ECW Wargaming Research: Getting Started

An oft asked question on forums is "which is the best introductory book about the English Civil Wars?"

The editorial team at KeepYourPowderDry working on the next thrilling post.
(Actually a detail from the 1650 news sheet "The Ranters Ranting")

The simple answer is: "there isn't one".

This is usually followed by a slightly more helpful answer  - "Haythornthwaite". 

Sadly, "Haythornthwaite" is almost as unhelpful an answer as "there isn't one".

Nice pictures, but fairly dated and contains a number of errors (including some in the pictures) which he has repeated from earlier books and other authors. These errors have, in turn, been replicated by a number of figure sculptors, writers and websites. There's a reason it is so cheap on on-line auctions. I must confess that when I re-started gaming the Civil Wars I purchased a copy of Haythornthwaite; it really is inspirational, but as my knowledge base has increased I have noticing the inaccuracies and errors; almost a new error spotted every time I open it.

A new addition to the 'must have' list of books is Lipscombe's English Civil War Atlas. Somewhat expensive, it can usually be found heavily discounted. For such a beautifully presented book, with very high production values I'm afraid that the book is fundamentally flawed. The book lacks an index, making it almost unworkable as a dip in and out reference source. This is compounded by a large number of errors and omissions. 

The atlas is a beautiful book that deserves a place on your shelf (check that the shelf is strong enough first) along with the Haythornthwaite, but remember: take books that rely too heavily on secondary sources with a pinch of salt.

So here, is an attempt, to try and answer the question. Preferably using free sources that have used (or at least checked) primary source material. Plus a few book recommendations thrown in.

The BCW Project is an excellent starting point. Timelines, biographies, military campaigns, and the somewhat muddied politics of the time are all covered. Well written, pretty accurate and best of all - free!

Autumn 2023 update: sadly the BCW Project is no more. It will be returning, but this will not happen 'quickly'. Some of it has been archived, and is available via the Wayback Machine.

The best place to get a feel for the uniforms of the wars is to look at the re-enactment societies' websites The English Civil War Society and The Sealed Knot. Of course you could look at posts with the label re-enactors on this site, for galleries of pictures.  Both options are considerably cheaper than buying all the Osprey Men-At-Arms books to look at the pretty pictures. I have also summarised and linked to a number of articles on clothing colours. Another useful website is the 1640s Picturebook, a blog concentrating on clothing for re-enactors.

Military hardware has survived much better than the cloth items worn by soldiers: the Royal Armouries searchable online collection, is as you would expect, a treasure trove of metalwork and buff leather (search Littlecote Collection). They recently published, possibly the best English Civil War/British Civil Wars/Wars of the Three Kingdoms guide to arms and armour; available from their online shop.

If you would like to know more about buff coats, how they were made (probably best to skip over how buff leather was cured, particularly the 'infusing' bit) then it is worth having a look at this paper written by Keith Dowen.

Flags and Colours:
The Flags and Colours trio of posts here are a good starting point (I have to say that, I wrote them): listed are surviving flags; flag nomenclature and design conventions; a number of online sources as well as printed materials.

Flags Part 1
Flags Part 2
Flags Part 3

There are a number of books that document the numerous armies that fought during the wars, These are the best of the bunch, documenting (with contemporary references) the regiments, uniforms, equipment and men of each army. Other volumes exist, but the stand out titles that I recommend are:

Old Robin's Foot Peachey & Turton, Partizan Press - the book by which others are judged. Recently republished (and improved), this documents the Army of the Earl of Essex

Army of the Eastern Association Spring, Pike & Shot Society

Waller's Army Spring, Pike and Shot Society

Cavalier Army Lists (3 vols) Reid, Partizan Press - again recently republished (and much improved)

More Like Lions Than Men Abram, Helion Press - an excellent volume looking at Brereton's Cheshire Army of Parliament, sadly let down by the colour reproduction of the illustrations and photographs (text is almost on a par with Old Robin's Foot)

Dragoons and Dragoon Operations in the British Civil Wars 1638-1653 Abram, Helion Press - another thorough examination by Mr Abram, this time turning his attention to all matters dragoon. Covering organisation, how they were equipped and how they were employed on and off the battlefield. Of course the highlight of the book is the background image on the front cover...😉

Want to find out about individual units?
An offshoot of the BCW Project is the BCW Regimental Wiki which lists regiments by faction and type. Continually being updated, this is an excellent resource, and again free. 

A note: you may read about individual units on here, and then think that I have plagiarised the wiki. I haven't. When researching units I often update entries on the wiki. As I am far too lazy to rewrite stuff, I often cut and paste stuff over to the wiki.

Autumn 2023 update: sadly the BCW Regimental Wiki is no more. It will be returning, but this will not happen 'quickly'. Some of it has been archived, and is available via the Wayback Machine.

A number of websites claim to know coat colours for particular regiments - many of these sites repeat assumptions made forty or fifty years ago as 'gospel' without checking evidence.

Since originally writing this post I have written a series of posts concerning coat colours. Prescribed coat colours in these posts are included if, and only if, there is supporting contemporaneous evidence (I provide references) or a pretty convincing argument that is evidence based.

Part 1 Parliamentarian coat colours
Part 2 Royalist coat colours
Part 3 Scots coat colours
Part 3B Montrose and the Irish Brigade
Part 4 Dragoons, Horse and the New Model Army coat colours
The Trained Bands

Painting guides for...

The Royal Collection Trust has recently digitised George III's military maps collection - the section of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms interests us; including Streeter's Plan, and the plan of Newark defences.

If looking at all those maps has piqued your interest about sieges, then the National Civil War Centre's Siege Database will interest you. There are one or two minor errors in the database, which are slowly being corrected.

The Battlefields Trust and their UK Battlefields Resource Centre have a large amount of information about the current state of the battlefields. My own ECWTravelogue was written to supplement the information available in the resource centre. The ECWTravelogue has been expanded to include museums, lesser battlefields, and other ECW/BCW/W3K related sites. It also provides postcodes and directions for destinations, and where appropriate parking facilities.

Slightly more 'in-depth': there are two good places to find out about the people who were at the sharp end of the fighting. The first is Civil War Petitions. This ongoing project is digitising 'petitions to the state' from veterans and their families. They were requesting welfare payments as a result of injuries and bereavement sustained during the Wars. It aims to share information on the human costs of this devastating conflict, which continued to affect communities long after the fighting was over. Free to use.

The second place is The Cromwell Association Online Directory of Parliamentarian Army Officers, just a shame that a similar site doesn't exist listing Royalist officers (there are a number of books which do this function though).

Lord Grey's Regiment ( a Sealed Knot regiment) has a rather good blog, the articles and features section has some very interesting articles based upon primary sources - a recent article looked at the Savoy Hospital, a military hospital in London.

I freely admit to not being very well up on the Scots, so was pleased to learn of the Scotland Scandinavia and Northern European biographical database (usually called the SSNE database) which is chock-full of information.

A similar online database covering all things Irish Brigade, Irish Confederates and the start of the conflict in Ireland: 1641 Depositions.

If you are a Facebook user there are a number of very useful groups (in amongst the drivel), these are probably the best generic Civil War groups: Cheshire Civil War Centre at Nantwich Museum; the Pike and Shot Society; and 17th Century Wargaming. Don't forget to have a look for your preferred rules - there's probably a group dedicated to them.

Spend any time reading about the Civil Wars and you will see  'Thomason Tracts' listed as a primary source. George Thomason was a bookseller and friend of Milton. He collected together a vast number of pamphlets and newsheets in the seventeenth century. They are one of the most important collections that give us an insight into the Wars; they are in the safe keeping of the British Library. As they are very delicate, you can't actually see the originals. However you can see transcriptions of many of the documents from the comfort of your own laptop/phone here.

Tygers Head Books publish 17th century source material both online and in print. They are possibly best known for transcribing Mercurius Civicus. They are currently trying to crowdfund transcription of a number of contemporary accounts available from the British Library, I'll let their website description explain:

The Newsbook Transcription Project


For several years Tyger’s Head Books has been transcribing the English Civil War newsbooks. These pamphlets, printed during the Civil War and containing vital historical information, mostly survive in the Thomason Tracts at the British Museum. Whilst the pamphlet contents are public domain, and public access is not restricted – anyone can view the pamphlets or download electronic copies of the originals for research – access is restricted in practical terms by virtue of them only being available at the British Library, or at a computer terminal in larger libraries with an academic subscription, or by individual academic login through an institution that subscribes to the relevant system.

Even when access is possible, the newsbooks are not indexed or otherwise searchable in any way, and there is no way to find small details without trawling through every item by hand.

Making the newsbook texts fully searchable was why in 2013 Tyger’s Head Books began transcribing, indexing and publishing them (Mercurius Civicus volumes I and II); however, this is a slow process, and if the newsbooks are to be searchable any time soon, the process has to change.

Crowd-sourced Transcription

The best way to achieve this is to move to a ‘crowd-sourced’ model of transcription, and make the results available online, and Tyger’s Head is moving forward as follows.

The project will be hosted in a login-controlled section of the new Tyger’s Head Books website, and will have two phases.

1) Transcription phase

2) General user phase

The transcription phase will require volunteer transcribers, and will last for as long as it takes to get all the newsbooks transcribed. During this phase, access to all the currently transcribed material will be available to transcribers who have completed and returned an initial package of 10 newsbook transcriptions. In return they will be given a free, permanent login to the site, which they will be able to use even during the remainder of the transcription phase, as the site is being populated. They can, of course, continue to transcribe after submitting their initial 10 transcriptions, until the project is complete.

When all the newsbooks are transcribed and uploaded, the system will be opened up to general subscribers, requiring a small monthly fee to cover the ongoing hosting and associated costs. Transcribers will continue to have free access.

Living History:The best way to experience 'living history' is to visit a Living History Camp. These generally take place alongside larger re-enactment battles. Another resource grew out of Partizan Press - Stuart Press. Set up by Stuart Peachey and M. Stratford they publish a number of booklets, and run a number of physical sites which you can visit and experience life in the seventeenth century.

The four main sources of ECW/BCW/W3K volumes are as follows:

Caliver Books and their own imprint Partizan Press (home of the ECW Times) - if you persevere with their website you will find a treasure trove of  resources for the book lover. Partizan publish a number of volumes aimed at re-enactors, as well as military histories. Please note: some of the older Partizan titles are print on demand and can be quite hard to read due to typeface/printing issues.

Helion Books have a series called 'Century of the Soldier' - which has a rapidly expanding number of excellent ECW/BCW/W3K titles.

A note about books in the series - the text in the relevant volumes is exemplary (albeit often proof read in the style of The Grauniad), but is often let down by the quality of pictures and illustrations. The Waller and Roundway Down books are possibly the worst examples; the colour illustrations of soldiers and their uniforms are very poor quality; photos are shown without in depth explanations (a photo of cannon damage to a church does not say where the church is, or if it is even relevant to the campaign discussed - I don't think it is even on the battlefield discussed), two almost identical photographs of Oliver's Castle at Roundway Down next to one another; colour reproduction in More Like Lions has made me wonder if there has been a printing quality control issue. Having said that, occasionally they get it spot on - The King's Irish is head and shoulders ahead of everything else.

Helion really do need to employ proof readers and an art editor. Update: Helion appear to be listening, their more recent volumes are much more consistent in both editing and illustrations.

Pen and Sword have a number of titles in their catalogue too, although their website is quite difficult to navigate.

Osprey publish the infamous Man-At-Arms series, which give a good introduction, and have stunning artwork. Not many new titles concerning the period for some time though.

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  1. That’s a very useful summary of key resources. I certainly wasn’t aware of the siege database - I’ll have to have a good gander at that. Also didn’t realise the petitions archive was digitised.

  2. PS thanks for pulling all that together.

    1. No problem. It was just loads of little notes that I had knocking around. Which is sort of the reasoning behind the blog in the first place.

  3. Hi, excellent guide, helped me greatly. I've ordered the latest edition of Old Robin's Foot by Turton & Peachey from 2017 however the book I've received is filled with grammatical errors and apparently even missing text. Page 36 covering the types of coats mentions 4 types yet describes only two? If you happen to own the book (I assumed you do), I'd be very thankful if you could check for me that page and confirm for me if there are only 2 types described, or it's just my version that is odd!

    1. Good to hear that you've found it useful. My copy of Old Robin's Foot is the same edition that you have - and yes only two types are described. As for grammatical errors you're probably right: but, as I have got into the habit of reading C17th tracts, I probably don't notice them so much.

    2. Many thanks for the fast reply. Reading through the text isn't a problem however I think they lose some credibility if they don't even bother properly proofreading their work.
      All the best, irishmoot

    3. Agreed, it is a bit tardy.

    4. The 4 soldiers coat types referred to can be found described and illustrated in detail in "The Soldiers Life in the English Civil War, organisation food, clothing, weapons and combat" Stuart Press 2016 [208 pages]. Old Robin was originally published in 1987 and in the intervening 29 years the authors came up with a lot more information, beyond the scope of the brief upgrade in the new edition which mainly added colour pictures.

  4. No mention of "All the King's Armies"?

    1. A very good general primer, of which there are many.

    2. Right. Hard to find anything that's considered to be accurate and current given the fact that Hayornthwaite is considered to be inaccurate in terms of some of the plates and text. What book if anything would you suggest regarding the NMA?

    3. Haythornthwaite is really inspiring, but too flawed. As for the NMA, considering that there is so much contemporary source material in existence I'm surprised that the volumes I'm about to recommend are quite old and out of print. The best, by a country mile, is C H Firth's Cromwell's Army. Thankfully it has been reprinted loads of times so second hand copies are cheaply available. A more recent volume is Ian Gentles's The New Model Army - quite hard to find at a sensible price (and slightly flawed as he argues that the entire NMA wore red coats lined blue). He has written a new volume on the NMA which isn't quite as good.

      If you are really serious then Wanklyn's volumes list all the known officers of the Army. A selection of NMA contracts were transcribed in the Journal of the Arms and Armour Society in September 1967 (I think) - available on a pen drive from the Society shop.

    4. That's very helpful thanks. I'll look for Firth's book.

  5. Somewhat off topic but sort of related to getting a general overview. If someone was just starting an looking to make 8-10 regiments of foot per side, along with perhaps 3-5 cavalry per side, do you think it would be better to collect the Parliament forces as NMA or pre-NMA? Much as I like the uniformity of red for the NMA, part of me thinks painting the Parliament forces in a variety of colours would allow for easier 'side-switching' where needed with a mere change of flag.

    1. I hold my hands up here - my approach has very much been in the style of fantasy football league.

    2. LOL. Bonus with the ECW I suppose is that it's button counter light, no-one can really tell you the colours are wrong. That's why I think pre NMA for the Parliamentarians. One option my buddy suggested was to actually paint up as the NMA with a variety of reds (e.g. not all scarlet) then, use them together as NMA or swap a few units out with the more varied Royalist units for pre-NMA, I doubt the NMA had exclusive rights on red LOL.

    3. most regiments pre NMA were un-uniformed ie civilian clothing and thus can be used for either side.

    4. Not quite sure that we can infer that most regiments pre NMA wore civilian clothes as we know (or can make a very educated guess) on issued coat colours for about 60 Parliamentarian regiments of foot. There are many more that we know were issued clothing but no colours are recorded. These regiments were mostly affiliated to the various Association field armies, and it looks like units serving with the Association's were issued clothing about every 12 months. I strongly suspect that more evidence for coat issues (and hopefully colours too) will come to light if/when the National Archive digitises the great box of documents that constitutes SP28.


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