Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Friday, March 31, 2023

Charlotte de La Trémoille: A Woman with a "stomach to digest cannon"

Charlotte de La Trémoille, countess of Derby, defender of Lathom House (died 31 March 1664)

Born in December 1599, Charlotte de La Trémoille was the daughter of Claude de La Trémoille, second  duke of Thouars, and Charlotte Brabantina of Nassau--who was herself the daughter of William I, prince of Orange, and his third wife, Charlotte of Bourbon.*

Charlotte de La Trémoille, 1641
Detail from painting by 
Anthony VanDyke
On 26 June 1626, the younger Charlotte was married to James Stanley, seventh earl of Derby, and the young couple fully enjoyed the gaieties of the Carolingian court, including taking part in masques written by the poet Ben Johnson. 

On 4 February 1629, Parliament passed an act "Naturalizing of the Right honourable the Lady Charlotte, Wife to the Right honourable James Lord Strange, Son and Heir apparent to Wm. Earl of Derby."

By 1635, however, Charlotte and her husband had retreated from court and its "gloomy politics," turning their attention to their growing family, which by this point included an heir, Charles, born in 1628, and two daughters, Henriette Marie (born in 1630) and Amelia Ann Sophia (born in 1633). 

In his extended history of the Stanley family, Peter Draper writes that the couple lived in "splendid privacy" in Lathom House (Lancashire) with James Stanley overseeing the family's properties in Lancashire and the Isle of Man. 

After the civil wars in England began in 1642, James Stanley "devoted himself to the king's cause." There were warnings about his loyalty to the king, however--among the reasons for suspicion was the upbringing of his wife, Charlotte, who had been brought up as a Huguenot and was said to have the "principles of the Dutch."

Although these suspicions kept King Charles from fully trusting him, "Stanley's loyalty rose above any consideration of revenging himself by going over to the enemy." After briefly resigning from his lieutenancy, Stanley was restored to his position and took up arms in defense of the king. When his father died on 29 September 1642, James Stanley became seventh earl of Derby. But by that time, he had already been impeached for treason by Parliament.  

But this is not the place to pursue the activities of James Stanley during the civil wars. In 1643, after her husband was ordered to the Isle of Man (he had been named lord of Man in 1627, a title his father had also held), Lathom House was left in the the hands of the earl's wife, Charlotte.

"Almost immediately" after Stanley left for the Isle of Man, the general in charge of parliamentary forces in the north, Lord Thomas Fairfax, expected that the countess of Derby would surrender the castle to him. (Stanley himself knew that was not the case: his wife was a "person of virtue and honour equal to her high birth and quality.")

A nineteenth-century engraving that "reconstructs"
Lathom House, at the time of the civil wars

Here is a contemporary description of the castle that the countess of Derby was called upon to defend:
Standing on a flat moorish, springy and spumous ground, was at the time of the siege encompassed with a strong wall, of two yards thick: upon the wall were nine towers, flanking each other, and in every tower were six pieces of ordnance that played three one way and three the other. Without the wall, was a moat eight yards wide, and two yards deep; upon the brink of the moat, between the wall and the graff, was a strong row of palisadoes, and to add to these securities, there was a high tower called the Eagle Tower, in the midst of the house, surrounding all the rest; and the gatehouse was also a strong and high building with a strong tower on each side of it; and in the entrance to the first court upon the tops of these towers were placed the best and choicest marksmen. Before the house, to the south and south-west, there is a rising ground so near as to overlook the top of it, which falls so quick that nothing planted against it on those sides can touch it, further than the front walls. And on the north and east sides there is another rising ground, even to the edge of the moat, and then falls away so quick that you can scarce, at the distance of a carbine shot, see the house over the height.
In 1644, Fairfax demanded that the countess surrender the castle to him, but she refused; "she would neither tamely give up her house, nor purchase her peace with the loss of her honour." She asked that she be allowed a "peaceable abode" in her own home, keeping only a few soldiers who would ensure her preservation from the "outrages" of "common soldiers." Her requests were denied. (A journal account of the events of the siege is included in Peter Draper's The House of Stanley.

There followed a "continued siege," the countess becoming "a prisoner in her own walls." In addition, she had to suffer the sermons of various "men of God" who inveighed against her as the "scarlet whore" and the "whore of Babylon."

On 28 February, Fairfax conveyed to her a parliamentary order to surrender to Lathom. In response, she asked for a week's delay. She had no second thoughts about her actions--according to the journal account of the siege, with her request for a delay, she sought to "gain time by demurs and protractions." She refused an offer to visit Fairfax at New Park, a house just about a quarter of a mile from Lathom; she reminded Fairfax of her husband's honor and "her own birth." Rather than her going to him, it was more "knightly" for Fairfax to come to her, and so she invited him to enter Lathom House as a guest, an invitation that was not quite accepted--on 2 March, Fairfax sent two colonels acting as his representatives with terms for her surrender.

On 4 Monday, the countess replied to Fairfax by sending him her own terms. She asked for a month's delay, offering to surrender the castle if Fairfax would allow her, her children, her soldiers, and her household to leave peacefully and asking for him to provide her safe transport to the Isle of Man. She further stipulated that no parliamentary soldiers were be quartered at Lathom after she left and that none of her neighbors or friends to suffer afterward for their connections to her.

Fairfax demanded, instead, that the countess surrender the castle by ten o'clock the next morning. She "refused all their articles" and was "truly happy" that Fairfax had refused her terms, "protesting that she had rather hazard her life, than offer the like again. THAT THROUGH A WOMAN AND A STRANGER, DIVORCED FROM HER FRIENDS, AND ROBBED OF HER ESTATE, she was ready to receive their utmost violence, trusting in God both for protection and deliverance."

Fairfax expected a "tame surrender," but he found that "her ladyship [was] fearless of . . . empty terrors." Facing "fixedness and resolution" in the countess, he offered her new terms a few days later. For her part, the countess replied that she would rather "preserve her liberty by arms, than to buy a peace with slavery."

Fairfax had some 2000 troops, the countess about 300. Under siege, the countess, her family, and her forces suffered bombardment and repeated charges from the parliamentary army. The siege continued through March and April--on 25 April she received yet another demand for submission. She replied to the messenger:
Thou art but a foolish instrument of a traitor's pride. Tell that insolent rebel he shall neither have persons, goods, nor house: when our strength and provisions is spent, we shall find a fire more merciful . . . and then if the providence of God prevent it not, my goods and house shall burn in his sight: myself, children, and soldiers, rather than fall into his hands, will seal our religion and loyalty in the same flame. We will die for his Majesty and your honour! God save the King.

Because the house was so "well fenced against the shot of cannon," Fairfax came to believe that the defenders would have to be starved out of Lathom. A month later, on 23 May, the countess was once again asked if she would surrender; "they should never have her, nor any of her friends alive" was her response.

On 25 May, Prince Rupert of the Rhine entered Lancashire with a royalist army, then met and defeated parliamentary forces; he "relieved and revenged the most noble lady, his cousin." On 27 May, the siege of Lathom House was lifted.

The countess of Derby, her children, and her household were able to leave Lathom House and join Stanley on the Isle of Man. 

A second siege of Lathom took place in 1645, when the castle fell to parliamentary forces. In 1649, after the execution of Charles I, James Stanley left the Isle of Man and joined the king's son, the future Charles II, taking part in his invasion of Lancashire in 1651. Stanley was with the king at the battle of Worcester, on 3 September, where royalist forces were defeated. Stanley was captured, tried for treason on 29 September, and condemned to death. He was executed on 15 October.

On the Isle of Man, meanwhile, the countess of Derby was making every effort to save her husband. By 25 October 1651, a parliamentary fleet descended on the island--the earl had written to advise his wife that she "should no longer resist" a "power so unequal," but she did  not receive these letters, nor did she know of her husband's death. The captain who was sent to treat with her referred cruelly to "the late Earl her husband" and informed her he would "take possession" of the island.

She and her children were thus "betrayed into the hands of their enemies" and "the grand object of the Parliamentarians was attained." She was taken prisoner and held at Rushen Castle, on the Isle of Man, for nine years. After the Restoration of Charles II, the countess of Derby was freed. She had her revenge, at least in part--she made sure the man who had assumed control on the Isle of Man during her imprisonment was tried and executed, and she (unsuccessfully) tried to have the men who had condemned her husband punished. 

She retired to the Stanley family's Knowsley House, where she died on 31 March 1664.

Charlotte, countess of Derby, was later memorialized as "the last person in the three kingdoms, and in all their dependent dominions, who submitted to the victorious Commonwealth." (I don't think this is correct--Google tells me that Galway was the last place to fall to the forces of Cromwell, in 1652--but I think it's worth preserving this recognition of Charlotte de La Trémoille.)

The phrase "stomach to digest a cannon" comes from the journal written by one of the defenders of Lathom House, who noted that the "little ladies" inside the castle "had stomachs to digest the cannon."

I have focused here on the countess of Derby's brave resistance during the English civil wars--you may enjoy Mary C. Rowsell's 1905 biography, The Life-Story of Charlotte de La Trémoille, Countess of Derby (click here).

*William's son by his third wife was Frederick Henry, prince of Orange. Frederick Henry's grandson, William, would marry Mary Stuart--the couple would emerge as king and queen of England after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Mary's father, James II, was forced to give up the throne.