The Fort

The rectangular earth work on the right hand side of the photo

Fort

An expanded and updated version of an article appearing in the October 2002 newsletter of the Friends of Bolingbroke Castle. 

The views expressed here are those of Howard Giles who lived in the village until a few years ago. Howard specialised on Civil War History and had a keen interest in the castle and its background. Here Howard explains his opinions and research surround the large retangular earth works feature that is located in the centre of the Rout Yard, south of the main castle.

Not all share his views entirely, but they certainly provoke discussion. It is also partly as a result of this that others more recently have put forward the theory that the banks did indeed enclose a water feature, but one that was part of a much wider landscaped water garden that encompassed the entire area and was similar to others that have been discovered in a few other parts of the country.

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Previous to this, the purpose of the earthwork had not been closely examined. The article is however published in its original form as it discusses all the theories in circulation at the time.

A view of the earthwork from the walls of bolingbroke castle. the snow covered landscape clearly highlights the bank and surrounding ditch.

A view of the earthwork from the walls of Bolingbroke Castle. The snow covered landscape clearly highlights the bank and surrounding ditch.

As soon as I first laid eyes on the impressive earthwork in the castle’s rout yard, I though “wow, fantastic C17th fort!”.….yet what is the evidence for this?  An explanatory panel in the castle says that its purpose is unknown, possibly a C18th fish pond, whilst other published theories suggest that it might have been built to hold lost or impounded stock, or as an animal watering hole. I am convinced, however, that it is much more significant than this – it is an earth fort, built to defend the castle prior to the siege of 1643. If so, it is one of only a very few to survive ploughing, building and land clearances since the C17th century so thus could actually be in many respects even more important than the castle itself. 

So, what is the evidence one way or the other? Without excavation, we can only speculate, but there is a powerful argument to support the military earthwork theory.

a)   Does the enclosure appear on early maps? No. It isn’t on the 1719 Jared Hill map of the village, but neither are any other ground features - the map shows layout of the village, not topography. So, this unfortunately does not point to a conclusion one way or the other.

b)   The fishpond theory: All I can say is that these fish must have been terrifying if you had to keep them in with such a deep ditch. It’s nonsense really – fishponds were designed so people could fish in them, with ease of access, not built to make access difficult. I believe that the nearby ditches are the real fishponds. Ponds at Ashby de la Zouch castle look similar and, significantly, you can walk right up to the edge (as you’d need to if going fishing). So this theory just doesn’t add up.

c)    Lost or impounded stock: It is true that one of the purposes of a rout yard is to have somewhere to put stock, but simple wicker pens would be quite adequate (and a lot cheaper and easier to arrange) for this purpose.  There simply was no need to build an impressive earthwork with a ditch round it just to keep a few animals in. Again, it just doesn’t make sense.

d)   A watering pond for animals: Let’s get real here. Like fishermen, animals would need easy access and the ditch obviously prevents this.

e)   It is however exactly the right shape and design for a classic defensive earth-built civil war era infantry fort. The defensive V-cut ditch is in the right place and is the right size. The bank and interior of the fort are in proportion too. It all matches designs from contemporary military engineering manuals.

f)    Crucially, it is in exactly the right place to dominate the rout yard and flat ground beyond. The garrison’s firepower (muskets, perhaps augmented with a small cannon or two) could sweep the whole interior of the rout yard, rendering attempts to seize the latter very costly. The position of the earthwork would also ensure that enemy cannon could not get too close to the vulnerable medieval masonry of the castle, yet itself being made of earth could easily absorb cannon balls without damage. This all follows the military theory of the day.

g)  Even today, it is virtually impossible to walk, let alone charge over the ditch and up the bank into the enclosure. Imagine trying to do so via a sharply cut ditch designed to trap you and/or break your ankles (and probably drown you too), then up a bank almost certainly topped by a wooden palisade, defended by some very unsympathetic troops ready to blow your head off with their muskets. As a re-enactor, one has a sense of what was physically possible and what wasn’t. Even though tiny when compared with the King's or Queen’s Sconce at Newark, I wouldn’t fancy my chances assaulting this position. It might not look it now, but it is very strong. 360 years ago in October 1643, it would have been a major obstacle to Parliamentarian troops hoping to assault the castle.

h)    There are other interesting ground features on the perimeter of the rout yard, one of which looks distinctly like a corner bastion for a cannon.

i)    The Royalist garrison at Bolingbroke Castle (some 200 men) would have known that a large force of enemy troops would sooner or later try to capture this vital position. Almost certainly the garrison knew that they would be outnumbered and facing cannon easily capable of knocking the ancient walls to pieces. Yet they also had a lot of men, horses and supplies stuffed into a relatively small castle  - and there wouldn’t really have been enough room for them. Once under siege and the garrison withdrawn from cosy billets in villagers’ houses, it would have been very crowded and just asking for the spread of fatal pestilence. The rout yard outside was too big to hold with the number of men available, or physically strong enough a position (low banks, not much of a ditch around it – a walkover for a determined enemy). It is my contention therefore that the garrison commander or his superiors ordered the swift construction of the fort, to hold a single company of soldiers (between 60  and 100 men), thus at one fell swoop guarding the rout yard against attack whilst easing pressure on the cramped garrison.

Image of a corner of the earthwork and ditch. in the distance the walls of the castle and nearby church can be seen

A corner of the earthwork and ditch. In the distance the walls of the castle and nearby church can be seen

So, what happened? Certainly, the garrison felt strong enough to defy a summons to surrender on 9 October, even though it was hugely outnumbered by the 6,000 strong Parliamentarian army that now surrounded the castle.  All the Royalists had to do was hold out until help came. Unfortunately for them, it didn’t. The relief force from Newark was utterly destroyed by Generals Fairfax and Cromwell at Winceby on 11 October 1643, so whether it manned a strong earthwork fort or not, the castle’s garrison was doomed.  Finally giving up hope, they surrendered on 14 November and Bolingbroke’s brief moment of glory in the great civil war was over.

So, there we have it. Until such time that a survey can be made, we won’t know if the earthwork is indeed a fort and if so, whether it was occupied at the time of the siege. I think both likely, and so welcome any views and/or evidence to support or demolish my theory. In saying this, experts from English Heritage do now appear to agree with the theory.

In October 2003 we restaged part of the siege of 1643 to commemorate the 360th anniversary of the siege and nearby Battle and Winceby. With upwards of 250 musketeers, pikemen and artillerymen from top regiments of the English Civil War Society taking part, it was a most memorable occasion.

Visitor information

To visit the fort, follow the brown signs to the castle first (where a couple of parking spaces can be found). Just inside the gate a footpath on the left leads off from the castle into the rout yard. Admission to both is unrestricted and free. Sheep often graze the rout yard during the summer, so please ensure any dogs are on a lead.

If visiting during the winter Wellington boots are recommended as parts of the rout yard can be very soggy. The ditch around the earthwork is so wide and deep that the only way into the interior or onto the bank is via the opening . Even so, it is very wet except in the driest of weather so don't try to do this unless you can leap quite a few feet and in case you miss, have wellies on and don't mind getting muddy!

Howard Giles