Friday, February 17, 2017

Honor and Atrocities in the English Civil Wars

The treatment of enemy prisoners and civilians caught in the jaws of war were pressing concerns in the seventeenth century, as they are today.  The generations that experienced the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil Wars did not have access to video footage of mistreated prisoners or massacred civilians, but they did receive reports of atrocities through the propaganda media of the day.  Efforts to excoriate opposition acts ensure that detailed and inflammatory accounts of battles, sieges, and prison conditions survived the four hundred year interval.  Records from the English Civil Wars from 1642 – 1689 are particularly accessible, and reveal a level of restraint significantly absent from other seventeenth century conflicts.  English restraint in dealing with prisoners and civilians during the Civil Wars is notable due to its absence from fighting conducted in Ireland and Scotland during the same period. 

One of the primary reasons for the apparent English restraint toward prisoners and civilians during the Civil Wars was the concept of honor.  For gentlemen honor and reputation were their life’s blood, and was owed both to their families and to the King.  The obligations to family and the King were parallel, since a gentleman’s honor came from both sources.[1]  Because honor relied on reputation, it required maintenance.  If a gentleman ignored his obligations to monarch or family, he would lose his honor by damaging his reputation.[2]  Since one of the sources of a gentleman’s honor was his family, the misdeeds of his relatives could diminish his own honor, requiring gentlemen to ensure the proper behavior of his siblings and cousins.  A single wayward relation might blemish the reputation of an entire family, regardless of their own involvement in the situation.[3]  The relationship between honor and reputation were not absolute.  A gentleman’s own interpretation of what his honor required might lead him to take actions that others might disagree with – perhaps in leading his troops from a battlefield to save them, or in refusing to pay a relative’s debt.[4]  Since a gentleman’s derived much of his honor due to the privileges and position provided him through the authority of the King, he owed the King obedience and respect beyond that due to his family.  During the Civil War, this conception of honor forced gentlemen loyal to Parliament to claim that they were fighting for the benefit of both King and Parliament.  It also led Charles I to remind English nobility of their obligations to him as King, even during his trial.[5]

The English conception of honor combined with the experience of English gentlemen and common soldiers who had served in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War to create a standard of military practice that argued against atrocities.  Even nobles and soldiers who did not take part in the Thirty Years’ War understood the standards of military conduct due to their study of military doctrine and manuals from the Continent.  Ultimately all but the greenest soldiers and youths knew that there were rules regarding taking prisoners, killing the enemy, and controlling troops during battle.[6]  Additionally, King Charles I called on the honor all English gentlemen owed him when admonishing Prince Rupert and royalist troops to fight with due consideration of their opponents as fellow Englishmen.[7]

The professional military code, although not completely documented in a single place, told soldiers how to behave: when they could surrender during sieges, what and whom they could plunder, and not to kill surrendered enemies.  The devotion to soldierly honor owed a great deal to training and indoctrination by officers, veteran soldiers, and even loyalty to the king, as well as basic Christian principles and pride.[8] 

Honor and professional standards were not the only things restraining the behavior of the combatants during the English Civil Wars.  Pragmatism played a central role in preventing the cruelties of the Thirty Years’ War and the Irish Rebellion.  Both royalists and parliamentarians worried that if they acted in dishonorable ways toward the enemy, did not keep agreements, or if they committed atrocities, that their opponents would act in similar ways.  Preserving the lives of soldiers and civilians, and ensuring that prisoner exchanges continued were key motivations for both sides observing the established laws of war.[9]

A final restraining influence on treatment of prisoners were the decisions of King Charles and Parliament to treat the English Civil Wars as if they were fought against a foreign army rather than a rebellion against lawful authority.  King Charles I initially determined to execute all captured parliamentary soldiers and officers.  The King ordered Colonel Viver and Captains Catesby and Lilburne tried from treason after their capture at Brentford in 1642, although Lilburne escaped execution when his wife persuaded Parliament to threaten reprisals.[10]  Threat of reprisals did not end executions or massacre of prisoners by either side, but acted as a pragmatic hedge against excesses.  Early in the war, the King and his council determined that exchange of prisoners and other practices of war, rather than rebellion, should apply, if only to protect captured royalists from execution.[11]

Despite these restraining influences on the conduct of the English Civil Wars, atrocities did occur against soldiers, officers, and civilians.  Massacre, execution, rape, and plunder were still unfortunate occurrences, even if they were less prevalent than in other seventeenth century conflicts.  The Second Civil War witnessed more abuses against royalist forces by parliamentarians, who believed that the royalists were traitors based on parliamentary victory.  Similarly, royalists argued that the parliamentarians had lost all claims to honor by imprisoning King Charles I.[12]

The Puritan tradition of Christian warfare also acted to remove some levels of restraint from the activities of parliamentary forces.  Timothy George contends that in rebelling against the crown, Puritans were unable to describe the Civil Wars as just war, and came to view the conflict as a holy war based on the teaching of John Calvin and Henry Bullinger.[13]  These two theologians supported the doctrine of holy war using Biblical examples.  Bullinger argued that in the Old Testament God ordered Joshua and Judas Maccabeus to destroy cities that rejected God and in St. Paul’s war on the false prophet Elymas in the New Testament.[14]  The adoption of holy war rather than just war theory was muted by William Ames’ argument that war must be conducted in accordance with God’s law.  This meant that noncombatants must not be harmed – only the guilty were legitimate targets of war.  Despite Ames’ arguments, the idea that God justified war in the Old Testament won out in Puritan doctrine, as espoused by William Gouge.[15]  George contends that Puritan iconoclasm during the English Civil Wars was a logical outgrowth of this doctrine and ministers preaching to extirpate the enemy “root and branch.”[16]

In this way, at least the Puritans among the parliamentary forces saw themselves as holy warriors in the tradition of the knights of the Crusades.  These holy warriors were not simply fighting against absolute government, or to maintain a system of church government, but to defend the true faith from the powers of darkness.[17]  Led by William Gouge, promoters of this ideal, argued that it was acceptable to wage holy war against other Christians based on the biblical slaughter of the tribe of Benjamin by the Israelites. 

The cause of war is more to be respected then the person against whom it is waged.  If Protestants should give just occasion of warre, warre might justly be undertaken against them.  Before the division of the ten Tribes from the rest, the rest if the Israelites fought against the Benjamites, and that by God’s advice.  David also was forced to fight against the men of Israel that tooke part with Ishbosbeth: and after that with Absalom; and after that with Sheba the sonne of Bichri.[18]

Further, mere conformists and papists, by not accepting the true faith were the enemies of God, deserving the same treatment as any other infidel.  Luckily, for the royalist forces and their supporters, this extreme view of the nature of English Civil Wars was a minority one.

If the English Civil Wars were more restrained in the treatment of prisoners and civilians, they were still wars, with the seemingly inevitable consequences: despite the efforts of even the most diligent officers, atrocities still occurred.  While they did not reach the extremes of the Thirty Years’ War, the English viewed them through the lens of that bloody conflict.  English civilians greatly feared the specter of war and the undisciplined, drunken soldiers raping, pillaging, and burning their way across England as they had done in Germany.[19]  The belief that English communities were sending off their coarser, ruder elements to fight only added to English fear of the dangers of war.[20]  Both sides took pains to highlight the barbarity of the other, documenting plundering, massacres, and rapes.

When war crimes occurred, the perpetrators frequently went out of their way to justify their acts, as in claiming that is was acceptable to kill prisoners in cold blood if they represented a danger to the army, or that God sometimes sanctioned the murder of women and children in the Bible.[21]  It was also common to claim that a massacre or decimation of surrendering troops was acceptable if they had violated the laws of war themselves by either stubbornly defending a besieged town beyond reasonable chance of success[22], using poisoned bullets, or by using chewed bullets.  During the Siege of Colchester parliamentary troops claimed that General Goring ordered his troops to chew bullets, roll them in sand, or to otherwise poison them in order to inflict more casualties among the attackers.  Although the chewed bullets in question appear to merely have come from crude bullet molds, parliamentary forces executed twenty prisoners who had poorly made bullets after the end of the siege.[23]

Reprisals were another common excuse for committing war crimes.  In 1644, William Doddington hanged twelve civilians in response to the execution of Irish prisoners by Colonel William Sydenham.[24]  The execution of Irish prisoners itself, was justified by Parliament as justice for the rape and murder of Protestant civilians in Ireland during the Irish Rebellion.  Reprisal was also the justification provided when royalist forces led by Major John Connaught smoked parliamentarians out of their refuge in a church steeple in Bartholemy, and then stripped and murdered all but three of the men.  Oral tradition indicates that the reason behind the massacre was that the church rector’s son had fired upon the besieging royalists from the steeple.[25]

Not all war crimes fell into the category of reprisals.  Like other wars, rape was part of the unofficial activities of the English Civil War.  William Trumbull of Berkshire claimed that troops quartered in his home raped a servant taken from her bed.  While the Berkshire incident seems divorced from the context of battle, other rapes were part of normal pillaging activities.  Sir Marmaduke Langdale’s men reportedly pillaged and raped their way across Northamptonshire in 1645, binding men and forcing the, to watch as soldiers assaulted the women of their families.[26]  The royalist capture of Burton-on-Trent produced additional claims of rape by pillaging soldiers, who allegedly assaulted the women and forced them into the river, where many drowned.[27]  English horror of rape for reasons of honor and religion sometimes led them to blame sex crimes on foreigners, as was the case when General Fairfax blamed three French royalist soldiers for the rape of a farm wife in Yorkshire.[28]

The number of rapes documented during the English Civil Wars appears abnormally low when compared to the Irish Rebellion and the Thirty Years’ War.  Although rape continues to be an underreported crime in the modern era, the propagandists of the English Civil War would have relished the opportunity to blacken their opponents’ good name.  This was certainly the case in a 1644 pamphlet denouncing the deeds of gangs of demobilized soldiers operating throughout the country, but particularly the Barwick exploits of John Hawkins and companion in assaulting six young women.[29]  Despite the horror of rape, courts-martial for the offense are vanishingly rare in the surviving records of both royalist and parliamentary forces.  In ninety-two cases, only two were for rape.  One convicted soldier received sixty lashes, while another received a lash from every carter in the baggage train.[30]  Even these punishments were handed out more due to the negative effect crimes by troops have on discipline and civil-military relations.

While civilians were repeatedly plundered with, and without, official sanction, most civilians survived the attentions of marauding armies.  One explanation for the relative lack of civilian casualties, other than during sieges, is the lack of ethnic tensions among the combatants.  The homogeneity of ethnicity and religious practice acted to reduce the excesses experienced by civilians in Ireland, Scotland, and Germany during seventeenth century wars.  Atrocities against surrendered soldiers, committed in the heat of battle or in cold blood, predominated the war crimes of the English Civil War.

While international laws of war and the codes adopted by both armies guaranteed the safety of soldiers who surrendered in battle, common soldiers did not always honor this in the heat of battle.  The Earl of Essex attacked his own troops at Reading when they attempted to pillage surrendered royalists.  The King himself sent officers to beat back royalists who tried to plunder parliamentary infantry after Lostwithiel, ultimately executing seven of the perpetrators on the spot.[31]  Such atrocities went without consequence to the guilty, as was the case when parliamentary soldiers massacred one hundred women after the Battle of Naseby.  The slayings of twenty-five prisoners at Hopton did not occur in the heat of battle, but afterward as acts of vengeance toward stalwart defenders accused of using “chewed” bullets.[32]  Massacres almost became a matter of policy in 1644 when Parliament enacted legislation denying quarter to any Irish soldiers captured fighting for the royalists.  This anti-Irish policy largely fell into disuse when Prince Rupert retaliated by executing parliamentary prisoners in retaliation.[33]

In general the persons of prisoners as safe, even if their goods were not.  Even prisoners granted quarter were frequently plundered of clothing and money.  Many regular soldiers switched sides when captured, or were paroled to go home.  The parole process included a promise not to fight against the paroling army, and officers found violating their parole were sometimes executed if captured a second time.  Some prisoners were exchanged, and found themselves under arms once more.[34]  While most royalist soldiers captured during 1646 were paroled, those taken earlier sometimes found themselves imprisoned for extended periods.[35]

Although most soldiers did not describe parliamentary imprisonment, they remembered it as long and tedious, and the food lacking.[36]  Food ranged from turnip greens and cabbage to bread and beer or beef, cheese, and pottage.[37]  The facilities used as prisons ranged from the open fields used by prisoners after Naseby, to churches in Gloucester, to floating Hulks anchored in the Thames.  The amount of freedom afforded prisoners was also variable.  Some were allowed to find lodging after giving their parole, while others were kept manacled, or tied to another with match from muskets.[38]

Although not deliberately cruel, prison conditions frequently led to sickness or death.  Conditions on the hulks in the Thames were described as hellish – cold, damp, crowded, and filthy with bad food.  Conditions in other prisons were equally bad, particularly if prisoners were unable to secure additional sources of food and warm clothing.  Prisoners at the Lion’s Den were denied medical treatment for wounds because Captain Palmer, the jailor did not want anyone to waste the effort on the “enemies of God” imprisoned there.[39]

The interference of civilian authority in the fates of military prisoners during the Second Civil War made the fate of prisoners even less predictable.  This was certainly the case at Colchester.  When Fairfax executed Sir Charles Lucas and Sir George Lisle as examples of the possible fate of future traitors, he granted the remaining officers quarter along with their men.  Royalists protested at the executions, which were justified by the fact that Fairfax accepted their surrender at mercy, rather than for quarter[40].  Parliament insisted that Fairfax had overstepped his authority in dealing summarily with prisoners.  Later battles saw the fates of some military prisoners reserved for Parliamentary disposition.

Although the English Civil Wars incited the same types of raw emotions among combatants and sympathizers, England was spared the levels of violence and devastation that occurred in Ireland, Scotland, and Germany during the seventeenth century.  The reasons for the relative restraint practiced by parliamentary and royalist forces were the short durations of the struggles, the decision to treat the First Civil War as a conflict between lawful enemies, and the ethnic and religious homogeneity of England.  Honor and professional codes of military conduct also played a key role in enforcing common standards of behavior among the armies contending for supremacy in England, as did the request of King Charles I for his forces to remember that their opponents were also his beloved, if misguided subjects.  The level of violence inflicted upon captured soldiers and officers increased with the Second Civil War primarily due to Parliaments belief that royalists were rebelling against the lawful government of England.  Pragmatism to preserve parliamentary forces and to end the conflict quickly dictated that the majority of royalist forces in the Second Civil War still enjoyed the tradition protections of the laws of war.

[1] Marston, Jerrilyn Greene. “Gentry, Honor, and Royalism in Early Stuart England,” The Journal of British Studies 13, no. 1 (1973): 22.
[2] Marston, 24.
[3] Marston, 28.
[4] Donagan, Barbara. “The Web of Honour: Soldiers, Christians, and Gentlemen in the English Civil War”, The Historical Journal 44, no. 2 (2001): 366.
[5] Marston, 35-36.
[6] Donagan, “The Web of Honour,” 367-368.
[7] Marston, 37.
[8] Donagan, “The Web of Honour,” 369, 372.
[9] Donagan, “The Web of Honour,” 377.
[10] Carlton, Charles, Going to the Wars: The Experience of the British Civil Wars 1638-1651 (New York: Routledge, 1992), 241.
[11] Donagan, “Atrocity, War Crime, and Treason in the English Civil War,” The American Historical Review 99, no. 4 (1994): 1140.
[12] Donagan, “The Web of Honour, 378.
[13] George, Timothy, “War and Peace in the Puritan Tradition.” Church History 53, No. 4 (1984): 493.
[14] George, 494.
[15] George, 496.
[16] George, 499.
[17] George, 500.
[18] Gouge, William, Gods Three Arrowes: Plague, Famine, Sword (London, 1631), 213.
[19] Donagan, “Codes and Conduct in the English Civil War,” Past and Present 118 (1988): 71.
[20] Donagan, “Codes and Conduct,” 72.
[21] Donagan, “Codes and Conduct,” 77.
[22] Donagan, “Atrocity, War Crime and Treason,” 1144.
[23] Carlton, 323.
[24] Donagan, “Atrocity, War Crime and Treason, 1148.
[25] Donagan, Atrocity, War Crime and Treason, 1154n.
[26] Charles Carlton, “Civilians,” in The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 294.
[27] Carlton, Going to the Wars, 256.
[28] Charles Carlton, “Civilians,” in The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 294.
[29] Carlton, Going to the Wars, 259.
[30] Charles Carlton, “Civilians,” in The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 294.
[31] Ian Gentles, “The Civil Wars in England,” in The Civil Wars: A Military History of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1638-1660 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 112.
[32] Donagan, Barbara, “Prisoners in the English Civil War,” History Today 99 no. 4 (1994): 28.
[33] Donagan, “Prisoners in the English Civil War,” 29.
[34] Donagan, “Prisoners in the English Civil War,” 20.
[35] Stoyle, Mark, “’Memories of the Maimed’: The Testimony of Charles I’s Former Soldiers, 1660-1730,” History 88 no. 290 (2003): 216.
[36] Stoyle, 217.
[37] Donagan, “Prisoners in the Englisg Civil War,” 33.
[38] Donagan, “Prisoners in the English Civil War,” 32.
[39] Carlton, 246.
[40] Barbara Donagan, “Army, state, and soldier in the English civil war,” in The Putney Debates of 1647 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 91

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