In 1644, the third year of the Civil War between the Royalist supporters of king Charles I and the Roundhead supporters of Parliament, a Royalist army was sent against the pockets of Parliamentary control that remained in the southwest. Lyme, where at one time a third of Parliament's fleet was stationed, was the only port left to Parliament between Poole snd Plymouth. Lymians of the time were predominantly Puritan. Despite their Regis, they did not refer to the King but spoke of him as merely Charles Stuart, a man given over to pride.
The army, outnumbering Lyme's population, was commanded by Prince Maurice, known as Maurice of the Palatinate, one of Charles's German nephews, younger brother of the more dashing Prince Rupert of the Rhine. Maurice had taken Dorchester and subjected it to plunder and massacre, was now on the way to tackle Plymouth. He was suffering from influenza (perhaps the first time that word was used). But he was advised that it would be breakfast work to mop up Lyme. His army marched down presumably along the line of Springhead Lane, and took up positions overlooking Lyme.
Parliament sent Colonel Blake to take charge of the defence. The task was to throw up, hurriedly, a defensive wall of earth and wood. There was anxious tension about where it should be. Those living a little way out of the town naturally wanted it to include their homes, but this would have put the line too long, the defences too thin. They had to abandon their houses and move inside the tighter line. Houses along the south side of Broad Street had to block the doors and windows at their back, facing down toward the sea. There was a fort across the top of Broad Street. The cottages along the west side of Sherborne Lane similarly had to barricade their back doors and windows, making them effectively the wall of defence against the main brunt of the attack from up the slope.
Royalist marksmen up on the heights could see certain spots down among the streets, such as a bit of Broad Street in front of the Royal Lion; kept their muskets trained on these spots, and fired when they saw anybody move across. The bombardment from up on the hill included firebrands to set thatched roofs aflame, and red-hot cannonballs that went bouncing down the street. When we were living in the former Baptist Manse at the top of Sherborne Lane, and reshaping its back garden into terraces, we found deep in the soil an iron cannonball weighing just over three pounds.
Women of the town dressed as men to take turns with the men on the defences, to give them time to sleep and give the enemy an impression of greater numbers.
The town probably could not have held out if it had not kept control of its harbour, where it was resupplied by Parliamentarian ships. Trying to stop this, the Royalists put a gun on Holmbush (then a field, now a car park), looking down on the Cobb.
St. Michael's church was used as a hospital. Funerals were performed in the small hours of the night so that the Royalists wouldn't see.
Sorties were made, and there may be Royalist skeletons to be found in the valley around Colway Lane.
On June 16 Maurice and his army gave up and marched away. He had been detained by Lyme for eight weeks and two days the longest siege in the Civil War.
Later in the war, Cromwellian troops from Lyme burnt down Colcombe Castle, near Colyton (forcing the De la Pole family to take to their other residence, Shute Barton).
The 1644 siege turned out so happily that it is hard to believe it was before the tragedy that began at Lyme later in the same century the Monmouth rebellion, a vindictive triumph of crown over people.
And it may seem ironic that the town of anti-royalist Puritans has evolved into a haven for wealthy retirees, where red-white-and-blue flags are flown at every pretext and where the most serious social problems are traffic and the lack of affordable housing for the young.
Parliament decreed an annual festival of thanksgiving for the lifting of the siege. This commemoration lapsed until it was revived in 2006; it is now held in Lyme every 16 June. (In 2012 this followed close on the celebrations of the Queen's Diamond Jubilee. Puritans of 1644 would have seen an irony.) The procession down Broad Street starts from the forecourt of the Baptist church; it has come to include members of the Taunton Garrison, marching in seventeenth-century military costume; there are drummers, people dressed as burghers and farmers, shouts of (perhaps) Out with tyrants, up with the common man! A play about the siege is performed near the cannon by the sea, commanded by a soldier in one of the lobster-tail helmets whose domed tops caused the Parliamentary troops to be called Roundheads.
And there is a fine play called The Western Women, written by Ann Jellicoe of Lyme. It was performed in 1984 in the auditorium of the Woodroffe School, by a cast of no fewer than a hundred and twenty, who were surrounded on three sides by the audience and partly mingled with them. In 2007 this play was revived, after a fashion, in the Marine Theatre: Ann (now in her eighties) stood and read all the parts, with musical interludes by Tim Laycock. The play has a smart ending. Three of Lyme's much-enduring women meet in the street and chat about what they have gone through; one says:
How strong us women were!
From off-stage comes the peremptory shout of a man who wants his clothes ironed or his dinner on the table: Wife!