Defending the dreaming spires: Civil War ramparts discovered in Oxford

Between 2015 and 2020, Oxford Archaeology and MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) investigated, prior to development, parts of a Civil War rampart buried below an access yard to Savile House at New College School in Oxford. The city’s defences were established in 1642, when Charles I made the town his de-facto capital, and continued to be added to until 1646, when the Royalist garrison surrendered to Parliamentarian forces.

Where truncated Civil War ramparts have been found elsewhere in Oxford, they are made up of tips of gravel and soil. Here, though, the dumps of gravel (which might represent a refortification of an earlier line slighted by Parliamentarian troops) covered a bank made of stacks of turf overlying Roman rural settlement remains. The archaeologists were mindful of a theory by David Sturdy, former Assistant Keeper at the Ashmolean Museum, that an outer late-Saxon rampart may run along this east–west line. Careful excavation of the lower rampart in sieved spits only revealed post-Norman Conquest pottery, however, while scientific dating techniques produced a wide range of dates. The working hypothesis is therefore that the turf stacks are part of the Civil War construction, although a degree of uncertainty remains.

Based on this work, MOLA have produced a reconstruction drawing depicting the inner line of the Royalist defences. A plaque was also recently unveiled by the Mayor of Oxford (above) to mark the course of the earthwork on the ground. The hope is that the surviving earthworks – a remarkable reminder of when Oxford lay at the heart of national events – can now be better appreciated.

Text: David Radford
IMAGE: Chris Mitchell for MOLA/DR