Soldiers and violence – who woulda thunk it

The latest issue of History 99, no. 336 (July 2014) has a collection of articles on violence in early modern Britain, revolving specifically around the intersection between violence and human rights. Those interested in the topic should consult all the articles, but those more narrowly focused on military matters might be particularly interested in:

1) Malcolm Smuts, “Organized Violence in the Elizabethan Monarchical Republic,” pp. 414-443.


This article argues that the Tudor concept of England as a Protestant commonwealth normally implied a belief in the legitimacy and necessity of armed violence against enemies of God and the public good. In the absence of a standing army the instruments of such violence had to be mobilized partly through the voluntary efforts of subjects who regarded warfare as a form of public service. The article goes on to explore how ideas and practices of armed violence shaped government policies in England and Ireland. In England the privy council constructed a system of county militias under the control of a cohort deemed loyal to the Protestant state, and toyed with schemes for using martial law against vagrants and other groups who threatened public order. But in the absence of a successful invasion or major rebellion, this machinery of military control was never fully mobilized and a reaction eventually set in against its potential abuse. By contrast in Ireland linguistic and cultural divisions, weaker institutions of civil government and the preponderance of Catholicism created situations in which brutal military coercion sometimes appeared the only effective method of maintaining ‘civil’ governance and Protestant control. The weakness of royal supervision over the captains who carried out government policy on the ground also enabled freelance violence. Elizabethan brutality in Ireland was not simply a product of colonial rule; it reflected the dark underside of commonwealth ideals of civility, political initiative and godly rule. 

2) Vincent Carey, ‘”As lief to the gallows as go to the Irish wars”: Human Rights and the Abuse of the Elizabethan Soldier in Ireland, 1600–1603,’ pp. 468-486.


This essay explores the treatment of the Elizabethan soldier in Ireland under lord deputy Mountjoy from 1600 to 1603, the years of the most atrocious violence of the conflict. Coming at the experiences of the ordinary soldier in these years from the perspective of human rights forces the historian to a set of rather uncomfortable conclusions. For while many of these soldiers inflicted horrific violence on the native non-combatant population, their own experiences were determined by a set of forces and practices that left them vulnerable to some of the most extreme abuses of the age. While this essay will address the question of human rights and the implications and applications of the terminology for Elizabeth England, it will do so within the context of a war that abused the ordinary soldier as much as it abused the non-combatant Irish. Yet the abuse of these men is worth re-examining as it provides us with an insight to the state’s attitude to the subordinate classes and their basic rights. For in examining the recruitment, equipping and treatment of the ordinary soldiers in the field, we find a brutalized mass whose only option was to endure or flee. A mass whose fundamental rights as subjects of the English crown or indeed as humans were badly abused. They were often masterless men unsuitable for combat and ultimately the victims of ‘social cleansing’, victims of class and coercion. The wretchedness of their conditions of service was thus forced, inevitably downwards, on the helpless non-combatant Gaelic Irish.



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