Monday, September 3, 2012

War Crimes in the English Civil War

In another life time I was a military legal officer with an interest in what is called the “Law of Armed Conflict”. My role as a Brigade legal officer was to advice the commander (and his staff) on rules of engagement, targeting, treatment of prisoners etc. My bible was the Geneva Conventions and the plethora of International Law that had grown up around the conduct of wars.

It may be surprising to know that there have always been rules around the conduct of wars.

For example Deuteronomy 20:19-20 limits the amount of acceptable collateral and environmental damage:

When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man's life) to employ them in the siege: Only the trees which thou knowest that they be not trees for meat, thou shalt destroy and cut them down; and thou shalt build bulwarks against the city that maketh war with thee, until it be subdued.

Killing babies
In the early 7th century, the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, whilst instructing his Muslim army, laid down the following rules concerning warfare: Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy's flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.

There were practical reasons not to lay waste land through which armies may well find yourself returning that way!

Basic rules of respect for the wounded, prisoners of war, laws against looting, treatment of dead bodies, respect for women have been known throughout history - often more honoured in the breach than the observance but offences against basic rules of humanity have always provoked outrage and made for valuable propoganda.

I could find little written about “war crimes” committed in the English Civil War, but there is no doubt they went on.  For example one of the crimes cited against Charles I at his trial was the massacre of civilians  in St. Berteline’s church in the village of Barthomley in Cheshire on December 23 1643.  

St. Bertheline Barthomley

A Royalist raiding party from the Chester garrison led by Major Connaught entered the village of Barthomley. A number of the villagers fled to the church for shelter and when the royalist troops entered the church, they retreated to the steeple. The royalists started a fire with the intention of smoking them out and when the party in the steeple called for quarter, Connaught granted it.  

“...But when hee had theim in his power, hee caused theim all to be stripped starke Naked; And moste barbarouslie & contr[ar]y to the Lawes of Armes, murthered, stabbed and cutt the Throates of xii of theim;...& wounded all the reste, leavinge many of theim for Dead....” (Malbon)

Of the twenty male civilians, 12 died on the spot and the remaining 8 were badly wounded. The massacre had occurred within the curch.

Lord Byron, the royalist commander at Chester was unrepentant saying in a letter to the Marquis of Newcastle “...The Rebels had possessed themselves of a Church at Bartumley, but wee presently beat them forth of it, and put them all to the sword; which I finde to be the best way to proceed with these kind of people, for mercy to them is cruelty...”

There are other accounts of the massacre that indicate that the men within the church had been actively resisting the royalist attack and a call to surrender had been refused. Once an offer of quarter had been refused, there was no obligation on the attacking force to  grant quarter to a surrendering force. Other sources suggest one of the villagers wounded or killed a royalist soldier, negating any agreement.

Re-enactors at Hopton Castle

In 1654 Connaught was tried for the murder of one of the villagers, John Fowler. The jury heard that Connaught, with a battleaxe (valued at 6d) in his right hand, had caught hold of Fowler and struck him on the left side of his head, inflicting a wound which, though only one inch long and one inch deep, was instantly fatal. The jurors found the case proved, Connaught offered nothing in mitigation and John Bradshaw, who five years before had presided over the king’s trial, passed sentence of death. Connaught was hanged at Boughton, on the outskirts of Chester, on the aftemoon of Tuesday 17 October 1654. According to the diarist, Henry Newcome, he went to the scaffold protesting his innocence.

Another famous “war crime” was recently featured in one of my favourite television programs, Time Team.  I had researched the siege of Hopton Castle in Shropshire for one of my current WIPs so I became unduly excited when Tony Robinson announced that they had “just 3 days” to uncover the fate of the defenders of Hopton Castle.

In 1644 Hopton was one of the few parliamentary strongholds in a royalist county.  Samuel Moore and his 30 defenders found themselves besieged by Sir Michael Woodhouse with a royalist force of over 500. After holding out for some weeks, Moore eventually surrendered on agreed terms. As the garrison marched out, Woodhouse seized Moore and ordered the garrison to be massacred. The men were bound together in pairs and their throats slit and the bodies thrown into the moat. Other accounts say they were clubbed to death. There does not seem to have been any justice meted out to Woodhouse for this gross abuse of the fundamental laws of war.

Hopton Castle, Shropshire

The following video is based on Samuel Moore's account of the siege of Hopton Castle and is worth a watch.

The Parliamentarians were not above committing war crimes. The massacre of the Welsh camp followers following the Battle of Naseby (see my post of 20 June 2010) remains one of the saddest events of the English Civil War. 

Propaganda coming out of Ireland about the atrocities committed by Irish Catholics on Protestant settlers in the rebellion of 1641 were used extensively to justify the Cromwellian atrocities in the 1650s.

Sadly in any war, the losers are often the innocent.

Alison Stuart B.A LL.B

Alison's latest book GATHER THE BONES, is released on September 3 by Lyrical Press


  1. Great post, Alison - just goes to show that winners interpret the rules and that what one person might call a war crime, another can argue is a justification for defending their cause at all costs.

  2. Thanks, Elisabeth. These two incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. When I posted this over at Hoydens and Firebrands, I had some commentators list other incidents. The massacre of the Welsh camp followers after Naseby on the grounds the parliamentarians "thought they were Irish" is one of the saddest incidents of the whole war.

    It is a fascinating subject and I'm sure there is a PhD in it for someone (not me!)

  3. "Sadly in any war, the losers are often the innocent" - history repeats itself! Great post Alison