On Tuesday 22nd July 1645 Bridgwater was in flames after an 11 day siege, surrounded by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and under constant bombardment from Parliamentary cannons positioned on Hamp Hill. The townswomen had been allowed to leave the town ,the Roundhead army prepared to storm the castle and Bridgwater was on the verge of complete destruction.
The Civil War was the defining moment in the English Revolution and Bridgwater played a key part in it. By disposition a Parliamentary leaning town of merchants and providing one of the Revolution’s great military leaders-Robert Blake, it had been (as is always the case with Bridgwater) caught up in a sea of Royalist Blue everywhere else around the West Country. In 1643 the Royalist Edmund Wyndham , from the stately home of Orchard Wyndham on Exmoor, had occupied the town against the wishes of the townsfolk and made himself Governor of Bridgwater’s powerful castle holding down the population. On occasion it was noted that Wyndham ‘hung any troublesome locals from the signpost of the George Inn’. Wyndham had been a Bridgwater MP before the Civil War (in the days when nobody actually ‘elected’ their MPs) and had opted for working his way ‘in’ as a lacky to the autocratic King Charles 1st with the aid of his quite barmy wife Christabella, who had been enrolled as nursemaid to the baby Prince Charles.
Bridgwater’s other MP , Robert Blake, had taken a quite different course and appalled by the corruption and dictatorship of the King, had opted for the Parliamentary side. Gaining military experience at the sieges of Bristol and Lyme Regis , Blake then took the initiative and seized Taunton in 1644 thus not only threatening Bridgwater but potentially upsetting Royalist control of the West Country. While Blake held on to Taunton for a year despite a grim siege in which he declared ‘If I had 4 pair of boots I would eat 3 pair before I surrendered’ and tying down the King’s West Country armies of Goring and Hopton, elsewhere in the Country the Parliamentary forces were winning the war, recapturing the North Country at Marston Moor in 1644 and then in June 1645 winning the crucial battle at Naseby in the Midlands. By July 1645 the entire Parliamentary army was heading for Somerset.
On July 10th the Royalist field army attempted to give battle at Langport but was routed by Cromwell and Fairfax who, having now relieved Blake in Taunton, headed straight for Bridgwater.
On the night of the 10th the Roundheads approached Bridgwater camping on the moors near Chedzoy and gradually taking positions around the town over the 11th and 12th
On July 12th Cromwell came close to the town to take a look at the fortifications. The 13th century castle commanded the high point on Kings Square with it’s own moat –basically following the line of today’s Fore Street from around the Fountain inn to Lloyds bank,on through Castle Moat, turning right at Northgate near the Tory party offices and back down to the river (under the council offices). The whole town was surrounded by 30 foot ditches which filled tidally and linked the 4 town gates, 3 on the West Side – the Southgate (around about the Blake chip shop on St Mary Street) to the Westgate (near Bar Brunel) back along Mount Street to the Northgate (where it joins Angel Crescent) and then across the river was Eastover where the Broadway,St john street crossroads hosted the hospital of St john and the East gate,with it’s own fortifications and drawbridge, forming a heavily garrisoned ‘salient’ across the river, linked by the medieval stone bridge.
Christabella Wyndham –who had by this time taken to walking the castle walls in her nightclothes extolling the unimpressed townspeople below to ‘fight for their king’ , took the opportunity to have a pot shot at Cromwell –apparently killing the man next to him. Cromwell responded by capturing the isolated outpost of Sydenham Manor that same day and, a sufficiently safe distance away, making it his and Fairfax’s HQ.
Having secured the East side of the Town, the Parliamentarians sent Lt Col Massey with a large force of horse and cannon across the river to Hamp –which at the time was a small village on the high ground nearby Hamp Green Rise. Positioning his cannon on Hamp Hill, along by present day Blake school, Cromwell and Fairfax had now invested the town on 2 sides leaving only the western escape route to Royalist Dunster open . Wyndham chose not to run but to fight to the last reluctant townsman.
By the 14th the Royalists hadn’t moved so Cromwell had another go at a recce. This time it was nature’s turn and his boat was almost capsized by the tidal bore as he tried to cross between Dunwear and Hamp. Knowing the townspeople weren’t very keen to have their town destroyed by an attack, the Parliamentary commanders chose a strategy of siege in the hope that Wyndham would quietly head out west. Now the Roundheads started digging trenches to surround the town. Unfortunately no sooner had they dug them than they filled up with water. By the 19th they decided this strategy wasn’t going to work.
On Sunday the 20th they had a bit of a pray. Always a bad sign in the 17th century as this was almost inevitably followed by massive slaughter. Fairfax had decided to storm the town and so drew up a ‘Forlorn Hope’. This inspiringly named unit was chosen by drawing lots. The losers became the Forlorn Hope and their job was to lead the attack.
At 2am on Monday the 21st July 3 guns fired from Castlefields signalled Massey on Hamp Hill to feign an attack on the South of the town. As the Royalists rushed forces to the defences along Friarn Street, bounded by Durleigh Brook, the actual attack took place on the Eastover side of town.
The ‘Forlorn Hope’, commanded by Colonel Hewson, advanced on the 30 foot ditches with 40 foot makeshift bridges and stormed into the ramparts alongside Eastover losing just 20 of their number as the Welsh garrison of Eastover fired above their heads in the dark. Almost as swiftly Cromwell’s horse took the hospital of st John as the drawbridge was forced down by the attackers and Eastover became a mess of hand to hand fighting as dawn rose.
Wyndham ordered a retreat back across the bridge to Westover, but when most of his troops in Eastover surrendered he turned the Royalist guns from the castle onto them and opening the drawbridge on the river to prevent any further advance. As Royalist hotshot raked Eastover, leaving barely three houses standing, Wyndham ordered the church bells to be rung in defiance. Possibly in defiance of common sense. A negotiated settlement wasn’t looking likely for the townsfolk.
Fairfax, being a reasonable man, sent a trumpeter to offer a deal to the Royalists if they surrendered. This looked promising. But no, up steps Christabella Wyndham even baring her breasts shouting “These breasts gave suck to Prince Charles, they shall never be at your mercy. We will hold it to the last.” . ‘Excellent’ thought the townsfolk….
As the morning dragged on and Bridgwater smouldered, feign attacks from both south and east compelled the Royalists to abandon the ramparts for the safety of the castle itself. At 2pm the Parliamentarians offered safe passage to the towns women. Thankfully for the towns people even Christabella Wyndham took up the offer and scarpered.
But Wyndham wasn’t in a mood to surrender and so at 5pm on Tuesday 22nd July the Parliamentary army commenced it’s attacks from both East and South with a massive bombardment of cannon from Hamp Hill reaching into Friarn street, Silver Street, St Mary Street and High Street. The town was going up in flames as the wattle and daub houses (which you can still see in the modern fabric of the Old Vicarage hotel) burnt to ash.
By mid evening the King’s page Tom Elliot was sent to negotiate with Fairfax under pressure from the Townspeople to ‘get something sorted’ before the fire destroyed what remained of the town.
By midnight a deal had been reached and Fairfax sent a despatch to London that Bridgwater had fallen. As dawn rose on the 23rd Wyndham surrendered and Fairfax, Cromwell and the New Model army entered the town as liberators.