English Civil War defences unearthed in King’s Lynn

The excavations featured in a recent episode of The Great British Dig.

Investigations by community-based archaeology group King’s Lynn under Siege (KLuS) have uncovered traces of a complex English Civil War defence system on private land in the north-east of the Norfolk port-town.

The excavations featured in a recent episode of The Great British Dig (www.channel4.com/programmes/the-great-british-dig-history-in-your-garden), which saw five trenches opened in the gardens of local residents. One of these, a 30m by 2m trench in a larger field, uncovered substantial evidence of a defensive scheme built by the Parliamentarians after the Siege of King’s Lynn, which they launched to retake the town from Royalist forces early in September 1643.

The green grass and rushes in the foreground mark the line of what is now known as the ‘ditch’ – the only visible remains of what was once a c.15m-wide moat. The individual working in the background is positioned at the fausse-braye (the smaller of the two sets of ramparts). IMAGE: David Flintham.

‘Sieges were the most prominent form of warfare during the Civil Wars,’ KLuS Project Manager David Flintham told CA. ‘A battle would last a few hours, but a siege would last a lot longer, so in terms of pure archaeology, a siege is going to leave a far greater archaeological footprint than a battle would.’

The Royalists, indeed, had strengthened the town’s medieval fortifications, which included earthworks and masonry walls; nevertheless, Parliament was back in control by the middle of the month with plans for a new system of defences, David said. ‘This is where it starts to get interesting, and where the town’s importance really arises,’ he commented. ‘King’s Lynn sits on the coast, and it sits on a network of inland waterways, and from King’s Lynn you can reach nine counties by water. Parliament realised that to wage an effective war you need supplies, you need weapons, and you need raw materials, and King’s Lynn is an ideal place to receive and send those on,’ David explained. ‘As the Parliamentarians went on to recapture Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, the whole advance was being supplied through King’s Lynn,’ he said, adding that everything from linseed oil for waterproofing gun carriages, to Peak District lead to make musket balls, and munitions from the Netherlands, was being sent through the town as the conflict began to turn in Parliament’s favour. ‘King’s Lynn was important as a logistical centre,’ David said, ‘so the Parliamentarians realised they needed to refortify it.’

The Parliamentarians thus began constructing their own system of defences, designed by local mathematician Richard Campe, which KLuS’ excavations set out to find last September. The most common form of earthwork fortifications built during the Civil Wars were ditches and ramparts made of soil or clay, but in King’s Lynn they built ‘a multi-layer defensive scheme that has a width of about 56-60m,’ David said. ‘There was a wide moat, a ditch, and a couple of sets of ramparts – it was really sophisticated: even London didn’t go this far,’ he explained, adding that the defences were ‘perhaps the most modern built anywhere in the country during the Civil War period.’

At the field site excavated in September, the team from KLuS found the structure’s ditch and remnants of the moat, plus, rather surprisingly, wooden supports that would have been used to stabilise the clay ramparts – the first items of their kind known to survive from a Civil War-era earthwork.

In conjunction with the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeology Project (SHARP), KLuS will be returning in July to continue their investigations, which they hope will yield more information about these supports and an arrow- shaped bastion feature that may once have mounted artillery. For more details, see www.militaryhistorylive.co.uk/mhl-kings-lynn-under-siege.html.