Raids, skirmishes and sieges – How the Civil War was fought


While accounts of the British and Irish civil wars frequently focus on the large set-piece battles between the two field armies, much, if not most of the conflict, was fought by regional or local forces, in raids, skirmishes and sieges of strong points.

These clashes disrupted local lives time and again, as the conflict ebbed and flowed, often sucking in non-combatants, costing some their lives and many their livelihoods.  As a result, communities across the country lived with the fear of plunder, burning and rape, for almost a decade.

Distinguished historian David J Appleby, discusses how these seemingly small and often forgotten conflicts affected the lives of thousands of men, women and children. He is in conversation with publisher Mike Gibbs.


Mike Gibbs:  David, could I begin by asking you what sources do we have, that give us insights into the impact of the wars on daily life in these villages and towns?

David Appleby:  We actually have quite a wide range of sources, from parish records, such as church wardens’ accounts, all the way up to the state papers.  The petitions presented to county justices at their quarter sessions courts – before, during and after the civil wars – tell us a lot about ordinary people at the time.  Of course, justices could not always meet in many counties because of the fighting, so there are gaps in those court records, particularly in some Midlands counties.  But Parliament set up committees to run its war efforts in many of these counties, so these generated thousands of documents and they are now held in the National Archives.  As for the Royalists, the accounts from garrisons such as Worcester, Newark and Lichfield, have survived to give us a vivid picture of life in those areas.


Then we have the accounts of the kingdom.  This was a scheme set up by Parliament in 1644.  A committee collected statements from civilians about the misdemeanours and crimes committed by its own troops.  Now, officially, this scheme is designed to compensate those victims but, in reality, it was a political stunt, because it was staged by the Peace Party within Parliament, aimed at undermining the colleagues who wanted to beat the King on the battlefield.  You could probably appreciate that Parliament’s soldiers resented being used as scapegoats and that was a grievance which would later have revolutionary consequences.

Finally, Royalist depredations were published in Parliamentarian pamphlets.  These reports were often wildly exaggerated – Prince Rupert was a favourite target – but several of those reports probably had an element of truth.


Mike Gibbs:  What do they tell us about the involvement of ordinary people, rather than the elites or religious zealots, about when the wars began, and as they progressed?

David Appleby:  The records tell us that communities across the British Isles were badly affected by the civil wars, and that includes areas that saw relatively little fighting.  Local economies were ravaged by poor harvests – even areas away from the fighting had fewer people to sow seeds or harvest crops.  War disrupted markets and trade, and that caused food prices to rise.  That made malnutrition, which made the population more vulnerable to disease, at the same time as large numbers of soldiers, camp followers and refugees were moving around the country.  So this resulted in outbreaks of plague in places like Bristol, Oxford and Newark, and we must not ignore the devastating outbreaks of smallpox, typhus, dysentery and other diseases that occurred elsewhere.


If, on top of that, we add in personal losses, property destruction, the taking of horses and oxen, and cripplingwartime taxation, we can see a perfect storm of misery building up during the civil wars.  On top of all of that, communities soon had to cope with the growing financial burden of caring for thousands of war widows, orphans and badly disabled soldiers.


Mike Gibbs:  So did most ordinary people just want the war to end, and just want to get on with their lives?  Or were they actively committed to one side or the other?

David Appleby:  I think they did.  As war became likely, you can see numerous communities sending petitions to both sides, pleading for a peaceful solution, but, at the same time, thousands were volunteering to fight.  Some were doing it to protect their locality, some thought they were safeguarding their religion or preserving society but, whatever their sympathies – whether they lay with the king or parliament – most people, and that included the gentry, wanted the dispute to be sorted quickly, peaceably, if possible, in order to get on with their lives.  So the big problem facing both sides wasn’t how to mobilise troops but how to maintain public enthusiasm for their respective war efforts.  You can see this in an echo of the pre-war petitions: women led massive peace demonstrations in London during the first winter of the war.


These were several thousand people big, and they marched on parliament, they marched on Westminster.  Women very often led protests like this because of existing law, the common law: women were considered to be incapable of riot, unless there was – they said – a ‘man of discretion’ – that is, and old enough man – in the crowd, and then it was considered a riot.  You could have 400 women – there was a big riot that took place in Essex in 1629: the first riot is not considered in law to be a riot because it was entirely 400 women.  You would find that women often lead these kinds of demonstrations with impunity, because they can get away with more than the men can.


Mike Gibbs:  And what was parliament’s reaction?

David Appleby:  It kind of doubled down on the propaganda, if you like, to say ‘This is why we are fighting’.  John Pym, for example, says ‘We desire peace, we want peace, but we can’t have peace at any price.  We can’t have peace by giving away our religion.  We can’t have peace by letting the king rule as a dictator.’  At that point, the Royalists were actually advancing on London and they do seem to lose control at Brentford.  That quietens the peace protest, because they see this Royalist army advancing and not behaving very well, so they are quite scared of it.


Mike Gibbs:  Is it fair to say that people’s fears were justified, and that what they have read or heard about happening in Europe and in Ireland was replicated in their experiences in the British Civil Wars?

David Appleby:  Firstly, some historians have recently started to question whether the European wars were quite as brutal as they have been portrayed.  And, secondly, we do need to be cautious in that pamphleteers knew that the more lurid their copy, the better it would sell.  Having said that, there were definitely horrid atrocities committed by both sides in Europe.  I say ‘by both sides’ but you would be quite likely to see Protestants and Catholics on the same side because it wasn’t a clean divide.  It wasn’t a clean divide in Ireland either and so Micheál Ó Siochrú has suggested that about 10,000 Protestants and 10,000 Catholics died outside the Cromwellian campaigns, died in Ireland.  It is pretty horrific and there are tit-for-tat revenge killings and certain atrocities.  Although it was never as extensive as the slaughter in Ireland, or Scotland for that matter, many civilians were killed and plundered in England.  Soldiers’ conduct frequently fell below that envisaged in the various Laws and Ordinances of War, yes.


Mike Gibbs:  So people in communities, in Britain at the time, recognised that they were in danger of becoming casualties of war, even if they were non-combatants?

David Appleby:  Absolutely, yes.  You can see that some writers were predicting that’s going to happen – they are predicting that that was exactly what was going to come if war breaks out.  That is one of the reasons why people want peace, and that is one of the reasons why the Peace Party in parliament grows up as well because they are saying that we should not be doing this to ourselves.  Both sides declared that it should not happen but you would find that commanders were frequently unwilling, or more likely unable, to restrain their men.


Mike Gibbs:  But both sides did publish rules of Engagement.  Were they therefore generally ignored? Or did they have some sort of impact?  Were they enforced?

David Appleby:  They were enforced, but they weren’t enforced uniformly.  I would say that they were as much for public consumption as anything else.  Commanders on both sides recognised that local communities would be alienated if their soldiers behaved badly: they would hide their livestock, they would stop paying taxes, they would hide food and things like that. You needed your local communities on side and that means there is a military imperative to get the men to behave, to be combat efficient, as well as a moral imperative.


Looking through all the published codes of contact on all sides involved in the wars in England, Ireland and Scotland, it is striking how similar they are – they are virtually identical both in offences and punishments.  They are based on pre-war examples.  You will see if you look through these that the prescribed punishment for so many offences is death but execution is clearly discretionary as there are some select offences which have next to them, ‘death without mercy’.  There is a difference between ‘death’, and ‘death without mercy’.  The ‘death without mercy’ ones tend to be related to combat efficiency rather than anything to do with relations to civilians.


The entry in the Earl of Essex’s Laws and Ordinances of Wars’ is quite revealing.  It says,

No man, upon any good success, shall fall a-pillaging before licence or a sign given upon pain of death.” 

In other words, private pillaging wasn’t allowed – although it obviously took place – but official pillaging was.  If you have taken a town and it hasn’t surrendered, you are entitled to loot the place.  Colchester for example, although it was a Parliamentarian town in sympathy, the Royalists had held it for three months.  When Fairfax finally got the garrison to surrender and got in, Colchester’s civilians paid, I think, about £1500 in order not to be pillaged – so they would have pillaged their own people.


Sexual crime is covered under a section in Essex’s Laws and Ordinances’, under ‘moral duties’, together with theft.  It says,

Rapes, ravishments, unnatural abuses shall be punished with death”.


Mike Gibbs:  To what extent, if any, did these rules protect ordinary people?

David Appleby:  Soldiers often disregarded the rules.  Parliamentarians made specific allegations regarding the storming of towns such as Burton-on-Trent, where maidens were said to have jumped into the Trent and drowned rather than be ravished by Queen Henrietta-Maria’s Royalist soldiers.  It may be that they have heard of allegations against Royalist soldiers, including rape, which seems to have taken place in Brentford in 1642.   I think the fact that Charles I published so many proclamations against crimes such as plundering and rape, and declared that that punishment would be death without mercy, so he has escalated the crime, that suggests that he was aware that the Royalists had a problem with discipline.  But it is difficult to ascertain how well observed the rules were in low intensity warfare.  Both Royalists and Parliamentarians side-stepped the problem of wandering soldiers: they pushed it under the carpet by ordering parish authorities to apprehend men who were clearly beyond anyone’s control.  I know of an example in Yorkshire of a petty constable of a parish who tried to do that but he just got killed.  I think many other petty constables quite wisely didn’t try to do it – they didn’t try to stop them.


Sometimes you find, in places like south Essex, that soldiers are passing through and the local parish people give them money just to move on to the next place – they bribe them to move on.


The rules protected ordinary people to some extent but it is only when commanders had sufficient will and the physical means to enforce them, really.  Oliver Cromwell hanged two soldiers in Ireland for robbing a civilian, which sounds a bit strange seeing as he failed to stop his men massacring civilians in places such as Wexford and Cashel, but he made his army march past the dangling bodies, just to make the point.


An important point to remember is that junior officers didn’t technically have the authority to execute offenders, it is quite a convoluted process.  They have to hand them over to the regimental provost marshal – that is, assuming that regiment had one – and the provost then conveys them to the provost marshal general of the army for court martial.  Actually putting soldiers to death can’t be done willy-nilly at the bottom but it has to go quite high up at the top.


Despite the published codes of conduct, and despite the policing of the provosts, it is evident that Parliamentarian soldiers indulged in plunderers every bit as regularly as regularly as Royalists did.  You find one of the Earl of Essex’s commanders, Colonel Arthur Goodwin, who is a conscientious Puritan, a close friend of John Hampden, and Goodwin is clearly sick at heart when he wrote to his son-in-law, Lord Wharton, during the first winter of the war – December 1642 – about his inability to restrain his men.


Mike Gibbs:  What underlying factors led to, or predisposed to, this brutalisation?

David Appleby:  I think there was a whole toxic cocktail of factors.  You have fear – very often people, soldiers, will kill if they are afraid, rather than if they are feeling brave.  They feel powerlessness, and that leads them to kill, it leads them to rape and it leads them to vandalise, because it is about exerting power over other people and other things, for people who feel powerless.  There is certainly revenge – there are lots of revenge killings and you could see tit-for-tat killings taking place all over England and, of course, in Ireland and Scotland as well, and Wales.


There is a good dash of xenophobia by Parliamentarians.  Particularly, against – they name Catholics all the time, Irish Catholics, and there comes a point where parliament issues an order that all Irish Catholics soldiers in England have to be executed when they are captured.  That isn’t always observed, but that is an official order. And French soldiers as well – so xenophobia and anti-Catholicism kind of go hand-in-hand.  I think all of those things are a cocktail of factors which lead to this brutalisation.


Mike Gibbs:  Did gender or age offer protection to, say, women, children or older people?

David Appleby:  Theoretically, women, children and the elderly should have been protected.  That is all in the etiquette – the established etiquette of war – but women were frequently abused.  They were injured and killed.  I think we are going to talk about the New Model Army’s murder of women at Farndon Field in a minute.  Children are known to have been killed when the Royalists stormed Liverpool in 1644.  Children probably died during parliament’s attack on Banbury, and children, again, we know that children died when Leicester fell to the Royalists in 1645.  So the eye-witness report of Prince Rupert’s storming of Bolton in 1644 was very specific, when alleging that old people had been killed there.


Mike Gibbs:  What about reports of rape?

David Appleby:  It is impossible to say how common it was, and that has always been the case.  I strongly disagree with historians who imply or say even that reports of rape during the civil wars should be taken with a large pinch of salt – I disagree with that, because rape is a common feature of war, then as now.  It is unreasonable to think that the civil wars in England were so drastically different from many other conflicts in history.


I have read that rape is about power – it is about power over another human being rather than sex.  Common soldiers, conscious of their inability to control their own fate in war, frequently commit such acts to compensate for their feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy.  Rape does not appear to be used as a strategic weapon of the war, as it has been in some conflicts, but I am sure it is there.


Mike Gibbs:  Now turning to plunder, and plundering carried out by the armies, how frequent was plunder during the conflict as they moved through towns and villages?

David Appleby:  I would say that plundering was very common.  I don’t say that just because so many soldiers were ne’er-do-wells, but it was because they were often cold, they were ill-clothed and they were very hungry.  In many cases, what we might consider to be plundering was simply soldiers living off the land – in other words, trying to survive.


There is also a really fine line between plundering and official free quarter: free quarter is where civilians have soldiers billeted on them and they were expect to feed and shelter these unwelcome guests just on vague promises of future reimbursement which, as often as not, was not paid.  I think the sum of that is that it is very common and I don’t think it is because they are necessarily evil but they are just trying to survive.


Mike Gibbs:  Who were the most common targets of plunder and what happened to the loot?

David Appleby:  The records that stand out are that the homes and the parks of enemy gentry seem to have been particularly juicy targets, for obvious reasons isn’t it, because they will be the best loot.  You have Nehemiah Wharton, who is probably a sergeant, he’s serving in Essex’s army and, in peace time, he is a Godly, law-abiding citizen, but you find in his letters that he is actually speaking with relish about raiding a gentleman’s deer park in one of his letters.


Clergy were prominent targets: the Royalists picked on Puritan ministers whilst Parliamentarians targeted Episcopalian ministers.  Any house or individual could easily fall victim.  There was one Parliamentarian soldier who complained that, whilst he had been away on campaign, his humble home had been plundered by Scottish Covenanters and they are people allied to his own side.  Nehemiah Wharton was plundered by men from another regiment in his own army – he called them Cholmley’s base bluecoats, although he promptly went back to his part of the camp, collected his own men and went out and found them again and exacted revenge on them.


Mike Gibbs:  Some military commanders such as Prince Rupert are said to have had a real reputation for what we could I guess call ‘war crimes’.  Certainly, certain regiments – like the Queen’s Regiment and the Royalist army – had a bad reputation.  Was that reputation in those two cases justified, and what part was played by foreign soldiers such as Prince Rupert in these sorts of misbehaviours?


David Appleby:  Rupert was an intelligent person – he spoke several languages.  He was an experienced soldier and we think he may have been soldiering since he was about 13, but he picked up quite a few habits over in the wars on the Continent.  It is noticeable that his uncle, Charles I, did have to reprimand him on quite a few occasions, particularly for extorting money with menaces.  That was certainly a habit he picked up during the Thirty Years’ Wars: it’s called Brandschutzen, which means extorting money with threats to burn the houses down.  We definitely know that he burnt the houses of suspected Parliamentarian sympathisers in Uttoxeter whilst the king was attempting to raise troops at the start of the war.  We also know that he eventually burnt down a large part of Birmingham, so he was quite fond of doing that.  I think part of his notoriety was that he was a foreigner, so therefore he is immediately considered suspect.  He is quite a celebrity and so it is easy for parliament to hang quite a few stories on him.


It is the same that goes for the French troopers of the Queen’s regiment.  Henrietta- Maria brought several hundred French volunteers over with her when she came back from the Continent with arms and ammunition, and they became frequent targets of Parliamentarian propaganda.  It has to be said, how justified is that?  Well, they were present at Burton in 1643, they were present in Leicester in May 1645, so they were at places where the stories of misconduct are compelling.  One thing I am struck by with the Queen’s regiment is that even their Royalist comrades seem to have disapproved of them, because there is one Royalist who writes in his letter that they’re the Queen’s hounds and I have heard the story that when the king was down in the West Country, Cornish Royalists refused to let that regiment over the river.  They would let the others, but not them – so even Royalists actually didn’t like them very much.  So yes, there were exaggerated reports of both of them but quite a bit of truth in those reports as well, I think.


Mike Gibbs:  But the Royalists generally seemed to have a more brutal reputation than the parliamentary forces during the wars.  Is that justified?

David Appleby:  I think partly the impression that the Royalists were particularly brutal – more brutal than parliament – might have come from the fact that parliament controlled most of the printing presses, so parliament was simply better at PR than the Royalists were.  Having said that, the Royalists don’t seem to have been so regularly paid and they weren’t as well supplied as Parliamentarian soldiers – I am not saying that Parliamentarian soldiers were fantastically supplied, but the Royalists kind of lived hand to mouth and so this might also be a factor.  Both sides are likely to ignore the rules of war, but you do get the New Model Army – at least in England – being noted as better behaved towards civilians than most.  So after Naseby, they moved to the West Country and down to the South West, there were quite a few comments from surprised South Western English who have supported the king, saying that the New Model Army are actually paying for stuff rather than just taking it.  Again, I think that comes down to the fact that they are simply better paid and better supplied, so they don’t have to loot.  That is my impression, so it is a combination of bad PR on the Royalists’ part, and possibly the fact that they were more likely to need to loot and plunder in order to survive.


Mike Gibbs:  After about nine years, the conflict ended.  Was there any sense of revenge in communities which had experienced Royalist atrocities?  Did parliament punish those responsible for any of those actions?

David Appleby:  Parliament effectively did try and execute Charles I for war crimes.  His charge sheet includes the charge that he was responsible for all the crimes that had been committed by Royalist soldiers during the first two civil wars.  They certainly punished at least one Royalist but to turn that question on its head, the execution of Charles hardened attitudes, because Royalists and many moderate Parliamentarians considered that to be judicial murder – and the murder of the Lord’s Anointed as well.  What you get from there are general and specific grievances causing resentment, and there is a desire for revenge – not just ex-Parliamentarians against Royalists, but Royalists against Parliamentarians.  They fester in many communities.  There is an ex-Parliamentarian in Boxted in Essex who gets beaten up by two ex-Royalists from a neighbouring village – which just happens to be the village where I grew up – after the Restoration.  There were fights in the streets elsewhere in Essex, and you can see disputes like that flaring up in counties such as Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire and Staffordshire, as late as the 1680s.  You will have people reporting on other people and there is a whole catalogue of what they think they had done 40 years before.  All of those things directly related to the civil wars.  So the bad feeling and the desire for revenge goes on for decades afterwards.  This is one thing that you have to get across to people, that wars don’t end when the shooting stops: they do not – they keep going.


Mike Gibbs:  David, when you look at these reports from whatever sources of atrocities, war crimes, call it what you will, in the British Civil Wars, do you see parallels with conflicts today?

David Appleby:  We always have to be careful when making those kinds of comparisons because our ancestors had a different set of values to ours.  Religious beliefs, for example, were much more ingrained than they are today.  They lived in a very different cultural environment: they lived in an environment which was much more used to death.  Even my dad’s generation, the Second World War generation, were used to far bigger casualties that we would consider acceptable.  But it is possible to see – when I see reports on the TV, I can see certain equivalents, where people are creating a dehumanised other, and they are repeatedly exposing people to bloodshed.  I can see that that leads otherwise normal people to commit truly evil acts.  I mean, you have truly evil leaders who will encourage people to do that but, otherwise, these are normal people and it encourages them to commit acts which they would not normally do in civilian life.  Really evil acts.  So we have to be careful when making the comparisons but yes, I think we can see a functional equivalent between some of these atrocities and also the aftermath: we see the way people are treated and what we call today ‘veteran politics’.  There is the post-conflict culture, and you can make some equivalence, yes.


Mike Gibbs:  David, thank you so much for giving us the time to hear about war in the community – plunder, burning and rape.  It has been a really fascinating discussion and there is obviously a lot more to learn.  I think you have thrown a totally new light on what life was like for ordinary men and women during the British Civil Wars.  Thank you so much.

David Appleby:  Thank you.