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
"'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
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
"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
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
"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
"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."