Queen of the castle
Nick Churchill looks at the truth behind the myth of the taking of Corfe Castle
Published in February ’17
As enduring myths go, that of Lady Mary Bankes – and her valiant defence of Corfe Castle during the Civil War – has proved remarkably resilient. Every bit as dramatic as the ruins of her former home, the popular story is one of aristocratic bravery, proof positive that stiff upper lips were never the sole preserve of the British male – ‘courage even above her sex’ as the eulogy written by her son Sir Ralph reads on her memorial plaque in St Martin’s Church, Ruislip.
Legend has it that having twice before fought off her Parliamentarian besiegers, Lady Mary was forced to surrender Corfe Castle but only after she had been betrayed by one of her own officers. In defiance she threw the family treasure down the well and as she left the Castle, in honour of her bravery she was handed the keys, which are now displayed in the library at Kingston Lacy, the new family home built by Sir Ralph after the Restoration.
The story is in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, and has passed into the public imagination and inspired sculptures and paintings, countless articles and in the modern age ‘Brave Dame Mary Bankes’ even has her own Facebook page, albeit unattended. The tale is a cornerstone of the undeniably compelling narrative used by the National Trust to tell the story of Corfe Castle, which it inherited in 1983 along with the rest of the Bankes Estate including Kingston Lacy where bronze statues by Carlo Marchetti of Lady Mary, her husband and their liege Charles I stand on the first floor loggia; while in the Drawing Room hangs her portrait by Henry Bone, in which she is shown clasping the keys.
The origins of the story can perhaps be found in a history of Corfe Castle published in 1853 by Lady Mary’s descendant George Bankes and subsequently embroidered by another relative Louisa Hawtrey whose Brave Dame Mary was published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in a widely distributed volume jointly credited to George Bankes and Lady Mary Bankes. It fictionalises the first siege but makes only passing mention of Lady Mary’s valiant defence of the castle in the second.
So, if we are to pick arch fact from artful fantasy, what do we know?
Corfe Castle had been bought in 1635 by Mary’s husband Sir John Bankes, Attorney General and Chief Justice to King Charles I, and by 1642 with civil war in the air it offered a safer haven than London, but with Sir John ordered to be at the King’s side, it was left to Mary to establish the household at Corfe with a small garrison.
In an article published in History Today*, Dr Patrick Little, Senior Research Fellow at The History of Parliament, references the royalist newsbook Mercurius Rusticus, edited by Bankes family friend Bruno Ryves, which reported in May 1643 the garrison was no more than five strong and – commanded by Lady Mary and with the aid of the maids – managed to repel a party of sailors sent out from Poole to demand the surrender of four cannons simply by discharging one of them.
However, alerted to the intentions of Parliamentarian forces under Sir Walter Erle of Charborough Park to make a more concerted attack, within weeks the Corfe garrison had been reinforced by 80 men. This force mounted a spirited defence of the castle against Erle’s men whom, according to Mercurius Rusticus, he had bribed and plied with drink on the understanding that ‘drunkenness makes some men fight like lions that being sober would run like hares’.
It was reported that with her daughters and five soldiers ‘by heaving over stones and hot embers, they repelled the rebels, and kept them from climbing their ladders’. The defenders then profited from the two cannons left behind by Erle who retreated first to Poole, a Parliamentary stronghold, and then Southampton.
Following a decisive victory at Naseby, Parliament again turned its attention to Royalist strongholds in the south and towards the end of 1645 troops under Colonel John Bingham, Governor of Poole, laid siege to Corfe Castle for a second time. Following weeks of stubborn resistance, on the night of 26 February a party of 120 musketeers were let in through a sally gate by Royalist turncoat Lt-Col Thomas Pitman. They seized the keep and in the morning admitted the main force. In a letter to the Speaker of the House of Commons written soon after, Bingham attributed the fall of Corfe Castle without bloodshed to ‘God’s great providence’, but he makes no mention of Lady Mary Bankes. This surely begs the question: was she even there?
Records from the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding with Delinquents, the body that determined the fines to be paid by leading Royalists in order to recover their confiscated estates, show a pass granted by William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House, on 16 July 1645 for Lady Mary, two of her daughters and four servants to travel to London in order to compound. The case was deferred several times and not resolved for some years, but the pass is clear evidence that she left Corfe Castle several months before the second siege began.
Held in the Bankes Archive at Dorset History Centre, Lady Mary’s private accounts books provide many clues as to her movements during the period. Sir John Bankes died in Oxford on 28 December 1644, the same date that receipts are entered in the accounts for the sale of horses and plate, also in Oxford. The section for expenditure includes items headed ‘When I came away’ including payments to college cooks, butlers and grooms at Oxford. As well as recording payments made at Ruislip and Stanwell, then in Middlesex, and Bockmer in Buckinghamshire, the accounts show costs incurred during her dealings with Parliament during August 1645.
‘It’s fascinating how we’re beginning to learn more about these events now that information is starting to trickle out from the Bankes Archive, but the keys are interesting because there is no actual provenance and no mention of them in her Will,’ says noted Poole historian Jenny Oliver.
In the days following his victory at Corfe Castle Bingham wrote to Parliament three times without mentioning Lady Bankes, her family, or the keys.
‘It’s not exactly definitive, but you would have thought that if he had encountered the spirited defence we’ve since been led to believe was led by Lady Mary, then Bingham would have mentioned it.’
On 27 November 1645, with the siege of Corfe Castle recently underway, the committee declared Lady Bankes should not be allowed to compound until the garrison surrendered and, from her accounts, she seems to have spent the Christmas of 1645 at Bockmer, the home of her daughter Alice, before being summoned to appear before the committee on 3 March 1646, four days after the fall of Corfe Castle. Over the next two months she paid for servants to bring her things from Purbeck and for her children to travel to London from Blandford where they were most likely staying at Damory Court, the Ryves family home.
‘It seems to me very unlikely that she would jeopardise the negotiations with Parliament by heading back to Corfe Castle to be there for the second siege,’ adds Jenny Oliver. ‘But there’s no need to denigrate Lady Mary, more the way the story has been romanticised since. I think she was acting to protect herself and her family and possibly the estate as far as it was possible.’
Such evidence, circumstantial as it is, has caused the National Trust to query the accepted version of the story and further research is now
‘We hadn’t really questioned the story until we began to look at her household accounts in detail,’ says Pam White, the Trust’s learning and interpretation officer for Corfe Castle. ‘We know she was sending servants all over the place in the weeks leading up to the final siege, but in the final week of the siege the accounts show she stops her buying and selling and her handwriting changes from being incredibly neat to being quite scruffy. That certainly suggests a woman under stress.
‘But there is nothing in the accounts to suggest Lady Bankes was resident in the castle at any time during the second siege. Her bills for ‘diet’, which includes a lot of ‘beare’, are similar to the rest of the year and she continues to pay wages to her servants, horse meal, letters from France, ‘the church clark’ and in the week beginning 17 January, ‘coach hire to buckmore’ (Bockmer). As the siege finishes she pays ‘nurses and servants at buckmore’, which suggests she was with Alice.’
In June 1646, a letter from the Dorset Committee of Sequestration to its superior authority in London sought guidance on whether Lady Bankes should be considered to have acted against Parliament since the death of her husband ‘from which time the greatest part of her residence has been near London as we are informed’. The matter was settled the following spring when fines were set at £2600 and in December she was granted a special pardon excusing all acts of war and treason committed after May 1642 on payment of a fine of £455.
When Lady Mary Bankes died in 1661, almost exactly a year after the Restoration, her Will made provision for various family items – some of which had been rescued from Corfe Castle – to be given to her children. Its keys though are conspicuous by their absence.
‘The accounts have thrown up far more questions than answers,’ concludes Pam White, ‘and it would appear that there is much more to Lady Bankes than the ‘Brave Dame Mary’ who defended Corfe Castle so valiantly.’
*History Today, February 2015: ‘Lady Bankes defends Corfe Castle’