A rare opportunity to get up close and personal to objects from Colchester’s famous 1648 siege unveils glimpses into the city’s rich and gruesome past, writes Natalie Li
Searching for clues into Colchester Castle’s dark past and bringing those stories to life is an integral part of Ben Paites’ day job. The collections and learning curator for Colchester Museums has led the meticulous selection of artefacts for the museum’s latest display on the Siege of Colchester.
The 11-week blockade in Colchester took place in 1648 during the English Civil War. The royalists, who supported King Charles I, had taken control of Colchester, but the town was besieged by the parliamentary forces led by Thomas Fairfax.
“This year marks the 375th anniversary of the Siege of Colchester, which lasted from 12 June to 28 August 1648,” explains Ben. “It was arguably one of the darkest times in the city’s history. The siege was bleak, you had citizens of Colchester who were supporters of parliament, and you had this group of royalists, the enemy, looking for shelter.
“It meant the royalists were trapped inside the city walls as the parliamentarians surrounded the city hammering it with cannon. You had two sides in this town for 11 weeks – at a time when there was no access to food, and routes to the town and river were blocked off. Within a few weeks the two sides resorted to eating rats and candles (made from animal fat). It was a terrible situation for both sides.”
A single display case will feature a range of artefacts from the Museum’s own collection including siege tokens – a highlight of Ben’s finds in the museum’s stores. “These tokens or coins were produced during the siege as emergency currency – when a town is under siege you couldn’t get out to trade coins or food. We only have one genuine siege token from Colchester and some from other sieges in 1648 during the second English Civil War.
“One of the best things about this project was looking through our collection and it was interesting that a lot of tokens were not from Colchester – one was from Pontefract Castle and one from Scarborough Castle, both had sieges at the time. These coins are more worn and not as gold and shiny as the Colchester siege token,” smiles Ben.
The display will also feature a spade that could have been used to dig the parliamentary defences, and several pamphlets on loan from the Essex Society for Archaeology and History at the University of Essex. “These loans are very exciting and the pamphlets produced during and just after the siege of Colchester give accounts from each side, both incredibly biased,” laughs Ben. “The pamphlets were once kept in Colchester Castle and they are back for the first time in 200 years.”
A highlight of the exhibition is a letter written by the parliamentary leader Thomas Fairfax, on public display for the first time. The letter provides a fascinating insight into this turbulent period of English history. “This incredible letter was rediscovered a few years ago in the Special Collection at Essex University and it’s an important administrative document,” continues Ben, who made an appearance in an episode of Sky History TV show River Hunters in 2021 to discuss the historic siege.
“During the English Civil War leaders of forces would write these letters giving permission for specific individuals to travel around without being harassed. The letters were issued as proof that you were on the side you claimed to be on. Thomas’s letter would have ensured that he wouldn’t come to harm.”
Alongside Thomas Fairfax’s letter is a painting of the man himself with his wife. A series of artworks will be on show by various artists who have reimagined what the siege might have looked like.
Visitors to Colchester in August will have the chance to immerse themselves in the 1648 Siege of Colchester – set to be re-enacted by the English Civil War Society in Castle Park and Colchester City’s centre, as part of Colchester’s Year of Celebrations, to mark its new city status on 19 and 20 August. The free immersive weekend will bring history to life where visitors can meet the protagonists and witness battles.
“We’ve also produced a series of short films,” adds Ben. “We wanted to show what life was like during the siege through a special video diary created by the English Civil War Society and students from Colchester Institute. They document the life of one royalist soldier who found himself trapped within the town walls.
“One of things I love about my job is the storytelling part using objects and artefacts,” Ben adds. “The siege is a dark and terrible part of our history, but by working with local students, and producing online content and activities, we’re hoping we’ve found diverse ways of engaging the public and sharing these stories.”
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Gladiators: A Day at The Roman Games
15 July 2023-14 January 2024
You might think that bloody gladiatorial battles only took place in Rome, but evidence suggests otherwise.
Colchester’s Gladiators exhibition, included in the admission to Colchester Castle, features inspiring objects from the Colchester Museums collection and beyond.
Highlights include an ancient Roman vase which shows bloody battles were fought in Roman Britain, namely Colchester. The Colchester vase, unearthed from a Roman grave in the city in 1853, was made from local soil around AD 160-200, when it was known as ‘Camulodunum’. Potentially a piece of ancient ‘sports memorabilia’, it depicts a pair of gladiators named Memnon and Valentinus engaged in conflict. Roman oil lamps, including one shaped as a gladiator’s helmet, will be among the exhibits.