It’s eight thirty am, the drummers in full uniform march through the soldier’s camps drumming ‘call to arms’. A rapid brrrr…umph, brrrr…umph on their drums. This is closely followed by our Sargent shouting “Kings Guard, form up in fifteen minutes.”
There follows a rapid dressing session. My husband is always late for parade sometimes even running to join the block on the field! He puts on his burgundy soldier’s doublet, overlaid with his bandoliers, powder horn, sometimes his sword, and always his musket. His long skinny frame races off into the distance, holding his montero on his head with one hand and his musket in the other. I wonder how long it will be before I see him again. I had forgotten to put food in his knapsack, but at least he has his water bottle. Unfortunately, Musketeers quite often have to use their drinking water to put out or cool down their muskets.
I busy about getting ready to go to the civilian campsite. I put on a brown linen skirt, over a shift, and wear front lacing bodies that I can pull tight and tie by myself. Over which I put my good lavender coloured bodice with the puff sleeves. One of which caught fire while I was cooking on the camp at Huntingdon. I stitched it up as best I could, it’s almost invisible, but as I know the fault is there, I no longer wear it with my “best stuff” for market. I wear it most times as it fits me well. I tie my hair back, for I am a matron now, and no longer fix curls around my face as I used to. I put on a plain linen coif over which I add what I laughingly call my “tart’s hat”. I have had that black felt hat for over twenty years now. When I was younger I would wear it over my long loose curled hair as I met my friends to drink and be merry. So many battles ago now.
I load up my basket with herbs and my baking, take my stick and walk down the hill to the civilian camp. I often wonder why these camps are put either at the bottom of the hill or at the top. I suppose it is because they usually overlook the battlefield. At Bristol, the camp was on the flat, but as the grass was so long and dry, it was dangerous to light our fire pits. Troops need to be fed and watered, so we managed somehow as we always do.
I remember a skirmish at Sudeley Castle, before the rains came down in bucket loads, some of the men finding wild tobacco in the woods, Nicotiana Sylvestris. They tried drying it to smoke. There is always free provender if you know where to look for it, blackberries, hazelnuts, wild garlic, apples and pears “borrowed” from the kitchen gardens of the big houses. In Devon we ladies picked new potatoes from the battlefield before the battle to use in our pottages.
I grow much at home, being the Goodwyfe of Levens Regiment, I need a huge supply of fresh and dried herbs for my remedies and my cooking. I have recently made Jumbles for my regiment, the recipe is very old and apparently a favourite of Richard the Third, apparently the recipe was found on a battlefield. Easy enough to make, covered with sugar powdered by pestle and mortar, but hard as rocks after baking. I found out that these
biscuits were made to be carried round by the troops, and made edible by dipping in warmed wine or beer.
I can see the battlefield clearly from here, the regiments are appearing at the top of the hill, they are marching on. Ensigns, musket, pike, drums, musket and firelocks, the pipes are playing Rupert’s march. The ensigns move forward to taunt and insult the enemy by waving their colours at
them. They whirl and throw them dramatically into the air, while behind them the officers discuss tactics.
Suddenly a flash of musket fire from the woods. Snipers.
Muskets are quickly loaded and give fire, aiming at the distinctive red ribbons in the sniper’s black felt hats.
The battle is soon in full flow. There’s a flash in the pan and a musketeer’s hair is alight. The water carriers immediately go to help. A canon roars shooting smoke rings into the
Back at the civilian camp, we await the wounded. The first is a huge pikeman with a slit in his forehead. He drops blooded onto the grass, he has a common wound called “a pikeman’s kiss”. This is where the pointed edge of the metal morion helmet catches flesh in close combat, sliding upwards from the top of the nose to the forehead. Another soldier staggers into the camp, a young lad purple in the face, suffering from heat exhaustion. He refuses water, but I pour it over his head anyway and another woman makes him drink.
The day is hot and the sun is high, I shield my eyes watching into the light as my regiment engage with the enemy.
They have used their shots and are now fighting with club muskets, suddenly my husband is down. I can’t see what is happening, the smoke from the cannon is drifting across the field. I hear the drums beat the retreat. Shouts of retreat in good order ring across the field of action. I squeeze my eyes against the bright sun. My husband is up, he’s all right!
The troops walk backwards en block, each holding the shoulder of the person in front of them. They reform into their regiments, re-load and fight again. The battle lasts two hours.
In the meantime on the civilian camp, we have many visitors asking what we are about, so we tell them. Show them. They want to buy our food, but we have been on the march for many days. We need our food to last, so we refuse to sell, using the excuse that it may make them sick.
The battle is over, the parley has taken place, after saluting the people watching them, the troops march back to their own camps. As the onlookers disperse, I pack away my herbs and food to carry it back up to the soldier’s camp at the top of the hill. On the camp, the troops are formed up to be dismissed. They are thanked by their officers, told of their next engagements. Soldiers are rewarded for their bravery and some for their stupidity on the field, and two soldiers are
gauntletted for holding hands on the way back, even though they are married.
By the time my husband gets back to me, he’s exhausted and starving. We can smell cooking all through the camp, singing and clinking of tankards. Winners and losers congratulating themselves on a job well done.
We eat and change into our finery and head off to the beer tent to catch up with our friends to discuss the battle. By midnight we are back in our caravan, exhausted and happy. Having taken part in a small way in 17th Century life during the English Civil War.
We visit every battlefield, every skirmish from Scotland to Cornwall, including the Isle of Wight and Ireland. We raise money for charities as we go, currently The Battlefields Trust, to stop building on these war graves.
Why do we do it? For me, it is a miniscule drop of what it would be really like to live in the 17th Century. It was the inspiration for my first book The Women of the English Civil War.
As we travelled up and down the country I met the descendants of women, unrecognised for their contribution to their cause. Some who suffered and died for it with their husbands. I felt it was a story that needed to be told. I also needed to experience it first hand. So my Women of the English Civil War was born.
As for my husband, he joined the Sealed Knot because he says if he didn’t, he wouldn’t see me at weekends. He enjoys it now, especially having his photo on the front of “Skirmish” magazine!
Margaret Cooper Evans has had articles published in national newspapers & short stories in women’s magazines. She worked in the BBC as a video graphics operator, camera operator and News 24 Media Manager. After being made redundant she turned to her second love and became a historical re-enactor, living history interpreter and a speaker on the lives of women in the 17th Century. She joined The Sealed Knot re-enactment society in 1996. Since then she has played the part of a Baggage Woman, a Musketeer, a Housekeeper, a Lady and a Farmers Wife in the Living History encampment. Twenty years of research culminated in her first factual History book; The Women of the English Civil War. Margaret makes 17th Century clothing and also cooks authentic 17th Century food. She became a professional author in 2012 and working in Stately Homes for the National Trust gave her the idea for the successful Hilary Long Mysteries series of short novellas. She currently lives in the Cotswolds with her husband and two cats. Evans is also the founder of Nuova Stella Publishing – History and Mystery. You can follow her on Twitter @maggs912
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