Fighting for firewood: surviving in the English Civil War

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While the siege continues in the teeth of a bitter winter, a Parliamentarian soldier is sent out to find firewood amidst the snow but must avoid enemy patrols and angry locals. During a winter siege, collecting ‘faggots’ of wood was an important task – but who knows what threats a soldier might stumble across?

With a name derived from the Old English ‘fagot’ and maybe the Latin ‘fascia’, ‘faggots’ are bundles of branches and twigs bound together, typically a foot in diameter and three feet or longer. Used to fire bread ovens, thanks to their quick-burning qualities they are often mentioned being employed to hasten the end for burning heretics in the 15th and 16th Century. But during the English Civil War, faggots provided both fuel and defence.

A fascine is a type of long faggot approximately 13 to 20 feet long and eight to nine inches in diameter and used to maintain earthworks such as trenches, while hazel branches could be made into woven fences called hurdles and cylindrical woven baskets filled with earth known as gabions, all of which provided artificial cover for besieging troops at major sieges such as those of Lathom House, Colchester, Basing House, and Chester. Faggots could also be used to overcome defences – during the Royalist attack on Bristol in 1643, ‘waines full of faggots’ were thrown into the ditches to help the soldiers cross and storm the earthworks.

Collecting firewood was usually seen as menial, low work, usually left to women and children – Parliament’s commander-in-chief for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, Sir Richard Browne, was the son of a coal and timber merchant but was acutely sensitive to sneers about his social origin from Royalist propagandists, who called him ‘Faggot-Monger Browne’. But as a ready source of easily-found fuel, something as simple as fallen branches could be vital for soldiers, and the lands around besieged towns or hotly disputed areas  could become zones of constant flux, with competing armies vying for provisions and marshal advantage. As John Childs points out in his book on 17th Century warfare:

So undeveloped was state bureaucracy that it could shoulder only part of the burden of feeding soldiers in wartime. When marching through enemy lines, an army lived off the country … Provided that an army kept moving, sufficient victuals could usually be found. However, when it halted, in camp or at a siege, it rapidly devoured the locally available comestibles and had either to march or to draw supplies from magazines.*

The age of professional armies had yet to dawn and, with poor roads and lack of logistical support, armies in this period had to rely on land and local populace to sustain them. During the English Civil War this mostly involved ‘free quarter’ – forcing the local population to house and feed troops. Soldiers though were also expected to shoulder part of burden of their upkeep – the pay for an ordinary Parliamentarian soldier during the English Civil War was eight pence a day, but deductions were made for clothing, shoes, arms, food and lodging; soldiers serving in Dublin in 1641 received only one pence out of their four shillings and eight pence weekly pay after deductions.

Pillaging and theft were common occurrences, with local communities often bearing the brunt of an army’s hunger pangs at a time when poor harvests and harsh winters put extreme pressure on food supplies. Meanwhile, the sheer logistical feat of maintaining an army often meant soldiers could spend more time foraging than fighting. ‘Foraging’ literally means ‘gathering hay’, with green fodder for horses perhaps the most important item that had to be gathered, grand campaigns were restricted to the summer months and sometimes the entire fighting force could be involved in securing supplies.

So weary did some communities become of having their food, crops, and possessions appropriated without consent or recompense – and often at gunpoint – that associations of ‘clubmen’ formed to repel the armies of both sides involved in the civil war. Armed with clubs (from where they get their name), pitchforks and scythe blades, these motley collections of yeomen and farmers took issue with both sides. In Dorest in 1645, up to 4,000 clubmen became entrenched on Hambledon Hill beneath a banner proclaiming ‘If you offer to plunder or take our cattle, be assured we will bid you battle’ – they were then put to flight by a regiment of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry, fresh from the siege of nearby Sherborne Castle.

During the upheaval of the English Civil War, even an act as simple as collecting firewood took on new meaning and danger, but it was already a contentious and political act that provides a handy metaphor for the social and economic changes affecting Britain, which helped contribute to the unrest that turned into all-out civil war – something we’ll examine in another blogpost soon!

 

* quoted from Warfare in the Seventeenth Century (2001) by John Childs

 

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