Reduced to Ashes and Rubbage

Jessie Childs

  • Battle-Scarred: Mortality, Medical Care and Military Welfare in the British Civil Wars edited by David Appleby and Andrew Hopper
    Manchester, 247 pp, £80.00, July 2018, ISBN 978 1 5261 2480 7

In the Leeds branch of the West Yorkshire Archive Service, there is a long, narrow notebook with a vellum cover which shows signs of water damage and has peeled away at the top so that it’s possible to make out some of the words on the first page – ‘apricocks’, ‘plombes’ – and a date: 1633. This was the year a local gentleman, Sir John Reresby of Thrybergh Hall, began to note the contents of his garden. Every peach, pear and plum is catalogued, as are herbs, shrubs, bulbs – ‘Kentish Codlings’, ‘the Granado Gilliflower’, ‘Melincholly Munkes hoode’ – and attempts at grafting and inarching. According to his son, Reresby was ‘exactly curious in his garden and was one of the first that acquented that part of England (soe far north) with the exactness and nicety of thos things’. It is impossible not to feel a vicarious pride in his list of ‘my best Tulipas’. At the end of the decade Reresby turned his notebook upside down and began a different set of lists. One is headed ‘The Postures of the Musket’. The gardener learned new skills.

The world turned upside down was a popular conceit in the 1640s. For royalists like Reresby, those who took up arms against the king were taking on God. Ann Fanshawe, the daughter of a royalist MP, who was 17 when she fled to Charles I’s wartime headquarters in Oxford, likened herself to a fish out of water. The conflict between king and Parliament was supposed to end with one big battle at Edgehill on 23 October 1642. But it lasted four years. And even after Charles I’s capture and execution the conflict continued. ‘Long wars make men inhumane,’ Richard Ward wrote in The Anatomy of Warre: ‘that is, at first sinne seems to us loathing, but often sinning makes sinne seeme nothing … where before [a soldier] ever entered into the wars, he thought he could never be so cruell, as to dash the childrens braines against the stones … but afterwards when he was injured with warre, he did it.’

The civil wars of 1642-51 saw the greatest concentration of organised violence in the recorded history of the British archipelago. In England and Wales alone, around 86,000 men died in combat and at least 100,000 from war-related diseases. More people perished, as a proportion of the population, than in the First World War. Nearly every town and hamlet was affected. Faringdon in Oxfordshire was reduced to ‘ashes and rubbage’: 236 families lost their homes there. The church survived, minus its spire; a cannon ball is embedded in the masonry. Even places that didn’t see any bloodshed suffered: husbands were absent fighting, disease spread, there was swingeing taxation and slumps in trade.

In Battle-Scarred, a collection of essays that examine the physical and mental injuries inflicted by the civil wars, David Appleby addresses the problem of wandering soldiers. These were disbanded veterans, deserters and escaped prisoners of war, who frequently clashed with civilian communities as they tried to make their way home. Some didn’t have a home: the majority of deserters were conscripts, and most county conscripts were ‘the scum of all their inhabitants’, according to one parliamentarian colonel. Exhausted, hungry, sometimes wounded, often traumatised and nearly always armed, they inspired guilt and fear. On their own they were vulnerable, since their accents and weathered skin gave them away (only in 1650 were common soldiers issued with tents), so they formed gangs and were emboldened. The problem became so acute that Parliament reluctantly resorted to martial law – the use of which had been one of the key issues on which MPs had originally taken a stand against the king. ‘Wandering soldiers did not represent a mere political problem for the parliamentarian leadership,’ Appleby concludes, ‘as much as an existential crisis.’

Given the relish for books retailing violence and misery, it’s surprising that the civil wars don’t seem of much interest to the public. From school onwards, they are downplayed. I would guess that more people know the date of the execution of Anne Boleyn than of Charles I. Writers found events hard to comprehend at the time. ‘Whosoever will be curious to read the future story of this intricate Warre,’ the royalist pamphleteer James Howell wrote in 1644, ‘will find himself much stagger’d, and put to a kind of riddle.’ There is still no consensus on its name: is it the English Civil War or the Puritan Revolution or the British Civil Wars or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms? Historians have fought so savagely over its causes and consequences that in 2000 the academic Jonathan Scott observed that ‘the battlefields of the 17th century … are becoming increasingly hard to see under the great piles of bleached bones left by historians murdered by their colleagues.’

It might help if we knew where the original bodies were buried. In the first section of Battle-Scarred, Ian Atherton and Stuart Jennings highlight the astonishing scarcity of major civil war burial sites. Two, maybe three, mass graves have been scientifically excavated (they disagree over the identification of a recent big find in York). Parish registers offer few clues. Churchwardens didn’t want dead soldiers clogging the record and while they might note the burial of local troops, they rarely listed those from beyond the parish. Most battlefield casualties were probably buried where they fell, in field or ditch, with bodies often spread over quite an extensive area. Atherton argues that a reliance on folk memory has often sent archaeologists to the wrong places. There is no commemorative site in the UK that has the status, or funding, of the Gettysburg National Cemetery in America. The Battlefields Trust, which performs heroics against rapacious planners and shortsighted governments, was founded after the A14 bisected Naseby battlefield in 1992.

The conflict has an air of unreality. Contemporary narratives excel at military euphemism – cannon play their music, for instance – while words like ‘annoy’, ‘inconvenient’, ‘wonderful’ and ‘fight’ have lost their former strength, making the prose sound quaint. It all seems rather jolly, something to enjoy with a picnic on a Bank Holiday Monday as re-enactors aim their muskets and swelter in their woollens.

There is nothing unreal about Battle-Scarred. Eric Gruber von Arni’s chapter on royalist hospital provision in wartime Oxford describes the churches crammed with soldiers and the river choked with

Dead Hogges, Dogges, Cats and well flayed Carryon Horses,
Their noysom Corpses soyld the water courses;
Both swines and stable dunge, Beasts guts and Garbage,
Street durt, with Gardners weeds and Rotten Herbage.
And from these Waters filthy puterfaction,
Our meat and drink were made, which bred Infection.

The job of John Taylor, self-styled ‘water-poet’, was to keep the waterways clear. Gruber von Arni paints a grim picture of a Council of War overwhelmed by having too many people dependent on it, too few resources and waves of typhus and plague. Treatment centres were set up in the surrounding countryside, but were understaffed. (One apothecary told the secretary of the council that he had ‘by some subtle Philosophy, become a Doctor of Physick, two apothecaries, three overseers and twelve attendants’.) The parliamentarian advance then forced them back behind the city walls. Frewin Hall today serves as the overspill accommodation for Brasenose College. From the summer of 1644 until Oxford’s surrender two years later, St Mary’s College, as it was then known, was the royal army’s only fixed medical facility in the city.

Parliament fared better, helped by the existing infrastructure in London, the backing of the College of Physicians and, Gruber von Arni argues, its greater sense of responsibility for those killed or disabled in its service. It established Britain’s first permanent military hospitals and extended the old county pension scheme for maimed soldiers to war widows and orphans. Indeed, despite royalist failings in Oxford, the chief contention of this fascinating book is that the civil wars were ‘a landmark moment in the history of medicine’. The ‘exactness and nicety’ exhibited by gardeners like Reresby before the war and by members of the Royal Society after it, were channelled into observations, experiments and improvements that helped save lives on the front line.

Thomas Johnson, a royalist apothecary and botanist who died at the siege of Basing House in Hampshire, had been a great ‘herborizer’ before the war. He went on plant-hunting expeditions throughout England and Wales, and in 1633 edited John Gerard’s famous Herball, which listed the medicinal properties of a vast number of plants. Richard Jones, a landscape historian, has traced one surviving copy back to a gentry family, the Coopers of Thurgarton in Nottinghamshire. His analysis of the 244 manicules (pointing hands) drawn in the book suggests its owner had a keen interest in siege-related ailments such as ‘bloody flux’ (a form of bacillary dysentery) and symptoms such as spitting blood (usually a sign of tuberculosis).

Whether the Herball was effective is unknown, but Stephen Rutherford, who brings a biomedical perspective to his reading of civil war surgical texts, finds much to admire. There was an understanding, at least among military surgeons like Richard Wiseman (a royalist), of the refracted trajectory of a musket ball as it passed through the body. It was ‘wonderful to consider how these shots do twirl about’, Wiseman observed. Instruments that look and sound terrifying, such as the Crowe’s Bill and the Swan’s Beak, were effective means of extracting bullets and bone splinters and did not change much for two centuries. The pasteboard cast method that Wiseman used to treat fractured limbs ‘directly parallels’ the Tobruk splint of the Second World War. A ‘pioneering methodology’ for reducing the risk of infection by keeping wounds open – ‘flesh long hang’d in the air’ as Wiseman put it – promoted the accumulation of lymph, fortifying the immune system and limiting bacterial growth. Delayed primary closure is a technique still in use today.

Surgeons adopted evidence-based techniques that advanced far beyond Galenic tradition. In the fieldwork of these ‘medical pioneers’, Rutherford sees the foundation of modern surgical practice. Ismini Pells reinforces this point by looking at the sophisticated treatment received by the infantry commander Philip Skippon, who was shot in his right side at the battle of Naseby. A musket ball penetrated his armour, and left an eight-inch exit wound, but ‘stout Skippon’ stayed on the field and played an invaluable role in what turned out to be the decisive parliamentarian victory. He required surgery to remove a scrap of waistcoat that had entered his body with the bullet and took almost a year to recover. Skippon was a figurehead of the controversial New Model Army and his allies viewed his survival as a providential blessing and political imperative. The civil wars may be considered a pivotal moment in British medicine, but victory and survival could still usefully be attributed to God.

*

The final part of Battle-Scarred deals with ‘the hidden human costs’ of the civil wars – the psychologically damaged, the widows, wanderers and Scottish prisoners of war who were left behind. Erin Peters finds that contemporary popular literature took account of various stress disorders. Even before the wars, in books like Robert Burton’s bestselling Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), there was an awareness that ‘the simple narration many times’ of traumatic stories could help bring meaning to confusion and offer control to the sufferer. But in an age of Christian, neo-Stoic fortitude, this was easier in theory than in practice, and sometimes the things that soldiers had seen, and done, were too distressing to recall.

Peters cites an anonymous letter from the front, published as a pamphlet in 1643, in which the writer, addressing an unnamed ‘Sir’, has ‘forced’ pen to paper, but ‘can reduce things to nothing but confusion’. He tries again: ‘but you require my most serious thoughts concerning the issue of the present business’. And again, his brain is scattered: ‘but something of News you expect from me’. He gives up: ‘Pardon this digression … I hope some more able pen shall be intrusted with the whole story.’ He concludes: ‘It is a sad thing to think how slight a thing we make of this solemn appeal to Heaven, for so War is, and manage it betwixt jests and earnest, as if our thoughts were really comfortable.’

In Englands Teares, for the Present Wars (1644), James Howell tried to bury the self in a collective suffering:

These deep wounds, which Prince, Peere and people have receiv’d, by this; such wounds, that it seems no gentle Cataplasms can cure them, they must be lanc’d and cauteriz’d, and the huge scars they will leave behind them, will, I feare, make me appeare deformed and ugly to all posterity, so that I am half in despair to recover my former beauty ever again. The deep staines these Wars will leave behind, I fear, all the water of the Severne, Trent or Thames cannot wash away.

‘What are private losses,’ Major George Wither asked, ‘while we view/Three famous Kingdoms, woefully expos’d.’ Historians of the period know the frustration of encountering narratives that edge towards, but ultimately recoil from, personal experience. Evidential shortcomings are acknowledged by all the contributors to Battle-Scarred. The Oxford royalists destroyed their papers before surrendering; the garrison accounts for Newark have not survived; there are significant lacunae in many parish and county registers; case studies are often of special cases; elite texts may not reflect the reality on the ground. Conclusions can only be tentative.

What is most encouraging about the contributions to this volume is their level of public engagement. Battle-Scarred is a scholarly book, but it takes its name from an exhibition curated by Hopper and Gruber von Arni at the National Civil War Centre in Newark in 2016 and includes most of the papers presented at the centre’s inaugural conference. It is also a curtain-raiser for a very promising project undertaken by academics at the universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Cardiff and Southampton to create a searchable database of more than 4000 petitions submitted by wounded soldiers, widows and orphans between 1642 and 1710. These were applications to the state for financial relief and contain details of the petitioner’s regiment, service, injuries and subsequent hardship. As Hannah Worthen explains in her chapter on military welfare in Kent, the petitions were constructed to a formula (address, case details, final exhortation) and written by a scribe, so there is an element of ventriloquism, as well as a possible embellishment of injury in order to win relief. But some applicants bolstered their cases with military and medical certificates and most had to confirm their stories in person at the Quarter Sessions court. The first batch of transcriptions (original and modernised), along with images and explanatory blogs, are already available on the project website (www.civilwarpetitions.ac.uk). They will facilitate all sorts of quantitative and qualitative studies and bear witness not only to the voices of the rank and file, but also to the skills of the medics who treated them. Here is the petition of Edward Bagshaw of Conisbrough, Yorkshire:

The petitioner, being a soldier under Major Cole in Sir Philip Berron’s regiment in his late Majesty’s service, did at York receive many wounds and cuts in the head, insomuch that your petitioner had nine bones taken out of his skull and all that nourished your petitioner for three weeks he received in at a hole in the side of his head; he was shot into the side of his body at the same time; during which service he behaved himself civilly and ever since continued loyal to his Majesty. And now, by reason of his age and the said wounds, is become very poor and unable to acquire maintenance for himself, his wife and children by his own hard labour.

The world turned upside down was one description of the mid-17th century, but the word more commonly used by contemporaries was ‘distracted’, from distrahere: ‘to tear apart’. After Charles II was restored in 1660 on what would be called Oak Apple Day, the Act of Indemnity and Oblivion made forgetfulness official policy. The intention was to ‘bury all seeds of future discords’ and ban ‘any name or names, or other words of reproach, any way tending to revive the memory of the late differences’. The conflict and the Commonwealth were to be seen as an aberration, an eclipse, as if Sir John Reresby could simply turn his notebook round the right way and get back to his tulips. But Reresby had died in 1646, at the age of 35, having been captured and imprisoned by Parliament. Thrybergh Hall, sequestered in 1642, was returned to the family.