Widowhood and Bereavement during and after the English Civil Wars

Recent estimates suggest that more than 3 per cent of the population of England and Wales died as a direct result of the Civil Wars of 1642–1651. Andrew Hopper describes his work on the widowhood and bereavement of the more than 180,000 women who had lost a male relative.

Deaths in Britain and Ireland during their mid-seventeenth-century Civil Wars represent a greater proportional loss of population than Britain suffered during World War One. On a free website, The Civil War Petitions Project publishes details of subsequent petitions to the state from veterans and their families for welfare payments as a result of injuries and bereavement sustained during those wars.

This image shows mounted troops at the Battle of Nasby but also a dead soldier in armour - many men died.

The Battle of Nasby was fought on 14 June 1645 during the First British Civil War. It was an important victory for the Parliamentarians. National Army Museum collection

I am currently analysing the findings of this project for a book that will illuminate the experiences of those bereaved by the civil war, with a particular focus on war widows, orphans and bereaved families, based on the petitions.

This is possible because soon after the outbreak of civil war, Parliament’s ordinance of 24 October 1642 confirmed that not just Parliament’s wounded soldiers, but also the widows and orphans of those who gave their lives for the parliamentary cause would be entitled to apply for monetary relief. A series of further ordinances followed in 1647 that prompted women to petition for state pensions in their thousands.

Securing such provision became more difficult after the Restoration in 1660 when most royalist war widows who were granted relief received one-off gratuities rather than regular pensions. The right to state pensions for all British war widows was not restored until 1901. The records of the 1640s and 1650s therefore represent a unique opportunity to investigate attitudes towards war-related welfare at a time when at least some within the governing regimes considered such women to be part of the political nation.

A first national study

This will be the first national study of seventeenth-century military welfare, drawing on the project team’s research conducted in nearly all the county record offices in England and Wales. It will measure the success of women, children and families in obtaining relief and subsisting compared with that of their fellow petitioners among wounded servicemen.

The book will begin with a social profile of civil-war widowhood and then develop into a wider cultural history of widowhood and bereavement. It will compare the variety of experiences of the war widows of the middling and poorer sorts such as Elizabeth Alkin, nicknamed ‘Parliament Joan’, with those of much higher social status such as Katherine, Lady Brooke.

I will also examine how war widows remembered the conflict, and how this may have differed from more ‘official’ or state-sanctioned memories found in proclamations, thanksgivings, sermons and anniversaries. By looking beyond 1660 and embracing the twin themes of welfare and memory, the book will show how the consequences of the Civil Wars persisted for generations after armed hostilities had come to an end.

Andrew Hopper Professor of Local and Social History at the University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education and the author of Widowhood and Bereavement during and after the English Civil Wars. He and his colleague, Departmental Lecturer Dr Ismini Pells, will present Medical Care and Military Surgery during the British Civil Wars: The Civil War Petitions Project at the BSHM Congress taking place from 13-16 September in Cardiff.