Amputation knives to historical gold mines: key exhibits from the new National Civil War Centre

By Ben Miller | 30 April 2015

Ahead of the opening of the new £5.4 million Centre in Newark this weekend, here are some of the key exhibits, as chosen by curators and experts

A photo of a pair of saws and some sort of long, then medical implement
Surgeons aimed to carry out clean amputations during the conflict© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre

Medical artefacts

Colin Winter, of the exhibitions team: “We've got a cradle and a birthing chair among these objects, and a long implement which would screw into a musket ball and then they'd use it to pull the ball out of the victim's body.

A muscle knife would be used to amputate in one movement: straight down, separate the muscle away, make sure you've got a nice, clean cut from the wound. The last thing you want is snagging.

It would have been developed in a barber surgeon's as part of the Civil War. These show the battle through medicine at a time when you've also got the 30 Years War taking place on the continent.

There are also objects for grinding up herbs and drugs. The jar would have been used to sell the medicines from at the apothecary and places like that.

There's a tobacco pipe - tobacco, at that time, was seen as good for you. We know slightly differently these days.

It seems to have been the first period when people were actually caring about their soldiers. It was almost the first time they'd looked after people physically and psychologically, although you can't say that about the hand-burner we've got here.

It's got Charles's initials in the middle - CR - and if you were a deserter or you'd broken the law it would be heated up and pressed into the inside of your hands."

A photo of a hand-shaped implement with holes in it used to burn people's palms
This hand-burner was used to punish deserters and criminals© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre


Colin Winter: “The flags tell the story of the war. You walk in on one side and you've got Charles's royal standard.

Most of them on one side are royalist, apart from one parliamentarian. But as you turn the corner and come back down it changes and they become mainly parliamentarian and Scottish Covenanters.

There's one loyalist flag, and then we end up with the flag of the Commonwealth - Cromwell's personal flag. So it reflects the progress of the first Civil War, at least.”

A photo of four small gold coins on small lengths of metal within a museum display case
The disruption of war prevented many of those who buried hoards from returning to them© Culture24


Colin Winter: “Lord John Belasyss, the Governor of Newark, knew that the siege was coming, so he set up a mint at the castle. The coins were only valid for the six-month period of the siege, which visitors can see, from the back of the coins, was between 1645 and 1646.

We think some of them may have come from the siege of Leicester, in May 1645, as well, as we know that the Newark garrison was involved in that.

There are four different values: we start with sixpence, then nine pence, a shilling and 30 old pence. Inscribed on them, OBS is short in Latin for obsession, meaning under siege, besieged.

We've got over 400 coins, including gold ones minted by the kings, Charles and James. We've got about 40 £1 coins, effectively. They were found on a building site.

Because these coins from the siege mint are silver, they're normally kept in acid-free envelopes. We've got a volunteer conservator who makes sure they're clean before they go on display. We bought a small portion of them at auction.”

A photo of a circular light brown bowl on a white plinth inside a museum display case
Pots, jugs and flasks point to domestic life in Nottinghamshire centuries ago© Culture24

Domestic items

Colin Winter: “We've got something called a Bellarmine jar, named after a Count who was one of the inquisitors in Germany. It was used in what became known as anti-witchcraft.

You put urine, hair and other things inside it to ward off evil spirits. We've got a tig - a three-handed cup which you could pass around people without them burning their hands. It's a lot more hygienic because you can take a sip out of your side of the mug.

There's a silver thimble, jug and coin, all found as part of one hoard at Crankley Point. It's where the river splits and comes back together, on the other side of Newark.

What makes the fort we found there interesting is that it was a Parliamentarian fort. So this could have been loot.

There's a jewellery casket which would would have been enamelled originally, and a flask which was probably used for carrying beer rather than water, because it was safer.

We're trying to set the scene of what life was like at the time. The map on the wall behind them is perhaps the most important thing, though, because it shows how Newark was the route to the north.”

A photo of an ancient parchment full of black ink lettering open on one of its pages
The documents survived as Parliamentary and Scottish soldiers avoided the plague-riddled town© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre

Rare period documents

Stuart Jennings, Civil War expert: “By the time I got to the third box I could see that we had something unique here. On individual sheets of paper were accounts, petitions and bills – the kind of things generated by everyday life in 1640s Newark.

This kind of material does not normally survive the civil war, so we are getting a rare glimpse into ordinary lives. We have records of poor relief detailing how money was raised and to whom it was paid during the third siege.

There is a petition from a man with seven children whose house was blown up by cannon fire and receipts for food and medicine for plague victims.

The church records are also complete from 1640 – 1660, both in Newark and in a nearby village. These records are an historical gold mine.”

A photo of an ancient mottled book from the 17th century open to show black in text
The petition was delivered to the King in Lincoln© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre

The petition handed to Charles on his way to York

Colin Winter: "This is a copy of the petition given to the king at Newark from the people of Lincoln, urging the king to come to an agreement with parliament and avoid a war.

We've also got a speech given to the trained bands - we know the king was here in July 1942 and he was trying to raise bands, almost through an act.

Parliament was trying to raise an army one way and Charles was trying to do it through a more ancient law. This was the first pamphleting war.”

A photo of two ancient parchment books open on pages of black ink under shadows
The Centre tells the story of Newark's sieges from the perspective of ordinary civilians

The King's touch

Colin Winter: “We've got paintings of James I on the left and Charles on the right. And in the middle we've got a touchpiece: the king's touch was supposed to cure evil, things like TB.

Basically, if you couldn't get close to the king, then something the king had touched would do the same job. It fits within the idea of the divine right of kings: in the portraits, James is shown going up to sit on the right hand side of God.

People really believed that the touchpiece would cure a disease. It's an interesting concept.”

A photo of a small gold ring with an inscription inside it on a small length of metal
The Callamitie Ring© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre

A tiny pre-war posy ring

Colin Winter: “You can't see the posy ring particularly well, but down the side it's enamelled.

There's an inscription that says: "let no calamity separate our amateur", meaning let nothing come between our friendship.

That's important because we are looking at families being split by war. You can see the inscription projected on the wall.”

A close-up photo of a piece of mottled paper from 1688 with black ink and a shining light
Papers published around the time of the Glorious Revolution recall the overthrow of James II© Culture24

The Glorious Revolution

Colin Winter: “One thing we're very aware of is that Newark had a big part in the first Civil War but didn't really have much of a part in the second and third Civil Wars. We wanted to tell that story of the two later civil wars - the execution, all the religious change that happened in Ireland, the restoration.

We thought the best place to start was the Glorious Revolution. You start with Charles ruling as an absolute monarch, without parliament. And by the time you get to William and Mary you've got ruling through the Bill of Rights, through parliament.

It's sort of the end to all that upheaval which has gone off. We've got a selection of papers from 1688, the year of the revolution, when it's all about what William's done and what's being offered by parliament to the people.

In the middle, we've got the Rolleston chalice, so named after Rolleston church. It's an English pewter showing the marriage of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza.

A cast of Cromwell is made by a Newark caster in some sort of iron. The craftsman became famous for these type of castings and doing iron railings for big houses, things like that.”

A photo of a woman holding up a piece of civil war body armour wearing purple gloves
Carol King takes a look at a piece of body armour© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre

Dressing up

Carol King, of the learning and participation team: “We have a range of civilian outfits and uniforms, a mix of Puritan and royalist, all different sizes so that everyone can get involved.

The adult breastplate is what you would wear if you were cavalry. These have all been made exactly as they would have been made during the Civil War.

We want to give people a sense of how light they are. Most people think they are going to weigh a lot more, but it was really important to be able to move.

We're also gonna have a replica musket and pistol which people can pick up to get a sense of the weapons of the time.

It's great to be able to handle the original ones but you do want to know how it would feel to use it. You can see the mechanisms and things like that.

We're going to have lots of demonstrations about how you actually fire a musket.

Prince Rupert had a dog, Boye, who was said to have supernatural powers. We've got lots of trails based around him. People can borrow a poodle on a lead from reception.”

A photo of two people in Civil War costumes standing inside a modern history gallery
A series of re-enactments will take place during the opening weekend and beyond© Doug Jackson / National Civil War Centre

Interactive videos

Colin Winter: “All of the interactives have been quite interesting to work on. We looked at how we could make it come alive and commissioned videos with some of the re-enactors. From the film's start, you can drill down into other elements.

Hamish shouts out all of the orders and then goes through the different scenarios, such as a musket drill. It's filmed on his mum's land.

This opening weekend, we'll have a sealed knot, the English Civil War Society at the riverside and various demonstrations at the marketplace.

There's a plaque commemorating royalist officers who are buried in a local churchyard, so there will be another ceremony there.

We advertised for volunteers and had more than 120 respond. It's all people who want to be in the galleries and tell people more about them.”

More from Culture24's coverage of the National Civil War Centre:

National Civil War Centre promises spectacular re-enactments as opening weekend nears

Metal detectorist's "outstanding" 17th century silver seal discovery bought by National Civil War Centre

National Civil War Centre ring to reveal Royalist and Parliamentary Civil War divisions
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