John Poyer was a prosperous cloth merchant from Pembroke. He was also a Puritan and was a strong advocate of Parliament's stand against the king. As Poyer was also the mayor of Pembroke, he played an important role in the town's decision to declare its support for Parliament at the beginning of the Civil War.
When royalist forces attempted to capture Pembroke in 1644, Poyer served in the army under the town's military commander, Rowland Laugharne. Later, when Laugharne became overall commander of the parliamentary army in South Wales, Poyer became the military governor of Pembroke.
After its successful victory over the royalist forces in 1647, Parliament began to make plans to disband its army. This created a great deal of concern as many of the soldiers had not been paid for several months. Others were worried about the increase in taxes imposed by the parliamentary government.
On 24th December, Parliament declared that all soldiers who had enlisted after 6th August, 1647 were to be dismissed without pay. Those that had joined at an earlier stage of the war were to receive only two months wages.
Poyer was furious when he heard the news and began making speeches to his soldiers attacking Parliament's decision to disband the army. When Parliament discovered what Poyer was doing they sent Colonel Fleming to replace him as governor of Pembroke Castle.
Poyer refused to give up the castle and instead sent a letter to Parliament demanding the payment of £1,000 in wage arrears for his men. Colonel Fleming offered £200, but this was rejected. Other soldiers based in South Wales, who had heard about Poyer's actions, began to head for Pembroke to give him their assistance. Poyer's supporters included the two most senior army officers in South Wales, Major-General Rowland Laugharne and Colonel Rice Powell.
Parliament now realised that they had a major rebellion on their hands. The situation became even worse when news arrived that Charles I had made an agreement with the Scots. In return for the support of a Scottish army, Charles agreed to accept the establishment of the Presbyterian religion in England.
On 10th April 1648, Poyer declared that he now supported the king. Encouraged by Poyer's declaration for the king, ex-royalist soldiers began joining Poyer in Pembroke.
When Parliament heard about Poyer's actions in Pembroke they sent Colonel Thomas Horton with 3,000 troops to deal with the rebellion. Rowland Laugharne and nearly 8,000 rebels left Pembroke and engaged Horton's parliamentary army at St. Fagans in Glamorgan. Although outnumbered, Horton's experienced and well-disciplined army was able to defeat Laugharne's poorly armed soldiers. Over 200 of Laugharne's men were killed and another 3,000 were taken prisoner. Laugharne and what was left of his army, managed to escape back to Pembroke.
The rebellion now spread to other parts of Wales. Richard Bulkeley and the people of Anglesey declared their support for the king and Sir John Owen attempted to take Denbigh Castle from the parliamentary army. In the south of the country Rice Powell took control of Tenby and Sir Nicholas Kemeys and other local royalists captured Chepstow Castle.
Realising that the rebellion had to be put down quickly, Parliament decided to send Oliver Cromwell and five regiments to Wales. Cromwell's troops won back Chepstow Castle on 25th May and six days later Rice Powell was forced to surrender Tenby.
Cromwell now marched on to Pembroke to deal with Poyer and Rowland Laugharne. The castle, built on a great mass of limestone rock and nearly totally surrounded by the Pembroke River, was considered one of the strongest fortresses in Britain.
Oliver Cromwell did not have canons large enough to break through walls that were in some places 20 foot thick. Nor did he have besiegers' ladders that could deal with the 80 foot high walls. Attempts at storming the castle failed and so Cromwell was forced to wait and starve the rebels into submission.
Cromwell wrote back to Parliament forecasting that Poyer and his men would be forced to surrender in about two weeks. However, he was initially unaware that the castle had its own excellent water supply. Eventually, a local man betrayed the secret to Cromwell and the besieging army was able to cut the exposed water pipe on the outskirts of the town.
After a siege of eight weeks and completely without food and water, the rebel soldiers in the castle were forced to surrender. Cromwell dealt leniently with the ex-royalist soldiers. His main anger was directed towards those who had previously been members of the parliamentary army.
Poyer, Rowland Laugharne and Rice Powell were tried by court-martial in London and after being found guilty were all sentenced to death. Thomas Fairfax, the leader of the armed forces, decided that only one should die. The three men refused to take part in the lottery to decide who would be executed. The military authorities chose a young child to draw the lots. The papers drawn for Laugharne and Powell read: "Life Given by God". Poyer's paper was blank and he was shot in front of a large crowd at Covent Garden on 21 April, 1649.
Colonel Poyer... had from a low trade raised himself in the war to the reputation of a very diligent and stout officer, and was at the time trusted by the Parliament with the government of the town and castle of Pembroke.
A few men... have already gotten too much power into their hands, and want to disband us... So they can enslave the people... and establish taxes. We promise to protect the people from injury and maintain the Protestant religion... as established by the law in this land. We therefore crave the assistance of the whole kingdom.
As commander of these counties... I cannot ignore the affronts put upon my men... Instead of receiving their pay allowed them by Parliament... they have been disbanded... This happened in my absence, and to my knowledge, still unrighted... I believe that my past service for your country... merited much better treatment.
I desire that we have your assistance in procuring some necessaries to be cast in the iron-furnace in your county of Carmarthen, which will enable us to reduce the castle of Pembroke. The principal things we need are mortar shells, the depth of them being fourteen and three-quarter inches... We also desire some cannon-shot... This service being done, these poor wasted lands may be freed from the burden of the army.
We have not got our guns and ammunition yet. We only have two little guns... we made an attempt to storm the castle but the ladders were too short... so the men could not get over. We lost a few men but I am confident the enemy lost more... we hope to take away his water supply in two days.
Pembroke Castle was the strongest place that we ever saw... We have had many difficulties in Wales... We have a desperate enemy, and few friends, but a mighty God.
I must tell you that if this offer is refused... misery and ruin will befall the people with you, I know where to charge the blood you spill. I expect the answer within two hours. If this offer be refused, send no more letters to me on this subject.