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Humpty Dumpty and the Fall of Colchester

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Have you got a nickname? You might even have a nickname you don't like. Long ago, in the fifteenth century, people had nicknames too; Humpty Dumpty was a common one used to describe someone who was overweight.

We all know the famous nursery rhyme, telling the tale of Humpty Dumpty and his fall, but have you ever wondered who or what Humpty Dumpty was? The answer lies several hundred years ago and it may just surprise you.

Back in the 17th century, during the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians, often known as the Roundheads, and the Royalists, who were loyal to the King and were known as Cavaliers, fought many fierce battles in the towns and countryside.

Colchester was one of those towns. In 1648, the Royalist army, under the command of Sir Charles Lucas, made a surprise attack and took control of the city after a short battle.

The Parliamentarians were furious. One of their leaders, Lord-General Fairfax, swiftly marched his troops up all the way from Kent and prepared to fight. However, the Royalists had strongly fortified the city in readiness and they had a very, very special weapon indeed. For, cleverly mounted on the tower of what became known as St. Mary's Wall Church, in Colchester, was a great cannon.

The cannon was very large, much larger than most cannons of the time and, like the oversized people of the 15th century, had the nickname Humpty Dumpty! A gunner, known as 'One-Eyed Jack Thompson' was in charge of the great cannon. Thompson was a battle-hardened soldier, who had fought in many skirmishes. He may have lost vision in one eye but he was still an excellent shot.

On the 13th June, General Fairfax commanded the Parliamentarians to begin their assault on the city. Troops on horseback and foot soldiers soon clashed in the areas around the town centre. As the battle continued, Thompson was kept busy firing the great cannon at the advancing troops.

At one point, the Parliamentarians reached the town gate, only to be fought back by the fierce Royalists who were determined to keep their town. As midnight came, the Parliamentarians were forced to drop back; it was a difficult struggle and they had already lost over 500 men.

General Fairfax decided they must try a different tactic. He ordered the town to be sealed. He was going to starve the people into surrender. The roads were heavily secured, so the Royalists could not break out, and warships blockaded the mouth of the River Colne, to prevent supplies being shipped in.

A ring of small forts was constructed around the perimeter of the town, where siege cannons were mounted to batter the town walls.

The town and its people were battered with cannon-fire day after day. Supplies ran out and the people began to starve. They were reduced to eating candles and even their pets!

During one particularly hard fought battle, the cannon, Humpty Dumpty, was causing considerable damage to the Parliamentarian forces. General Fairfax commanded the Parliamentarians to aim all their fire at the great cannon.

A short while later, one-eyed Jack was busy reloading the cannon when suddenly there was an ear-splitting BANG, the building rocked and lit up with explosive flame.

A shot from the Parliamentarians had hit the church tower, which supported the great cannon. The top of the tower had been blown off, damaging the wall beneath Humpty Dumpty. As the top of the building fell away, the huge cannon tumbled to the ground!

The Royalists, the king's men, attempted to raise Humpty Dumpty on to another part of the wall but it was no use. The cannon was so heavy and so large; it could not be hoisted back into position, even with the help of all the king's horses. They simply could not mend it. As the nursery rhyme says: try as they might
'All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again!'

Losing the great cannon was a severe blow against the Royalists; they never recovered. Besides, they had received news that they were now losing other battles elsewhere. So, the battle-worn Royalists surrendered the town of Colchester.

Sir Charles Lucas and two other commanders were executed next to the castle. The people of Colchester were also forced to pay a fine of twelve thousand pounds.

Today, the city still bears the scars of the battle for Colchester, which lasted for eleven weeks. Holes from the musket balls can still be seen in the timbers of some old buildings and children still chant a favourite nursery rhyme:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king's horses, and all the king's men,
Couldn't put Humpty together again!

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