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 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.
Machell does not say what Robin had done that riled Colonel Briggs, a senior Roundhead officer, so much that he abandoned his military operations to chase him. And why did the Roundheads leave without a fight, when Robin’s brother came home?
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, the Philipsons of the Island were never fined for supporting the king.
Robin, or Robert Philipson, was about twenty-two when this happened. 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 the heir was a minor, and when Hudleston 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 began 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.
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. However, soon afterwards he was shot in the back in an incident outside the walls, and took no further part in the siege. This may explain why he arrived at the Island on Windermere before his brother returned home.
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.’ From this description, 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. The likely 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.
We still do not know what caused Colonel Briggs to chase Robin Philipson, but it must have been something serious, because it is likely he left important military operations to follow the young man to the Island. It was a very eventful period, and without knowing the actual date of the incident, it is impossible to be certain what had preceded it. The Colonel 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. 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. Later, Troutbeck Park was sold by his son to pay debts, and eventually it became the estate farmed by Beatrix Potter. Hudleston died in his own bed, still owing money, but in his will left land he owned at Abbot Hall in Kendal for a grammar school.
There are still some gaps to be filled in the story of the Philipson brothers, and perhaps one day, the missing evidence will emerge. In the meantime, we have the makings of an historical adventure story as exciting as Ivanhoe, waiting for an author.
© Pauline Wharton 2017