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!

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.

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)

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.

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).

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

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.

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.

If you enjoyed reading this, or any of the other posts, please consider supporting the blog. 


  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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A Regiment of Foot

Colonel Herbert Morley’s Regiment of Horse

The King's Army

What Colours To Use?

Houses of Interest: Norfolk

Sir George Vaughan’s Regiment of Horse

Houses of Interest: Northamptonshire

Coat Colours Part 2: Royalist Regiments of Foot

Which Figures?

Coat Colours Part 1: Parliamentarian Regiments of Foot