The human suffering of civilians during the First English Civil War

BLOG FOR ‘FRIENDS’ from Dr Maureen Harris, PhD from The Centre for English Local History (2015), Honorary Visiting Fellow (2015-2020) now ‘Collaborative Worker’, The Centre for English Local History

A unique volunteer project, focusing on the human suffering of civilians during the First English Civil War, is nearing completion. I set up the project in 2017 after volunteering to transcribe and edit the 200 or so Warwickshire ‘Loss Accounts’ for publication by the county’s Dugdale Society. The ‘Accounts’ (mostly housed at The National Archives) detail the losses for ordinary people from parliamentarian military activity from 1642 to 1646 and exist for about 75 per cent of the county’s parishes, probably the best coverage of any county in England.

A visit to Warwickshire County Record Office, September 2018. Images copyright Maureen E Harris’

I felt that these name-rich documents, featuring fascinating military, economic and social details, were an excellent source for engaging enthusiastic but inexperienced members of local history and civic societies, daunted by 17th Century palaeography and anxious about how to negotiate local record offices but eager to learn more about their own localities during such a momentous period of history. In June 2018, having secured a modest grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund with money raised through National Lottery players, I recruited 30 inexperienced volunteers from all over Warwickshire and five more experienced volunteer ‘assistants’ to help me run the project. We began with intensive palaeography training and teaching on aspects of the English Civil Wars with the help of expert lecturers, including our Head of Centre, Professor Andy Hopper. We’ve visited local civil war sites, explored sources and how to use them at local record offices and The National Archives, and discussed the implications of Civil War suffering both then and in the wider world today.

Engaged in classroom learning about the Civil War. Images copyright Maureen E Harris’

The ‘Loss Accounts’ bring the human cost of the First English Civil War vividly to life. Through them we can hear the indignation, anguish and fear of the civilian population in a war-torn county. At a time of traditionally low taxation, the burden of weekly contributions to local garrisons and officers became intolerable. The small township of Upper Shuckburgh paid ‘more than our abilities’ but set down less because the King’s soldiers plundered the township and ‘carryed away and [tore] to peeces’ the receipts. Julius Billers, a Coventry mercer, lost ‘on the Road’ £248 worth of goods. Constantly-marching troops demanded free board and lodging. In Burmington, a village of only 28 households, 450 troops were lodged for two days with just thirteen named residents. Cavalry horses ate the stores of malt and oats and trampled the hay meadows. Maimed soldiers (and sometimes their wives) and sick horses were cared for by local people for days or weeks on end. Thomas Stringfield of Ashow spent nine shillings caring for ‘one sick Souldier of Sir William Wallers three Weekes and Clothed him’. Local garrisons, military camps and courts of guard requisitioned food, fuel and candles while marching troops took cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, and often the fencing that kept them in to fuel cooking-fires for slaughtered animals. Horses were constantly seized, or had to be redeemed by their owners, and household items and money were mercilessly plundered, supplementing information from contemporary probate inventories. The project, which continued with formal sessions until June 2020, has been a great success and an absolute pleasure to work on with such enthusiastic volunteers. Twenty-six of the original 30 completed at least one parish transcription, and some have done far more, requesting extra ‘Accounts’ while self-isolating in the first Covid-19 lock-down. Volunteers formed two regional ‘Hundred’ groups meeting to discuss research and swap ideas. Many of the volunteers have given talks about the ‘Accounts’ to their local history societies and 20 of them have now embarked on a new Dugdale Society volunteer transcription project while two active teachers are working on education packs. I’m currently editing all the volunteers’ transcriptions which will appear in 2021 on an accessible Warwickshire County Record Office website. In 2022 the Dugdale Society will publish my introduction to the ‘Loss Accounts’ with a full index and transcriptions of some, if not all, the ‘Accounts’ so that hopefully these little-known sources will become more widely appreciated in future.

For more information please contact Dr Maureen Harris meh@maureeneharris.co.uk or meh46@leicester.ac.uk  

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