Mary Bankes is not a historical figure that can be defined as famous but still her existence is worth being mentioned as one of the bravest military missions of all times. The context was the one of the Civil War in England, that very brief moment during which the island was not a Kingdom but a Republic, led by Oliver Cromwell.
In that historical period two factions formed up: the “Roundheads”, supporter of the Parliament and the “Cavaliers” also known as the Royalists, loyal to the King. The main character of this tale belonged to the second group, the one who supported King Charles I.
Below: illustration of the siege
The Corfe Castle, in Dorset, the Southernmost part of the country facing the English Channel, was an impregnable fort, raising in the highest part of a gypsum hill. The construction was sold in the 16th century from the English Crown first to the Royal Chancellor and then it was passed to John Bankes at the beginning of the 17th century, a Royalist with a role in the government. The building was, unlike the previous fortresses of the early Middle Ages, a solid castle made out of stone and marble, built with hard rock and able to resist (almost) any enemy attack.
Above: picture shared via Wikimedia Commons – licence CC BY-SA 3.0
After a year from the beginning of the English Revolution, in 1643 the Dorset was pretty much entirely controlled by troops of Roundheads guided by Oliver Cromwell, and the fort of Corfe was remained as last stronghold for the loyals to Charles I in that area. Mary’s husband, John, was sent by the King to York, and his male children removed from the castle afraid of retaliation from the other faction. The castellan remained in the castle with six daughters, her servants and an army of 5 mere men.
In May 1643 a handful of Roundheads ranging from 200 to 300 men assaulted the fort, under the lead of Sir Walter Erle. The siege was ruinous despite the discrepancy of forces as in a group of a few women against hundreds of armed men. However Mary Bankes managed to obtain the help of 80 Royalists within a few weeks, who joined in the defence of the stronghold.
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In June Sir Erle ordered a frontal attack against the fort, counting on the higher number of men that in the meantime had become between 500 and 600. Mary and her tiny group protected themselves with stones and burning braziers, managing to reject the assailants and killing or wounding approximately 100 men. The attacks went on for a few days until more troops of Royalists came along to help out the besieged part.
Raging for being defeated by a woman, the Roundheads took an evil oath: unless Lady Mary had given up, they would have not spared any man, woman or child whatsoever inside the castle once breached through the door.
Lady Bankes, did not let that scare her and she kept her guard high, defending her castle bravely
The situation remained unvaried until 1646 when the Corfe Castle had remained the very last stronghold in favour of the crown.
At that point Mary Bankes was betrayed
Colonel Pitman, in a deal with Colonel Bingham, new commander of the assailants, agreed to take inside the castle 100 Roundheads dressed as Royalists so that they could have attacking forces both inside and outside.
Once the men were finally within the walls, the Roundheads waited the attack of the troops from outside and then eventually changed their coats once the battle started. Trapped on both fronts, the Royalists of the castle could not do anything but surrendering.
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The bravery of Mary Bankes surprised so much the Roundheads that not only they let her and the ones of her court live but they also left to her the keys of the castle, today kept in Kingston Lacy, near Wimborne Minster, Dorset. The gesture is significant as, in a period of simple executions, sparing an enemy so stubborn was completely unusual.
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The English parliament, sovereign of England since then until this day (one of the inheritance from Oliver Cromwell), voted for the destruction of the fort, so well built which was only partially razed to the ground. From then on the castle was never rebuilt, and today it lays as a peaceful memory of the deeds of Mary Bankes and her modest group of Royalists there, above the hill of Dorset.