Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle

Natasha sheldon - July 27, 2018

In August 1642, the first phase of the English Civil War broke out. The conflict was the result of years of dispute between Crown and Parliment over who should hold the supreme power over the governance of England, Wales and Ireland. The war divided the nation into two camps: those for Parliament, known as Roundheads, who dominated the south east of England and the Royalist cavaliers who initially controlled the north and west.

Very quickly, many Royalist strongholds fell to the Parliamentary forces. However, in Dorset, there was one Royalist castle that hung onto the bitter end. That Castle was Corfe Castle, the home of the Royalist Bankes family. Corfe’s refusal to surrender was attributed to its mistress, Lady Mary Bankes, whose staunch defense of her family home against the odds earned her the title “Brave Dame Mary.” Lady Mary is reputed to defended Corfe to the bitter end. But how much of her story is fact and how much Bankes family legend?

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle
Sir John Bankes. Portrait by Gilber Jackson. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Bankes of Corfe Castle

Mary Bankes was born around 1598, the daughter of Ralph Hawtry, a Middlesex country gentleman, and his wife, Mary. In 1618, the twenty-year-old Mary Hawtry married John Bankes, an up and coming young lawyer. After his marriage, John Bankes’ career went from strength to strength. In 1624, he became an MP for the first time and in 1530 was elected as one of the prestigious Lent Readers of Grey’s Inns, one of the foremost Inns of Court in London.

On June 5, 1631, Charles I knighted Bankes and appointed him the attorney to the heir to the throne, the young Prince Charles. However, this was not the pinnacle of John Bankes’ career. In 1634, the King appointed Sir John as his Attorney General. John Bankes was now an important man. In 1635, he decided he needed an estate to match his status. So, he purchased Corfe Castle in the Purbeck hills of Dorset, along with .all its associated lands, rights and privileges.

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle
Corfe Castle. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Corfe had been a stronghold since Saxon times. However, after the Norman Conquest, the castle was rebuilt out of local Purbeck stone. A 21-meter high keep was constructed, which left the castle looming over the landscape around it. Corfe Castle became one of the most impressive defensive sites in Britain. Now, it became the home of Sir John, Lady Mary, and their growing family.

However, the Bankes only had a few short years to enjoy their new home. War was looming, as the tensions between King Charles, and his Parliament grew. Finally, on August 22, 1642, the first round of the English Civil Wars broke out. Sir John, who remained loyal to King Charles, journeyed north to York to join the Royalist army. Lady Mary and the children were left behind in the relative safety of Corfe. However, Lady Mary was aware that sooner or later, Corfe would become part of the war.

So, according to the Royalist News book, the Mercurius Rusticus, she sent her sons away and stayed on with her daughters, servants and a garrison of just five men. Parliament’s forces, however, began to advance even sooner than Lady Mary feared. By spring 1643, Corfe Castle was the only royalist stronghold left in Dorset. Then, in May 1643, the worst happened. A Parliamentary force of between two to three hundred men, led by Sir Walter Erle arrived at Corfe and demanded Lady Mary surrender the castle.

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle
“Brave Dame Mary; or, the Siege of Corfe Castle by George Bankes. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

The Siege of Corfe Castle.

Lady Mary’s response rather surprised Sir Walter. Instead of meekly opening the gates of Corfe, Lady Mary and her maids manned the Castle’s cannons and unleashed a barrage of cannon fire at the invading roundhead force. Sir Walter and his men swiftly departed, having decided reinforcements were in order. Meanwhile, Lady Mary sent a messenger to the nearest royalist forces asking for extra men to bolster Corfe’s defenses. A Captain Robert Lawrence answered the call, and soon Lady Mary had an additional 80 men, who she placed in the Middle Ward of the castle, while she took command of the Upper Ward.

Lawrence’s reinforcements were just in time. On June 28, 1643, Sir Walter and his men returned. This time, he brought three Captains with him named Sydenham, Scott and Jarvis and a force of 600 men. For six weeks, Lady Mary and her men held Corfe. According to the Mercurius Rusticus Lady Mary, her daughters and servants saw off attempted invasions of the castle by heaving over stones and hot embers” onto parliamentary troops trying to scale Corfe’s walls with siege ladders. An estimated 100 men were killed and wounded because of their efforts.

Finally, Sir Walter gave up and returned to the parliamentary stronghold of Southampton, giving “Brave Dame Mary” as she had become known time to regroup. However, on December 28, 1644, Lady Mary received another blow. She learned that her husband Sir John had been killed fighting for the King. The following year, the first round of the war was over when the Roundheads defeated the King’s forces at the Battle of Naseby. But still, Corfe held firm. However, at the end of the year, Parliament sent more troops under the command of Colonel John Bingham to force the castle’s garrison to submit.

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle
Portrait of Lady Bankes, in widow’s dress, gauze veil, pearl necklace, holding the keys to Corfe Castle. c1837 by Henry Pierce Bone.Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

Soon afterward, Lady Mary lost Corfe. However, this was not because her forces were defeated but because the castle was betrayed from within. One of Lady Mary’s officers a Colonel Pitmen led a party of Parliamentarians into the castle via a sally gate. The Roundheads had reversed their jackets to disguise themselves. By the time the ruse was discovered, Corfe had been taken. Lady Mary was forced to surrender. Bankes family legend says she defiantly threw the family’s treasures down the castle well but was allowed to keep the seal and keys to the castle in recognition of her bravery. After Corfe was taken, the Parliamentarians blew it up with gunpowder. The Bankes family would never live there again.

A popular story tells how in early 1646, shortly before Corfe fell, a small royalist force, rather ironically led by young royalist officer named Cromwell slipped through the lines of parliamentary besiegers to offer Lady Mary the chance of escape. However, having defended her family home bravely for three years, Lady Mary refused. However, there is the possibility that when Corfe finally surrendered, Lady Mary Bankes was not there at all.

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle
Kingston Lacey by Richard Slessor. Originally from Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Was Lady Mary at the Surrender Corfe Castle?

While there is no doubt that in the early stages of the Civil War, Lady Mary Bankes was present at Corfe and took part in its defense, new evidence suggests that she did not see out the siege until the bitter end. For when he wrote to parliament about the successful, bloodless seizure of Corfe, Colonel Bingham put this down to “gods good grace.” No mention is made of Lady Mary Bankes at all. This absence is because Lady Mary may well have already abandoned Corfe.

Records from the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding with Delinquents- the body that managed the reparations paid by royalist families- show that on July 16, 1645, William Lenthall, the Speaker of the House issued a pass to Lady Mary and two of her daughters so that they could travel to London petition from their lands. Lady Mary’s household accounts for the period have remained preserved in the records of the Bankes’ family. A recent review of them suggests that when Corfe fell, Lady Mary was still in London, trying to salvage something of her family’s fortune. Other official records confirm this. They show that officials told Lady Mary that her estate would not be settled until after Corfe’s surrender.

Other records suggest, however, suggest Lady Mary may have left Corfe as early as December 1644 when her husband Sir John was killed. Receipts from the Bankes family archive show that at that time she was in Oxford, selling off horses and other goods. At the same time, she was making other purchases, which she somewhat enigmatically labeled as “when I came away.” Could this be a reference to Lady Mary’s “coming away’ from Corfe?

Lady Mary Bankes and the Siege of Corfe Castle
St.Martins Church, Ruislip Viewed from Eastcote Road. Picture by Russell Trebor. Originally from Wikimedia Commons. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Certainly, the Dorset Committee of Sequestration thought so. In June 1646, they wrote to London to ask for advice in deciding whether Lady Mary had acted against Parliament during the war. They noted, that since Sir John’s death “the greatest part of her [Lady Mary’s] residence has been near London as we are informed.’ As it was, the Committee granted Lady Mary a special pardon, excusing all acts of war and treason and ordered her to pay a fine of £455. Parliament would hardly have let her off so lightly if she had indeed held onto Corfe even after the King’s defeat.

Lady Mary could hardly be blamed for abandoning Corfe to salvage something for her family. However, even if she did abandon Corfe after Naseby or even after her husband’s death, she still mounted a spirited defense of the castle between May 1643 and December 1644. Certainly, Lady Mary’s eldest son, Ralph, thought so. After the restoration, he built the Bankes a new family seat at Kingston Lacy and the manor of Eastcourt for his mother. Ralph also set up a memorial plaque in St Martin’s church, Ruislip where Lady Mary was buried after her death on April 11, 1661. “To the memory of Lady Mary Bankes,” it reads, “…who … had the honor to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex, a noble proportion of the late calamities.”


Where Do we get this stuff? Here are our Sources:

During the English Civil War, Lady Mary Bankes defended a castle from over 200 attackers with only five men under her initial command, Ian Smith, The Vintage News, August 14, 2016

Mary Banks, Wikipedia

Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ed Magnus Magnusson, Chambers, 1990

Brave Dame Mary and a castle under siege, The National Trust

A Norman masterpiece – building Corfe Castle, The National Trust

Queen of the castle, Nick Churchill, Dorset Life, February 2017