Sunday, 13 January 2013

'To the right honourable the governor of this city'

One of the things that especially attracts me to history is reading first hand accounts – to hear people from the past speaking to us in their own voices. Yesterday, whilst our local history group was going through some archive material, we found a typescript of a record from the English civil war, fought between Parliament and the King Charles I. This is the petition from a soldier, John Barret, for aid from Edward Massie, the governor of Gloucester (a Parliamentary city), after the Parliamentary forces were put to flight by royalists  at the town of Painswick a few miles away, in March 1644.

The petition of John Barret, corporal in Captain Cotton his company, humbly sheweth:

Your petitioner was lately commanded out in the party went…in Painswick; and being put to flight, I was in the pursuit…taken by two of the enemy’s horse and six of their foot, of whom I was [knocked] down and left for dead; and having received ten wounds of them, [they] stripped me stark naked to the very skin; and ever since that time I have lain bedrid under the chyrurgion’s hands, and now, being able to rise, I cannot for want of clothes: therefore I beseech your honour that you would be pleased to take order that I may have some clothes (both linen and woollen) speedily that I may not perish for want thereof.

Your petitioner is in great want of firing, having received but two green willow blocks (that two men might carry) of the quarter-master since I was wounded.

Your petitioner received 7 wounds in the head, 5 of them through the skull, 1 cut in the back (to the bone) with a pole axe, his elbow cut off bone and all, his hand slit between the fingers, as Mr Paradine the chyrugion affirmeth, who hath almost cured them all, and very carefully and willingly he hath taken the pains to do it; how to satisfy him we know not; he was never the man that asked us a farthing.

And your petitioner shall pray…’

This hair-raising tale of terrible wounds and miraculous survival evidently had its effect, as the record goes on to record the governor’s response:

‘Captain Blaney,
I desire you to pay this petitioner 20s. to buy him clothes.

Edward Massie’

Twenty shillings – a pound – sounds like a tidy sum in the seventeenth century and there are lots of questions one might ask about this as a piece of evidence. Barret’s wounds sound so severe that his survival appears almost miraculous. Who took the trouble to rescue him from the battlefield? And did he exaggerate the extent of his injuries for maximum effect? At any rate it’s a wonderfully vivid account – and an authentic voice speaking to us across the centuries.

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