David Flintham - Military Historian

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Kingdoms Under Siege - Sieges of the 2nd and 3rd Civil Wars and beyond

Contrary to public opinion, the British Civil Wars were fought not so much in the open fields and moors, but in the trenches and on ramparts and walls, a fact that caused the Earl of Orrey to comment "we make war more like foxes than lions, and you will have twenty sieges for one battle." More recently, Christopher Duffy described the conflict as “a war of trenches, ramparts, palisades, bombardments and blockades”.

But this is a fact is not reflected in the written word: far more has been published about battles than about fortifications and sieges. And if something does happen to be written about sieges, it tends to focus on the First Civil War, in other words the fighting between 1642 and 1646-7. The sieges of the Second Civil War (1648-9) and the Third Civil War (1649-52) have been largely overlooked. Yet sieges dominated the 2nd and 3rd Civil Wars. The 2nd Civil War had six battles, but an estimated 45 siege-type actions, the 3rd Civil War had 15 battles, but 121 sieges, and between the end of the 3rd Civil War and the Restoration, there were a further 46 siege actions, most of these abroad.

This illustration underlines just how much the wars were fought in the trenches and on ramparts and walls.

It also emphasises that there is much scope for further study, and since I have nearly exhausted the study of the ECW fortifications of London (!!), this is my next major project and is scheduled to be my fourth book.

In the meantime, to get things started is a piece about the 1651 siege of the Isles of Scilly (taken from my article about the Isles of Scilly at War, published in Military History Monthly, issue 39, December 2013).
The Siege of the Isles of Scilly in 1651

The Scilly Isles did not feature as part of the Henrician programme of coastal defences, but this changed during the reign of his son, Edward VI.  

In 1548, work commenced on Tresco Castle (later named ‘King Charles’ Castle’ - above and left), a polygonal gun battery for five guns, located on Castle Down on Tresco’s west coast, guarding both New Grimsby harbour and the northern approach to St. Mary’s.  At the same time, work commenced on the ‘Old Blockhouse’, on the opposite coast, overlooking Old Grimsby harbour.

St Mary’s main harbour is situated on St. Mary’s Pool, on the west of the island, facing Tresco.  During the 1550s, construction began on a state-of-the-art bastioned fort overlooking the eastern side of the harbour.  Known as ‘Harry’s Walls’, it was never completed.  In 1570, Elizabeth I leased the islands to Francis Godolphin, who, in 1593, as a result of the on-going conflict with Spain, built the Star Castle (left), an eight-pointed star-shaped fort on the Hugh, the headland to the west of St. Mary’s harbour.  

Two years later, Scilly’s defences were nearly put to the test as in July 1595 Spanish forces landed at Mousehole, close to Penzance on the mainland.  Godolphin had realised the threat beforehand (thanks to the warning from an escaped English gunner) and, as deputy Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall, requested reinforcements from Lord Essex.  As it was, the Spanish ignored Scilly, concentrating their attacks on Mousehole, Newlyn and Penzance where Godolphin led the defence.  Back on St. Mary’s, early in the 17th century, Godolphin constructed a pier for the harbour as well as a curtain wall across the neck of land joining the Hugh to the rest of the island.  Not only did this mark the start of the fortification of what became known as ‘The Garrison’, but also the early development of Hugh Town, the capital of the islands.

By the 1620s, Scilly’s defences were in need of repair and improvement.  Earthworks were built surrounding King Charles’ Castle and the magazine, still standing today (albeit with 18th century alterations), was built by The Garrison gate.  Further defences were to be added in the years up to 1651, particularly by the Royalist garrison who made particularly good use of the coastal geography, placing batteries where rocky points occurred, thus making direct frontal assaults very difficult.

During the first Civil War (1642-46), the Scilly Isles were in Royalist hands, under the governorship of another Sir Francis Godolphin (1605-1667, grandson of the builder of Star Castle).  From here a small fleet of Royalist privateers operated and following the final surrender of Royalist forces in the south-west of England in March 1646, it was to Scilly that Charles, Prince of Wales fled.  Following Charles’ departure to Jersey, a Parliamentary naval blockade led to the surrender of Scilly.  But in 1648, the garrison rebelled against the governor and declared for the King.

Sir John Grenville (1628-1701, the son of Sir Bevil Grenville, who was killed at the Battle of Lansdowne in 1643), was installed as the Royalist governor and under his command, Scilly became a major privateering base, preying on both Dutch and Commonwealth vessels (the Commonwealth was declared in 1649 following the execution of Charles I).  The Dutch took this threat more seriously than the Commonwealth and a fleet under the command of Admiral Maarten Harpertszoon Tromp was dispatched to deal with the islands (according to Whitelocke's Memorials "Tromp came to Pendennis and related that he had been to Scilly to demand reparation for the Dutch ships and goods taken by them; and receiving no satisfactory answer, he had, according to his Commission, declared war on them").  Therefore, Scilly was technically at war with the Dutch until 17th April 1986 when 335 years of ‘war’ was brought to an end with a peace treaty between Scilly and the Netherlands.  In the end it was the prospect of Dutch occupation of Scilly rather than the action of the privateers which prompted a Commonwealth expedition in April 1651.

The strength of the fortifications on St. Mary’s, led the commander of the expedition, Admiral Robert Blake, to rule out a direct assault and instead focused attention on Tresco.  Following an unsuccessful initial attempt (soldiers were actually landed on the uninhabited island of Northwethel, close to Tresco), Blake landed on Tresco’s east coast, taking Old Grimsby and its blockhouse before moving inland and striking against Kings Charles' Castle whose defenders chose to blow it up to prevent its capture.  

By 20th April 1651, Tresco was in Blake’s hands.  He established a battery at Carn Near (Left), the southern-most point, from which he could bombard St. Mary’s Pool and harbour (not without incident, however, as the first cannon to be fired exploded, and Blake narrowly avoided serious injury).  With the harbour now under bombardment and with assault imminent, on 5th May, Grenville surrendered.