Historian uncovers truth behind a 'gentlemanly war'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ENGLISH Civil War was a 'gentlemanly affair', according to English Heritage, which is currently organising events marking the 350th anniversary of the conflict.

Actually, it was the most racist and barbaric war the British Isles has ever witnessed, says a historian specialising in 17th- century Britain.

Charles Carlton, professor of history at North Carolina State University, says the victorious Parliamentarian forces executed large numbers of prisoners, indulged in the racist slaughter of Scottish and Irish soldiers, and made a fortune by selling captured Welshmen and Scots into slavery.

Professor Carlton, a Briton, fears that the horror of the conflict will be largely ignored when English Heritage and Civil War re-enactment societies stage mock battles, sieges and other events over the next year, including a 3,000-strong re-

enactment of the Battle of Edgehill later this month.

His research - to be published by Routledge on 22 October - shows that virtually all Irish prisoners of war captured in England were murdered and that 35 per cent of all Scots prisoners died in captivity. Large numbers of Scottish and Welsh prisoners were sold for a shilling each to English-owned sugar plantations in the West Indies and worked to death.

By contrast, only 1.4 per cent of English prisoners captured by the Parliamentarians died in captivity.

Professor Carlton believes that these realities should not be excluded from the celebrations. 'They should remind people of the true horror. The conflict was not a romantic game but the worst war ever fought on British soil. The re-enactment organisations should take steps to let people know the reality.'

However, an English Heritage spokesman said: 'We're not going to turn our events into Sam Peckinpah films.'

Professor Carlton's claims are supported by Dr John Morrill, reader in early modern history at Cambridge University, who said the research had shown that the conflict involved the whole of the British Isles and was 'not just a squabble amongst the English nobility and gentry'.

Professor Carlton has examined hundreds of contemporary private and official letters, pamphlets and memoirs. He calculates that, of the 70,000 English Royalists captured, only 1,000 died or were murdered in captivity, compared with 7,000 out of 19,100 Scots. Of the 5,100 Scots captured at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, 4,000 subsequently died in Durham Cathedral or on sugar plantations in Barbados. There are no records of Irish Royalist prisoners, captured in England, being kept for any length of time. At least 770 are known to have been murdered.

The Parliamentarian authorities were not afraid to boast of their atrocities - one official pamphlet was called Welcome News from Ireland.

A news-sheet, The Parliamentarian Weekly Intelligencer, told how, in April 1644, an Irish Royalist troopship was captured, and the 70 soldiers and two female civilians on board were thrown overboard off the Pembroke coast.

The Intelligencer said how good it was that the Papists had 'drunk their bellyfull of salt water'. The captain responsible was thanked by Parliament and given a pounds 200 gold chain.

However, in England itself, Professor Carlton says, English combatants were treated worst by the Royalists, who massacred Parliamentarian garrisons at Leicester and Bolton.

But the Sealed Knot, one of the leading re-enactment societies, finds no wrong on either side. A spokesman said: 'We've never thought about the prisoners. After our battles everybody gets up and walks away. We play it like a huge board game.'

Going to the Wars: The experience of the British Civil Wars, 1638-1651, by Charles Carlton (Routledge pounds 25).