Due to the strategic importance of Sherborne’s position at the crossroads of the main north/south route from Bristol to Weymouth and the east/west route from London to Exeter, the area saw much action during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Many locals were tenants of John Lord Digby (1634-1698) of Sherborne Castle and the town was traditionally Royalist.
On 5 August 1642, the King’s commander in the south-west, William Seymour 2nd Marquess of Hertford (1588-1660), arrived in Sherborne with Sir Ralph Hopton (a former pupil of King’s School, Bruton) and 400 horse. They garrisoned the Old Castle where they were joined by local Royalist gentry with 400 foot.
On 2 September 1642, a Parliamentarian force, commanded by William Russell 5th Earl of Bedford (1616-1700), marched from Yeovil and encamped on the high ground north of Sherborne (the site is still known as ‘Bedford’s Camp’). From this vantage point, Bedford’s artillery bombarded the Old Castle and the town (aiming at the ‘church steeple’) but caused little serious damage. In defence of the town Hopton placed musketeers and dragoons in the gardens on the north side of Newland and for three nights fired cannon into Bedford’s camp, with the result that 800 of Bedford’s troops are said to have deserted. Bedford abandoned the siege and on 6 September retreated to Yeovil, followed by Sir Ralph Hopton with 100 horse, 60 dragoons and 200 musketeers who took up position on Babylon Hill overlooking Yeovil. The following day a minor skirmish took place between Hopton and Bedford’s forces (known as the Battle of Babylon Hill), with the result that Hopton lost about 20 of his men and retreated to Sherborne.
Emboldened by his defeat of Hopton’s forces, Bedford, now armed with ‘three great brass pieces’, marched back to Sherborne and resumed his siege of the Old Castle. When a shot demolished a section of the curtain wall the Royalists sounded a parley and fired an arrow over the wall with their terms of surrender attached to it. Hertford agreed to surrender the castle providing the safety of his ‘great-spirited little army’ was guaranteed and on 20 September 1642 he withdrew to South Wales. The Parliamentarian forces held the Old Castle until they were driven out by a Royalist force on 12 February 1643.
On 1 August 1645, the Parliamentarian forces commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-1671) again besieged Sherborne Old Castle, then occupied by a Royalist garrison commanded by Sir Lewis Dyve (1599-1669). This second and last siege lasted 16 days and, following heavy bombardment and mining, Dyve surrendered the Castle on 17 August 1645. The Castle was slighted in October 1645.
The Parliamentarian forces requisitioned Sherborne Abbey and the adjacent school buildings for use as barracks and the schoolroom (now the Old School Room) for a guards room. In August 1650, the School Governors were ordered by Captain Helyar (possibly an Old Shirburnian) to take down the royal arms over the entrance to the schoolroom and on the south wall of the Headmaster’s house (now the Lady Chapel of Sherborne Abbey). They were hidden away and replaced soon after the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Three contemporary pamphlets in the Sherborne School Archives tell the story, from both the Royalist and Parliamentarian perspectives, of the first siege of Sherborne Old Castle in September 1642:
The newest and truest, and most unpartiall relation of all the late occurrence which hath happened at Sherbourne Castle, and thereabouts (printed 14 September 1642)
THE LATEST RELATION FROM SHERBURN CASTLE.
Sir, I know how dangerous is it to write in this time, if my letter be intercepted, and kept close, yet Truth will break out; and indeed I challenge and defie any, which dare lay an untruth to the charge of this Relation, appealing to the conscience of all that know the passage thereof.
On this day sennight being Saterday, the Earl of Bedford appeared before Sherborn Castle, His Forces consisted partly of Devonshire men (whereof some 400 came to Dorchester on Tuesday last as I take it, but sure I am, a Minister rode very demurely before them with a Bible in his hand, and many of them by their habit were judged men of good qualiie) as also men of Dorset and Sommersetshire. Many of them advanced slowly and sadly, and you know the Nature of West-countrey men, who most of them holding their means for their lives, were loath to hazard their lives and lifelyhood at one adventure.
The men of the Town of Sherborn (presumed to be of the Earl of Bedfords side) declared themselves otherwise, and with their shot did much annoyance to his men. There hath passed many skirmishes betwixt the Marquessse of Hartford’s men and the Earl of Bedfords, with the chance of warre; sometimes the one and sometimes the other had the better.
At last the Countrey men began to think that Featherbeds were better lodging then the hard earth, which made many of them (if you will have it in the best phrase) withdraw themselves away, which I doubt not but will willingly come back again to see an happy agreement betwixt the King and Parliament. The Earl of Bedford with those that were left, discamped, and retreated to Yevell, (4 little miles from Sherborn) where the Lord Marquesse and the Lord Paulet bid him battell, and there followed an hard and hot encounter, wherein the Marquesse had the best of it.
Sir, I am sorry to report that an hundred men were slain on the Earls side, which I am afraid will prove too true, and the adjacent Towns will dolefully witnesse that I am no lyer; many of them were men of qualitie, as appeard by their burial in the Church of Yevel.
If M. Trenchard, Sir Thomas Trenchard’s elder sonne, be slain (as it is credibly reported) I shall be an heavie mourner at his funeral. But should be a heartier rejoycer if he be preserved alive, to do good service for God, his King and Countrey.
On the Marquesses side were slain ten Muskettiers, none men of any qualitie. And he hath taken Captain Hungerford, and eight others, prisoners.
On the other side in the time of their bickering, the Earl of Bedford took prisoner Captain Bamfeild, and five other of the Marquesses men. And thus we see if these wofull times continue, parties may mutually get the Conquest; but the whole English Nation, with the Protestant Religion, Church and State, must be a looser.
The Earl of Bedford with his Troops fairly retreated to Dorchester, it is our hopes and our prayers that King and Parliament may so agree, that we may effectually stop the Bleeding Estate of Ireland. And now Sir know I have plaid with you the fore-game in friendship, and expect (how dangerous soever the times be) some requital of London news from you, which I fear will be as sad and sorrowfull as what we have here written.
ANOTHER LETTER FROM SHERBORN CASTLE.
Sir, Those mistaking and omissions which hast made in my last Intelligence, I pray correct and supply by these presents.
On Friday last the 2 of this moneth, the Earle of Bedford pitcht his siege before Sherbourne, with eight hundred horse, five thousand foot, with twelve pieces of ordnance. Those in the Castle were not above six hundred horse and foot, and two small field pieces.
On Saturday, the Earle began his battery, and approached the towne, wherein many of the townsmen shooting out of their windows, kild some few, and wounded more of the Earles men.
On Sunday, those in the Castle hung out the White Flag, desiring rest that day, which the orders little regarding continued their battery and this occasioned some shot from the Castle, which took no effect, but the hindrance of their worke.
On Munday, many Cannon-shot were made at the Castle Towne, and Church Steeple, but with little harme.
Tuesday Morning, the Earle proclaimed a sessation of armes, and commanded them all to remove their ammunition and artillery to Yevell, which that night was done accordingly.
Wednesday betwixt foure and five of the clock in the after-noone, some of the Castle Troopes went out, onely to take the ayre, and see what was become of the Earle sarmie, wearing no armes but swords and gunnes, and many having but two shots a peece. The Earles men having notice thereof set upon them. Here was hot service, and the Castle men twice charging so repelled those that assaulted them, that they began to retreat.
But the rest of the Earles armie endeavoured (whilest their fellows fought) to get behind the Castle Troops, and so to cut them off in their retreat. Where upon the Castle men desisted from any further charge, and forced their passage through such as lay behind them home to the Castle, wither they all came safe, saving nine men who were kild upon the place, and five taken prisoners, whereof Sergeant Major Bamfeild was one.
One of the nine slaine was a Dorsetshire Gentleman Captain H. Hussey, whilst they had him at their mercy, they most barbarously cut off his members, and then did him the favour to kill him.
Of the Earles side the losse was great, but uncertain, the River hard by buried many of them, as appeareth by divers Horses since found floating in it, and seaven men of that Company were openly buried in Yevell church the next morning; and they say many buried privately in a Hill there by, which how true it is, God knows: Thirtie of their horses were taken and carried to the Castle; and with them seaven taken prisoners, whereof Captain Hungerford was chiefe.
Thursday, the Earles forces were dismissed by his command; and dispersed themselves, whilest he himselfe retreated to Dortchester.
I had almost forgotten a sad accident. Whilest the Devonshire men were distributing their powder, and ready to besiege the Castle, two barrels taking fire, kild some men, scald and maimd many, to the number of sixteene.
God turne out swords into sythes, that leaving all acts of hostilitie, we may peaceably receive the fruits of the earth. Helpe us with your prayers to God that by the agreement of King and Parliament, we may enjoy a happy peace.
Propositions propounded by the Marquesse of Hartford, to the Earle of Bedford, concerning the delivering up of Sherbourne-Castle (London, printed for Henry Fowler, 17 September 1642)
EXCEEDING JOYFULL NEWS FROM SHERBOURNE CASTLE.
The Earle of Bedford having with a little losse been forced to raise the siege, by reason that the towne of Sherbourne was not well affected, but rather sided with the Marquesse of Hartford, most of them being the Lord Digbies tenants, and many of the souldiers which were raised by the Countie, having weighed the danger that they were like to undergoe, in attempting any thing against any enemy that was so desperate, secretly left him, by which meanes his forces were weakned: for which cause hee thought it necessary to remove to Yeavel, a market towne, on the West of Sherbourne, within three miles, where having quartered his men that night, and placed his centries round to prevent danger, he billeted severall troops of his cavalry at severall townes round about Yeavel, as at Ilchester, Somerton, and other adjoining places, but the next morning there was an alarum given from Ilchester, some armed men being discovered by the centuries upon march neere the towne, making for Sherbourne; whereupon the Earle of Bedford sent out six troops to discover what they were, and to intercept them, till such time as he could march up with his artillery, which was resolutely attempted by the said troops neither was it performed without some losse: Squire Rogers and his followers, being bent upon a desperate designe, made their actions suitable, and fell on as desperately as ever was seene, in so much that though there were six troops, well appointed for battaile, and reasonable expert, and he but three hundred horse, yet maugre all their opposition, he made his way towards Sherbourne, and forced them to a retreate. Neverthelesse the Earle of Bedford had so ordered the businesse, that he had got betweene them and Sherbourne, and fel upon them within halfe a mile of Sherbourne Castle, putting them to the sword, taking some prisoners, among whom was Squire Rogers.
But before the skirmish was ended, the Marquesse of Hartford sallied out of the Castle, and endeavoured to rescue his friends, but his labour was in vaine, for he was repulst by the Earle of Bedford, and pursued up to the Castle, and the siege began afresh, the Earle of Bedford mounting three peeces of ordnance, which he had received from the inhabitants at Weymouth.
Many shots were made on both sides, both to and from the Castle, in so much that one of the Earle of Bedford pieces of ordnance was twice dismounted, and one of his canoneeres kild.
After some 40 shots made by the Earle of Bedford against the Castle, a fortunate shot was made, which tooke away the main battlements of the Castle, where one of the pieces was planted, so that the ordnance fell to the ground with a great part of the wall, which was weakened by the often batteries of our canons, which shot put the Cavaliers into such a fright, that suddainly a trumpeter appeared upon the wall sounding a parley, which was answered by the Earle of Bedford, and a trumpet sent to demand the reason of that suddan parley, who coming up to the mote, there was a paper fastned to an arrow shot over to him; with a direction to the Earle of Bedford, which he taking, returned back to our Army, and delivered the same to the said Earle, who opening it found inclosed these following propositions.
- That notwithstanding what he had done was by His Majesties command, and for the furtherance of His Majesties service, to which he was engaged by his Oath of Allegiance; yet having found just cause to discent the prosecution of such service, and being desirous to save the effusion of blood that must necessarily be spent, before the Castle was obtained by any hostile force, hee was content to deliver up the Castle upon these conditions.
- That the said Earle of Bedford should grant him a peaceable retreat; to his own manour, with all those that were retainers to him, or had run an equall hazard with him in that designe.
- That the said Marquesse should be free from being questioned for his present actions, provided that his future actions, were correspondent and conduceable to the furtherance of a Reformation, which upon his honour he promised should be, & that all his power should be employed for the King & Parliament in the right sense, upon these conditions he would lay downe his arms, and succour the Castle; but if this were denyed, hee vowed to make his grave betweene those walls, and to place the Earle of Bedfords sister on the battlements, who should serve as a flag of defiance to him and all his followers.
After some forty shots made by the Earle of Bedford, against the Castle, a fortunate shot was made, which took away a corner of the maine battlements of the Castle, where one of the peeces was planted, so that the ordnance fel to the ground, with a great part of the wall, which was weakened by the other batteries of our canons. Which shot put the Cavaliers into such a fright, that suddenly a trumpeter appeared upon the wall, sounding a parley, which was answered by the Earle of Bedford: and a servant of Squire Rogers was taken with eight hundred pounds, which was supposed to endeavour the reliefe of the saide Marquesse, and the Cavaliers in the Castle.
Happy Newes from Sherborn, and Sherborne Castle (originally printed in London for F. Cowles, 1642. Reprinted Sherborne by J.C. & A.T. Sawtell, 1891)
A letter written from a merchant in Dorchester, to M. Nicholas Skinner a merchant of London, declaring the happy successe of the Parliaments Forces, in defeating divers of the Caveliers near Sherborne.
Sir, Here in the country we dare not send seven miles abroad, for feare of the Cavaliers, who lye at Sherborne, pillaging, robbing and killing like so many Sonnes of Hell; but they were met withal this weeke to the purpose, by some London troupers, and our Dorchester troopers.
My L. of Bedford finding the Castle to be a piece of greater strength than he imagined, and seeing his trained bands to forsake him; so that of sixe or seven thousand he had not above fifteene hundred in three dayes, not that they deserted the cause, but being men who had wives and estates, were loth to hazard their lives in an offensive war. My Lord resolved to raise the siege, and on Tuesday marched to Yeavell, foure miles distant from Sherborne. There were lost seven or eight men of a side at the siege, as we heare, I am sure no more on our side.
On Wednesday toward evening, while my Lord of Bedford and the souldiers were at a sermon in Yeavell, at the funeral of some souldiers lately killed; the Sherborne Lords and Cavaliers, having that day received to their number a hundred horse and two hundred foot, from M. Rogers, one of our Shire Knights, insolently triumphing at the departure of my Lord of Bedfords forces, and condemning the Parliament, came in a bravado, and pitched themselves in battell-array with 400 horse, and two hundred muskettiers in ambush on the top of the Hill, betwixt Yeavell and Sherborne mid-way: which the London troopers hearing of, two troops of theirs, and our Dorchester troop made ready to assault the enemy, the other troops abiding at the ends of the towne of Yeavell, fearing the Cavaliers would surprise the towne. Our men had about a hundred muskettiers, and a hundred and forty horse, and marched up the hill while bullets flew as thicke as haile about their eares, assaulted the Cavaliers, and came in to swords points, slashing and cutting without any pitty or mercy, the great rebels, respecting no person, but the night came on, else they had killed and taken every man. God cast upon the Cavaliers a spirit of fearfulnesse, that they ran like mice into every hole. The Muskettiers threw downe their armes and fled, so that our men brought above a hundred of their muskets into Yeavell, tooke about twenty men, amongst which were some chiefe Commanders, killed many, amongst whom Colonell Lunsford and the Lord Paulet are certainly slained.
The next morning there was found twenty eight dead bodies of the enemies lying upon the ground, besides those which were carried away in the night, there were lanthornes and candles searching for dead bodies all the night, most of the Cavaliers running away (for so they did) they cryed out to our men, hold your hands, you have shed already much noble blood. Of our side were slaine five men, &c. two or three taken prisoners, and divers lightly wounded. The Cavaliers were heard to say at their comming home, (as some of our neighbours which were present heard them say) they had lost halfe their men, of two hundred Musquetiers there returned but eighteene to the Castle that night; thus in briefe I have related to you the truth, praised be to God for the victory, so farewell.
Your loving friend., I.W.
To the Kings most Excellent Majesty. The humble answer and petition of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, unto the Kings last message, bearing date the fifth of September.
May it please your Majesty, if we the Lords and Commons in Parliament, assembled should repeat all the ways we have taken, the endeavours we have used, and the expressions we have made unto your Majesty, to present those distractions and dangers your Majesty speaks of, likely to fall upon this Kingdome, we should too much enlarge this reply; therefore as we humbly, so shall we onely let your Majesty know, that we cannot receade from our former answer for the reasons there expressed, for that you have not taken downe your Standard, recalled your Proclamations and Declarations, whereby you have declared the actions of both Houses of Parliament to be treasonable, and their persons traytors, and you have published this same since the 25 of August, by your late instructions sent to your Commissioners of Array, which Standard being taken downe, and the Declarations, Proclamations, and instructions recalled, if your Majesty shall then upon this our humble Petition leaving your Forces, returne unto your Parliament, and receive their faithfull advice, your Majesty will finde such expressions of our fidelity and duties, as shall assure you that your safety, honour, and greatnesse, can onely be found in the affections of your people, and the sincere Counsell of your Parliament, whose constant and discouraged endeavours and consultations have passed through difficulties unheard of, only to secure your Kingdomes from the violent mischiefs and dangers now ready to fall upon them, and every part of them who deserve better of your Majesty, and can never allow themselves (representing likewise your whole Kingdome) to be balanced with those persons whose desperate conditions and counsels prevaile still so to interrupt all our endeavours for the relieving of bleeding Ireland, as we may feare our labours and vaste expences will be fruitlesse to that distressed Kingdome, as your preference is thus desired to us, so it is our hopes your Majesty will in your reason believe there is no other way then this, to make your selfe happy, and your Kingdome safe.
John Browne Cleric. Parliament.
A.R. Bayley, The Great Civil War in Dorset 1642-1660 (1910).
J.H.P. Gibb, The Book of Sherborne (1981).
A.B. Gourlay, History of Sherborne School (2nd ed., 1971).
Bob Osborn, The A-Z of Yeovil’s History – Battle of Babylon Hill
Peter White & Alan Cook, Sherborne Old Castle, Dorset: archaeological investigations 1930-1990 (2015).
British Civil Wars, Commonwealth and Protectorate website
Historic Library & Rare Book Collection, Sherborne School.
For further information about the Sherborne School Archives please contact the School Archivist.
Return to the School Archives homepage.