Richard Israel, Cannon Played from the Great Fort (Helion, 2021)
When we think of historical wars, images of big battles fought in the open fields usually spring to mind. But while battles were important, they were also quite rare events. Wars have been won far more often with the spade over the sword or musket because sieges play such a crucial role in control of territory and resources. That was arguably the case in the English Civil War where regional control proved so important to victory. In Cannon Played from the Great Fort, archaeologist Richard Israel takes us on a trip along the Severn Valley to examine some of the critical Civil War sieges in the region.
Israel begins with a survey of siege warfare leading into the 17th Century and the Thirty Years War. He describes how siege tactics developed rapidly during that war, particularly with regard to fortifications and artillery. And with that Israel embarks on the major sieges in the Severn Valley in chronological order. First up is Worcester, besieged by Parliament forces in May 1643. Bristol followed in July, this time by Royalists, then Gloucester in September, which Israel breaks down into the main sites of the siege. Israel skips over 1644 to look at the sieges in 1645 at Shrewsbury and Bristol that brought the Severn Valley under Parliamentary control. They attacked Bridgnorth in March 1646 where Israel illustrates how much damage was caused preparing and executing sieges, not all of it intentional. The final siege came at Worcester from May to July 1646 with more testimony on how destructive sieges could be especially for the civilian populations. Having described the sieges, Israel compares Royalist and Parliamentary siege techniques, which he again runs through chronologically. He adds an interesting piece on his methodology before bringing his work to a conclusion by summarising events and siege tactics.
Cannon Played from the Great Fort is an important addition to the study of the English Civil War. In his descriptions of sieges, Israel uses his landscape archaeology knowledge to pick his way through the historical accounts and the physical evidence to establish how the sieges worked. His weaving of the archaeological record into the narrative is the highlight of the book for me, and it is perhaps surprising how much of the physical evidence is still available. The latter is supported by many photographs of relevant sites. I would have liked more on what it was like to experience a siege, but that does not distract from the book’s quality. Anyone with more than a passing interest in the English Civil War and archaeology will enjoy this book.