The Castle (15)
On a bright morning in March, 1646, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s army rounded the bend of the road where the Prince of Wales’ carriage had staggered to an inglorious halt. The army was marching with standards raised, to the sound of pipes and drums. The day was warm, the soldiers were in good humour, victory was in sight. Fairfax rode at the head of the long column on his red roan alongside Colonel Fortescue, his deputy. A surprisingly slender man, Fairfax was without helmet. His striking black hair and dark features had astounded the Cornish men and women who’d peered out of their flimsy dwellings to catch sight of the great general as he passed through Cornwall’s towns. ‘Black Tom! Black Tom!’ they murmured, unsure if he was the devil incarnate or a liberator from a far-off foreign country. Those few who held for Parliament bowed in a show of deference; others simply fell to their knees and prayed to God for deliverance from such evil.
After Fairfax had defeated the Trained Bands in the battle of Launceston, further conflict had been avoided by freeing all prisoners and gifting them a shilling along with an official pass home. The general’s mercy bestowed upon the Roundhead army much needed trust. Truro surrendered without a shot being fired. The way was now clear for Fairfax to secure the south-west for Parliament. Only Pendennis Castle, with its aged and stubborn governor, Sir John Arundel, remained defiant. But ‘Black Tom’, Parliament’s leading general, was in no hurry to lay the fortress to waste. ‘If needs be’, he told his commanders, ‘we’ll starve the old wretch out.’
The last of the long line of soldiers passed the spot where the Prince of Wales’s carriage had come to grief, the drumbeat, pipes and footfall of a thousand men pulsing the leaves and branches at the hillock’s crest. The carriage had long since disappeared – dragged into the countryside by a band of wreckers who promptly dismantled the royal vehicle piece by piece, selling it off as gaudy tat. All that remained of that fateful morning was a small grave where the chest had been buried, along with the footman’s burial mound, hidden beneath the tall grass near the threshold of the forest.
Fairfax was tired - eager to reach Falmouth. The small town with its deep harbour would play an important role in policing the Cornish coast. Even now Vice Admiral Batten’s Parliamentary ships were in full sail from Portsmouth, ready to impound any Royalist vessels that might be lurking. The slippery young Prince of Wales had already made good his escape – a figurehead for King Charles’ exiled supporters to rally around. Parliament needed to deal a blow against these aristocratic meddlers. Any sign of foreign troops making ready to land on English soil would be ruthlessly dealt with.
A mile from Falmouth a scout appeared galloping from ahead. He pulled up sharply, his grey mare rearing in excited anticipation of the news its rider was about to relay. ‘General, I have received reports that the market square is now filled with local men and women.’
‘No sire. They await your arrival, ready to pay you homage.’
Fairfax nodded and ordered the soldier to re-join his scouting party. Pacify the local population with acts of kindness and order will follow was Fairfax’s edict. The Cornish, he knew, knelt willingly for the king. They were a strange, far-away people with uncultured thoughts that needed to be turned. Cornwall was a place of witchcraft too, so he’d been told, in which ravens were hung from trees and the ghosts of shipwrecked sailors wailed on the night sands. But the general also knew that poor men were easily swayed with promises of peace and prosperity. Fairfax was in no doubt: the castle would surrender within the week.
The information the scout delivered to Fairfax was not entirely correct. Only a small number of the folk gathered in the marketplace were prepared to pay homage to the famous general. Others remained in a state of anxiety, assured through months of rumour that Satan himself was about to enter the town. The tiny brick-built cottages that stood near the wharf were either deserted or boarded up, the inhabitants cowering inside. There was no route for them to the safety of the castle. After the last Royalist soldiers in the town had fled behind the castle’s walls, the drawbridge remained firmly closed to those souls who stood begging for shelter. For some the prospect of murder, rape and the foulest torture at the hands of Fairfax’s army was too much. They too fell to their knees begging God’s mercy, smearing their faces with dirt in order to validate their faith.
The road leading to town was a steep descent. As the troop marched their drums and pipes could be clearly heard in the town square, causing much consternation. Bethsany, having arrived at market early to sell freshly slaughtered chickens, beckoned Maben towards her. She was sitting on a wooden crate, and positioned the nervous boy at her legs, tucking him into her long skirt. He covered his ears as the army approached; Bethsany comforted him as best she could. Around the perimeter of the square those too old or too frail to leave their squalid dwellings gawped or else offered a hesitant greeting as the scouting party appeared. Do with us what you will they seemed to say; we stand helpless before you.
Fairfax had given strict orders that the populace was to be treated with a reasonable hand. He sat graciously in his saddle allowing himself the pleasure of a gentle nod to those who knelt as he came into view. His soldiers were ordered to confront only those naer-do-wells who carried weaponry. As they arrived on the square, the crowd was made to fall back, creating a wide area before the stalls where the general could make his address. Fairfax brought his horse to rest and observed from his saddle. When the squeals and murmurs of the crowd subsided, he began.
He told those who could hear that his mercy towards them was honest and in good faith. Only delinquents who continued to bear arms would be dealt with harshly. The populace should go about its normal business, offering service to the occupying soldiers where it was needed. As he said these things the crowd stared at him in wonder, as if he were a divine being from a far-off magical realm called London.
Having pacified the townsfolk Fairfax rode the short distance to the wharf. Fisherwomen were gutting the day’s catch; men were dragging barrels of pilchard onto dry land. The general was handed a telescope. He looked out into the bustling harbour, saw to the far left of the approaches the smaller castle of St Mawes. Pendennis Castle, which sat opposite, was obscured by masts and rigging from a cluster of tall ships moored in the shallows.
‘The mouth of it will need to be tempered’ Fairfax said, indicating the harbour entrance.
‘Ten or so ships should do the trick, sire’ said Colonel Fortescue. Fairfax gently nodded and handed the scope to Fortescue as if a nagging problem had finally been solved.
The troop rode and marched on, following the winding thoroughfare which in turn led to the castle road: past ale houses and stinking fishmongers wedged along the lapping harbour waters; past vendors and drunkards who had collapsed in the slippery alleyways. Then the long column passed the bend near the small church, before the narrow road evened itself into open green land. Another scout galloped towards parliament’s foremost general. ‘Sire, the Royalist garrison has set flame to Arwenack House.’ Fairfax dug in his heels and cantered towards the building, seeing for the first time the magnificent manor house that looked out onto the mouth of the harbour, and which had been marked as a headquarters for the occupying army. In the distance Fairfax’s advance troops were chasing members of the Pendennis garrison up the steep climb towards the castle. Blasts of carbine could be heard as well as the desperate shrieks of the fallen.
Fairfax dismounted. The fire was blazing in the manor’s west wing. His men had arrived just in time. He looked on as soldiers carried pails of harbour water to the scene, drenching the flames before they were able to spread further.
‘Another hour and we would have been too late’ Fortescue said.
‘I sense the governor’s hand in this’ said Fairfax. His officers gathered round him as the smoking stack began to smoulder and troops began sifting through Royalist debri.
‘The road ahead to the castle has been cleared, sire’ said Fortescue. ‘All stragglers have been dealt with. Shall we prepare for siege ?’
Fairfax considered this. As much as he would like to make the old governor pay for his treachery, he kept an even temper. ‘Not yet’ he said. ‘I will allow Governor Arundel some time to reflect on his actions before offering terms of surrender. Only when I have received the old man’s answer and taken the rub of him shall we make our move.’