The English Civil Wars hold the distinction of being arguably the bloodiest conflict in the history of the British Isles, having a higher death toll per capita than any other war before or since (even greater than The First World War), and there were a myriad of ways one could die on a battlefield – but they’re not all what you might expect!
We run through the nastiest ways you could meet your maker on a battlefield between 1642 and 1651…
1. Speared by a pike
The pike was a very traditional weapon – a long wooden spear up to 18 feet long that tapered around the centre and was tipped with a steel spike. Named after the French word ‘pique’, which means ‘to pierce’, the pike took quite a bit of skill to master and a backbone of iron to fight with as you slowly inched towards your enemy to begin prodding and poking at each other. If you were lucky enough to get past the wall of razor-sharp steel spikes without being lacerated to death then your only option was brutal hand-to-hand combat with what you had, whether it was a sword, axe, or knife. You might be lucky enough to have back-and-breast armour on to protect your torso, hanging from which tassets would protect your thighs and genitals, and you may even have a gorget to defend your throat – but all of these became less common as the wars went on. Pike-on-pike melee fighting was a dangerous gambit and rarely used – the soldiers themselves weren’t particularly keen on it!
2. Shot by a musketball
Matchlock muskets were the main firearm used during the English Civil War and, in the age before rifling and machine-produced guns, they are notoriously inaccurate. In fact, using them to try and hit a single target at anything more than 100 yards was fairly pointless so to overcome this massed ranks would all fire together in one big volley at an equally tightly-packed block of your enemy – you may not hit the guy you’re aiming at but you’ll probably hit one of his friends. And musketballs are nasty things to get hit with – they’re made of soft lead (often pillaged from church roofs or drainpipes) so even if they miss something vital like an organ they’re either going to tear through you and leave a horribly jagged wound (see point 9) or they’re going to fragment inside of you and at the very least give you lead poisoning.
3. Clubbed to death with a musket
Muskets – dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle. In the years before the invention of the bayonet, a musket that had been fired was pretty useless until it could be reloaded. And that took time. Even the best musketeers could fire, at best, two or three shots a minute during which time they were extremely vulnerable and there may not be time to reload before the enemy is upon you. With swords in short supply, the easiest way to defend yourself was to turn your gun around and use the stock or ‘butt’ as a club and swing it about your head. There have been skeletons recovered from English Civil War battlefields with horrifying impact injuries to their skulls – all thanks to not getting out of the way of an unloaded musket quick enough. Such was the brutality of clubbed muskets that some commanders got terribly frustrated with musket blocks who would rather stand 100 feet apart and shoot at each other all day than go through the trauma of actual fighting,
4. Mown down by cavalry
Cavalry were the shock troops of their age and nine times out of time were the decisive factor in a battle. Riding huge horses, dressed in thick leather jackets called buffcoats and armed with swords and carbines – a type of musket a bit like a sawn-off shotgun – they could ride into infantry, slashing at them or even just trampling them down. The pike was used as an anti-cavalry weapon, as even horses baulk at running into a wall of sharp sticks, but this defense wasn’t foolproof. If anyone ran then they left all their comrades vulnerable and formations could be easily broken apart, the cavalry picking off fleeing soldiers one by one. The King’s nephew, Prince Rupert, was known for his highly effective lightning attacks on the enemy but it was Oliver Cromwell’s disciplined Ironside cavalry who usually carried the day. Saying that, they weren’t completely invulnerable – the halberd was a weapon usually carried by officers that was designed to help them pull cavalrymen from their horses.
5. Being hit by a cannon ball
Other than in sieges, cannons did not usually have much effect during a battle due to their size – large cannons slowed armies down and were costly to make and maintain. However, with enemy soldiers stood all lined up in neat rows, an unstoppable ball of lead or a spray of multiple musketballs (or even just stones) could be devastating at close range. In a siege, however, cannon truly came into its own – whether it was battering down castle walls or using grape shot or chain shot to mow down attacking troops.
6. Being captured
Both sides kept prisoners during the English Civil War but unless they were an officer then men captured during a battle were often set free after making a solemn oath not to take up arms against their captors again. The problem was that officers on both sides noticed these individuals kept turning up at battles again and again – usually on the exact same side they’d promised not to fight for. So becoming a prisoner of war became an option – but it wasn’t really an option you wanted to plump for. As the wars dragged on, the number of reported (and usually exaggerated) massacres slowly hardened men’s minds against mercy and it became increasingly common for the cry of “no quarter” to be given – meaning you were dead whether you fought back or you gave up; one of the most notorious examples was the slaughter of the Parliamentarian garrison at Hopton Castle, who reportedly had their throats slit after surrendering. There were also few actual prisons as we know them today and any prisoners you wanted to keep alive were usually locked up in whatever large building was nearest. This could get you blown up through no fault of your own (see point 8) or sent into indentured servitude in the Caribbean (which was the fate of thousands of defeated Scottish and Irish after the Third English Civil War), but more likely it would have you dead from disease – typhoid ran rampant through the Parliamentarian prisoners crammed into the crowded rooms of Oxford Castle (though political agitator John Lilburne managed to survive a spell in the notorious prison). Which leads us to…
7. Disease (before you even got there)
For almost all of human history, disease has been the greatest enemy of any army. Thanks to poor supplies and little in the way of logistics, whether it was dysentery or cholera from contaminated water, or scarlet fever, typhoid, or plague from cramped and unsanitary living conditions (or even venereal diseases for the less-than-righteous soldier) you were lucky to have gotten to the battlefield in the first place!
8. Being blown up
As we’ve mentioned, with no gunpowder muskets are reduced to nothing more than clubs so armies had to carry their supplies with them. Sadly, gunpowder is a fractious mistress and doesn’t like being treated roughly or with lack of care. Musketeers might often forget about the lit match in their hand before reaching into a barrel of gunpowder or a musket ball could strike a powder flask, setting off a chain reaction. After their marginal victory at Lansdown in July 1643, the Royalists very nearly lost their own commander, Sir Ralph Hopton, who was seriously injured when an ammunition wagon was accidentally blown up the next day. Perhaps the greatest such mishap was at Great Torrington in Devon on 16 February 1646 when the New Model Army attacked a Royalist garrison. A stray spark lit almost six tonnes of gunpowder in the town’s church in one of the largest pre-nuclear explosions in human history. It obliterated the church, killed several Royalist guards, and incinerated a large number of Parliamentarian prisoners. It also narrowly missed killing the Parliamentarian commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax, though it did bring the battle to something of a prompt end!
9. Getting an infection
The single biggest killer in any English Civil War battle. Actual deaths on the field were generally low, assuming it wasn’t a complete rout, but without modern medical care it was very easy for wounds received in the course of a battle to become infected, leading to blood poisoning, gangrene, and all sorts of nasty ailments. Dying from infection was a horrible way to go without antibiotics, anesthetics, or painkillers. So you might survive the battle, but the peace afterwards could be a killer.
10. Being clubbed to death with your own wooden leg
Sir Arthur Aston was a professional soldier from a Roman Catholic family in Cheshire but when he was governor of Oxford he lost a leg falling from his horse. During Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649, Ashton was governor of the vital port of Drogheda and a rumour began amongst Cromwell’s besieging troops that he used his false leg to hide gold coins. When they stormed the town they tore off his wooden leg, but when they found it contained no treasure they then beat him to death with it.
You can see the English Civil War close up – fortunately without risk of any of the above – and get a real passion for history by joining the Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote. Visit our website to discover more about this fascinating hobby or come to one of our events up and down the country,