The Siege of Pembroke – Summer 1648

The Siege took place during the Civil War of 1642-1649

The opponents in this war were:

King Charles 1st and his Royalist supporters known as the Cavaliers, against The Parliament of England and Wales with its army known as the Roundheads (shape of their helmets)

Pembroke in the First phase of Civil War

Pembroke Town and Castle led by its Mayor, John Poyer, supported Parliament in its fight against King Charles 1st and his royalist supporters. John was a large burly man, rumbustious, and temperamental who, unfortunately, created a large number of enemies for himself in his relatively short life. He was also known to like his ale. John had made a fortune from trading in cloth.

Over the next few years of the war Pembrokeshire was chaotic with first the Parliamentarians and then the Royalists gaining the upper hand. John Poyer was in the thick of it all, manipulating, bribing and fighting to advance the parliamentary cause. Many of his actions were high handed and sometimes barely legal.

In October 1643, the mayor and corporation of Pembroke issued a declaration of loyalty to the King but John Poyer led a mob to seize Pembroke Castle for Parliament. After overthrowing the Royalist mayor, he became the military governor of Pembroke with the rank of Colonel in the Parliamentary army.

Pembroke Castle and town, under the command of Poyer and General Rowland Laugharne, quickly became a serious thorn in the side of royalist forces in Wales. So serious was the threat that the local royalist commanders declared that when they captured John Poyer they would put him in a barrel pierced by nails and roll him downhill into Milford Haven. John Poyer merely shrugged and commented that they would have to catch him first!

Introduction to the Second Phase of the Civil War 1646

In 1646 the King had lost the war and was jailed in the Tower of London. Parliament now governed England and Wales. It quickly became obvious to the people that this Parliament was corrupt. Cromwell himself was later to say “this Parliament is self-seeking and self-serving, being both corrupt and venal in every way, having no care for the people”.

Parliament began to make plans to disband its army. This created a great deal of concern as many of the soldiers had not been paid for several months. Others were furious about the increase in taxes imposed by the parliamentary government.

The gulf between Parliament and the Army widened through 1647 into early 1648. Parliament wriggled out of paying any arrears of pay and ordered all units of the Army to stand down and disband.

In February 1648 John Poyer was furious when he heard the news and began making speeches to his soldiers and the townspeople, attacking Parliament's decision to disband the army. When Parliament discovered that Poyer was talking of rebellion against Parliament they sent Colonel Fleming to replace him as the governor of Pembroke Castle.

Second Phase of Civil War 1648

Poyer refused to give up the castle and instead sent a letter to Parliament demanding the then huge payment of £1,000 (over £1,000,000 today) in wage arrears for his men. Colonel Fleming offered £200 (£200,000), but this was rejected. Other soldiers based in South Wales, who had heard about Poyer's actions, began to head for Pembroke to give him their assistance. Poyer's supporters included the two most senior army officers in South Wales, the now Major-General Rowland Laugharne and Colonel Rice Powell.

On the 10th April 1648 Poyer openly declared for the King.

Parliament now realised that they had a major rebellion on their hands. Pembroke became the springboard for a new Royalist rebellion which soon spread throughout Britain. South Wales was in revolt. Disaffected parliamentary troops, who had not been paid nor recognized for their achievements, gathered around Poyer and Laugharne. John Poyer had led an army through South Wales and achieved great success in taking control of huge areas of South and West Wales.

Pembroke had started the second phase of the Civil War!

The Siege of Pembroke 1648

When Parliament heard about John Poyer's success in taking much of South Wales into the control of the rebel troops now supporting the King they sent Colonel Thomas Horton with 3,000 Roundhead troops to deal with the rebellion. 

General Laugharne and some 8,000 rebels left Pembroke and engaged Horton's parliamentary army at St. Fagans in Glamorgan on 4th May 1648. Although outnumbered, Horton's experienced and well-disciplined Parliamentary army was able to defeat Laugharne's poorly armed soldiers. Over 200 of Laugharne's men were killed and another 3,000 were taken prisoner. Laugharne, and what was left of his army, managed to escape back to Pembroke.

Parliament realised that the rebellion had to be put down quickly and decided to send Lieutenant General Oliver Cromwell and five regiments to retake South and West Wales. Cromwell arrived at Tenby on 15th May 1648 and, leaving Colonel Horton to deal with the Tenby garrison, moved on to Pembroke to deal with Poyer and General Laugharne. On 21st May Colonel Powell was forced to surrender Tenby.

With great bravado, Poyer swore that if Cromwell came to Pembroke he would "...give him a field and show him fair play; and will be the first man that shall charge against the Ironsides"; and saying that he (Poyer) had "a back of steel and a breast of iron if he dare encounter him

Pembroke’s Castle and Town were considered to be one of the strongest fortresses in Britain and Cromwell had expressed this in his correspondence.

General Cromwell did not have canons large enough to break through walls that are in some places 19 feet thick. Nor did he have besiegers' ladders that could deal with the high walls. Attempts at storming the castle failed and so Cromwell was forced to wait and attempt to starve the rebels into submission.

Having set up camp immediately south of Pembroke Cromwell began what was to be the two-month siege of a town that he described as "equal to any in England and well provided with all things". Naval guns, brought ashore, were mounted at Monkton and on the north side of the River where they could fire on the castle and the town.

Cromwell launched fireballs and grenades over the town walls to burn the resident’s wooden houses down. Nevertheless, the defenders managed to retain command and mounted regular attacks outside of the Town and Castle walls against the enemy. In return, several storming parties were led against the town by Parliamentarian forces, but these attacks failed to make significant inroads.

After six and a half weeks of siege Cromwell’s Roundhead soldiers had only bread to eat and were cold and wet, camped out in the fields opposite the walls of the town and castle with the river and tidal salt marshes preventing them from making easy attacks against the walls.

However after eight weeks of siege, on the 10th July 1648, two great heavy siege guns carried on sailing barges arrived on the high tide. One of the great guns moored on the River by the bridge at Northgate and fired one shot, destroying the Northgate.

John Poyer and the soldiers realised that resistance was useless, as these great guns could blow the castle and town walls down. Oliver Cromwell immediately sent an ultimatum to the commanders promising to spare the people and soldiers of Pembroke if they surrendered to him. The garrison, trapped in the castle and town – now isolated and apparently forgotten by the Royalist high command – did surrender on 11th July 1648. It was the arrival of the siege guns, and not mythical stories about water pipes being cut, that forced the surrender of Pembroke.

Death of John Poyer

After the surrender of Pembroke, John Poyer, General Powell and Colonel Laugharne, were taken to London under close arrest and eventually tried for treason against Parliament. All three men were condemned to death, but the Council of State decided on leniency, whereby only one man was required to die. So it was ordered that lots should be drawn to decide which prisoner would be executed.

Three pieces of paper were prepared – on two of them were the words 'Life given by God' while the other was blank. The story goes that the prisoner’s guards refused to make the three men draw lots out of respect for their brave support of Parliament in the first phase of the war. Instead a child handed the three pieces of paper to the prisoners. John Poyer drew the blank paper and he declared “Son est contra me” – 'Fate is against me'.

Colonel Poyer was executed by firing squad in Covent Garden, London on 25th April 1649.

Destruction of Pembroke's Defences

Cromwell decreed that Pembroke’s defences should be destroyed, or "slighted". Sections of the town wall were demolished while, at the Castle, charges of gunpowder were placed in each of the towers forming the south front, (next to the road), blowing out the towers' external faces. These were repaired in 1928 -1938.