I recently visited the National Civil War Centre located in Newark, Nottinghamshire. According to its visitor guide its purpose is as follows:
“We aim to uncover this crucial yet under explored turning point on the history of the British Isles and world beyond, through human stories, fascinating objects and our programme of temporary exhibitions and events.”
The Museum is located in the old Magnus School, itself an historic building parts of which pre-date the Civil Wars. It is spread over five floors, occupying both the old school building and a new section that links the museum to the town’s Palace Theatre. The site houses both the National Civil War Centre and the Newark Town Museum, although as the name alludes, the core business here is to focus on the British Civil Wars.
The heart of the museum is the Civil War Gallery in which the story of the Civil Wars, and the story of Newark during those wars, are very cleverly interwoven. Newark, like many towns and cities during this period, spent time under siege. In Newark’s case there were three, the first, and very short-lived, in February 1643, the second in February and March 1644, and the final and longest from November 1645 to May 1646. As an aside, one of the legacies of these sieges is the Queen’s Sconce, a fortification on the south western outskirts of the town, which still exists today and gives a very good idea of what a Civil War fortification looked like.
Returning to the museum, the Civil War Gallery includes displays of uniforms, weapons and other artefacts, a range of interactive exhibits and games, a film show, and dressing up opportunities for children. The space is airy, nicely laid out and well lit. The narrative thread is good and one comes away with a very clear idea of both the overarching story of the wars and Newark’s role therein. As with any museum or heritage attraction a key component of a successful visit are the staff, and those here were both friendly and well informed. The final component of a visit to this museum is the interesting and imaginative smartphone app that has been developed to work alongside the museum and a National Civil War Trail around Newark. The app takes visitors on a tour around Newark highlighting key locations, such as the Queen’s Sconce mentioned about, and includes augmented reality elements to bring the story to life. This is a nice feature that extends the museum’s reach beyond its walls, as well as offering the visitor more from their visit.
This was my second visit to the museum since its opening in 2015 and it was plain to see that this is a dynamic place that is constantly developing and adapting to visitor feedback. In the last ten months the buildings have been fully completed, some of the content upgraded, and as was pointed out on a sign, enhanced as a result of visitor feedback. Additionally the museum was hosting a second round of temporary exhibitions, more of which shortly.
Beyond the Civil War Gallery the museum includes elements of the original Tudor school that have been restored and are now available for viewing. Two rooms are dedicated to the Newark Town Museum, and there are also four rooms dedicated to temporary gallery space. The latter are currently housing an exhibition of Civil War medicine which, as well as looking at gruesome 17th Century surgical activities, also includes an examination of hospitals, medicine and military welfare. This is a particularly well-put together exhibition with some lovely exhibits, including a wheelchair that belonged to Parliamentary Commander-in-Chief, Sir Thomas Fairfax.
Overall this is a great museum that sheds a new and well-executed light on what is an oft overlooked and unappreciated part of British History. And I make this point with some disappointment. These wars were crucial in forming the Britain we have today. The confirmation of the constitutional monarchy as the principle by which Britain would be governed was a fundamental outcome of these wars, an outcome that was subsequently affirmed in the Bill of Rights of 1689. These were formative events for Britain; in the same way the America Civil War was for the United States, yet the knowledge of them pales into insignificance compared to the American Civil War.
Britain is full of sites of significance and relevance to the Civil Wars. Many of which are neither marked nor remembered. In some cases attempts to do so have fallen by the wayside, which makes the establishment of this museum even more impressive. Some years ago attempts were made to develop a visitor centre at the battlefield of Naseby (14 June 1645), unfortunately this did not get the traction and funding that it needed, and now somewhat less ambitious plans are being developed. Now don’t get me wrong, I am not claiming that the British Civil Wars are completely ignored. Naseby does have some interpretation, with viewing stands and interpretive boards, but for such a major battle of the First Civil War, it really justifies more. It was the battle at which the Parliamentarian New Model Army had its first full scale deployment, and came out successful, laying the foundations of the modern British Army. Yet there is little to encourage people to visit the battlefield and engage with its significant story. It is crying out, at the very least, for a visitor centre to enable that engagement.
There are of course places where the Civil Wars are marked. In the city of Worcester, itself the site of a siege and the last battle of the Civil Wars, the Commandery tells the story of the Civil Wars in Worcester. Likewise a number of Civil War battlefields are marked with memorials to the conflict, but in very few places are there detailed interpretation panels, museums or visitor centres, all of which are necessary to help visitors to connect these memorials and monuments to the action and explain their importance. There are some resources available for the dedicated to access and learn more. These include the Battlefield Trust’s excellent UK Battlefields Resource Centre, an online portal that has maps and information about most Civil War battles. But despite these resources, and perhaps because many of the physical locations associated with the wars are not as well marked as they could be, I think the British Civil Wars are largely forgotten. Indeed I suspect that many a British citizen’s knowledge of these wars is at best superficial and at worst nothing!
Therefore against this backdrop of the relatively limited interpretation and recognition of the British Civil Wars amongst the heritage landscape of Britain, it is good to see a museum like the National Civil War Centre appearing, and helping to raise that profile. It does so in an engaging, interesting and entertaining manner, and through its app and trail, connects the museum and its visitors with the wider history and landscape of the town of Newark. I hope it continues to thrive and that its popularity grows, as it is making an important contribution to telling the story of this crucial and formative period of British History.