By Alan Roberts
During the Civil War, the stronghold at Ashby-de-la-Zouch was the most troublesome royalist garrison in the county, a real thorn in the side of Parliament. This formidable stronghold was the seat of the Hastings family. Colonel Henry Hastings, the earl of Huntington, the leader of the East midlands forces, had executed the Kings commission of array in Leicester on 18th June 1642, swearing at the very start of hostilities that he was the Kings body and soul.
Hastings gained early support from the more enthusiastic royalist clergy in the region when the cavaliers and the rest of the soldiers joining with the rude multitude, and about 24 parsons in canonical coats, well horsed rode into Leicester with loud exclamations in support of the king. Such provocative activities soon led to his being identified as a notorious delinquent, and to his impeachment in the Commons for high treason on August 13th, 1642.
Later that same year Hastings, unflatteringly described as that noble or rather notable thief adding to the accolade of Rob Carrier (from his plundering of carriers) carried out a series of raids in the county, paying special attention to the clergy. The report from Hinckley records that Hastings with a small force from Belvoir-Worton house, coursed about the country as far as Dunton and Lutterworth and took near upon a hundred of the clergymen and others, and carried them prisoners threatening to hang all them that should take the Parliaments Covenant. [Nichols III, Part ii, Appendix, pg 33]
By January 1644, with Colonel Isham Perkins now appointed governor, Ashby is described by the royalist Richard Symonds in his famous notebook as my lord’s chief garrison with an estimated garrison of around 400 men [Harleian MS 986 fo. 96].
But the tide was slowly turning against the king’s forces; by August that same year Ashby and Newark were the only two royalist garrisons still holding out against Parliament in the east midlands. In November 1644 there are reports of the blocking up of Ashby and of increasingly desperate raids by the garrison to obtain provisions and levies from the surrounding villages.
In February 1645, for example, one expedition, commanded by Colonel Hastings went out to get hay but was surprised by Captain Temple the high sheriff of the county who got between them and Ashby in the van forcing Hastings men to flee, losing 40 of them taken prisoners, 60 horse arms and all their hay.
A parliamentary newsletter, the Perfect Diurnal of November 14th, 1644 describes Ashby’s defences: the enemy are very strong, and their works good; they have vaults under the ground, through which they can go from one fort to another at their pleasure; provisions they have good store; hung beef plenty round about their kitchen within, and have lately been killing and salting of more.
The newsletter goes on to describe a nest of malignants or royalist sympathisers, a motley horde of rogues and renegade clergymen, as debased wicked wretches there as if they had been raked out of hell, men who would cozen and cheat one another, steal one another’s horses and ride out and sell them.
The garrison had even developed their own devilish style of greeting one another, if they affirm or deny a thing it is usual to do it with the saying, the devil suck my soul through a tobacco pipe no wonder, they have three malignant priests there such as will drink and roar, and domineer and swear as well as ever a Cabb of them all.
With such a large, unsettled population (estimated by the king’s quartermaster Richard Symonds at the end of May 1645, to have swollen to around 600 men, including soldiers from outlying villages and other fallen garrisons) there was naturally some squabbling and religious conflict ‘there are also many Irish there, who have lately made a new fort, a very strong work called the Irish fort; who have been bold upon some clashing between them and those that profess themselves to be Protestants in Ashby garrison.’ [ Nichols, pg 39, Symonds notebook, Harleian MS 911, cited in Nichols, pg 45].
On September 27th, 1645, the newsheet, Mercurius Veridicus records that Ashby is closely besieged the town is much visited with the sickness; and in the garrison or fort is said to be not above 60 men. The town continued to suffer reverses and night raids. A few weeks later, on Saturday night, 31st January 1646 about 12 of the clock, came a party of horse and dragoons into the town of Ashby, plundered the mercers, saddlers, and cutlers shops, and the jews of their horses. No gentlemen taken and few or none other. A week later, on February 7th a party of 80 horse and 40 dragoons under the command of Major Meeres is reported to have entered Ashby by night, suddenly surprised the sentinels, fell-in at the turnpike, broke the chain and entered the town, took near 100 of the enemies horse took store of arms and more pillage, released divers prisoners and some countrymen, whom the enemy had taken for ransoms and returned to Leicester without the least molestation. [Nichols, pp 40, 64-65]
The fall of the Ashby garrison on 2nd March 1646 was heralded by Vicars a great mercy and mighty preservation of the peace and tranquillity of those adjacent parts about it, for which let God have due praise and glory. The conditions attached to the surrender were indeed remarkably generous, too good conditions indeed, for such a desperate and wicked Rob-carryer as Hastings was, but that the kingdom may be glad to be rid of such wretches. Although provisions were made for dismantling the defences, Hastings and his brother and Colonel Perkins were given protection and allowed to keep their estates unsequestrated. In fact, governor Perkins is included on a list of 18 royalists who compounded for their estates on the slighting of Ashby. [Nichols, pg 66, Calendar of the Committee for Compounding, Part I, pg 112].
Notes on the Remains of the Castle
The castle has various earthworks including the Mount House that stands to the east of the castle, a fortified outpost providing separate accommodation for Irish troops, to avoid contact and possible religious conflict between them and the Protestant members of the garrison. Underground passages were dug to improve communications from the kitchen to the Mount House and to join the kitchen with Hastings Tower.
The terms of surrender were remarkably generous. Although there were provisions for slighting of the castle, none of the principal buildings appear to have been damaged. A meeting of the Committee of the House of Commons sitting at Leicester in November 1648 on hearing that Hastings Tower was still habitable and defensible, resolved that the fortifications be forthwith slighted and made untenable. The following year sections of the walls of the main tower and kitchen buildings were undermined and levelled with gunpowder.
Sources: Notebooks of Richard Symonds, Harleian MSS, 911, 986. John Nichols, Antiquities of the County of Leicester, Vol. III, Part ii, Appendix, pp 17-69.
Copyright Alan Roberts, 2004