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Siege of Lathom House

The Siege of Lathom House was a military confrontation between Parliamentary Army and a Royalist stronghold in Lancashire. It lasted from late February to late May of 1644, when the siege was lifted.

Background

A loyal Royalist, James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, the lord at Lathom House was ordered by Charles I to fortify the Isle of Man against a possible Scottish invasion, and then on to the northern campaign. His wife, Charlotte de la Tremoüille was left in charge of what turned out to be the last remaining Royalist stronghold in Lancashire. Thomas Fairfax saw Stanley's absence as an opportunity to strengthen the Long Parliament's position in Lancashire and set out to conquer Lathom House. Immediately after the fall of Warrington, the Roundheads requested that the countess acknowledge the parliament and surrender her house, but she refused on the grounds that doing so would dishonour her husband. But she offered to limit herself to defending her home, and this postponed further attacks on her position.

The siege

When Fairfax arrived at Lathom House in February, the countess had made every effort to conceal the strength of the castle's fortifications. Fairfax demanded that the countess surrender Lathom House to him. She asked for a week to consider his offer, and then insisted that it was only appropriate that he visit her at Lathom House for further negotiations. He was received as an honored guest, but the entire household categorically rejected his terms for surrendering. He gave her two more days to consider her situation. The emissary sent two days later was scornfully dismissed.

The siege began with 2,000 Parliamentary soldiers, 500 on horse, and 1500 on foot; against a garrison of 300. The fortifications of Lathom House consisted of:

  • Outer walls and embankments six feet thick
  • An 8-yard moat
  • 9 towers, each with six cannon, three pointing in either direction, and the Eagle Tower providing an excellent overview of the battlefield.

In addition, the castle was at the lowest point in the middle of an open expanse that allowed excellent views of the enemy's activities. Lady Charlotte had assembled a militia of seasoned marksmen who were able to inflict significant losses by sniping.

John Seacome, historian of the House of Stanley wrote in the 18th century:

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...upon a flat, upon a moorish, springy, and spumous ground ; was at the time of the siege encompassed by a strong wall of two yards thick. Upon the wall were nine towers flanking each other, and in every tower were six pieces of ordnance, that played three the one way and three the other. Within the wall was a moat, eight yards wide and two yards deep; upon the brink of the moat, between the wall and the graff, was a strong row of palisadoes surrounding the whole, and, to add to these securities, there was a high tower, called the Eagle Tower, in the midst of the house, sur rounding (surmounting?) all the rest ; and the gatehouse was also a strong and high building, with a strong. tower on each side of it; and in the entrance to the first court, upon the top of these towers, were placed the best and choicest marksmen, who had been accustomed to attend the Earl in his field sports, with their fowling-pieces, which they levelled at the enemy, marking particularly the officers wherever they appeared in their trenches. Nature seemed to have formed the house for a stronghold. The situation of the house might be compared to the palm of a man's hand-flat in the middle and covered with rising ground around it, so that during the siege the enemy was never able to raise a battery against it, or to make a single practicable breach in the wall. The works of the besiegers formed a line of circumvallation drawn round about the house at the distance of 60 or 100 or 200 yards from the wall, as best suited the ground, consisting of an open trench, a yard of ditch, and a yard of turf, with eight sconces raised in such places as might annoy the besieged in the sally, directis lateribus, and in some places staked and palisadoed.[Memoirs; containing a genealogical and historical account of the ancient and honourable house of Stanley, from the Conquest to the death of James, Earl of Derby in the year 1735; as also a full description of the Isle of Man, &c. SEACOME. John 2 pt. Liverpool: Printed by A[dam] Saddler, [1741.] 4o. {139.c.23. } ]
}}

The fortifications sustained continuous cannon and mortar fire with minimal damage; in addition, the Royalists were able to launch several successful sorties to disrupt Roundhead efforts to set up shooting positions. As a result, Parliamentary forces were unable to establish any major artillery positions against the castle, and the army refused to replenish those that were lost or spiked during the sorties. Morale among the Roundheads also suffered greatly as the besieged shot soldiers and engineers on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, Fairfax persisted in demanding that Lady Charlotte surrender to his forces, going so far as to obtain a letter from Lord Stanley asking for safe passage for her. She refused to surrender under any terms, rebuking messengers in increasingly disdainful tones.

After one particularly audacious sortie in late April that destroyed several Roundhead positions, Fairfax declared a day of fasting and prayer in his camp. One of the chaplains invoked the following verse from Jeremiah 50:14:

Put yourselves in array against Babylon on every side: all ye that bend the bow, shoot at her, spare no arrows: for she hath sinned against the LORD.
When a messenger from Colonel Rigby of the Roundheads arrived to offer Lady Charlotte an honorable surrender, she threatened to hang him up at the tower gates, then asked him to convey the following while she tore the message:
Carry this answer back to Rigby, and tell that insolent rebel, he shall have neither persons, goods, nor house. When our strength and provisions are spent, we shall find a fire more merciful than Rigby; and then, if the providence of God prevent it not, my goods and house shall burn in his sight; and myself, children, and soldiers, rather than fall into his hands will seal our religion and loyalty in the same flames.

A similar ultimatum issued by Rigby on May 23rd prompted Lady Charlotte to respond: "The mercies of the wicked are cruel .... unless they treated with her lord, they should never take her or any of her friends alive."

The siege was lifted on the night of May 27th as Prince Rupert approached Lathom with thousands of cavalry and infantry. Lady Charlotte and her household departed for the Isle of Man, and in December of 1645 Lathom House was taken and destroyed by parliamentary forces under the command of Colonel Egerton. Knowsley Hall succeeded Lathom House as the principal seat of the Stanley family.

Popular culture

  • The folk-rock band Steeleye Span memorialized the siege in the title song of their album They Called Her Babylon.
  • Stonework reclaimed form the Siege of Lathom House were used in the construction of the Great hall of the nearby 'Lancashire Manor Hotel'.

References

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