Sunday, 28 March 2010


What do a 1970s folk rock group and Charlotte de Tremouille, the Countess of Derby have in common?

I am showing my age when I say that I was a great fan of Steeleye Span in my youth and by dint of the wonders of the internet, I was drawn back to them recently by this song, THEY CALLED HER BABYLON, which narrates the story of gallant defence of the Lathom House by the indominatable Countess.

Unlike the Harleys in Herefordshire James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby was a King’s man. The seat of the Earl was divided between the Isle of Man and Lathom House in Lancashire and in the early days of the war, Lancashire was predominantly royalist. While the Fairfaxs battled for the Parliament in Yorkshire, Derby maintained a firm hold in his home county until late in 1643 when he left Lancashire to put down a rebellion on the Isle of Man. In his absence Parliamentary forces gained an upper hand in Lancashire and Lady Charlotte found herself compelled to make concessions to Parliament, giving up the entire estate for Parliament’s use.

She and her two daughters were allowed to remain in the house and were careful not to provoke the enemy forces. Early in 1644, she received secret word that a parliamentary force was marching against the house. Local feeling rose against the occupants of Lathom House with a preacher at Wigan taking as his text Jeremiah 50:14 “Put yourselves in array against Babylon, all ye that bend the bow, shoot at her, spare no arrows; for she hath sinned against the Lord.”

On Tuesday 27th February, Sir Thomas Fairfax began negotiations with Lady Charlotte for the surrender of Lathom House, imperiously demanding that Sir Thomas should wait on her, rather than she on him. Lady Charlotte played for time and in answer to Sir Thomas’ demand, she replied “…(she) much wondered that Sir Thomas Fairfax would require her to give up her Lord’s house without any offence on her part done to the Parliament…” The honourable Sir Thomas negotiated with the Lady for some time before she openly rejected all his terms and the Parliamentarians began to move on the house.

Nearly three thousand parliamentarians sat down before Lathom House but the capture of the old fortress was no easy proposition. Behind its thick walls the indomitable Countess and her 300 strong garrison had ample supplies to last a long siege. For two months, the parliamentarians suffered harrying raids engineered by the wily Captain Farmer and the predations of the Lady’s accurate sharp shooters. Artillery brought to bear on the house had some impact but not sufficient to breach its defences. Throughout the siege, Lady Charlotte asserted herself as the Commander of her garrison, personally supervising every detail. Not surprisingly contemporaty commentators remarked she had proved herself a better soldier than her husband.

By the end of March, Fairfax had been recalled to Yorkshire leaving a frustrated Colonel Rigby in command. Rigby’s efforts at cajoling the Lady into surrender received the following response. “…Tell that insolent rebel, hee shall neither have persons, goods, nor house: when our strength and provision is spent, we shall find a fire more mercyfull than Rigby…”
At the end of May, word reached the defenders that Prince Rupert was on the march to the relief of Lathom and on 27th May, Rigby took his men to interecept the royalists and the siege of Lathom House was over. Amazingly only 6 of the defenders had been killed over the length of the siege.

At the end of the siege, Lady Charlotte took her daughters and retired to her husband’s estates on the Isle of Man. Unfortunately in June 1644 the northern royalists were comprehensively defeated at Marston Moor and by the end of December, Lathom House eventually fell to the parliamentarians and was completely destroyed.

The Earl of Derby was captured after the Battle of Worcester in September 1651 and Lady Charlotte died in 1664 at the age of 65.

(For more about Steeleye Span's album THEY CALLED HER BABYLON, click here  and to see Steeleye Span singing the song click here)
Further Reading
For the letters of the Lady of Lathom click here