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Justice to the Maimed Soldier

Military Welfare in the English Theatre of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

Oresta Muckute | University of Leicester

The Battle of Edgehill, 1642. Engraving by Michael van de Gucht, published 1710. Held in the National Army Museum.
The Battle of Edgehill, 1642. Engraving by Michael van de Gucht, published 1710. Held in the National Army Museum.

During and after the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, pensions and other financial gratuities were made available to wounded soldiers and their families on a truly widespread scale for the first time in English history. The English Civil Wars were fought between supporters of the monarchy of Charles I and opposing groups in each of King Charles I’s kingdoms: English Parliamentarians, Scottish Covenanters and Irish Confederates. Many historians divide the events that occurred in England during the mid-seventeenth century into three separate conflicts: the First Civil War (1642–46), the Second Civil War (1648–49), and the Third Civil War (1649–51). However, the period between 1638 and 1651 is more accurately referred to as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms—the stresses and strains in England were not alone sufficient to generate civil war.

Traumatic wartime experiences challenged and overturned many assumptions people in the seventeenth century made about their world. The experience of combat, hardship, and disease bereaved and impoverished hundreds of thousands of people. Up to 50,000 were made homeless in England and Wales alone, with refugees, widows, children, and disbanded soldiers roaming the highways. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms, proportionally, brought an unprecedented loss of life, which arguably has not been met by conflicts since. The most likely estimates show that about seven percent of the whole population of Great Britain and Ireland died in the Wars, while neither of the World Wars ever reached two percent. The Wars of the Three Kingdoms are the closest the isles have come to the decimation of their population by war.

On 24 October 1642, a day after the battle of Edgehill, the first major battle of the Civil Wars, an ordinance was passed by Parliament, acknowledging their responsibility for providing ‘competent Maintenance and Allowance for such of them as shall be maimed, and thereby disabled by their Labour to provide for themselves, their Wives, their Children, as formerly they did’. In addition, Parliament further promised soldiers that ‘in case any such Person shall be slain, that they will make Provision for the Livelihood of their Wives or Children’. The system was an extension of Elizabethan legislation which provided for disabled soldiers, but it was the first time that non-combatants were included. It was a unique system that existed alongside the Elizabethan Poor Laws, unlike the latter, it did not require the soldiers to be in poverty to apply. The new legislation illustrated a shift from patrons in localities providing for ex-soldiers, to such help becoming law. Although legislation contained an air of moral responsibility to care for those who suffered for the Parliamentary cause in the Wars, it was also a recruitment strategy.

Potential pensioners were required to produce certificates from relevant regimental commanders, and present these before Justices of Peace (local magistrates) alongside their petitions. Justices were allowed to reject new petitioners not deemed disabled enough not to work or who otherwise did not humour the prejudices of the bench. Relief, therefore, became a political football passed between Parliament and the localities, leaving many widows, ex-servicemen, and their families in peril. As a result, the pensions system has sometimes been described as both inefficient and parsimonious, but while it undeniably faced problems, this criticism does not consider the ways in which the system was pioneering.

Petitions mattered to Civil War military welfare because without a sustained petitioning campaign by Parliament’s New Model Army throughout 1647, it is likely that a system of welfare provision would not have existed. Despite the aforementioned legislation, by the end of the First Civil War in 1646, the amount of money collected was inadequate for the numbers of casualties sustained. This was further hindered by ongoing war generating an increasing apathy, and even outright hostility towards soldiers and military matters. In February 1647, Parliament voted to disband their army without any assurances regarding arrears of pay and indemnity from prosecution for acts committed during the war. Consequently, draft petitions to parliament began circulating amongst the rank-and-file which were eventually published in April as The Petition Of the Officers and Souldiers in the Army. This collection of petitions stated that soldiers had ‘lost their limbs’ and sustained further losses by adhering to the Parliament’s cause, and thus required ‘allowances and satisfaction, as may be agreeable to Justice and equity’. After sustained pressure from the army, Parliament passed an ordinance on 28 May 1647 which increased the levels of taxation used to fund this welfare system.

Despite this, Justices of the Peace only had a short amount of time to raise the rates of taxation, and little was done to enforce this. It is therefore not surprising that some scholars choose to recall this system as ineffective. It was not until the army marched on London in a show of force that Parliament passed another ordinance on 10 August 1647 extending the time for Justices to raise the rates to ensure compliance. The army’s march on London is an extreme example of escalation tactics that resulted from frustrations over parliamentary delay. This event also demonstrates that people viewed petitioning as an effective method through which to participate in political affairs. Petitioning campaigns ultimately ensured that military welfare did not disappear. The military pension scheme, established in 1647, remained in place for the next thirteen years, a period which witnessed the execution of Charles I and the establishment of republican rule. Relief outside of London was administered to Parliamentarian war victims by county committees and benches, while those who fought on the side of the King were barred from receiving county welfare until the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and likely relied on regular parish relief for their survival.

The fact that the Long Parliament provided relief for war widows as well as ex-servicemen represents a landmark moment in state military welfare history. As well as being actively involved in the physical sides of the Wars, women were also involved politically, from petitioning the Parliament for peace to asking for their deserved pensions. Although some historians of the Wars go as far as to argue that they afforded limited opportunities to women, others argue that the provisions for war widows represented a shift in gender-based discrimination with regard to the poor seeking relief. Some surviving petitions by women, for example, illustrate that they were knowledgeable of the laws they could appeal to. Even though their words may have been modified by hired scribes, the language in the petitions nonetheless offers a useful insight into not only the petitioning process, but petitioners’ understandings of it. The joint petition of Frances Stevens and Constance Brewine, two war widows from Leicester (c. 1645-47), claimed that ‘by the reason of the loss of their said husbands’ they had ‘fallen into great want and poverty’, having six and two small children respectively. Although their miserable state may have persuaded officials to grant them money, they also chose to highlight their knowledge of their legal entitlement: they wanted a ‘weekly allowance as by Ordinance of Parliament is mentioned to be allowed’ to them as war widows. As with men’s pensions, it is possible to argue that women only received their share due to Long Parliament’s efforts to placate citizens and manipulate them into accepting the new regime.

Although women were entitled to pensions, they often received one-off grants instead; these on average tended to be considerably bigger than those men received, and women’s pensions were rarely significantly smaller than those of men’s (though a comprehensive study of the whole of England and Wales remains to be done). In some areas, women even formed the majority of pensioners. The Long Parliament, by providing for war widows as well as ill and wounded ex-servicemen, recognised women’s participation in the political nation during the harrowing civil wars and set an important precedent for future state military welfare which included whole families.

But the petitions for military relief show that the process of petitioning had value beyond welfare. The Wars created anxieties about masculinity, visibly damaged bodies illustrated that men were not invincible, and many questioned their claim to patriarchal manhood once dependent on the state for their living (though historians need to remain careful in equating masculinity with patriarchy). As Ismini Pells insightfully argued, the Wars created these worries, and petitions provided men with the vehicle through which to emphasise other ‘criteria’ of manhood, including reason, moderation, and self-sufficiency. Ex-servicemen, alongside proving their inability to work, could, for example, make assertions of the industriousness and honesty of their labour prior to the Wars, which would distinguish them from the ‘undeserving’ poor. Among numerous examples are: Henry Norton from Northumberland who claimed he made ‘a life by honest labour and industry’ before the Wars; John Brooks from Leicester who ‘laboured very hard’; John Didrich who stated that he and the other men ‘under command of Colonel Bridges … have trulie laboured to [their] utter most endeavour to performe [their] best service’ in the Wars; and Lewis Williams from Worchestershire who until after the Wars had ‘kept himself without any charge to the parish’. Dependency on the state for their livelihood may not have been ideal to notions of manhood, but a small pension, based on merit, allowed them to make respectable contributions to the financial upkeep of themselves and their families.

The military welfare system set up by Parliament for the English theatre of the Wars provided much needed help to ex-servicemen and their families. However, petitioners were not simply victims. Although they had to justify their status as people in need, the creation and presentation of the petitions gave them some agency in seeking help in the devastating time of the Wars. The petitions not only illustrate how war victims negotiated charitable relief, but they also provide us with a small glimpse into the human costs of war through their narratives of suffering and loss—from disabling injury to mothers’ grieving the loss of their children. Perhaps more importantly, the continuation of a similar system for help after the Restoration in 1660 makes it evident that war-related hardships did not cease at the end of the Wars in the 1650s. Rather, the suffering often only ended at the end of the victim’s life, sometimes as late as the eighteenth century.


Further Reading

Oresta Muckute is a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD student at the University of Leicester and the National Civil War Centre. She is working on comparing the narratives of loss in Ireland, England, and Wales from the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.

Twitter: @orestamu


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