User:Cynnydd/siege of colchester

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The siege of Colchester occurred in the summer on 1648 when the English Civil War reignited in several areas of Britain. Colchester found itself in the thick of the unrest when a Royalist army on its way through East Anglia to raise support for the King, was attacked by Lord-General Fairfax at the head of a Parliamentary force. The initial Parliamentary attack forced the Royalists army to retreat behind the town's walls but was unable to bring about victory, so settled down to a siege. Despite the horrors of the siege the Royalists resisted for eleven weeks and only surrendered following the defeat of the Royalist in the North of England at the Battle of Preston (1648).

Background[edit]

On the 21 May 1648 The county of Kent rose in revolt against parliament. Lord-General Fairfax lead parliamentary forces to Maidstone and on the 29 May recaptured the town. Remnants of the royalist forces commanded by the Earl of Norwich fled the county to join the revolt in Essex.

On the 4 June the Essex County Parliamentary committee in Chelmsford was taken prisoner by a riotous crowd. Colonel Farre and some of the Essex Trained Bands declared themselves in support of the King. Sir Charles Lucas took command of the Essex regiment and then on the 9 June he was joined by Lord Norwich, Lord Capel, Sir George Lisle and the about 500 of the Royalist soldiers from Kent. The next day Lucas marched with what was now a total force of around 4000 troops to Braintree where the county magazine was located but meanwhile Sir Thomas Honeywood, a member of the Essex county committee, had secured the weapons with the northern Essex Trained Bands who had remained loyal to Parliament. Lucas continued to Colchester, arriving on the 12 June, where he intended to raise more troops before continuing to Suffolk and then Norfolk, hopefully to raise those counties in support of the King.

Lord-General Fairfax and his Parliamentary forces from Kent and the Essex forces under Sir Thomas Honeywood were joined outside Colchester by Colonel Barkstead's Infantry Brigade from London on the 13 June. In total he had more than 5000 experienced troops and over one thousand cavalry. Fairfax decided to reuse the same tactics as he had recently employed against the Royalist in Maidstone by launching an immediate and full-scale assault.

The Battle[edit]

The Royalist defended their position by placing troops on the outskirts of the town on Malden Road from where the Parliamentary army was approaching. The battle was fiercely fought as Barkstead's infantry attacked and were repulsed three times, the royalist being well defended behind the hedges that lined the road. Finally the Parliamentry cavalry, significantly outnumbering the Royalist horse, overwhelmed the Royalist flanks and the infantry were forced to retreated back behind the town's walls. Barkstead's pursuing men followed in through the gates until a well planned counter-attack by Royalist infantry and cavalry routed them. Fairfax continued to attack and it was not until midnight that he finally called a halt and had to resign himself to the failure to take the town by storm. In the battle he had lost between 500 and 1000 men whilst recorded Royalist losses where 30 men and 2 officers.

The Seige[edit]

As the siege started both forces were about equal in men and both had an expectation of receiving reinforcements, Lord Norwich was negotiating with the Suffolk men and knew that the Scots and Langdale's Northern Royalist army were fighting the Royalist cause and that Lord Holland the commander of the Royalist forces in the South of England was attempting to muster a relief force. Lord Fairfax could expect detachments of the New Model Army to be sent to him as and when they became available.

The first priority for Fairfax was to secure the town from outside relief as well as excursions by the trapped men. He ordered the construction of forts to surround the town and sited his siege cannon to fire against the walls. His thinly spread men were soon reinforced when six companies of horse and dragoons arrived and when the Suffolk Trained Bands joined the Parliamentary side. A double blow as Lord Norwich had expected them to join the Royalists. The Suffolk men were actually more concerned about preventing either side from spreading destruction into their county and in recognition of this Fairfax gave them the task of guarding the bridges across the River Colne to the north and east. Parliamentarian ships were ordered to blockade the harbour and the river mouth to prevent any re-supply via that route.

Inside the town the local people found themselves trapped with an army with which most had very little sympathy. Colchester had been a staunch supporter of Parliament during the first Civil War and any sympathy with the Royalist army soon vanished as the soldiers acquired provisions from the towns people.

By 2 July the encirclement of the town was completed, severely limiting opportunities for the besieged soldiers to sally out for provisions. On the 5 July Lucas with 400 Cavalry and Lisle with 600 infantry attacked the Suffolk Trained Band guarding the East Gate. They were taken by surprise and were routed however the Royalist in their enthusiasm found themselves too far from the town and were counter-attacked and suffered severe casualties as well as loosing the artillery and provisions they had taken with them.

On the night of the 14 July Fairfax ordered an attack on the Royalist fortification that lay outside the town walls. St John's Abbey and the house of Sir Charles Lucas were captured despite fierce defence and the Royalist fortifications at St Mary's church were completely destroyed by artillery fire and with it the Royalists main artillery battery.

Following the success of the battle to clear the town's suburbs, on the 16 July, Fairfax sent a trumpeter with a message offering surrender terms to the Royalists inside the town. Lucas's response was to threaten Fairfax that if the trumpeter were to appear again with such a message, he would be hanged.

By this time Lord Norwich had heard of the failure of Lord Holland to come to his relief. A detachment of the New Model Army under Colonel Scroope at St Neots had defeated Lord Holland in a night attack. On July 18 the Royalist attempted their last sally from the fortification however the attempt was a failure. Even though the royalist still had 3000 soldiers, Fairfax's position was too strong and with almost daily reinforcements his forces totalled at least 6000. But still Lord Norwich could hope that his position would eventually be relieved. He received a letter from Langdale, the Northern Royalist army commander, encouraging the Essex men and promising relief within two weeks. For Lord Norwich it seemed there still was every reason to keep their resolve.

By August provisions in Colchester had all but run out. Cats, dogs and horses became the staple food. Fairfax refused to allow the towns people to leave or even to let supplies into them despite repeated petitions from outside the town, pleas from Colchester Town council and even from Lord Norwich. Fairfax's decision was despite the loyalty of the town to Parliament during the First Civil War. Even when the towns women and children attempted to beg for food at the town gates they were turned away with nothing, by the besieging soldiers.

On 24 August news reached Fairfax of Cromwell's victory at the Battle of Preston. In celebration the Parliamentary artillery fired cannonades and Fairfax had kites flown into the town carrying news of the destruction of the Royalist army. That same day talks were started to end the siege. Fairfax would not listen to any terms from Lord Norwich, but offered his own which were not open for negotiation, they were that common soldiers and junior officers were granted quarter, however senior officers must surrender to mercy whereby no guarentee was given to how they may be treated.

On the morning of 28 August the Royalist army layed down their arms. The gates were opened and the victorious Parliamentary regiments entered the town with Lord-General Fairfax at their head.

Aftermath[edit]

The aristocratic Royalist leaders, Lord Norwich and Lord Capel were to have their fate decided by Parliament but a military court found Sir Charles Lucas, Sir George Lisle, Colonel Farre and Sir Bernard Gascoigne guilty of Treason and sentenced them to death by firing squad. This sentence was actually rare during the Civil Wars but was justified by Fairfax and General Ireton on several grounds. The claims were that Lucas had executed Parliamentary prisoners in cold blood; that he had broken his parole given after the First Civil War; and that the Royalist had continued to fight in an indefensible position thus causing unnecessary death and suffering. Certainly a reason for executing these and others responsible for the revolt was to show that Parliamentary control was now complete and that any attempts to continue to fight would be swiftly dealt with.

Overnight Farre managed to escape and it was discovered that Gasgoigne was actually an Italian citizen and so was spared the firing squad however Lucas and Lisle were executed on the morning of 29 August. Within days pamphlets were produced pronouncing Lucas and Lisle as martyrs to the Royal cause and today in the grounds of Colchester Castle there stands a monument marking the site of the execution.

Further reading[edit]

  • David Appleby, Our Fall Our Fame - The Life and Times of Sir Charles Lucas (1996).
  • British Civil Wars website [1]

References[edit]

  • The Sealed Knot: The Seige of Colchester 1648 [2]
  • Rev G F Townsend, The Siege of Colchester (1874).

To include... For Parliament

Henry Ireton, and Thomas Rainborough. 

atrocities references