Saturday, July 18, 2020

Festival of Archaeology: Cannon at the castle

As we continue our Festival of Archaeology celebrations, we look back at a recent exciting archaeological discovery at Pontefract Castle that sheds light on the bombardment of the castle during the English Civil Wars.

Pontefract Castle sits on the edge of the medieval market town. Conservation work is being undertaken with the ambition of making Pontefract a key heritage destination within West Yorkshire. The 
£3.5m Heritage Lottery funded project is known as the Key to the North, after the title bestowed upon the castle by Edward I. During the project, workmen at the castle recovered seven cannonballs from a section of the castle’s curtain wall. The discovery includes:

A demi-cannon (normally around 6 3/4 inches in diameter, weighing 33.5lb)
A cannon petro (6 inches in diameter, weighing 24.5lb)
Two culverin (5.5 inches, 17.5lb)

Three basilisks (5 inches, 15lb)

One of the smaller cannonballs

Two of the basilisks

Pontefract Castle was besieged three times during the English Civil Wars but it never fell to military force and was one of the last castles to surrender during the wars. Cromwell even described the castle as one of England’s strongest inland garrisons. It was during the first of three sieges of the Civil Wars that these cannonballs were fired.

Whilst many museums up and down the country have metal shot of various sizes in their collections, the Pontefract Castle discovery is very unusual. Most cannonballs have either been found somewhere in the ground of a fort or castle site or their surroundings, meaning that they either missed their target or have lost the context of where they were fired from. In contrast, the Pontefract Castle cannonballs were found embedded in the wall that they were aimed at. And thanks to a diary kept during the wars, we can even give a possible date for when they were fired.

The workman who found the first cannonball

The hole where one of the cannonball was removed from the wall

Nathan Drake, a “gentleman volunteer” of the garrison within the castle, kept a diary of the sieges. In the diary he records that between the 17th and 21st January 1644, 1363 shots were fired at the castle. He identifies that the shots were fired from cannon placed within the back yard of a Mr Lumne's property and were aimed at the Piper Tower. It seems likely that this is true as the balls were recovered from the curtain wall just to the side of the location of the Piper Tower. 

Excavating the Civil Wars alterations to the Piper Tower

Drake records no other instance of a cannon firing from this location, although he does record that on another occasion powder stored at Mr Lumne’s house was ignited by a shot from the castle. From other entries about events at Mr Lumne’s house, it can be calculated that the house was located on the route of the siege works, somewhere around the top of Horsefair and the bottom of Salter Row.

All of this means we know the location of the gun, the probable date it was fired, the size of the shot fired, and where the shots ended up. From this we get a very real impression of the power of these guns.

It has been previously calculated that as much as 18lb of black powder would be used to fire a 32lb shot (the demi-cannon we have weighs roughly 32lb), and that the effective range of such a gun would be around 490 metres. The distance from the probable location of Mr Lumne’s house to the castle wall is about 480 metres. This means that the gun was placed as far away as possible from the castle to avoid being shot at by musket, but close enough for the weapon to be effective. The balls ended up nearly a metre into the solid castle wall, a terrifying prospect for the besieged soldiers.

It is amazing to think that, after that five day period when so many shots were fired with no doubt many more than seven penetrating this section of wall, anything at all remained of the castle at the end of the wars. However, not only did the castle survive the wars, but the only section of the castle wall to collapse was the Piper Tower (the subject of this bombardment). Drake records that the tower collapsed on the 19th January, with 78 shots being fired that morning. Although little remains of the Piper Tower today, the curtain wall that made up the outer edge of the tower still stands to around 5 metres high on the outside, hardly making the collapse a major breach.

The remains of the Piper Tower today

In one final twist to the story, Mr Lumne was an alderman of Pontefract and was a member of the castle’s garrison. He was no doubt watching on as his property was requisitioned by the army and used to bombard the castle he was held up in.

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