In a valley in Worcestershire, England, a team of archaeologists are searching the land for artifacts from days gone by. There, buried beneath the earth, they find something incredible – the first material indication of a legendary battle that took place long ago. Back in the 17th century, the course of history was decided here – and now experts are uncovering the evidence piece by piece.
In the 21st century, the village of Powick sits at the eastern end of the Worcester Southern Link Road, one of the region’s busiest thoroughfares. In March 2019 works were initiated in the sleepy community, ultimately with an aim to improving the popular route. But before construction could begin, archaeologists from the local council were permitted to take a closer look at the site.
From the beginning, it must have been a tempting prospect. In the shadow of the battle-scarred Powick Church, the location of the new road had long been associated with the English Civil War. And when the archaeologists began to dig, they discovered a fascinating slice of history hidden beneath the surface.
The seeds of the English Civil War were sewn at the beginning of the 17th century, when King James VI of Scotland ascended to the English throne. Previously, he had enjoyed a relatively free reign of power. But in this new role, he found that that Parliament south of the border was far more eager to impose restrictions.
James apparently believed first and foremost in a king’s divine right to rule. And when his son Charles took over the throne, he brought with him a similar set of beliefs. Eschewing the advice of Parliament, the new monarch began his reign with a series of controversial decisions that quickly resulted in impeachment proceedings.
In response, Charles ordered the dissolution of Parliament in the year 1629, deciding instead to rule by his own will. This is a period of history now known as the Eleven Years’ Tyranny. But when he attempted to impose new land and religious policies on Ireland and Scotland, the people rebelled.
In an attempt to address the situation, Parliament came together once again in 1640. This put an end to Charles’ independent reign. However, the king and his government could not agree on how best to deal with the rebellions rising to the south and west. Ultimately, each side put together their own army in a bid to quell the unrest.
By 1642 the two armies were fighting against each other, and the First English Civil War had begun. For four years the Royalists and the Parliamentarians battled against each other for control, drawing thousands of civilians into the fray. But although Charles was captured in 1646, the conflict was far from over.
Two years later, fighting broke out again between the two sides, resulting in Charles’ execution in 1649. By this time, Scotland was staunchly aligned with the Royalist cause and the deceased king’s son – Charles II – ultimately inherited a position at the head of the region’s troops. Proclaimed King of Great Britain, France and Ireland by his supporters, the young man soon found himself at the center of the Third English Civil War.
In 1650 the Royalists and the Parliamentarians met each other on the battlefield at Dunbar in southeast Scotland. Led by the English general Oliver Cromwell, the government’s armies won a decisive victory – but the war raged on. And in January 1651 Charles was crowned King of Scotland, further stoking the conflict with his enemies in the south.
Keen to dispose of the threat once and for all, Cromwell set a trap for Charles and his supporters. In June 1651 he led an army to the Scottish city of Stirling, leaving the path clear for a Royalist invasion of England. And just as the general had planned, the new king gathered his supporters and began to march south into England.
In response, Cromwell ordered the Parliamentarian forces to follow Charles and his army as they marched down England’s west coast. And at the same time, he directed two additional groups to relocate, hoping to intercept the invading Royalists. Then, after taking the Scottish city of Perth, he led his own men south to join the fray.
Marching for roughly 20 miles each day, Cromwell’s army moved swiftly through Scotland and England, collecting new members along the way. Soon, the four separate groups had converged on Worcester, trapping Charles and the Royalists inside the city. Having been unable to drum up support at the head of an invading Scottish army, the new king had just 16,000 men at his command.
Cromwell, meanwhile, had some 30,000 men, including 20,000 from an elite unit called the New Model Army. And on September 3, 1651, exactly one year after his victory at Dunbar, the general put his plan into action. Approaching Worcester from the east and the south, the Parliamentarians soon forced Charles’ men in the direction of the city.
Despite being vastly outnumbered, however, the Royalists put up a good fight. In the south of the city in particular, they held their ground, forcing Cromwell to send more men to deal with these dogged enemies. In doing so, the general left his eastern side vulnerable to an attack from Charles’ army.
Watching from the upper reaches of Worcester Cathedral, Charles saw the weak spot in his enemies’ assault. Commanding one sortie to strike the Parliamentarians from the northeast, he led his own band of men to the southeast of the city. There, they launched a surprise attack on Cromwell’s unsuspecting army.
Despite the initial success of this tactic, however, the Royalists’ advantage didn’t last for long. Seeing that his troops were in trouble, Cromwell charged eastwards with his men to reinforce the Parliamentarian army. And even though Charles and his followers fought bravely, the numbers of their enemy were ultimately too great.
Pushed back into the city by Cromwell’s encroaching army, Charles ultimately escaped under the cover of a cavalry charge. Meanwhile, the Parliamentarians captured Worcester, putting an end to almost a decade of civil war. For the men who had followed the new king south to England, it had been a disastrous engagement.
By the end of the skirmish, some 3,000 Royalist fighters lay dead on the battlefield, with a further 10,000 imprisoned by Cromwell and his men. Meanwhile, the Parliamentarians had suffered a meager 200 losses. For the survivors, life would never be the same again, as they were shipped to Ireland as members of the New Model Army or sent to the new world as slaves.
Meanwhile, Charles fled to Europe, where he lived in exile for the next nine years. In his absence, Cromwell came to wield an extraordinary amount of power over the British Isles, leading some to remember him as a dictator today. And when he died in 1658, the country descended into political chaos.
Eventually, the monarchy was restored and Charles was welcomed back to his father’s kingdom with open arms. On May 29, 1660, he was finally crowned King of England, Scotland and Ireland, going on to become one of the most beloved monarchs to ever sit on the British throne. For many of the people, his reign was a return to familiarity after Cromwell’s controversial rule.
Meanwhile, the political landscape of Britain would never be the same again. The English Civil War had cemented the notion that a monarch could not reign without parliamentary support, and the revolution of 1688 enshrined this practice in law. Today, the battle between Charles’ Cavaliers and Cromwell’s Roundheads is remembered as one of the most significant in British history.
Despite the significance of the English Civil War, however, much of the physical evidence of the conflict has been eroded by the passage of time. And while some of the historic battlefields can still be visited today, others are not so easy to identify. In Worcester, for example, the actual site of the decisive skirmish between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians has been a matter of some debate.
In fact, up until recently, archaeologists had failed to uncover a single relic dating from that historic confrontation. And while there was some evidence of fighting – such as structural damage – in the area of Powick village, the exact location of the battlefield had never been located. Then, in 2019 all that changed.
With construction work on the Worcester Southern Link Road looming, archaeologists got to work exploring the site of the final stage. Soon, a dual carriageway would connect the M5 motorway with a busy roundabout at Powick, improving access to the busy thoroughfare. But first, the team sifted through the soil for any evidence of the historic conflict.
Thankfully, the search did not take long. Using a technique known as optically stimulated luminescence, archaeologists were able to study the flood silts that have built up in the region over the years. And ultimately, they managed to pinpoint the layer of soil most likely to hold artifacts from the time of the civil war.
Derek Hurst was one of the consultants involved in the excavations. And in September 2019 he contributed to a statement released by Worcestershire County Council. In his words, “The results from this have enabled us to focus our efforts quite precisely which has meant much time-saving and saving on costs, as well as getting a brilliant archaeological outcome.”
Using engineering equipment that was already in place for the construction project, archaeologists were soon able to uncover a number of artifacts dating back to the civil war. Located at the base of a valley, they were covered in layers of sediment that had been deposited by floods over the years. But finally, 368 years since Cromwell defeated Charles at the Battle of Worcester, the land was ready to give up its secrets at last.
Amazingly, the artifacts discovered by archaeologists at Powick in 2019 are one-of-a-kind. The first physical evidence of the Battle of Worcester ever uncovered, they represent a groundbreaking step in our understanding of the final conflict of the civil war. And through them, experts have been able to learn more about the last days of the Royalist cause.
At Powick, archaeologists uncovered a total of 98 items believed to date from the Battle of Worcester. These included everyday items such as belt buckles and the fittings from horse harnesses. However, the team also discovered relics directly related to the fierce fighting that once took place on the site.
One find, for example, was the lid from a powder container, a type of vessel that would once have held gunpowder. And elsewhere, archaeologists discovered musket and pistol shots – some of which had clearly been fired. Altogether, the artifacts painted a fascinating picture of a battle that ultimately won a war.
Most significantly, however, these latest discoveries have led experts to one startling conclusion. For centuries, historians have believed that the main action of the battle had taken place closer to the city of Worcester itself. But now, the location of these artifacts suggests that the skirmish took place further to the south than was previously thought.
Richard Bradley, the project’s head archaeologist, explained more in the statement from Worcestershire County Council. “It is fantastic to be able to finally locate and map physical remains of the battle and relate this to the historical record,” he said. “We are just outside the registered battlefield area but this is still a nationally significant site.”
Bradley continued, “The construction work has given us the opportunity to investigate the floodplain across which thousands of infantry and cavalry engaged, and to get down to the level where artifacts were deposited. Many of the lead musket and pistol balls show evidence of firing or impact. And these tangible signs of the conflict offer a poignant connection to the soldiers who fought and died here.”
Interestingly, the artifacts have revealed more than just the location of where the Battle of Worcester played out. According to archaeologists, they also tell us precisely which troops were fighting in which part of the site. In one area, for example, the ammunition uncovered during excavations was largely pistol shot.
Because pistols were typically used by cavalry troops, experts believe, this shows that the area was manned by soldiers on horseback during the historic battle. Meanwhile, in another location, archaeologists discovered mostly musket shots. And so, they were able to conclude that most of the fighting in this spot was done on foot.
For the city, which has long been proud of its associations with the Civil War, the discovery has been a welcome one. In the statement from Worcestershire County Council, Councillor Lucy Hodgson elaborated. She said, “Finding these fascinating artifacts allows us to connect with a significant moment in Worcestershire’s history.”
Hodgson went on, “I am also delighted to see the great teamwork and cooperation between the construction teams and the archaeologists, who have seamlessly incorporated the dig into this large scheme of construction work. Preserving our history is vitally important to our county. And this latest dig is a shining example of how archaeology can bring our past to life.”
Meanwhile, Richard Shaw, the chairman of a local history society, echoed Hodgson’s delight that such important items had been uncovered after so many years. “How exciting that 368 years after the Battle of Worcester these artifacts should be discovered,” he said. “We are sure that there was fighting at this location on September 3, 1651… The discoveries really bring the events of that day to life.”
Moving forward, experts hope to analyze and document these artifacts in a bid to learn everything that they have to tell us about their fascinating past. Meanwhile, work has continued on the construction project that will ultimately swallow up the site where the Royalists made their final stand. But thanks to discoveries such as this one, historic moments like the Battle of Worcester will be remembered for generations to come.