IT was 1645 and Bridgwater Castle was under siege when, according to local legend, Lady Crystabella Wyndham had her moment of glory, writes Roger Evans.
It was the time of the Civil War in England. Across the nation Roundheads and Royalist battled for the right as they saw it. It was Bridgwater’s turn to enter the fray.
In July of that year, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Lieutenant-General Cromwell entered Somerset, a county which was in the power of the King with the exception of Taunton which was held for Parliament by Bridgwater’s Robert Blake.
A bloody battle took place at Langport in which the Parliamentarians came out the victors and the surviving Royalist troops fled for the safety of Bridgwater Castle with Fairfax in hot pursuit. Cromwell’s forces took two days rest near Westonzoyland before he and Fairfax ventured to Bridgwater to see how best to take the town.
And so it was that on July 12, Cromwell, Fairfax and an aide-de-camp ventured into Bridgwater to view the scene. As they made their way into the Castle Fields area, they approached the river to view the water front of the castle.
Standing on the opposite bank, more or less where the bus station now stands, they stood just a few feet apart from each other, with Fairfax in the centre, Cromwell a few feet away to one side and the aide-de-camp a few feet to the other.
Within the castle walls, Lady Crystabella Wyndham, the wife of the Governor, received the news that the enemy leaders were without and in clear view on the opposite bank. Taking a loaded musket, she made her way to the castle ramparts and spied the gentleman opposite.
Raising the musket, taking careful aim, she squeezed the trigger and released the charge. The musket ball missed its intended target, Cromwell, by some six feet and the aide-de-camp fell mortally wounded. She later sent a message to the General asking if he had received her ‘love token’, suggesting that if he were a gentleman, he would return it. It was a challenge to attack the castle.
For over a week, the Parliamentarians besieged the town, keeping the pressure up with occasional battery attacks. Apart from the castle, there was an outer defensive ring which Cromwell’s forces had to break through. But this they eventually did with 500 Royalist foot soldiers surrendering to the superior forces as the Eastover sector was captured.
Colonel Wyndham was furious and immediately began to fire hot shot into Eastover, razing it to the ground. Cromwell held his position and sent a messenger forward to offer terms of surrender. The reply was that those inside would fight to the last.
And here came Lady Wyndham’s second and final moment of glory. Clutching her breasts, thrusting them upwards and forwards into the face of the messenger, she commanded him to “Tell your master that the breasts which gave suck to Prince Charles shall never be at their mercy; we will hold the town to the last!” For she had been the wet nurse to Charles II, and is also alleged to have completed his education on his 16th birthday in the more practical aspects of manhood. Connections with the royal family don’t come much closer!
The message was clearly understood and Fairfax, gallant to the last, sent a messenger to the castle advising them of his intended attack and promising safe passage to all women and children who left within the ensuing two hours. Colonel Wyndham thanked him for his kindness and, shortly after, the ladies departed, the defiant Lady Crystabella with them.
The fighting commenced and much of the town was ablaze. The end came early the next day with the surrender of the castle. Lady Crystabella’s moment of glory was over.
Also read: Sarah Biffen – from Rags to riches and back