Soldier's Food and Utensils
During the English Civil Wars
By Robert Giglio
It should be remembered at the outset that England's economy was greatly effected by the state of the harvest, but seriously effected the poorer (commoner) classes that could not even cope with the sharp fluctuations in the price of bread. The four commodities that the economy was based upon, especially for the poor were cheese, beer, beef and bread. When prices were high meat would disappear altogether from the tables of the poor, with broth that was made of peas and beans taking its place. In lean times of meat the rural (country) dweller could poach for rabbits or birds, but the urban (city) dweller did not have the opportunity. Even sheep's head and pig trotters were supplemented to the poorer classes' unappetizing fare of salted fish and cheese. Although the gentle and upper classes (officers) were generally unaffected by fluctuations and ate a great deal of meat of all types.

While a soldier's snapsack was used to contain their daily rations, besides any personal belongings and extra clothing, if in garrison or during a siege, soldiers are unlikely to have had food in snapsacks. However, snapsacks could possibly contain some odd few looted or purchased expensive (luxury) items such as spices (e.g., pepper, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, or salt), almonds, sugar and leftovers from their daily rations, such as crusts of bread or lumps of cheese.

Generally, a soldier was to carry three day's provisions in his snapsack when on the march. These provisions had to be lightweight as well as durable, thus the quantities were far lower than for soldiers in garrison, expecting that fresh meat and drink would probably be requisitioned or foraged, both officially and unofficially, to supplement these 'iron rations.'

The Scots Army that operated with English assistance on the side of Parliament set out on their initial march south and crossed the border into England in 1644 with each soldier carrying ten days victuals of oatmeal in their snapsacks, with ten more days carried on baggage horses. This gives a total weight of less than 24 pounds for all twenty days of victuals, and about 1.2 pounds of oatmeal per soldier per day. No other supply of meat or drink was available except water. These 'iron rations' were supplemented by beer and fresh meat looted from towns or captured from Royalist forces. The oatmeal was paid for by the English Parliament, but shipped from Scotland, and in addition Parliament sent butter, Suffolk cheese, peas, wheat and rye from England. However, oatmeal was still the main staple of foodstuffs for the daily diet of the soldiers of the Scots Army.

When the New Model Army under Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland it had as its main foodstuffs barley, wheat, rye, cattle, sheep, goats and dairy produce, when available form the surrounding hostile countryside. Most of the foodstuffs that were sent from England had to be long life durables, such as biscuit, cheese and barrels of herring (yes, the Swedes soldiers were not the only ones that ate herring!). For soldiers, though, bread and cheese were the staples, when they were available. A veteran New Model Army officer wrote, "In the late wars both Ireland and Scotland were conquered by timely provision of Cheshire cheese and biscuit."

On the march the supply situation differed as the supply of wagons and their ability to keep up with the army was limited. In the armies that fought during the Scots (or Bishop's) Wars (1639-41) and English Civil Wars (1642-51) there is only small evidence for the purchase of cooking equipment or even of tents. Some sources refer to one large cook pot per company. Tents were instead used when the armies 'invaded' another country, such as when the King's (English) Army went to war with the Scots (1639-41), and the New Model went into Ireland under Cromwell. Normal procedure at the end of a usual day's march (being an average of about 10 miles per day) was for the army to disperse around the countryside and be billeted on the local populace, who had to house and feed a number of men. At least this was the plan at the start of the start of the First Civil War in 1642.

Regular adequate supplies were hard to provide while on the move and soldiers often found themselves without "bread or water." In 1643 shortly before the Battle of Stratton, the Cornish Royalists had only a dry biscuit each indicating that often there was little or no food in a soldier's snapsack. Apparently at the other extreme the soldiers on the relief of Gloucester in 1643, and on the Second Newbury Campaign in 1644, were recorded as each carrying three days provisions in their snapsacks [Thomason Tracts 69/15 14/5].

For ECW armies, each soldier, NCO (corporal and sergeant) and drummer was to be issued with a daily ration of one pound of meat or cheese, two pounds of bread, and one bottle (ration) of wine or two of small (weak) beer. Generally this was the optimal, but many times the rations were far lees or nonexistent, and naturally the harvest proved to dictate the availability of food and type of fare that were issued at any given time. It appears that the Royalists were better organized in supplying their soldiers with victuals since bread was baked for the army daily at Oxford and distributed as needed via trains of supply wagons. It is therefore assumed that the King's Oxford Army was well provided for, at least as far as bread was concerned. Although the issued bread was more commonly termed biscuit, pejoratively dubbed "ammunition bread," a comment on its digestive properties, no doubt.

The military supplies issued to Parliament's Army under Sir William Waller that operated in Southern England which received a steady supply of food are also well documented. For example, using Colonel Popham's Regiment of Foot (whose supplies were really no different than other regiments under Waller), which numbered about 100 men during August 1644 [Calender of State Papers Domestic, 15/7, 1644], it received a daily average of:

Bread: 15 lbs. Cheese: 16 lbs. Salt: 6 pints
Biscuit: 50 lbs. Butter: 8.5 lbs. Beer: 40 pints
Peas: 20 lbs. Bacon: 8 lbs.

Therefore, using the 100 soldier in the regiment, each could have received the following as their daily ration:

Bread & Biscuit: 10.5 oz. Salt: 1/17th pint
Peas: 3 oz. dried (6 oz. cooked) Beer (weak): half a pint
Meat & Dairy Products: 5 oz.

The quantities are far lower than for soldiers in garrison chiefly due to the fact that lightweight as well as durable foodstuffs were naturally selected for soldiers that were "on the march." Fresh meat and drink would probably be requisitioned to supplement these 'iron rations.' The main variations inside Sir William Waller's Army were the issue to one regiment with cider and to another of vinegar instead of the usual beer (note that the issued beer was what we call 'near-beer' today, which is far less than the normal beer we drink). This was probably intended to be drunk diluted in water. To what extent these items were transported in snapsacks is debatable. The beer would have required containers and there is no evidence for any form of water bottle being issued. The salt may have been mainly for the commissariat to use for preserving meat as the quantities are high per man per day and probably little was issued. Butter, especially in August, would have needed barrels of pots and these would be heavy. The peas would require soaking and boiling and this required heavy cooking pots, although these would be available if billeted overnight. The most practical items for the soldiers to carry were in fact bread or biscuit and cheese with possibly some bacon that could be cooked on a stick if necessary.

These issued items could be supplemented by official or unofficial looting, being common throughout wars of every century. This was certainly the case when the supply system broke down completely, when soldiers often found themselves issued with bread and water, or possibly nothing at all (even suitable drinking waster was sometimes scarce), and therefore were forced to forage or live off the fruit from hedgerows. Soldiers collected fruit from the hedgerows, although fruit would naturally be seasonal, with apples, followed by pears, seeming to be by far the most important and most common fruit. Problems arose once an army or besieging force stayed in the same area for too long, as the immediate countryside was eaten bare by the large force. For example, the Royalist forces under Prince Rupert besieging Gloucester were ridiculed for living on a diet of cabbage.

Fresh meat was very unlikely to be found carried in a soldier's snapsack. The simple reason being due to the mess it would make, and more importantly it was usually either looted or driven with the army, called "meat on the hoof." For example, the Earl of Essex's Army drove 1,000 sheep and 60 cattle with it when returning from the relief of Gloucester, while in the midlands "plundering troops killed all the poor countrymen's sheep and swine and other provisions."

In garrison or while stationary besieging a stronghold, armies were generally static and allowed access to the surrounding countryside for foraging, and the time and facilities to process the raw foodstuffs. Detailed accounts exist for the Parliamentarian garrison of Chalfield House in Wiltshire from January to June 1645. The average soldier in the garrison is estimated to have received a daily ration of:

Meat (mainly beef): 1 lb. Bread: 1/2 lb.
Cheese: 2 oz. Oats (oatmeal): 3/4 lb.
Dried Peas (or beans): 4 oz. Beer (weak): 2 1/2 pints
Fresh Peas (in season): 1/4 pint Salt: As needed

Other accounts of garrisons tend to confirm this diet. The major differences are that far more butter and fish was acquired in other locations, and a smaller proportion of beef as the meat intake in some areas, with mutton (sheep) sometimes replacing meat.

A word about the food available to prisoners is also needed. Parliamentarian prisoners at Oxford, the Royalist capital during the First Civil War, were badly fed with the daily ration of one penny's worth of bread and a cup of beer per man. This deprivation was designed to persuade them to change sides, which in fact some did. Royalist prisoners in Gloucester did not fare much better, receiving a diet of cabbage and turnip tops. However, officer prisoners of both sides did seem to fair much better, with commanding or general officers (those ranked as majors or higher) being very well accommodated by their captors, and were usually exchanged within a few months. Once again, the common soldier suffered the most.

While this article is about soldier's food, some mention of the common campfollower that following the armies of both sides is also needed, which were by far the worse off during Civil Wars. The campfollowers suffered first since the army always took the lion's share of everything that was available. Soldiers were not given any allowance for their dependents and widows, and likewise in camp no provision was made for women and children. The 'unattached' campfollowers and any children were not provided for in any means by the armies. They had to fend for themselves by foraging or earn their food by buying it from victuallers (sutlers that sold food or drink) with their meager earnings from doing various duties form the armies or soldiers (laundering, cooking, sewing elementary medical care of sick and wounded, and of course whoring). It is assumed that soldier's wives would have brought any necessary small cooking utensils plus other useful items on campaign with them to provide for their family's well being. Although keep in mind that the only means of transportation of these items would have been on their back (in wicker baskets, etc.), and therefore large items would easily have been left behind. While a few could have shared a pack animal, it is highly unlikely due to the fact that the armies and officers would buy or take any that were available for their use. Any officer's wives (ladies of quality) that accompanied the army, as their husbands, did not eat the common fare, but instead ate a more varied diet from the officer's "sumpter" (packhorse) or "tumbrill" (two-wheeled cart that could hold two tons of baggage). The richer officers and their wives brought their own body servants and handmaidens, as well as cooks and laundresses with them so that they would have only suffered the minimum of inconvenience.

One last word on soldier's food is that meals in the seventeenth century were slightly different than those we now eat. Breakfast was a light meal eaten about 6 a.m. and usually consisted of barley as part of the meal. Dinner was a heavy meal eaten about 1 p.m. that we would now call lunch. Super was a light meal eaten about 7 p.m. According to drill manuals of the period, a soldier was to muster in the field each day (except Sunday, the Sabbath) for drill and maneuver training at 6 a.m., and would last until about noon. Therefore, it can easily be assumed that soldiers ate breakfast by 5:30 a.m., and that reveille was even earlier.

Another later article will go into more detail on foodstuffs such as meat, fish, peas, cheese, vegetables and even "soldier's bread" more thoroughly.

Cooking & Eating Utensils

While we are on the subject of soldier's food, some mention of what exactly a soldier carried, and why, for cooking and eating purposes, is needed.

The basic soldier's rations of bread or biscuit, and cheese, naturally would not require any real cooking or eating utensils. However, meat was indeed sometimes issued and therefore would require utensils, especially if prepared as is conjectured (i.e., as a potluck stew or pottage where many soldiers combined their rations together). Therefore, a basic eating knife and a spoon, which would be small, lightweight, and useful items, would probably be carried. One item that may have been fairly widespread for common folk (soldiers and campfollowers) was a plain off-white linen napkin for a simple dropcloth or handkerchief.

Knives were straight with a pointed end and only one sharp side; the blade being long and starting at the handle, which was of either bone or wood. Spoons had a fig-shaped bowl with rounded handle, like the "acorn knob" type of the period. While bone and wood spoons were very common, pewter spoons were equally so, and the weight was negligible when compared to wood. It should be noted that bone or horn utensils were frequently called "treen", a term that persists today. Forks (having only two tines or prongs), while seen in the period and popularized in Italy, were generally only a novelty used by the upper classes or rich, in England, at this time, and therefore would not be available to the common folk.

In addition, a wooden bowl or small trencher would be all-around more utilitarian than a plate, and would therefore be carried as well. The types of wood used were alder, maple or cherry. It should be remembered that while pottery was indeed carried, and very common throughout the period, wood was cheaper and more durable. However, pewter was much heavier, and together with tin, was considered 'expensive' by seventeenth century standards, and therefore would not be carried.

A soldier most likely also carried some sort of drinking vessel, and again pottery was very common, with historical sites yielding many Bellarmine bottles. Tankards were most probably of coopered wood, small to medium in size (of course modern re-enactors go for the biggest, as they hold the most beer!), or of tarred/pitched leather. The latter, called drinking jacks, or 'Blackjacks' (after the black pitch used on the inside) are very much seen in the period, and relatively durable and lightweight. Again, pewter was expensive during the period, not to mention it weighed much more, and therefore assumed to have not been carried by the common soldier.

There is no indication from ECW illustrations, contract papers, or other period documents or references, of soldiers being issued or even carrying water bottles or canteens of any sort. Although, beer and cider, which was included in limited quantities in rations, was usually delivered and issued in "pots" (bottles), sometimes called "pottles" (bottles), mainly of the Bellarmine style. Bellarmines came in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, ranging from four to twenty-two inches high, and usually made of salt-glazed earthenware. Bellarmines had a globular body with a long vertical neck with one lug (ring), at the base of which is a raised representation of a bearded or scowling man's face, believed to have been originally an effigy of the Roman Catholic Cardinal named Bellarmino. Indeed, the ideal of a Catholic full of wine or ale must have been very entertaining to the Protestants in England! The Bellarmine enjoyed widespread use for ale or wine, as well as for storage of other household liquids. Bellarmines were the most ubiquitous bottle of the period, being found in great quantities at period alehouses, colonial and ECW battle sites (one historian has stated that they seemed to have been the soda pop bottle of the seventeenth century!).

Certainly other types of small bottles and containers for liquids were also used. 'Sach' bottles (small while covered bottles, usually seen with a date in blue written on them) were also common during the period to hold spirits. Therefore, it can be conjectured that soldiers could have retained a Bellarmine, or other small bottle to use as water bottle. The 'pilgrim' bottle was a salt-glazed earthenware bottle that was somewhat rectangular and has two lugs (rings) next to the neck to hold cords for carrying. Even glass bottles were used, and were often covered with cord wound tightly around them to help prevent breakage. While wooden stoppers were used to seal the mouths of bottle or jugs, as corks were not available yet, due to the generally leaky nature of wood stoppers, corks are allowed for use by the ECWSA.

It should be noted that all of the aforementioned reasons are why the ECWSA standard requirements for soldiers are for: a spoon (pewter or wood), eating knife (bone or wood handle), wood bowl or trencher, and leather drinking jack or wooden tankard/cup. If a soldier wishes to have a water bottle, then either a Bellermine or other small bottle should be used, but would be carried in a snapsack (not worn hanging from a belt on one's body). Bellarmines and other small bottles, pewter spoons, eating knives and other seventeenth century pottery are available from the Tuckahoe Trading Company, and leather jacks (blackjacks) are available from The Buzzard's Nest, two sutlers listed under the Sulters link on the ECWSA Website at


A History of the Cost of Living, John Burnett, Pelican, 1969. Calender of State Papers Domestic.
Civil War and Salt Fish, Stuart Peachey, Partizan Press.
Civus Bellae, Sir Ralph Hopton, Somerset Record Society, XVIII. The English Civil War Society of America Handbook, ECWSA.
The Edgehill Campaign and the Letters of Nehemiah Wharton, Stuart Peachey, Partizan Press, 1989.
Old Robin's Foot, Stuart Peachey and Alan Turton, Partizan Press, 1987.
The Soldier's Snapsack Opened, Robert Morris, Stuart Press, Bristol, 2000. State Papers, Public Record Office. Thomason Tracts, University of Ann Arbor Microfilms.
The Tiplers Guide, Stuart Peachey, Stuart Press, 1992.

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