The civil war in Weymouth is mostly remembered for an incredible plot which was hatched by one of its’ leading citizens and royalist sympathisers, Fabian Hodder.. Together with his wife, her friend Elizabeth Wall and several others, the plot, which has become known locally as the Crabchurch Conspiracy, was aimed at bringing the town once more, under the control of the Kings army, and, before its’ desperate conclusion would result in the deaths of many of the conspirators and the soldiers of both sides.
By the February of 1645 the Parliamentarian garrisons of Weymouth and Melcombe (linked by a bridge across the harbour) were under the control of the Governor, Colonel William Sydenham. Weymouth felt secure, a fact borne out in the diary of its’ regimental preacher Peter Ince who wrote ‘we were in as sweet a quiet and security as any garrison in the Kingdom; no enemy near us but one at Portland, and that not very considerable, being but about 300 or 400 men’. The Roundheads numbered about 900 souls as Sydenhams’ garrison was swelled by the arrival of a regiment commanded by Colonel Ralph Weldon. All seemed well, but beneath the surface a plot so audacious and cunning in its’ aims and means was already nearing fruition, and the final details being ironed out.
On the night of February 9th 1645, soldiers of the Royalist Portland garrison, guided by two men from Weymouth, John Dry, a tanner, and Walter Bond, a fisherman, were to simultaneously attack two of the most strategically important forts crucial to the defence of Weymouth (the Nothe and Chapel Forts). At the same time, villagers from the surrounding areas of Upwey, Broadwey, Sutton Poyntz and Preston who were sympathetic to the royalist cause, were to meet up with a large force of 1500 men from Sherborne commanded by Sir Lewis Dyve, and were to guide them to Melcombe where a tailor named Thomas Samways would let them in to the town. The names of the other known conspirators included John Seton, Leonard Symonds, Walter Mich, John Lock, Philip Ashe, and Samuel Tackle.
At midnight the sounds of battle rent the cold winter air as the surprise attacks upon the Nothe and Chapel Forts went ahead as planned, but elsewhere things did not go so smoothly. Sir Lewis Dyve and his force from Sherborne did not appear and so Melcombe remained in Parliamentarian hands. In Weymouth however both forts were taken, but one person had kept their wits about them and was soon rallying his men for a counterattack. Within half an hour, Major Francis Sydenham led an assault upon the cavaliers who had just captured the powerful Chapel Fort of St Nicholas. Leading from the front, as ever, he charged the enemy and a fierce fight ensued. At its’ end, the Chapel Fort still remained in royalist hands, but for the Roundheads an even bigger blow had befallen them. Their inspirational and much admired leader Francis Sydenham lay mortally wounded. He died at dawn the following day aged 27, and in his diary Preacher Ince seems to have captured the mood of the moment when he wrote, ‘Among the slain was Major Francis Sydenham, the Governor’s brother, whose memory may not be buried with him. His death was no small joy to his enemies, to whom he was a perpetual vexation and terror, and no small grief to us who had our eyes too much upon him’… That morning, Colonel William Sydenham and his younger brother Thomas, a Cornet, who was also wounded in the attack, stared across the harbour from Melcombe at the victorious Royalists in Weymouth and vowed to avenge their brothers’ death.
At about midday on the 10th February, Sir Lewis Dyve and his force finally emerged and together with Sir William Hastings, the Governor of Portland Castle, mopped up the last of the resistance and secured their newly won prize.
Three days later it is recorded that several cavaliers together with the ‘Clerk Curate’ of Sutton Poyntz, a Master Wood ‘regaled themselves at an alehouse at Causeway’, just outside Weymouth, ‘and became distempered with beer’.
Soon, Dyve began to bombard the beleaguered Parliamentarians in Melcombe, who replied in kind, and a fierce artillery battle ensued which destroyed many buildings in both towns. A tangible glimpse of this ‘duel’ can still be seen today high up in the wall of a house in Maiden Street where a cannonball is still lodged underneath a window!
Some hope came for William Sydenham and his men in the shape of 200 sailors from Poole who were delivered by Vice-Admiral William Batten in his ship The James, and who described them as, ‘some of the toughest fighting men in Dorset’. Also Lieutenant Colonel James Heane fought his way through the royalist land blockade with 100 horsemen to further strengthen the roundhead garrison within Melcombe. Eventually though, all seemed lost with the news that the infamous Royalist commander George, Lord Goring had arrived in nearby Dorchester at the head of 4,500 Hampshire troops and, after allowing his men to plunder and vandalise the town, destroying among other things a ‘brewhouse owned by Benjamin Devenish, he was now to turn his attentions towards the ‘provincial upstart’, Sydenham’
Sydenhams’ 1200 men were now faced by about 6,000 royalists, strangely though Goring did not attack immediately, but instead returned to Dorchester with 4,000 men, doubtless hinking that Melcombe could be taken at leisure . Two days passed and William Sydenham observed that a large and slow moving baggage train was making its’ way to Weymouth from Dorchester, a gift from Goring to Sir Lewis Dyve. Right away Sydenham gave the order to attack it, as supplies were running dangerously low, and against all odds, he succeeded in capturing it.
A horrified Sir Lewis Dyve, watching the calamity unfold from his position high up in the Chapel Fort, immediately sent out more than 100 infantry to try and rescue his ‘present’, and this gave Sydenham the chance he had been waiting for. For no sooner had Dyve dispatched his soldiers, then Sydenham ordered that the drawbridge on the bridge dividing the two towns be lowered, and 150 of his musketeers led by a Major Wilson and a Captain Langford charged screaming across it and poured onto Weymouth quayside, sweeping all before them in an unstoppable wave of musket balls and bravado.
Watching this turn of events at the time, and very nearly engulfed by it, was a man who, together with Thomas Sydenham, was to become one of the most famous medical men of that century. His name was Richard Wiseman, (later known as the father of English surgery) He was tending a wounded royalist soldier at the very moment that Sydenhams’ men pressed home their attack. He later wrote of the event
‘ as Sydenham’s troops attacked, I was dressing a wounded man in the town almost under the Chapel Fort and hearing a woman cry, ‘fly, the Fort is taken’, I turned aside a little amazed towards the line, not knowing what had been done, but getting up the works I saw our people running away, and those in the Fort shooting at them. I slipped down this work into a ditch and got out of the trench; and as I began to run hearing one call ‘Surgeon’, I turned back and seeing a man hold up a stumped arm , I thought it was an Irishman whom I had absolutely dismembered, whereupon I returned to help him. We ran together, it being within half a musket shot of the enemie’s Fort, but he outran me quite’.
Proof positive of the stunning effectiveness of Sydenhams’ strategy to regain Weymouth for the Parliamentary side. Governor, Colonel William Sydenham now had two towns to defend with his meagre force of 1200 soldiers. The Royalists still held the Nothe Fort and a smaller one at Bincleaves , but they were not the immediate problem .
In Dorchester, a rather embarrassed Sir Lewis Dyve had to explain to Goring exactly how Sydenham , had yet again , got the better of him . And Goring made his mind up to teach Sydenham a lesson in warfare that he would never forget …
On the 27th February, the ever reliable Vice Admiral Batten sailed into Weymouth Bay with a further 100 men, and both he and Sydenham made what preparations they could for the expected attack which would surely come.
That very evening to the north of Melcombe , a patrol of Sydenhams’ cavalry was approached by a roundhead soldier. He had escaped from the prison at Dorchester and had important news for his Colonel. The man had overheard talk of an attack which was to be staged that very night, at midnight, George, Lord Goring was coming, and he was coming at the head of 6,000 troops …
Goring split his force. That part of it, which was supposed to assault Melcombe, for some reason did little more than fire off a few shots at the town, but the fighting across the water in Weymouth was of a very different order. William Sydenham had set up a defensive line at the top of the old High Street at Boot Hill, near the Boot Inn, and once the main gate fell, Goring’s men hurtled towards this obstacle baying for blood. The line held for a while but through sheer weight of numbers, gradually gave way and retreated back down the dark main street of Weymouth.
The jubilant cavaliers thinking that victory was within their grasp, followed blindly on after the Roundheads, but within the narrow confines of the street, Sydenham had set a deadly ambush. At least two cannon were positioned at the far end of the street, and every window and doorway held one or more musketeers, primed and ready for action. On came the royalist force, and blundered straight in to Sydenhams’ artillery trap. The cold, dark February night air was suddenly filled with deadly lead shot and cannon balls causing havoc among the cavalier ranks within the narrow confines of the old High Street. As many as 70 were killed and many more wounded, and Sydenham’s Dorset men now rushed out and entered in to a deadly hand to hand struggle with Goring’s shocked Hampshire troops. The Royalists in that part of Weymouth eventually turned and ran back over the many corpses of their fallen comrades, but lsewhere the battle was still raging.
Above the High Street where Sydenham had been victorious, the mighty Chapel Fort was under a similarly fierce assault , and the hitherto quiet cavalier outpost within the Nothe Fort had now ventured out and was attacking Weymouth from the east . Sydenham, rode up towards the bridge where a small fort commanded by a Captain Thornhill , ( possibly a relative of the famous Weymouth-born artist , Sir James Thornhill ) had just been taken by the Nothe cavaliers . But upon seeing Sydenham, Thornhill’s men were persuaded to turn about and eventually retook their fort. Along with Sydenham and his force, they now chased the panicking Nothe men back along the dark quayside, and it was here that an even bigger loss of royalist life occurred. As many as 250 of them died in this particular action, some during the fighting, but most as they fled , blundering blindly in to the icey waters of Weymouth quayside . William Sydenham had his horse shot from beneath him during the fight.
As dawn broke, it became apparent that not one part of Weymouth or Melcombe had fallen to Goring, who , along with his dispirited force had now retreated to Wyke to lick their wounds . From there they marched out of Dorset towards Taunton and lay siege to that town, but never took it. Eventually Goring was brought to battle by the famous Parliamentarian General, ‘Black’ Tom Fairfax at Langport , and defeated again .
Vice-Admiral Batten, writing a letter the morning after the Battle of Weymouth, on board his ship, The Reformation, which was moored in Weymouth bay, reported that the King’s troops were ‘gallantly repulsed by our men with the loss of some hundreds of the enemy. The Governor Sydenham ) behaving himself like a gallant man , as he hath done in all the siege’ .
With the Royalist threat finally gone, it was now to be a time of vengeance for William Sydenham, vengeance on those who had hatched the Crabchurch Conspiracy and suffered him to lose a much loved sibling in the slaughter that followed. Now those people would have to pay the price …
The Hangings on the Nothe…
Several of the original conspirators were caught and imprisoned aboard Batten’s ship. The ringleader, Fabian Hodder , had already fled the area , but was duly caught near Poole and thrown in to jail there awaiting Sydenham’s pleasure . Of the others, three were killed during the 17 days of fighting , they were Philip Ashe , Leonard Symonds and William Philips . On board the prison-ship another conspirator, an Irish gunner named Richard Mighill hung himself before sentence was passed , and on the 3rd March 1645 , just four days after Goring’s attempt to annihilate Sydenham’s command had failed , Captain John Cade became the first of the Crabchurch Conspirators to keep a date with the hangman upon the Nothe headland . Next came Walter Bond and Thomas Samways , whose nerve and dignity seems to have deserted them at the foot of the gibbet . They both begged William Sydenham for mercy, and Sydenham , perhaps seeing mercy as a way of finally winning over the assembled townspeople , spared their lives .
Last up was the Weymouth Town Constable John Mills who was made of sterner stuff, as Preacher Ince describes in his diary…… ‘He most desperately, without any sign or token of sorrow or repentance , when he was upon the ladder , desperately threw himself off not showing any signs of humiliation or calling upon God , for mercy on his soul , but carelessly , in a most desperate manner died , not so much as praying to God to receive his soul’
Colonel William Sydenham still had one last act of revenge to carry out. Fabian Hodder , in Poole jail was to be the ultimate prize . And Sydenham , replying to a sarcastic letter from Sir Lewis Dyve , promises in his equally sarcastic reply to ‘ make a halter of your letter to hang Hodder with’ . But in this matter, the Royalists finally won a small victory over him . hether by his own cunning or with the help of friends, (possibly Sir Lewis Dyve ) Hodder somehow managed to escape from Poole jail before Sydenham came for him , and is next chronicled as living back in Melcombe , alive and well at the time of the Restoration of Charles 11 in 1660 , where he became a member of the town council
William Sydenham sat and wrote a letter to the Parliamentary Authorities on behalf of his own soldiers who had served him so well during the battle for Weymouth, outnumbered as they were by six to one by the royalists . He wrote… ‘My soldiers, horse and foot , have all had very hard service of it day and night , I shall entreat you to write to the Parliament for something for their encouragement . They have neither money nor clothes, and yet unwearied in this business’ . The parliament agreed saying that, along with the Dorset town of Lyme , who withstood a similar siege , ‘Divers orders passed for the payment of monies to the garrisons of Lyme, Weymouth and other places . But especially Lyme and Weymouth be remembered by more gallant action. May we always remember the famous services of Sydenham and Ceeley (Governor of Lyme). May they be a pattern of imitation to others in like cases of xtremity’.