Necessary Bulwarks: The Theory and Practice of Siegecraft in the Civil War

Engravings of siegeworks from Stone’s Enchiridion of Fortification (1645). The chevaux de freis is noted as E on picture.

As Englishmen went to their storehouses and churches to dust off their pikes, muskets, and corslets when the Civil War broke out in 1642, they also grabbed shovels, picks, and axes for use in building siegeworks. In the early days of the war, and for much of the next four years, citizens and soldiers in towns across the country set to work digging bulwarks and trenches. Old town walls and medieval castles were given modern bastions made of earth, wood, and stone, while pioneers followed the two armies and constructed sconces and batteries at strategic points across England. The most extensive earthworks were constructed in the first year of the war around London. In October 1642, work began on eighteen kilometres of ditches and twenty-eight sconces that were built along the trench line. In A True Declaration and Just Commendation of the Great and Incomparable Care of the Right Honourable Issac Pennington (1643), Pennington, London’s mayor, was lauded for his efforts in “advancing and promoting the Bulwarkes and Fortifications about the City and Suburbs.” According to the pamphlet’s author, who we know only as W. S., Pennington had soothed the Londoners’ fears by quickly “fortifying the City on every side,” saving the capital from the “malignant party.” The construction work, which also included inner and outworks, began under the direction of Philip Skippon, who was now in command of the London trained bands. Known for his talents as an infantry commander, Skippon knew a thing or two about siege warfare, having gained his experience in the art of building defences after serving at the sieges of s’Hertogenbosch and Maastricht in 1629 and Breda in 1637.

Veterans could choose from an array of titles, both domestic and foreign for guidance in laying out defensive perimeters and devising earthen bastions at key crossroads and towns. In the first years of the war, treatises by Ward and Hexham as well as Norwood’s Fortification or Architecture would all have been available for officers to peruse. Another, Ball’s Propositions of Fortifications was printed in 1642, and though no extant copy exists, it most likely laid out the methods for constructing continental-style bastions. Add to these titles the large number of foreign treatises on siegecraft that could be purchased from booksellers and it becomes evident that if Englishmen required instructions in the art of siege warfare, they need not necessarily wait for the arrival of a foreign expert.

In the first two years of fighting, there was a rush to build bastion defences and sconces across England and the work was often carried out by local engineers. In 1643, Charles I employed 5000 civilians to ring Reading with bulwarks and outworks. Exeter, Gloucester, Bristol, Newcastle upon Tyne, and Plymouth all shored up their existing medieval walls with ditches and bastions in the first months of the war, while sconces also were built at Worcester and outside York. Smaller towns like Newark and Newport Pagnell, soon become strategically important to the struggle, resulting in the building of elaborate defences of interlocking sconces and batteries close to each. At a number of castles and manors work also was carried out to add ditches and bastions to create strongholds capable of withstanding artillery. Earthen bastions and palisades fortified Wardour Castle in Wiltshire and bastions were added to the corners of Cambridge Castle in Cambridgeshire to improve its defences. Basing House, Lathom House, and Highnam House were all encircled with ditches and earthworks that proved highly effective in withstanding assaults during the war.

The reports from sieges during the war describe practices that would not have been out of place at Ostend or Breda, though on a much smaller scale. At Gloucester, the Parliamentary governor, Edward Massey, improved the town’s defences by building sconces and using fire to destroy a number of houses outside the walls so as to provide clear fields of fire for the defenders. A published letter written by John Dorney, a clerk from Gloucester, reported the activities of the Royalist army as they began to lay siege to the town in August 1643. Following the establishment of a camp about a half mile from the town, the Royalist pioneers began trenching and “making of a redoubt in a field neer Lanthony towards Severn; making a breest-work from it to Lanthony wall crosse the causey. And we perceiving by their Canon Baskets they placed in their Square redoubt in Gawdy Green that they intended a battery there.”Later the Royalists mounted three artillery pieces on the newly constructed battery and opened fire on the town with demi-cannon and culverins in an effort to batter the walls and open a breach for infantry and cavalry to exploit. Their efforts were eventually thwarted by the arrival in September of a Parliamentary relief army under the earl of Essex who advanced on the Royalist lines and forced the King’s forces to give up the siege.

At York in 1644, Royalist cannon duelled with four Parliamentary guns in a battery on a hill overlooking the town. An anonymous spectator described skirmishes between sallies by men in the Royalist garrison against Parliamentary troops entrenched about the town, and against the pioneers outside the walls who were constructing galleries and a bridge of boats across the Ouse. At the siege of Basing House that same year, the hardy Royalist defenders of the marquis of Winchester’s stately manor house held out against Parliamentary cannon shot and fire weapons, including the “sending of [a] Crosse barre, shot Loggs bound with Iron hoops, Stones, and Grenades.”

Though once again it is difficult to fully measure the influence that printed books may have had on the construction of bastion defences or in the production of fire weapons, there is evidence that home grown English engineers turned to treatises for assistance. As I have noted, there were a number of works printed just prior to the Civil War, and new editions of older works, as well as new titles, appeared in press between 1643 and 1645. In 1643, new editions of Smith’s Art of Gunnery, Bourne’s The Art of Shooting in Great Ordnance, and Norton’s Art of Great Artillery were printed. Just as the war was reaching its conclusion in 1645, two new treatises dedicated to fortification design and siegecraft, Nicholas Stone’s Enchiridion of Fortification and David Papillon’s A Practical Abstract of the Arts of Fortification, were printed in London.

Both of these works suggest that at the war’s end, military architecture had undergone a significant transformation in Britain as a result of the fighting, though continental engineers still believed that the English had much to learn about the subject.

In 1642, Nicholas Stone was a well-respected English architect and sculptor who had had a long and prosperous career. He had established his name working on royal architectural projects at Windsor and in London in the 1620s and through his sculptures that graced the estates of nobles. He continued his loyalty to the monarchy when the Civil War erupted, a decision that was to cost him his estate and his career. He never had the opportunity to put his services to use in the field for the Royalists, owing to his imprisonment by Parliament at the beginning of the war. Stone appears to have spent some of the time during his imprisonment writing his Enchiridion of Fortification. In the dedicatory poem that opens the treatise, he found the opportunity to chastise his captors, offering the book only to

. . . assist the Good.

If the Bad doe chance to draw

Thee to help them, ‘gainst the law:

(As they may doe, tis no doubt;

For what’s a Handfull, ‘gainst a rout?)

Stone’s work as a master mason and architect did not necessarily mean that he had any experience with the construction of trace italienne defences and for this reason his treatise might best be described as following in the manner of Edward Cooke or Gervase Markham, with much of the it based on the work of others, in this case Hexham’s translation of Marolois’s Fortification ou Architectvre militaire (1631). Stone claimed that he took the “choice flowers . . . gathered out of the great nursery of Martiall discipline, by Samuel Maralois & others of great skill there in, and profound Mathematicians.” Like Cooke and Markham, Stone also attempted to simplify the process of constructing bastion defences, writing for gentlemen who are “not very skill’d in the Mathematicks, nor of great knowledge in Geometry.” Stone’s plates and diagrams were taken from Marolois and his study of the various types of polygonal fortresses was complemented by brief instructions on the construction of siegeworks, including the building of approaches and turnpikes and equally brief descriptions of artillery and siege weapons, such as petards and grenades. Stone’s instructions, however, could not have been too helpful to gentlemen soldiers, especially those who lacked education in mathematics and geometry. Enchiridion of Fortification was short on details and analysis, undoubtedly the result of Stone’s limited access to other sources and possibly to his own lack of experience.

David Papillon’s A Practical Abstract of the Arts of Fortification was a better manual for soldiers. Papillon was a supporter of Parliament who was also an accomplished mason and architect. He was highly critical of Stone’s work, as well as a number of other books on siegecraft written in the 1630s. Papillon, a French Huguenot who came to England as a boy in the 1580s, was able to put his talents to use for the Parliamentary army, assisting in the construction of the bastion defences at Leicester, Gloucester, and Northampton. The defences at Leicester were composed of a series of hornworks, fortifying the eastern and southern approaches to the town, while Papillon’s work at Gloucester involved the building of a number of bastions along the existing medieval walls of the town. Papillon advised rather than helped the Parliamentarian engineers to build Northampton’s fortifications, a town that already had well-constructed defences when the war began. When Papillon wrote A Practical Abstract in 1645, the war was coming to an end, and he believed that after the war, garrisons would still be required to protect towns and that these should be given strong, bastioned defences. In his dedication to Thomas Fairfax, (dated January 1, 1645/46) Papillon offered the general of the New Model Army directions “for the future of the Works of our garrisons; and for the double intrenched Camps, that we are necessary to make use of, if we intend to give (by the gracious favour of God) a speedy and ablest period to the miseries of this poor and desolated Kingdome.” By the end of 1645, the country had witnessed at least 200 sieges, and commentators like Papillon had no doubts that siegecraft was now an essential part of the military arts in England. But Papillon still felt that Englishmen needed more study, and he decried the English defences constructed in the war, which were, in his opinion, “insufficient.” He hoped that Fairfax would see to it that the stronger bastions were built along the lines of continental fortifications. This would mean eventually replacing the earthen defences that sprang up so rapidly during the war with stone fortifications. The earthen defences were apparently the “object of derision to Forrainers that see them,” and Papillon suggests that this might be perceived as a sign of national weakness, beckoning invaders from Europe. He went on to heap much of the responsibility for the state of those defences on the heads of local engineers and townspeople who helped to construct the fortifications that now dotted the land. Yet, his attacks suggest that while the defences that were built could hardly be compared with the massive stone fortifications in the Low Countries or France, English “mechanicall Artificers and Shop-keepers” had done their fair share to assist local authorities and Royalist and Parliamentary forces in constructing these bastions. Papillon did not lay all the blame on those who had done the building; he also took a jab at his fellow military writers, notably Ward, Cruso (for his Castramentation or the Measuring Out of the Quarters For the Encamping of an Army, 1642), and Stone. Papillon described these works as having “encreased the ignorance of [the] meane capacities” of their readers, rather than improving “their knowledge in the practice of these Arts.” He also reports that in discussions with some of these men, he found them poorly versed in the field of military architecture.

Despite his attacks, Papillon reveals an intersection between the theory found in the works on siegecraft and the practice of constructing bastions and bulwarks during the Civil War. Though English defences were not up to the standards of continental trace fortifications, the speed at which they were constructed across the country in the first years of the war, their close resemblance to Dutch models, and the sheer number of siege works built indicate that the English were either quick studies or they were already keenly aware of the art of constructing siege defences before the war broke out. Archaeological research undertaken over the course of the last two decades has uncovered earthworks throughout England, Wales, and Scotland revealing a much more developed art of siegecraft in the English Civil War than historians have described. Though foreign engineers and veteran soldiers played their part in advising local citizens and soldiers in the construction of bastion defences, the influence of English and European military books cannot be overlooked as another means by which the English obtained knowledge of the art of siegecraft.

The gentleman soldier in early Stuart England could hardly call himself a “complete soldier” if he knew nothing of the art of siege warfare. The treatises and manuals on siegecraft and military architecture inherited from the Tudors, as well as pamphlets, siege histories, and analytical treatises devoted to the subject that were printed in the Jacobean and Caroline periods, gave English soldiers a window into a world that was once the preserve of the engineer and the gunner. In fact, the first half of the seventeenth century witnessed an important stage in the development of siegecraft in Britain. While the Parliamentary army would destroy or dismantle most of the fortifications constructed during the Civil War, and the English would once again come to rely upon their natural defences for protection, the sieges undertaken during the conflict had helped to complete the education of soldiers. This education had begun in the trenches of the Low Countries with Vere, Maurice, and Spinola and ended at Basing House, Pontefract, and Colchester. Along the way, complete soldiers turned to books and treatises to augment their studies of siegecraft, providing them with direction in the construction, defence, and storming of these “necessary bulwarkes.”


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