Newark on Trent and the British Civil Wars

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A summary of new research

By Stuart Jennings

The position of Newark upon Trent, situated as it was on the Great North Road at one of the lowest crossing points of the river Trent, meant that it was always going to be of strategic importance once the war began.  The survival, even to this day, of extensive earthworks and fortifications, including the Queen’s sconce, is a testimony to the military activity that went in to defending and besieging it over a four-year period.  It was promptly seized by the royalists in the autumn of 1642 and remained a maiden garrison until its surrender in 1646.  The views of its ordinary citizens about this remain unclear but there is enough surviving evidence to suggest that there was a strong royalist sympathy amongst many of its citizens. 

With the outbreak of hostilities in the autumn of 1642, the town of Newark proved to be ill prepared for military conflict with its ruinous medieval defenses and inadequate fire-fighting provision.  By the winter of 1643 a basic defensive circuit had hastily been erected around the old town, which also took in a small part of North Gate and Mill Gate.  John Twentyman, a resident of the town at the time, described these initial works as ‘very low and thin with a dry ditch which most men might easily jump’.  After the siege of 1644 and before the final siege of 1645, three successive military governors ensured that the earthen defensive works were substantially extended by the addition of bastions, forts, wide ditches and sconces.  Faced with turf these proved to be much more resilient against canon balls than the old stone medieval walls.  Lying just beyond the ring of royalist defenses, but key to their integrity, lay two great Sconce forts.  The first of these lay to the northeast of the town land was known as the King’s sconce whilst to the southwest laid the Queen’s.    The whole of the defenses were built by levies of men drawn in from the surrounding parishes, with each parish being allocated a span to construct. T hus the account book for the parish of Thorpe recorded that inhabitants were conscripted to construct 10 yards of the defensive walls.  It appears that responsibility for constructing and staffing the northern King’s scone lay with the inhabitants of Newark.  Again we are indebted for this information to the surviving reminiscent of John Twentyman

And there was built a very noble and strong worke which the Townsmen kept and built up an house of 3 or 4 Bay of Building in the middle of it, and called it the Royall Sconse or else changed this name with that in my close which in my time when it was made was called the king sconce

The Queen’s sconce with which this work is primarily concerned was the primary bulwark against the English parliamentarian army that was encamped against the town in the south from the autumn of 1645.  To the royalist commanders in Newark this army, and not that of the Scots, was deemed the most significant threat to the town.  Because of this, the more experienced soldiers of the royalist garrison would have garrisoned the Queen’s sconce.  This probably reflected the xenophobic scorn of the royalists for the old foe, the Scots, than any military reality.  Regiments based within the town supplied a troop of soldiers on a Rota basis to guard the sconce.  In the account books of the locally raised regiment of Colonel William Staunton there is an entry dated 13 April 1645, which records the payment of 3s 'to ye souldiers at ye skonce for bread and chees’.   The size of a troop would vary depending on the strength of the regiment. As far as we can ascertain for Newark and  Nottinghamshire regiments the average troop of foot consisted of between 25 to 50 men.  They tended to get smaller in size as the war progressed because recruitment became more difficult.  Thus by the time the Queen's sconce was constructed the average troop would have been probably towards the lower size of 25-30 soldiers.  It would have been unusual during routine duty on the sconce for it to be staffed by less than 25 men but during times of attack or siege may have as many as 150+ defenders

After the surrender of the town in May 1646, the plague that had been raging in Newark quickly spread into villages south of the town, as the siege was lifted.  It was from these parishes also that men would have been drawn by parliament to dismantle the earthen defensive works but the pestilence probably ensured that the work was never completed.  This probably accounts for the survival of the Queen’s sconce, which even after 360 years is still an impressive testimony to military engineering.

Within Newark popular support for the king’s cause went far beyond the payment of required levies and the quartering of soldiers in people’s homes.  Towards the end of 1643 a small regiment of Foot was raised from within the town.  An order of payment dated 3 January 1644 survives amongst the miscellaneous papers of the Corporation issued by the mayor Thomas Hanckes and John and Edward Standish instructing the chamberlain to hand over the sum of £1. 19s. 6d.

For colours for the townsmen listed as soldiers for his Majesties service under ye command of Capt. Gervase Lee

Support of the royalist cause in the town was not restricted to the young men recruited to the town regiment, the governor was also able to call on the whole community to assist in times of extreme need.  A Parliamentarian pamphlet of 1644 recorded

Yesterday, the Governor of Newark commanded all shops in the town to be shut, and all the townsmen to guard the works, most whereof are very willing

For the citizens of Newark the abiding realities of the civil war would have been destruction and disease.  To build the additional defences, houses would have been dismantled and pasture ruin resulting in overcrowding and increasing squalor within the town.  The final two sieges would have added to the already deteriorating situation within the town the experiences of bombardment and destruction.  Amongst the buildings destroyed by mortar grenades in 1644 was the house of the Mayor of Newark, Hercules Clay, which stood in the Market Place.  After a series of dreams, Clay had moved his family out of the house the day before it was hit and in thankfulness that ‘it pleased God of his infinite mercy wonderfully to p[re]serve me and my wife from a fearefull destruction by a terrible blowe of grenadoe’.   An insight into what such destruction could mean for the poorer members of society is provided by the chance survival of a petition presented by Charles Piggot.  Although undated, it almost certainly dates from after this second siege because the reverse side of the parchment was used to write the will of Thomas Waite on, which was made on 20 July 1644.  The proving of this will ensured the survival of the petition.  Piggot pleaded

Your poore peticioner hath in a verie large manner tasted of the miseries and affliccons of these tymes for at the last fight against Newarke he had his house blowne upp with a granado and all his goods burnt and broken to the utter undoeinge of your poore peticioner, his wife and seaven children .

Disease was to have a more significant impact upon the citizens of Newark.  The presence of large numbers of soldiers both within and around the town was to have dramatic consequences for its inhabitants.  Over crowding within the town placed considerable pressures upon both the availability of resources and the number of people living in each of the remaining buildings.  Such conditions were ideal for the spread of disease and malnutrition and in an age that was not unfamiliar to periodic mortality crisis the consequences for Newark were still shocking.  Three typhus epidemics over the period 1643-1646 probably killed between 12 to 15 per cent of the town’s civilian population and when combined with the numbers who died in the plague epidemic of 1646 may account for the demise of between 25 to 30 per cent of the civilian population.  Military causalities of the war were in addition to this.  The reality was that more of the population died as a consequence of disease than ever did because of the fighting.  The surviving Queen’s sconce is a silent memorial to this often overlooked suffering of the ordinary people of Newark as much as to the military conflict itself.

Dr Stuart Jennings

University of Warwick


Editor's Note: To buy Dr. Jennings' book on the history of the Civil War in Newark-on-Trent in Nottinghamshire, click here


This page was added by Stuart Jennings on 31/05/2011.

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