by Nick

Photo by electric counterpoint, used under a Creative Commons non-commercial attribution share-alike licence.

I’ve just got back from a weekend in Chepstow. On the way home I dug out an account of the siege of the town’s castle in 1648 by Colonel Isaac Ewer as part of Cromwell’s Welsh campaign. Ewer was left by Cromwell to finish off the siege after initially breaking through the town gate. Ewer later wrote about the siege in a letter back to William Lenthall, speaker of the Commons:

Lieutenant-General Cromwell being to march toward Pembroke Castle, left me with my regiment to take-in the Castle of Chepstow, which was possessed by Sir Nicholas Kemeys, and with him officers and soldiers to the number of 120.

It didn’t take long to start reducing the battlements:

We rased the battlements of their towers with our great guns… we also plated with our mortar pieces into the castle. One shot fell into the Governor’s chamber, which caused him to remove his lodgings to the other end of the castle.

What’s interesting about the siege is the insight it gives into the rules of early modern warfare. If a garrison refused the offer of quarter after a breach in the wall had been made, it was generally accepted that there would pretty savage consequences (largely because the cost to the attackers in storming a breach was very high). In the case of Chepstow, one of the garrison tried to negotiate directly, but Ewer was having none of it:

Esquire Lewis comes upon the wall, and speaks to some gentlemen of the country that he knew, and tells them that he was willing to yield to mercy.

But Ewer insisted that if he was to negotiate it would only be with the Governor, Nicholas Kemeys/Kemish. Having said this, he then refused to negotiate at all:

I altogether refused to have any such speech with him, because he refused Lieut-General Cromwell’s summons. I answered that I would give him no other terms than that he and all that were with him should submit unto mercy, which he swore he would not do.

After that, the siege didn’t last long. Ewer’s regiment was highly experienced, and even up against the 120 or so defenders (a large garrison – 40 would have sufficed to hold a place like Chepstow, although they would have needed reinforcements to hold out for a lengthy period) they made pretty short work of the garrison.

The soldiers deserted him, and came running out of the breach we had made… My soldiers… possessed themselves of the castle, and killed Sir Nicholas Kemeys.

The Chepstow siege was also the opportunity for an anonymous satirical pamphleteer to attack Cromwell, in what purports to be an account of his last words and testament issued as he lay dying at the siege.


In Lieutenant Generall Cromvvell’s last vvill & testament: with the military directions he gave his field-officers a little before his death, the author suggests that even in 1648, Cromwell has designs on personal rule, and that it was at his bidding that Charles was allowed to escape from Hampton Court (from one kinsman, Edward Whalley, to another, Robert Hammond at Carisbrooke Castle). There is also a sustained dig at the Junto grandees, particularly Viscount Saye and Sele and Cromwell’s alleged connection to him:

He ingenuously acknowledged, that it was his absolute aim ever, by the assistance and incouragement of the L.SAY, to introduce an Anarchy, under the implicite stile of Independency.

What’s fascinating about contemporary satires like this is that they indicate how strongly Cromwell was associated with the grandee faction by its enemies – even before he assumed the position of Protector. The historiographical trend recently has been to downplay Cromwell’s pre-eminence, pointing to a wide coalition of factions during the Rump years and even during Cromwell’s tenure as Protector, playing down his power and emphasising instead the extent to which he was bound by the Instrument of Government.

But this is not how contemporaries viewed him. Cromwell – and his Machiavellian designs, his descent from a brewer, his nose, and his sex life – featured in everything from newsbooks to plays to ballads to engravings during the late 1640s. Even those that seem “low” forms of ephemera actually present a remarkably sophisticated, if bawdy, critique of him. Much more on this can be found in Laura Lunger Knoppers’s Constructing Cromwell, some of which is available on Google Books.