Siege of 1643

Map of theatre of operations in the lincolnshire area - summer 1643

Theatre of Operations in the Lincolnshire area - Summer 1643

Bolingbroke Castle’s only taste of war came in autumn 1643, during the great civil war. Click for a brief history of the war. 

Click for details of the Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire's available education pack about the siege.

Although only briefly directly involved, this strategically placed castle was crucial to control of central Lincolnshire. Whilst great battles were critical to the outcome of the war, it was usually an accumulation of small garrisons and their control of the local area that enabled one side or another to achieve an overall advantage, since seizing an area gained land, food, recruits, livestock and other resources – and denied this to the enemy. Sieges were much more common than battles, although at Bolingbroke, there would be both.

Although very dilapidated and militarily obsolete by the outbreak of war, the castle was sufficiently strong, once repaired by a Royalist garrison, to represent a threat to Parliament. This was particularly the case when in the summer of 1643 the northern Royalist field army commanded by the Marquis of Newcastle advanced into Lincolnshire from Hull, intent on rolling up Parliamentarian resistance as he marched. The summer saw the high water mark of Royalist cause in the war. With King Charles moving towards London from Oxford and spectacular Royalist successes in the south west, things were beginning to look black for Parliament.

Image of civil war royalist troops on the march

Civil War Royalist troops on the march

Newcastle had been besieging the Parliamentarian stronghold of Hull, without much success. He therefore took the decision to leave a blockading force and move south to threaten Parliament’s heartland in the East, and perhaps even march on London. This move was opposed by the Parliamentarian general Lord Meldrum, and an enthusiastic yet so far inexperienced cavalry officer, Oliver Cromwell MP. The campaign in Lincolnshire would begin the meteoric rise of this remarkable man and that of his famous “ironsides” – superbly trained and disciplined cavalrymen that would never lose a battle.

On 16 July 1643 the Parliamentarian General Lord Willoughby captured Gainsborough, only to be immediately besieged by a large force of Royalists. 8 days later Cromwell had his first taste of battle when he relieved the town by defeating the Royalists at the Battle of Gainsborough, their commander Charles Cavendish being killed. This success was short lived however as Newcastle’s army soon arrived, forcing the Parliamentarian troops to rapidly abandon the town, and Lincoln too.

Parliamentarian morale was at a very low ebb and had he pressed on, Newcastle might have been able to take Boston as well, the last major obstacle to complete domination of Lincolnshire. However, he had problems of his own, for although he had successfully advanced thus far, he was very worried that he had left a powerful foe in his rear at Hull, whilst his homesick Yorkshire soldiers were extremely reluctant to march any further south. The result was military stalemate with the Royalists close to, but not directly threatening Boston.  With little prospect of further advances, Newcastle turned back to resume his siege of Hull with the bulk of his army in September 1643, leaving garrisons in towns and castles he had captured. One such garrison, about 200 strong, was placed into Bolingbroke Castle. One wonders what they must have thought on learning that the main army had withdrawn to Hull. Still, they knew that there was a powerful force at Newark that could help them if pressed.

Image of soldiers

Trust in God, and keep your powder dry!

The same month, the talented Sir Thomas Fairfax escaped from Hull (still blockaded) and crossed the Humber with his cavalry, releasing them from pointlessly sitting around in a siege (and before the citizens ate the horses!), enabling them to link up with Cromwell’s troops that had eluded the Royalists and marched to the southern bank of the river. Parliament now had a strong force of cavalry in Lincolnshire, which joined Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester, who was gathering an army from the recently formed “Eastern Association” at Boston, ready to strike north and contest the county with the Royalists. Cromwell was given command of the cavalry. After a brief diversion occasioned by capturing Kings Lynn and despite Cromwell weeping with frustration over not being able to pay his men, the army was ready.

Meanwhile, the garrison at Bolingbroke were doing what they could to prepare themselves for the siege they knew could come at any time. Provisions were brought into the castle and the ancient walls were probably strengthened. And it is possible that they constructed a strong state-of-the-art earth fort in the rout yard, large enough to hold a full company of foote. It still stands to this day, although its construction date and purpose has not been confirmed by excavation or any written records. If it is indeed a fort (as this author believes), it is one of only a few to survive from the civil war and although tiny compared with examples at Newark, would represent a very important piece of military architecture. Click for an article about this interesting earthwork.

Howard Giles