Evidence of what could be one of the first battles of the English Civil War has been uncovered in Warwickshire.
Archaeologists excavating the site at Coleshill Manor, east of Birmingham, found evidence that a newly discovered fortified gatehouse there had at one point come under intense fire. They also uncovered more than 40 musket balls from nearby soil.
The work was carried out by HS2 as part of the construction of the new high-speed railway line connecting London with the Midlands and north of England.
The English Civil War was in fact a series of conflicts throughout England, Scotland, and Ireland between the Parliamentarians (also known as the Roundheads) and the Royalists (or Cavaliers) over the governance and religion of the British Isles.
Beginning in August 1642, the first recorded battle of the war was at Curdworth Bridge, only a short distance from Coleshill Manor. At the time, it was the property of Simon Digby, a Royalist, having been transferred to his name following the execution for treason of its previous owner, Simon de Montfort.
Positioned next to a bridge over the nearby River Cole, the manor would have occupied a strategic position that Roundheads would have wanted to control – and so it may have been targeted ahead of the confrontation at Curdworth.
As there is little historical record of such skirmishes, the excavation provides a rare glimpse into the impact of the war at a local level. For instance, the extent of the gatehouse was unknown before work began. It is believed to have been constructed in the 13th or 14th century, and to have gone out of use in the 1650s, after the end of the Civil War, before being largely demolished to make way for a more modern manor.
As well as being a defensive feature, the gatehouse probably opened a drawbridge over the moat. It was from soil in this area that the musket balls were removed. The gate itself appears to have come under some considerable amount of fire, with around 200 impact marks from pistol shots and musket balls visible on its outer side.
The find was featured in the most recent series of Digging for Britain, which aired on the BBC earlier this year. The presenter of the series, historian Alice Roberts, said that she was ‘amazed at just how much of the monumental stone building, with its two great octagonal towers, had survived below the ground’.
‘The front of the gatehouse was pockmarked and had clearly been shot at with muskets – perhaps for target practice – but there’s also an intriguing possibility that we’re looking at evidence of the earliest skirmish of the Civil War,’ Roberts added.
Meanwhile, HS2’s Head of Heritage Helen Wass explained: ‘While we may never have all the details of the battle that took place in Coleshill, our investigations help historians weave together the complex pieces of information to increase our understanding of events.’
Excavations at the site also revealed an impressive 16th-century ornamental garden, comparable to those of Kenilworth Castle, also in Warwickshire, and London’s Hampton Court Palace. The existence of the garden was picked up by aerial photography during preliminary investigations.