This often overlooked, gem of a stately home near Barry in the Vale of Glamorgan has an incredible and little known history going back 800 years. And it is still inhabited to this day.
In this video, I talk about Fonmon Castle with Sir Brooke Boothby (BART).
It is his ancestral home. We also hear about his ancestors who can be traced back to the 9th Century and who have lived in Fonmon since the civil war. He reveals some amazing history covering topics as diverse as:
The Norman invasion of Morgannwg
The early days of the 12th Century castle
The St John, Seyes and Umfraville families
Cousins to Henry VIII live at Fonmon
The English Civil war
The most powerful man in Britain lives at Fonmon
Oliver and Richard Cromwell
John Wesley and the Methodists
‘Wild’ Robert Jones and Rococo architecture
The Viking origins of the Boothby family
The power brokers of pre-industrial Wales
First broadcast on Bro Radio in June 2022 as part of the ‘History on your doorstep’ series.
One of the most fascinating and oft overlooked characters in Welsh and British history is Colonel Phillip Jones. He rose to be one of the most powerful men in the entire kingdom and managed to thrive during one of the nations most turbulent periods in history – the English Civil War.
His influence and power was such that it led to questions being asked in parliament as to why it was that “England was being run from a small castle in Wales“.
So who was he? How did he become so powerful? and how was it that despite being a major player under Cromwell during the Commonwealth, that his status continued unhampered when Charles II came to the throne during the Restoration? And how did he manage to achieve that unthinkable goal of any power broker in this period of history; to die of old age in comfortable surroundings with his fortunes and reputation in tact?
And more to the point – how is it that hardly anyone has ever heard of him?
He was born in Swansea in 1618 to a middle ranking ‘county’ family who lived at the Great House (now long gone). They were Calvinist protestants and this influence gave him a natural affinity towards the parliamentarians. As the seeds of dissent were being sewn which led to the English Civil War in 1642 he joined the ‘New Model Army’ under the command of Lord Fairfax where he made quite a name for himself.
Many of the more senior aristocratic families and establishment figures of South Wales were fighting on the King’s side of this war, so when the parliamentarians made gains in the area it was a great opportunity for the likes of Phillip Jones and his more famous counterpart Bussey Mansel to earn fast promotion and patronage.
Jones was appointed Governor of Swansea in 1645, he was promoted to Colonel in the New Model Army in 1646, was made Governor of Cardiff in 1649, became MP for Breconshire in 1650 and then was simultaneously voted MP for both Monmouthshire and Glamorgan in 1654 (he chose Glamorgan) and again in 1656 he was simultaneously voted MP for Brecon and Glamorgan (again he chose Glamorgan). He was appointed Governor of Charterhouse in 1658 and Commander of the militia of Cardiff Castle in 1659.
He also became very close to Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell rather famously fell out with most of the people who were close to him prior to the Civil War once it was over. Even Fairfax turned against him and was instrumental in the second civil war that culminated in Wales at the battle of St Fagans. But Jones was close to Cromwell before, during and after the conflict. We know this because there are records of him visiting Jones at his home in Swansea in 1648 when his armies were moving west to Pembrokeshire (a major royalist stronghold). Then after the civil war in 1654 Cromwell appointed Jones ‘Comptroller’ of his household – which effectively put him in charge of the running of his personal estates. He also appointed him to the privy council and he made him Phillip Lord Jones on 10th December 1657 so he could sit in the upper house of Cromwell’s parliament. So they clearly remained ‘pally’ throughout. In fact Oliver Cromwell was Godfather to Phillip Jones’ son (also called Oliver!)
It was Phillip Jones who organised Oliver Cromwell’s funeral as superintendent on 23rd November 1658.
All of these promotions did wonders for Jones’ income. In 1640 he was estimated at earning £20 a year. By 1658 that had risen to £2,000 a year. Something which put him in a position to be able to upgrade his residence to something more in keeping with a man of his station. And so it was that he bought Fonmon Castle near Rhoose in the Vale of Glamorgan from the StJohn family who had fallen on hard times and were selling off quite a few of their estates at the time.
Being so close to Oliver Cromwell had served him well, but when you are close to a figure so powerful and divisive, it would be easy to find yourself vulnerable and exposed after their death. But Jones, if anything, wound up being even closer to Oliver Cromwell’s successor; his son Richard Cromwell. It was from this period that we get the quote about England being run from a small castle in Wales, and it was also said at the time that “Richard Cromwell will only take advice from Jones and Thurloe and would do nothing without them” – referring to John Thurloe who had been English Secretary of State under Oliver Cromwell.
It was not all plain sailing however. These were very volatile times and you cannot become so powerful a man in the seventeenth century without making some enemies along the way. When Richard Cromwell had his spectacular fall in 1659 (earning him the nickname ‘Tumble Down Dick’) Jones was very much exposed. History was about to overtake him in a twist of events which saw many of his counterparts destroyed but which he – rather miraculously it would seem – not only survived, but actually benefitted from.
The balance of power had moved dramatically against the commonwealth and Charles II was crowned king. Britain was once again a monarchy, and Charles II was a pretty vengeful king. He wasted no time rounding up those parliamentarians who had executed his father for treason 11 years earlier. It was not a good time to be known for having been close to the Cromwells.
At first things didn’t look too great. A group of his enemies brought a series of charges of embezzlement against him, accusing him of having stolen £139,000 in ‘Tythes’ owed to the church. He was also rather randomly accused of “having carried away the organ of St Mary’s Church, Swansea”. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support any of these charges but the justice system back then was not quite so reliant on such things as it is now. He came dangerously close to a very sticky end.
He was impeached but never stood trial.
Somehow, Jones found himself in the clear. The new king had intervened on his behalf, and went on to appoint him to be High Sheriff of Glamorgan in 1671. He was more than likely saved by the fact that he was not personally a signatory to Charles I’s death warrant, nor did he play any part in his trial. Also, throughout the period he was in governance he did not take the opportunity others had done, to plunder the king’s estates, nor to take lands from the defeated royalists. In fact he had treated them rather well.
Co-incidentally John Thurloe (who we mentioned earlier) also came out of this new order unexpectedly well. He was initially arrested for treason but never went to trial. He was ultimately given responsibility for foreign policy in Charles II government.
Phillip Jones saw out his days in the leafy and secluded splendour of Fonmon Castle where he died peacefully in his bed on 5th September 1674.
If you want to know more about this amazing character from the Vale of Glamorgan’s history, I will be interviewing one of his direct descendants; Sir Brooke Boothby (Bart) Vice-Lord Lieutenant of South Glamorgan as part of my next episode of ‘History On Your Doorstep’ for Bro Radio which will be all about Fonmon Castle. It is going out on Monday 27th June at 7pm.
If you want to hear that interview and learn what else he has to say about this most wiley of ancestors tune in, or listen again on line or on the app or on my YouTube channel which is packed with videos and podcasts about Welsh history. Please subscribe to it.