The Midlands was hotly contested in the English Civil War, and in 1643 it was a region more vital than ever to the Royalists. Boatloads of royal supplies had been shipped, against all odds, from Holland to Bridlington, escaping Parliament’s patrolling navy. Six cannon, 100 barrels of gunpowder, 1,000 sets of horse armour, 3,500 muskets, as many pikes and swords, 2,000 pistols and 140 officers made up this treasure fleet of munitions. It would bring much needed succour to King Charles I’s armies. But more priceless to the King than any of these was his wife, Queen Henrietta-Maria, who had toiled hard to gather in this harvest. If the Queen and her supplies were to reach the King, the West Midlands needed securing, and to this end, Prince Rupert of the Rhine set out to capture Lichfield.
Rupert rendezvoused at Stafford with Lord Henry Hastings, the son of a local magnate, and weighed up the target town. Without any outer walls, Lichfield’s streets risked becoming arteries, through which the Royalists would flow. However, the town had a heart of steel – a fortified ‘close’ near the cathedral which did have a wall, a moat and plenty of supplies and men. Heading the garrison was Colonel Roweswell (or Russell). When Rupert secured the outer town on 8th April 1643, he called on Roweswell to surrender, but the response he got was as good as a cannon shot across his bows. Roweswell thundered that he had heard of Rupert’s burning of four score houses at Birmingham and declared it:
“An act not becoming a gentleman, a Christian, or Englishman, much less a prince, and that that man has not in all the King’s dominion so much as a thatched house; and if this be the same man, I do not intend to deliver the King’s places of strength unto him..”
After stripping Prince Rupert of his status as a gentleman, a Christian, an Englishman and a prince, Roweswell had also just drawn up short of calling him a foreign interloper, by pointing out that he owned no home in England. Indeed, the Bohemian prince, whose parents had lost their throne, had no place he could call home and had come to England to fight for his uncle. But Rupert did possess a temper and this letter must have ignited it. The prince was also lacking in artillery and soldiers, and his cavalry would be of little use when attacking Cathedral Close. Horsemen just couldn’t operate in its close confines. But before Rupert had even fired a shot at Lichfield, he was bombarded by letters from Royalist headquarters. They poured in on 6th, 10th and 11th of April warning him that the parliamentarian field army was stalking the King and urging Rupert to be quick about his business.
The ever-industrious prince made the most of what he had at his disposal. He dismounted his cavalrymen and deployed them on foot to fill the gap in infantry. Because his artillery was too small to breach the walls of Cathedral Close, he decided upon a daring venture; to dig under the walls and explode a mine underneath. Requesting 50 of Lord Henry Hastings’ miners from Cannock Chase, he set about draining the defender’s moat and proceeded to build a bridge across the mud. It was tough going, but Rupert sent his senior officers wading in to assist the soldiers, and Lord George Digby, thus employed waist deep, was shot in the thigh. The garrison of Lichfield continually harassed the Royalists by sallying forth from their defences. On one occasion they captured Rupert’s good friend, Colonel William Legge; another intensely personal blow to the prince.
After just over a week the bridge was completed, and beneath the surface, Royalist moles were tunnelling ever closer to their target. Time was not on the garrison’s side, but nor was it on Rupert’s. First, he received a letter from the King, who like a backseat driver, implored him to make haste and go to the Queen to escort her south. The following day another flustered edict arrived, this time countermanding the previous order and instructing Rupert to return to Oxford. The prince decided to attack immediately – without waiting for the miners to complete their work – and to that end he secured every ladder in the vicinity so that his men could scale the walls. The two sides clashed in the centre of Lichfield in a bloody battle, but the prince’s men were thrown back from the walls and those that were unable to escape were taken prisoner. One unfortunate captive was hoisted up in a noose and hanged, while the garrison fired off a message to Rupert challenging him to shoot the man down if he wished to save him. The Prince was apoplectic with rage and swore not to give quarter to a single defender. It was at this point that a well-timed letter did arrive from the King, and it was decisively worded.
“Have a care of spilling innocent blood … and hereof fail not, as you desire the good of us, who desire nothing more than the good, happiness, and peaceable government of our kingdom, and not the effusion of the blood of our subjects, mercy being the brightest attribute of a king.”
After reflection, Rupert yet again offered the garrison the chance to surrender on good terms, but they refused, and their bells pealed out in defiance. It was ironic they chose the cathedral and its triple towers to assist in emphasising their determination, considering they had desecrated its interior. Nearly two weeks after arriving at the town, on 12th April, the first siege mine in England was sprung, blowing a twenty-foot breach in the wall of Cathedral Close. Even now, with no need to scale the wall, the Royalists found themselves rebuffed by the garrison’s fierce defence and it was only when Rupert brought up his artillery that the balance finally tipped in his favour. The roar of Rupert’s cannons drowned out any bells that still dared to ring, shooting through the breach and into the town. Facing such a blasting, Lichfield’s defenders requested a parley. They knew that continuing to resist, and thereby forcing the Royalists to overwhelm them, would forfeit any decent terms of surrender. To head the negotiations Rupert sent in Lord Henry Hastings. But when he failed to return that night, Rupert assumed that the garrison were simply having one last go at spiting him.
Hastings, however, reappeared the next morning and Rupert’s friend, William Legge was also released. The garrison surrendered, and despite all of their provocations, slights and the anger they caused, Prince Rupert of the Rhine congratulated Colonel Roweswell on his spirited defence. Lichfield’s gunpowder factories and brass foundries would henceforth supply the Royalists. Now that his mission was accomplished, Rupert left post-haste to fend off the threat against the Royalist headquarters of Oxford.
Mark Turnbull is the author of The King’s Spy, the first book in the Rebellion series, which features the character of Captain Maxwell Walker, a soldier turned royalist agent. The story opens with the Battle of Naseby.