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Richard Rodney Bennett’s moving, 45-minute children’s opera All the King’s Men was commissioned by the Coventry Schools’ Music Association. With a libretto by Beverley Cross, its model is the children’s rhyme Humpty Dumpty, very popular in the English-speaking world. It deals with a cannon set up on the church tower in Gloucester in 1643 during the English Civil War, which was knocked down by a direct hit by the republicans laying siege to the town.
Bennett’s opera is especially compelling thanks to its enchanting melodies, lively orchestration and sensitively presented characters. It is particularly suited for production by boys’ choruses and music-school children.
While the King was garrisoned at Oxford at the beginning of the war, a certain Dr. Chillingworth was enrolled by the King´s Council of War as an expert in sophisticated warfare. On August 10th, 1643, King Charles arrived outside Gloucester, where the Roundhead garrison was commanded by young Colonel Massey. Dr. Chillingworth suggested three ways of taking the town. The first was to mine under the walls, but this was baulked by rain which flooded the tunnels. The second was to cut off the drinking water in from the Severn, then set up treadmills which drove the flour mills but Massey ingeniously pumped water in from the Severn, then set up treadmills which were worked by all the citizens of the town. Chillingworth’s third suggestion involved the creation of a siege-engine similar to those used by the Romans. This was a huge machine on wheels which would roll down, bridging the Severn and forming a covered way over the walls of the City. The Romans sometimes called this type of machine a Tortoise and the troops on both sides in the Gloucester siege christened it Humpty-Dumpty. Unfortunately, the citizens found out in advance about the siege-engine and widened the river so that when the machine went into action it could not span the increased width and collapsed into the river from where “all the King´s horses and all the King´s men” were unable to rescue it. Despondently on September 5th, the King and his troops marched away, unaware that Colonel Massey had only three barrels of powder left for the defence of the City.