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English Civil War, Lady Mary Bankes defended a castle from over 200 attackers with only five men. Held out for three years before being betrayed

Sam Dickson

Corfe Castle is a fortification standing above the village of the same name on the Isle of Purbeck in the English county of Dorset. Built by William the Conqueror, the castle dates back to the 11th century and commands a gap in the Purbeck Hills on the route between Wareham and Swanage.

The first phase was one of the earliest castles in England to be built at least partly using stone when the majority were built with earth and timber. Corfe Castle underwent major structural changes in the 12th and 13th centuries.

Mary Hawtry was born in about 1598, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, Esquire of Ruislip,Middlesex, and Mary Altham.

In about 1618, she married Sir John Bankes, who later became Attorney-General to King Charles I and Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. In 1635, Sir John purchased Corfe Castle in Dorset with all its manors, rights, and privileges from Lady Elizabeth Coke. Sir John died on 28 December 1644 at the age of 55.

In 1643, when civil war broke out in England, she assumed control of Corfe Castle when John Bankes had been ordered by the king to travel to York.

Lady Mary Bankes. source
Lady Mary Bankes. source

She sent her sons away for safety and remained behind with her daughters, servants, and a force of five men. In May 1643, a force of Parliamentarians, comprising between 200 and 300 men under the command of Sir Walter Erle attacked the castle but never succeeded in capturing it. She asked for aid and a troop of 80 men under the command of Captain Robert Lawrence arrived to reinforce the garrison. In June, Commander Erle renewed his attack along with Captains Sydenham, Jarvis and Scott, a force of 500-600 men, and two siege engines.

With Captain Lawrence’s troops protecting the Middle Ward and the better part of the garrison, Mary and her small group defended the Upper Ward and by heaving stones and hot embers from the battlements, managed to repel the assailants, killing and wounding over 100 men. In 1646, one of her officers, Colonel Pitman, betrayed her by leading a party of Parliamentarians into the castle via a sally gate.

The Parliamentarians under the command of a Colonel Bingham reversed their jackets and were mistaken for Royalists. As a result, she was forced to surrender the castle. However, because she showed such courage she was allowed to keep the keys of the castle, which are now held at Kingston Lacy near Wimborne Minster, Dorset. The castle was slighted the same year it was captured by the orders of the House of Commons.

It is recorded that her sons Ralph and Jerome bought the manor of Eastcourt on her behalf. Upon her death, the manor passed to her daughter Joanna Borlase, who in her turn passed it on to her daughters and co-heirs. Lead image source


Lady Mary died on 11 April 1661 and was buried in St Martin’s Church, Ruislip. On the south wall of the chancel inside the church there is a monument to Mary with this inscription:

To the memory of Lady Mary Bankes, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtery, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq., the wife and widow of Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of His Majesty’s court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of His Majesty King Charles I of blessed memory, who having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex, a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this.

Sam Dickson

Sam Dickson is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News