4 May 2021

New research on London's English Civil War fortifications: a Q&A with David Flintham (FRGS)

George Virtue's 1738 map of the lines of communication.
George Vertue’s 1738 plan of London's English Civil War fortifications.

David Flintham (FRGS) is an expert on London's English Civil War fortifications (readers may remember the guest blog article David wrote for me on siege types). David got in touch recently with news of a major archaeological project that he's been involved in, investigating the fortifications (also known as the 'lines of communication'), the findings of which were published in the Winter 2021 issue of London Archaeologist.

A paper introducing the project and summarising its initial findings will shortly be available at https://www.vauban.co.uk/the-ecw-defences-of-london. After reviewing the key research findings, I asked David about the significance of the project's discoveries, which challenge assumed knowledge about the location and purpose of London's fortifications ...

Struan: A key part of the new interpretation of the location of the defences rests on your discovery of an annotated 'Great Fire map' (your shorthand name for the source). Is this map likely to appear in the public domain when the full research is published?

David: The 'Great Fire map' will be published subject to the permission of the owners. Likewise, all the other documentation that has been examined and quoted: if you are making bold claims you must produce your supporting evidence.

S: What most surprised you about the results of this pilot study?

D: The first thing that stands out was how quickly previous suspicions about the reliability of George Vertue’s famous 1738 plan of the fortifications were proved correct. The amount of evidence subsequently uncovered demonstrated that Vertue’s plan is nothing more than a sophisticated hoax. In turn, this introduces an element of doubt to previous studies that have used this plan as a basis (including Historic England’s own HER).

Being free of the burden of the Vertue hoax enabled the project to undertake a completely fresh analysis of the evidence, including identifying and studying contemporary maps, plans and images to a near-microscopic detail. In addition, contemporary documents can now be viewed for what they are instead of trying to ‘fit them’ to Vertue’s plan.

We also suspect that the actual physical layout of the Lines of Communication is different to the general perception. Reading William Lithgow, our only eye witness, carefully and judiciously examining the archaeological evidence (for example the Sebastian Street excavation in Islington) it looks as if the Lines were, in many places, trenches with parapets rather than a more traditional rampart fronted by a ditch. This would conform that the primary military purpose of the Lines was to enable men and equipment to move safely from one fort to another, rather than stopping the Royalists from assailing the City.

The boundary of the pilot study undertaken by Mills Whipp Projects is enclosed within the green line. The previously-thought course of the defences is shown in black, whilst the revised course is shown as a red line. The forts are signified as F-numbers (F1, F2, etc.), and the connecting lines as LoC-numbers (LoC1, LoC2, etc.).

Above: The boundary of the pilot study undertaken by Mills Whipp Projects is enclosed within the green line. The previously-thought course of the defences is shown in black, whilst the revised course is shown as a red line. The forts are signified as F-numbers (F1, F2, etc.), and the connecting lines as LoC-numbers (LoC1, LoC2, etc.). Image: David Flintham.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery was the possible location of a citadel built by Fairfax in 1647 to control the City. We’ll discuss that later. 

So, the Pilot Study has:

  1. proved Vertue is a fraudster
  2. changed the locations of the Forts and Lines of Communication
  3. upended the conventional thinking about the design of the trenches
  4. identified a hitherto unknown New Model Army citadel.

S: I visited the conjectural area of the Whitechapel forts when producing my own interactive map a few years back. The new pilot research suggests that the Whitechapel Mount (now the site of the Royal London Hospital) may not the location of the 1643 fort after all, but may instead have been the site of a later fort built by the New Model Army under Fairfax. Can you elaborate a little on what leads you to think this?

D: This is an answer in two parts.

The first part concerns the correct positioning of the 1643 fort which, thanks to Vertue’s plan was thought to be positioned by the Whitechapel hospital and became known as Whitechapel Mount. But in actual fact (the official document which ordered the fortifications is quite clear here), the 1643 fort (a “hornworke”) was constructed by the windmill in Whitechapel. The Faithorne and Newcourt map (surveyed in 1643-7) clearly locates the remains of the fort on the site of what was, until recently, the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. Further evidence for this location comes from a legal battle between a landlord and a tenant. Added to this, 17th century Whitechapel was much closer to today’s Aldgate than the ’modern’ Whitechapel underground station would suggest.

It so happens that archaeological investigations are planned on the site in the near future so discoveries may await.

Whitechapel Mount isn’t, however, a figment of George Vertue’s vivid imagination. There was a (star-shaped) fort in this location (its placement is confirmed through the careful examination of Wenceslas Hollar’s Long View of London (1647). Every indication is that this was one of the New Model Army’s “three citadels to bridle the city” constructed in 1647. It is the eastern flank of this fort that Christopher Wren noted in 1673.

S: As you say, the archaeology throws up many questions, one of which concerns the nature of Straws Fort/Fort Royal (as named by Lithgow) in Islington, possibly an outpost reachable by a covered walkway from the main lines of communication. I've pointed this site, now under the sunken Claremont Square reservoir, out to friends before. Am I likely to have been wrong all along?! What excites you most about the next stretch to be investigated (Hoxton to Bloomsbury)?

D: The geography of the site (it occupies a significant piece of high ground), and Hollar’s 1665 By Islington etchings both suggest that modern day Claremont Square is a likely site for Straws Fort/Fort Royal. In addition, a preliminary look at drawings and views of the area has uncovered pictures of the Fort which confirm its location. It may have started as an outer redoubt in 1642 (we have also identified redoubts in St Pancras, on the Holloway Road and in Stoke Newington) which was upgraded to become a Fort Royal (i.e., large defensive work) in 1643. Parts of the Fort are probably still extant outside the perimeter of the reservoir. However, the existence of a covered way linking this to the main circuit is far less certain (and may just be an invention of Vertue).

Given the outcome of phase one, the findings of the Hoxton to Bloomsbury phase are likely to be equally dramatic.

We have already identified documents in the National Archives that bring a new perspective to the defences, whilst Mount Mill Fort, one of the most significant of all the forts (and the subject of a 1643 woodcut), comes within this phase, so it will be intriguing to have this one under the spotlight. We have also found pictures and maps of other ‘lost forts’ in the next stretch so we anticipate the traditional locations of the Forts and Lines will again be challenged.

S: You report that Historic England feels the results of this pilot study are so significant that a precis needs to be in the public domain to assist developers in central London. Is there anything that English Civil War historians/enthusiasts can do to help persuade Historic England to continue supporting the project?

D: Historic England regards the research primarily as a planning tool, helping inform advice on planning applications. Although Historic England expected some limited public interest in the project, perhaps the Civil War community could indicate to Historic England that there is considerable public interest? Let’s find the rest of the Civil War defences!

Winter 2021 issue of London Archaeologist

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