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The Battle of Newark Castle and the River Trent

For Beau Ouimette, history isn’t something consigned to dusty textbooks. It’s out there, ready to be discovered and held in your hand – as long as you’re willing to pull on a wetsuit and go frolicking in rivers like an excitable seal. Armed only with his trusty metal detector and boundless American enthusiasm, he’s made a name for himself as a YouTuber. And now he’s teamed up with British telly host Rick Edwards for River Hunters – a show which sees the pair explore our waterways for relics from some of the most brutal and earth-shattering events in the nation’s history.

One of their hunting grounds is the River Trent, where the town of Newark-on-Trent became a fiercely contested hotspot in the English Civil War. It was here that in 1645 the Royalist forces faithful to Charles I were under siege from Parliamentarian and Scottish troops for months on end. Where better to go looking for weapons and other trophies from that dark era? 

Charles vs the People

Charles I has gone down in history as the English monarch who got his head chopped off, but his execution wasn’t due to a straightforward revolution by the ‘people’. Years of complex politics and shifting allegiances led to the English Civil War and his eventual downfall. The troubles stemmed back to the king’s haughty, snobbish, literally god-like self-belief (he was a fierce advocate of the divine right of monarchs), which led to painful friction with Parliament.

A number of issues – such as Charles’ choice of a Catholic wife, his penchant for expensive foreign wars, and his dictator-like decision to rule for more than a decade without the help of Parliament – just made everything worse. There was also conflict with the Scots over his stubborn insistence to impose a new Anglican prayer book upon the Church of Scotland. Sounds pretty innocuous to us today, but this unleashed religious fury north of the border (one bishop had to read to his congregation while protecting himself with a loaded pistol). Scottish forces would eventually ally themselves with Parliament when the English Civil War began in August 1642.

The sieges of Newark

The country found itself torn between the Royalists, or ‘Cavaliers’, and the Parliamentarians, or ‘Roundheads’. Newark became a hotspot because of its geographical importance. It was on two of the major roads in England, and was particularly useful for Charles’ followers as a stepping stone between the Royalist stronghold of Oxford and their forces in the north. Parliamentarians were keen to take it out of Royalist hands and assume control of the River Trent.

Their favourable position was very bad news for the people of Newark, who found themselves under siege by Parliamentarians time after time. The first siege was short and (not so) sweet, in February 1643, with Parliamentarians giving up in a matter of days.

Newark was caught in a pincer between Scottish forces from the north and Parliamentarians from the south.

A year later they tried again, with thousands of Parliamentarians armed with muskets and cannons circling the town. They were led by Scottish solder John Meldrum, while the Royalists were defended by Prince Rupert, the king’s dashing German nephew, who successfully sent the Parliamentarians packing.

But the real ordeal would come in November 1645, when Newark was caught in a pincer between Scottish forces from the north and Parliamentarians from the south. This time, the besieging troops were in it for the long haul, creating fortified camps and earthworks to cut Newark off from the rest of the country. The Scots were led by the Earl of Leven (who later passed the baton to another commander, David Leslie) while the Parliamentarians were led by Colonel-General Sydenham Poyntz, a fierce fighter known for decimating Royalist soldiers. The two forces communicated through bridges of boats which lined the River Trent, and Poyntz even dammed the river in an attempt to put mills in Newark out of action.

Despite the forces ranged against him, Newark’s Royalist governor, John Bellasye, refused to surrender. The siege dragged on, with the civilians trapped inside Newark forced to eat horses and dogs, and succumbing to typhus and other diseases. As for the soldiers, they engaged in repeated skirmishes using spears (or ‘pikes’) and muskets – clumsy, cumbersome, early firearms that were notoriously difficult to load and aim, and had a way of exploding in their users’ hands. Musket warfare was noisy and chaotic, which must have added to the sense of unending misery in Newark. For the River Hunters, though, the sprawling time period of the siege means there’s a strong chance of recovering musket balls, pike heads and perhaps even some of the makeshift coins that were minted in Newark to serve as siege currency.

A new age in warfare

The siege itself only came to an end in May 1646, when Charles – chased out of his headquarters in Oxford by the Parliamentarians – arrived in the area to hand himself over to David Leslie and the Scots. Governor John Belasyse wept when he was ordered by the king to surrender to the besieging forces after so many months of resistance. 

This was, of course, a decisive moment in the Civil War, though the conflict was far from over. Charles I would later escape captivity and enter new negotiations with different power players – a move that would see him eventually executed as a traitor in 1649.

Anyone visiting Newark-on-Trent today can get a taste of time of the siege without having to wade in the Trent. There’s always Newark Castle: a proud fortress which was left ruined by the Civil War but which was restored in the Victorian era, and whose walls still bear the scars of muskets fired all those centuries ago.

Watch River Hunters, Mondays at 9pm