Both politically and geographically, the English Civil War (1642 – 51) shaped the country we know today. Nine years of fighting followed by a Commonwealth government meant no English monarchy could ever regain the absolute power rulers once enjoyed. The Divine Right of Kings had been severed with the head of Charles I and the rest of the world took note.
Hundreds of American colonists remembered their ticket to the new world was not one-way and returned to fight, mainly for the Parliamentarians. They may have regretted their choice on the Restoration when, contrary to promises, the new King Charles II’s spies chased the regicides back across the Atlantic, but the values both sides had fought for lingered long in the soul.
England itself changed, as the demolition job begun by Henry VIII with the monasteries and religious institutions was finished in the secular world by Oliver Cromwell, determined to prevent future rebellion. Castles, walled towns and fortified houses were systematically razed to the ground and the land reshaped to a new world order.
The Midlands saw some of the fiercest fighting, not least because they were ‘in the middle.’ Strategically important, on the cross of the Great North Road and the Fosse Way, Newark suffered three separate sieges between 1642 and 1646.
The town has never forgotten the months of depravation, the devastating loss of life or the humiliating sting of defeat. Defiant even after receiving orders from the captured king to surrender, the mayor declared it was better to “Trust in God and sally forth.” It’s still the town’s motto. Newark was the obvious choice for England’s first museum dedicated to telling the story from bloody start to bloodier finish.
The National Civil War Centre is housed in a fascinating building spanning five centuries: a 1529 Tudor core, Georgian schoolhouse, Victorian additions and modern glass carapace. The storytelling, however, is pure twenty-first century.
The artefacts are given room to breathe. There is minimal text on the wall with optional ‘digging deeper’ information paddles where visitors can read more if they choose. The almost-obligatory armour-and-musket displays are supplemented by fascinating items showing how ordinary life continued as best it could.
From what folk ate and drank to what it was like to billet soldiers in your home, diamond-shaped coins minted during the siege to valuables buried by terrified people who never returned for them, a fearful, claustrophobic existence is evoked in displays, artefacts and hands-on experience designed to appeal beyond the usual battlefield buffs.
There is something deeply personal about standing in front of the near-complete last outfit worn by 26 year-old John Hussey and noting the hole blasted through the armoured breastplate matches the one in the buff coat underneath, both gifts from the musket ball with his name on it. He took four days to die.
Another buff coat (thick leather jerkin) belonged to Colonel Francis Hacker, the man who walked the king to his execution, albeit with courtesy and respect. On the Restoration, the kindness he had shown Charles at the block was repaid. Hacker got off lightly: merely hanged, spared the drawing and quartering reserved for the other regicides.
Hacker is one of a handful of individuals from all aspects of the war whose stories have been chosen for a series of broadcast-quality, five-minute films within the exhibition. These mini-documentaries are to regular museum audio-visuals what a Hasselblad is to a box brownie and a genuine must-see. I have never been moved to tears by a museum video before.
Although the main items will remain on permanent display, the centre is keeping much of its powder dry for the moment, bringing out ammunition from its vast armoury of stored objects with changing exhibitions focusing on different aspects of the war. In the next display, on Civil War medicine, precision bone-saws, instruments for removing musket balls and a self-propelled wheelchair will show the ingenuity spawned by necessity even if the shocking, hand-shaped branding iron for deserters demonstrates a different kind of creativity.
Museum shops don’t usually merit mention, but this one goes above and beyond the call of duty. No tourist tat here. From traditional slipware pottery in authentic 17th Century designs through horn drinking vessels to bread baked to Civil War recipes, everything has been specially produced or sourced. You can even choose sides via your real ale. A nice Cavalier Golden Ale, perhaps? Maybe a Roundhead Bitter? Or a good old Puritan Stout? Each comes with its own feather for your cap.
The centre opened with a vast, 900-soul-strong re-enactment of the taking of Newark. Over two days visitors experienced the terror of standing inside bombarded battlements while the deafening cannon fire shook the very walls.
The sight of exhausted cavaliers lowering the red flag of defence and marching their surrender to Parliamentarians impressed by the dignity of their enemies was oddly moving. So moving, in fact, that it looks to become a regular event.
It was a good time to launch the new National Civil War Trail. The best way to experience it is to download an app which allows you to point your mobile device at plaques around town to see more of those excellent short films, each pertaining to the site where you’re standing. They are stunning, but not for everyone, merely due to the amount of memory you need to download the data. For those traveling without cell phones the trail is available as a free map.
Newark is compact. The castle is a five minute walk from the railway station, and the market place with most of the historic buildings a cough and a spit from there. The black and white, half-timbered Governor’s House is now a bakery and the gloriously coloured panels of the Old White Hart a few doors away house a building society, but both have been immaculately restored. The Old White Hart still boasts a little row of pastel-shaded figurines along its walls.
Down the road the Prince Rupert, built in 1452, was originally a merchant’s house, but had been an alehouse known as the Woolpack for 60 years when war broke out. It was used as billeting for soldiers and a door in the cellar indicates a now-lost underground tunnel to the castle. Today the Prince Rupert, named for the king’s wayward nephew, is a cosy, rambling hostelry that manages to be both bright and snug, serving decent pub-grub, real ale and bonhomie.
The Charles I Coffee House should, by rights, be the Queen Henrietta Maria Coffee House. Charles’ loyal queen dined there during a long visit to the town. It’s in the shadow of the handsome St Mary Magdalene church whose spire, the highest in Nottinghamshire, still has a visible hole under one window where it was hit by a musket ball.
Cromwell ordered Newark’s citizens to demolish the castle, now a striking shell. It is, however, far more complete than, say, Nottingham’s razed fortress, for one simple reason. After months of siege, the exhausted town was further ravaged, this time by bubonic plague. Townsfolk were too sick to wield sledgehammers and no outlying villager was going anywhere near a plague town. Much of the great wall still stands proud, albeit dented by cannon balls and blackened by gunpowder.
Further out, the Queen’s Sconce (the Dutch word for fort) remains an impressive earthwork, again never formally flattened thanks to plague.
The new trail only covers Newark, but the Civil War laughed at boundaries. Southwell is an absolute must on any visit to the area. A graceful Minster town, it’s best known today as the birthplace of the Bramley apple. The original tree still exists in a back garden, just over 200 years old and still fruiting, though sadly ownership has recently changed and access is no longer easy.
Southwell is, however, a key place to experience history up close and very personal. It’s possible to sleep in the very room King Charles I spent his last night as a free man. The ancient, half-timbered Kings Arms was already around 500 years old and Charles, the tenth monarch to sleep there, should have slept well. He had met with Scottish commissioners in the room downstairs and believed he had finally secured sanctuary. The following morning, however, the Scots betrayed the king, handing him over to the Parliamentarians for a massive ransom.
The inn was renamed The Saracen’s Head after the sword that, allegedly, executed the king. If the bedroom is unoccupied and you ask nicely you may be able to see the extremely rare Elizabethan wall painting Charles would have stared at that final night, only discovered in 1986 when whitewash was removed for a planned refurbishment. Ask very nicely and they’ll show you the room where Charles met the double-crossing Scots. It, too, has a fabulous Elizabethan mural.
The ruined Archbishops Palace, where the doomed Cardinal Wolsey spent his last summer before avoiding execution by Henry VIII by dying on his way back to London is particularly beautiful. Soft, lush gardens and sweet sounds from the chorister school form a stark contrast with the grand state chamber upstairs where Charles was taken on his capture. The Minster itself is both grand and somehow homely and a walk around the surrounding streets yields sumptuous Georgian architecture that belies the town’s troubled past.
The classic children’s history book 1066 And All That boils the English Civil War down to two sides: Right but Rotten, Wrong but Romantic. It’s a neat idea but does nothing to unpack reality. Three hundred and seventy years ago, brother fought brother in a fundamental clash of ideologies. The Civil War Trail poses a question – which side would you have chosen?
Beyond the Trail…
Parliamentarians destroyed all but the vast labyrinth of cellars in the cliff below the original medieval castle. The present Ducal Mansion was built shortly after the restoration, but gutted by fire in 1831 by rioting residents of ‘the worst slums in the British Empire outside India.’ It is now the city’s museum.
An extraordinary cave, alleged to be the secret tunnel by which the true heir to the dead Edward II’s throne, his son, entered the castle and captured his mother and lover, charging them with murder. It was used for storing ammunition during the Civil War.
Used as a base to recruit soldiers for both sides of the war, Ye Olde Salutation was briefly known as the Soldier and Citizen during the Commonwealth. The name may sound unwieldy, but it’s actually in shortened form. Before its rebuild in 1240, the original alehouse was known as The Archangel Gabriel Salutes the Virgin Mary.
Note – turn off the loud music in the top right-hand corner.
National Civil War Centre, Newark
Prince Rupert Pub, Newark
Saracen’s Head Hotel, Southwell
Archbishop’s Palace, Southwell,
This feature by Sandra Lawrence originally appeared in British Heritage magazine. If you would like to syndicate this story or commission Sandra to write something similar please contact her at the following address, missing out the obvious gap…