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Grave reveals grim lives of Cromwell's men

Rare evidence of the harsh lives and squalid deaths of soldiers fighting for what was to become Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army has been unearthed in a series of mass graves.

More than 100 well-preserved skeletons have been found stripped of their clothes and possessions before being piled hurriedly into pits on the outskirts of York, where they have remained undiscovered for four centuries.

The forgotten Roundhead army was discovered by archaeologists investigating a medieval church. The find will give scholars a unique insight into the privations endured by the 30,000 men who laid siege to the city in 1644.

It is believed that rather than dying from their wounds in battle, the men and women are more likely to have perished from disease or infection brought on by the severe deprivation of their lives as an itinerant fighting force.

While the men are likely to have been humble foot soldiers, possibly forced into bearing arms for the Puritan cause, the six confirmed female remains are thought to be those of military wives, cooks or even prostitutes.

The three-month siege was a key turning point in the opening stages of the bloody Civil War leading up to the decisive battle at Marston Moor, in which Royalist forces were defeated by the Parliamentary army commanded by York's besieging generals Lord Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester and the Scots led by the Earl of Leven.

Graham Bruce, of the commercial archaeology company On-Site Archaeology, which recovered the remains, said it was unusual to find so many bodies from this period in such good condition. He added that documentary evidence form the time showed diseases such as dysentery, typhus and typhoid were common among siege armies – in contrast to the heavily outnumbered 4,000-strong Royalist force harboured within the city walls, who lived relatively comfortably.

"The Civil War took place over a relatively short period of time so it is quite unusual to dig up something like this. When we first began looking we thought we were excavating a medieval site so when we got the top off and found this it was a bit of a surprise," he said. The bones, first discovered in 2007, are currently being analysed at the University of Sheffield.

Crammed into four graves, the largest of which contains 18 skeletons, the bodies were laid down in parallel rows. No buckles or even buttons have been found. While a few of the people were laid on their back, the majority are face down or on their side, with many limbs overlapping. In the larger graves, the bodies are stacked two deep and it is believed unlikely they were wrapped in shrouds. There are 113 remains.

Archaeologists believe the Civil War army explanation remains the most likely, because of the absence of children or elderly individuals which would be expected to be present among non-military communities.

All those found were aged between 35 and 49 when they died. Most, even the younger ones, suffered from spinal joint disease, thought to have been brought on by the hard labour required of Cromwell's Parliamentary army.

York: Like a siege in reverse

For 10 weeks in 1644 the Royalist stronghold of York was at the heart of the Civil War. Thirty thousand Parliamentary forces led by Lord Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester lay siege outside the medieval walls, while just 4,000 troops under the Marquess of Newcastle sheltered within. Conditions on the inside were good - meat, grain, beer and even wine were plentiful.

Outside, however, life was harsh, with disease rife and food scarce. The stalemate was interrupted by a series of indecisive skirmishes but the arrival of Prince Rupert provided only short-lived relief for the Royalists who pursued the Roundheads to nearby Marston Moor, where they were heavily defeated, forcing the King to abandon the north of England.