Crawley plays its part in the English Civil War

Imagine a solid sphere of iron hurtling towards you at 250 mph! Welcome to historical warfare!

Among the exhibits at Crawley Museum is what appears to be an English civil war cannonball. It’s a 3.1 lb hunk of metal, which is now pitted and rusted, held together by wire, but still definitively ferocious looking. It was found in the 1930s by a man called Henry Masse, close to Gossops Green, and later donated to Crawley Museum by a family member in 1992. The size of the ball makes it likely to be a minion cannonball, which were made during the 16th and 17th centuries. This timeline spans the English Civil War, a point in history when cannonballs were rather useful (!) So this cannonball might point to a key role for Crawley in the battles of that time.

Two rusted iron balls, one slightly larger with wire around it, on yellow background.

The smaller cannon ball, top right and the larger cannon ball bottom left.

The English Civil War ran from 1642 to 1652 and pitted the opposing factions of Royalists against Parliamentarians. Royalists supported the King’s divine right to govern England. They were fiercely loyal to King Charles I and were dedicated to his protection. The Parliamentarians, on the other hand, had had enough! They were fed up with the king’s lavish spending, fed up with his obsessions for overseas wars, and fed up with his disregard for the common man. They also criticised his questionable decision-making, when he applied a ‘ship tax’ nationwide, including to landlocked counties that had no ships. Tensions peaked when the king closed parliament because they refused to give him more money. An uprising followed, which involved a series of battles and skirmishes we now call The English Civil War.

Royalists fought the Parliamentarians, setting Englishman against Englishman (women never or rarely fought, but were left to pick up the pieces of broken families, because 7% of the population were killed). The conflicts led to the trial and execution of Charles I, as well as the exile of his son Charles II, and the entire monarchy replaced by the Commonwealth of England (1649-53) under the rule of Oliver Cromwell (1653-59). Cromwell was a puritan, and the Parliamentarians themselves were rather stiff. They were also quite sensitive! The Royalist Cavaliers mocked their short hairstyles by calling them “roundheads”. The thin-skinned Parliamentarians didn’t like this one bit and made it an offence for anyone to use the insult (touchy…!).

During the fighting, both sides used the land of England and Wales as their battleground and for these battles they needed weapons. Up steps Crawley! The local area and the wider Sussex landscape produced plenty of Wealden iron in the years leading up to the Civil War. Crawley itself produced Wealden iron at several places including the Ifield Forge (on the site today of the Ifield Watermill). This is where we believe the iron cannonball (shown in the second photograph) was likely made, given the forge’s proximity to Gossops Green. Other candidates were Bewbush, another local forge, and perhaps even… oddly… my own back-garden. I live in Balcombe woods just south of Crawley, another area known for its industrial past with plenty of kilns. During the pandemic we dug up our own cannonball from the same historical period (shown in the third photograph). So, Wealden iron works were a force to be reckoned with, and would likely have produced plenty of cannonballs for key battles.

Iron rusted cannon ball, with copper wire around it, on yellow background.

The iron cannon ball in the museum collection.

One such battle was just south of Crawley at Muster Green, in Haywards Heath, which took place in the first week of December 1642. This small but significant battle decided the fate of the south of England. Haywards Heath was largely Parliamentarian, and a rag-tag bunch of 250 men on foot and horse. Though small, they were well organised, and defeated the 1000 Royalists who swept in from the West Country. This protected the town of Lewes where the Royalists had been heading. Because Ifield forge was owned by a Royalist, its cannonballs would likely have been fired at the Parliamentarians. But after the siege of Arundel a year later in 1643, the town of Crawley came under Parliamentary rule, and any remaining cannonballs might have been pointed at the Royalists. But, by this time, the Crawley forges were already in decline. The land surrounding them had been deforested and they had burned themselves out. The Ifield and Bewbush forges were overrun and possibly even destroyed by Parliamentarian forces around 1643, meaning any cannonball stock would no longer be replaced. But Balcombe woods remained wooded (and is wooded to this day), so might have continued to produce cannonballs to terrorise the Royalists.

Rusted iron cannon ball on yellow background.

Cannon ball found a meter under ground by the author.

by Tommy Botwood (6th former at Oriel High School) doing work experience, March 2024.

Sources used

The Iron Industry In Crawley

Leave a comment

© 2024 Crawley Museum  All Rights Reserved

Website created by Creative Pod