Siege of Lyme Regis
The siege of Lyme Regis was an eight-week blockade during the First English Civil War. The port of Lyme Regis, in Dorset, was considered to be of strategic importance because it controlled the main shipping route between Bristol and the English Channel. Thomas Ceeley and Robert Blake commanded the town's Parliamentarian defences during the siege, which was laid by Prince Maurice between 20 April and 16 June 1644.
At the start of the war, Lyme Regis was claimed by a pair of local members of parliament, and garrisoned for the Parliamentarians. King Charles I ordered the capture of the town in early 1644, and sent his nephew, Maurice, with 5,000 troops. The siege was laid on 20 April, but despite a steady bombardment, and three attempts to storm the town by ground, the earthen defences of the town that had been established by Blake held fast. Lyme Regis was regularly re-provisioned and reinforced by sea, weakening the effectiveness of the siege, and on 14 June, Maurice withdrew from the siege in the face of a relieving army led by Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex.
In the late 16th century, Lyme Regis was an important port, busier than Liverpool and one of the main links between England and mainland Europe. The combination of strong Puritan beliefs, and demands from King Charles I for ship money meant that upon the outbreak of the First English Civil War, the town was sympathetic to the Parliamentarian cause. Two local members of parliament (MP), Thomas Trenchard and Walter Erle claimed Lyme Regis for the Parliamentarians in 1642, and set about fortifying the town. Thomas Ceeley, another local MP, was assigned as governor of the town and its forces. He immediately set about removing those with Royalist loyalties from the area, and sent harrying forces around the region, as far as Exeter and Somerset. Lyme Regis had no permanent fortifications, and so Robert Blake established a set of earthen walls, ditches and forts around the perimeter of the town.
By the end of 1643, most of the south-west of England was under Royalist control; only Plymouth, Poole and Lyme Regis held out against them. The Parliamentarians controlled the navy, and Lyme Regis was strategically important, due to its location between Bristol and the English Channel. In early 1644, Charles I ordered Lyme Regis to be captured, and sent a large force under the command of his nephew, Prince Maurice.
Maurice marched towards Lyme Regis in March 1644, and initially set up a garrison in the town of Beaminster. From there a detachment of troops captured and then razed Stedcombe House, a property of Erle's that he had garrisoned. On 19 April, a fire devastated Beaminster and forced the Royalist troops to move, establishing their new quarters at Axminster. The following day, Maurice marched his army of around 4,000 men to around 0.75 miles (1.21 km) of Lyme Regis, and then after some posturing between the opposing forces, the Royalists captured Haye House, roughly 0.25 miles (400 m) from the town, which had been garrisoned with around thirty defenders. On the third day of the siege, the attackers set up their artillery on the west side of town, and began a bombardment, but the next day Ceeley sent a force of 190 men to attack the battery, and forced the Royalists from their position. New batteries were set up around the town, and the besieging forces continued to attack the town with their ordnance. On 28 April, Maurice ordered an advance on the town, but the attack got little further than the range of musket-shot. The next day, the town was restocked with ammunition and food, and reinforced with just over a hundred men from two Parliamentarian ships, the Mary Rose and the Ann Joyce.
Throughout the war, the garrisoned army was supported by the women of the town; they aided in the building of the earthen fortifications, and then later disguised themselves as men during the siege to make it appear that the town was held by more troops than it really was. They also ran ammunition around the town and helped to reload the weapons. Their efforts drew comparisons to Joan of Arc, and an essay was written by James Strong detailing their achievements, entitled "Joanereidos, or Feminine Valour eminently discovered in West County Women, at the Siege of Lyme, 1644."
Over the following week, the Royalist forces held the siege, but did not engage with the town again until 6 May, when they attacked the town in three places during a thick fog. The defenders were caught out slightly, as many of their soldiers were eating their evening supper. The Parliamentarians rallied quickly, and within an hour had repelled the attack. An account kept by the Lyme Regis garrison records that around one hundred of the besieging army had been killed, while the garrison had only lost one man. The following day, Maurice requested a parley so that the dead could be buried. That request was granted, in exchange for the town's defenders being able to claim any weaponry on the battleground. Over the next week, there was little fighting between the armies, and a further seven ships arrived to aid the town, including 240 soldiers from Sir William Waller's army, and on 15 May a further 120 men were sent by the Earl of Warwick.
The Royalists turned their attention to the harbour over the next week, placing artillery units on the cliff-tops above it, and bombarding any ships within. On the morning of 22 May, such an attack sunk a barge laden with malt and peas, and was followed by a raiding party of around 50 men that evening, who attacked the harbour, setting fire to the barges that remained. During the fighting to drive them back, Captain Thomas Pyne, who had commanded the town's cavalry, was mortally wounded. Pyne died of fever four days later, despite the attentions of a surgeon. The Earl of Warwick arrived on 23 May with eight ships and the promise of as much help as he could provide, including 400 of his seamen to help garrison the town. Pyne's funeral was held on 27 May, and upon the firing volley from the town's ordnance and musketeers, the besieging army signalled a second attempt to storm the town. The town came under barrage from the enemy batteries, and scaling ladders were brought against the earthen fortifications. Once again the attack was repelled by the town's defenders, and a parley request from Maurice in the immediate aftermath was turned down for fear of treachery.
The town was further reinforced with 300 sailors the next day, before another attack on the town was launched on 29 May. A few ships had been sent as a decoy to split the Royalist forces, but only succeeded in sending a small detachment of cavalry and foot away, though they quickly returned when it was clear that the ships were not going to land. Around midday, the batteries began to heavily bombard the town, followed by a ground attack which managed to breach the fortifications. After eight hours of fighting, the Parliamentarians rebuffed the attack. Fourteen more ships arrived two days later, bringing further provisions and ammunition, and news that a relieving force would be sent to aid the town. By this stage, Maurice realised that he was unlikely to be able to capture the town, and so was determined to destroy it instead. Fires were set on 1 June and then no attacks other than light bombardments were made until 11 June, when heavier, red-hot shot was fired to try to set more fires in the town.
Despite orders to lay siege to the King's headquarters at Oxford, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex opted to attempt to reclaim the south-west for the Parliamentarians, first retaking Weymouth, and then marching towards Lyme Regis. Hearing of the fall of Weymouth, and the impending arrival of the Earl of Essex's relieving army, Maurice abandoned his siege during the night of 14 June. The 17th-century historian Edward Hyde suggested that Maurice had suffered "some loss of reputation, for having lain so long with such a strength before so vile and untenable a place, without reducing it."
Maurice retreated to Exeter, while the Earl of Essex continued down into Devon and Cornwall, after sending Blake to capture Taunton. Essex's campaign failed, suffering a total defeat at the Battle of Lostwithiel in early September 1644. His remaining forces retreated back to Dorset, leaving only Plymouth, Lyme Regis and Taunton under Parliamentarian control in the south-west. The Earl of Warwick sent a letter to Parliament, detailing the hardships endured by the town during the siege, and requesting "some speedy course will be taken for their relief". Parliament voted to grant the town £1,000 a year and that unconditional compensation should be paid to residents who had suffered losses in the siege. Lyme maintained a garrison through the war, finally disbanding in July 1647.
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