The Human Costs of the British Civil Wars.

On 9th December 2021 the inaugural David Dymond Memorial Winter Lecture was given by Andrew Hopper. The following report is taken from the BALH e-newsletter (Winter 2021)

Andrew is Professor of Local and Social History in the Department for Continuing Education at Rewley House, University of Oxford and was formerly Director of the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester. He is chair of the editorial board of Midland History, a patron of the Naseby Battlefield Project, and Academic Director of the National Civil War Centre where he was co-curator of the ‘Battle-Scarred’ exhibition of 2016-19. He is currently working on his third monograph, Widowhood and Bereavement in the English Civil Wars which is based on the excellent AHRC-funded Civil War Petitions Project (2017-2022) []. We were very lucky to have Andrew with us to discuss this fantastic project, the resources being created from it and the new understandings of the impact of the wars emerging as a result.

Estimates by Ian Gentles in his book The English Revolution and the Wars in the Three Kingdoms 1638-1652 propose that 3% of the total population of England and Wales were killed during the wars with 15-20% in Ireland and 6% in Scotland. This compares to 1.6% of the British population lost during the First World War. The impact on those who were left would have been significant especially for widows and the wounded. While there is a suspicion that focus on the dead, wounded and bereaved is somehow tangential to real military history the Civil War Petitions project has been combatting this assumption.

The project has been assessing how the system of military welfare operated, how claimants fashioned themselves as deserving recipients of relief and how the victims of the war looked back on their experiences. In addition, they have been transcribing and publishing these documents online. The team were partly inspired by the 1641 Depositions project of Protestants in Ireland following the Catholic Irish rebellion of that year. With Andrew as Principal Investigator the team consists of Project Manager Ismini Pells, Co-Investigators David Appleby, Lloyd Bowen and Mark Stoyle and Research Assistants Charlotte Young and Trixie Gadd.

The project set out with a series of research questions:

  • How did ordinary men and women look back on the Civil Wars?
  • What sort of medical care was available to the soldiers injured?
  • How did those who had been wounded or bereaved negotiate with the authorities for charitable relief?
  • How did those who operated welfare systems attempt to cope with the enormous strains of supporting thousands of wounded soldiers, war widows and orphans – and with what success?
  • What were women’s experiences of widowhood during the conflict?
  • How far did experiences of the Welsh differ from the English?
  • How did political considerations and contested memories of conflict interact with provision of relief to war victims?
  • What might the mapping of recipients of military relief tell us about population, poverty or allegiance?

Andrew took us through these documents in detail. We heard that many petitioners were illiterate so scribes such as clergymen, schoolmasters, or minor legal officials often wrote them. Scribes could advise on the ‘spin’ to put into a claim to maximise chances of success, shaping the start and end of petitions especially. Petitions were therefore not unmediated testimonies, although they had to be credible when read out in court with the petitioner in attendance. We see in them a balance between deference to the authority being petitioned while also reminding them of their lawful duty. Petitions and medical certificates can also be useful sources as case studies of how wounds were treated.

In a rich and detailed lecture we heard how these petitions provide evidence about the recruitment of rank-and-file soldiers. A map of the North Riding of Yorkshire, one of several county maps on the website, was used to illustrate this. Andrew discussed that many of the wounded returned to active service and how this suggests treatment was better than has previously been imagined. Wounded soldiers and war widows were relevant to both sides’ war efforts. Treatment of war victims sparked pamphlet wars and shaped future military strategy as sometimes assaults were made with the specific aim to capture prisoners for exchange. The propaganda value of being seen to take care of well-to-do widows was particularly felt. Huge efforts were made to relieve the wounded and widowed and this in turn increased tax burdens on civilians considerably. Many courts sought to thin out claimants to reduce this burden. Widows had to prove their husbands were in fact dead. This was particularly difficult if they had died in Scotland or Ireland. Men often had to strip and present their wounds or be certified to be unfit for work by a medical practitioner. Parliamentarian pensions tended to be slightly more generous and were a landmark moment for war widows of the rank and file. Commanders, especially Fairfax and Cromwell, personally interceded in cases. With the Restoration a Tory perception that it was not the job of the State to provide for the wounded can be identified. The dispensing and withholding of welfare depended on the changing political situation, keeping wartime memories and allegiances in view, making healing and settling more difficult. Altogether Andrew stressed how the consequences of civil war went on for generations afterwards both physically and socially. So far, the last petition found is from 1718.

Lastly, Andrew asked what the experiences of Britain’s seventeenth-century civil wars can teach us about the origins of military welfare and its provision to our armed services personnel and their families today. The project has explored this with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2020 in a 30-minute film:

Our warmest thanks are offered to Professor Hopper for sharing this research with us. We have surely all been inspired to look into the system of military welfare, claimants of relief and victims of the wars in our own places of interest. Everyone is strongly encouraged to visit the project’s website to explore the sources themselves along with the blogs and teaching resources there. The website currently holds over 2000 petitions with tens of thousands of named recipients, uploaded by county with eventual completion expected for October 2022. You can search by: People, Places, Payments, Events, Injuries & ailments, Petitions & certificates. The website has a regular blog, Twitter link and learning section for schools with teachers’ workshops. The book from the project’s conference was published this year, L. Bowen and M. Stoyle (eds), Remembering the English Civil Wars (Routledge, 2021) and we look forward to the publication of a five-volume series of transcriptions of petitions arranged by region which is forthcoming in a few years.

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