Political prisoners at Mont Orgueil Castle

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Political prisoners at Mont Orgueil Castle


During and after the English Civil War, Mont Orgueil Castle in Jersey was an ideal place to keep political prisoners hidden from view. Those whom the ruling faction, Royalist or Parliamentarian, did not wish to execute, but wanted out of the way, where there was little chance of their being rescued or being able to have any influence on ongoing events, were exiled to Jersey and incarcerated in the castle's cells. Among them were a number of notable personages from either side, as this article by Robert Innes-Smith, which first appeared in Jersey Topic magazine in 1966, explains


During the troubled years of the 17th century when, constitutionally and politically, Britain was more chaotic than at any time in her history, Jersey was used by both King and Parliament as a safe place of incarceration of political prisoners.

The building used to house these unfortunate people was the great castle of Mont Orgueil. Cromwell made the greatest use of Jersey for this purpose and the first prisoner he sent there was, curiously enough, one of his early supporters, John Lilburne.

John Lilburne

John Lilburne

Lilburne was a man one would nowadays describ as a dangerous left-wing agitator. He hated rank and wealth and his vitals were gnawed with jealousy. He was the leader of a faction known as the Levellers. As a boy he had shown signs of things to come when he was administered a sound and well-deserved flogging for distributing inflammatory literature attacking the Episcopacy.

He was irrepressible even then and remained so for the rest of his life. In the early days Cromwell had befriended him and secured his release from prison and Lilburne joined the Army and fought with distinction against the Royalists. Soon, however, he came to hate Cromwell and to see him as what he termed a 'Grandee'.

Cromwell was born a gentleman, as were many of his followers; Lilburne was not, hence the friction. Cromwell was not ruthless enough and Lilburne finally denounced him as a traitor to the Cause.

After a spell in the Tower he was released after a trial in the same year as the King's execution. During the Commonwealth he was exiled for being involved in more troublemaking and when he was finally allowed to return he was asked to promise to comply with Cromwell's regime.

This he refused to do and was sent to prison, first to Guernsey, and then to Jersey.

It is difficult to know what to make of a person like Lilburne. England coughs up similar specimens from time to time. They usually join the Communist party or the extreme radical "rump" of the Labour party. The late Harold Laski was a Lilburne and likewise is Michael Foot. I suppose there will always be Lilburnes with us, though nowadays we cannot shut them up in the Tower so easily.

Robert Overton

Robert Overton

Another dissentient from the Cromwell regime was General Robert Overton, the Governor of Hull. He was one of Cromwell's most useful military leaders, but subsequently accused his leader of ‘taking the Crown from the head of Christ and putting it on his own'. Ironside Oliver had him in Mont Orgueil in a trice.

Duke of Buckingham

Undoubtedly the most illustrious prisoner in Jersey at that time was the 2nd Duke of Buckingham — splendid son of a brilliant father. The first Duke, George Villiers, was one of the most magnetic and romantic characters in history. He rose to have complete ascendancy over both James I and Charles I and was destroyed by a fanatical malcontent at the summit of his career and in the prime of his youth.

He was but 36 years old. His epitaph in Westminster Abbey describes him as `The Enigma of the World'. At his death he left an infant son to succeed him.

This son, also George, grew to become in some ways like his father and a staunch Royalist. He accompanied Charles II during his wanderings and fought with him at the Battle of Worcester.

Buckingham's life was one of intrigue and panache. He was reckless and profligate at the same time as being brilliant and likeable. He possessed his father's fatal charm. After the King's execution, Cromwell's greatest general, Fairfax, broke with the 'Protector' in disgust.

Buckingham became friendly with the old Roundhead and eventually married his daughter. Cromwell, in fury, had him arrested and put into prison. He escaped, was arrested again and would surely have suffered the fate of his King had not Cromwell died.

The Duke came into his own at the Restoration, when he carried on the family tradition of being Number One favourite with Charles II. Thus the Villiers family held sway over three successive monarchs.

Oliver Cromwell found Jersey's Mont Orgueil Castle an ideal place to hold some of his greatest enemies

Sir Thomas Armstrong

Other lesser Royalists were flung into the castle by Cromwell during his usurping 'reign'. Sir Thomas Armstrong was imprisoned three times during the Commonwealth for, among other 'offences', getting money out of England to aid the King in exile. Sir Thomas survived until 1684 when he suffered death at the hands of Judge Jeffreys.

Another who got money to the King and ended up in Mont Orgueil was John Ashburnham, a protégé of the Duke of Buckingham, who had been paymaster of the Royalist army. His brother, William, also ended up there because of his implication in an attempt on Cromwell's life.

When that life finally expired in its own time, and sanity returned to the country, it was the Royalists' turn to use Jersey as a kind of 'Devil's Island' to house some of the unsavoury rabble involved in the King's death. Most notorious was Major-General Sir Hardress Waller, who was among those who condemned the King to death.

A fine soldier, he proved to be a very inadequate 'judge'. He was tried as a regicide and condemned to be imprisoned in Jersey, where he remained for six years, until his death in 1666. He was lucky to escape the death penalty.

Then came four members of the Long Parliament who were concerned with the death of King Charles. They were Henry Smith, Gilbert Millington, James Temple and Thomas Wayte. The latter's signature appears on the death warrant, and all of them pleaded duress in the part they played and so escaped the gallows.

One person who inspires some sympathy was Overton, the Roundhead, who had quarrelled with Cromwell and found himself in Mont Orgueil. At the Usurper's death, he was released by Richard Cromwell but at the Restoration he maintained his fervent republican views and found himself again in prison where he died.

==William Prynne] These, then, were some of the political prisoners who rotted in Jersey during the 17th century. There were others like Cromwell's Admiralty Commissioner, Colonel Salmon, and, some years before, William Prynne, the Puritan pamphleteer.

He had criticised the stage and, by implication, the Queen herself. For this he was cruelly mutilated by having his ears lopped, and imprisoned. He attacked Archbishop Laud and during the Commonwealth got into trouble with Cromwell. At the Restoration he became a Royalist and died in 1669.

Another prisoner was John Weston, transferred here from the Tower where he had been sent for plotting to help King Charles I escape.

Now Mont Orgueil is a focal point for tens of thousands of tourists who visit Jersey and want to see this great fortress which still has an air of melancholy imparted to it, no doubt, by the unhappy ghosts which surely inhabit its grim cells and battlements.

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