Siege of Lyme special by David Ruffle
THIS year marks the 375th anniversary of the siege of Lyme and in this three part series, David Ruffle looks back on those momentous events: “Ye rebellious towne”, according to Charles I.
Further back in history, Mary Tudor termed it “that heretic town”. Lyme had a noted streak of what may be called radical views, never a town to settle for the quiet life and always a town to defend its people and perceived rights: the fishermen of Dartmouth could testify to that in times past when their Lyme rivals endeavoured to settle the question of fishing rights with harrying and violence.
No one wanted to mess with Lyme; a contemporary writer even described it as “A little vile fishing town”.
Lyme seemed to attract such epithets rather easily. In spring of 1644, with virtually the whole of the South West in Royalist hands, the status of Lyme as a major port meant its importance to the king could hardly be overstated.
Not content to await their fate, the town were long in the habit of sending raiding parties into the surrounding countryside and attacking Royalist garrisons, such as those at Bridport and Colyton, before retreating back into the town.
Enough was enough for King Charles and he duly ordered Prince Maurice, who was presently besieging Plymouth, to bring his army and deal with this “thorn in the royal side”, thus stressing the importance of Lyme to the royal cause.
Lyme had always been prepared for attacks from the sea, it seemed the natural order of things that if the port was the prize then the taking of it would come from the sea.
Although from the outset of the Civil War, there had been land defence in the form of ditches and banks, but these were rudimentary. When the news that Maurice’s army was moving towards the town was received, efforts were made most urgently to bolster these defences. They, for the most part, were constructed from a combination of stones, turf, earth and virtually anything else that could be utilised.
This line of defence, known as the ‘Town Line’, also had forts set up along its length, certainly not grand affairs, but resistant enough to attack to enable the strong defence of the town.
They were from east to west: Newell’s Fort, Davey’s Fort, Gaitch’s Fort and Marshall’s Fort, which was later called West Fort or Western Fort. The site of Newell’s Fort, being further east, has long since succumbed to the sea.
The most likely location for Davey’s Fort is below the football ground, which now bears the name Davey Fort, a strong contender being East Cliff. Gaitch’s Fort commanded the middle of the town, just west of the river. The evidence such as it is would point to the fort being located more or less where Woodmead Hall now stands.
The Western Fort is slightly more problematic, although there is general consensus it stood in Silver Street but no great knowledge as to exactly where. Thus the defences were made ready.
On April 20, Prince Maurice’s army were sighted on Uplyme Hill. Published numbers from contemporary reports can be notoriously unreliable. Reports vary from 2,000 to 6,000 men as the strength of the Royalists. It seems, however, reasonable to assume a strength of around 4,000.
On the evening of April 20, in a psychological move intended to instil fear into the town and its defendants, Maurice’s army in its entirety paraded along the slopes overlooking Lyme. The siege was about to begin. Prince Maurice boasted of taking the town before breakfast on the following day. The reality was somewhat different.