The Spectral Soldiers on the Heights of Chapelhay.

On a cold February night in 1983, a Weymouth woman called Sarah Miller was walking to her house in Franchise Street up on the heights of Chapelhay.
Just before reaching the safety of her home, she suddenly heard a lot of “heavy footsteps and laboured breathing”, as if a group of people were running up behind her”.
Somewhat startled, she turned and was about to step aside, when, to her surprise, the street behind her was completely empty.
The following February, a man who was resident in the same street, was awoken at about 3-30am by the sound of a “general disturbance and shouting”. And although he could not make out individual words, he remarked that the voices had a “definite angry and urgent edge to them.
He returned to bed, only to be woken twice more and the last time, the anguished voices were accompanied by distinctive drumming.

A few weeks later he was retelling the story to a friend who had lived up at Chapelhay as a child and the man told him that several times, he had also experienced the phenomenon of angry shouting, drumbeats and also gunfire.

Around 20 years ago, Long before I knew of the above accounts, I was talking to a Dutch lady in the Chapelhay Tavern who was also a resident of Franchise Street and she told me that she too had also heard these sounds and, that it was always in February and, she went on, it was always on the night of the 9th.

Obviously, this is of immense interest to me because at midnight of the 9th February 1645, sixty heavily armed Portlanders, royalist sympathisers, attacked the Chapel Fort of St Nicholas which stood where now stands, the old people’s flats at the top of Chapelhay steps. They were successful in achieving complete surprise and managed to overwhelm and kick out the Parliamentarian soldiers who held it.

But, a Parliamentarian officer who was billeted in Weymouth, kept his head when all others were panicking and organised a counter attack within the hour, leading his men back up the hill in an effort to retake what was formerly theirs.

That man was Major Francis Sydenham, an unsung (until recently) Dorset hero and a brother of the Governor, Colonel William Sydenham.

Sadly, Francis was mortally wounded in his attempt to recapture the fort and his stricken body was carried down into Weymouth by his ever-loyal men, where he finally succumbed to his wounds at around dawn.

It seems obvious to me, that with all of these different people hearing the same thing at the same time of year up there on the Chapelhay Heights, it would appear to be a ‘ghostly’ replaying of that fateful attack led by that brave son of Dorset, Francis Sydenham.crabpaint3B&Wnegative

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The Siege of Melcombe.

Today, 10th February 2015 marks the 370th anniversary of the commencement of the Siege of Melcombe. It lasted for almost a week and followed the surprise attack by Portlanders upon the two main forts of Weymouth. With superior numbers, ordnance and a massive height advantage, the Royalists were determined to bombard the much smaller garrison of Melcombe, commanded by the Parliamentarian Colonel William Sydenham, into submission.

(excerpt from The Crabchurch Conspiracy, by Mark Vine)

Colonel William Sydenham now had a very sizeable problem to wrestle with. He had less than nine hundred men under his command in Melcombe and was faced across the water by an ecstatic enemy now numbering in excess of two thousand troops; an enemy who would not long be content to sit and do nothing. Mourning the loss of Francis, perhaps the two remaining Sydenham brothers present gained an inner strength from his example and resolved to reverse their fortunes. But above all, they desired with all their hearts to avenge themselves upon his slayers.

Three days after the ‘surprise of the forts’, it is recorded that a number of Cavaliers took themselves off to an area near Radipole called Causeway, where along with a Master Wood, the clerk curate of Sutton Poyntz they “regaled themselves at an alehouse and became distempered with beer”.
Sadly though, for the besieged Parliamentarians within the town of Melcombe, not all of the King’s men were occupied thus, as the ever trusty pen of Preacher Ince relates. He wrote: “A multitude of great bullets and iron bars, hot and cold poured in to Melcombe, some of their gunners engaged themselves to level us with the ground” A protracted and internecine siege had begun as the two sides began to bombard each other with what ever came to hand. However, the King’s men, Dyve and Hastings, secure in Weymouth, had the massive advantage of having the much higher ground and specifically, the guns of the Chapel Fort and the Nothe Fort which were now perpetually trained upon their enemy. And this advantage eventually began to tell as they continually pounded the lower town of Melcombe causing great damage and injury and reducing many buildings there to rubble.
William Sydenham had decided to make a fight of it though and soon he was answering in kind. A fierce two way bombardment ensued lasting several days. Eventually Sydenham sent Dyve a message saying “let us cease this useless burning”, but Dyve believing he had the upper hand for once answered “we refuse to parley with you and will do what we please”.

This snub only served to infuriate Colonel William Sydenham and the very same evening under cover of darkness, he sent a small raiding party across the water in boats. They set alight several vessels and houses on the Weymouth side and caused great damage and mayhem in the Royalist camp. The next day Sir Lewis ceased the bombardment for good.

A tangible glimpse of the almost week long artillery duel can be seen in the wall of a seventeenth century house in Maiden Street, in Melcombe. These days the downstairs is rather strangely, a public toilet, but high up beneath the top window, is lodged a cannonball and the fabric of this lovely building can clearly be seen to be damaged around the point of impact.
The present ball is apparently not the original missile however, but a wooden replica, the real one being removed for safety sake. Local legend has the ball being fired from the fort on the Nothe, though it is quite possible that is was fired from a royalist ship which could have chanced its luck and got in whilst their side held the Nothe Peninsula during February 1645.1

I was given the honour of conducting Historian, Author and TV Personality Professor Ronald Hutton around Weymouth's Civil War history. Here, showing him the 'cannonball in the wall'.

I was given the honour of conducting Historian, Author and TV Personality Professor Ronald Hutton around Weymouth’s Civil War history. Here, showing him the ‘cannonball in the wall’.

Death of a Dorset Hero :

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.

Crabchurch Eve

On this night 370 years ago, the Parliamentarian garrison within the twin towns of Weymouth & Melcombe, was in a state of relative ease.

There had been no incursion from their Royalist enemy for months and only one of the enemy’s garrisons lay nearby, at Portland and that being only 3-400 men. The garrison inside the twin towns, commanded by the relatively unknown Colonel William Sydenham, ably assisted by his two brothers, Francis, a Major of Horse and Thomas, a Cornet in Francis’ troop, had no reason to suspect any trouble.

But the night of 8th February 1645 was to be their last night of peace for many a long night to come. Less than 36 hours later, one of them would have died bravely in battle, another wounded and the two survivors besieged and in danger of annihilation at any time. Victims of a Royalist plot to take the twin towns for the King, Charles 1.

Tonight ………………….. is the Eve of the Crabchurch Conspiracy.

To Kill A King

Three hundred and sixty six years ago today, the parliament of England carried out the sentence of death by beheading that it had passed upon its sovereign monarch, Charles Stuart. Charles 1.

He was taken to a specially erected scaffold at Whitehall, where, insisting upon wearing two shirts, so that the crowd did not think he was shivering with fear, he made his final speech to them and posterity.

He said … “I go from a corruptible, to an incorruptible crown”.

It is said that he faced his fate with much bravery and dignity.

He had however, in the months leading up to this day, schemed to bring a French and a Scottish army to English soil to fight on his behalf against his own people.

Many were shocked by his death …………. many more thought it was a deserved end.

Countdown to Crabchurch ….. Countdown to Slaughter

370 years ago this month in the twin-towns of Weymouth & Melcombe, the Parliamentarian faction held the towns and ports for their cause. Unbeknown to them though, certain royalist sympathisers within the towns had hatched a plot to help royalist forces within the County of Dorset to retake the towns, some say, so that the King, Charles 1, could land a huge French Catholic army in the ports to help him turn the tide of the war. Charles Stuart, later referred to as ‘That Man of Blood’, was prepared to put a foreign army on the sacred soil of England, give a foreign power free reign to murder its citizens and pound them into submission, merely to keep a hold on his faltering crown.

The Parliamentarians inside Weymouth & Melcombe however, had no idea of what was about to be unleashed against them, as a puritan preacher to the garrison, Peter Ince wrote in his diary ….

“In the beginning of February 1645 we were in as sweet a quiet and security as any garrison in the Kingdom; no enemy near us but one at Portland, and that not very considerable, being but about three hundred or four hundred men.”

The Royalists also did not take in to account the fact that the towns’ garrison was commanded by Dorset man, Colonel William Sydenham, who would later rise to prominence and power as Cromwell’s right hand man in the Protectorate.

Crabchurch Conspiracy Book Review by Brian Stringer

5.0 out of 5 stars A great read and intriguing history.
27 Nov 2014
First published in 2004, I came across a 1st edition by accident on Ebay while browsing for English Civil War books. While I have not yet bought this new edition, I recommend it to all that have an interest in that war. While not a long book (1st edition – Octavo size, 119 pages) and easily read in one session, it is a thoroughly enjoyable historical account of a lesser known encounter between the Royalists and Parliamentarians during 1645. Well written and illustrated, it immediately draws the reader into the actual events and those involved. You feel you’re there, rather than reading dry history some 370 years later. Perhaps the sub-title, ‘Dorset’s bloodiest secret’, is necessary for marketing purposes, It is probably apt such was the carnage suffered by the Royalists as they attempted, without success, to storm the defences of Weymouth, and that I, for one, did not know that Dorset had secrets !! Look at the author’s website http://crabchurch.co.uk/ – full of further information.

The 370th Anniversary Crabchurch Conspiracy Concert at Weymouth Pavilion.

Saturday 28th February 7.30pm

The Crabchurch Conspiracy is the name given to a Royalist plot in Weymouth during February 1645 at the height of the English Civil War.

It ended with the Battle of Weymouth eighteen days later and the deaths of over five hundred people.

February 2015 sees the 370th anniversary of this momentous Dorset event which, if it had ended differently, would have literally changed English history as we know it.

As part of the town’s annual commemoration, internationally renowned Celtic Rock band, The Dolmen will perform their seminal album ‘The Crabchurch Conspiracy’ Live on stage with TV historian and academic writer Professor Ronald Hutton, Stonewylde author Kit Berry & Cap’n Steve Howl.

The evening will also have a talk by Professor Hutton on the subject of Oliver Cromwell.

The Crabchurch Conspiracy Concert 2015 … where music meets history .. and magic is born.

Click here to buy tickets for the evening show for only £10 from the Weymouth Pavillion box office.

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