Cry Havoc or Sing: Battle Songs of the British Civil Wars (Part One)

As part of the IJBS Blog Series, Dr Robert W. Daniel (@BunyanSociety), General Secretary of the IJBS and Managing Editor of Bunyan Studies, explores the occasions of and motivations for psalm singing on the battlefield during the British Civil Wars.

Despite the fact that the singing of psalms during combat had been a royal practice, with their first recorded use during the reign of Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), its employment by soldiers was argued to be widespread within, if not idiosyncratic to, the parliamentarian army during the British Civil Wars.[1] But how did this come to be? This two part blog post explores the battles (where psalms were sung) and texts (that inspired or recorded this activity) of the 1640s and early 1650s.[2]

The appropriation of battlefield psalms by the ‘Roundheads’ may have stemmed from the Elizabethan tradition of mid-summer marches in towns.  At these occasions the defeat of Catholicism was staged as a military battle played out in open fields whose eventual overthrow was marked with the sound of ‘thankfull psalmes most joyfully soonge’.[3] The Nottinghamshire clergyman Richard Bernard (bap. 1568, d. 1642), in his printed military manual The Bible-Battells. Or the Sacred Art Military (1629), also gave countless examples of biblical and historical armies who ‘When they went towards the Enemy before they came to charge… would sing Psalmes’.[4] 

Pike drill from Thomas Jenner’s The Military Discipline (London: 1642).

Though Parliament’s forces had not invented this type of battle praise, they were to capitalise on it. Several accounts of the 1640s aimed to create and shore up support, for what later became known as the ‘Good Old Cause’, by depicting psalms as the preferred battle songs of God’s people. This in spite or because of the reality that some of the enemies of the parliamentarians (the Royalists) and some of their erstwhile allies (the Scottish Covenanters) possessed psalm-singing soldiers or supporters, while some factions within the parliamentarian army even flat out refused to sing them at all.[5]

At a glance, instances of psalm-singing soldiers appear part and parcel of Parliament’s effective propaganda campaign. John Vicars (1580?–1652), the puritanical poetaster and polemicist, observed in his published account of the war Englands Parliamentary Chronicle (1646) that at the Battle of Winceby (11 October 1643) the ‘men went on in several bodies, singing Psalms’.[6] Less than a year later, during the successful siege of York (22 April–1 July 1644), Simeon Ashe (d. 1662) – chaplain to Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester who was (at the time) Major-General of Parliament’s forces in the eastern counties – confirmed the use of such praise by the army in his newsbook A Continuation of True Intelligence. Ashe keenly related that the Royalist commander John Villiers, 3rd Viscount Grandison caned a soldier for informing him that ‘while the Canon was playing on both sides’ the ‘Round-heads were singing Psalms’ and thus were sure to win the battle by divine providence.  As it turned out, the poor infantryman was right, as Ashe gleefully added that the now victorious besiegers, as if to pour salt in the wound, did ‘sing Psalms’ to celebrate their victory.[7]

To counter (or complement) the psalm singing of parliamentarian soldiers at the siege of York, Prince Rupert (seen here satirically hiding in a bean field) is said to ‘lie downe and sing—the lamentation of a totall routing’. Marchamont Nedham, Ruperts Sumpter, and Private Cabinet Rifled (London: 1644), sig. A4r.

The reason for Ashe’s report was clear: ‘Let this evermore be our discriminating character, to difference us from our enemies, That it is our constant practise to sing forth the praises of our God… both for safety and successe’.[8] Considering the potentially wide readership of Vicars’ chronicle and Ashe’s newsbook, their representations, whether true or not, almost certainly boosted morale amongst parliamentarians whilst encouraging psalm singing on the battlefield as a sure guarantor of victory.[9] Indeed, such providential assertions were not infrequent within, and would be familiar to readers of, printed texts of the 1640s.[10] These examples are also particularly fascinating because they depict psalm-singing soldiers well before the formation of Oliver Cromwell’s more religiously oriented New Model Army in 1645 (which earned the nickname of ‘God’s Army’).  

Line engraving of Simeon Ashe, after an unknown artist (18th century), National Portrait Gallery, London.

One important (and portable) text may have helped inspire these battle songs. After the 3 August 1643 every soldier under Parliament (in theory) was issued with the much abridged The Souldiers Pocket Bible, edited by Edmund Calamy, a licenser of religious books and a noted godly minister of St. Mary, Aldermanbury. This small octavo booklet (5½ × 3″, 136 × 78mm) contained a selection of passages from the Geneva Bible, several of which were from the Book of Psalms. The booklet’s edict that, ‘A Souldier must crie unto God in his heart in the very instant of the battell’, was clearly being vocalised (rather than internalised) in the battlefield psalm singing shown above.[11]

As a text, The Souldiers Pocket Bible was to counter the Soldiers Prayer Book (1642). This was a manual of prayers based upon the Book of Common Prayer and copies of it were carried by the King’s army. Despite the relatively low literacy rates of the period, the reading, listening to and memorising of psalms from The Souldiers Pocket Bible (and other earlier devotional texts) helped make psalm singing during combat possible (and popular) amongst parliamentarians fighters.

Frontispiece to The Souldiers Pocket Bible (London: 1643).

There is also evidence to suggest that battlefield psalms were common beyond the printed bravura touted in pro-parliamentarian news-sheets, pamphlets and treatises. Several manuscript diaries of godly men and soldiers also recorded this practice. But more on this in Part Two.


[1] Giovanni Francesco Biondi, An history of the civill wares of England betweene the two Houses of Lancaster and Yorke (London: 1641), p. 121, also cf., p. 155, p. 158.  

[2] For an overview of the scholarship on psalmody during the 1640s see Robert W. Daniel, ‘The Manuscript Poetry of Thomas St Nicholas and the Writing of “Scripturalism” in Seventeenth-Century England’ (unpublished PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2019), pp. 127–134.

[3] See Patrick Collinson, ‘The Shearmen’s Tree and the Preacher: The Strange Death of Merry England in Shrewsbury and Beyond’, in The Reformation in English Towns, ed. by Patrick Collinson and John Craig (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1998), pp. 205-220 (p. 212).

[4] Richard Bernard, The Bible-Battells. Or the Sacred Art Military. For the Rightly Wageing of Warre. According to Holy Writ (London: 1629), p. 211. Bernard was a popular religious writer. He was cited for nonconformity during the 1630s and died shortly before the Civil War broke out.

[5] Christopher Marsh, Music and Society in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 450; Robert Baillie, ‘Memoir’, in The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, ed. David Laing, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: 1841–2), vol. 3, p. xxxix.

[6] John Vicars, Magnalia Dei Anglicana. Or, Englands Parliamentary Chronicle (London: 1646), p. 45.

[7] Simeon Ashe, A Continuation of True Intelligence, 10-27/07/44 (London: 1644), p. 3.

[8] Ashe, A Continuation of True Intelligence, 10-27/07/44, p. 3.

[9] Several copies of Ashe’s account were printed in 1644 which only attests to the popular readership of parliamentarian newsbooks.  Vicars’ chronicle was a compendium of three prior accounts written by him.  These were Jehovah-Jireh, or, God in the Mount (parts 1 and 2, 1644), Gods Arke over-Topping the Waves (1646), and The Burning-Bush not Consumed (1646).  For the popularity of such pamphlets amongst parliamentarian readers see Jason Peacey, Politicians and Pamphleteers: Propaganda during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), pp. 163-202.

10] See Conal Condren, Argument and Authority in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2006), p. 298.

[11] Edmund Calamy (ed.), The Souldiers Pocket Bible (London: 1643), p. 6.