Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

The Taking of Pontefract Castle

On the top of a lofty hill, with a broad outlook over the counties of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, and Nottinghamshire, stood Pontefract Castle, a strong work belonging to the English crown, but now in the hands of Cromwell's men, and garrisoned by soldiers of the Parliamentary army. The war, indeed, was at an end, King Charles in prison, and Cromwell lord of the realm, so that further resistance seemed useless.

But now came a rising in Scotland in favor of the king, and many of the royalists took heart again, hoping that, while Cromwell was busy with the Scotch, there would be risings elsewhere. In their view the war was once more afoot, and it would be a notable deed to take Pontefract Castle from its Puritan garrison and hold it for the king. Such were the inciting causes to the events of which we have now to speak.

There was a Colonel Morrice, who, as a very young man, had been an officer in the king's army. He afterwards joined the army of the Parliament, where he made friends and did some bold service. Later on, the strict discipline of Cromwell's army offended this versatile gentleman, and he threw up his commission and retired to his estates, where he enjoyed life with much of the Cavalier freedom.

Among his most intimate friends was the Parliamentary governor of Pontefract Castle, who enjoyed his society so greatly that he would often have him at the castle for a week at a time, they sleeping together like brothers. The confiding governor had no suspicion of the treasonable disposition of his bed-fellow, and, though warned against him, would not listen to complaint.

Morrice was familiar with the project to surprise the fortress, at the head of which was Sir Marmaduke Langdale, an old officer of the king. To one of the conspirators he said,—

"Do not trouble yourself about this matter. I will surprise the castle for you, whenever you think the time ripe for it"

This gentleman thereupon advised the conspirators to wait, and to trust him to find means to enter the stronghold. As they had much confidence in him, they agreed to his request, without questioning him too closely for the grounds of his assurance. Meanwhile, Morrice went to work.

"I should counsel you to take great care that you have none but faithful men in the garrison," he said to the governor. "I have reason to suspect that there are men in this neighborhood who have designs upon the castle; among them some of your frequent visitors."

He gave him a list of names, some of them really conspirators, others sound friends of the Parliament.

"You need hardly be troubled about these fellows, however," he said. "I have a friend in their counsel, and am sure to be kept posted as to their plans. And for that matter I can, in short notice, bring you forty or fifty safe men to strengthen your garrison, should occasion arise."

He made himself also familiar with the soldiers of the garrison, playing and drinking with them; and when sleeping there would often rise at night and visit the guards, sometimes inducing the governor, by misrepresentations, to dismiss a faithful man, and replace him by one in his own confidence.

So the affair went on, Morrice laying his plans with much skill and caution. As it proved, however, the conspirators became impatient to execute the affair before it was fully ripe. Scotland was in arms; there were alarms elsewhere in the kingdom; Cromwell was likely to have enough to occupy him; delay seemed needless. They told the gentleman who had asked them to wait that he must act at once. He in his turn advised Morrice, who lost no time in completing his plans.

On a certain night fixed by him the surprise party were to be ready with ladders, which they must erect in two places against the wall. Morrice would see that safe sentinels were posted at these points. At a signal agreed upon they were to mount the ladders and break into the castle.

The night came. Morrice was in the castle, where he shared the governor's bed. At the hour arranged he rose and sought the walls. He was just in time to prevent the failure of the enterprise. Unknown to him, one of the sentinels had been changed. Those without gave the signal. One of the sentinels answered it. The surprise-party ran forward with both ladders.

Morrice, a moment afterwards, heard a cry of alarm from the other sentinel, and hasting forward found him running back to call the guard. He looked at him. It was the wrong man! There had been some mistake.

"What is amiss?" he asked.

"There are men under the wall," replied the soldier. "Some villainy is afoot."

"Oh, come, that cannot be."

"It is. I saw them"

"I don't believe you, sirrah," said Morrice, severely. "You have been frightened by a shadow. Come, show me the place. Don't make yourself a laughing-stock for your fellows."

The sentinel turned and led the way to the top of the wall. He pointed down.

"There; do you see?" he asked.

His words stopped there, for at that instant he found himself clasped by strong arms, and in a minute more was thrown toppling from the wall. Morrice had got rid of the dangerous sentry.

By this time the ladders were up, and some of those without had reached the top of the wall. They signalled to their friends at a distance, and rushed to the court of guard, whose inmates they speedily mastered, after knocking two or three of them upon the head. The gates were now thrown open, and a strong body of horse and foot who waited outside rode in.

The castle was won. Morrice led a party to the governor's chamber, told him that "the castle was surprised and himself a prisoner," and advised him to surrender. The worthy governor seized his arms and dealt some blows, but was quickly disarmed, and Pontefract was again a castle of the king.

So ended the first act in this drama. There was a second act to be played, in which Cromwell was to take a hand. The garrison was quickly reinforced by royalists from the surrounding counties; the castle was well provisioned and its fortifications strengthened; contributions were raised from neigh boring parts; and the marauding excursions of the garrison soon became so annoying that an earnest appeal was made to Cromwell, "that he would make it the business of his army to reduce Pontefract."

Just then Cromwell had other business for his army. The Scots were in the field. He was marching to reduce them. Pontefract must wait. He sent, however, two or three regiments, which, with aid from the counties, he deemed would be sufficient for the work.

Events moved rapidly. Before the Parliamentarian troops under Rainsborough reached the castle, Cromwell had met and defeated the army of Scots, taking, among other prisoners, Sir Marmaduke Langdale, whom the Parliament threatened to make "an example of their justice."

The men of Pontefract looked on Sir Marmaduke as their leader. Rainsborough was approaching the castle, but was still at some distance. It was deemed a worthy enterprise to take him prisoner, if possible and hold him as hostage for Sir Marmaduke. Morrice took on himself this difficult and dangerous enterprise.

At nightfall, with a party of twelve picked and choice men, he left the castle and made his way towards the town which Rainsborough then occupied. The whole party knew the roads well, and about daybreak reached the point for which they had aimed,—the common road leading from York. The movement had been shrewdly planned. The guards looked for no enemy from this direction, and carelessly asked the party of strange horsemen "whence they came."

The answer was given with studied ease and carelessness.

"Where is your general?" asked Morrice. "I have a letter for him from Cromwell."

The guard sent one of their number with the party to show them where Rainsborough might be found,—at the best inn of the town. When the inn-gate was opened in response to their demand, three only of the party entered. The others rode onward to the bridge at the opposite end of the town, on the road leading to Pontefract. Here they found a guard of horse and foot, with whom they entered into easy conversation.

"We are waiting for our officer," they said. "He went in to speak to the general. Is there anything convenient to drink? We have had a dry ride."

The guards sent for some drink, and, it being now broad day, gave over their vigilance, some of the horse-soldiers alighting, while the footmen sought their court of guard, fancying that their hour of duty was passed.

Meanwhile, tragical work was going on at the inn. Nobody had been awake there but the man who opened the gate. They asked him where the general lay. He pointed up to the chamber-door, and two of them ascended the stairs, leaving the third to hold the horses and in conversation with the soldier who had acted as their guide.

Rainsborough was still in bed, but awakened on their entrance and asked them who they were and what they wanted.

"It is yourself we want," they replied. "You are our prisoner. It is for you to choose whether you prefer to be killed, or quietly to put on your clothes, mount a horse which is ready below for you, and go with us to Pontefract."

He looked at them in surprise. They evidently meant what they said; their voices were firm, their arms ready; he rose and dressed quickly. This completed, they led him downstairs, one of them carrying his sword.

When they reached the street only one man was to be seen. The soldier of the guard had been sent away to order them some breakfast. The prisoner, seeing one man only where he had looked for a troop, struggled to escape and called loudly for help.

It was evident that he could not be carried off; the moment was critical; a few minutes might bring a force that it would be madness to resist; but they had not come thus far and taken this risk for nothing. He would not go; they had no time to force him; only one thing remained: they ran him through with their swords and left him dead upon the ground. Then, mounting, they rode in haste for the bridge.

Those there knew what they were to do. The approach of their comrades was the signal for action. They immediately drew their weapons and attacked those with whom they had been in pleasant conversation. In a brief time several of the guard were killed and the others in full flight. The road was clear. The others came up. A minute more and they were away, in full flight, upon the shortest route to Pontefract, leaving the soldiers of the town in consternation, for the general was soon found dead, with no one to say how he had been killed. Not a soul had seen the tragic deed. In due time Morrice and his men reached Pontefract, without harm to horse or man, but lacking the hoped-for prisoner, and having left death and vengeance be hind them.

So far all had gone well with the garrison. Henceforth all promised to go ill. Pontefract was the one place in England that held out against Cromwell, the last stronghold of the king. And its holders had angered the great leader of the Ironsides by killing one of his most valued officers. Retribution was demanded. General Lambert was sent with a strong force to reduce the castle.

The works were strong, and not easily to be taken by assault. They might be taken by hunger. Lambert soon had the castle surrounded, cooping the garrison closely within its own precincts.

Against this they protested,—in the martial manner. Many bold sallies were made, in which numbers on both sides lost their lives. Lambert soon discovered that certain persons in the country around were in correspondence with the garrison, sending them information. Of these he made short work, according to the military ethics of that day. They were seized and hanged within sight of the castle, among them being two divines and some women of note, friends of the besieged. Some might call this murder. They called it war,—a salutary example.

Finding themselves closely confined within their walls, their friends outside hanged, no hope of relief, starvation their ultimate fate, the garrison concluded at length that it was about time to treat for terms of peace. All England besides was in the hands of Cromwell and the Parliament; there was nothing to be gained by this one fortress holding out, unless it were the gallows. They therefore offered to deliver up the castle, if they might have honorable conditions. If not, they said,—

"We are still well stocked with provisions, and can hold out for a long time. If we are assured of pardon we will yield; if not, we are ready to die, and will not sell our lives for less than a good price."

"I know you for gallant men," replied Lambert, "and am ready to grant life and liberty to as many of you as I can. But there are six among you whose lives I cannot save. I am sorry for this, for they are brave men; but my hands are bound."

"Who are the six? And what have they done that they should be beyond mercy?"

"They were concerned in the death of Rainsborough. I do not desire their death, but Cromwell is incensed against them."

He named the six. They were Colonel Morrice, Sir John Digby, and four others who had been in the party of twelve.

"These must be delivered up without conditions," he continued. "The rest of you may return to your homes, and apply to the Parliament for release from all prosecution. In this I will lend you my aid."

The leaders of the garrison debated this proposal, and after a short time returned their answer.

"We acknowledge your clemency and courtesy," they said, "and would be glad to accept your terms did they not involve a base desertion of some of our fellows, We cannot do as you say, but will make this offer. Give us six days, and let these six men do what they can to deliver themselves, we to have the privilege of assisting them. This much we ask for our honor."

"Do you agree to surrender the castle and all within it at the end of that time?" asked Lambert. "We pledge ourselves to that."

"Then I accept your proposal. Six days' grace shall be allowed you."

Just what they proposed to do for the release of their proscribed companions did not appear. The castle was closely and strongly invested, and these men were neither rats nor birds. How did they hope to escape?

The first day of the six passed and nothing was done. A strong party of the garrison had made its appearance two or three times, as if resolved upon a sally; but each time they retired, apparently not liking the outlook. On the second day they were bolder. They suddenly appeared at a different point from that threatened the day before, and attacked the besiegers with such spirit as to drive them from their posts, both sides losing men. In the end the sallying party was driven back, but two of the six—Morrice being one—had broken through and made their escape. The other four were forced to retire.

Two days now passed without a movement on the part of the garrison. Four of the six men still remained in the castle. The evening of the fourth day came. The gloom of night gathered, Suddenly a strong party from the garrison emerged from a sally-port and rushed upon the lines of the besiegers with such fire and energy that they were for a time broken, and two more of the proscribed escaped. The others were driven back.

The morning of the fifth day dawned. Four days had gone, and four of the proscribed men were free. How were the other two to gain their liberty? The method so far pursued could scarcely be successful again. The besiegers would be too heedfully on the alert. Some of the garrison had lost their lives in aiding the four to escape. It was too dangerous an experiment to be repeated, with their lives assured them if they remained in the castle. What was to be done for the safety of the other two? The matter was thoroughly debated and a plan devised.

On the morning of the sixth day the besieged made a great show of joy, calling from the walls that their six friends had gone, and that they would be ready to surrender the next day. This news was borne to Lambert, who did not believe a word of it, the escape of the four men not having been observed. Meanwhile, the garrison proceeded to put in effect their stratagem.

The castle was a large one, its rooms many and spacious. Nor was it all in repair. Here and there walls had fallen and not been rebuilt, and abundance of waste stones strewed the ground in these localities. Seeking a place which was least likely to be visited, they walled up the two proscribed is men, building the wall in such a manner that air could enter and that they might have some room for movement. Giving them food enough to last for thirty days, they closed the chamber, and left the two men in their tomb-like retreat. The sixth day came. The hour fixed arrived. The gates were thrown open. Lambert and his men marched in and took possession of the fortress. The garrison was marshaled before him, and a strict search made among them for the six men, whom he fully expected to find. They were not there. The castle was closely searched. They could not be found. He was compelled to admit that the garrison had told him the truth, and that the six had indeed escaped.

For this Lambert did not seem in any sense sorry. The men were brave. Their act had been one allowable in war. He was secretly rather glad that they had escaped, and treated the others courteously, permitting them to leave the castle with their effects and seek their homes, as he had promised. And so ended the taking and retaking of Pontefract Castle.

It was the last stronghold of the king in England, and was not likely to be used again for that purpose. But to prevent this, Lambert handled it in such fashion that it was left a vast pile of ruins, unfit to harbor a garrison. He then drew off his troops, not having discovered the concealed men in this proceeding. Ten days passed. Then the two flung down their wall and emerged among the ruins. They found the castle a place for bats, uninhabited by man, but lost no time in seeking less suspicious quarters.

Of the six men, Morrice was afterwards taken and executed; the others remained free. Sir John Digby lived to become a favored member of the court of Charles II. As for Sir Marmaduke Langdale, to whose imprisonment Rainsborough owed his death, he escaped from his prison in Nottingham Castle, and made his way beyond the seas, not to return until England again had a king.