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

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 and motivations for psalm-singing on the battlefield during the British Civil Wars.

While Part One of this blog post explored the printed examples of battlefield psalm singing by the ‘Roundheads’, Part Two focuses on manuscript accounts and the Royalist reaction to these songs. Several diaries – penned by parliamentarian preachers, supporters and soldiers – recorded the use of psalm chanting during military combat in the 1640s and 1650s. Taken together, these accounts show how the opening of Psalm 68 was a popular choice to boom out during the internecine fighting. The Bradford clothier Joseph Lister (1627–1709) reported that foot soldiers under Sir Thomas Fairfax during the Battle of Leeds (23 January 1643) had ‘sung the 1 verse of the 68 Psalm, Let God arise, and then his enemies shall be scattered’. Finding it suitably inspiring, Lister relays that ‘they sung another like verse’ and ‘the enemy fled into the houses’. [1]

Captain John Hodgson (1617/18–1684?) noted in his diary that Oliver Cromwell had bellowed the very same verse before a charge at the Battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650), and had sung the 117 Psalm after his victory there.[2] Psalm 68 proved so effective that the younger son of Viscount Saye and Sele, Captain John Fiennes (d. in or before 1710), had it used as the motto for his parliamentarian battle standard.[3] As a motto, song or rally cry, the prevalence of Psalm 68 amongst soldiers may have been inspired by Thomas Case’s fast sermon, entitled Gods Rising, his Enemies Scattering, delivered before the House of Commons in October 1642 and printed two years later.[4]

Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron, in military regalia. Portrait by Edward Bower (dated 1646). Held in a private collection.

Even Royalist commentators confirmed the trend of these declarative battle songs. Mercurius Aulicus, a newsbook dedicated to the cause of King Charles I, reported how at the Second Battle of Newberry (27 October 1644) the Earl of Manchester’s soldiers along with the London Trained Bands (numbering some 1200 cavalry and 3000 infantry) ‘came singing Psaslmes down the hill’ as they advanced towards their foes.[5] A year earlier, the satirist and court poet Abraham Cowley (1618–1667), in his The Puritan and the Papist (1643), castigated such acts as forms of mass religious hysteria. ‘[Y]our Troopes singing of Psalmes do goe’, Cowley averred, because ‘Your madnesse makes you sing’.[6]

Despite such derision, these songs were authentically enmeshed within a wider culture of parliamentarian psalmody. Psalms were sung at local and national Thanksgiving Days for battles won, military funerals and the taking of the Solemn League and Covenant during this period. Psalms were also sung amongst godly soldiers within their encampments and quarters. Ralph Josselin (1617–1683), the vicar of Earls Colne, Essex, records in his diary that in June 1645 he ‘sung Psalmes, prayd and spake’ together with parliamentarian soldiers at their headquarters in the town of Saffron Walden.{7] It is likely that these campfire and battlefield chants were performed by those who had volunteered to fight for Parliament, rather than those conscripts drawn from the ranks of Royalist prisoners of war or those reluctant civilians pressed into service. Notwithstanding this, the motivations for such singing were likely multifarious and complex.

Miniature painting of Oliver Cromwell, dressed in armour, by Samuel Cooper (circa 1656). Held at the National Portrait Gallery London.

But were psalms actually sung on the battlefield? It is difficult to imagine how soldiers could be singing together amidst the noise and confusion of pitched battle. Presumably such songs were, more often than not, sung by soldiers long before the fighting began to build courage or comradery (as those at Saffron Walden had), or used to intimidate while waiting to charge the enemy or face an enemy charge (like the fighters at Newberry), or to celebrate victories (as those at York had done). During the action itself, the use of the psalms would have been relegated at most to the shouting out of just a few words or phrases (as Cromwell had shown at Dunbar). Whether embellishment or fact, these accounts demonstrate a robust literary culture that wanted the parliamentarian army to be remembered, like the Huguenot armies during the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), as having ‘marched into battle singing psalms’.[8]

Scenes of parliamentarians taking the Solemn League and Covenant and attending a Thanksgiving sermon. Psalms were often sung at these occasions. Anon, The Malignants trecherous and bloody plot (London: 1643).


[1] Joseph Lister, The Autobiography of Joseph Lister, ed. by Thomas Wright (London: 1842), p. 76.

[2] John Hodgson, Autobiography of Captain John Hodgson, of Coley Hall, Near Halifax, ed. by Joseph Horsfall Turner (London: 1882), p. 45.

[3] Ian Gentles, ‘The Iconography of Revolution: England 1642–49’, in Soldiers, Writers and Statesmen of the English Revolution, ed. by Ian Gentles, John Morrill, and Blair Worden (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 91-113 (pp. 102-104).

[4] Thomas Case, Gods rising, his enemies scattering (London: 1644).

[5] John Birkenhead, Mercurius Aulicus, 27/10/44 (Oxford: 1644), p. 1237.

[6] Abraham Cowley, The Puritan and the Papist by a Scholler in Oxford (Oxford: 1643), p. 5. 

[7] Ralph Josselin, The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616–1683, ed. by Alan Macfarlane (London: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 1976), p. 26.

[8] Francis Higman, ‘Music’, in The Reformation World, ed. by Andrew Pettegree (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 491-504 (p. 499).