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Civil War Fortifications

Contrary to public opinion, the British Civil Wars were fought more in the trenches and on ramparts and walls, than in the open fields and moors. In his Fortifications and Siegecraft, Professor Jeremy Black concluded that civil wars involved more fortresses than in any other war , whilst the late Professor Christopher Duffy described the conflict as “a war of trenches, ramparts, palisades, bombardments and blockades” . For example, in its first year of campaigning, the New Model Army conducted a dozen sieges and assaults but just two field actions, whilst Prince Rupert, a commander with a reputation for seeking battle as a first resort, participated in twice as many actions involving attacking or defending fortresses as he did battles. It is of no surprise then that, whilst reflecting on the wars, Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, a veteran of the fighting in Ireland, commented that "we make war more like foxes than lions, and you will have twenty sieges for one battle" . This was no British phenomenon: Vauban would later calculate that there had been 200 unsuccessful sieges and only 60 battles during the previous two centuries .

Yet, fortress warfare during the British Civil Wars, that is the fortification and defence of urban settlements, houses and castles, and the conduct of sieges, has always been the poor relation in in the military history of the period. This is despite sieges dominating the fighting; in England between 1642 and 1648 there were 28 battles, but 189 places were besieged (some more than once) . But when the number of sieges-actions is expanded to include those fortresses which fell without a shot being fired, this number is likely to increase significantly. But it is not a dominance that is reflected by the written word, and far more has been published about battles and campaigns than about fortifications and sieges. And if something happens to be written about sieges, it tends to focus on the First Civil War, in other words the fighting between 1642 and 1646-7, despite sieges also dominating the Second and Third Civil Wars, and even after the end of the Third Civil War, up until the Restoration, the country experienced two foreign wars and three major uprisings, adding further siege actions to the list.

Generally speaking, the Civil War witnessed four types of siege. First, there was the coup de main, where surprise was used to take an objective (such as Alexander Leslie’s capture of Edinburgh Castle in 1639). Then there was the ‘smash and grab’ where an assault was launched after a preliminary bombardment. This was a preferred tactic of the New Model Army (and on at least one occasion, at Dartmouth Castle in 1646, the assault was launched without any bombardment), and just the threat of the assault was often enough to persuade the garrison to surrender. Third, was the blockade, a longer-lasting affair where the besieger invested the place of strength, preventing communication and offensive activities by the garrison. This was the preferred option by an attacker unwilling (or unable) to attempt an assault and was used (without much success) by the Royalists at Gloucester, Plymouth and Lyme Regis. Last, and least common was the complete investiture, where a circumvallation of rampart and ditch, fort and battery would be constructed around the entire town, in so doing cutting it off from the outside world. Examples of this are few: Newark (1645-6), Oxford (1646) and Colchester (1648).

To address the fact that public awareness of the English Civil War and its significance is low compared to more fashionable periods (Roman, Tudors, etc.), several interesting and useful website have been developed recently (see right).

My published works on aspects of Civil war fortifications and sieges are:

  • ‘A Hollar’s-eye View of 17th Century Fortifications’, Fort, 39, Fortress Study Group (2011)
  • ‘The Fortifications of Leith, 1558-1916’, Fort, 41, Fortress Study Group (2013)
  • The Walls of Edinburgh’, Casemate, 92, Fortress Study Group (2011)
  • Royalists under Siege’, Military History Monthly, 59, (2015)
  • 'Cavalry and Sieges', Casemate, 99, Fortress Study Group (2014)
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