Lady Mary Bankes and the 1643 Siege of Corfe Castle

It was while I was researching Medieval women defending castles and homes that I came across the fascinating story of Mary Bankes, a woman from England's Civil War period who faced down an entire army during a siege of her home.

Lady Mary Bankes was the wife of Sir John Bankes, Lord Chief Justice of the Common Pleas. A mother of ten, she had four sons and six daughters. Her story is told by Victorian historians Georgiana Hill and Eleanor Creathorne Clayton. 

Mary lived with her family at Corfe Castle in Dorset. In August 1643 Sir William Earle was sent by Parliament to take the castle into their hands, the fortress currently being held by Royalists. When the army approached, Mary gathered together her daughters, servants and just five soldiers. Finding themselves under siege with very little in the way of weapons, they pelted the Parliamentarian army with stones and hot embers. Mary managed to hold the siege for six weeks, when a Royalist force arrived to relieve them. 

Mary Bankes. Henry Pierce Bone, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Royalist Captain Lawrence arrived with his soldiers and together they fought back an army of 600 Parliamentarians. Eventually, the Parliamentarians fled, having lost around a hundred of their men in the affray. The action was to continue however for three years, the castle finally submitting to Parliament in 1646. It was said that one of Mary's servants had smuggled a Parliamentarian into the castle, and the siege was over. 

Mary's actions are not often discussed in relation to the Civil War, and as it turns out, there were many other women who defended their homes during the period, too. Her resilience and determination also echo women of an earlier time, such as Alice Knyvet at Buckenham Castle during the Wars of the Roses or Nicholaa de la Haye defending Lincoln during the thirteenth century. 

The painting of Mary Bankes above shows her dressed in black, the key to Corfe Castle in her right hand, and the castle itself on a hill behind in the distance, over her right shoulder. Eleanor Clayton found that Mary lived to see the end of the Civil Wars and the Restoration of Charles II. She died on 19 April, 1661 and was buried at Ruislip Church, a monument placed there by her eldest son, Ralph. To us modern readers there is a hint of seventeenth-century attitudes to women's capabilities in the description of her as 'having had the honour to have borne, with a constancy and courage above her sex, a noble proportion of the late calamity'. It spoke of her 'happiness to have... seen the restitution of the government', indicating that she remained loyal to the royalist government. 

Mary was certainly decisive and quick-thinking, able to get her small band of defenders together and organise the safeguarding of her home with makeshift weaponry. She continued to fight once armed forces arrived, no doubt working alongside the Captain as a team. In the beginning of the siege she would have been heavily outnumbered but she didn't surrender. Mary was a bold and courageous woman and we should remember her when discussing the English Civil Wars. 

Corfe Castle is now a ruin, having been built on the orders of William the Conqueror. But when you visit, think of Lady Mary Bankes and her quick-thinking and defiance in refusing to hand over her home despite the odds not being on her side. 

You might also like: Sex and Sexuality in Stuart Britain (a review), Oxford's Oldest Coffee Houses and 8 Things You Didn't Know About Donnington Castle

Never want to miss a post? Subscribe to my newsletter here: 


Georgiana Hill, 'Heroines of the Civil War', in Women in English Life, from Medieval to Modern Times, in Two Volumes, Vol. 1. (London, 1896)

Eleanor Creathone, Female Warriors: Memorials of Female Valour and Heroism, from the Mythological Ages to the Present Era Vol. 1. (London, 1879)

Alexandra Richards, Taking it Slow in Dorset, a Snapshot of the Region (Travel Guide). (2015)