Dorset and the English Crown – 1066 to 1688
In the second of his series on the county and the monarchy, David Pilling looks at the years 1066-1688
Published in February ’13
Following the Norman Conquest in 1066, William I established his rule in Dorset as in the rest of the country, and the land was carved up between the Crown and the Church. During the reign of William and his successors Dorset would grow in power and importance until it was one of the richest and most densely populated regions in the kingdom. The history of Dorset from 1066 to the period of the Civil War is both violent and dramatic, and the fortunes of the English monarchy were often tied up with events in the county.
The Normans tightened their grip on Dorset by constructing powerful castles at places like Corfe, Wareham and Dorchester. These castles would play a vital role in military conflicts throughout the medieval era, and were the scene of many bitterly contested sieges. The turbulent reign of King Stephen (1135-54) was remembered as ‘The Anarchy’ by medieval chroniclers, as the King engaged in a savage, long-running war against his cousin, the Empress Maud, for the throne of England. Law and order collapsed in many parts of the country. Dorset was much affected by the general chaos, and the defences of castles such as Corfe, Powerstock, Wareham and Shaftesbury were strengthened. Even religious houses such as the monastery at Abbotsbury were fortified against attack.
Corfe Castle was built during William I’s reign to control the route through the Purbeck Hills, but in 1139 a rebel baron named Baldwin de Redvers seized it on behalf of Maud. This was the signal for other local disaffected barons to declare for the Empress, forcing Stephen to come to Dorset in person to stamp out the flames of rebellion before they could spread. Acting with speed and decisiveness, Stephen reduced Corfe Castle in a long and determined siege. Evidence of the struggle can still be seen today at ‘The Rings’, a series of earthworks that the royal troops constructed outside the castle. They would later be used as a convenient mounting for gun batteries during the Civil War.
After the defeat and exile of Baldwin de Redvers, Corfe remained an important royal stronghold for several hundred years. King John kept his treasure and regalia there and also used it as a prison. Corfe was also the scene of one of the worst crimes of John’s reign. He imprisoned Maud de Braose, wife of a rebellious baron, and her young son William at the castle, and had them deliberately starved to death.
John and his successor, Henry III, made great use of Dorset’s sea-ports in their wars with France. In 1213 John issued frantic orders for cables to be made at Bridport for his fleet, in such haste that the work had to be carried out night and day. In 1224 Henry ordered a great arrest of shipping as a prelude to his invasion of France, and the bailiffs at Poole were ordered to prepare all its vessels for service and impound foreign vessels.
All of this suggests that the coastal towns of Dorset were growing in size and influence. Certainly, by the latter half of the thirteenth century the town of Lyme was strong enough to carry on a private war: in 1265 King Henry was obliged to intervene to halt a murderous feud between the men of Lyme and Dartmouth, which had featured ‘enormous transgressions and homicides’ on both sides. Another localised war occurred in 1321, when Edward II issued orders to the men of the Dorset sea-ports to cease committing homicides, robberies and ship-burnings against the men of Kent and Sussex.
The disturbance in 1265 was probably part of the anarchy of the Baron’s Wars, when Simon de Montfort led a rebellion against the crown. Like the rest of England, Dorset was divided between royalists and rebels. There are glimpses of individual loyalties. The Fine Roll of 1263-64 records a generous money grant to two Dorset knights, Robert Fitz Payn and William de Goviz, due to ‘the praiseworthy service which they rendered to the king, and for the losses they sustained in the king’s service at Lewes in the battle there’. Fitz Payn and Goviz were members of two of the most prominent families of Dorset, and the mention of their honourable service in the Fine Rolls suggests that loyalty to the crown persisted in some parts of the county.
Dorset was also an important staging-point for royal invasions of France. The town of Lyme Regis gained its royal suffix in 1284, after Edward I sheltered his fleet in the harbour. The coastline proved vital during the Hundred Years War with France that broke out in 1337, as Edward III used it to ferry troops back and forth to the continent. Tragically, this meant that Dorset was one of the first parts of England to be hit by the lethal epidemic known as the Black Death, which arrived at Melcombe Regis on a ship from Gascony. Over a third of the population of the county was wiped out and many towns and villages ceased to exist. This did not prevent members of the royal family from creating deer parks at places such as Gillingham and Sherborne, where they amused themselves hunting while people were dying!
As the 14th century wore on, plague-hit Dorset suffered greatly at the hands of the French, and became the target of raids and privateers. The loss of English supremacy in the Channel led to further attacks. Within days of the death of Edward III in 1377 French ships were raiding all along the south coast. A number of towns were burned and destroyed, among them Melcombe, which was so severely damaged the burgesses had to petition the new King, Richard II, for tax relief. By the early 15th century trade and shipping had practically ceased there. The losses and destruction to Dorset ports during this period reflects the general decay of the English war-effort, and the failure of the English crown to secure its possessions in France.
Dorset continued to supply men and ships for further royal campaigns in France, but sea-power played no great role during the brutal civil wars remembered as the Wars of the Roses. The ports in Dorset were largely Yorkist in their sympathies, a fact much appreciated by the Yorkist King Edward IV (1461-83). Early in his reign he made the people of Weymouth a significant grant of £100 to recompense them for losses they had sustained supporting his cause. Lyme received a royal pardon, indicating that it was also a Yorkist town.
Edward’s foe, Queen Margaret of Anjou, was driven by bad weather to land at Weymouth in 1471, but she probably received a cool reception: Weymouth was in receipt of regular financial benefits from Edward. Dorset’s loyalty to the Yorkist regime was again demonstrated when the last Lancastrian claimant, Henry Tudor, decided against landing at Poole during his aborted invasion attempt in 1483. Henry shrewdly guessed that there were too many enemies waiting for him ashore, and sailed back to Brittany.
At first the Tudors paid less attention to Dorset than their Plantagenet predecessors, though Weymouth and Poole were to benefit from Henry VII’s endorsement of John Cabot’s voyage to Newfoundland. Just as Dorset was recovering from the brutal effects of war and plague, fresh disaster hit in the form of the Reformation. Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries led to the closure of the abbeys at Sherborne, Shaftesbury, Milton Abbas, Abbotsbury and Cerne Abbas, and their lands were redistributed to his supporters. Worse was to follow. His daughter, ‘Bloody’ Queen Mary, considered Lyme Regis a ‘heretic town’ and stopped an ancient grant for maintenance of the harbour there, known as the Cobb. A number of local people also suffered for their religious beliefs, such as the ‘Chideock Martyrs’, executed at Dorchester on 4 of July 1594. However, Dorset was still useful to the Crown as a resource of men and ships, and in 1588 eight Dorset ships assisted in the defeat and destruction of the Spanish Armada.
Much of Dorset was controlled by Parliament during the Civil War, but supporters of King Charles I held several key strongholds, notably Sherborne Castle and Corfe Castle. Corfe was held by Lady Bankes, ‘brave Dame Mary’, who held the castle in the teeth of Roundhead assaults for three years before finally being obliged to surrender. There were also fierce skirmishes at places like Poole, Holmebridge, Blandford and Dorchester. The royalist military presence in Dorset was only erased after years of bloody fighting, reflecting the residual loyalty of the people to the crown.
Post-Restoration Dorset continued to be the scene of key historical events, such as the failed Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. In the following year a group of conspirators met at Charborough House to plan the overthrow of ‘the tyrant race of Stuarts'; hosted by Thomas Erle, MP for Wareham since 1678, and Deputy Lieutenant for Dorset since 1685, the meeting was effectively the start of the build up to the ‘Invitation to William’, signed by the Immortal Seven, which resulted in the Glorious Revolution and the overthrow of James II in 1688 by a union of Parliamentarians and the Dutch stadtholder William III of Orange-Nassau.
Today the crumbling ruins of ancient strongholds such as Corfe Castle serve as grim reminders of some of the bloodier episodes in English history, but just as importantly, the importance of Dorset and its people to English kings down the centuries.