Over 360 years after the end of the British Civil Wars the UK's first centre dedicated to recounting this epic clash was launched in Newark on 3 May. The explosive conflict from 1638 to 1653 began in Scotland and ended in Ireland with the iconic battles of Marston Moor and Naseby and three sieges of Newark in between.
A King was executed, England became a republic and five percent of the population died.
It was the bloodiest episode in British history revolving around the struggle between monarch and Parliament.
Yet for many this founding episode of our modern state is a mystery.
That's set to change with the unveiling of the £5.4m National Civil War Centre by Newark and Sherwood District Council, backed by £3.5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Expected to attract 60,000 visitors annually it is housed in the Grade II* Old Magnus Building, built in 1529 as a boys free grammar school.
Acclaimed broadcaster and historian Michael Wood welcomed the move.
“It is amazing to think that until now there has been nowhere in the UK dedicated to telling the story of such crucial and dramatic events in our national history. And nowhere could be more fitting than Newark to do that. It is the first such exhibition to tell the story of the Civil War from start to finish. And it's a tale we all should know, drawing in the people of the British Isles from Elgin to Cornwall and from Newark to Haverfordwest and indeed over the sea to Dublin and Drogheda. Crucially, the National Civil War Centre will also tell the story from the point of view of the ordinary people, and not only the rank and file soldiers, but the long suffering citizens of Newark, and the villagers in the surrounding countryside who were swept up in these terrible events.”
The Old Magnus Building has been revitalised by a two year restoration project which saw the Tudor roof stripped back and large scale structural work undertaken. Along the way rare graffiti dating from 1608 was discovered penned by naughty school boys – including an R Disney, thought to be an ancestor of Walt Disney of movie making fame.
To mark the opening nearly 1,000 Civil War re-enactors invaded Newark over the Bank Holiday weekend (3 and 4 May) in the biggest event of its kind ever staged. Newark's castle came under attack and the Queen's Sconce earthen fort – the best of its kind surviving in Europe – was disputed by Royalists and Roundheads, aided by their Scottish allies.
Michael Constantine, Manager of the National Civil War Centre, said:
“Our modern state was forged in the fires of the Civil War and it beggars belief that until now there has been no national centre recounting these events. So it's a milestone moment to open the UK's first ever National Civil War Centre. It's also the culmination of a great deal of hard work and support from partners including the HLF.
“Amazingly, Newark preserves much of its Civil War landscape intact, together with wonderful documentary evidence. We tell the story through the eyes of those who took part, whether that's Charles I or the servant girl lamenting meagre rations. Our canvass is a large one - the war spread to every nation in the British Isles and even to the American colonies.”
Historic papers which survived the tumult were recently discovered in Newark, including 17th century accounts, petitions and bills. They shed light on the suffering of local people, a third of whom died during the final siege. We know how much it cost to have a doctor examine a plague victim and the price of medicine sold as a 'cure'.
Fascinating artefacts, such as the buff coat worn by Nottingham-born Francis Hacker, who accompanied King Charles I to the scaffold, and the battleplan used by Newark's Royalist commanders, combine with hi-tech displays and a ground-breaking smart phone app, to propel visitors back in time.
The Civil War theme extends to a major exhibition unveiled in the National Civil War Centre by the Magnum Agency, jointly founded by famed war photographer Robert Capa in 1947. Striking photographs from recent civil wars and their manipulation for propaganda purposes offer intriguing parallels with Britain's own experience 350 years ago.
Simon Butler from Woodhead Heritage added:
“This has been an incredible project to be a part of from beginning to end. It has thrown us some challenges, but that always happens with old buildings. As we’ve uncovered the building, the level of heritage and conservation work we have needed to undertake has grown and we’ve had to react and respond to what we have found.
“We’ve been lucky to have the opportunity to use so many traditional skills while working on the Magnus buildings, and in particular the Tudor roof which dates back to the early 16th century. Repairing and conserving as much of the original timber as possible has been a real labour of love and it’s a testament to our team that so much remains. Throughout the project we have been committed to bringing in local apprentices and tradespeople and it’s great we have been able to share our specialist heritage skills with them.”
Jane Roylance, historic buildings architect from Purcell, explained:
‘’The Magnus buildings are a complex of buildings that have evolved over five centuries with the original Tudor school at its heart. Each phase of development has a different architectural style and construction materials, posing different conservation challenges. The greatest conservation gain has been in the Tudor school, where much more of the original fabric has survived than anticipated. The retention of this valuable fabric, which needed much sensitive repair, has been both a challenge and a pleasure.”
Newark's wider heritage is also showcased in the new museum including a magnificent Iron Age torc, exquisite Anglo-Saxon gold cross and the Byron Press, used to print the first works of the poet Lord Byron.