carteret's loyalty and zeal, advised him to make the best terms he could.

Nevertheless, Carteret determined to hold on and did not disclose the contents of the letter. He loaded one of his ships with oil and fish intending to send her to St Malo to exchange her cargo for provisions, but adverse winds drove her ashore between the Castle and the town, where Heane's men, encouraged by his promise of £3 reward set her on fire. This unlucky chance was balanced by an unlucky chance for the invaders, for Wright in his zeal overcharged one of the mortars, which burst and became useless. Heane wrote for another and Council immediately ordered three more to be sent, enjoining special care of the 'goodnesse of the ironworke' and prompt delivery. These were never required, for three days after the order was issued, the Castle had fallen.

On 3 December Heane, for the third time, sent a summons and Carteret sent back the trumpeter to say that he would reply later. His officers were urging him to surrender, as no word had come from the King and there seemed little prospect of relief. Carteret thereupon disclosed the contents of the King's letter and wrote to Heane that he was ready to discuss terms. Heane appointed Major Ashby, Captain Yardley and Lieutenant Pigeon to act for him, and asked for Sir Philip Carteret, Mr Hamptonne senior and Captain Paulet as hostages, they to be at the opening of the Bridge on the following day. Carteret agreed to send the hostages named and requested that they and Heane's commissioners should meet half way so that the escorts in each case could return.

Heane replied giving two days to arrange terms and promising to refrain from hostilities meanwhile, provided that Carteret did likewise and also refrained from either lading or sending away any boat. Carteret took exception to some of the stipulations about the rendition and sent Major Ashby to Heane for further discussion. Heane wrote courteously expressing his readiness to comply with Carteret's wishes, should it be possible, but desiring to know the end of his demands in half an hour, so that the Articles might be concluded, otherwise negotiations would be broken off. Carteret replied in equally courteous terms sending back Captain Paulet who apparently had been sent to the Castle with Heane's letter.

Shout of joy

Orders had been given that upon the arrival of the Commissioners all in the Castle were to be under arms and talking unconcernedly among themselves as if by no means cast down by the turn of affairs, instead of which the whole garrison gave a shout of joy. But for this, says the Clarendon Manuscript, they might have had better terms. The Articles were signed on 12 December and the terms were indeed generous. Carteret was to be indemnified for all acts during the late war and to date, to retain all his goods and estates and to have the choice of one of his own vessels to go where he pleased, acting nothing against the Parliament.

Others in the Castle to be indemnified for past acts, to keep their estates and to have passes to go where they wished. The garrison to march out with all the honours of war to lay down their arms at an appointed place, privates to be allowed to keep their swords and officers and gentlemen their horses, swords, backs and breasts and pistols. All prisoners on both sides to be liberated and any sick and wounded left behind to be cared for by Heane. The Castle to be delivered up at noon on 15 December with all ordnance, arms, ammunition, stores and provisions, as well as the writings and records belonging to the jurisdiction of the Island and all shipping lying under the Castle.

Most of the shipping proved unserviceable. Carteret's largest frigate, the Hunter, of 22 guns, was away from Jersey at the time, her crew forced the Captain to land in France and then brought her to England where she was taken into the Commonwealth Navy.

Before the evacuation some of Heane's officers were sent to the Castle to see that the terms of the rendition were carried out. They found 53 guns, 450 muskets, 64 barrels of powder and a large quantity of ammunition, stores and provisions. After the Articles were signed Carteret invited Heane to dine with him and discuss recent happenings. Heane accepted the invitation, but declined to enter the fortress before the evacuation. A day or so later he went to the Islet where Carteret awaited him on the rocks near Charles Fort, each being accompanied by only a small staff to express mutual confidence.

Food was brought from the Castle and later the Royalist ex-Governor of Jersey and his Puritan successor parted in amicable fashion. There is no evidence as to whether the two had ever met before, but they had corresponded about the exchange of prisoners when Heane was Governor of Weymouth. Owing to adverse winds, the evacuation did not take place on 15 December as arranged, but the following day Sir George left Jersey in the Scout — a small ship of four guns — accompanied by two merchantmen of 10 guns, each carrying other refugees and their goods. Escorted by the Parliament frigate Eagle they arrived next morning at St Malo.

Castle Cornet

The only Royalist stronghold now standing was Cornet Castle, which surrendered on the day fixed for the evacuation of Elizabeth Castle and was itself evacuated on 19 December. The Articles signed by Lt-Colonel Barrett Lacy and Mr Trotle, acting for Colonel Bingham, and by Major Harrington and Mr May for Colonel Burges, were a generous tribute to the defenders, now at last vanquished after a siege of nearly nine years. All had permission to keep their swords and the Lieut-Governor and the two Commissioners one case of pistols each. An act of indemnity from the year 1640 was granted to all the garrison and rations for 20 days allowed, whether in Guernsey or on board ship, with transport to England, France or Jersey as desired.

For full three months after arrival at their destination no oath was to be imposed and all were to have freedom to deal with their property, which was not to be sequestrated. Colonel Bingham also agreed to pay £1,500 to Colonel Burges in consideration of the great civility shown by him and his garrison to those engaged in the attack of the previous March. On the day arranged the garrison, consisting of about 55 men, marched out with drums beating, colours flying, bullet in mouth and match lighted at both ends and laid down their arms on the pier at St Peter Port.

On 2 January Parliament confirmed the Articles of the rendition of Elizabeth Castle and of Cornet Castle and deputed the Council of State to make arrangements for the government of the Channel Islands. It was ordered that commissioners for compounding should be sent over immediately and that the necessary steps should be taken for bringing back such troops as were not required and for the well-being of those remaining. Colonel Bingham to continue as Governor of Guernsey and Colonel Heane to become the new Governor of Jersey.

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