When the first Civil War broke out in 1642, Richard Vaughan, Earl of Carbery, was the most powerful nobleman in south-west Wales. However, Carbery took little interest in national affairs and his allegiance was unclear. Both King and Parliament tried to commission him to raise forces on their behalf. Eventually, Carbery declared for the King and raised a regiment of foot, which he sent to join the Oxford army in January 1643 under the command of his uncle Sir Henry Vaughan. In that April, the three south-western counties of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire were allotted to him, and he was expected, as lieutenant-general, to raise troops, gather money and to secure the region for the King.
Apart from a Parliamentarian enclave centred on the town of Pembroke, most of south-west Wales was mainly Royalist in sympathy, or neutral. Lord Carbery, a reluctant hero, made no move against the Parliamentarian supporters in the region and was content to allow an informal truce to prevail so that for most of 1643, the area was unaffected by the civil war.
The strategic situation changed in September 1643 with the signing of the Cessation of Arms, negotiated between the King’s Lord-Deputy in Ireland and the Irish Confederates. The cease-fire allowed government troops stationed in Ireland to return to England to fight for the Royalist cause. The seaports of Pembrokeshire took on a new importance as potential landing places for the returning troops. Already on 18 August, Carbery had summoned the leading Pembrokeshire gentry to Carmarthen and persuaded them to sign a declaration promising to obey him and to support his efforts to secure Tenby and Pembroke for the King. On 30 August, the Mayor and Corporation of Tenby signed a second declaration promising to obey Carbery and refusing to assist Parliament, as did Haverfordwest on 18 September, when Carbery summoned the trained bands of Pembrokeshire to a rendezvous there, and, according to the Royalist newspaper Mercurius Aulicus, he also persuaded the Mayor and corporation of Pembroke to declare for the King during October.
Carbery’s campaign of diplomacy and persuasion to avoid bloodshed in the county had apparently secured all the ports of Pembrokeshire by the end of 1643. Unfortunately, his delicate balancing act started to fail around the beginning of 1644.
Then, the Parliamentarian leader of Pembroke, John Poyer, captain of the town militia, succeeded in overthrowing the Royalist mayor, seized Pembroke Castle and declared for Parliament. Poyer was supported by Colonel Rowland Laugharne, Parliament’s military commander in Pembrokeshire, and a small force of about 100 soldiers. Carbery responded by mustering all available Royalist forces from the counties under his command. Rather than risking a direct assault, however, Carbery imposed a blockade on Pembroke by establishing garrisons in Tenby, Haverfordwest and every castle and mansion around the town.
On the North side of Milford Haven, his brother, Sir Henry Vaughan, supervised the building of an artillery fort at Pill to dominate the approach to Pembroke by sea and to deny the use of the Haven to Parliamentarian ships. However, while Carbery made his preparations for starving Pembroke into submission, a Parliamentarian naval squadron of six warships under the command of Captain Richard Swanley arrived in Milford Haven.
Swanley offered to evacuate the Parliamentarians of Pembroke, but Poyer and Laugharne were determined to seize the opportunity provided by these reinforcements. With armed seamen from Swanley’s squadron, Colonel Laugharne stormed and captured the manor house at Stackpole, four miles south of Pembroke, and followed this up with the capture of another fortified manor house at Trefloyne, Penally, near Tenby. This lightning campaign was completed by capturing the new artillery fort at Pill on the north shore of Milford Haven, together with its garrison of 300, 18 guns and two Royalist ships. The collapse of the Royalist cause in Pembrokeshire apparently frightened the Royalist garrison of Haverfordwest so much they abandoned the town and fled to Carmarthen.
This left Tenby as the only Royalist port in Pembrokeshire. The Parliamentarian campaign climaxed with a joint land and sea attack on the town. Three of Swanley’s ships opened the attack from the sea on 6 March 1644. The ships, the ‘Prosperous’, the ‘Swallow’ and the ‘Crescent’ had arrived from Milford Haven, and in the words of John Vaughan from Trawscoed “Summoned them to yield the town”. The garrison refused and the ships started their attack, by ‘‘Storming it violently from the sea with their ordnance”. The following day, Laugharne’s forces arrived and set up artillery around the town, probably in the Deer Park area of Tenby. For three days, Tenby was bombarded from land and sea.
A desperate attempt was made to break this Parliamentarian stranglehold by the despatch of a Royalist ammunition ship from Bristol. Unfortunately for Tenby, the ‘gun-runner’ was sighted by a lookout on board one of Swanley’s ships and intercepted. A sea chase followed until finally the Royalist ship managed to escape by putting in to Llanelli, which was probably still loyal to the Crown. Here, its Bristol master would have been more familiar with the treacherous sandbanks of the Burry estuary than the commander of the ‘Crescent’.
It seems that the failure of the supply ship to get through was crucial to Tenby, which fell on the 9th of March. On that day, the North Gate was blown in and Laugharne ordered an assault. The Royalists resisted fiercely, fighting in the streets after they were driven back from the gate, until the military governor, Commissary Gwynne, was mortally wounded. The discouraged Royalists surrendered. Three hundred prisoners were taken and Tenby was plundered.
According to John Vaughan who wrote on the 12th of March 1644, “A ship with some ammunition arrived from Bristol and ventured to relieve the town, was chased by a frigate of Swanley’s and hardly escaped by putting into a creek at Llanelli, and is safe. Had Tenby been saved the country had been easily commanded with horse”.