Earl Rivers Regiment at the defence of Donnington Castle

Donington Castle DrawingDonnington Castle stands just to the north of Newbury on the junction of the road from London to the western ports and the road from the north to the southern ports. It was well placed to harass Parliamentarian communications.

Two days after the First battle of Newbury, on 22nd September, 1643, Colonel John Boys, a professional soldier from Kent, was sent to Donnington Castle with a garrison company of about 200 foot, 25 horse, and 4 pieces of cannon.

Boys realised that the existing fortifications would not survive long against artillery, putting his knowledge of fighting in the trenches in Flanders to use he spent £1,000 on strengthening the castle by instructing the construction of the ‘star’ fort earthworks. Three adjacent hundreds (administrative units) Kintbury Eagles with 20 Parishes, Faircross with 14 and Compton with 8 were laid under contribution to maintain the castle, providing a weekly payment, beds, etc.

Colonel John Boys was popular with the local people, giving a better price for provisions in his daily market at Donnington. Indeed it was said by an unknown cavalier that;

“England had not a better regulated garrison and better loved of the countrye than was this of Donnington“.

Newbury, which held for parliament, felt differently, as we shall see.

At the end of July1644, the Parliamentary General, Robert Devereux, third Earl of Essex, sent Lieutenant-General John Middleton, with over 3,000 horse and dragoons to reduce the castle on his way to the west. Middleton deployed his whole force before it, and on the 31st sent a summons to John Boys;

“Sir, I demand you to render the Donnington Castle for the use of the King and Parliament. If you please to entertain a present treaty you shall have honourable terms. My desire to spare blood makes me propose this. I desire you answer John Middleton”

Colonel John Boys replied the same day,

“Sir I am instructed by his majesty’s express commands, and have not yet learned to obey any other than my Sovereign. To spare blood, do as you please, but myself and those are with me are fully resolved to venture ours in maintaining that we are instructed with which is the answer of John boys”.

On 31st July a general assault with scaling ladders was launched, but without any artillery support it was driven back with over 300 of his own soldiers being killed.
On the 20th August Captain Tailor was shot through the head and killed whilst skirmishing with the rebels. However the rest of the Troop beat three times their number of rebels into the town of Newbury and killed 7 men and captured 9 musketeers and 2 Officers.

Middleton recommended the Governor of Abingdon not to take the castle, but to block it up from infesting the great road into the west. Middleton left to pursue other military goals further west. On the 29th September Colonel Jeremy Horton with reinforcements from Abingdon and Reading then took over, determined to besiege the Castle;

“He made his approaches, and raised a battery on the foot of the hill next to Newbury, and plyed it so with so with his great cannon that after twelve days’ continual shooting he beat down three towers and a part of the wall, which he believed had so humbled the Governor and his garrison that they would no longer be as stubborn as they had been“

and therefore he sent them another summons, in which he magnified his own clemency,

“that prevailed with him, now that they were even at his mercy, to offer them quarter for their lives, if they gave the castle up before Wednesday, at 10 of the clock in the morning , but if that his favour is not accepted, he declared in the presence of God, that there should be no man amongst them have his life spared.”

The governor made himself merry with these remarks and replied,

“Sir neither your addition of force, nor your high threatening language, shall deter me, or the rest of these honest men with me, from our loyalty to our Sovereign, but we do resolve to maintain this place to the uttermost of our powers, and for the matter of your quarter, yours may expect the like on Wednesday, or sooner if you please. This is the answer of, Sir, Your servant, John Boys.”

On the 4th October the Earl of Manchester arrived to take over the siege, receiving another refusal, resolved to storm the castle, but his soldiers being well informed of the resolution of those within, declined that hot service. The parliament forces were ordered to storm the castle but were instead content to keep up the bombardment.

As Clarendon remarks:

“and plied it with their artillery until the next night and then removed their battery to the other side of the castle (to Snelsmore common ) and began their approach by saps (trenches made under cover of fire), when the governor made a strong sally, and beat them out of their trenches, and killed a liet Colonel who commanded in chief, with many soldiers, shot their chief cannonier through the head, brought away their cannon-baskets and many arms, and returned with little loss, yet the next night, they finished their battery, and continued some days their great shot till the 18th October they heard of the approach of the kings army whereupon they drew off their ordnance“

…..there having been 19 days (12 at Speen, and 7 at Snelsmore) over 1,000 great shot was spent upon the walls of the garrison.

Charles 1, with his army, moved towards Donnington and Manchester withdrew. On 22 October 1644 the King knighted John Boys at his rendezvous at Red Heath, then marched on to Newbury where he lodged the army being encamped for the next few days between Newbury and Donnington Castle, Speen and Shaw house.

Early in the morning of the 27th October 1644, Colonel John boys with a strategic view from Donnington castle saw Waller’s horse at Lambourn, he sends 25 horse to harry their flank, later the same day the 2nd battle of Newbury was fought. The remaining Companies of the Earl Rivers Regiment supported Shaw House under the command of Colonel Blagg. The castle was an important factor in the battle, its strategic position causing the wide detour (13 miles from Clay Hill via Hermitage, Chieveley, North Heath, Boxford and Wickham Heath to Speen), whereby the parliamentary army attempted a pincer movement to entrap the kings army on both sides i.e Speen and at Clay hill. It was not a success, and no side could claim a victory. Prince Maurice was enabled to slip clear away to Oxford under the cover of night through the gap between Shaw House and Donnington Castle.

The King himself set out to join Prince Rupert in Bath, leaving his crown , great seal and treasure in the castle. With the guns that were left in the care of Sir John Boys.

The next day Sir William Waller and the whole Parliamentry army surrounded the castle and Boys was again summoned to surrender. Once again he refused. He was told:

“one stone would not be left on another“.

Sir john boys replied,

“He was bound to repair the castle, but that by gods help, he would keep the ground“.

Claradon relates in his memoirs;

“seeing his obstinacy, they offered him to march away with their arms and all things belonging to the garrasion , and when that moved not, that he should carry all the cannon and ammunition with him“, but he replied “that he woundered they would not be satified with the answers that he had sent, and desired them to be assured that he would not go out of the castle till the king gave him orders so to do”

The intended assault did not take place because of the death of the officer in charge, and disagreements among the parliamentary officers. About this time some parliamentary soldiers poisoned the castles well, which laid on the north side of the castle between their trenches and the castle earthworks, But the next day the Parliamentary Commander with the horror of the fact sent a drummer with a letter to Sir John Boys stating what had been done.

The Governor returned thanks to their Commander,

“and at first opportunity drew 40 musqueteers out of the Castle, and in the face of the rebells cleaned the well, taking out the bag of poyson, and digging it deeper”.

After which time (as Colonel John Birch says in his memoir)

“we kept the well in despite of the rebells, and to make tryall whether or not the well was truly poisoned, we tried the experiment upon a horse, which having drunk of it, swell’d and dyed within 24 hours“.

(the well is on the north-west side of the castle, about 400yards from the building, being screen by the lie of land from observation of the enemy on Snelsmore common, so that the garrison could easily get obtain water).

With the pincer movement cutting off the Royalist’s from redrawing after the Battle, Lord forth one of the Kings Lord Generals and his wife, was now stranded and had to take shelter at Donnington Castle which laid between the Parliament lines. He now tried to breech the gripping parliamentary encirclement by escaping through the way of Hungerford,

as Colonel John Birch says in his memoirs;

“And rideing easily 2 miles short of Newberry in the way of Hungerford, my selfe being before you, I heard a noise of horse and coaches comeing downe the way towards vs. Wherevpon I giving you notice you stood a little, and presently affirmed it was the enimy; for we had neither horse nor coaches at the head quarters. And they comeing on ffast, you had noe more time but only to vtter these words ” What ever you see mee doe, lett the like bee don by you:” This was about eight of the clocke at night the 30th day of October, 1644, the moone shining pretty light: and instantly therevpon you turnd your horse in at a broad cart way into the fields on your right hand out of the comon road to Hungerford. And instantly after vs about three pikes length they come into the field the same way; and comeing on fast some of them were got vp even with us: but yourface being towards the west, and the moone being in the east-south-east, your face was soe shadowed thereby that they could not easily discover you; but, as I suppose, takeing you to bee of their owne company , passed on with their whole partie, consisting of 96mounted men, three coaches and a coach-wagon, with 30 led horse; as you presently tould your quartermaster .saying you had countedthem ,which I was at that time in too great a feare to doe. And soe soon as the last of this company was done, you turned backe your horse and wee likewise: and haueing gon backe about 40 paces, you mett on(é) of their company, to whome clapping your pistoll you bid him hold his peace, and turne backe with you, else hee was a dead man; which he did; and carrieing him backe into the lane hee conffessed hee was one belonged to the Kings Lord Generall, the Earle of Forth, whoe then past by; and those with him are his guard; and in the coaches his ladie and some other ladies ; and the coach wagon was full of his bagadge, hee being come out of Donington castle, into which hee was forced to fly the night before in the battaile.”

on the 9th November king Charles returned to relieve the Castle and provision it. He came from Illsley, Chieverly and North heath. As sir Edward Walker relates:

“our army marched in battalia, expecting some opposition. The van was led by his Highness Prince Rupert and General Gerrard. In this order we marched, and got possesion of the heath on the backside of Donnington castle (i.e Snelsmore common), from which a small force of rebels might have kept us, the entrance into it being steep and the way very narrow, ( Bussock hill) and then we must have gone above and fallen in by way of Speene (through Winterbourne).on that heath the army was drawn up about twelve of the clock, and everyone prepared to fight. Thence in a good order we marched by Donnington Castle, passing the river at a mill, and two fords below it ( Donnington mill near the post office, and the fords now bridges over the mill stream and the Lambourn) without any opposition, and thence drew into the large field between speene and Newbury, where the army was set in order. The rebels in the interim drew a great body of horse and Foote into the other field towards Shaw. Having made breast works and batteries on the backside of Newbury towards both these fields, resolving to keep the town, which was the reason they gave us so ease a passage to the heath behind Donnington.,’

There was a little skirmish but no battle; the king had effected his objective, the relief and provisioning of the castle, and now made a display of force; the roundheads were intent on the defence of Newbury. Thus ’they suffered us quietly to pass with drums beating and trumpets sounding the same way we came over the river. His majesty lay that night at donning ton castle and all the army about him. on the morrow (Sunday) the king having collected his crown and treasure, marched with all his cannon and ammunition over the heath from Donnington Castle to winterbourne, where he, prince Rupert and his chief officers attended divine service in ther parish church; then by Boxford and Shefford to Lambourne where as Claradon states)” he quarted that night and the next day, to refresh his men for ill lodging they endured at Donnington.”

A Parliamentarian account from the time, As written by the Earl of Manchester, to the House of Commons, relief of Donnington Castle, that they had repulsed the Kings Forces at Newbury

“My Lords and Gentlemen,
“Yesterday, late in the Evening, we had certain Intelligence that the Enemy’s whole Army were within Five or Six Miles of us, and this Day, betwixt Ten and Eleven of the Clock, they drew up to Donnington Castle, and from thence, they both with their Horse and Foot drew into a plain Field, between the Town of Newberry and the Castle It was not held safe for us to draw out, in regard the Castle by their Ordnance would have done much Spoil upon us, therefore we resolved to make good the Town The Enemy came on upon us, but, by the Blessing of God, he received such a Repulse as that he is retreated, and the Night falling on, we could not pursue them, but we have sent out Scouts to observe their Motions, and do in tend to follow them We shall have a particular Care of the Town of Reading, according to your Lordships Commands in your Letter of the 8th of November 1644, which we received this Night My Lords and Gentlemen, we have nothing more to give your Lordships an Account of, but rest “Your Lordships humble Servants, Newberry 9th Nov 1644
“E Manchester ”
W Balfore “Wm Waller”

Early in May 1645, five hundred Royalist Protestants marched out of Basing House, after a Religious dispute and travelled to Donnington Castle still un-besieged, but they were very properly refused admission by Sir John Boys.

Sir John Boys continued to hold the dilapidated castle, he now had a rest bite as the Roundheads were occupied elsewhere. As soon as the main Parliamentary body left Newbury the defenders continued to launch raids on Parliamentarian forces in the area. John Boys made a sally into Newbury (then a Parliament town), and nearly succeeded in capturing the Mayor and other leading citizens and holding them up to ransom.

By the end of 1645 Parliament was on the verge of victory in the war Donnington, like Basing was a constant thorn to the Parliamentarians and after the storm of Basing House 14th October 1645 by the Regiments of Dalbier, Pickering, Hardress Waller and Edward Montague, Cromwell gave the task to Dalbier for the total destruction of Donnington Castle to reduce it at all cost, having received instructions from the Speaker of the House of Commons 15th October 1645 to have Donnington “taken in”.
However, Sir John Boys had not only provisioned the castle he had also, in view of Dalbiers advance set fire to Donnington and adjacent villages as commanded by the Kings Council at Oxford, to deprive the besiegers of cover.

As Captain Knight wrote at the time;

“Dulbere being thuse prevented of his quartes of donning ton towne, wch was with in half a mile of the castell, and also of other ajatiente villages and howses, loges his partie of foote in newbury, and quartes his horsse in the ajatiente villages, soe yt donning ton castell may bee sd now blocked, but not besieged….also sir john studiouse to make all necessary pvisions to preserve the place and considering colonell browne hade in the former seage made his battery one the north side of the castell ad yt from a place called the queens oak the castell might bee easily stormed, being a levell and the castell one all other pte standing vppon a hill, hee therefore made a mountte vppon the sd levell some 200 paces of the castell trenches and palisades, the wall beinge heigh, cannon pffe and the top made of greatte thickness and stronge, as covered over with brickes and earth proped with greate beames and layed over with packes of wool to prevent the excution of morter grenades.”

Another account of the day reported in the house of commons;

The humble Petition of the poor Inhabitants of Dennington in the County of Berks; shewing, That their Houses, Stables, Barns, and divers other Buildings, together with their Goods and Housholdstuff, were burnt and consumed, by the Command of Sir John Boys, Governor of Dennington-Castle, amounting to the Sum of Five thousand Two hundred Eighty-three Pounds and Eighteen Shillings, to the utter Undoing of the Petitioners, their Wives, and many Children; they consisting of Two-and thirty Families; was this Day read. The Articles, upon which Dennington-Castle was surrendered, were likewise read. The House called upon a Report, in the Hands of Mr. Lisle. And It is Ordered, That the Debate concerning Sir John Bois, and the Articles for Rendition of Dennington-Castle, be taken into Consideration, next after the said Report.

Bitter winter weather postponed the attack on the castle during this time Sir John Boys sallied into the local area, beating down and destroying any quarters they found.

The Kentish Regiment, regarded as traitors by their compatriot Sir John (who was a Kentish man), received special treatment.

When the spring arrived Dalbier took the field facing the castle and at night trenches were dug, he then commenced a furious bombardment with cannon and mortars, but as written at the time;

“sir john could not degest such ruffe pceedings of the enemie, commanded a sallie with horsse and foote at height nowne, the enemie leying carelessly in their trenches, not suspecting a sallye, for yt they saw the gatte shut and the bridge drawne ( this would be the gate closing the earth works), but in this they were very much deceaved for sr john had a priatte sally porte, made within the bulwarks trenche and palisade filed vpp with earth, wch hee cleared and thogh it passed his horse and foote undiscovered, this party was commanded by captayne donne, who soe sodenley ffell vppon the enermy that the place, broght awaye above 60 prisoners 4 collores and many hundreds armes. When dalbeir regained his position he planted a morter pece, and the same day shoote 17 vppon the castell.”

The large hole in the south-east tower that was later repaired in modern brick, is the apparently the work of this great mortar which had great shattering effect upon the castle the garrison as written in some reports 200 strong with 20 barrels of black powder and six pieces of ordnance. The Roundheads spent a long time knocking these towers down, however it was the newly constructed earthworks that was the Castle’s real defence.

On 30th March 1646 with the Kings cause lost, at the Battle of Naseby, Dalbeire wrote to Sir John Boys telling him that he could not expect any relief and advised him to surrender the castle, whilst he might be able to give him honourable conditions.

Sir John called a council of war, and it was agreed to ask Dalbier for passes for two Officers of the Garrison to go to Oxford. Boys held a parley with Dalbier and as a result, Captains Osborne and Donne, were sent to Oxford to gain the King’s orders.

The King instructed; “that hee (sir john Boys) should gette the beste conditions hee could for him self and his, and yt if possiblely hee could, he should marche of to oxford and bringe of all the artillery of the csatell with hime.”

A second parley was held with Dalbeir, and the agreement for the surrender drawn up and agreed on the 30th of march, 1646 in the field where Dalbier was encamped, on the east side on the castle,

“the castellians were to marche awaye to Wallingford with bagge and baggage, muskets charged and primed, mache in coke bullate in mouth, drums beating and collures ffleyinge, every man taken with hime as much amunishion as hee could cary. As honourable conditions could be given.in thus was donning ton castell surrended”

On 1st April 1646 the Castle finally surrendered. What remained of the Castle was then sacked and all the lead stolen, probably causing much discomfort to the Puritan owner, an MP called John Packer, who had only taken possession in 1640.

Members of the original Regiment are buried at Speen Church on the outskirts of Newbury. Unfortunately no memorial remains to their whereabouts in the churchyard.

Mercurius Aulicus 26 week Sunday 26 June 1643-
Saturday 1st July 1643.
Mercurius Aulicus 24 week ending 24 August 1644
Providence Improved by Mr. Burgha1l Vicar of Acton.
Clarendons Histor of the Great Rebellion
Historical notices in the reign of Charles I by Nehemiah
Edgehill by Brigadier Peter Young
• The Civil Wars in Cheshire by R.N.Dore
Beef, Bacon and Bag Pudding by David Didsbury Royalist Olficer in England and Wales by P.R. Newman
• Kent and the great rebellion by H.F.Abell
Richard Symonds complete military diary
• Harl.1383 examined by Dr.Andrew Prescott
‘ Cheshire Records Office
‘ Dods – QJF9O/2 – No. 176
‘ Adderton – QJF9O/3 – No. 183 and 184.
‘ Woodfine – QJF1O2/4 – No.131
• Jace – QJF 94/4 – NoJ37