Archaeologists have been left stunned after excavating the site of Coleshill Manor in Warwickshire to discover evidence of what could be one of the first battles of the English Civil War in the 17th century. The team from Wessex Archaeology were astonished at the striking signs of conflict at the heavily fortified gatehouse, with around 200 impact marks from pistol shots and musket balls on its outer side. Excavation of the nearby soil led the HS2 archaeologists to discover over 40 musket balls, which would have been a moat around the manor’s gatehouse, further suggesting that a skirmish had taken place. The discovery will feature in Series 10 of BBC’s Digging for Britain.

Professor Alice Roberts, historian and presenter of Digging for Britain, said: “The discovery of the medieval gatehouse at Coleshill was quite unexpected – and I was amazed at just how much of the monumental stone building, with its two great octagonal towers, had survived below the ground.

“The front of the gatehouse was pockmarked and had clearly been shot at with muskets – perhaps for target practice – but there’s also an intriguing possibility that we’re looking at evidence of the earliest skirmish of the Civil War.”

The English Civil War was fought between the Royalists who were loyal to King Charles I, and the Parliamentarians, known as the Roundheads. The first recorded battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Curdworth Bridge, took place in 1642, and was only a short distance from Coleshill Manor.

The series of conflicts between 1642 and 1651 claimed the lives of a greater proportion of the English and Welsh population than in the First World War.

During the start of the Civil War, the Manor was in the hands of Royalist Simon Digby, after the estate was transferred into his name following the execution of its previous owner, Simon De Montford, for Treason.

Coleshill Manor, next to a bridge over the River Cole, would have been a strategic position that the Roundheads would have wanted to control. Experts believe the Roundheads would have passed close to the Manor on their way to battle.

Researchers believe it is entirely plausible that a skirmish took place on the way to Curdworth Bridge, especially given the Manor’s strong Royalist connection.

Historical records of the Civil War are confined to famous major battles, so details of the exact events will never be known. However, the marks exposed during the HS2 archaeology programme offer us a rare insight into events that have not been recorded in the history books.

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The team from Wessex Archaeology have now completed the excavation of the foundations of the gatehouse at Coleshill Manor.

Stuart Pierson, Archaeologist, Wessex Archaeology, said: “As the excavations at Coleshill for HS2 wrap up, it’s timely to reflect on the extraordinary archaeology we have discovered and recorded.

“Although we knew there was a manor house at the site, we had no idea that we would uncover such rich and revealing archaeological evidence. From one of the most impressive Elizabethan ornamental gardens in the country to the remains of what could be the first skirmish of the Civil War, these findings – not recorded in historical records – would have been lost to time, had it not been for the expertise and hard work of the team.”

The extent of the gatehouse was unknown before work began, as the only documentation of its existence was a passing mention in 17th century records. Not only was the gatehouse a defensive feature of the Manor, it also highlighted the importance of its owner. 

The gatehouse to the Manor likely opened to a drawbridge over the moat. It featured a large stone building to the back measuring about 10m by 10m with two heavily fortified angular towers, constructed of fine ashlar masonry and expertly-carved stone blocks.

Speaking about the discovery, Helen Wass, HS2’s Head of Heritage, said: “HS2’s extensive archaeology programme, which has involved hundreds of people, has provided unparalleled insights into the history of Britain and the discoveries at Coleshill Manor are a major part of that.

“Whilst we may never have all the details of the battle that took place in Coleshill, our investigations help historians weave together the complex pieces of information to increase our understanding of events.

“Although fieldwork between London and the West Midlands is largely complete, detailed post excavation study will begin shortly and we will continue to share the incredible pieces of our past discovered during this once-in-a-lifetime dig.”

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