The Siege of Bolingbroke Castle and Battle of Winceby, 1643
Bolingbroke Castle’s only taste of war came in autumn 1643, during the great civil war. Click for a brief history of the war.
Although only briefly directly involved, this strategically placed castle was crucial to control of central Lincolnshire. Whilst great battles were critical to the outcome of the war, it was usually an accumulation of small garrisons and their control of the local area that enabled one side or another to achieve an overall advantage, since seizing an area gained land, food, recruits, livestock and other resources – and denied this to the enemy. Sieges were much more common than battles, although at Bolingbroke, there would be both.
Although very dilapidated and militarily obsolete by the outbreak of war, the castle was sufficiently strong, once repaired by a Royalist garrison, to represent a threat to Parliament. This was particularly the case when in the summer of 1643 the northern Royalist field army commanded by the Marquis of Newcastle advanced into Lincolnshire from Hull, intent on rolling up Parliamentarian resistance as he marched. The summer saw the high water mark of Royalist cause in the war. With King Charles moving towards London from Oxford and spectacular Royalist successes in the south west, things were beginning to look black for Parliament.
Newcastle had been besieging the Parliamentarian stronghold of Hull, without much success. He therefore took the decision to leave a blockading force and move south to threaten Parliament’s heartland in the East, and perhaps even march on London. This move was opposed by the Parliamentarian general Lord Meldrum, and an enthusiastic yet so far inexperienced cavalry officer, Oliver Cromwell MP. The campaign in Lincolnshire would begin the meteoric rise of this remarkable man and that of his famous “ironsides” – superbly trained and disciplined cavalrymen that would never lose a battle.
On 16 July 1643 the Parliamentarian General Lord Willoughby captured Gainsborough, only to be immediately besieged by a large force of Royalists. 8 days later Cromwell had his first taste of battle when he relieved the town by defeating the Royalists at the Battle of Gainsborough, their commander Charles Cavendish being killed. This success was short lived however as Newcastle’s army soon arrived, forcing the Parliamentarian troops to rapidly abandon the town, and Lincoln too.
Parliamentarian morale was at a very low ebb and had he pressed on, Newcastle might have been able to take Boston as well, the last major obstacle to complete domination of Lincolnshire. However, he had problems of his own, for although he had successfully advanced thus far, he was very worried that he had left a powerful foe in his rear at Hull, whilst his homesick Yorkshire soldiers were extremely reluctant to march any further south. The result was military stalemate with the Royalists close to, but not directly threatening Boston. With little prospect of further advances, Newcastle turned back to resume his siege of Hull with the bulk of his army in September 1643, leaving garrisons in towns and castles he had captured. One such garrison, about 200 strong, was placed into Bolingbroke Castle. One wonders what they must have thought on learning that the main army had withdrawn to Hull. Still, they knew that there was a powerful force at Newark that could help them if pressed.
The same month, the talented Sir Thomas Fairfax escaped from Hull (still blockaded) and crossed the Humber with his cavalry, releasing them from pointlessly sitting around in a siege (and before the citizens ate the horses!), enabling them to link up with Cromwell’s troops that had eluded the Royalists and marched to the southern bank of the river. Parliament now had a strong force of cavalry in Lincolnshire, which joined Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester, who was gathering an army from the recently formed “Eastern Association” at Boston, ready to strike north and contest the county with the Royalists. Cromwell was given command of the cavalry. After a brief diversion occasioned by capturing Kings Lynn and despite Cromwell weeping with frustration over not being able to pay his men, the army was ready.
Meanwhile, the garrison at Bolingbroke were doing what they could to prepare themselves for the siege they knew could come at any time. Provisions were brought into the castle and the ancient walls were probably strengthened. And it is possible that they constructed a strong state-of-the-art earth fort in the rout yard, large enough to hold a full company of foote. It still stands to this day, although its construction date and purpose has not been confirmed by excavation or any written records. If it is indeed a fort (as this author believes), it is one of only a few to survive from the civil war and although tiny compared with examples at Newark, would represent a very important piece of military architecture. Click for an article about this interesting earthwork.
The siege begins
On Monday 9 October 1643 a great army of 6,000 men under Manchester, Fairfax and Cromwell marched north from Boston to begin the reconquest of Lincolnshire. The first major target was Bolingbroke Castle. At 7pm Major Knight summoned the castle to surrender, only to be rebuffed (according the Parliamentary Chronicle) with “bug-bear words must not winne castles, nor make them quit the place !” With a messenger sent off to the Royalist stronghold at Newark, clearly the garrison were confident they could hold out until help arrived, although vastly outnumbered.
The besieging troops closed a loose ring around the castle. 10 companies (the strength of a full regiment) of infantry were quartered in the town under Major Knight, Sergeant Major to Sir Miles Hobart. Russell’s Regiment was a couple of miles away at Stickney with three companies of Manchester’s Regiment (the rest being at Kings Lynn or Hull). The cavalry were positioned around the area as far as Tattershall, seeking quarters and forming a screen to prevent the garrison escaping (even if they had wished to, and there is no evidence this was the case) or, more usefully, to give warning of a relief force.
At Bolingbroke, plans were afoot to seize the church (which is very close to the castle) at night and mount a mortar on the roof. From here this weapon could lob explosive shells at a high trajectory into the castle, rendering no place safe. However, the Royalists realised what was happening and set fire to the roof (possibly thatched), ending this particular design.
Firing broke out on the morning of the 10th, with two parliamentarian soldiers killed and Quartermaster-General Vermuyden slightly wounded. Later that day, General Manchester made the nearby village of Kirkby his HQ whilst Fairfax garrisoned Horncastle 5 miles to the north west, placing one regiment 3 miles further north at Edlington, facing towards where an enemy relief force might be supposed to come from. Pickets were deployed and looking out for the enemy. Bolingbroke was thus completely surrounded by an enemy deployed “in depth”.
Meanwhile, a 1500-strong Royalist relief force marched from their stronghold at Newark under Sir John Henderson, consisting primarily of cavalry in 8 troops, dragoons (effectively, mounted infantrymen) and infantry. The column made good progress and the same day they took Horncastle, surprising and ejecting Fairfax’s troopers from the town and outlying villages in some chaos. The town had just been designated as the new “alarm point” or rendezvous for the Parliamentarian army since this offered better facilities than Bolingbroke and was astride the probable line of advance by a Royalist relief force, but the latter had got there first. The alarm was raised in the Parliamentarian positions around Bolingbroke – the next day, there would be a battle.
The Battle of Winceby
On the morning of Wednesday 11 October 1643, Manchester drew up his whole army (less enough men to blockade the castle) on Kirkby Hill, overlooking Bolingbroke. It must have made an impressive sight. Some time between Noon and 2pm he set the army in motion towards Horncastle, the cavalry and dragoons soon leaving the slow moving infantry and artillery behind. Meanwhile, Sir John Henderson was advancing from the other direction. In a classic “encounter” battle, the two sides blundered into each other at Winceby (or Ixbie, according to the Parliamentary Chronicle – spelling was phonetic in the C17th Century), 3 miles up the road from Bolingbroke and just into the rolling wolds countryside. The ground was not ideal for a battle – the field falls away into sharp gullies on one side – but it would do.
At around 1200 men each the opposing forces were roughly equal in size. All were initially mounted, both forces consisting entirely of cavalry and dragoons – the Parliamentarian infantry was still struggling up from Bolingbroke by the time the action was decided and it appears that the Royalist infantry had been left to garrison Horncastle, as sources do not mention them.
Winceby was a small battle compared with Marston Moor (approximately 45,000 combatants) or Naseby (up to 25,000), and only lasted half an hour, but was very decisive. A feigned retreat by Cromwell lured the confident Royalists from a strong position down onto flat ground, ensuring the Parliamentarians would not have to charge up hill. Then the Parliamentarian “forlorn hope” (a troop of dragoons) began the action by firing at their opposite numbers on the Royalist side, who replied. Hoping to catch the enemy before they could reload, Cromwell led his cavalry in a charge, but the enemy managed to fire off a second volley at very close range that knocked down several men and horses, including Cromwell’s. It was here that the latter’s career as a soldier nearly ended before it had truly begun – unhorsed (and probably dazed) in front of his enemies he was in mortal danger. He received a glancing blow from the sword of Sir Ingram Hopton, commander of the Royalist dragoons, but in the confusion of battle somehow managed to find a remount and carry on the fight.
Although personally unhorsed, Cromwell’s charge had shaken the dismounted Royalist dragoons and the right wing of their forces. However, the rest of the line held and sought to counter attack as Cromwell withdrew to reform. This was defeated by a perfectly timed flanking charge by Sir Thomas Fairfax, which smashed the Royalists aside.
As Fairfax charged, the Royalists were confused by the order “faces about” (to meet his attack). Some thought it was the order to retire and vital cohesion was lost just as Fairfax’s men crashed into them. The Royalists were utterly routed and fled the field….as Parliament’s True Relation says, ”they rann for it leaving all their dragooners which were now on foot behinde them”.
Worse, as the Royalists fled back towards Horncastle many became trapped against a parish boundary gate that only opened one way (against them)….as the press of men jammed it shut, the vengeful Parliamentarians closed in and a number were killed or captured (the location is still called “slash hollow” today). The thrill of victory and chasing a beaten enemy can have a quite maddening effect on soldiers – indeed, the fury of the pursuit was later remarked upon in the Parliament Scout, saying that their men “slew more than they should done”. One can only pity the Royalists, cut down as they screamed for mercy from elated Parliamentarians, their blood lust up.
The pursuit lasted many miles, with the vanquished losing about 300 men (including many apparently drowned in a gravel pit), the rest gradually straggling into Newark and other Royalist garrisons (although if you believe the Parliamentarian propaganda, more prisoners were taken than there were men in the whole Royalist force!). 35 standards were taken. Sir Ingram Hopton had been killed and other officers captured.
The Parliament Scout claimed only 10 killed and a few wounded on their side in the fight, which is very low, even allowing for a rout where most of the casualties are inflicted on fleeing men. However, it appears more were killed or wounded by their own side in the vigorous pursuit through mistakes, because they forgot or muddled up the watch word of the day (“Truth and Peace” for Parliament, “Newcastle” for the Royalists), or because battle-mad troopers did not believe they were on the same side even if they remembered to call it out. Lord Manchester later said “I cannot hear that there was killed on our side above twenty and hurt about sixty”, which would seem reasonable estimate.
The relief attempt had been totally defeated. And just to rub salt into the wound, almost at the same instant the sound of booming cannon could be heard far in the distance. By a peculiar combination of atmospheric conditions, the troops were hearing the garrison of far away Hull firing their cannon in celebration – the Marquis of Newcastle had finally abandoned the siege and was retreating.
The castle falls
Bolingbroke’s garrison was doomed now, and they must have known it. Yet honour prevented them from capitulating and it was still a strong position that would cost many lives if assaulted. With Lincolnshire wide open after Winceby, Manchester now had other priorities and so most of the besieging forces marched away to tackle Royalist garrisons elsewhere. Parliament’s forces swept through the county, recapturing lost towns and castles. Lincoln fell on 19 October. Gainsborough was the last to be stormed on December 20. The Royalist cause in the county was crushed. One Parliamentarian commented “Good riddance for poore Lincolnshire”.
Bolingbroke Castle held out for over a month in all, until 14 November. Facing winter with insufficient supplies and no hope of relief, the garrison faced reality and surrendered. We do not know what happened to the soldiers but it is quite possible that as noted in the aftermath of other battlefield defeats, many of the vanquished may have promptly changed sides, enticed by pay, food and best of all, being on the winning side. Others might have been exchanged for prisoners taken elsewhere by the Royalists, or just released and told to go home.
In March 1644 Lincoln was recaptured by the King’s forces, but this gain was negated by the crushing defeat of Prince Rupert at Marston Moor that July. With the whole of the north lost, Charles I now faced serious difficulties, but worse was to come. His veteran infantry was completely destroyed by Fairfax and Cromwell at Naseby on 14 June 1645, and his remaining forces in the West crushed shortly afterwards. In 1646 he surrendered to the Scots, who forced him to order the surrender of Newark – the isolated yet relatively strong bastion of Royalist power still controlling the junction of the River Trent, Foss Way and Great North Road. They later sold him to Parliament, who sought a negotiated settlement which would still leave Charles as King, but with reduced powers. The game was up – but Charles attempted to regain full power first through intrigue and then by military intervention by the Scots in 1648. Both failed and enraged by the King’s duplicity, Parliament executed “this man of bloode” in January 1649.
The young Charles II’s campaigns in 1650 and 1651 also ended in disaster, but there was enough fear of a Royalist resurgence to bring about the deliberate destruction (or “slighting”) of numerous castles, including Bolingbroke. In 1652 much of the castle was systematically knocked down and a lot of the stone thrown into the moat. Part of the curtain wall was removed, leaving an indefensible breach. Henceforth no stubborn Royalist plotters would be able to use the castle as a stronghold and disturb the peace of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The castle’s use as a military post was over and for the moment, for good or bad, so was the English monarchy.
The third part of the Parliamentary Chronicle, John Vicars, London, 1646.
Boston and the Great Civil War, by A A Garner, published by Richard Kay, Boston, 1992.
This Turbulent County – Lincolnshire during the civil war 1642-46 No.3, by Geoffrey Alan Wildman B.A. Privately published booklet.
Winceby and the Battle, by Betty Brammer, published by Richard Kay. Boston 1994.
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