First published: December 2019
Reprinted: September 2020
LIFE. DEATH. I AM SOMEONE who holds the power to give one and take the other. And I revel in it.
Since the troubles started, I have seen men, some little more than children, slain at my command. Occasionally, they have been brave and faced their fates boldly, unafraid, with their eyes wide open. But more often than I care to remember, they have pleaded for their lives before they have been put to the sword, or our muskets have barked fire. As the blade has cut forth, or the lead shot has bitten deep, their terror has been released, and they have pissed and soiled themselves before succumbing to the after-life. For the end is nearly always brutal and demeaning. It is rarely kind.
I have to tell you that I have not felt guilt, shame or remorse at these moments of lust. I have watched my enemies die and, to my eternal shame, rejoiced at their pain and suffering. My men and I are at war. We are battle-hardened warriors fighting for a holy cause. And we will not let any puppet of the King stand in our way.
But it hasn’t all been bloodshed and gore.
I can recall many times when we have behaved with honour and compassion, when we have reunited our foe with their families and set them free. We have done this knowing they would soon be rallying under the Royalist banner, with husbands, fathers and sons returning to the fray in the hope of making a Parliamentarian kill. That knowledge hasn’t mattered. At these moments, we have been simple men once again – not assassins.
Right now, I am looking at more than a hundred unruly souls. They are my brothers in arms.
It is late. There is a chill in the air. Most are drunk. Like me, all are filthy and stink. Yet I feel a unique bond with these men branded renegades and rebels by the King. Our loyalty is borne out of the God and cause we serve, the slaughter we have inflicted on our enemy, the pain we have endured as a group, and the pure joy we draw every day from the simple pleasure of being alive. It’s these things that are forging our identities, ensuring we become one of the most feared militias in the land.
Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Smith. Fat, bald and missing most of his teeth, he is a man of contrasting ugliness and beauty. On one level, he is a supreme killer, fearing nobody – least of all me. Skilled with sword, cleaver and musket, he is the one soldier you want by your side in the heat of battle. Yet he also has the most melodious voice I have ever heard. At this moment, he is singing a song – lamenting one of his many long lost loves and a lifetime of regrets – and it sounds like an angel is in our midst.
My men, those sober enough to retain some sense and reason, have smiles etched on their faces. Huddled around the campfires, they are swaying to Smith’s wistful lullabies, hooked on every word; and they are as close to earthly heaven a tormented soul can be. They want to escape from their world of death, pain and futility, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment.
And, I confess, so do I.
Smith's wondrous, tortured melodies, help us forget everything that has passed and embolden us for what is about to come.
We embrace moments of tranquillity and joy with a vengeance and zest, and we heartily sing along.
Until men like me give the order to break camp.
“It’s almost time,” I say to Abijah Swan, my ever-loyal Subaltern. “Prepare the men. Tell them to be quiet. And let’s make sure the horses have been fed and watered, so they are ready for the long day ahead.”
A nod of the head and an impish grin is all I get back in reply. And that’s all I need.
Swan is my brother in everything other than flesh; the man I trust most in this murderous world. He’s got my back – and, in ten long months, he’s already saved my life many times. And my men love him. He's one of them: tough, ruthless and seemingly without weakness. But he also possesses raw intelligence and is a natural leader. In truth, I tell you, there is not a better man alive with whom to share my fears, joys and pains.
With the click of Swan’s tongue, the angelic singing stops abruptly. Smith looks up and his left eye twitches. In the silence, dozing men stir. Drunken heads clear.
“Make ready,” says Abijah.
“Check your muskets and your gunpowder; make sure they’re dry. Check your swords and daggers; they had better be sharp. And make sure you wear your helmets. They will save your life one day, but they will only do their job if you lump heads happen to be wearing them!”
As one, my men rise and go about their business with the precision of disciplined veterans. And I smile as I see many of them heeding Swan’s words, reaching for their ungainly and heavy helmets.
Many seem too young to be consumed in this pitiless bloodshed. Rather than cleaning daggers and counting their lead musket balls, they should be tucked up in their pallets and mattresses, with their loved ones around them. Old-timers like Lambert, Hill and Hipwell, should have hung up their scabbards and muskets years ago. But they can't. None of us can. They, like me, feel called to teach our King the lesson he deserves.
This cursed, uncivil war has scarred England’s rich and verdant lands, ever since the King and his allies sought to crush the voice of Parliament. If the truth is known, the struggle against the Crown has been raging ever since the days of James, late King and father to Charles. That's more than thirty long years. Yet it's only in recent times that bloodshed became inevitable.
The decisive moment came in January when the King sought to arrest five Parliamentarians: the figureheads opposing the excesses of his rule. Among them were John Pym and Sir Arthur Haselrig. Thankfully, they were forewarned and escaped before Charles could have them thrown in the Tower. But a critical line had been crossed, and the countdown to the inevitable military conflict had started. That became a reality eight months later, in August when Charles raised his royal standard at Nottingham. It was an unambiguous declaration of war.
The fighting was supposed to be short-lived: one major battle would decide all, or so we all thought and hoped. Edgehill, an unremarkable place in Warwickshire, would be the fight to settle everything and restore the balance. Kill many it did, with thousands more maimed and injured. Yet it settled nothing. So here we are, almost a year later. And still, there is no end in sight to the madness that consumes our weary country.
Our foe has held the upper hand throughout much of this cursed conflict, soundly beating our troops in pitched battles in Cornwall and the south. Many thousands of Parliamentary soldiers have died needlessly while our leaders have stood by, unable to stem the flow of defeats and a growing sense of doom. Our minor successes are quickly forgotten. Much blood has been spilt, so many good men lost, because of incompetence, negligence and sheer damned lies.
Too often, we have been out-thought. But rarely have we been out-fought. And that knowledge continues to give us hope, enabling us to believe our cause is just and God remains by our side. I, for one, know this to be true. Aylesbury, in its way, proved it. So, too, did Edgehill, Turnham Green and Hopton Heath. We may not have won decisive victories, but our men bloodied the tyrant’s nose at these battles, as we have at others since.
And that’s why the Cavaliers fear us.
Right now, we may lack their discipline and order. But they can see we are getting stronger by the day: tactically, strategically and in sheer weight of number. Their generals and King know that unless they destroy us in the very near future, the tide will surely turn.
Until then, the men of the militias, drawn from the fifteen counties under the control of Parliament, have to find a way of staying alive. Our struggle must continue to flourish; until the moment we are strong enough to seize overall control.
For us, the men of the Leicestershire Militia and the Midlands Association, that means killing as many of our enemies as we can before they have a chance to stab, cleave or shoot us. And we will; for when we are not preaching, praying or reading our Bibles, we are experts in dishing out death.