The True Story of Robin the Devil

If you visit Kendal Parish church, you will see an ancient helmet and sword hanging over the door which leads to the vestry. By tradition, this armour once belonged to a hotheaded young Royalist soldier named Robin the Devil, and it commemorates his notorious ride into the church on horseback, in search of the unpopular Roundhead commander, Colonel Briggs. The incident turned Robin into a folk hero, and inspired Sir Walter Scott, the creator of Ivanhoe, to write a poem about it. The story is not just a local  legend. It comes from what has always been considered a reliable source.

Thomas Machell, a clergyman, was a guest of Robin’s nephew in his new house on the Island in Windermere – better known today as Belle Isle – in 1677. He heard the story from a local inhabitant who had witnessed the events. Robin had been beseiged on the Island by Colonel Briggs and his men, until his elder brother, Hudleston, returned home and relieved him. Robin was so furious at what had happened that he and a couple of friends leapt on their horses and rode to Kendal in pursuit of the Roundhead commander. It was a Sunday, and they expected to find the Colonel in church. They entered the church porch without dismounting, and to the consternation of the congregation, rode up and down the aisles, searching for the Colonel, but he was not there. When a member of the congregation protested at the blasphemous behaviour of the young men, there was a scuffle, during which Robin’s helmet was knocked off. Disappointed in their search for the Colonel, the young men set off home, but were stopped by the Watch, and became involved in another skirmish. What particularly impressed the eyewitness was how fast these impetuous young man must have ridden, in order to arrive back in Windermere by early afternoon.

The records of Parliament refer to an incident on the Island in Windermere involving Colonel Briggs and some local royalists in 1645, though Robert Philipson – to give him his full name – is not mentioned. And, mysteriously, unlike other Royalist gentry, there is no record the Philipsons of the Island were ever fined for supporting the king.

There is also a second source for the episode in Kendal church. In a letter to her sister in June 1648, Ann Tolson of Burneside wrote:

One day, Hudleston Philipson of Crook Hall, came here with some noisy followers on horses and demanded beer. Then they urged Thomas (her husband) to join their party to  go with them and attack Colonel Briggs, at Kendal, who is now mayor. It was difficult to get the party away without uproar. They took the track to Kendal, and we learnt afterwards that one of them called Robert, who is called Robin the Devil, got more drink, then finding the Mayor was at service in the church, he rode his horse within the door and cried out to the Mayor to come out. The people turned on him and he had hard work to get away leaving his cap in thechurch.

It seems from this there may have been two separate incidents, one in 1645 and one in 1648, and they were put together to make a good yarn for Thomas Machell. But Mrs Tolson heard the story about what happened in Kendal secondhand, so she may not have been completely right, either.

Ann Tolson’s letter suggests Robin was less popular at the time when the incident happened than he became later. He was about twenty-two when Civil War began.  His elder brother, Hudleston, had inherited the family estates a few years earlier. These included the wooded island opposite Bowness on Lake Windermere with its ancient manor house. The father of the two brothers had fallen into debt, and had gone off to fight for the King of Sweden as a mercenary, to try to repair his fortunes. He died when his eldest son was only nine years old, still in debt. The estate was leased whilst Hudleston was a minor, and when he finally came into his inheritance, he found it had been badly neglected. As a result, throughout his adult life, he was always short of money. This may be why his name does not appear in the records of gentry who were fined. Below a certain level of wealth, the Royalists were exempt.

When the fighting had started between the King and his enemies, the two brothers immediately joined the Royalist army. After the King’s defeat at York in 1645, the same year as the incident on the Island, they were chosen by Sir Thomas Glemham to be amongst his 500 handpicked the troops, who would defend the city of Carlisle against the forces of Parliament and the invading Scots.

Isaac Tullie was an eighteen-year-old boy living in Carlisle at the time of the siege, and a fervent Royalist supporter. He wrote a daily account of events, describing the skirmishes between the heroic young Royalist officers and the Parliamentarians, which usually took place when the Royalists were guarding the cattle the city depended on, in the fields outside the walls. If Tullie is to be believed, they invariably emerged victorious from these confrontations with the enemy troops, even when heavily outnumbered. He particularly admired the two Philipson brothers, and he recounts a story that the soldiers in the Roundhead camp were haunted by the ghost of a Royalist officer, who would threaten them with Captain Philipson and his troops if they did not defect to the King. The troops were so frightened by this that they started to fire their muskets. The shots were heard at a neighbouring encampment, and two horses were drowned, as colleagues came to their rescue. Captain Philipson is reputed to have asked the Roundhead commanding officer at a parley if this was true, and the officer told him it was. It is clear from Tullie’s account that a lot of drinking went on amongst the garrison, including the Philipsons.

In spite of the bravery of the garrison, the situation inside the walls at Carlisle became increasingly desperate, and Robin was sent to the king to ask him to relieve the city. On the way back, he was captured by the enemy and taken to York, where he was sentenced to be racked the next day. With the help of a Royalist sympathiser, he managed to escape by leaping over a wall and returning to Carlisle safely.

There is another story about Robin the Devil during the siege, which was drawn to my attention by Ian Hall.  A record in the Journal of the House of Lords tells us that in 1645, during the siege of Carlisle, the parliamentarians were storing ammunition on St Herbert’s Island on Derwentwater, which belonged to Sir Wilfrid Lawson. The Royalists planned to attack the island, with the assistance of one of Lawson’s men. However, this man betrayed them and the Royalists were foiled. Ian has sent me a quotation from J. Fisher Crosthwaite, a nineteenth century historian, who says it was Robert Philipson who led the Royalist party, but when he got there the Parliamentarians were prepared and he had to return to Carlisle empty handed, followed by the ‘derisive laughter’ of the enemy.

Soon afterwards, Robert was shot in the back in an incident outside the walls, and took no further part in the siege. If he really was on the Island when it was besieged by Colonel Briggs, this may explain why he arrived back before his brother. Hudleston’s own return was delayed because he and a fellow officer had been sent to General Fairfax, the commander of the Parliamentary army, to say the Royalists were ready to make terms to end the siege. Although Hudleston was given a safe conduct, he was stopped on the way and imprisoned. During this delay, Carlisle was surrendered to the Scots, and the Royalist troops dispersed.

By the time the siege ended, the soldiers and citizens were in a pitiful state. They had been forced to eat horses and rats, and the horses that survived had been fed on the thatch from the roofs. Isaac Tullie describes how the gentlemen laughed at each other, because their clothes hung on them like ‘a man on a gibbet.’ If Machell’s story is true,  it may seem surprising that Colonel Briggs gave up his siege of the Island when Hudleston came home, as he and his supporters, if he had any, would have been too weak to put up a fight. A possible explanation is that under the terms of the surrender, the Royalists were to return home and live peaceably, so once Hudleston, the owner of the Island, came back, the Colonel had no grounds for continuing the fight.

Colonel Briggs was unpopular at the time and has remained a villain in local folk memory ever since. He lived at Over Burrow, just over the border in Lancashire, but had been appointed to a position in Westmorland because there were not enough parliamentary supporters in the county to fill all the offices. The Scots, supposedly his allies, considered him an upstart and blamed their poor reception in Westmorland on the Colonel’s activities. Part of his role was to raise troops and money for the Parliament. This he did by calling together the male inhabitants of the county at Appleby, and telling them they would not be allowed to go home until they had paid a certain sum of money. Some paid, and were allowed to go. He then reduced the sum of money, and allowed more men to go, and so on, until only a few were left, thus succeeding in obtaining money and getting recruits. He was very unpopular in Kendal, and Ann Tolson says she was told that he only joined Cromwell’s party because Sir F. Anderson would not speak to him or invite him to parties at Kendal Castle! Later there was a scandal when a surgeon in his regiment killed a man at Milnthorpe. Briggs survived the war and died at his home.

After the episode on the Island, both brothers married. Robin remained a professional soldier and is thought to have died in Ireland. Hudleston continued to live on the family estates at Crooke Hall and the Island. In 1647, he was elected a leader of the mob responsible for imprisoning the Presbyterian minister and the mayor in Kendal. At some point, he must have rejoined the army, because later he is a referred to as Colonel instead of Captain, and was rewarded by the king for his service. It was common for gentlemen who were impoverished supporters of the government in power to petition for a pension, but for the Royalists, this was not possible until after Charles II was restored in 1660. Nevertheless, in 1658, Hudleston Philipson was granted Troutbeck Park and its valuable slate quarries by the king in exile. The promise was honoured when the king returned to the throne, although Hudleston had died by then. He died in his own bed, still owing money.  Later, the slate quarries at Troutbeck Park was sold by his son to pay debts, and eventually it became the estate farmed by Beatrix Potter.

In 1664, Mrs Tolson and her husband were invited to a Maypole dance at a neighbour’s new place in Witherslack. There they met some Calgarth Philipsons, who told them that Robert who was called the Devil had been slain in a fight in Ireland.  Mrs Tolson comments, ‘He left a wife and three children, and the world will be all the quieter without him, poor man.’

© Pauline Wharton 2017