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Brampton Bryan Castle
History of the castle
The ruined castle is positioned between the Hall and the Church, and is only open to the public on Scarecrow Sunday and for booked historical meetings. It is probably Sir Brian de Brampton the first, who died in around 1179, who built the stone castle. No written records exist of the exact date. It is one of the many castles that are positioned along the Welsh border and which were used to prevent Welsh marauders and raiding parties. This castle guarded the important route from Ludlow to Knighton.
By the early 17th Century castles became homes rather than strongholds, and their owners were becoming cattle breeders, and Harley cattle were becoming famous. Trees were planted and parkland established.
Starting in 1972 work was commissioned to repoint and strengthen the Castle to prevent further deterioration.
The siege at Brampton Bryan
Written by Brilliana Harley (with deep respect for an ancestor). The author of this account is the great x 12 granddaughter of the original Lady Brilliana Harley.
Beneath the idyllic thatch of the cottages and the unruly green hedge that characterise Brampton Bryan today, lies a story of bravery, loyalty and resilience. The following narrative centres around Brilliana Harley, a dutiful wife, doting mother and proto-feminist of her day, and looks at her pivotal role at Brampton Bryan in defending her husband's family seat from Royalist soldiers during the Civil War.
Brilliana Harley was born at Brill, an English garrison town, in the Netherlands where her father, Viscount Conway, served as Lieutenant-Governor. In 1623 she married Sir Robert Harley at the age of 25, as his third wife, and took up residence at Brampton Bryan Castle. The castle had been in the Harley family since 1309 when Robert de Harley married Margaret de Brampton, whose family had held Brampton Bryan since the Domesday Book. Brilliana and Sir Robert were of a Puritan disposition and staunch Parliamentarians; the latter political standing being unusual for a distinguished Herefordshire family. Sir Robert's loyalty to Parliament is reflected in his position as Master of the Mint and his role in the Long Parliament, for which he spent much time in London, leaving Brilliana as the castle's custodian.
In her husband's absence, Brilliana took up the mantle of estate management. She faithfully informed her husband and eldest son, Edward ('my son Ned') who was attending Oxford University, on the events of local politics. Brilliana's sense of responsibility and intelligence, emotional, practical and theoretical, is illustrated first-hand by her insightful letters of which nearly 400 survive. The letters proffer vignettes into her concerns, maternal and domestic, as well as her views on religion and politics.
The Harley loyalties made them a minority in their county, which boasted some of the King's strongest adherents, meaning they became politically isolated. As the enemies gathered, Brampton Bryan grew under increasing threat, proven by Robert dispatching weapons, such as muskets and bandoleers, to Brilliana for defence (the muskets were intercepted en route). Brilliana's foresight of what lay ahead is reflected by her adjustments to the castle to strengthen it in case of an attack, comprising lead recasting, carpentry and masonry repairs, and eventually, a strategic move to render the castle more secure, the filling of the moat. She ordered '50 waight of shot' from Worcester and asked her husband for counsel on the best means to guard the house.
Brilliana's ingenuity is indicated by her undercover communications with her family in an effort to bypass interception, corresponding with her son Ned on pieces of linen, some of which survive, and devising a coded letter, deciphered only when overlaid by a unique template.
By early 1643, her enemies were refusing entry to the fowler and servants, and the estate rents had been stopped. The first summons to surrender Brampton Bryan and the castle came in March 1643, to which Brilliana stoutly refused:
'To the demand of my Howse and Armes (which are no more than to defend my Howse) This is my Answere: Our Gracious King havinge many times promised that he will Maintain the Lawes & Libertyes of the Kingdome, by which I have as good Right to what is mine as any one, maintaines me these; And I know not upon what ground the Refusall of givinge you what is mine (by the Lawes of the Land) will prove mee or any that is with me Traytors'.
In June 1643, the castle was cut off from the estate entirely and any regular source of supplies.
Royalist troops under the command of Sir William Vavasour besieged the castle over the summer of 1643: the siege lasted seven weeks. The castle was not sought by the Royalists as a military stronghold but rather as revenge against Sir Robert, who failed to support the king, and concern to eradicate pockets of resistance. The 400 Royalist horsemen and 300 foot soldiers greatly outnumbered the 100 men, women and children sheltering behind the castle walls. The enemy threw up breastworks against the walls, keeping up a steady fire with muskets and hammer-guns, and fired shots from the church tower. Unbelievably the castle sustained very little damage during the siege, with only one fatality, the cook who was shot through his left arm and died shortly after 'in agony'. In late August, proceedings were paused to allow negotiations, the King's interlocutor, Sir John Scudamore, entered the castle the 'unhandsome way' by rope and ladder and Brilliana courageously dallied and delayed proceedings. The siege was raised on September 9th when the Royalists were diverted to a siege at Gloucester. The castle walls had held out but the roof was full of holes, provisions were low and the estate was bare.
Despite dogged resilience in anticipation of and during the siege, the immense burden of the turn of events undermined the protagonist's health, and she became ill with a cough, kidney stones and apoplexy with convulsions. Her unswerving piety remained, she wrote to Ned in her last letter 'my trust is only in my God, whoo never yet failed me…. It is an ill time to be sike in.' Brilliana died in October, after which her body was cased in lead and positioned atop the castle, in symbolic vigil over her demesne.
The second siege in the spring of 1644 was less successful for the castle's inhabitants, whether this owed anything to the loss of its courageous female figurehead can only be speculated. After a three-week siege, the castle, largely dismantled and its arms and silver confiscated, was forced to surrender on 17 April 1644. Sixty-seven prisoners were taken including the three youngest Harley children, who were taken away to Ludlow prison and then to Shrewsbury where they were imprisoned for a year. The Royalists had great cause for celebration, having recently captured (not altogether honourably) nearby Hopton Castle too.
The castle, church, mill and thirty houses in the village lay in desolate ruins. The church, which was rebuilt salvaging existing fabric where possible, is a rare example, believed to be one of only six, erected under the Protectorate. Its arrangement, comprising unusual width and no division between the nave and chancel, as well as its austere style with minimal ornament voices Sir Robert Harley's puritan ideology.
Sir Robert had become increasingly estranged from the Cromwellian regime, he was not a regicide (he neither advocated for, nor took part in, the death of Charles I) and he lost his job as Master of the Mint owing to his refusal to issue coinage bearing Cromwell's head. The castle remained in ruins until after Sir Robert had died. His son, Sir Edward Harley, likewise had become disillusioned with the Cromwellian rule and was banished from Herefordshire for ten years. He welcomed Charles II at Dover in 1660 and refused a viscountcy which was offered for his allegiance. He restored the deer park, which had been devastated during the wars, and built a double-fronted brick house, the Hall, over part of the castle. One of the rooms in the castle ruin, over the inner gateway, remained habitable until the middle of the 18th century. The domestic emphasis, however, shifted to the Hall, the present front of which was added in c.1748.
The castle remains today, an unusually resilient and tangible survivor of two Civil War sieges, and, its state of picturesque ruin, as if besieged yesterday, brings the 350 year old story vividly into the present, enhanced by the occasional discovery of a cannon ball in its grounds.