Saturday, September 7, 2013

Brilliana Harley and the Siege of Brampton Bryan

by Alison Stuart

In a quiet corner of Herefordshire are the remains of Brampton Bryan Castle. There is little to be seen except the great gatehouse and part of a wall. Having withstood the ravages of time, the castle was not to outlast the English Civil War.

Although mentioned in the Domesday book, the present structure was probably constructed in the late 13th or early 14th century by Robert Harley who had inherited the castle through marriage to the daughter of Bryan de Brampton. The Harleys held Brampton Bryan in an unbroken line through to the seventeenth century.

As England lurched towards Civil War, Herefordshire showed itself solidly and staunchly Royalist in sympathy. The Harleys, Puritans and supporters of Parliament, rapidly found themselves themselves the butt of unpleasant taunts and rumours, long before the first shot had been fired. When the war finally broke out, Sir Robert Harley, a member of Parliament, remained in London, leaving his wife, Brilliana to hold the castle.

Brilliana was the third wife of Sir Robert Harley and it can be seen from the letters (some of which were written in a clever secret code) that passed between Brilliana and her husband that it was a strong and affectionate partnership. They had three sons and four daughters, all of whom survived into adulthood.

Brilliana and her daughters found themselves living as an island of Parliamentary sympathy in a sea of Royalists. Being a practical woman, she turned her mind to what she would need in the event of hostilities and added powder, match and flintlocks to her housewifely shopping list.

The early months of the war did not go well for the Parliamentarians but it was not until July 1643 that Brampton Bryan found itself the centre of Royalist attention. Her former neighbours, friends and relatives suddenly found themselves ordered to “reduce” Brampton Bryan. An awkward correspondence between besieger and besieged ensued, but Brilliana politely but firmly refused to surrender Brampton saying “…my dear husband hath entrusted me with his house but according to his pleasure, therefore I cannot dispose of his house but according to his pleasure….”

Hostilities commenced, the village of Brampton Bryan was razed and artillery brought to bear on the castle. Despite heavy bombardment casualties within the castle were surprisingly light. A personal offer of terms from the King did not move the lady who played for time in the knowledge that the Earl of Essex was going to the relief of the siege of Gloucester, which would divert the Royalist forces. 

After seven weeks the siege was lifted and Lady Harley set about replenishing stores within the castle. Encouraged by the news that the siege of Gloucester had been lifted, she went on the offensive, sending out foraging parties and an attack force to the town of Knighton. By early October the Royalists were again poised to renew the siege.

Brilliana wrote to her son, Ned, on 9 October 1643: “…I have taken a very great cold, which has made me very ill these 2 or 3 days, but I hope that the Lord will be merciful to me, in giving me health, for it is an ill time to be sick in. My dear Ned, I pray God bless you and give me the comfort of seeing you again…”

Sadly she was never to see her husband or sons again as she died of pneumonia on 31 October, leaving “the saddest garrison in the three kingdoms”.

In the spring of 1644, Brampton Bryan Castle was besieged a second time and finally fell to the Royalists. The castle was “reduced” (a term meaning, destroyed so as not to be capable of defence again) but the lives of the defenders were spared and the fame of Brilliana Harley spread, earning her the “admiration and applause even of her enemies”.

Despite this apparent victory, the Royalist cause was lost. Sir Robert Harley was compensated for his loyal support of the Parliamentary cause and was paid the sum of 13,000 pounds (worth now well over a 1,000,000 pounds) for the loss of his home.


Alison Stuart is an award winning Australian writer of historicals with heart. Whether duelling with dashing cavaliers or wayward ghosts, her books provide a reader with a meaty plot and characters who have to strive against adversity, always with the promise of happiness together. Alison is a lapsed lawyer who has worked in the military and fire service, which may explain a predisposition to soldier heroes. She lives with her own personal hero and two needy cats and likes nothing more than a stiff gin and tonic and a walk along the sea front of her home town. She loves to hear from her readers and can be found at her website, facebook, twitter and Goodreads.

Alison has a passion for the English Civil War and has written three books set in this period, By the Sword, The King's Man and Secrets in Time. A story based on the siege of Brampton Bryan is waiting in the wings for a friendly publisher!

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