Sunday, September 8, 2013

The English Cavalier and his Stomach

by Deborah Swift

File:17th-century unknown painters - The Chef - WGA24061.jpg
The Chef - artist unknown, first half of 17th C (Wiki)

It has long been recognised that an army marches on its stomach - that the importance of food to morale is vital. Apart from just the sustenance, the regularity of meals provides a routine in what can often be chaos during a war or campaign. Eating together has always bonded people and created friendships and loyalties which extend onto the battlefield. Particularly in cold wet weather (and England is often cold and wet!) the cheer of a good hot meal cannot be under-estimated. 

English Civil War scenes
The English Civil War , illustration from British Library online

In the English Civil War, a period I am researching right now, the official ration for a Cavalier was two pounds of bread, one pound of meat and two bottles of beer.

Meat was considered essential by both armies in the conflict, and between January and June 1645 (a six month period) the two hundred Roundheads stationed at Chalfield House,Wiltshire ate:

40000 lbs beef
1600 lbs bacon
580 lbs pork
1900 lbs mutton
64 lbs veal

As well as this heavy diet of meat, they also ate:

15000 pints of wheat
27000 pints of oats
20000 malt
5000 beans
5000 peas

All this was supplemented with small amounts of cheese and dairy produce.(statistics from Charles Carlton, Going to the Wars.)

The fact that vegetables are not mentioned does not necessarily mean that people ate no vegetables, it is perhaps that their cost does not appear in records in the same way as other foods. Pulses were widely grown in England and formed an essential part of most people's diet.

Who remembers this old rhyme?
Pease Pudding hot, Pease Pudding cold,
Pease Pudding in the pot, five days old.

Stroll across the picturesque yard to enter the medieval Manor. © Andrew Butler
Great Chalfield Manor (National Trust)

So how did the troops keep up this diet whilst on the move? When the Earl of Essex came to the aid of Gloucester, the thousand sheep and sixty cows that they drove along with them for food slowed them down. The meat had to be killed, skinned and butchered as they went, often in unsanitary conditions. The carcases were left behind to rot, but were taken by local people to use the bones for glue.

Once farther from a garrison town or when on the move, food became scarcer and scrounging or plundering food was a common occupation. Many citizens during the English Civil War found themselves with unwelcome guests. After their victory in Taunton in 1644, the Roundheads were so hungry that they stopped chasing the King's Army and went in search of food. Finding themselves unguarded, the Royalists counter-attacked, killing many with the bread still 'in their mouths'.

Plunder was a way to show high spirits, but also a way for defeated troops to vent their anger and shame . After the battle of Edgehill, one Royalist platoon got out of hand and brutally plundered their own home towns of Droitwich and Bromsgrove. And in a blind rage after being beaten at Marston Moor, Prince Rupert's men seized cattle, sheep, and chickens, killing all who tried to stop them.

Because the troops sometimes could not carry all their plunder, special market days were arranged where they would sell off what they had pillaged. Records show for example that Joyce Hammon managed to buy back gold plate and also some beaver hats that troops had stolen from her house in Hereford.

Feeding the soldiers on the march was compulsory - in the sense that refusal led to threats and violence. Householders were expected to billet soldiers at a set rate in exchange for an IOU that was often never paid. They were expected to provide food and ale and to feed their horses. The soldiers (on both sides) fresh from blood and battle were often the worst kind of house guest - violent, greedy, and out of control.

The cost to England of free quarter and plunder was enormous. In Cheshire £120,000 of free quarter was said never to have been re-imbursed, not to mention the claims of villages in the same county which lost as much as £190.000 worth of goods and livestock in plunder. Often a lifetime's hard work could be laid waste in one night.

Women alone in their houses whilst the men were at war feared the arrival of troops from both sides, even from the side they supported. In her memoirs Lucy Hutchinson condemned plunderers as 'the scum of mankind', and Milton wrote in his Poem to The Lord General Fairfax,
"In vain doth valour bleed,
Where avarice and rapine share the land."

I recommend these sources:


For more about my books set in the English Civil War and the 17th Century, please visit my website, .

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Deborah! Imagine going to the market to buy back the things that were stolen from you! Thanks for sharing! (Tweeted it as well!)


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