Deliberate Treachery or an Unfortunate Accident?
Hoghton Tower in the Civil War
Visitors to Hoghton Tower today can marvel at the level of preservation of this Tudor fortified manor house. Still lived in by the de Hoghton family, it is open to the public through regular events and tours. But at some point, many visitors must have wondered to themselves “Where is the tower at Hoghton Tower?” The site consists of a large complex of rooms, set around two courtyards, but nowhere is there anything obvious that would give the site its name.
There was a tower once at Hoghton, and it was older than the Elizabethan buildings that exist now. It was quite likely a defendable ‘peel tower’, similar to Turton Tower.
In the Civil War Hoghton Tower was owned by Sir Gilbert Hoghton, who used it as the local headquarters for the Royalist forces loyal to King Charles I. However, the nearby town of Blackburn was most definitely a Parliamentarian Roundhead stronghold. It became known that although the tower had three pieces of “great ordnance” (canons) to defend it, it was manned by only thirty or forty soldiers armed with muskets.
The Parliamentarians decided they could probably take and hold Hoghton Tower with little resistance. They approached and fired a shot to summon Sir Gilbert’s men to parlay. The defenders, looking at the superior force, asked for time to consider their position. They were given half an hour, and after this they decided to surrender the tower to the Parliamentarians.
The Parliamentary soldiers entered the tower, led in by Captain Starkey of Blackburn. They found gunpowder and weapons on the stairs and in the upper rooms. Within a few minutes of their entry there was a tremendous explosion, which destroyed the tower and killed over sixty of the Parliamentarians that had gone into it.
The contemporary sources give three different causes- one of deliberate treachery, and the other two of an accidental nature. All the sources were publications sympathetic to Parliamentary forces, so this is not a case of Parliament blaming Royalists and vice versa.
The Punctuall Relation states that after allowing the Parliamentary soldiers into the tower, two of the Royalists lit a trail of gunpowder they had laid down deliberately beforehand to set off barrels of explosives. This perhaps would be taken as the truth, if it were not for the other contradictory accounts from the time. Lancashire’s Valley of Achor states that it was the Parliamentary soldiers own fault. It claims the soldiers entering the tower were drunk and careless. The explosion was caused by either one of their own smouldering musket match cords, or by a lit pipe carried by one of the soldiers. The publication known as the Discourse also say that the incident was a “fearful accident” through a “want of heedfulnesse”.
On a personal note, our own knowledge of how easy it is to accidently ignite gunpowder is limited. However, on a visit to Tynemouth Priory’s First World War Gun Emplacement it was very clear that even a spark could set off explosives in a confined area. The precautions at this site included a separate room to change into suitable working clothes and footwear that would not generate friction. The floors and doors were designed in such a way to minimise the chance of a stray spark. Contrast this to soldiers entering Hoghton Tower which was loaded up with gunpowder and weapons. This would have been a constricted space, with men wearing boots that may have had metal nails in the soles which could cause a spark through friction. Add to this that they could have been smoking pipes, or even had smouldering musket match cords.
The original tower of Hoghton Tower was never rebuilt, but the fortified manor house survived intact.
You can read Hoghton Tower's full fascinating history on our companion website
Lancashire Past here:
The Civil Wars in Lancashire (1640-1660), Stephen Bull (2009), Carnegie
Tynemouth Priory and Castle, English Heritage (2008)