Brilliana Conway 1598-1643



Conway was born at Brill, near Rotterdam in the Netherlands, while her father Sir Edward Conway (later Viscount Conway) was Governor there. She married (as his fourth wife), Sir Robert DeHarley on 22/7/1623, who served as her father's aide in the Parliament of England, while her father was Secretary of State of England.

Some of Lady Harley's 375 letters to her husband and her son Sir Edward Harley survive and show her to be an educated literary woman, at home in several languages. She was able to keep her husband informed of local political affairs when he was absent from home at Brampton Bryan in northwest Herefordshire, attending Parliament or for other reasons, and organised the collection on information locally for the Parliamentary Committee on Scandalous Ministers. She was deeply religious, and her letters frequently repeat religious sentiments and encouraged her family in their chosen Puritan practices. The letters also contain passages relating to personal details of their family life.
Ruins of Brampton Bryan 18th Century
"The first bloodshed of the Civil War took place at Manchester on 15 Jul 1642, when Lord Strange commanded a band of troopers to attack townsmen engaged in executing the militia ordinance. A number were wounded and one died a few days later from injuries he sustained. As the pace of the war escalated private houses were searched; private property seized or destroyed; civilians were imprisoned, injured or killed. In spite of the hostile actions neither the parliamentarians nor the royalists wanted war. On 23 Apr 1642 Lady Brilliana had written to Edward Harley: 'I see the distance is still kept between King and Parliament. The Lord in mercy make them one (unified) and in His good time incline the King to be fully assured in the faithful counsel of his Parliament.'

Four months later on 20 August 1642 Sir William Croft suggested a peace formula to Sir Robert, advising that the forces already raised for a civil war might be diverted for the relief of the protestants and King's good subjects in Ireland. The desire for peace was real, but each side wanted it on their own terms. Lady Brilliana expected that local royalist gentlemen would attack Brampton from the earliest stage of the war because the estate was isolated in the center of royalist country. (Shropshire, Worcestershire, Radnorshire, Monmouthshire and Brecknockshire were all dominated by the royalists. Gloucester was the nearest major parliamentarian garrison to Brampton, but Brilliana was not able to get much assistance from them. Despite being encircled by royalists, Brampton wasn't besieged until 26 July 1643. As loyalties of the locals began to deteriorate Lady Brilliana wrote to Sir Robert in August of 1642,' they say they maintain the true religion, but they shamefully use all that profess it'. The war had begun to be perceived as a religious struggle. By February 1643 she explained to her husband that only the truly religious would now associate themselves with those living in the castle at Brampton. 'My God being so merciful to me, in that he has offered me and mine his word, to be shut up with us and many of his dear servants, so that we take company of those that fear him, for indeed not anyone else will come near us'.

Brilliana's eldest sons Edward and Robert joined William Waller's forces in June of 1643, further leaving Lady Harley in a weakened and isolated position. On 14 July 1642 Sir William Croft and Fitzwilliam Coningsby mustered trained bands at Herford. Sir Robert Harley was absent, still being in London. Lady Brilliana had sent one of her servants to observe the muster and reported to Robert that, 'when the soldiers were all gathered together and your company was called, your name was called first and then a great many cried out and wished you were there that they might tear you to pieces...he heard everyone rail at you and the Parliament. He dared not take upon him whose man (servant) he was and the people were so rude'.

Between July and September Brilliana was convinced that Brampton would be attacked, either by royalist forces outside the community, or by neighbors on the pretext that they were looking for weapons. She took measures to protect herself and on July 15th reported that she had received 20 bandoliers, but was still waiting for muskets, powder and shot, which came later. On August 4th, her son Ned (Edward) returned home. Brilliana also took a number of men into the castle and paid them a daily wage plus food. A few months later she dismissed them on the grounds that they had killed a man and plundered the sheriff of Radnorshire.

Dictionary of National Biography, 
Volumes 1-20, 22, Page 1275
In early 1643 the King ordered Fitzwilliam Coningsby to prepare for an assault on the castle, and at the beginning of February the royalist commander, Lord Herbert, called a council of war where it was decided to use the trained bands of Radnorshire with some Herfordshire soldiers to storm the castle. The plan collapsed when they refused to cross into Herfordshire. At the same time Herbert's forces were diverted to attack the parliamentarian garrison at Gloucester. Coningsby, however, sent a token force of 11 men to Brampton, telling Brilliana to deliver up the fort and castle of Brampton Bryan, with all arms, munitions, and all other warlike provisions under the pain to be taken and proceeded against both by law and martial force as persons guilty of treason. Lady Brilliana's reply was: 'to the demand of my house and arms (which are no more than to defend my house), this is my answer. Our gracious King, having many times promised that he will maintain the laws and liberties of the kingdom, by which I have as good a right to what is mine as anyone, maintains me these, and I know not upon what ground the refusal of giving you what is mine (by the laws of the land), will prove me, or anyone that is with me, traitors'.

The Marquess of Hertford, commander of the royal forces in the west, replied to this letter and assured Lady Brilliana that she, her family, servants and possessions would be unharmed if she were to surrender. She placed little faith in such offers. Four days later she heard that Herbert had appointed 600 men and 2 canon to be sent to destroy Brampton. Brilliana asked her husband if she should leave the estate for safety. In January of 1643 Brilliana informed Sir Robert that 'none that belongs to me dare go to Herford, nor dare they go far from my house'. Later that month she told her son Edward that she was not allowed any fowl, nor would they let her servants pass. They forbid her to collect her rents. She was threatened daily with soldiers who were cruel, taunting that it was their desire that Sir Robert leave neither root nor branch (meaning they would kill all his family). Royalists entered the park at Brampton, took 4 oxen, beat the workmen and opened fire, shooting Edward Morgan twice in the chest. He died from his wounds within half an hour.

The plunder of her horses and cattle, and threats to her children were constant fears on her mind. In February Fitzwilliam Coningsby acting in his capacity as sheriff demanded that Brilliana's tenants pay their rent directly to him, and not to the Harleys. She was soon forced to borrow, as no moneys were coming into the household.

In spite of her fears that Brampton would be attacked, Brilliana refused to take a neutral stand and she allowed Brampton to become a center of refuge for parliamentarians. She also organized an efficient intelligence service, which operated even at the height of the siege at her home. Her information was sent both to Sir Robert at Westminster and to Colonel Massey at Gloucester in the hopes that they could take measures to counter the movements of the local royalists.

The final decision to attack Brampton was taken by Sir William Vavasour because he felt he would lose the respect of the county if he didn't. Sir Robert's castle was a strong place. The approach to the castle was protected by the gatehouse, an early 14th century structure flanked by two round towers and protected by a fully working double portcullis. A passage led from the gatehouse into the inner courtyard, where the hall, also originating in the 14th century, was situated on the north. Inside the castle were 50 muskateers and another 50 civilians-men, women and children. Lady Brilliana was accompanied by her three youngest children, Thomas, Dorothy and Margaret, and by a number of friends including Dorothy, Lady Coleburn, the family doctor Nathaniel Wright, his wife and his apothecary, and Samuel More, son of Richard More, the MP for Bishop's Castle.

Inside Brampton conditions were extremely uncomfortable and dangerous. The siege lasted just over 6 weeks, during which time the cattle, sheep and horses were plundered; the mills, town houses and barns were all burnt to the ground and the castle was extensively damaged by continual bombardment with cannon and small shot. The cook was killed after being hit by a bullet and Mrs. Wright and Lady Coldburn were both wounded. In spite of this the inhabitants of the castle accepted the assault with great courage, and Lady Brilliana's own fortitude strengthened the resolve of those around her. The flour had to be ground with a hand mill, the provisions were scarce, the roof of the castle was so battered that there was not one dry room in it.

Lady Brilliana continued to maintain that she and her family were faithful subjects of the King. In September there was a break in hostilities and Sir Robert now wrote to his wife advising her to leave Brampton. In her reply she bravely stated that she was not afraid to die in preserving the Harley estates and true religion in the country. But, she had doubts, and asked Edward whether she should stay or leave, adding that she could not leave without a convoy for safety. In her last letter to Robert, dated 16 October 1643, Lady Brilliana asked if Robert had been able to arrange safe passage for their family. In case he couldn't she took measures to secure the castle from another attack. Despite both her own appeals to the law of the land and her dislike of plundering, necessity had forced her to retaliate. She ordered the levelling of the enemy's earthworks and the castle was restocked with provisions, which had been plundered from her most active opponents, and ordered an attack on royalist troops quartered just over the border in Radnorshire. Despite this, she sincerely believed that she had been driven to act purely in the spirit of self-defence.

Before Vivasour could renew his attack Lady Brilliana fell fatally ill, her final sickness and death being both sudden and unexpected. On 29 October 1643 Samuel More wrote to London to Sir Robert warning that his wife was ill. She had suffered a 'fit of the stone' from which she apparently recovered, but was afflicted with a cough, had fallen into a fit and been seized with apoplexy, lethargy and convulsions. Lady Brilliana died two days later.

Lady Brilliana Conway's history continues with her husband Robert DeHarley.

The story of Brilliana Conway Harley was found in Jackie Eales' book, PURITANS AND ROUNDHEADS: The Harleys of Brampton Bryan and the outbreak of the English Civil War. Flyer pdf

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