The Siege of Raglan Castle, Neal Maidment, 1990

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You cannot help but to be impressed at the sight of Raglan Castle, when driving up to Abergavenny, as the magnificent medieval building is beautiful although in ruins. It is different from other castles of its age in that it has decorative walls and towers which give the appearance of a castle used for enjoyment and living in as well as for defence.

It dominates the countryside and, as any other castle should, has a long history. Unfortunately for Raglan Castle it has a sad ending.

The impressive ruin is dominated by a tall hexagonal tower which was built by Sir William ap Thomas and originally named after him. This as on the site of the original “motte and bailey” castle and was later to be known as the Yellow Tower of Gwent.

Sir William was from a local family and rose to wealth and importance as a steward of Royal Lordships in South Wales and as a professional soldier in the French wars. The 15th century could be a profitable time with the ransom of rich prisoners and a share in the loot from campaigns in France. It was during this period that he inherited the castle by marriage and in 1435 began to build his tower.

He died in 1445 and was succeeded by his son William Herbert the Earl of Pembroke. He was a leading Yorkist during the War of the Roses and his Welshmen played a significant part in the bringing Edward of York to the throne as Edward the 4th. In 1469 he was defeated and captured at the Battle of Edecote and was beheaded on the orders of his rival, Warwick. He had been a man of great wealth and political importance and what we see at Raglan is much of his work. During this period as Lord of the castle he added a second great court, the Pitched Stone court which is the one with the cobbled courtyard. He also added the great gate house which forms the entrance to the castle and re-built the Fountain court as a series of apartments for himself and his family. During this period Raglan Castle was in is prime and was the centre of authority in the region and the splendid home of the Herberts.

It later passed again by marriage, to the Beaufort family and there are still signs of that family's influence in the area, e.g. the old coaching inn in Raglan is the Beaufort Arms Hotel and the sign bears his coat of arms. The Beauforts were later to become the Earls of Worcester and during Elizabethan times they improved the fine residence at Raglan and construct the hall and added the long gallery with the magnificent windows which were in their prime, stained glass bearing the arms of the Herberts and other families.

In looking at how the castle came to it's end, this can be best be dealt with from the point of view of soldier in the final days of the siege, when the civil war raged across the country. This is therefore the story of William Evans who was one of the servants at the castle, working in its grounds. During the time of the civil war he was pressed into arms for the final days and this is his story, passed through generations.

William's Story “My Master, the 5th Earl of Worcester and the 1st Marquess, was a good man but his own worst enemy. He had high principles but being a devout Catholic was unwilling to surrender his principles and this cost him his life. He made many improvements in the area and it was his idea to build the farmhouse beside the castle. This was one of the first, if not the first, to be made from brick. People came from miles to see it and wander about the site. Even the granary had seven windows and we in Raglan were proud of this fine work.

Being a strong Catholic, and putting all his faith in God the Master was not prepared to pay attention to omens and would therefore not listen to our warning that things were going wrong. The first bad sign relating to the castle gates. It had been his intention to make 2 entrances, a White gate and a Red gate but the had only finished the White gate when the war started. We begged him to hurry and make the Red gate otherwise bad luck would follow but he refused to be hurried and it was never finished.

There were other bad signs, such as the killing of an eagle in the park and the enormous cloud of bats hanging over the castle for 15 minutes at twilight. The worst signs however, were the visits of the King to Raglan. Being a strong Royalist the Master would always tell us that we were superstitious peasants but we were right in the end. We told him of the ancient saying “Woe be to the Welshman when the King comes to Raglan” but the Master would not listen.

Still we did not leave him. Although we thought him wrong he was a good master and he always provided jobs for our men and food for our families. We were not interested in politics and when the war broke out against the Parliamentarians in 1642 we did not think it would have much effect on us.

Once the war commenced the Master prepared for trouble. It was hard work for all of us,especially for me working the grounds of the castle. We were all hard at work making earthworks,building a powder mill a garrisoning the castle. This was how I became not just a servant but a man-at-arms. Many of us,the young men, were taught how to fire muskets and given very basic training.

Orders came from London and Monmouth that he and all the Papists must be disarmed. Although most of us were not Catholics, like the Master, even we felt insulted at this treatment of the Master. However, when the people came to disarm him he played a good joke on them. For all that he was serious and old he was still able to play joked.

In the Great Tower there were waterworks with artificial channels and when these were working it caused vibrations all over the castle. Whilst the men were searching for arms the Master ordered a servant to set the works going and then to rush into the rooms screaming “Look out the lions have got loose”. The searchers fled the castle thinking this was true and we all laughed.

I remember that soon after the war started the King sent his son to the castle. He was only 12 years old and people came to bring him gifts, plate and livestock and other treasures. I suppose this went to his father for the war.

The early years of the war were quiet at least in Raglan, and the Master continued to send money through his son, Lord Herbert, to the King. Unfortunately things changed for the worst in 1645. It was then the omens started to come true. Up until then there had been no advantage gained by either side until the 14th July 1645 when at Nabs there was a defeat to the Kings army.

He then went to Raglan, through Grosmont and on the the 3rd of July 1645 arrived at Raglan Castle. It was then we knew that things were going wrong as this fulfilled an old Welsh prophecy that “A King should lose a big battle and afterwards go to Raglan. Woe be to Welshmen”. We were all frightened but the Master told us that this was superstitious nonsense. We knew better.

The King's visit did not effect us much as he kept very much to his own apartment in the company of the Master. Although the Master was old he still had strong views and it was strange to see him, a strong Catholic, discussing religion with the King who was devoted to the Church of England. The Kings views and the need to change the ritual of the castle to suit the customs of the Church of England must have offended the Master greatly but he was so dignified that he bore this well.

During this time there were many games of bowls on the terrace and from the walls we used to enjoy watching the Master and the King with their families enjoy this sport. It was perhaps the last time that the King enjoyed some moments of peace while he played bowls on the terrace outside the Fountain court looking down on the village. In fact the village champion called to give him a game at one time and it caused him embarrassment and gave the rest of us much merriment when he forgot protocol and pointed out his house to the King. During the last of the King's 3 visits he upset the Master by his treatment of some Roundheads, Because they protested their innocence with tears, the King was kind to them. This upset the Master because the King had banished the faithful Prince Rupert because he had failed to hold Bristol with a tiny force of 1500 men but yet pardoned his real enemies because they cried. They then parted, never to meet again.

That was the end of the good times and on the Friday the 22nd of February 1946 messengers between the King and Lord Herbert in Ireland were passed through the Master at Raglan. It was clear then that Raglan would be dragged into the war. My Master then asked me to arrange to cut down the beautiful trees in Home Park and it broke my heart to do so. I could see that the Master too, was upset, especially when we had to destroy the beautiful avenue that went from the crest of the castle to the village. We even had to burn some of the cottages near the castle in case they would harbour the enemy. Many of us who had lived in the village all of our lives, and even the Master had tears in our eyes as we carried out this work, but we all knew it had to be done. Some of us had played around those trees and climbed and hidden in the branches in our childhood as had our fathers before us.

Things were doing badly for the King and he was thinking in terms of going overseas but was temped by the safekeeping of the Scottish army and turned himself over to them on the 5th of May 1946. When this news reached us the Master knew of the fearful consequences which were bound to follow if we defied the Roundheads. We thought he should have surrendered but he was true to his family motto “Mutare Vel Tunere Sperno”. Although I could not understand Latin the Master translated it for me once - “I scorn to change or fear”. To me this just meant being stubborn and I was right. He was a stubborn man and stuck to his principles and the siege began on the 3rd of June 1646. The man in charge of the Roundheads was Colonel Thomas Morgan. At first it was like a false war. There was all the tension and excitement, especially for those of us who were not real soldiers, but in truth the action was limited to a few skirmishes between ourselves and Roundheads.

Although I did not know of what was going on at the time I later found out that the main meeting place was at Travelogue Common and that at one time there were 5,000 Roundheads there.There was only 7 or 8 hundred of us but we had the walls to protect us. The Parliament camp at Raglan, which was smaller, was on the Leaguer Fields and years later we used to find cannon balls when ploughing the fields. There were stupid acts on both sides and in the castle we, the old servants of the Master could not live easy with the drinking and swearing of the Cavaliers brought in to man the castle. These habits were not in accordance with our customs. Indeed drinking seemed to be the one common feature between the Cavaliers and Roundheads and I think it was this that led to one of the small disasters which occurred during the siege. I'm sure it was due to drunkenness and carelessness on the part of one of the Cavaliers we lost 70 or 80 horses which were later found in the village by Roundheads. Strangely enough they were found outside one of the inns in the village and for many days we were taunted by our opponents for this act of stupidity.

Reinforcements kept arriving every day for the Roundheads and so close were or lines that messages between Morgan and the Master passed back and forwards within the hour. The Master always refusing to surrender and, believing himself to be in the hands of God, refused to surrender to any man, particularly those ungodly Roundheads and their leader Cromwell.

In those days I used my musket on plenty of occasions from the round holes in the castle walls which had been constructed directly underneath the cross shaped arrow slips of earlier times. I doubt if I killed anyone but at puffs of smoke coming from the earthworks surrounding.

From the middle of June 1946 Raglan had been under siege and heavy artillery pounded the castle from the higher ground to the East of the castle. This was no real problem as the Great Tower was proof against cannon balls of 18-20 pounds. There were a few deaths from stray shots and falling masonry but the main problem was musket fire. I had some narrow escapes myself and even the Master, standing, near a window, was grazed on the head off a shot which bounced off the marble pillar in the room.

There were several deaths during the siege although not as many as I feared during the early stages. In fact even in my old age I still visit the meadow beneath the castle, now known as Gworlod-y-Beddau, which means the land of graves and is the burial place of those killed during the siege.

Later Sir Thomas Fairfax arrived to take care of the Roundhead operations and found that the engineer, Captain Hooper, had come close to the castle walls and was hoping to come up against them soon. Although we did not know it then the arrival of Fairfax marked the final stage of the siege. He made contact with the Master who saw no hope of any gain by prolonging the siege. He tried to obtain good terms for all of us in the castle and by the 15th August the main siege works were within 60 yards of the castle. About 400 yards north of the castle there is a small hill and there the Roundheads mounted the battery, which made a huge hole in the wall of the pitched stone court. It was on that day, the 15th of August, that the Master agreed a meeting at 2 o'clock at Cefntilla which was where Fairfax had his headquarters. On the 17th of August the terms were agreed and my Master surrendered on the 19th, 11 weeks exactly after the siege began. Considering that this was the longest siege in the end the Master obtained good terms for us and although we had to surrender our arms and ammunition we all departed, with our heads held high beating drums, sounding our trumpets and acting if we had won the battle. ….............................

lived in this area in our Masters service and the professional soldiers were given a pass to return home. The sick and wounded were able to remain in the castle until they were able to return home. There was no imprisonment and no looting and even though we had lost the battle, we all felt proud.

That feeling of pride soon changed. The one person who died did not benefit from the surrender was the Master and by the end of the year he was dead and with it my pride and joy in being part of the siege. I felt that there was little honour in a surrender which left a fine man in the clutches of the Roundheads.

However life goes on and things were not as bad as they might have been. On the 25th of August, Parliament issued instructions to demolish the castle, the house and buildings and dispose of all the materials. These orders were supposed to be carried out by Fairfax's soldiers but they had been sent to Oxford and so the organised demolition could not be carried out. Instead the country people including myself were summoned to destroy the castle and came with pickaxes and attacked the Great Tower with so little success that in the end we had to prop it up with timbers and cut through 2 sides of the six. The timber was then burnt and part of the tower fell down.

Some of the people believed that there was treasure in the moat and would not listen to what the local people were telling them. After much digging they finally agreed that there was no such treasure and gave up.

So although there had been orders to “slight” the castle very little damage was done as a result of the siege. In looking back it is to my regret that much of the damage was done by the people of Raglan themselves, who had done so much to support the castle during the time of the siege. Many a cottage was rebuilt and garden walls made by using the materials from the castle. Perhaps there was some justice in this as cottages had been destroyed before the siege and it was fitting that the death of the castle should provide life to the village.

So ended the story of William Evans and the siege but not the end of the story of Raglan Castle.

After the fall of the castle came many years of decay when it became overgrown with ivy and was stripped of its timber, lead and anything else that was saleable and left derelict. As a ruin it provided a local source of building materials until the 5th Duke of Beaufort forbade any further action of this kind. In the early 19th century, the castle, which was then a picturesque ruin became a popular attraction and in 1938 the 10th Duke of Beaufort placed it in the keeping of the nation and allowed free access to it for the people of Raglan village. Although it is no longer the symbol of wealth and authority it still dominates the village and is now as it was then, still of one of the most magnificent sights in the county.

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