A Russet Coated Captain by Oliver Woodman
Building a military force and at war against the established order, Oliver Cromwell was aware that his best human material was not the high status noblesse, customarily bred to be skilled in arms, but men of more humble birth, in plainer clothes. Contrasting his own choice of Officers to those made on traditional grounds of breeding, he said, “Give me a plain russet coated captain that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows”. The result was his formidable Ironsides, who not only beat everything his monarchical opponents could throw at them, but became the spearhead for the nascent democratisation of England, effecting a revolution too radical to last.
Josiah Souter is not a sword wielding aristocrat. He is just such a plain man, a Suffolk farmer. Go with him as he follows a call from his spirit to reform the church and establish a return to lawful government in England. We see him through the fighting and conquests in the east, and on to a challenging commission from Cromwell himself. We find Susannah, the fugitive woman from Monmouth, and Phoebe, a royalist cook with the secret of fine rabbit stew. We meet too Praisegod Norton and his two pistols, a man who finds swordplay “such a waste of time”. Praisegod discovers his own vocation to be spying, and the first part of my story ends in a bloody nemesis. As the Parliament’s military victory leads on to a search for a new political order, Noah Kimber, a labourer on Josiah’s farm, becomes a musketeer and fights with the New Model army at Preston and Worcester. And Phoebe’s employer, the Royalist George Chennery, must not be allowed his freedom to foment further difficulties for the regime establishing itself as a result of the complete and final Parliamentary victory. But how is Josiah to frustrate that, when every part of his own breeding urges him to betray this commitment. The new regime establishing by his erstwhile friends develops into Cromwell’s Protectorate, and involves Josiah in further difficulties because his new family ties draw him away from adventures. So what must he do when he comes to hold a secret which can safeguard the hard won peace?
This is not a history text book, and while I have tried to give it a framework which is accurate, I have recognised that the past is such a distant country that my readers will want to stay in familiar language and thinking. Nonetheless, I have tried briefly to lay before them the religious issues which were critical in the period, since they are an area of my own interest. The military details are authentic and I apologise to no one for them, since I have ridden horses and I learned the craft of black powder matchlock musketry. In this period the Infantry began to shoot destructively, and to tumble horsemen. And they marched well – there is no other way to explain that concentration of overwhelming force at Preston.
My key characters are, however, the girls. I came to love Phoebe, and I so wanted her to find happiness, peace and safety. My favourite will always be Susannah who, after suffering such grief and hardship in the hard winter of 1643, deserves some happiness. Let us hope her last prayer is heard, and there is no more fighting.
To me, this is the most fascinating period of our people’s history, with the judicial murder of King Charles as the watershed moment after which we were never quite the same. My own initiation into its fascination came when, as a boy, my father – a Parliamentarian – and my mother – a royalist, debated the period over Sunday lunch. I remember outings to Huntingdon and to Ely, following Oliver. Indeed my own name is a measure of my father’s devotion to his hero.
Enjoy my enthusiasm!
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