Saved by a Moat - the impact of the Civil War Garrison on Great Chalfield

The state of the manor and its manor house in John Hall’s time has been the subject of debate. The civil war ended effectively with the defeat of Charles 1st at the battle of Naseby in 1645 and finally, in Wiltshire, in September 1646. This was twenty four years before John Hall bought Great Chalfield and so this is a very relevant point. A widely held view first stated in the 1850’s by James Waylen, a respected local historian, is that the manor was severely damaged by its occupation by a parliamentarian garrison and particularly in a siege during the civil war. The garrison occupied it between August 1644 and September 1646. By the mid 19 th century the manor house was in a poor state and parts of it had been demolished.

Moat and bastion

To assess its state in John Hall’s time we need to consider when this process started. It seems obvious that the garrison troops could have dismantled parts of it, either for the value of its timbers or other use or to help in the defence of the house. Certainly this happened at some time, then or later. It could well be argued that to dismantle the south range, which was probably half-timbered , and also the dovecote beside it, would have strengthened the defences. It would have made it easier to see troops approaching from the south. It would also have left more space for troops and their horses and an easier area to be defended, with the strongest built part of the house and its barns in its centre; the whole area enclosed by newly raised earthworks and including the spring-fed well. It would not be overlooked once the old dovecote was removed. This was a large enough space for the garrison of 260 men and their 120 horses, though a severe strain on the property. Opening up its centre in this way would have made good practical military, sense. Royalist troops occupied it for a few days during the period it was garrisoned by the parliamentarians. It was also besieged again for a short while by the royalists after that. It must have suffered damage at those times. How much is the question.
During the war in Wiltshire, unusually, garrisons of both sides occupied properties quite close to each other. We know of five royalist garrisons within six miles of the parliamentarian garrison at Great Chalfield, including a strong one at Lacock Abbey. That meant that troops from them were always in the area near the manor and also that the locals were doubly liable for contributions to maintain them. Some of them had become very poor as a result by the time the parliamentarians arrived at Great Chalfield.
The accounts of the garrison at Great Chalfield that have survived are a contemporary fair copy. They cover the period from January to June 1645. (The date of 1647, later pencilled in, is certainly an error as can be seen from internal evidence – they mention the cost of spies for visiting the siege of Rowden House, Chippenham, which was in 1645.) The period for the garrison of Malmesbury covered in them, with one gap, is from Jan 1645 – August 1646. Crucially they record not only the assessments but also the amounts paid. This is unusual and of course very revealing. Interestingly the hamlet of Great Chalfield itself was assessed for six months at £48.7.6 and Malmesbury, a much larger community at £37.7.0. Of this Great Chalfield only paid £10.14.0 in cash, one assumes, because Lady Anne Eyre, the life tenant of Sir Richard Gurney, allowed them to use her pasture. The allowance for this made up the difference. The fact that she stayed in the house and this understanding over pasture for the horses, which was noted as very helpful, shows that relations were good, or at least tolerable. She was politically on neither side which helped, unlike the Halls who were committed royalists. The young John Hall must have felt the impact of the war on the locality and may well have known of what was happening to Lady Anne at Great Chalfield - the local gentry were all interconnected and the Halls and the Eyres played a leading part in local affairs. These accounts reveal the local situation in detail, along with much else of great interest. Detailed studies of these and a recent reappraisal of the war in the area offer a detailed picture of the manor during its occupation.

A distinction needs to be drawn between the behaviour of local long term garrisons and that of armies moving to and from pitched battles. Troops on the move, especially before and after fighting, often did great damage and in any case were not always under control. Local people, many of whom were on the breadline even before the war started, were subjected by troops with no local loyalty to the official requisitioning of crops, hay, farm animals, other produce, carts and horses. Further crops were often damaged by armies trampling over the fields and that was not the worst. Three days of terror were inflicted on Salisbury by royalist troops in December 1644 when every type of vandalism and atrocity occurred,. There is though no evidence that a garrison stationed at Great Chalfield behaved like that, rather the reverse. The contemporary evidence suggests that the Chalfield garrison treated local people with compassion and understanding. For example local labourers were paid to raise earthworks to defend it, reinforced with wicker work in places, as part of the defences. Garrisons were not offensive. They were used to secure territory for their side. The troops in the house were mainly from Gloucester but some were local. Names of some in the garrison are still found locally. The appeal of the use of garrisons to the commanders was partly financial. They were on half pay. It has been claimed that the conduct of the war was adversely affected because generals kept too many troops tied down in garrisons. They were much cheaper to maintain than fighting troops. A designated tax district provided them with money or goods in lieu on a fixed price basis. Incidentally this was an improvement on the pre-war system of taxation and was continued after it. At Great Chalfield goods in lieu were widely accepted because of the ruinous exactions of money by the local royalist garrisons earlier.

Those living further away in the Great Chalfield Garrison’s tax district, which included Bradford and Trowbridge also either contributed goods in lieu or they could work on the fortifications or on other things at agreed rates either to remit tax or for actual pay. The skilled labour during the period of the accounts was assessed at £54 (a thousand man hours) and a quarter of this was paid out in cash, for example to repair the drawbridge. They also paid Mrs Mary Rudman to act as cook and bought pitch to mend the boat to fish in the moat for her. There were other places too where occupation actually contributed to the local economy. But other large houses without garrisons, such as Pinnel House, now called Pinhills and is west of Calne near Bowood, Rowden House in Chippenham and Bromham House nearby, (a huge mansion rebuilt later by the Baynton family and renamed Spye Park), Bromham nearby were virtually demolished, presumably to prevent them being useful to the other side. The ruinous state of Rowden House soon after the war was noted by John Aubrey. The commanding position of Bromham House, its size and the wealth of its estate made it an obvious target. In that sense, far from being a threat and cause of damage, the garrison at Great Chalfield may have preserved it from worse, for its absentee owner during the war was Sir Richard Gurney a prominent royalist, as was John Hall’s father. Great Chalfield was fortunate to have two strong and sympathetic commanders of its garrison, Cols. Devereux and Pudsey, and we can assume they made the house as difficult to take as possible and habitable by their troops: thus protecting it. The remarkable Collector/Receiver, William Tarrant, who commuted between the garrisons of Malmesbury and Great Chalfield, drew up these detailed accounts for both.

In particular the question of whether damage was done by a siege interested the Victorian commentators. There was too the question of the brief royalist occupation. Those on the offensive or defensive did not put up any fight. The parliamentarians withdrew for a few days when the royalists occupied it, who then voluntarily withdrew. Later the royalists did not so much besiege it as camp nearby, between 7 th/19 th April 1645 and then withdrew when they realised it was too strong to take by storm. It was moated and well defended. This withdrawal demonstrates that the manor house and the area surrounding it had been modified effectively for defence. There is no reference to any damage to the house by attacking troops in any of the contemporary news-sheets. One of these, Perfect Occurrences, merely states that ‘on one occasion the enemies’ horse from Lacock came for plunder near to our garrison at Chalfield, where the garrison quartered very secure, giving themselves to pleasure and plunder of the country and abuse of the people.’ Further the only evidence for the garrison’s actually contributing to the war was that a strong royalist troop avoided it and as a result accidentally rode into the path of a strong parliamentarian troop that defeated them heavily near Devizes. This was a decisive engagement just before the battle of Naseby and seriously weakened the royalist army at that battle.
For a time Great Chalfield was the HQ for the Malmesbury garrison as well, as is shown by a letter written from it dated April 1645. Further a lockable room was assigned within the manor to a surgeon where he kept medicines that were regularly delivered. The picture that emerges of the house’s occupation is of the orderly conduct of a garrison with which the local population cooperated, indeed some gained from it. They were though (in theory) less well paid than the troops. The troops’ problem was that they were not regularly paid. The accounts reveal that in only eleven weeks of the six months they cover were payments made to the infantry. The dragoons and cavalry were paid for less than half that number of weeks.

Evidence for the treatment of the house by the garrison is also provided by its value before and after the war. The property was bought by Sir Richard Gurney before the war, as already noted, for £3,700 and sold by his executors just after it for £3,900. Confusion has been caused by an entry in the Journal of the House of Lords that records a statement made there by Sir Richard Gurney, when he was fined for his part in the war, still owner of the Manor and before he was committed to the Tower. While he was Lord Mayor, he was fined for refusing to publish an act for the abolition of the monarchy. We can take it that his intransigence also over the payment of his fine had not helped his cause. His claim in the Lords of loss of value of the Manor was later repeated by his executors in 1652, in their attempt to lessen the tax liability of £5,000 which had been placed on it. In his statement Sir Richard claimed that the value of the house had been reduced by £2,000 ‘by the ruin of Chawlfield house in Wiltshire in the war and for timber cut down and employed for that and other of the Parliament’s garrisons.’ By 1652 the £2,000 mentioned was the difference between what his executors had already sold it for and the purely punitive tax liability that had been placed on it. The executors declined to mention that it had been sold at a profit in 1649 three years before but even so there may well have been some truth in Sir Richard’s assertion that the house and estate and its timber had suffered in the war. It could hardly have been otherwise.


Great Chalfield Manor, Great Chalfield, nr. Melksham, Wiltshire. SN12 8NH - Tel: 01225 782 239