Saturday, 19 March 2011

1554 The start of the Siege of Cooling Castle, Kent

After the Battle of Wrotham the rebel forces of Sir John Wyatt, gathered in Rochester, were free to advance on London, the only royalist force in the county having partly broken up and retreated. There was much support for Wyatt’s stated aims of banning the marriage of Queen Mary to King Philip of Spain and ousting some of Mary’s more unpopular ministers. If Wyatt had moved quickly he may have carried the day. Unfortunately for him and his men, he chose to attack Cooling Castle before marching on London.

Although with hindsight the attack on Cooling was an error, at the time it did make sense. The castle then stood on the banks of the Thames, guarding the southern flank of the estuary, and only a short distance north of the Rochester-London road. Any force there could threaten Wyatt’s lines of communication back to his base of support in Kent. Wyatt may also have been counting on support from King Philip’s rebellious Protestant subjects in the Spanish Netherlands. Their route to London would have been up the Thames, so the capture of Cooling Castle would have guaranteed their safe access.

Moreover Cooling Castle was owned by Lord Cobham, who was related to Wyatt by marriage and was a famously staunch Protestant. Perhaps Wyatt hoped to recruit him to the rebellion.

The Walk

1) In Cooling find the ruined castle. The main gatehouse is difficult to miss as it dominates the road just west of the parish church. Most of the rest of the castle is now in ruins, though the moat and the East Tower remain. Modern houses have been built within the ruins as has a venue for weddings and conferences.

It was from the gatehouse towers that Lord Cobham watched as Wyatt’s force advanced along the road from Rochester on the morning of 30th January 1554. The rebel army was about 4,000 men strong by this date, including about 1,000 militia men who had brought with them their modern weapons and, significantly for Cooling Castle, a cannon.

The rebel army trailed up to  the church, then turned left off the road to make camp in the fields to the south. As the rebels pitched their tents in the miserable January weather, Wyatt ordered the gunners to manhandle the cannon into a position from which it could batter the walls of Cooling Castle.

2) From the castle take the lane that runs almost due south across open fields. The cannon was set up about 200 yards along this road, facing north.

Sir Thomas Wyatt took up position beside the gun. He sent a messenger to Lord Cobham demanding his surrender. From the battlements Cobham refused out of hand. It took five hours to build an emplacement, unload the ammunition and get the cannon ready to fire. Then Wyatt gave the order to fire. The gun belched forth smoke and flame – and a ball that smacked into the walls of the castle just to the right of the gatehouse.

Lord Cobham’s flag immediately came down over the gatehouse towers and a servant slipped out from the gate. He was brought to Wyatt and asked what terms the rebels would grant for surrender. Wyatt replied that Cobham’s men had to vacate the castle immediately, but were free to join the rebels or leave as they chose. Cobham himself would be kept a prisoner, but his life would be spared. When he heard the terms, Cobham agreed at once.

Wyatt gave orders for his own men to move into the castle. There was to be no looting, but the place was ransacked for food, ammunition and anything else of use.

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