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The war the English tried to forget

24 April 2015

A new Civil War centre is about to open in Newark. Paul Wilkinson reports


Wromantic: a re-enactment of the Battle of Faringdon, showing royalist muskateers and pikemen

Wromantic: a re-enactment of the Battle of Faringdon, showing royalist muskateers and pikemen

WAS Oliver Cromwell a warty misery who banned Christmas, Easter, and music? And why is the English Civil War, which secured the foundations of our modern democratic society, so poorly featured in the history of our country?

The answer to the first question is simple: no, he didn't - Parliament did, while Cromwell was away harassing the Irish. He actually had 14 musicians at his daughter's wedding. But it is an axiom of war that the victors always write the history, and, ultimately, Cromwell was on the losing side.

That is probably the answer to the second question, and why the English know less about their Civil War than the French, Spanish, or Americans know about theirs. For them, it was the founding of their present-day states; in Britain, those who returned to power after the war saw the deposing and execution of a King as an aberration, quickly corrected and better forgotten.

Royal dabbling in politics - which Charles I did with disastrous results - is still a touchy subject today, as witnessed by the recent row over the publication of the Prince of Wales's private letters to politicians.

Most people still do not realise that there were actually three civil wars: 1642 to 1646, then 1648 to 1649, followed by a third, which started later that same year, and finally concluded with the Parliamentarians' victory at Worcester in 1651. Some, however, would say that it continued in Ireland for another two years, and in Britain's North American colonies even longer.


MORE than 130 years later, John Adams, a future President of the United States, chided the people of Worcester over their ignorance of the battle that ultimately ensured that parliamentary democracy replaced regal autocracy.

He later wrote: "The people in the neighbourhood appeared so ignorant and careless, that I was provoked, and asked: 'And do Englishmen so soon forget the ground where liberty was fought for?

"'Tell your neighbours and your children that this is holy ground, much holier than that on which your churches stand. All England should come in pilgrimage to this hill, once a year.'"

Indeed, it was only in September 2014 that the Government agreed, after much wrangling, to include the Civil War period in the National Curriculum.

This is where the £5.4-million National Civil War Centre, which opens on 3 May, comes in, telling the detailed and compelling story of the conflict. 

THE centre is at Newark, in Nottinghamshire. Today, it is a quiet market town with a ruined castle, but in the 17th century it was a significant flashpoint in the Civil War. Its location on the Great North Road, the Fosse Way, and the maritime highway of the River Trent meant that whoever controlled it held the "key to the kingdom", disrupting enemy communications, supply routes, and troop movements. It was important enough for both the King and Cromwell to visit.

The town, which steadfastly backed Charles, successfully resisted three sieges, surrendering only on the third occasion on his direct orders, as part of a bigger peace deal.

The centre's manager, Michael Constantine, said that initial conversations with teachers about getting students interested in the Civil War were not optimistic.

"There is an element that it has not been on schools' curriculums because it was 'too long ago', and all a bit difficult to explain. Teachers said they would far rather study the First World War because there are more objects that can been seen; you can touch the past.

"Try picking through the Civil War in Ireland, where you have at least four factions fighting each other. And similarly in Scotland, where the Scots come in and out of the parliamentary side. It began as a war over democracy, but ended essentially as a religious war between Catholics and Protestants.

"There was also a folk memory that we don't want to remember this, because it was a civil war where an awful lot of people died.

"We hear the story of the sacking of Leicester, and 14 wagonloads of silver coming back to Newark; but that also included all the nuns' being raped.

"It was absolutely awful. That's not the stone of history you want to turn over."

Few people today know of the Clubmen - local defence vigilantes, established to combat the endemic raping of their wives and daughters, forced conscription, and looting. 

THE centre, based in the 16th- century Magnus Building, which was once a Tudor free school, will display artefacts from the time, including siege currency cut from confiscated plate; a Cromwellian cannon ball, said to have lodged in the steeple of the parish church, St Mary Magdalene's; and a rare map of the extensive siege works surrounding the town, much of which still survives today.

It will also be the start point for a town-trail app, developed for smartphones and tablets, exploring civil-war sites around the town, including the 15th-century Governor's House, now a café where visitors can take tea in the same window where Charles I once sat.

Mr Constantine believes that Newark's unique selling point, however, is the discovery of hundreds of detailed records of ordinary life during the final siege of 1646. They were unearthed in 2000 in the local-council archive by a Methodist minister, civil-war expert, and Free Church chaplain and lecturer at Warwick University, the Revd Dr Stuart Jennings. Working in his spare time, he took seven years to catalogue and publish their contents.

"Stuart's work and appreciation of the papers was the hook the whole project is hung on," Mr Constantine said. "It gives you an insight into individual lives.

"We can't appreciate what it was like to stand in a pike block on Marston Moor, or eat rats and horse, but we can appreciate what it's like having ten people billeted in your house when you don't want them, and, when they die, you have got to pay for their burial - and when you ask the council for your money back, you get told no. That has a modern resonance: it gives us that insight into personal stories.

"This happened everywhere else, but Newark is the one place where it has been recorded. Many towns stopped their civil recording because they didn't want to show to the ultimate victor which side they had been on; they wanted to hedge their bets.

"But Newark didn't do that, because it was Royalist through and through. What happened in Newark was not unusual, but it is unusual that it survived.

"The idea is that the National Civil War Centre uses Newark as an example of that kind of civilian and military experience. Most places with civil-war connections, such as Worcester or Newbury, tend to have a museum which is 80 per cent 'This is the battle, and why it is important'; ten per cent 'Why they were here, and why they were fighting'; and ten per cent 'What happened afterwards?'

"We are saying that Newark is an example; so no more than 50 per cent is about the three sieges of Newark, and the civilian experience; and 25 per cent is, 'Why did we have the civil war?' and the rest is its legacy. That is what makes us different, and gives us plenty to talk about." 

THE documents were found when Dr Jennings, who has published several papers on the area's Civil War involvement, was asked to help archivists who had no time or resources to go through boxes of old papers from the cellar of the town's museum.

He explained: "There was a lot of material which was not particularly stunning. It's all valuable, but it wasn't the sort of stuff to tempt anyone to go further into the contents.

"It was like doing a jigsaw puzzle with other documents we already have from the period, and fitting them all together to create an overall picture of what was going on. I think one of the reasons these papers were undisturbed was that there wasn't a great deal of what we would call 'high-brow history' - no Cromwell or King Charles. It was predominantly ordinary daily life and admin. It's actually very exciting when you get into it.

"It took me a couple of years just to work through all the boxes. I skim-read every document. I know enough about the 17th century to recognise names, activities, and styles of papers and writing. Sometimes I'd find a fascinating document that took me a whole day to work through and recognise what we had got." 

THE papers varied from churchwardens' accounts to a request for payment for a shroud for a dead soldier; and from orders on dealing with the plague, which ravaged Newark during the siege, to a compensation claim by a family of eight for their home, destroyed by the bombardment.

"I wanted to hear about people," Dr Jennings said. "I wanted a history that connected us with humanity rather than heroic deeds and heroic mythological figures, and all at once these documents were doing that: we were getting the names and situations and deeds of ordinary men and women, names of people we could trace through the registers and tax returns.

"What makes it unique is that we get a more personal narrative, running in parallel with the grand narrative of the Civil War.

"Newark was a small town, about 2000 people. In bigger places like Bristol or York, tracing individuals over time becomes much more difficult, but Newark is on a manageable scale.

"What we wanted was not just another Armouries-type museum. The sort of history the new generation of young people is studying is as much personal as it is society's. At Newark, you can have both. . .

"The Civil War narrative has tended to be told in terms of leading figures and personalities. This new research at Newark will open up for students a chance to get a sense of what it was like for ordinary men and women."


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