You may read it in the ruins of this place…

By Richard Israel

In my first book for Helion Cannon Played from the Great Fort’ Sieges in the Severn Valley during the English Civil War 1642-1646, I have examined the towns of Bristol, Gloucester, Worcester, Bridgnorth and Shrewsbury. All of these towns had medieval walls, albeit in a variety of conditions.

However, the focus of this short article is Taunton in Somerset.  Unlike any of our case studies, it began the war with no earthworks surrounding it.[1] Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper noted that any defences were “but pales and hedges and no line about the town”.[2] The town does have a stone castle, of which construction was commenced around 1107 AD by William Gifford[3] near the bank of the River Tone.

Taunton experienced three sieges during the Civil War. The first siege began September 1644 and was a Royalist plan to retake the town from Parliament. After two failed attempts to storm the town, the Royalists tried to blockade the town with a perimeter of one to two miles (1.60-3.21 kilometres), and established garrisons at Chideock, Cokum, Wellington and Wycraft houses. They were unsuccessful.[4] The siege ended on 15 December 1644.[5]  

On 11 April 1645, Goring under directions from Prince Rupert sent the artillery and foot of Sir Joseph Wagstaff towards Taunton; whilst the horse went east to watch for any Parliamentary reinforcements approaching.[6]

Having around 4,200 foot and 2,000 horse, the Royalists began to increase their attacks. However, the town defences had been improved–illustrating how quickly preparations were made. The first defensive line consisted of two forts; whilst a second line inside the town was of fortified houses, barricades and entrenchments. The Royalists attack had three approach lines, which were covered by artillery. A night assault at 07:00 p.m. on 8 May 1645, captured the two forts.[7]

Inside the defenders’ line, houses were on fire. On 9 May 1645, the town was attacked at 11:00 a.m. By 06:00 p.m., the castle, church and Muyden’s Fort were still held by the besieged; although 20 houses were burnt by grenades and mortar fire. The town did not have enough fodder for horses and people were starving.[8]

A relief force, containing some 6,000 men, under the command of Weldon approached the town and drove off the Royalists.[9] After 94-days, the siege had left 150 garrison soldiers dead, another 200 hundred wounded, two-thirds of the houses destroyed and people starving. Bed cords were used as matches for musketeers, and to keep the horses alive, thatch from the roofs had been taken down to feed them.[10]

The third siege was a brief affair. By July, Fairfax was able to manoeuvre the New Model Army into Somerset, and face the Royalists under the command of Goring at the Battle of Langport on 10 July 1645.[11]

Evidence of the Civil War can be seen in the archaeological record in the form of defensive ditches, with one on Canon Street measuring 1.5m in depth and 5m in width. A siegework with banks of earth 3m in height near the north-east side of the castle has also been examined.[12] Further research, including the role of the castle in the war, is necessary.

“You may read it in the ruins of this place…her heaps of rubbish, her consumed houses, a multitude of which are raked in their own ashes. Here a poor forsaken chimney, and there a little fragment of a wall that have escaped to tell what barbarous and monstrous wretches there have been”.[13]

The words of the Minister of Taunton, George Newton in 1646 illustrates that the town of Taunton was a microcosm of the Civil War. The evidence of despair, destruction–the effects of siege warfare is clearly seen in the historical and archaeological records.  

Preliminary research for my second book for Helion, involving an examination of the castles during the Civil War is underway. Like ‘Cannon Played from the Great Fort’ Sieges in the Severn Valley during the English Civil War 1642-1646 it will involve an examination of the geology, topography, cartographic, historical and archaeological evidence available.

A copy of ‘Cannon Played from the Great Fort’ Sieges in the Severn Valley during the English Civil War 1642-1646 can be purchased here.

Bibliography

Gathercole, Clare, Somerset Extensive Urban Survey – Taunton Archaeological Assessment (Taunton: Somerset County Council, 2002).

Morris, Robert, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645 (Bristol: Stuart Press, 1995).

Prior, Stuart, A few well–positioned castles: The Norman Art of War (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006)

Underdown, David Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Holdings Ltd, 1973).

Turton, Alan, Civil War in Wessex (Salisbury: Wessex Books, 2015).

Wroughton, John, An Unhappy Civil War: The Experiences of Ordinary People in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, 1642-1646 (Bath: The Lansdown Press, 1999).


[1] Robert Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645 (Bristol: Stuart Press, 1995), pp.5-6.

[2] David Underdown, Somerset in the Civil War and Interregnum (Newton Abbot: David & Charles (Holdings Ltd, 1973), p.80.

[3] Stuart Prior, A few well–positioned castles: The Norman Art of War (Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006), p.71.

[4] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.6.

[5] Alan Turton, Civil War in Wessex (Salisbury: Wessex Books, 2015), p.22.

[6] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.7.

[7] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.7.

[8] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, pp.7-8.

[9] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.8.

[10] John Wroughton, An Unhappy Civil War: The Experiences of Ordinary People in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire, 1642-1646 (Bath: The Lansdown Press, 1999), p.227.

[11] Morris, The Sieges of Taunton 1644-1645, p.11.

[12] Clare Gathercole, Somerset Extensive Urban Survey – Taunton Archaeological Assessment (Taunton: Somerset County Council, 2002), p.28.

[13] Wroughton, An Unhappy Civil War, p.195.

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