This is the final instalment of my blogs on Bristol Castle and it describes events leading up to its demise. It makes sense therefore, if you haven’t already done so, to read the previous three blogs first, the links to which you can find at the end of this post.
With the death of Edward III, a new era started to emerge, and the importance of Bristol Castle started to decline as the focus of attention shifted north with the onset of the Wars of the Roses.
Edward III outlived his son, the Black Prince, and so it was the prince’s son Richard, who became the next king of England at just ten years old. The guardian of the boy king was Edward III’s oldest surviving son, John of Gaunt, and it was his son, Henry Bolingbroke the Duke of Lancaster, who became king as Henry IV when Richard was forced to give up the throne in 1399.
After the death of Henry IV, his son extended the Lancaster side of the Plantagenet family’s hold on the crown as Henry V. His skill on the battlefield, notably at Agincourt, is well documented, and helped him to gain large chunks of French territory. After his death in 1422 his 9-month-old son became Henry VI, the youngest ever King of England. Unfortunately, he had none of his father’s attributes where fighting was concerned and duly lost all his father’s territorial gains.
It wasn’t just in foreign fields that he was a failure, he wasn’t any better at controlling his feudal barons back home either – and it certainly didn’t help that he also suffered from bouts of madness. Under the circumstances, it’s not surprising therefore that another member of the family, Richard Duke of York, eventually thought it might be as a good a time as any to stake his claim for the throne, and on 22nd May 1455 he defeated the king at the Battle of St Albans – and the Wars of the Roses had begun.
The warring factions of the Plantagenet family were the House of Lancaster with its red rose emblem on one side, and the House of York with its white rose emblem on the other, and between them they kept the family feud/ civil war going for the next 32 years.
In the red corner, the king’s ineptitude at running the country meant that his queen, Margaret of Anjou, took over the monarch’s responsibilities, and in the white corner it was left to Richard of York’s son, Edward, to take up the fight after Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460.
The fortunes of both sides swayed backwards and forwards, and with both Queen Margaret and Edward coming to Bristol looking for support, the city changed allegiance more than once. Edward’s decisive victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471 saw him become undisputed king as Edward IV, but winning the battle didn’t necessarily mean winning the war.
The ensuing conflict between the various claimants for the crown finally came to a head at the Battle of Bosworth Field when Henry Tudor, a Lancastrian, defeated the Yorkist King Richard III on 22nd August 1485. The battle not only saw the last English king to be killed in battle, but also the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, as Henry Tudor was now King Henry VII.
The pragmatic Henry then married Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Edward IV, and by doing so brought the red and white roses together – and also the country at the same time. By saving money from not having to fight battles at home or abroad, the thrifty king could now turn his attention to spending some of that money competing with the Spanish and Portuguese during their Age of Discovery.
One such person who was able to persuade the king to open his coffers was John Cabot. The Italian mariner convinced Henry that he should finance his voyage from Bristol to see if he could find a quicker way to reach the Orient. He didn’t reach the Far East but he did reach North America, and you can read a bit more about his exploits here.
With strong financial backing from local merchants, Bristol was able to start taking advantage of the increasing number of trading opportunities that were opening up. The import of wine was especially lucrative as much of it appears to have passed through ‘unofficial’ channels.
When Henry VIII came to the throne his obsession with finding a wife who would give him a male heir, resulted in the monasteries being absolved including St Augustine’s Abbey, which in a way had a beneficial outcome because it then became a Cathedral, and Bristol’s status rose from that of a town to a city.
Henry VIII was succeeded by his daughter Elizabeth I, who has gone down in history as one of the country’s most successful monarchs. Her reign was successful for several reasons, but none of them meant prosperity for Bristol Castle. Her reign never produced an heir, and as her life, and the Tudor dynasty, started to come to an end, so was the useful life of Bristol Castle.
The main claimant to the vacant English crown was James VI of Scotland. A member of the Stuart (Stewart) family, he inherited the title of James I of England through his grandmother, Mary Tudor (who was Henry VIII’s elder sister). Successfully managing to combine the Tudor Rose with the Thistle of Scotland he proclaimed himself King of Great Britain and Ireland.
Religion had been starting to cause problems throughout Europe with the Protestant Reformation movement challenging the Pope and traditional Catholicism. In England, Henry VIII’s disagreement with the Pope over divorcing Catherine of Aragon meant that England was now a Protestant country, but not all of Britain was. Fortunately for those who followed the same path, James I was a protestant Scot.
Nevertheless, religion was a real bone of contention, especially in Ireland where James was largely responsible for bringing about the Plantation (planting of Protestants) of Ulster, and in England he was the target of Guy Fawkes and his Catholic accomplices in the Gunpowder Plot. That said, it wasn’t religion that had the most profound consequences for the House of Stuart, but the King’s contempt for parliament.
If James had a few differences of opinion with parliament, then his successor, Charles I, had even more. He firmly believed in the ‘Divine Right of Kings’, and his high-handed stubborn streak didn’t help either. The result ended in one of the most turbulent episodes in British history.
Parliament’s patience with the king eventually snapped, and on 23rd October 1642 the gloves came off at the Battle of Edgehill. The Civil War was under way.
In December Bristol opened its arms – and the city gates – to Colonel Essex and the Parliamentarians. He may have strengthened the defences, but as it turned out he did little else for the local population. Apparently, he was more interested in drinking, gambling and feeding his face than anything else, and was replaced by Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes.
Things were no different back in the 17th century than they are now in some ways: The country was divided between those who supported the King and those who supported parliament, and in Bristol it was just the same. Local Royalists hatched a plan against the colonel and his men, but the plot failed and two of the leaders were hanged.
Events further afield were having a bit more success for the King’s men, and the following year Charles decided to launch an attack on London from three separate directions – from the North, the South-West and Wales. The plan would have meant leaving towns like Hull, Plymouth, Gloucester and Bristol in Parliamentary hands, and so it was decided to try and re-take them first.
On 23rd July 1643 Prince Rupert, along with 20,000 soldiers, attacked Bristol on behalf of the King. For the first two days his forces were repelled, but the third day brought success, and Fiennes was forced to negotiate an honourable withdrawal. Rupert allowed the Parliamentarians to leave ‘under arms’, but went back on his word to spare the locals from looting and pillaging, with many people finding themselves kicked out of their homes and onto the street.
However, events elsewhere in the country were starting to change the course of the war. The telling blow was when Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax crushed the Royalists at Naseby on 14th June 1645.
As far as the West Country was concerned, the reckoning was that if Bristol could be taken, then support in the rest of the region would start to disintegrate, and so at the end of August Fairfax surrounded the city and demanded its surrender. Rupert refused to concede, and at 2am on the morning of 10th September, Fairfax launched his attack.
As the Parliamentarians got close to the castle gates, and with fires burning and casualties mounting, Rupert, like Colonel Fiennes before him, started to negotiate an honourable withdrawal. Watching from a distance was Oliver Cromwell who “Fearing to see so famous a city burnt to ashes before our faces” granted Rupert and his supporters leave under arms.
On 15th March 1646 Cornish Royalists surrendered to Fairfax, and on 5th May the King himself surrendered at Southwell in Nottinghamshire, but tellingly, not to the Parliamentary army, but to a Scottish army who supported them. King Charles had been defeated but the Civil War was far from over.
Charles had been knocked down but he hadn’t been knocked out, and the reason he was able to get back up off the canvas was because there was a reluctance to finish him off.
Neither Parliament nor Cromwell’s army wanted to see the King deposed, they just wanted him to change his ways and abide by the will of parliament, but if they thought that Charles would now be ready to compromise, they couldn’t have been more wrong.
The King realised that there was a chink in Parliament’s armour: The politicians and the military men may have had the same aim, but they didn’t sing from the same hymn sheet, and so he decided to drive a wedge between them.
The Civil War was not just a war in England but throughout the British Isles, and although Cromwell had enlisted the support of the Scots, the King was still Scottish and he used that connection to get them to change sides: To do that he signed an agreement called the Engagement, which in practical terms meant that the Scots would invade England and restore him to the throne in exchange for the establishment of Presbyterianism in England – and so it was seconds out for round two.
The Second Civil War started in May 1648 with several Royalist victories, but Cromwell’s army hit back with a sucker punch at Preston in August. With the army and Parliament still at loggerheads, the victory for the New Model Army at Preston amounted to a military coup, and it was Oliver Cromwell who was now running the show.
The politicians had been in disarray for some time but were still keen on making a deal with the King. Cromwell and his supporters on the other hand had run out of patience and so the Long Parliament (as the prevailing parliament was called) was dissolved in favour of a new compliant Rump Parliament. The first job of this new parliament was to put the King on trial for high treason.
This High Court of Justice, or Kangaroo Court if you were a Royalist, delivered the knockout blow with the inevitable guilty verdict, and on 30th January 1649 Charles was taken to the Palace of Whitehall and executed outside the Banqueting House.
On 17th March, the Rump Parliament passed an act abolishing the monarchy making England a Commonwealth and Free State, and at the same time also proclaiming itself ‘supreme authority of the nation’.
On the battlefield, Cromwell still had matters to attend to in Ireland and Scotland and it was in Scotland that Charles I’s son was proclaimed King of England as Charles II. On September 3rd Cromwell put an end to any thoughts that Charles had of ruling over England (at least for now) by confronting and defeating him at Worcester, leaving the new king disappearing into the woodwork – or at least into an oak tree at Boscobel.
Without a King, Britain had a void to fill and Cromwell was duly asked to fill it. He refused to be crowned King on the grounds that it was God’s will that the monarchy was abolished, but on 16th December 1653 he was sworn in as ‘Lord Protector’ of the Commonwealth.
The country’s new direction was to become the end of Bristol Castle. The following year a report was commissioned to decide on the fate of a number of castles around the country, one of them being Bristol.
On 28th December 1654 Oliver Cromwell signed the death warrant for one of England’s largest castles that had been here for 500 years, and within a matter of weeks there was hardly anything left of it to see.