Saturday, 28 June 2014

Lathom and Leave 'Em

The Siege of Lathom House (or, to be more precise, the First Siege of Lathom House) in 1644 is one of those events that, though full of drama and rather significant, never quite makes it into the list of things that come to mind when one mentions the English Civil War. It’s like a bi-election that only makes page eight news.

It’s understandable, I suppose, particularly when compared to events at Nottingham, Edgehill and Marston Moor, but the story of Lathom is a rather exciting one, especially if put into terms of female power, and overcoming the 17th century patriarchy to achieve great things in daring fashion. (Honestly, historical fiction writers would have a field day with this.) The powerful female in question is Lady Charlotte Stanley, wife of James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby (and for the Wars of the Roses enthusiasts, yes, it’s those Stanleys).

I think I’d better set the scene:

Lathom in Lancashire had been part of the Stanley family estates since the turn of the 15th century, when Sir John Stanley married Isabel Lathom. The wooden castle at Lathom then became the main seat of the family until Thomas, 1st Earl of Derby, rebuilt it, so that it became a whopping great palatial mansion, with thick stone walls, a deep moat and nine interestingly named towers. (Imagine staying in the Tower of Madness, for example.) By the time the 7th Earl rocked up over 150 years later, the castle was still standing, and Charlotte - a French lady from Queen Henrietta Maria’s retinue – had now been married into the powerful Stanley family. Charlotte herself came from an even more powerful family, being the daughter of the duc de Thouars, so, politically, it was a dynamite match. The marriage itself was a happy and loving one (again, historical fiction writers, take note) and it was also successful, producing six surviving children.

That said, things weren’t quite as blissful for the couple in the royal court. James Stanley wasn’t on best terms with Charles I, being a rival claimant to the throne, and his Queen disliked the Huguenots (of which Charlotte was one). To avoid being swamped with gossip and criticism, Charlotte spent much of her life away from court, at Lathom and Knowsley.

When civil war broke out, James initially sat on the fence (in true Stanley fashion) but eventually became an enthusiastic royalist, and when he was ordered by King Charles to go the Isle of Man and cut off the Scottish army, he did so, leaving Charlotte and their children behind at Lathom.

Enthusiastic though he was, James wasn’t a great military leader. (There were roundhead jokes going round saying that his wife had nicked his breeches; she was obviously the more capable of the two.) With the royalist grasp on Lancashire and the Isle of Man slipping away, the main focus for Thomas Fairfax’s parliamentarian forces by early 1644 was Lathom House.
The Earl and Countess of Derby with one of their children, painted
by Anthony Van Dyck before the civil war broke out.

Anyway, enough background. Time for some action!

On the 27th February 1644, Fairfax decided that Lathom House had to fall. His troops surrounded it, and Fairfax tried to negotiate with Lady Charlotte for the castle’s surrender. Much like the Queen she served, Charlotte was quite haughty and imperious, and said that it was Fairfax who should be submitting to her, and not the other way around. The negotiations were strung out until mid-March, when Charlotte flatly refused all offers and Lathom was put under siege.

The Lathom garrison was small – somewhere between two and three hundred men – and Fairfax had about ten times as many men waiting outside. The captain of her garrison – Colonel Farmer – carried out raids on the besieging force, while Charlotte herself acted as commander, supervising every detail and raising the morale of her troops.
As I've already implied, to call Lathom a house is a bit misleading. In truth, it was a heavily fortified castle, and Charlotte used this to the best of her advantage. The Eagle Tower provided excellent views of the 1500 infantry and 500 cavalry below, and the six foot thick outer walls coped well with the battering from outside. Meanwhile, the parliamentarians were under threat from Charlotte's snipers, who were good shots, it seems. They had their guns trained on enemy officers, waiting for them to emerge from their trenches. Each of the nine towers also had six cannons.
Lathom House, drawn at some point before the siege.

It's understandable, therefore, that the parliamentarians were willing to negotiate. Charlotte, however, had no such ideas. When Fairfax managed to get a letter from James Stanley asking for his wife to abandon Lathom, she stayed where she was, and when she received a letter from the besiegers asking her to surrender, she apparently tore it up saying:
Tell that insolent rebel, he shall have neither persons, goods, nor house. When our strength and provisions are spent, we shall find a [merciful fire]; and then, if the providence of God prevent it not, my goods and house shall burn in his sight; and myself, children, and soldiers, rather than fall into his hands will seal our religion and loyalty in the same flames.
It’s easy to romanticise the story of this military miracle-working matriarch (for example in this fantastic song about the siege by Steeleye Span) but despite their overwhelming size, Fairfax’s forces weren’t exactly stiff competition, especially when Fairfax was recalled to Yorkshire halfway through the siege. His replacement, Colonel Rigby, obviously did not want to be there, and morale was low. They failed to launch any major offensive, partly because of Lathom's position in the local landscape. Furthermore, it was news that Prince Rupert was on his way to relieve Lathom’s garrison that ultimately caused the parliamentarians to lift the siege and retreat, rather than the strength of the Countess' forces.
Even so, Charlotte and that tiny garrison managed to hold out for eleven weeks with only minimal damage, so hats off to them, I say.
The Parliamentarians seizing the mortar, one of the few
successes of the besiegers in 1644.

(It is worth mentioning, however, that within two years, James had been beheaded, Lathom had been destroyed and most of the Stanley estates were in the control of parliament. Such is war.)