Sunday, 21 February 2010


Thank you to those of our readers who fed back that they most enjoyed reading about the characters of the period (and there were certainly plenty of those!). I thought for the next couple of blogs I would continue on from my blog about the “She Souldiers” and introduce you to some of the formidable ladies of the English Civil War, starting with one of my favourites – Lady Brilliana Harley of Brampton Bryan Castle in Herefordshire.

The Harleys were an old, established Herefordshire family who had settled at Brampton Bryan and built a castle there in the early fourteenth century. Brilliana was the third wife of Sir Robert Harley and it can be seen from the letters (some of which were contained a secret code) that passed between Brilliana and her husband that it was a strong and affectionate partnership. They had three sons and four daughters, all of whom survived into adulthood.

As England lurched towards Civil War, Herefordshire showed itself solidly and staunchly Royalist in sympathy. The Harleys, puritans and supporters of Parliament, rapidly found themselves themselves the butt of unpleasant taunts and rumours, long before the first shot had been fired. When the war finally broke out, Sir Robert Harley, a member of Parliament, remained in London. At his insistence Brilliana and her daughters were left at Brampton Bryan, an island of Parliamentary sympathy in a sea of Royalists. Being a practical woman, she turned her mind to what she would need in the event of hostilities and added powder, match and flintlocks to her housewifely shopping list.

The early months of the war did not go well for the Parliamentarians but it was not until July 1643 that Brampton Bryan found itself the centre of royalist attention and her former neighbours, friends and relatives suddenly found themselves ordered to “reduce” Brampton Bryan. An awkward correspondence between besieger and besieged ensued, but Brilliana politely but firmly refused to surrender Brampton saying “…my dear husband hath entrusted me with his house but according to his pleasure, therefore I cannot dispose of his house but according to his pleasure…”.

Hostilities commenced, the village of Brampton Bryan was razed and artillery brought to bear on the castle. Despite heavy bombardment casualties within the castle were surprisingly light. A personal offer of terms from the King did not move the lady who played for time in the knowledge that the Earl of Essex was going to the relief of the siege of Gloucester, which would divert the royalist forces. After seven weeks the siege was lifted and Lady Brilliana set about replenishing stores within the castle. Encouraged by the news that the siege of Gloucester had been lifted, she went on the offensive, sending out foraging parties and an attack force to the town of Knighton. By early October the royalists were again poised to renew the siege.

Brilliana wrote to her son, Ned on 9 October 1643 “…I have taken a very great cold, which has made me very ill these 2 or 3 days, but I hope that the Lord will be merciful to me, in giving me health, for it is an ill time to be sick in. My dear Ned, I pray God bless you and give me the comfort of seeing you again…”

Sadly she was never to see her husband or sons again as she died of pneumonia on 31 October leaving “the saddest garrison in the three kingdoms”.

In the spring of 1644, Brampton Bryan Castle was besieged a second time and finally fell to the royalists. The castle was “reduced” (a term meaning, destroyed so as not to be capable of defence again) but the lives of the defenders were spared and the fame of Lady Brilliana Harley spread, earning her the “admiration and applause even of her enemies”.


Alison Plowden: Women All on Fire – The Women of the English Civil War
Jacqueline Eales: Puritans and Roundheads – the Harleys of Brampton Bryan and the outbreak of the English Civil War
Antonia Fraser: The Weaker Vessel