370 years ago on this night, in February 1645, Dorset lost a hero ….. A man so true, so courageous, that his enemies genuinely lived in mortal fear of him.
Major Francis Sydenham, brother of the governor of Weymouth & Melcombe, Colonel William Sydenham, was at rest in his billet in Weymouth when one of two audacious Royalist attacks upon the main forts of the parliamentarian garrison took place at the Chapel Fort of St Nicholas, an old 14th century church which the ‘Roundheads had fortified and which strategically controlled the towns and quaysides with its guns.
The surprise attacks were by 60 Portlanders from the Royalist Garrison on the island and 60 more were simultaneously attacking the Fort upon the Nothe headland, both attacks being timed to begin at Midnight.
The King’s commander in Dorset, Sir Lewis Dyve was supposed to attack Melcmbe at the same time, having been let in by one of many royalist conspirators who had hatched this cunning plot. Dyve however, failed to turn up and, although both of the Portlanders attacks on the forts were completely successful, Dyve’s absence gave the traumatised parliamentarians an escape route and something to fight for as they fell back to defend Melcombe.
In the ensuing panic of the attack upon the Chapel Fort, one man kept his head and soon rallied the ousted soldiers of the parliamentarian garrison. Major Francis Sydenham, snapping out orders, got the men together into a coherent fighting force once more and was soon leading them back up the hill towards the Chapel Fort to try and retake it.
But the Portlanders had used the intervening time well to fortify their prize and, after a fierce struggle, the parliamentarians were beaten back. But worse still for them, was the fact that their leader, their talisman, Francis Sydenham was down and badly injured.
They bore his body down back in to Weymouth where, early the next morning, he succumbed to his wounds and died, aged just 27 years.
This great Dorset man has never received the recognition that he so richly deserves and that is part of the reason why, each year, we stage the Crabchurch Conspiracy weekend, to honour the brave souls of both sides, who gave their all in what is … Dorset’ Bloodiest Secret.