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The Siege of Lyme Regis - what inspired inhabitants to fight the Royalists

PUBLISHED: 11:27 18 June 2015 | UPDATED: 11:27 18 June 2015

Lyme Carnival and Regatta Committee y re-enactment of the end of the siege. Photo: Sophia Moseley

Lyme Carnival and Regatta Committee y re-enactment of the end of the siege. Photo: Sophia Moseley

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This little seaside town was once at the heart of a bloody siege. Sophia Moseley reveals what inspired its inhabitants to fight the Royalists and the importance of its harbour

Map of the Siege of Lyme RegisMap of the Siege of Lyme Regis

Lyme Regis; now bedecked with summer bunting as tourists flock to its sunny shores, was at one time virtually cut off from the outside world as the Royalist troops besieged this small town during the first English Civil War.

But why did the inhabitants of this Dorset seaside town put up such a fight and what made Lyme so important to both the Royalists and Parliamentarians?

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Lyme flourishes

In 1284 Edward I recognised Lyme’s value as a port and granted them ‘free borough’ status adding the ‘Regis’. By the late 16th century Lyme Regis was at its zenith as the main port linking England to Europe and the colonies. Its waters were deep enough for ships and it acted as a terminus for imports including fine cloth, wine, ivory and gold; and exports such as the Dorset broadcloth and other textiles from Devon and Somerset. Not only was it the most successful Dorset port, according to Customs receipts Lyme Regis was also busier than Liverpool.

The town rapidly became a bustling trading hub with a strong community spirit. Many merchants built their warehouses here and rich seafarers and captains set up home.

But 17th century England was also deeply religious and an off-shoot of Henry VIII’s new Church was the Puritan movement, the leaders of which gave people much needed stability and spiritual guidance to an essential part of their everyday lives. By the time Charles I came to the throne in 1625, Lyme Regis had a strong Puritan following.

Cannon ball that hit soldier in the head but he survived! (£1 coin to show how big it is)Cannon ball that hit soldier in the head but he survived! (£1 coin to show how big it is)

During the next decade the town’s prosperity continued to grow but when the King demanded money from them, relations with the Crown began to sour.

With the eruption of the Irish Rebellion in 1641 quickly panic ensued and Charles I was unable to reach agreement with Parliament on how to deal with the uprising, leading eventually to the outbreak of the first English Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians in 1642.

By September 1643 the Royalists virtually dominated the west, excluding Plymouth, Poole and Lyme Regis, the latter being strategically very important to both sides as it controlled the seas from Bristol to the English Channel.

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The Siege begins

Two local lords, Sir Thomas Trenchard and Sir Walter Earle, organised land defences whilst Admiral Robert Blake was in charge of sea defences, and it was his strategy that proved to be invaluable. There was little in the way of town walls so in the latter part of 1643 turf blockhouses were constructed with earthworks, trenches and towers.

In March 1644 Prince Maurice was sent to deal with the Lyme rebellion. Buoyed by their success in taking Beaminster, the Royalist leaders including Sir Ralph Hopton, Colonel Francis Bluet and Lord Poulett, expected to defeat Lyme Regis before breakfast!

Grape shot. A large quantity of this was found near Colway House where it is believed Royalist soldiers campedGrape shot. A large quantity of this was found near Colway House where it is believed Royalist soldiers camped

By April around 4,000 Royalist troops were camped at Uplyme and on the neighbouring hills; other soldiers were billeted at Haye House and Colway Manor. The Lyme townsfolk numbered less than 500 fighting men.

On 20 April the Royalist attack began and by 25 April the town’s ammunition and food supplies were running low. However, support and supplies for the besieged town arrived via a flotilla of Parliamentarian ships and boats carrying weapons, food, clothes and boots.

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Obstinate people and puritanical preachers

The Lyme Regis people were described as “obstinate…their courage increased by the vehement harangues and violent rhapsodies of 25 Puritanical preachers…” (History of Lyme Regis; G Roberts).

Even though they faced severe injury or even death, the women of the town played their part too - disguising themselves as men to make it look as though there were greater numbers. The women also helped reload guns and carried fresh ammunition to the trenches. One unfortunate woman reportedly lost her hand whilst helping to carry buckets of water to put out the fires. The Royalists’ fire arrows were one of the biggest problems, so the inhabitants simply pulled the thatch from their roofs.

By early May, Colonel Francis Bluet was dead and the Buddle River “ran red”. Many of the Royalists had deserted and 240 extra Parliamentarian soldiers had arrived by sea.

Lyme Regis’ confidence grew and they frequently tormented the Royalist soldiers, although they also discovered they had a traitor in their ranks when they found weapons had been tampered with.

The town did suffer some setbacks including a number of ships that were destroyed by fire, and it was during one such attack that Captain Pyne was killed: “for more ships might be had again, but such a man is rarely to be found”.

By early June Royalist officers were deserting and on 14 June Prince Maurice withdrew his army having lost over 2,000 men compared with Lyme’s loss of around 120, and on Sunday 16 June 1644 a sermon of thanks was held at St Michael’s Church.

The town was garrisoned for a further three years until, in July 1647, the troops were finally disbanded and the earthworks that had protected the town removed.

There is now very little evidence remaining of the Siege and the Buddle is more babbling than bloody. The only screeching you are likely to hear today is that of the hungry seagulls flocking around the incoming fishing boats.

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Find out more about the Siege of Lyme at Lyme Regis Museum lymeregismuseum.co.uk

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