Dear readers, tonight with us is Captain Hollie Babbitt, of the Parliamentarian Army. A scruffy ex-mercenary, his command includes a posh poet, a bad-tempered horse, and a troop made up of every rebel, dissenter and horse-thief the rest of the Army didn’t want.
Can you tell us a bit about where you grew up? What is the best memory of your childhood?
Has my wife put you up to this? That sounds like her kind o’ daft question.
I grew up in Lancashire, in Bolton, on the edge of the moors. There’s some folk as believe I was dragged up not brought up, which I was not. Never knew my mother, and the old – sorry, my father – hated me for better part o’ thirty-six years. Mam died having me, and he always said he’d have took her life over mine, if he’d been asked. That, and he never wanted a lad; he wanted a little girl, if he’d had to have a child instead of a wife.
I grew up a bit wild, bit not wicked. Neglected, you might say. I reckon the old mon thought if he beat me hard enough and often enough it’d do for bringing me up. The daft thing is, he thought he was doing the right thing. Thought if he let up on me I might go off and be a worse sinner than I was. Didn’t want me to bring shame on mam’s memory. Very godly feller, the old mon.
That’s not the sort of childhood you end up wi’ good memories of. Although there was a lass in Bolton that I was very fond of – no, not like that! Well, a bit like that – bless her, she used to look after me, slip me gingerbread, the odd hot pie, when he wasn’t around. I thought a lot of Gatty Norton. The old man taught me my letters, and my manners, but Gatty taught me kindness. Saw her again just before Marston Moor, but that – well. That’s a story for another time. She deserved better.
Oh aye – and she gave me a bit of a fondness for competent women, especially if they’re heavy-handed wi’ cake. But don’t mention that in front of the missus, eh?
Why did you chose the career of a mercenary?
Thing is, there was a lot of lads went out from England hoping to make their fortune with their swords – what’s that Scottish feller Montrose says, “famous by my sword”? It’s a boy thing, no? And some did, and some didn’t, but back then, in Europe – it wasn’t our war. It was some other bugger’s, and none to do with us, and we just took the money and the adventure and run.
I was supposed to have been trained up for a lawyer. Which, as most of my lads will tell you, I have not the temper nor the patience for, but you know, that was what the old man wanted, so I was schooled, if I liked it or no. I’m not daft, and nor am I as rough as I like to let on, though it suits me to play-act at times and pretend I was dragged up in a ditch. But no – when I was fifteen, when me and the old man had the final row, and I thought I’d killed him – recruiting sergeants don’t ask questions, you know? So it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I was seventeen by the time I washed up in Amsterdam, with barely a penny in my pocket, but plenty scars, by then. I didn’t care what I did if it paid. Sergeant Cullis, as recruited me, did not care what I did so long as I did it competently, and made it his business to train me up after a certain – incident, shall we say – at winter quarters. Previous to that he just assumed I was big and daft. I liked to keep my head down, in them days. Had it in my head that if you drew attention to yourself you were likely to get a beating. Never occurred to Cullis till he saw me thinking for myself in a tavern brawl that I was not so green as I was cabbage-looking, and he thought I bore watching, after that. And he had me made up to captain within the year, God rest him.
No, the bottom line is, if you’re big – which I am, as you see, all two yards of me and built lanky with it – and handy and fierce, men expect you to fight. And if you can make a living at it, so much the better.
Did you ever have regrets about switching sides?
The old – er, my estimable father – good, godly man, very zealous, evangelical type, straight down the line Puritan. I hadn’t spoke to him in twenty years when I went back to Bolton on my way to Yorkshire with Fairfax in 1643, but I used to lay in bed at nights, thinking of the look on his face if he found out I was fighting for the Holy Roman Emperor. He’d have sh- er, he’d not have liked it.
(Do I hate him that much? God knows, for I surely don’t. I think I did, then, though.)
Like I said, it wasn’t my war. One side or another, it made no difference to me in Europe.
The thing was, I never expected it to be my war when the Earl of Essex – God, that man’s a 9-waste of space – recruited me to Parliament in 1642, either. Got nowt to do with me who wins, I thought, what do I care if the King or his Parliament’s in charge – I’ve got nothing in England now, what difference does it make to me?
Aye. Well. Changed my mind, didn’t I, and you can blame bloody Lucifer Pettitt for that. I got lumbered with that lad from the outset, with him being related to Essex; thought it’d be good for him, put a bit of hair on his chest, if he made him junior officer to a man who knows his business. Damn that lad! I got stuck with him, the great soft poetry-writing ninny, and with him being Essex’s nephew I could hardly make it my business to get him killed in short order. And I sort of got to liking him, after a bit. Took his boots off at Edgehill as a boy and put them back off as a man – but we don’t mention the Widow Hadfield, do we, Luce?
(No, sir, we do not. Not if we do not want a poke in the eye in short order. – L.)
And here we are. I’m sort of used to it, now.
Do you think you’ll switch again, should the opportunity arise?
Well, no. I’ve had Luce for – what, three years now? – he’s getting quite competent, for a lad with inky fingers. And – well, he’s passionate, for the cause of Parliament – what is it he says, freedom of thought and conscience against the King’s tyranny. Which is going a bit far, if you ask me, but –
– oh, look, d’you promise this goes no further? I’d not like to let the brat down. I wouldn’t like him to know, either – God, he’d be insufferable if he thought his opinion mattered, the little bugger has a high enough opinion of himself already! – but he’d never forgive me if I went over to the King.
And the missus is an Essex girl, and they’re not so keen on His Majesty in her neck of the woods, and I’ve no desire to be sleeping in the stables, at my time of life. (When I said I’d started putting down roots here again – well, as you see. I may yet turn respectable.)
And – ah, God, you have no idea how awkward I feel saying this – I’d feel like I was letting the lads down, if I switched sides. Lieutenant Russell’s one of your proper Roundhead death-or-glory boys – yes, Hapless, I know you’ve got long hair and you only wear black when you’re poshed up, shut up – but he’s got no love for the King, not after what His Majesty’s men did to him at Edgehill. Aye, and Naseby, I know, don’t keep going on about it. See? All you have to do is mention the King and he goes off at the deep end. I imagine if I turned up and said I was going over to the enemy, Hapless would stick a knife in my ribs one dark night. And the missus would hold his coat while he did it, I’d not be surprised.
Who is your favourite amongst your troops? Who is your least favourite?
Me? I don’t have favourites, especially since they made me up to a full colonel. Not a thing you can afford to do, if you have to discipline lads – if they don’t reckon you’re even-handed about it, you’ll have hell up. I keep telling Luce that. He’s a terror for being soft on the lads, thinking he’s doing them a favour – what with me being mean to the lot of ’em. He reckons I’m hard. I reckon I just keep them alive. Still, he’s still wet behind the ears, the soft lad, and he thinks it’d be lovely if we could all just get along.
That said, I’m very fond of Luce – mind, he is sort of related to me by marriage, being as he is my wife’s nephew. He’s a lovely lad – for a poet. And by! he’s a holy terror with the ladies. You look at him and he’s all sweet and shy and innocent-looking, and five minutes later he’s writing poems to some poor lass’s left eyebrow and sighing like a bellows. If you ask me it’s overdue time he settled down. Again. He’s, what, twenty-two now. The Lord did not mean him for a soldier, for all he’s in this for principle. And he is a damn’ sight better with mending bodies than hurting them. No, if you ask me, he’ll end up in the medical profession, when the war ends.
And Russell. I’m quite proud of my lieutenant. Stark mad when I first had the keeping of him – yes you were, Russell, you’d just tried to hang yourself for doing something you hadn’t done in the first place – but he’s steadied up lovely since then. If I turned him loose the missus would never forgive me. I reckon she’s quite attached to him, too…. and so’s my eldest. Though I wish he wouldn’t spoil that little lass quite so much as he does, the soft-headed toad.
Least favourite – well, I’ve had some right ‘uns, but you sort of get that with zealots, don’t you? Had a few evangelists – Sariel Chedglow, kill ’em all and let God sort ’em out, he was a straight down the line nutter. Couldn’t be helped, in the end. The Cornish lad, Kenelm Toogood – he was hard work, but we beat some sense into him. Took a while, mind, but I reckon it was worth it.
No, if I had to pick one, it’d be my father. I never asked him to join the troop, he just decided he was coming, and then he followed me like some kind of benighted dog about the country. Preaching hellfire, preaching insurrection, causing bother, and then just when we were sort of getting to admire the old sod he went and –
Well, let’s just say I thought he’d died a heroic death ministering to the sick in the siege at Bristol. But that I might be wrong.
What was the scariest adventure you’ve been on?
Oh, hell, now you’re asking.
Two things I hate more’n anything else is sieges and the sea, and for my sins, I seem to have had plenty o’ both since the beginning of this war.
I reckon once you stop being scared of battle, you;re a dead man. You get a lot of – aye, well, you know what – there’s a lot of that talked, men saying it doesn;t bother them. It’s cobblers. I tell you what – just like I said to Luce, after his first engagement at Powick Bridge, I come on him after the battle and he was lay in the grass by the side of the river puking his guts up and crying – it doesn’t get any easier. The more you see, the less you care for it. Especially when you look at lads like Russell, with that big scar on his face – he was a handsome lad, till he got a pike in the side of the head at Edgehill, and now he’s half mad at the best of times – I wouldn’t so much mind being dead. Being crippled, though, or disfigured, like Hapless, but living – begging my bread on a soldier’s pension – ah, God, I couldn’t.
I hate night battles, and Black Tom Fairfax – as is Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Parliament, and possibly the only man living I take orders from – he is the Devil for piling into towns in the dark, in the rain, and taking them by storm.
To be honest, though, what scares the wits out of me is that I’m a commanding officer in an Army that doesn’t know where it’s going – and the daft buggers will keep promoting me! There was a lad said at the beginning, if we beat the King ninety nine times out of a hundred, yet he is still King, and if he beats us but the once we are rebels and shall all be hanged. And, you know, that’s the thing. We got to keep going, because else we are rebels, and shall be hanged, but your guess is as good as mine what’s going to happen at the end of it, for this is a world turned upside down.
What does the future hold for you? What is holding you back from achieving it?
See above, lad. King Charles the First is what’s mostly holding me back, the awkward bugger, by not doing the sensible thing and talking to us, like a rational man. Though I think he’s passed the time for talking.
More than anything else, I want to go home, and so does every lad in my troop. We joined up – or we got picked up, from this place and that place – and my lot are the biggest rabble in the Army, but yet they are my lads and I will see them done rightly by. So I guess the first thing the future holds – so soon as we have put His Majesty in his place, and made him see reason – is that my lads are treated as they have been promised. The labourer being worthy of his hire, and all that.
And then – d’you know, I have no idea. Be a father to my girls, and a husband to Het, if she’s not decided that I’m too bad a bargain after so long away, and barred the door against me. Breed horses. (You seen some of the cavalry screws they give out to the common soldier, and then they wonder why the King’s cavalry had the edge on us? And some of the overbred, bird-witted, flighty beasts some of the officers consider a gentleman’s mount – that I imagine they paid silly money for, that’ll be kennel-meat in the space of a month? I tell you what, this country needs good, solid, handsome horses with a bit of common sense and a lot of speed. And I’m going to breed ’em.)
Settle into peace like a stone into the mud. If they’ll let me….
M.J. Logue is a writer, mad cake lady, re-enactor, historian. She has been slightly potty about the clankier side of Ironside for around 20 years, and lists amongst her heroes in this unworthy world Sir Thomas Fairfax, Elizabeth Cromwell and John Webster (for his sense of humour). When not purveying historically-accurate cake to various re-enactment groups across the country, M.J. Logue can usually be discovered practising in her garden with a cavalry backsword.
Next week with us will be a a woman elevated to the Pharaoh’s inner circle. Please follow the site by email (bottom-right), via Twitter or like our Facebook page to be notified when the next interview is posted.