Andrew Hopper is Professor of English Local History at the University of Leicester and the principal investigator for the project ‘Conflict, Welfare and Memory during and after the English Civil Wars 1642-1710’. Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the project assembles all surviving archival material located in the county record offices of England and Wales, as well as evidence from The National Archives. You can find out more at http://www.civilwarpetitions.ac.uk.
In October 1642, the Long Parliament took the unprecedented step of allowing the widows of its fallen servicemen the opportunity to claim regular state pensions, rather than letting them fall onto parish relief. This became an enormous commitment because 3% of the population died in England and Wales alone, leaving tens of thousands widowed. The Civil War Petitions project provides insights into how such widowed women coped with their loss and looked back on the wars. They ranged from wealthy landowners who were concerned to preserve the inheritance and status of their fatherless children to the poorest widows trying to scrape a living and ward off starvation.
Their petitioning narratives shed light on the strategies they used for negotiating with the authorities in order to cast themselves as deserving recipients of relief. As a consequence these widows, and the male scribes who penned the petitions for many of them, became more streetwise in how they manipulated the past and addressed authority to maximise their chances of success.
One especially illuminating example is provided by Jane Meldrum, widow of the parliamentarian Colonel John Meldrum, killed at the Battle of Cheriton in March 1644. She petitioned Oliver Cromwell, when he was Lord Protector 11 years later in 1655, pleading that the ‘blood & services’ of her late husband ‘may not be buried in Oblivion’. She had taken loans to attend Westminster and ‘to keep her and her children alive’, but her creditors now threatened her with prison. She presented herself as ‘in a starving condition, destitute of friends or means’, and in ‘extreme poverty’. She ended with a powerful appeal to Cromwell’s faith in the return of King Jesus:
Your highness will be graciously pleased to number her amongst your distressed widows whom God hath drawn forth of your pious heart mercifully to relieve. And Christ will put it to your account on the Great Day.
Cromwell ordered his Protectoral Council to relieve Mrs Meldrum, despite her having remarried a royalist kinsman of her late husband.
Many more stories like Mrs Meldrum’s will be available on the project website by the time of its completion in 2021. Users will be able to follow the stories of particular war widows and see how they fared compared to the maimed soldiers who petitioned for pensions alongside them. Maybe there are things we might still learn today about care and welfare for those bereaved by war from this landmark moment in our Civil-War past?
 The National Archives, State Papers 18/95/180.