By Ben Paites, Collections + Learning Curator
2023 marks the 375th anniversary of the Siege of Colchester, a terrible part of Colchester’s long and complex history. The siege began during the Second English Civil war in 1648, a period where England was torn in two. Some supported the King and wanted him to maintain ultimate power, while others wanted parliament to have more say in the running of the country. Estimates from the time suggested there were almost 200,000 deaths as a result of all three English Civil Wars.
In June 1648, Royalist troops fighting in Kent were pushed back by a parliamentary force. Fleeing north, they eventually reached Colchester on 12th June where they hoped to make a brief stop to gather supplies. However, the next day a parliamentary force arrived and a short battle outside the town forced the royalists to seek shelter within the town walls. This marked the start of the siege.
Over a period of 11 weeks, parliamentary forces maintained their position of power by building ramparts and forts around the town. The royalists tried to flee on several occasions, but few were able to get away. Supplies dwindled and the inhabitants of the town were left to eat rats, cats and dogs, as well as the animal fat used to make candles. What’s more, the citizens of the town, who had supported parliament in the previous Civil War, were trapped with their enemy.
Eventually the siege broke after royalists were defeated at the Battle of Preston and the commanders in Colchester were forced to surrender. Several royalist leaders were sentenced to execution, with George Lisle and Charles Lucas being executed by firing squad behind Colchester Castle. Today, a monument stands marking the spot.
To commemorate these events, Colchester Museums have created a display called “Under Siege”. It shows a handful of objects from the museums’ collection that relate to the siege, as well as several loans from The Essex Society for Archaeology and History Collection at The University of Essex. One loan is a letter from Sir Thomas Fairfax, who led the parliamentary forces outside the town during the siege. It is the first time this has ever been on public display. The other documents were once part of a collection housed at the Castle in the 1800s, making this the first time they have returned in almost 200 years. For details about the display, click here.
Working with film students from the Colchester Institute, Colchester Museums are also sharing a series of short film clips called “The Siege Diaries”. These act as a record of what life would have been like for a royalist soldier, played by Martin Lovell (a member of the English Civil War Society), trapped inside the town walls. These will be aired throughout the period of the siege, starting on 12th June. To watch the films, click here.