Mental trauma – These distracted times

Time Title Content
Ismini Pells, interviewed by Mike Gibbs
[00.00] Q. Ismini, thanks very much indeed for joining us for this discussion about the psychological and psychiatric effects of the Civil War on the combatants and non-combatants who were involved in the British Civil Wars of the 17th century.  When we generally think about the effects on individuals such as these, we think about physical wounds and physical disability but you have explored the psychological – but you, but you’ve explored the psychological consequences of these conflicts.  Why, and what brought you to such a research focus?
A. So I think a lot of it was to do with the timing of current events.  When I was doing my graduate studies, it was in the late noughties and early 2010s when there were lots of news reports of soldiers who had come back from Iraq and Afghanistan and they were, you know, struggling with conditions such as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and it was surprising, still, how even in this day and age, there was so much stigma surrounding it.  They were having difficulty accessing help and getting the right treatment that they needed and there was a massive public outcry about this.  And one of the objections, if you like, that was raised against this was somehow that psychological consequences of conflict were somehow a new thing: that soldiers in the past were much tougher and they didn’t have problems with PTSD and psychological issues, and somehow people today were weak.  That just didn’t chime with what I was reading about in my own research and what people researching in other time periods were finding.  And so it was something that I wanted to look into more deeply and see if this was an issue in the Civil Wars.
[02.44] Q.  And was it?
A. Yes, certainly, I think so.  I think, from looking at the evidence, it is highly likely that exposure to conflict in the Civil Wars produced some form of lasting psychological responses in some cases.  We certainly seem to have several cases where individuals were described – either by themselves or by others – as having undergone behavioural changes as a result of their experiences in the Civil Wars.  Contemporaries considered these extreme or unusual, suggesting that there was something going on there. 
[03.19] Of course, I think it is important to remember that the circumstances and the environment of combat can cause, you know, quite complex and unique responses, and some of these  might be very different to modern experiences of psychological trauma.  But I think this is exactly where historical studies can be quite useful in helping us understand psychological trauma in the present better.  So many modern psychologists have criticised the diagnostic criteria and the treatment models that are used in trauma frameworks and practices today and they say that these are based on a Western vision of the world that may not be applicable in all cultures and in all parts of the globe.  I think that one thing that historical studies can help, is help highlight the ways in which armed conflict can produce different responses in different contexts and different cultures.
[07.38] Q.  Ismini, to document these experiences, and capture these experiences from all those centuries ago in the British Civil Wars, must be difficult.  Do you have sources that will capture these sorts of psychological impacts?
A. Yes, we do.  A lot of our sources come from either, you know, the usual types of sources such as memoirs or letters or newsbooks of the time.  Sometimes we have administrative records of the care that was provided to these people, but I think one of the best sources for looking at the psychological impacts of the Civil War comes from the Civil War Petitions Project.  Now, I know that this is something that will have been explored in some of the other episodes in this series but, just to recap, this was a scheme that was made available during the Civil War whereby wounded soldiers and those who were widowed or orphaned could claim a pension from the state as a result of their injuries or bereavement.
[09.09] Obviously, a lot of these cases involved physical wounds but some of the soldiers who were claiming pensions actually seemed to be suffering from what looked like psychological wounds as well.  What is nice about these sources is that they are based on the petitions that come from applications for pensions and here we have, we have the voice of the soldiers themselves speaking.  Obviously, their petition is written with a scribe to help them but you can see their testimony shining through, so it is the soldiers themselves that are speaking.
[09.53] Q. When you listen to, and when you read those petitions, can you hear -. And when you read those petitions, can you hear voices that are very similar to the veterans of today?
A. I suppose the essence of it – often, you feel you have a sense of what that soldier is going through but often the language they use is very different.  You have to be quite careful as to how language has changed over time.  To give you a couple of examples, one of the words that particularly interests me is the word ‘grief’.  There are a lot of cases where soldiers mention that they are suffering because of their grief.  Now, to you or I, grief is obviously something that often happens when you lose something – bereavement, that sort of thing – and yes, of course, that is something to be taken seriously, but often we don’t consider it as a serious condition as such.  Whilst in the 17th century, the word ‘grief’ covered a much broader spectrum than it does today and this included quite, quite serious conditions that we might today associate with perhaps, say, trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder.  And so it’s difficult sometimes, when the soldiers are talking, they are saying they are suffering with grief – well, do they have grief as we understand it today?  Or is it something much more serious: is there an objective disorder behind that word that we don’t know?
[11.38] Another very good example of how language has changed is the word ‘crazy’.  Originally, ‘crazy’ meant flawed or cracked and we use it in the same context today when we talk about crazy pavement – sorry, when we talk about crazy paving.  But during the 17th century, it was often used to refer therefore to physical frailty but, about this time, the understanding of the word ‘crazy’, as we understand it today – where we might associate it with more psychological conditions – was just coming into play.  So, often, when people in the 17th century used the word ‘crazy’, they referred, they were referring to both physical and psychological conditions at the same time.  So, some soldiers who say they are, they’re ‘feeling crazy’ – we don’t know if they mean they are just feeling physical frail or whether they are suffering from some sort of mental distress as well.  So, it’s quite difficult sometimes to get beneath the language.
[12.49] Q. Thinking specifically about the British Civil Wars, was there anything about the way they were fought, the way the conflict was conducted, or the time it took, that made it a particularly stressful environment for the combatants, and also for the non-combatants?
A. Yes, I think so.  So I think the thing about the Civil War is often, when we think about the Civil War, we often think about the big battles, such as Naseby or Marston Moor, but actually the Civil War was a war that was dominated by skirmishing, by long drawn-out sieges, and lots of very persistent, low-level, low-intensity warfare.  And modern studies have suggested that this type of warfare can actually have quite a severe impact on mental health, because it just chips away at the combatants.  So a lot of our veterans, they remember the -.   I’m sorry, I’ll start that again.
[14.13] A lot of the veterans, they remember things like extremes of temperature, long hours on duty, lots of harsh living conditions, and this seems to have worn them down over time.  And yet you have, in contrast to this low-intensity warfare, you have got this feeling of an ever-present -.
[14.35]  In the midst of this low-intensity warfare, you have got this ever-present sense of danger: you don’t know, you know, where your next skirmish is going to come from, or when an attack is going to happen, when, when a defending garrison might sally out of the town and come and attack your, your position.  So this can take quite a toll on soldiers’ health. 
[14.59] We certainly seem to have some examples from the petitions, where this, this seems to have worn some soldiers down – this low-intensity warfare.  And one such example of this is from a Scottish petitioner called Andrew Abernathy, who was a captain in the Scottish army – he was supporting Parliament in 1644.  I think one of the interesting things about this petition is the way in which Abernathy seems to claim that he is living in a state of hyper-arousal, he is in constant fear of being taken prisoner again and this, more than anything else, is just wearing him down. 
Andrew Abernathy "To the Honourable governor of Nottingham Town and Castle, and the Honourable Committee of Parliament resident at Clare House in Nottingham. The humble petition of Mr Andrew Abernethy, sometime a captain in the Scottish army and now with Captain Thomas Wright.
Whereas your Honours’ petitioner came out of his own country into this kingdom with the rest of the Scottish army, in good apparel and well accommodated. And marched with them to Hereford, where your petitioner was taken prisoner, and stripped of his money and clothes. And there remained until his countrymen were marched back again, then got his liberty and came to this town. And dared go no further, being fearful of being taken prisoner again, has remained in this garrison with Captain Thomas Wright by the space of three months and done faithful service (as the Honourable Governor and all the foot captains in Nottingham well know), and receiving no pay all this time. And now your petitioner’s countrymen coming again into this county, and your petitioner wanting clothes and other necessities against winter, is much discontented and grieved. Wherefore, your petitioner most humbly prays, your Honours to be pleased, to take his distressed condition and poor estate into your Honours’ grave considerations, and to grant your petitioner some means for accommodation fitting for one of his degree. And, as duty binds him, he shall daily pray for your much increase of honours.
[18.17] Q. Ismini, today we know the impact of the experiences on the battle field are felt for years and even decades afterwards.  What evidence is there in your research that these long-term effects were seen in the British Civil Wars?
A. Yes, that is a really good point.  I think that it is important to distinguish between perhaps some of the more subjective distress we see happening at the time, with people like Andrew Abernathy, and the more longer-term effects, which might be more indicative of an objective disorder.  And so we do have examples of the latter and one of these comes from a man called Thomas Goade. 
[19.07] Now, Thomas Goade was a chaplain in the Royalist armies at -.   Now, Thomas Goad was a chaplain in the Royalist army at the Battle of Marston Moor, and the Battle of Marston Moor was one of the biggest of the Civil Wars, and one of the most dramatic in terms of loss of life and consequences for the King’s cause.  This seems to have had a serious impact on the mental health of Thomas Goade. After the battle, he is forced to seek shelter from a friend, who cares for him for many years afterwards.  Now, because of the legislation at the time, Goad or his friend could not apply for a pension to help him and so it is not until 1660 that Thomas Goade’s friend is able to apply for some financial help to assist him in caring for him.  And so it is not until 16 years after the battle that he is able to seek this help and it is quite clear from his petition that Goade is still struggling all these years afterwards.
Thomas Goade "Thomas Goade, being chaplain to a regiment in the army of his late royal Majesty, was present at the Hesham Moor Fight. And upon that unfortunate defeat, came to your petitioner’s house in Doncaster, where through grief upon apprehension of that miscarriage, he suddenly fell sick and into distraction. In which miserable condition, he has continued to this day. Wherefore, your petitioner must humbly beseech your good Lordship … to take into your Lordship’s serious and pious thoughts the sad distress of the said Goade and the cause that probably brought him to it, and to take such order therein … that your petitioner or some other appointed by your Lordship may for his use be interested to procure the said care to be supplied, allowing therefore thirty pounds by the year … or what more your Lordship shall think fit to direct."
[20.17] So we can see from Thomas Goade that the impacts of the Civil Wars are continuing for many decades after the conflict has ended, and continuing to have an impact on the mental health of those who lived through them.
[20.31] Q. I guess, when you contrast the British Civil Wars with Iraq or Afghanistan, for combatants from Britain or the United States, one of the big differences was that the British Civil Wars were being fought in – literally – people’s backyards.  What consequences did that have both on combatants and non-combatants, because they must have been involved?
A.  Yes, I suppose one of the most defining characteristics of the Civil War, if you like, is the fact that it was fought between rival groups of fellow countrymen in their own backyard, in their own country and so, in this circumstance, it is difficult for civilians not to become caught up in the fighting.  And I think perhaps one of the most distressing examples we have of civilians who become caught up in the fighting comes from a man called William Summer.  William Summer was a tailor who lived in Leicester at the time of the Royalist assault on the town in 1645 and he lived through the, the events of the assault.  And what his petition makes clear is that it doesn’t just have an impact on himself but also his family and, in particular, his wife, as we can hear here.
William Summer "To the Right Worshipful the Mayor, the Worshipful the Aldermen his brethren, and the rest of this Society. The humble petition of William Summer, tailor.
That whereas your poor petitioner before the taking of the town, for the better securing thereof, had his house pulled down (it being his inheritance) and all his fruit trees cut down to his great loss, and at the taking of the town by the enemy had his son slain, and most of goods plundered; with the fright whereof your petitioners wife has been distracted ever since, and that your petitioner endeavoring to provide for himself and family, having 5 children, used his trade as a tailor.
Now so it is, that one John Stafford, Master or Steward of the Company of the Tailors, has lately arrested your poor petitioner and commenced a suit in the Town Court (your petitioner being no free man), and also divers others of the said Company do daily threaten your petitioner to commence their several accounts upon the same grounds, which will be (if not prevented) your petitioners utter undoing. Your petitioner therefore humbly entreats this Worshipful Company in respect of his great charge, losses, and poverty, that your petitioner may be admitted a freeman of this Corporation to work as a botcher, that so he may be the better able to maintain himself, wife and family, and keep himself from the just exception and trouble of the said Company of Tailors, which are so violent against your poor petitioner..
[23.20] It rather sounds like the effects of the assault, with all the plunder and the loss of their son, had a real impact on Summer’s wife.  As he says, ‘She’s been distracted ever since.’
[23.38] Q.  And it is not only the effects of PTSD on the combatant but also on his or her partner and family.  What evidence is there from the British Civil Wars of that?
A. Yes, we have a number of petitions from wives or mothers, who are petitioning on behalf of either their husband or their son, who again appears to be suffering from some sort of psychological distress, and they are having to care for them.  So, clearly, it is having an impact on the lives of their wives and other family members who are doing most of the caring for them. 
[26.37] So one interesting example comes from Elizabeth Bradley.  Now her husband, Edward, had been in receipt of a main soldier’s pension since round about 1667 and, at the time he starts receiving his pension, we don’t really have any indication that he is suffering from any form of mental distress.  He was wounded and he had had quite a hard war – he had been wounded several time, he had been imprisoned, and he had spent a lot of his money in the Royalist cause, on his own company.
[28.01] It is not until 1681 that Elizabeth is forced to petition on her husband’s behalf.  Now, she is worried about him not just because of his physical state but it seems that he is starting to suffer from some sort of mental distress as well.  Now Elizabeth explains this in her own words.
Elizabeth Bradley "To the Right Worshipful the Justices of the Peace sitting at Wakefield. The humble petition of Elizabeth Bradley of Horbury. That your petitioner’s husband is aged and fallen into a sad condition by reason of his former hurts in his Majesty’s late service and is much troubled in that he should be so slighted for his great losses and imprisonments that he suffered in the late rebellious war, never changing his principals, that we dare not venture him to go abroad but is forced to have one to look after him. He out stock us and went to Wakefield likely have been lost when going over a bridge, and I cannot follow any thing for looking after him. And I am not able to do it, my charge is so great, and to let it be known trouble to me that my condition should be known to any but your Worships: I have been lame a while myself and had my breast cut off, which has disenabled me much to do that what formally I had done for him or else I would not be so troublesome to your Worships. I cannot endure to let my condition be known to any but yourselves. My humble desire is that you would be pleased to grant him some quarterly or monthly pension for and towards his maintenance whilst he lives from the Head Constable’s Assessment which I believe it will not be long in his condition."
[28.46] I think the interesting thing about Elizabeth’s petition is that it is not so much the events of the war that seem to have had an impact on Edward’s mental health as what has happened afterwards.  It is the fall in social standing and the lack of financial income that he has, as a result of having spent all his money in the war, that seems to be having the most effect, rather than what happened during the war itself.
[29.14] Q. So far we have talked about individuals or families who are caring for a veteran, or somebody – a non-combatant – who has been affected.  What was the state offering by way of mental – .   What was the state offering by way of mental health care?
A. Well, as well as the pensions that I have mentioned, one of the biggest innovations we see in this period is the hospital care that is available.  So, during the Civil Wars themselves, Parliament establishes two permanent military hospitals, which are dedicated military facilities, available for their soldiers.  And these are established at the Savoy and at Ely House in London.
[30.22] Now obviously, mainly, they were concerned with treating physical wounds but we also have examples of soldiers who were admitted to these facilities who seemed to have been suffering some form of mental distress.
[32.05] For example, in 1655, we have two soldiers who were serving in Scotland, whose names were Edward Hodgson and Thomas King, and they were admitted to the hospital at Ely House. Edward Hodgson was described as ‘A very sad object, deprived of his understanding and totally helpless’, whilst Thomas King was noted as ‘Suffering from a lameness, wherewith he is troubled in his head.’  Now, to me, this sounds like that is some sort of psychological disorder happening, and they were sent south to London, at the public expense – which was not inconsiderable.
[32.52] Now, we don’t know exactly what kind of treatment was available to them but we do know from the hospital records that the hospitals were kept very clean, that patients were well cared for and they were well fed and well clothed, and that the medical staff there were comprised of some of the most foremost physicians and surgeons of the day.  And all the nursing staff were mainly made up of soldiers’ widows, so they had an understanding of the military lifestyle.
[34.01] So we don’t know what kind of treatments were offered in the hospitals themselves but we do know that some of the other therapies that were suggested at this time were quite humane and actually very recognisable to us today.  So some of the writers on mental health in this period, they all recognised that external events such as wars could cause problems but they believed that these were treatable.  They all recommended, effectively, the same thing, which was to talk to people – so what we might today call narrative exposure therapy, or talking testimony.  Essentially, what they meant by this was to share your problems with a friend or someone who could be trusted, and seek their counsel and advice.  Essentially, their advice was that a ‘problem shared is a problem halved’ and that certainly seems to have been the prevailing advice.
[35.00] We don’t know how far soldiers themselves obviously followed this but we do know that soldiers continued to meet up in groups.  People who had fought alongside each other continued to meet socially for many years after the war had ended, and we know that they talked about the events of the wars as well, because often they end up in legal records where someone has overheard their conversation and they’ve taken offence at the fact that, for example, they might still be supportive of the Parliamentarian cause after the Restoration.  So they reported them to the authorities and they turn up in legal records.  So we know that veterans are continuing to meet in groups and they are continuing to talk about the wars long after they have ended, so it is just possible that some of the veterans found these helpful experiences.
[35.51] Q. Is it your impression then that society in general, and the authorities, were understanding of this situation and reacted accordingly?
A. Yes, certainly in some cases.  I think it is fair to say that it is probably a bit of a mixed bag.  Certainly when you see, for example, some of the family members, such as the wives and the mothers, petitioning, they seem to be given quite a sympathetic hearing.  As you can see with some of the treatments in the hospitals and things, again, that was quite forward-thinking.  But sometimes, it depended if a community was struggling themselves, I think, as well.  So, sometimes, some communities say that they can’t afford to look after these people and so they just want them locked up for their safety.
[37.24] We have one example of a community who seemed to be totally unsure as to what to do with a veteran who lived locally, who seems to have been quite disruptive to them.  This was the village of Enville in Staffordshire and the veteran in question was a man named Roger Fellows.  In the end, the villagers themselves complained to the authorities about the behaviour of this veteran.
Roger Fellowes "To the Right Worshipful the Justices of the Peace in the county of Staffordshire in Sessions assembled.
The said Roger Fellowes is a constant breaker of the Sabbath Day by bodily labour and travelling about from place to place. That the said Roger Fellowes is a common swearer of great and bloody oaths, and did the 18th of this instant April (being Easter Day) swear by the Lord’s flesh he would smoke all the parish except 3 or 4 houses for a soldier he had been and a soldier he would be… The premises considered, it is humbly desired by the inhabitants of Enville that such a course may be taken with the said Roger Fellowes that they may live in peace and quietness, without danger of their lives or loss of their estates.
[46.35] Q. If the psychological impact of the British Civil War was so important and so widely understood by the people at the time, why is it that we then wait until the reports of shell-shock in the First World War before this comes to the fore again?
A.  That is a really interesting question.  Yes, it seems to get forgotten about in the meantime.  Shell-shock seemed to take everyone by surprise and you would think that it was a new phenomenon then.  I suppose, I think maybe it is something to do with the fact that the death rates are so comparable: estimates suggest that proportionally – so as the proportion of the population, the death toll in the Civil War was actually greater than the First World War but, in many ways, they are quite comparable.  So maybe the First World War was the first time after the Civil Wars that people were witnessing a death toll and a casualty rate on a similar scale.  It is perhaps to do with the scale and reach of the war.  So, there wasn’t a war of that nature between the Civil Wars and the First World War and I suppose it is perhaps ‘out of sight and out of mind’: if you don’t have veterans with psychological issues on such a large scale, people forget that it exists and forget that it is a problem.  So we don’t know, but that would be my best guess.
[38.30] Q. Ismini, I know you have had the opportunity to share some of these experiences and these stories with modern day veterans.  What’s been their response?     
[40.31] A. Yes, I think that some of the stories that I have shared with veterans in the present have really resonated with them as well, not just about their wartime experiences but what it feels like being disbanded from the army, from coming home and trying to reintegrate back into their communities, their families – people who haven’t been away to war themselves.  And then, you know, how their problems can sometimes start then, and the hoops through which the veterans in the past had to jump through in order to claim a pension, perhaps are not too dissimilar to many of the administrative problems that veterans find today.  The fact that veterans in the past were quite successful when claiming pensions, as I say, is perhaps a bit of a disappointment to veterans in the present, that they are still struggling to claim the appropriate financial help that they need to live their daily lives when, actually, this is a problem that started 400 years ago.  You would have thought we would have been better at it by now.
[41.33] Q. Over the last few weeks, I have spent quite a bit of time reading the stories that are captured on your Civil War Petitions website and they really are fascinating.  Is there one story which you think, or one petition, or one person, who you think encapsulates a lot of the psychological impact of the British Civil Wars?
A. Yes, it is hard to pick one above all the others.  I suppose perhaps one of my favourite stories, if you are allowed to have a favourite, if that doesn’t sound too wrong, was a chap called John Cornelius from the village of Bishopsteignton in Devon.  Cornelius in some ways has quite an extraordinary story: as well as fighting all through the Civil War, and he had been wounded many times and imprisoned, he struggles to live at home once the war was over, particularly during the Commonwealth and the Interregnum.  So he actually goes to live in Barbados for a while in the – there’s a Royalist community there in exile – and he lives there during the period of the Interregnum
[42.54]   He then comes back to England after the Restoration and he is in such a bad way that he is being cared for by his parents, but by 1672, it gets to the stage where his parents can no – they are too elderly and they’re too frail and they can no longer afford, as well as be physically capable, to look after him.  So at that point he is forced to petition for a pension, and I think what gets me most is the way that he phrases his physical and mental injuries.  The phrase he uses – he says that he is not only decrepit but he has ‘lost the use of his reason through his grief’.  I think that is such a powerful phrase but, I suppose, in a good way, he is awarded a pension, so he is given some help, which just shows how advanced the Civil Wars could be.
[43.53] Q. Ismini, this is a fascinating topic and it has been wonderful talking to you about it.  Where can people learn more?
A. The best place to go to, to see all the petitions that I have mentioned in this podcast today, is the Civil War Petitions website, and that is available at 
[44.22] Q.  Ismini, thank you so much for your time and for introducing us to so many fascinating stories.
A.  Thank you very much.