The Civil War in Dorset

The Civil War in Dorset

Puritanism, the chief challenge to the king’s authority over the Church, had a strong hold in parts of Dorset from the time of James I. One of its chief supporters was John White, vicar of Trinity Church in Dorchester, who organised expeditions of settlers to the New England colonies. Most of the port towns, with their independent—minded merchants and crafts- men, were affected; and in 1634 Archbishop Laud complained (perhaps with more annoyance than accuracy) that there were Puritans in nearly every parish in the county.

As a coastal shire, Dorset was also concerned with Ship-money from its first collection in 1634. In 1636, when it was raised from the whole country, the assessment for Dorset was £5,000. The sheriff divided this among the towns and landowners: Dorchester had to find £45, Corfe Castle and Lyme £40, Weymouth £35, Poole £30, Wareham and Blandford £25, and Bridport £20. Shaftesbury was excused that year because of plague. In 1637 the county total remained the same, but the Weymouth share was increased to £85, Poole reduced to £24, and Shaftesbury paid £5. In later years, as opposition grew and war drew nearer, the tax became very difficult to collect. In 1640 the sheriff could raise only one-twentieth of the assessment of £6,000: goods seized from those who refused to pay were taken back by force, or left uselessly in his hands because no-one would bid for them.

Though the larger towns were mainly Parliamentarian in sympathy, feeling in the county as a whole was very mixed when it came to a breach. Sherborne and Corfe, under the influence of their castles, were mainly Royalist, as was Blandford, and in Weymouth (as distinct from Melcombe) there were many supporters of the king. The greater land-owners, and especially those who had remained Roman Catholic, mostly sided with Charles. The Catholic Arundels of Chideock and Welds of Lulworth garrisoned their mansions, as did the (Anglican) Strangways of Abbotsbury. Ties between landlord and tenant were still strong, and most of the gentry could rely on local support.

Though no great battle occurred in Dorset, the county played an important part in the war. As it lay between the centres of Royalist strength in the South-West and at Oxford, its possession meant much to the king’s land communications. Its ports, if in his hands, were also excellently placed to draw supplies from France. Parliament was concerned to close the roads and harbours to the king, and to use the ports as garrisoned strongholds threatening the rear of any Royalist advance towards London.

When war broke out in 1642, the county town with its militia magazine of weapons and all the ports were held for Parliament. Dorchester and Poole had stone walls, and. Wareham its ancient earth ramparts, which were strengthened with earthen outworks, and Lyme and the twin borough of Weymouth and Melcombe surrounded themselves with earth— work forts and breastworks. At Dorchester, Maumbury Rings was converted into a redoubt mounting guns. Wareham soon changed hands, and the advance of the Royalist western army in 164.3 caused the surrender of Dorchester, Weymouth, and Melcombe, as well as Portland. For nearly a year the Royalists held Weymouth, but they could make no impression on Poole or Lyme. Parliament had command of the sea, and could supply and reinforce these places freely. Poole could be attacked only on one narrow front, and no serious effort was ever made against it; but Lyme should have been much harder to defend. Early in 1644 Prince Maurice laid siege to it, and in two months of hard fighting nearly battered his way in; but the garrison of 500, with the active help of the townspeople and the ships, just managed to hold their lines. During this siege Beaminster was burnt, as a result of an affray between Royalist troops quartered there.

The first large army to pass through Dorset was that of the Earl of Essex, who marched via Blandford and Dorchester injune 1644 to drive off the attackers of Lyme and to compel the surrender of Weymouth. Having done this, he passed on westwards to Exeter in hopes of capturing the Queen, but instead ran into a trap in Cornwall and left his infantry to surrender at Lostwithiel. King Charles and his troops passed through the county later in the year, on their way back from Lostwithiel to Oxford.

In 1645, when the war had already dragged on for three years and most people were heartily sick of plundering and requisitioning by both sides, the ‘Clubmen’ appeared in Dorset. These were mostly small farmers who aimed to defend their property against all comers and claimed to be neutral (though if anything their leanings were Royalist). After several isolated skirmishes with Parliamentary troops, they assembled in considerable numbers in the old hill-fort of Badbury Rings in May, and were not finally dispersed (from a similar position at Hambledon Hill) till three months later.

By this time the battle of Naseby had finally ruined the king’s cause, and the Parliamentary army led by Fairfax and Cromwell passed through Dorset on its way to crush the last Royalist forces in the West at Langport. Sherborne Castle Was taken after a valiant defence in August, and only Corfe and Portland still flew the king’s flag. Corfe Castle, which under the doughty Lady Banks had defied a previous siege, fell early in 1646 when Parliamentary troops bluffed their way in disguised as reinforcements: Portland surrendered only when further resistance was useless. The castles of Corfe and Sherborne Were deliberately wrecked or ‘slighted’ with great quantities of gunpowder, and far more damage was done than was needed simply to make them indefensible in future.

One important local effect of the war was to hasten the decline of Lyme Regis and Weymouth. These ports, whose harbours could not compare with that of Poole, had already begun to lose ground as the size of ships for ocean trading grew beyond their capacity. The war, which left Poole undamaged, caused much destruction in Lyme during the siege bombardment. Weymouth also suffered, to a lesser extent, while Royalists and Parliamentarians fought each other across the harbour in February 1645. Both places dwindled and stagnated till their nineteenth century revival as holiday resorts.