The Scars of Battle
The siege of Colchester in 1648 changed this town in so many ways, especially when it came to the damage and destruction inflicted upon the town’s buildings, including some the town’s churches. Every parish was effected by the siege in some way with St. Botolphs fairing the worst with 53 houses burned or destroyed, followed closely by St. Marys at the Walls which lost 51 houses.
The parish of St. Martins lost five houses and in contrast, the parish of St Peter’s survived best of all with no reported houses burned or destroyed. The church did sustain some damage to the clerestory and to the roof on the south side, which was repaired soon afterwards.
Today, 368 years on from the siege, there are, if you look carefully, some buildings which still show the impact marks left by cannon fire and musket balls that impacted their stonework. The siege of Colchester was one of the major events which occurred during the English Civil War and Colchester was one of the few towns to have been laid siege to. The marks on these buildings are hidden in plain sight for all to see at any time and are a lasting reminder to the events which occurred there.
The Siege House, located at the bottom of East Hill, is probably the best known building in Colchester relating to the siege. One morning early in July the Royalists came down East Hill making a surprise attack on the Parliamentary soldiers who were inside and in the surrounding area.
The visible musket ball marks which remain today are circled in red as a reminder to the buildings past and the events which occurred there.
St. Martins Church tower, already in a state of ruin by 1632, sustained further damage during the siege before finally being pulled down, remaining unrepaired today. The entrance arch over the western door at St. Martins, still shows the impact marks left by musket ball strikes, (top image) some still surprisingly well preserved. The western arch at St. Botolph’s Priory also shows similar marks although most now lost through time and weather erosion.
The door on St. Leonards Church at the Hythe was also fired on by the Parliamentary forces with the Royalists inside making holes in the door through which they fired their muskets. The door today still shows the scars of battle today and so does the surrounding stonework, where musket ball marks are visible.
St. Mary’s by the Walls, now the Colchester Arts Centre, received a direct bombardment on the morning of 14th July when the Parliamentary forces opened fire on the Royalist cannon position located on top of the tower. Over sixty cannon balls were fired that morning destroying the tower along with much of the church’s Nave. There are still some parts where the impact marks have been filled in, although the modern brickwork is clearly visible in contrast to the older 13th century stonework.
Cannon fire also effected St. Botolph’s Priory reducing the already ruined building to what now remains today, with the castle also sustaining damage to the top of the walls, whilst several other town centre churches were also damaged. The old Roman walls, built some 1600 years before, which had protected the town all this time, stood up well to this more modern type of warfare. This is a great testimony to the quality of Roman engineering and building quality, as they were never designed to withstand this type of attack. Following the siege General Fairfax gave orders that some parts of the walls were to be demolished so that they couldn’t be used in a defensive way again. Given all the events of the three-month siege, we are lucky to have the buildings which do remain today, leaving open one interesting question. If the siege had never taken place, how much more of our heritage would we have today and what would our town look like?