Soldiers of the Civil Wars

There were no standing armies in Britain on the outbreak of the English Civil War in 1642. The only regular military units were the county militias known as trained bands. However, neither side could rely on the trained bands, at least until the territorial limits of the opposing factions were established. The Royalists and Parliamentarians initially recruited volunteer armies, though noblemen and gentry who raised regiments on behalf of their favoured cause often compelled tenants and servants to enlist. As the wars proceeded, both sides introduced conscription, which proved extremely unpopular and resulted in frequent desertions from the ranks.

Senior officers on both sides had usually gained prior military experience in the European wars. Professional soldiers were appointed to key positions in all the major armies. Inexperienced noblemen and gentry who raised their own regiments usually employed professionals as advisers and senior officers.

push of pike

The Foot (Infantry)

Civil war infantry comprised two distinct types of soldier: pikemen and musketeers. At the beginning of the wars, the ideal regimental balance was regarded as two pikemen for every musketeer. As the wars progressed and pikemen proved vulnerable to musket fire, the use of the pike declined. By the end of the English Civil War, the ratio of pikemen to musketeers in the New Model Army had reversed to two musketeers to one pikeman.

Infantrymen were organised in regiments commanded by colonels, with each regiment sub-divided into a number of companies commanded by captains. Ideally, a regiment comprised ten or twelve companies of 100 men, each with its own flag or colour, though in practice these numbers were rarely attained. Regiments in large armies were often brigaded together into a tercio under the command of a senior colonel. In general, infantry regiments were deployed with a "stand" of pikes in the centre and equal bodies of musketeers on either flank.


Ideally, pikemen were equipped with protective armour known as a "corselet", consisting of a helmet, breast- and back plates, tassets (thigh guards suspended from the breastplate) and an iron collar or gorget. The cumbersome gorget and tassets were unpopular with pikemen and declined in use during the wars. A "buff-coat" could be worn under the corselet, which was a leather jacket thick enough to turn a sword blow that became a universal protection for both infantry and cavalry.

PikemanThe pike itself was an iron-headed spear mounted on a shaft made of seasoned ash between 15 and 18 feet in length. Owing to its weight and unwieldiness, pikemen sometimes cut two or three feet from the length of the shaft, though this could put them at a serious disadvantage when facing opponents with full length pikes. Handling the pike effectively required the learning of a complex set of drills and "postures". In practice, however, the elaborate ceremonial manoeuvres recommended in military drill books were reduced to a smaller set of basic commands and postures necessary to advance into battle, to fight opposing pikemen and to fend off cavalry. Pikemen also carried a short sword known as a "tuck" for close-quarter fighting.

In infantry combat, opposing blocks of pikemen would advance with their pikes "charged" horizontally at shoulder level to jab at one another until bodily contact was made. The two sides would then push physically until one or other of them gave way (known as "push of pike"). An increasingly important role of the pikeman was to defend musketeers against attack by enemy cavalry. To meet a cavalry charge, the pikeman would crouch with the butt end of the pike resting against his right instep and the pike angled upwards, its head at horse-breast height.

Although use of the pike declined during the civil wars, it was not fully abandoned by the English army until the adoption of the bayonet in the early 18th century.


The musket most commonly used during the civil wars was the matchlock or arquebus, a gun first used towards the end of the 15th century, which had a barrel length of around 4½ feet and was fired by touching off the priming charge with a piece of burning slow-match. The match was a length of cord soaked in saltpetre attached to the trigger mechanism. The matchlock had a range of about 300 yards but with no hope of accuracy above 50 yards. Owing to its weight, a "rest" was used in battle, which was a spiked pole with a U-shaped end to support the barrel. Use of the rest steadily declined as muskets became lighter and more manageable.

MusketeerAmmunition was carried in a leather bandolier from which a number of wooden or leather tubes hung, each containing a measured charge of gunpowder. The tubes were known as the "Twelve Apostles" from their usual number. The bandolier also carried an additional powder flask, bag of bullets and length of match.

Although cheap and robust, the matchlock musket was useless if the match became damp. The necessity of keeping match alight also meant that it was impractical in situations where a quick response might be needed. Consequently, the more expensive firelock musket was often issued to sentries and lifeguards of high-ranking officers. They were also used by artillery guards, where a stray spark from slow-match could be disastrous, and by special service units, which were usually referred to as Firelocks. The most popular firelock pattern was the "snaphance", an early form of flintlock musket, in which the priming charge was ignited by a spark struck from a flint. Specialist fowling pieces, usually associated with gamekeepers, were sometimes used by snipers.

In battle, musketeers usually lined up in six ranks. After firing, the front rank stepped to the rear to reload while the second rank moved up to take its place, followed in succession by the other ranks, to maintain a continuous fire for as long as the ammunition lasted. Sometimes a massed volley or salvee would be delivered by three ranks at once, either to precede an assault or to receive one. Like pikemen, musketeers were usually armed with a short sword or "tuck", though the butt end of the musket itself was frequently used as a club in close-quarter combat.

The Horse (Cavalry)

Cavalrymen were organised in troops like infantry companies. Each troop was commanded by a captain and consisted of between thirty and one hundred men. Although some cavalry troops operated independently, they were usually brigaded together into a regiment of around six troops under the command of a colonel.


Cuirassiers were the lineal descendants of the fully-armoured men-at-arms of the Middle Ages. They rode into battle encased in a suit of articulated armour, with the exception of the lower leg (which was protected by a long boot) and the back of the thigh.

CuirassierThe invention of the wheel-lock firing mechanism made it practical to use firearms on horseback, so cuirassiers discarded the heavy lance in favour of pistols, carbines and swords. Mounted and armoured pistoleers, called reiters, dominated European battlefields during the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Although it was fashionable for officers and noblemen to sit for portraits in full armour, very few cuirassier units served during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Not only were cuirassiers expensive to equip and maintain, it was also difficult to find horses strong enough to bear their weight. Their cumbersome armour became steadily less effective as firearms improved, which is consistent with the general decline in the use of protective armour during the 17th century. Individual commanders on both sides sometimes went into battle equipped as cuirassiers but the only regular cuirassier units were Parliamentarian.

The cuirassier lifeguard troops of the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Bedford and Sir William Balfour played an important role at the battle of Edgehill in 1642. The most famous cuirassier unit of the civil wars was Sir Arthur Hesilrige's regiment, the "Lobsters", which was active during 1643 as the heavy cavalry of Sir William Waller's army but was reformed as a harquebusier regiment after Waller's defeat at Roundway Down.


HarquebusierMost civil war cavalry were equipped as "harquebusiers". Originally, harquebusiers were foot soldiers who had exchanged the crossbow for the arquebus (or harquebus), an early form of matchlock firearm. During the French religious wars of the 16th century, harquebusiers were mounted on horseback. By the early 17th century, they had evolved into the light cavalrymen of western Europe.

Ideally, harquebusiers were armed with a carbine or harquebus, a pair of pistols and a sword. During the civil wars, the carbine or harquebus was likely to be carried by officers only. The carbine is distinguished from the harquebus by being of larger bore and firing a larger, heavier bullet. Both types had a barrel length of around three feet and were carried suspended from a shoulder belt. The pistols, carried in saddle holsters, had a barrel length of around twenty inches. Cavalry firearms were of the firelock pattern, either flintlocks or the more expensive and less popular wheel-lock. Harquebusier defensive armour consisted of a light breast- and back-plate and pot helmet, sometimes with a "gorget" to protect the throat. A thick leather buff-coat was usually worn underneath the armour, and often replaced it altogether. A distinctive feature of English harquebusier arms was the three-bar pot helmet with articulated neck-guard.

Harquebusiers were classified as light cavalry, in contrast to cuirassiers who were regarded as heavy cavalry. In practice, however, cavalry tactics developed during the civil wars so that harquebusier regiments such as Prince Rupert's horse and Cromwell's Ironsides fought as shock troops, the role usually associated with cuirassiers.


Dragoons were mounted infantrymen who rode small horses or cobs to move into position and then fought on foot. They wore no armour and usually carried a musket or carbine and sword.

DragoonThe practice of mounting musketeers for greater mobility probably originated during the late 16th century in the French Huguenot armies of Henri of Navarre. Dragoons were used in the Dutch armies of Prince Maurice of Nassau and one theory for the origin of the name is that it is derived from the Dutch word "tragon", used to describe mounted infantry. Another theory is that it was derived from the "dragon", a short-barrelled carbine that was later replaced by flintlock muskets.

Typical dragoon actions during the civil wars were to cover the approaches to a position or to guard the flank. Initially, dragoons were organised in distinct regiments, but as the wars progressed, the practice grew of attaching a company of dragoons to some of the larger cavalry regiments to provide supporting fire in action and to act as sentries. A full regiment of dragoons was raised on the formation of the New Model Army in 1645, which played a significant role in the early stages of the battle of Naseby by disrupting Prince Rupert's cavalry on the Royalist right wing


By the mid-17th century, the heavy lance used by medieval men-at-arms was obsolete in European warfare, yet the light lance remained the special weapon of the English borderers or reivers. During the civil wars, it was used extensively by Scottish cavalry, particularly in regiments recruited near the border regions. Initially, Scottish cavalry regiments were organised in two squadrons, one equipped as harquebusiers, the other as lancers. The proportion of lancers steadily increased as the wars proceeded, partly because horses suitable for harquebusiers became more difficult to find.

At the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, David Leslie's Scottish lancers used their superior mobility in a decisive intervention against the Royalist horse. After this, the Scottish cavalry were all equipped as lancers, turning their lighter horses to advantage and relying upon speed and manoeuvrability rather than the weight and firepower of harquebusier units. Body armour was abandoned except for a steel cap. As it was no longer necessary to maintain a long unbroken frontage in battle, Scottish lancer regiments were organised in three troops rather than the more usual six or more.

Despite the effectiveness of Scottish lancers in campaigns in England, Scotland and Ireland, no attempt was made to re-introduce lancers into English armies during the civil wars.

Ordnance (Artillery)

sakerArtillery of the civil war era can be broadly divided into three classes: siege guns (cannon royal, cannon and demi-cannon), heavy field guns (culverin and demi-culverin) and light field guns (saker, drake, minion, falcon, falconet and robinet). At this period, gun calibres were not standardized and there were several variations on these broad classifications. Most artillery was muzzle-loading, smooth bore, and cast in bronze or iron.

The heaviest guns were used for battering down walls in sieges. Artillery batteries were sited as close as possible to the enemy position without exposing the gunners to enemy fire and usually consisted of a levelled area protected by earth banks and gabions with the cannon mounted on wooden platforms. Mortars were often used to fire explosive shells or incendiary devices over the walls of the besieged position.

The main marching armies were usually well-equipped with field artillery. The heaviest field gun was the culverin, which fired a ball of between sixteen and twenty pounds in weight. More common was the demi-culverin, which fired a ball of between nine and twelve pounds and could be fired about ten times an hour. The heavier field guns were set up at the beginning of a battle and remained in place. Their purpose was to fire upon the enemy army from long range before the troops came into direct contact. The opening cannonade could continue for several hours, sometimes forcing enemy troops to move from a good position and often weakening the morale of the troops under fire. The practice of attaching light artillery pieces to every regiment of infantry was copied from European armies of the Thirty Years War. Falcons, minions or robinets were used to cover the gaps between infantry units. The guns could be moved with the infantry as it advanced to bolster the firepower of the musketeers.

Transportation of artillery on campaign was the responsibility of the general of the ordnance, who commanded the artillery train. The train was a vital part of a marching army, though it often presented severe logistical problems, with large teams of draught horses or oxen required to haul the guns. The train also carried supplies of ammunition and gunpowder for the whole army, as well as all kinds of military tools and equipment.


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Philip Haythornthwaite, The English Civil War 1642-51, an illustrated military history (London 1983)

Chris Henry, English Civil War Artillery 1642-51 (Osprey 2005)

C. Jorgensen, M. Pavkovic, R. Rice, F. Schneid, C. Scott, Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World 1500-1763 (Staplehurst 2005)

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies, a military history of the English Civil War (Staplehurst 1998)

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Early 17th Century Drill, illustrated and animated