She was named Brilliana after her place of birth in Brill near Rotterdam in the Netherlands where her father Sir Edward Conway was serving as Lieutenant-Governor. In 1623, aged 25, quite an advanced age for the time she married her father’s aide, Sir Robert Harley.
Deeply religious and a prolific letter writer, Brilliana, along with her husband, were devout Puritans and despite their sense of personal loyalty to King Charles they vehemently opposed his religious policies which they believed were introducing idolatry into Church of England services or even worse, Catholicism by the back door.
During the political crises of the early 1640’s and following the King’s reluctant recall of Parliament, Sir Robert was appointed Chairman of the Committee for the Destruction of Idolatry and he set about his work with relish destroying or removing any relic of Catholicism in Churches throughout London including Westminster Abbey.
In his home county of Herefordshire his ardour in personally leading his men in the removal of crucifixes, the tearing down of altar rails, and the smashing of stained glass windows made him deeply unpopular in a region where there was little support for his brand of religious extremism.
Sir Robert however, as a Member of Parliament was rarely at home and the family seat of Brampton Bryan near Ludlow was left in the capable hands of Brilliana who unlike her bullish husband was generally well thought of but as the political crisis intensified her anxieties grew. She was not only concerned for her own safety and that of her household but was particularly worried for her son Edward, known as Ned, who was away studying at Oxford. She wrote constantly to him not only of her own situation but also of the increasing threat of armed conflict between the forces of the King and Parliament. In August 1642, she wrote to Ned:
“As of this day, Monday, 22 August, 1642, His Royal Majesty brought forth his army and did set up his Standard in the city of Nottingham.”
She wanted to know of Ned’s intentions. After all, her father was for Parliament but her own brother, Pelham Conway, had already declared for the King.
Herefordshire was a Royalist stronghold but the Harley’s had been an established and respected family of county gentry going back as far as medieval times so the venom and depth of hostility that Brilliana and her servants were subjected to on a visit to Ludlow, some ten miles distant, shocked her. Indeed, such was the degree of hatred levelled at her that someone had even hung the severed head of a pig in her path and adorned it with the helmet of a Roundhead.
She returned to Brampton Bryan much shaken. Her neighbours she wrote are in “mighty violence against me.”
She suddenly felt very isolated and vulnerable.
Such was the state of turmoil in London that her husband Sir Robert, had insisted that Brilliana and the children remain at Brampton Bryan for their own safety, but she knew that her husband could not possibly have been aware of the intense animosity that was now being directed at her locally. She thought it an unwise decision but nonetheless did not oppose her husband’s wishes. For in almost every way Brilliana appeared to fit the stereotype of the seventeenth century woman – emotional, dependent, and weak of constitution. She also appeared to be the good Puritan wife, docile and obedient to her husband in all things.
If this was indeed the case, at least in regards of the former, then she was to go some way to disproving it. She would not be intimidated, and she would not buckle under pressure. She would go beyond what was expected of a woman, not that she would have seen it that way.
Despite the fact that her tenants had ceased to pay their rent, that her livestock was being rustled daily, and her servants attacked in the street she was determined to make the most of a bad situation and her experience in Ludlow had persuaded her to take measures to fortify her home. She purchased flintlocks, gunpowder, and stocked up with supplies, and despite it breaking her heart to do so she uprooted her much-cherished garden and re-flooded the moat. She took further precautions sending the silver plate and her jewels to her husband in London in a trunk marked cake, though she was unable to save her valuable collection of Venetian glass which was smashed.
Her servants fearing for their own lives remained in the Castle with their families. The men she armed and organised into companies of troops with Captains appointed by, herself, whilst the women were put to other duties. One young man was sent from the Castle on a false errand and refused re-entry because she did not trust him and believed he would betray her. She also continued to write regularly to her son though the letters were now written in code.
Brampton Bryan she knew was strategically important to the King’s cause and she had already heard the rumours that a Royalist army was on its way to seize it.
The first year of the war went badly for Parliament and it appeared at times that they were on the verge of defeat.
During these difficult times Brilliana had tried to keep a low profile and it wasn’t until June 1643, that she received a summons to surrender her home. She wrote to Ned who had by now curtailed his studies to be a lawyer at Lincoln Courts Inn in London to join the Parliamentary Army:
“I send you a copy of the summons I have been sent. It says that if I do not give up my house I will be proceeded against as a traitor. There are 600 men appointed come attack us.”
Brilliana did not respond to the summons but with Prince Rupert expected to bring his triumphant army West the local Royalist Militia were ordered to take Brampton Bryan to help ease his passage.
On 23 July 1643, they surrounded the house and demanded in the name of the King that Brilliana hand it over. She replied:
“My husband hath entrusted me with his house according to his pleasure, therefore I cannot dispose of his house but according to his pleasure.”
The siege of Brampton Bryan had begun and the artillery bombardment soon commenced but first she had to witness the destruction of her crops, the slaughter of her remaining livestock, and the burning down of nearby houses.
If this was intended to intimidate Brilliana and force her to yield it failed, but there was also sadness. Her close friend Lady Colbourne was shot through the eye and killed and she personally tended to her cook who died a slow and agonising death from a musket ball coated with poison. However, safe behind the high, thick walls of the Castle actual fatalities remained relatively light but there were many injuries and the wounds incurred from the shells, broken masonry, and wood splinters were often severe causing her great distress.
But it did not deter her from continuing to resist for she knew that the Royalists could not storm the fortifications and that only a lengthy siege and the reduction in supplies and ordnance could defeat her.
She was also aware that Prince Rupert was busy besieging Gloucester and that a powerful Parliamentary Army under the Earl of Essex was on its way to its relief.
Even so, as the weeks went by the situation within the Castle became increasingly desperate. In particular, the food she had stockpiled was running short much earlier than she had anticipated and they had little in the way of medicines whilst the bodies of the dead needed to be buried with haste within the Castle grounds for the fear of disease. Indeed, the possible outbreak of plague concerned her more than the enemy.
Brilliana’s family had long been known to the King and had served both him and his father James with distinction for many years. Her father had even been on first name terms with the King when he had been a young man. She decided to appeal directly to His Majesty. In a carefully worded letter she wrote:
“By the petition of your humble servant, Dame Brilliana Harley, I hereby vouch that I did never offend Your Majesty, or ever take up arms against Your Majesty, or any of Your Majesty’s subjects, nor have I performed any act of rebellion. I thereby humbly request the return of my home.”
The reply was brought to her by her husband’s cousin Sir John Scudamore who had been a guest at her wedding twenty years earlier. Even so, she did not trust him enough to open the gates of the Castle fearing that the Royalists would seize the opportunity to force a way in, so instead he was hauled over the ramparts in a basket. Once pleasantries had been exchanged and the formalities were over and Sir John had taken the opportunity to admonish her for her recalcitrance and disloyalty, she opened the King’s letter with great trepidation and as it turned out with good reason. His response was unequivocal:
“We understand the Brampton Bryan Castle in our county of Hereford hath been and is made a receptacle and place of retreat to the rebels now in arms against us, and that great terror have been made against our good subjects and firing of houses and many other outrages. For these reasons we demand that the Castle be surrendered to us.”
Brilliana was downcast, the siege would go on but she did not just remain passive behind the walls of Brampton Bryan but despatched parties to forage for supplies and when the Royalists took advantage of a temporary truce to ransack the local Church and steal its bells she responded by sending her men out in force to attack the local town of Knighton.
Not long after news was received that the Earl of Essex had captured Gloucester and after seven weeks of bombardment and fierce, if sporadic, fighting on 9 September 1643, the Royalist Militia besieging Brampton Bryan were withdrawn.
It was a triumph for Brilliana but it was to be short-lived one. The stress of the siege had taken its toll and in early October she fell ill. She wrote to Ned:
“I have taken a very great cold which has made me very ill these two or three days, but I hope that the Lord will be merciful to me, in giving me health, for it is an ill time to be sick. My dear Ned I pray God bless you and give me the comfort of seeing you again.”
But it wasn’t to be.
On 29 October, just four days after taking to her bed she died probably, aged 45, probably of pneumonia.
The West of England was such a Royalist stronghold that lifting the siege of Brampton Bryan was only ever going to be temporary and by the spring of 1644 it was once again under attack.
The defence of the Castle had fallen to Brilliana’s doctor, Nathaniel Wright but without her presence there was little will to fight and after just two weeks they surrendered.
In truth, few defenders had remained with most seeking refuge in nearby Hopton Castle.
Those captured at Brampton Bryan by the Royalist Army were relatively well treated among them Brilliana’s three young children who were taken into custody; but the local Militia would have their revenge on those they believed had made fools of them.
After the fall of Hopton Castle the prisoners, both men and women, who were identified as having been at Brampton Bryan had their arms painfully bound before being led into the courtyard and having their throats slit. For one young maidservant who had been forced to witness the scene then released to spread news of the fate that awaited the King's opponents it was all too much and she broke down, never to recover her sanity.