Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle

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‘Courage even above her sex’, this statement immortalised on a plaque as part of a eulogy for Lady Mary Bankes by her son Sir Ralph Bankes is located in St Martin’s Church in Ruislip, Greater London. This statement was in actual fact a rather fitting and accurate description of her; particularly concerning her valour during the Civil War whilst defending her home, Corfe Castle in Dorset. This post will account for Lady Mary’s bravery concerning this siege against Parliamentarian assault on Corfe Castle.

Lady Mary Bankes neé Hawtrey was the only daughter born to Ralph Hawtrey Esquire of Ruislip, Middlesex and Mary Altham in c.1598. Bankes married John Bankes, later made an Attorney-General, Lord Chief Justice of Common Pleas to King Charles I and knighted as Sir. Looking at her marital family connections in hindsight that Lady Mary was married to a pro-Royalist. Lady Mary bore ten children in total, four sons and six daughters. There only appears to be later information relating to two of her sons, Sir Ralph Bankes and that he married Mary Bruen with issue and Jerome along with Ralph later purchased a manor on behalf of their mother after the events of the siege at Corfe. Considering there is no later information accounting the lives of her other sons it can be presumed that they died in infancy without issue or that later records are of them at adulthood have been lost or are hard to come by. There are more extensive records relating to who her daughters married and if they had issue. Alice Bankes married John Borlase, Jane Bankes married George Cullen, Mary Bankes married Sir Robert Jenkinson (with issue), Joanna Bankes married William Borlase of Great Marlow (with issue) and Arabella Bankes married Samuel Gilly. Her other daughter Elizabeth, it can as with her sons; Charles and William that she died in infancy or that she reached adulthood without marriage. However considering all her sisters married, the former theory is more likely.

The most thorough account we have of Lady Mary is surrounding her involvement in the Siege of Corfe Castle. Corfe Castle had a rather imposing appearance, dominating the surrounding landscape of Corfe Village since the times of William the Conqueror and the site was used for the construction of the castle as it was close to Purbeck forest as the so that he could use it for hunting purposes. The ruins as they appear today, indicate that the design was Norman but the site was used in Saxon times and even further back to the Iron Age. It was acquired by Sir John Banks from Lady Hatton (otherwise known as Lady Coke) who was twice widowed by her first husband William Hatton. William Hatton inherited the castle through his uncle who died as a bachelor, Sir Christopher Hatton, a favourite of Elizabeth I. This suggests the castle was once a royal domain of the Tudors, however they did not take much notice of the place as William the Conqueror did. Henry VII handed the residence over to his mother Lady Margaret Beaufort and she was said to have not visited the castle more than once, Henry VIII like his father passed it down to Henry Fitzroy. At the point that he died it fell to Edward VI upon Henry VIII’s death and passed it on to Lord Protector Somerset before Elizabeth I inherited it.

Sir John Bankes most likely purchased the castle as a country retreat intending to use it for leisurely purposes but considering the political climate at the time Sir John Bankes did not manage to see the positives of his investment. This was mainly due to his work commitments for Charles I, he did in actual fact preside over cases against Members of Parliament who refused to comply with royal prerogative. One of which was John Hampden who refused to pay one of Charles’ taxes ‘Ship money’, by claiming it was an unjust tax that Charles instigated without the consent of Parliament in spite of the King and his supports saying it was needed for the upkeep of Naval defences along coastal areas. This tax soon was imposed on inland areas too, which increased further animosity. Upon the outbreak and throughout the Civil War he appeared to be loyal to Charles and the Royalist cause and as a result of this loyalty he followed the King North to his new seat at York and later to Oxford. This is where Lady Mary Bankes’ involvement comes in at the time of war.

Lady Mary Bankes along with her children and servants withdrew to Corfe Castle in 1642, whilst her husband was away serving Charles. At first life for the Bankes’ seemed relatively peaceful until the Parliamentarians became interested in the site. The local parliamentary commanders, Sir Walter Earle and Sir Thomas Trenchard along with 200-300 men set out to capture it and planned to storm the grounds on 1st May 1643 at a May Day gathering at the castle making it seem less suspicious. However this plan never worked as Lady Mary was informed of this plan beforehand and she was well equipped to prevent these troops from entering the premises on that day. She stepped up security surrounding the castle and required that the gates were to be kept shut. At this point Lady Mary was successful in preventing a Parliamentary coup. However, it is equally as important to consider the fact that she prevented this from happening with a bit of luck as she learned of this coup as it was leaked. Nevertheless she demonstrated great courage and wisdom by protecting herself, family and servants from the Parliamentarians. From this point they kept watch on her actions from afar, this was to monitor who she lets in and in the sense who she may be corresponding with. Additionally she also enlisted the help of 80 soldiers led by Captain Robert Lawrence. June proved to be a testing month for Lady Mary at Corfe as the Parliamentarians openly attacked the royalist stronghold. Erle came back this time with a larger force of men, this time about 500-600 men and two siege engines. This was designed to break through the fortress of Corfe Castle. Captain Lawrence defended the Middle ward of the castle, whereas Lady Bankes, her daughters, servants and an additional five soldiers dropped stones and hot embers in order to protect the garrison from the Parliamentarian troops. Bankes, her family, servants and Royalists who were loyal to her acted valiantly and managed to hold up the castle until 1646. By this time her husband Sir John Bankes had died and with the formation of the New Model Army by Oliver Cromwell the Parliamentarian tactics seemed to undermine the Royalists. Charles I and his supporters were in a weak position at this point. In 1646 unfortunately Corfe Castle was besieged by the Parliamentarians. It does some though again that luck did play a part in this, albeit bad luck. It was chiefly down to a dissenter who switched allegiance to the Parliamentarians, Colonel Pitman. He led a Parliamentarian force through a sally gate into the castle. At this point they used a shrewd tactic by wearing their garments inside out so that they resembled Royalist clothing. Being caught out by this ambush Lady Bankes was forced to surrender Corfe Castle over to the Parliamentarians.

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2 thoughts on “Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle

  1. Hello,

    I believe I have information on one of her two sons whom you believe died in infancy. My mother’s family has lived in Canada (Newfoundland specifically) since the late 17th century. Her mother’s maiden name is Baggs – which was Bankes before arrival in North America. A cousin of mine researched the family tree going back to our earliest settler ancestors, and had mentioned their true name was Bankes, and had been born in Corfe Castle during the Civil War. I didn’t realize the significance of this until I came upon a passage mentioning the siege in Wedgwood’s “the King’s War” recently, and researched deeper into the subject. There are a preponderance of men by the name of William on that side of the family (it is my first middle name); I suspect he, or his son, may be my link to Lady Mary Bankes and the siege.

    Thank you for the informative article. Best wishes

    Adam, Calgary, Canada

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