My Transforming Archives traineeship at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is focused primarily on developing a knowledge of Medieval and Early Modern palaeography. Being able to understand and interpret the hand and vocabulary used by contemporaries helps to unlock the Trust’s wonderfully diverse Collections and the personal stories hidden within them.
This month marks 375 years since the outbreak of the English Civil War, when the country stood profoundly divided and during which ‘the world turn’d upside down’. Seeking to find out more about the impact of this conflict on the residents of Stratford-upon-Avon, I turned to BRU4/2, which had inspired so much interest at our Explore Your Archive event in November. Having grappled valiantly, since the start of my traineeship, with obsolete abbreviations, indecipherable scrawls and many wonderful versions of the Early Modern Warwickshire dialect, and feeling I had emerged older and wiser from the experience, I marched confidently into the stacks to commandeer this volume.
BRU4/2 looks relatively unremarkable at first glance, nestled among other, seemingly identical, bound volumes. I open it gently and scan the pages. They contain the town chamberlain’s accounts for the years 1622-1647. Many of the payments appear quite routine: building repairs, wages, bell ringing, wine ….
By the time I reach the records for the 1640s, however, it becomes evident that these years were anything but routine. It is clear that Stratford’s residents experienced the horrors of war very close to home. Following the Battle of Edgehill of October 1642, there were evidently many wounded in the area and the accounts report that payments were made for dressings for soldiers and for some of the casualties to be carried to Evesham and Warwick, where better provision for their care could presumably be made.
The accounts also indicate that the effects of the battle were felt for months to come. Payments made in 1643 include one for a sheete for Eggs & for a pann to burne cooles in for the wounded Soldiers. The accounts also refer to monyes disbursed & given unto the Parliament souldiers which weare wounded & died in the Towne after Kinton Batell [Edgehill]. That some payments were made months after the battle suggests that the casualties of Edgehill were unable to disperse quickly. In fact, hundreds of injured Parliamentarians were still being treated at Warwick Castle a year after the conflict.
payd for a sheete for Eggs & for a pann to burne cooles in for the wounded Souldiers... 2s 9d
Especially affecting are references to payments made for shrouds for soldiers. These immediately prompt questions about the fate of the families of those who died or were maimed during the battle.
To 9 Souldiers served under Capt. Butler & lefte sicke at worcester... 2s 6d
paid for 3 shrouds for 3 Souldiers... 6s 6d
The troubling events of Edgehill were remarked upon in An Exact and True Relation of the Dangerous and Bloudy Fight, Betweene His Majesties Armie and the Parliaments Forces, neere Kyneton in the Countie of Warwick, the 23 of this instant October . Although the ‘exact and true’ nature of this commentary might have been disputed by the Cavaliers, its authors do not deny that the battle was ‘dangerous and bloody’ with ‘very many slain’.
The graves of the dead and the scars of the conflict upon the countryside must have also left a psychological mark on the local population. Sandwiched between Royalist and Parliamentarian strongholds, and in close proximity to rival garrisons, Stratford and the surrounding area continued to witness the passage and presence of troops, as well as key military leaders such as Prince Rupert and Oliver Cromwell, throughout the course of the war. In February 1643, another battle was fought- in the Welcombe Hills- by which the Parliamentary forces secured their presence in the town.
The accounts for 1643 indicate not only that many local men fought in the conflict, but in referring to payment for board for soldiers, they also reveal that troops from further afield passed through the area at the time of Edgehill. The movement and quartering across the country of large numbers of troops throughout the war years had its own impact on local populations. Often ill- disciplined, hungry and weary, they trampled through the fields, demanding provisions, raiding, pillaging and generating fear and uncertainty even when no fighting was taking place nearby. In this way, the war touched even those who might not have experienced significant material losses, personal injury or bereavement.
BRU4/2 thus brings to life a great conflict which occurred nearly 400 years ago, offering a tantalising glimpse into the wartime experiences of local residents and its effects on their lives. It offers compelling support for the view that ‘ordinary’ citizens paid the price both physically and psychologically for the deep rooted political, social and religious divisions of the day.
A. Milford, Eye and Ear Witnesses: 350th Anniversary of the English Civil War (1992)
R.C. Richardson (ed.), The English Civil War: Local Aspects (1997)
R. Sherwood, The Civil War in the Midlands 1642-1651 (1992)
P.E. Tennant, The Civil War in Stratford Upon Avon: conflict and community in South Warwickshire, 1642- 1646 (1996)