This Sunday and Monday, we’re in Newark-on-Trent to re-enact the great siege of the town from the First English Civil War, with an amazing Bank Holiday weekend event filled with battle, history, and fun!
But why does Newark deserve its reputation as King Charles’ ‘northern fortress’?
Sitting where the Great North Road and the Fosse Way cross the River Trent, the town of Newark had not only declared early on for the King but also become both a strategic communications centre and a thorn in Parliament’s side. The garrison regularly raided local Parliamentarian outposts as far afield as Rockingham Castle in Northamptonshire and Barton-on-Humber, while also preventing tax collection and threatening communications and supplies between London and its allies in Scotland.
Artillery left behind by the Parliamentarians during the second siege of Newark (which was relieved by Prince Rupert in March 1644) was incorporated into the town’s defences, which were massively extended. A position called The Spittal, which had served as the Parliamentarian headquarters during the siege, was replaced by a great three-acre square earthwork called the King’s Sconce. Its arrow-head bastions at each corner where loaded with cannon and it was ringed by a ditch up to 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep. An identical fort was constructed to guard the southern approach to Newark. Called the Queen’s Sconce, it still stands today. With two and a quarter miles of defences, the town had effectively transformed itself into a fortress – its bastions were brimming with cannon, pitfalls, redoubts, emplacements, counterscarps, half moons, and steel turnpikes. Properties outside the defences were torn down to deny cover to the enemy.
By the autumn of 1645 the Royalist cause across the country was in terminal decline. On 14th June 1645, King Charles had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of Parliament’s New Model Army at Naseby in Northamptonshire and, over the following months, remaining Royalist garrisons were one by one were besieged and surrendered or were overwhelmed.
In 1645, Parliament decided to deal with Newark once and for all.
In October of that year, the King made a final visit to faithful Newark. His position in the north was dire – local Parliamentarian forces were gaining the upper hand and, methodically, Newark’s garrisoned outposts were being attacked and taken by Parliament’s northern army. On the 3rd November 1645, the 200 strong outpost at Shelford Manor was stormed, were it was reported at the time that little quarter was given to the defenders and the house was subsequently looted and burned to the ground. The following day the Parliamentarian Colonel General Poyntz attacked and destroyed Wiverton Hall, which was even closer to Newark. Recognising the town’s precarious and isolated position, King Charles fled with an armed bodyguard for the safety of Oxford, which remained the Royalist capital.
On the 26th November 1645 the Scottish ‘Covenanter’ Army, which had helped defeat Prince Rupert at Marston Moor over a year before, arrived at Newark from the north under the command of their experienced General Alexander Leslie, the first Earl of Leven. His forces quickly gained control of Muskham Bridge on the Great North Road to the north of Newark and deployed his forces on ‘The Island’, a rectangular strip of land created by the parting River Trent to the west of the town. The Scots had effectively sealed off Newark from the north and the west. Meanwhile, General Poyntz, Colonel Rossiter and Colonel Grey garrisoned their soldiers in the villages to the south and east of the town from Farndon in the South to Winthorpe in the north.
The tiny garrison, severely depleted by soldiers being requisitioned to fight elsewhere, numbered barely 1,800 while the forces surrounding them are estimated to have been up to 16,000-strong. The besieging encirclement may have been methodical but it was also slow and the poor winter of 1645/6 turned the surrounding area into a muddy quagmire.
It soon became clear to the Parliamentarian commanders they needed to tighten their grip on Newark. In March and April 1646, the besiegers began to build lines of banks and ditches with interval bastions, 200-250 yards apart, all around the south and east of the town as well as the Scots strengthening their control of the north and west, cutting off the river and securing their communications with bridges of boats. Poyntz’s strategy was clearly to bombard the town into submission and to deny it of food, water or any chance of outside relief. In Newark the situation quickly became desperate: horses were slaughtered for fresh meat, malnutrition created havoc amongst the defenders, and an outbreak of plague in March 1646 killing over two hundred people. Sensing that the siege was reaching its end, on the 27th March Poyntz called for Newark’s surrender but no answer was returned and slowly the besieging forces crept ever closer to the town – saps were dug toward the Queen’s Sconce and along the entire length of the line.
However, events were about to overtake the resolve of the garrison. Realising his situation was hopeless and knowing that it would only be a matter of time before the New Model Army swept up all of his forces, the King rode north and surrendered to the Scots on 5th May. He initially refused to order Newark to surrender, but in the end he signed the surrender document at midnight on the next day.
The terms of the surrender were generous: the soldiers were allowed to leave Newark and return to their homes, or another Royalist garrison not yet besieged, while the safety of the town’s people was guaranteed, as was the preservation of their privileges, goods and estates.
On receipt of the surrender order it was said that Belasyse wept and that the mayor wished to fight on, however, common sense prevailed in the end. Lord Belasyse later left England for France.
With the fall of Newark, the first civil war was for all intents and purposes at an end.
It took the town many years to recover from the effects of the war: disruption to the local agriculture, plague, and flooding, and Newark took no part in the second and third civil wars that followed. It was ordered that the fortifications should be dismantled yet the reluctant townspeople, ravaged by war and hunger, undertook their task with disinterest, meaning that the town now has the best remaining English Civil War earthworks in the country.