Civil War Sieges and Fortifications

The Wars of the Three Kingdoms are defined by the big battles, major engagements involving thousands of cavalrymen, pikemen and musketeers. 

But reality tells a different story and battles such as Edgehill, Marston Moor, Naseby and Dunbar were the exception rather than the rule. 

The type of fighting which dominated the conflict was not in the open fields, meadows and moorlands, but in and around towns, castles and fortified houses. During the conflict there were more than 300 sieges of various kinds: 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 strong-points as he did battles. 

The Civil Wars actually started with the storming of Edinburgh Castle in 1639 and ended with the fall of Clogh Oughter Castle in County Cavan, Ireland. in 1653. The first ‘English’ Civil War started with an attack on Hull in July 1642 and ended with the fall of Harlech Castle in March 1647, and Oliver Cromwell’s Irish campaign of 1649-50 comprised nearly entirely of sieges and assaults. Writing 25 years later, the Earl of Orrey commented "We make war more like foxes than lions, and you will have twenty sieges for one battle." It is, therefore, with good reason that Professor Christopher Duffy described the conflict as "a war of trenches, ramparts, palisades, bombardments and blockades".

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)

British Civil Wars Project

English Civil

Pike and Shot Society