King James I made a gift of Pembroke Castle to a family of Welsh gentry, the Pryses of Gogerddan in Cardiganshire. No longer important as an administrative centre and militarily obsolete, the Castle appeared to be no longer of any strategic use. However...
Pembroke was to play one last leading role in British history –
during the Civil Wars 1642 - 1648
Whatever were the causes of war, there was, in Pembroke, considerable anti-monarchy feeling as a result of economic depression.
John Speed the cartographer said in the early seventeenth century that Pembroke was “more ancient in show than it is in years, and more houses without inhabitants than I saw in any one city throughout my journey.”
John Speed's map of 1614
The influential Sir Hugh Owen of Orielton was a Parliamentarian and represented Pembroke in the Long Parliament of 1640. Added to this John Poyer, a staunch parliamentarian, became Mayor of Pembroke in 1641. When war erupted during 1642 Pembroke and Tenby were alone among Welsh towns in declaring for Parliament.
In the winter of 1642-43 John Poyer, Mayor of Pembroke, put the town in a state of defence for Parliament. He garrisoned the Castle, strengthening both it and the town walls; very probably a considerable amount of this money came out of Poyer’s own purse. This largesse gave him the leading position that he coveted.
We do not know anything of John Poyer’s early days but Clarendon states that Poyer "...had from a low trade raised himself in the war to the reputatuion of a very diligent and stout officer, and was trusted by the Parliament with the government of the town and castle of Pembroke."
The Castle provided a successful base for the local Parliamentary forces under Colonel Rowland Laugharne, withstanding the threat of siege in 1644. The Parliamentary victory the following year, and the arrest of King Charles I, closed the first stage of the Civil War.
Second Civil War
After the Parliamentary victory in 1644, things turned sour: in 1648 Pembroke became the springboard for a new Royalist rebellion which soon spread throughout Britain. Disaffected Parliamentary troops, who had not been paid let alone recognized for their achievements, gathered around Poyer and Laugharne, and declared for the imprisoned King.
The Siege of Pembroke
The Parliamentary army of around 6,000 men arrived in Pembroke around the 24th May, 1648.
Oliver Cromwell himself, Lieutenant General of the Parliamentary army, was sent to deal with the situation in South Wales. With great bravado, Poyer swore that if Cromwell came to Pembroke he would "...give him a field and show him fair play; and will be the first man that shall charge against the Ironsides"; and saying that he (Poyer) had "a back of steel and a breast of iron if he dare encounter" him.
Having set up camp immediately south of Pembroke Cromwell began what was to be the two-month siege of a town that he described as "equal to any in England and well provided with all things". Naval guns, brought ashore, were mounted at Monkton where they could fire on the castle and the town. Nevertheless, the defenders managed to retain command of their water supply and mounted regular sallies against the enemy. In return, several storming parties were led against the town by Parliamentarian forces.
It was only after heavy siege guns arrived at the beginning of July 1648 that the garrison – now isolated and apparently forgotten by the Royalist high command – finally surrendered.
Cromwell sent his ultimatum in the following terms …..
Sir, I have together with my Council of War renewed my propositions, (and) I thought fit to send them to you with these alterations, which if submitted unto I shall make good. I have considered your condition, and my own duty, and (without threatening) must tell you that if (for the sake of some) this offer be refused, and thereby misery and ruin befall the poor soldiers and people with you, I know where to charge the blood you spill. I expect your answer within these two hours. In case this offer be refused, send no more to me about this subject.
I rest your servant,
July 10 at 4 o’clock this afternoon, 1648
Death of Poyer
After the surrender of Pembroke Poyer, Powell and Laugharne, were tried for treason. All three men were condemned to death, but the Council of State decided on leniency, whereby only one man was required to die. So it was ordered that lots should be drawn to decide which prisoner would be executed.
Three pieces of paper were prepared – on two of them were the words 'Life given by God' while the other was blank. The story goes that a child drew the lots. Poyer was handed the blank paper and he declared “Son est contra me” – 'Fate is against me'.
Poyer was shot to death at Covent Garden in April 1649.
Destruction of Pembroke's Defences
Cromwell decreed that Pembroke’s defences should be destroyed, or "slighted". Sections of the town wall were demolished while, at the Castle, charges of gunpowder were placed in each of the towers forming the south front, blowing out the towers' external faces.